Book Review: The Narrow Land

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. It is a study of people, how they regard themselves and how they are judged by those they meet. There is an undercurrent of sadness, of privilege failing to offer fulfilment. The ebbs and flows of both adult and child relationships are evoked with skill.

The story opens by introducing ten year old Michael who was brought to America from Germany after the Second World War as part of a government programme offering a new way of life to orphaned children. Michael was adopted by the Novak’s whose infant son died. Now Mrs Novak is pregnant again and Michael is concerned that he is being dismissed from their home in New York as he is no longer required. Mrs Novak views the opportunity to send him to Cape Cod for the summer as potentially beneficial for all involved.

The Kaplans have taken a summer rental on Cape Cod for their family and friends. Mrs Kaplan suggested to Mrs Novak that Michael join them as a playmate for her grandson, Richie, who is still grieving for his father, killed in the Second World War. It is assumed by the adults that the boys will get on despite their backgrounds and upbringing being so different. Their summer by the beach is regarded as a treat for which they are expected to be grateful.

Not far from the Kaplan’s holiday home is the summer residence of the artist, Edward Hopper, and his volatile wife, Josephine. Unlike the local adults, who fawn over the famous artist in their midst, the young boys are unaware of the couple’s celebrity status. Michael and then Richie strike up a friendship with the pair that then draws the Kaplans and Hoppers together. Josephine grows jealous of her husband’s perceived interest in this household of women.

The points of view shift as the story progresses offering a window into each of the key characters’ thoughts, disappointments and aspirations. Josephine is a particularly complex character, not likeable but evoking a degree of sympathy. Her feelings towards her husband and his work are proprietorial and demanding:

“deafened by the clash of envy and pride, admiration and resentment”

Loneliness and self-pity are explored as is the disconnect that occurs when expectation leads to misunderstanding. The Hoppers are shown to connect with both boys better than the Kaplans, who demand a standard of behaviour that suits their societal standing. They project their own thoughts and interpretations onto these young people, rarely concerning themselves with reactions.

Katherine Kaplan, who is ill and declining, offers friendship to a besotted Michael but not loyalty when it matters. Edward is also drawn to her fading beauty, a risky preoccupation given his wife’s temper.

Josephine regards herself as a talented artist whose work deserved some of the attention her husband achieved. She blames him for not being a sufficiently loyal advocate over the years of their marriage. When she attends a party at the Kaplans’ she tries to raise her cachet amongst the guests by putting others down.

“She feels sorry then and slightly ashamed of herself for trying to demean them by demeaning their lives.”

When she overhears how this behaviour was regarded, something she has heard said of her before, she is mortified and blames Edward for not doing more to ensure her talents are revered by the people they meet. We are shown that Edward has been doing the best he can.

The writing flows gently throughout yet offers a depth of insight as the summer progresses towards fall and festering frustrations bubble to the surface. Each of the characters is flawed with the denouement offering an alternative view of their behaviours when another couple arrives on the scene.

The narrative is haunting as reader empathy is sparked and then repeatedly challenged. A deceptively straightforward story that provides a lingering, satisfying read.

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

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Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite, tells the story of two sisters living with their mother in Lagos, Nigeria. Their father is dead. He was a successful if corrupt businessman and the family live in a degree of comfort. They have no reason to mourn his demise.

Ayoola is the younger sister. She is considered beautiful and turns the heads of every man she meets. She designs clothes which she then models online, understanding how to dress to flatter her looks and figure. Ayoola enjoys the power her appearance gives her, readily accepting the gifts and attention she receives.

Her older sister, Korede, has been aware since she was a child that she is not regarded as so aesthetically pleasing. Her mother has always expected her to look out for Ayoola. When the story opens she is helping clean up the blood from her sister’s latest murder victim. Unlike the previous men killed, this one continues to play on Korede’s mind as she questions why her sister stabbed him.

At the hospital where Korede works as a nurse there is a coma patient who is not expected to survive. This man is the only person Korede can talk to about her concerns. A young and popular doctor, Tade, who is her friend and who Korede would like to become more, complements her on the care she gives a patient others have given up on. Other colleagues are less than complementary about her efforts here and elsewhere.

When Ayoola decides to visit Korede at the hospital she meets Tade, much to her sister’s consternation. The compassionate, supposedly self-aware and empathetic doctor is then shown to be as facile as other men. Even so, Korede is concerned that his attraction to Ayoola puts his life in danger. She must choose between caring for her sister and the man she had dreamed of winning over for herself.

This is a story of: murder, or perhaps it was self defense; misogynistic abuse and the scars this leaves; corruption that skews the credibility of law enforcement; a society that sees marriage as a woman’s destiny.

The writing has a light almost playful quality yet it pierces the heart of the issues explored. The flow and structure, with short chapters and a fast moving plot, keep the reader effortlessly engaged. It is a surprisingly strong yet entertaining read.

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

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.

Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.

Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.

  

The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.

  

The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.

  

Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.

After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.

Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.

Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.

The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.

  

Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.

Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.

Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.

Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.

Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.

There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.

Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.

Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.

A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.

Nikesh was asked  how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.

He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.

Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.

Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.

Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.

As Grace said in her summing up:

“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”

I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.

As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.

  

  

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.

You may read my review here.

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile

The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch, is a crime thriller set in a burgeoning New York in 1799. At this time there were few laws and fewer law enforcement employees. The city was managed by racqueteers who kept a fragile peace through violence and intimidation. A recent state ruling had resulted in the freeing of a large number of slaves who vied with the Irish community for whatever low paid work they could find. The racqueteers ran brothels, collected protection money and guarded their turf through a network of spies and thuggery. Those residents with capital tried to increase their holdings via investments and scams operating through the unregulated stock market which met in busy coffee shops around Wall Street – the devil’s half mile.

Into this powder keg of risk and resentment arrives our protagonist, Justy Flanagan, fresh out of university in Ireland where he learned the law, alongside more practical skills fighting English oppressors. Justy’s uncle, The Bull, is a feared overlord in New York who took the boy in following his father’s suicide. Justy no longer believes that his father took his own life. He suspects murder and has returned seeking justice and revenge.

Justy sails into New York aboard a ship on which his good friend and former comrade in arms, Lars Hokkanssen, is working. On arrival in port he meets an old friend from his childhood, Kerry O’Toole, who has turned to a life of crime. Justy feels a degree of guilt for leaving Kerry to cope while he sought to better himself. He refuses to blame her for what she has become.

Justy locates and questions his father’s old acquaintances to discover for himself who the partners were in the financial scheme blamed for his death. He is aided by Lars but is watched by those who wish to protect their secrets. Violence follows, the death count rises and ideals are compromised. Justy becomes embroiled in sickening plans.

The squalor and brutality of a fast growing settlement are well evoked. The resentments felt by those whose jobs are threatened by a sudden influx of new workers is familiar, as is the timeless greed of those eager to make money by whatever means, including feeding abhorrent appetites. Justy is something of a trope with his high mindedness, skills in killing and moral ambiguity. Threads are set up that suggest a possible sequel.

The author offers plenty of twists as the plot progresses along with an ongoing quandary over who can be trusted. There are rather too many crises and serious injuries fought through as Justy interacts with his enemies. The historical setting is of interest but as a crime thriller I struggled to maintain engagement. A violent story built on a plausible premise but not one for me.

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

Book Review: My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s third psychological thriller. It is told from three points of view and across two timelines, opening with the pivotal event from which the rest of the tale unfolds. Unusually for this genre it took several chapters before I was fully engaged. A lot of characters are introduced in a short space of time and I kept having to flick back to work out who was who. Once I had placed each alongside their contemporaries I was able to settle and enjoy the sequence of teasers and reveals.

There are good reasons why so many psychological thrillers become best sellers. They are engaging, easy to read and offer a puzzle to solve. This book is well paced, smoothly written and typically structured. The settings are brought to life becoming both comforting and threatening as the plot requires.

The earlier timeline involves Lizzie, a young wife and mother who leaves her family home – a remote cottage in the Lake District – for a few days each week to work in Leeds. Here she gets caught up in a violent crime that changes her life. The chapters telling her story explain the before and after of this incident, what she must do to survive and protect those she loves.

The later timeline is narrated by Emma and her fourteen year old daughter, Stella. Emma is neurotic, her instability manifesting in overprotecting her two children. Stella is starting to rebel against the restrictions imposed due to her mother’s condition and her father’s complicity. It is notable that both Stella and her younger sister, Ava, display their own anxieties, likely instilled by the manner in which they are required to live under the guise of keeping them safe.

Emma works at a bakery and there are many descriptions of food, not something I have an interest in but likely to appeal to certain readers. Her husband, Jack, attempts to impose his healthy eating ideas on his family. He has provided them with a lavish home and likes to keep it and its residents in a manner that suits his ideas of beauty and order. This is a loving family but one that relies on a strict code of parental control.

Much of the story is set in and around Long Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol. The descriptions of place are rich – aesthetics are held in high regard.

Emma’s story begins with a chance encounter with a man from her past. She arranges to meet him at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near to where she lives. Stella notices a change in her mother and decides to investigate. What she discovers threatens their carefully cultivated stability. Alongside this, Stella enters into a relationship with a boy at school. She and her mother try to guard their secrets, not easy in a family used to strictly monitoring all activities.

Despite correctly guessing the various reveals in advance, this was an enjoyable read. That is not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles – such as the dual mention of the Moorside power plant, which seemed unnecessary, and the changes in wording when the prologue is retold. These are small details though in what is a well crafted addition to a popular genre. Fans of domestic noir will likely enjoy.

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

Book Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The One Who Wrote Destiny tells the story of a family of immigrants across three generations. It explores the meaning of home, culture and inheritance. When the British Empire granted those it had subjugated independence, its architects did not acknowledge that what they had regarded as benevolence was in truth oppression. They instilled a vision of Britain as great and then baulked at the idea of being open and welcoming. Despite the serious issues being explored, the experience of immigration portrayed here overflows with humour. There are no heroes but rather moments of unanticipated heroism.

The story is told in four sections, each concentrating on a key character, all interlinked.

The first of these is set in 1966 when Mukesh, a teenager of south Asian descent, moves from Kenya to England and ends up in Keighley. Mukesh plans to continue his education in London, living with his good friend Sailesh who has been offered work as a juggler in the clubs around Soho. Mukesh is perplexed when he discovers that Keighley is 213 miles from the capital city. He is comforted when he discovers that other Gujuratis live nearby. Drawn to a beautiful girl, Nisha, who inspires him to write bad poetry, he stands near her house each day watching as she arrives and leaves, believing he is invisible. When he is hit by a bicycle trying to offer Nisha assistance they speak and Mukesh finds himself agreeing to perform in a show she is organising for Diwali. Here he has his first experience of violent racism. The pale skinned residents of Keighley are happy to enjoy the tea and anglicized curry from the sub continent but will not tolerate the open presence of its people.

Mukesh is telling the story of how he and Nisha got together to their daughter, Neha. He repeats this each time they meet, his way of remaining close to the great love of his life now that Nisha is dead. In the second section of the book, set in 2017, Neha is told that she has terminal cancer. This is the same illness that killed her mother but Neha had not realised she could be at risk. Her adult life has been wrapped around her work in tech. She decides to explore her wider family history, to see if there is a way that knowledge may be used to escape one’s destiny. She hopes that in doing so she may help her brother’s future children avoid the same fate.

Raks is a comedian. After his sister dies he puts together a show that achieves critical acclaim. The break he had hoped for appears to be within his grasp until an error of judgement sends him off course and he feels a need to disconnect. He has ignored the warnings to stand up for his people, allowing himself to be manipulated by white men resentful of the diverse quotas they are expected to embrace. Raks travels to New York, and to Lamu in Kenya. Much of his section of the tale is told from the points of view of those he meets along the way. He and Neha had been to Lamu as children with their maternal grandmother. Before she died, Neha told him it was here that she had been most happy in her life.

The final section of the book is set in Kenya in 1988. Nisha’s mother, Ba, has left Keighley and returned to Mombasa following the deaths of those she most cared for. She is lonely and grieving but accepting of her destiny. When Mukesh brings his two young children to spend a week with her she begrudges their invasion of her quiet routine as she waits for death. Gradually the three find a way to be together. This week will prove pivotal in all of their lives.

The stories within stories are presented lightly but with subtle depths. There are entrenched views on all sides, subjugation and resentments sitting alongside tolerance and acceptance. The immigrant’s desire for assimilation in the place they choose to make their home is, at times, at odds with retained aspects of their cultural history. The dehumanisation they encounter is painful to read yet skilfully presented.

The idea of destiny adds interest but this is a story of family in its many colours and shades. It is entertaining yet never trivialises the inherent difficulties of each situation.

Any Cop?: An exuberant, full flavoured read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Unfortunate Englishman

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The Unfortunate Englishman, by John Lawton, is the second book in the author’s Joe Wilderness series. It is a spy thriller set in Europe after the Second World War when the Cold War was at its height. I have not read the first book, Then We Take Berlin, and believe I would have enjoyed this latest instalment more had I done so. There are numerous references to incidents from the first book, character history that may have assisted in my understanding of loyalties and generated more empathy than I was able to muster, particularly for the men.

Spy thrillers are not my usual fare. I enjoy the action and escapism of such stories on screen, although not the sexism. I rarely read the books which inspire the adaptations so was looking forward to perusing this contribution to the genre from an author who garners high regard from respected sources. Having read the book my advice is thus: if this author photograph from the back flap of the book appeals to you then so may the book. I find the placement of the person on the left distasteful. The book is undoubtedly well written, but I like to think that men can be better than the ones who populate its pages.

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The story opens with a shooting in Berlin in 1963. The protagonist, Joe Wilderness, is found beside a woman bleeding out from a gunshot wound and is taken into police custody. His release is facilitated by his former boss and father-in-law, Burne-Jones, on condition he returns to his job in MI6. Joe Wilderness is once again to be a spook, only now he will be required to work behind a desk rather than in the field.

Two characters are then introduced in some detail. One is a Russian spy who is assigned a stolen identity that will enable him to live and work in England. The other is an Englishman who is approached by Burne-Jones and willingly goes undercover to Moscow to steal military secrets. Both are ensnared by their covert alter egos, relishing the life that hides what they really are. Both play a game with lover’s lives leading to the deaths of others which they struggle to confront.

Certain elements of the story are glossed over. Joe Wilderness has a mistress, Nell, as well as a wife. Another character enjoys a ménage à trois. It all felt too much like a male fantasy. Whilst there are feisty and intelligent female characters the men seemed too brutish to empathise with. The plot was captivating but certain characters stereotypically two dimensional.

What I did enjoy was the history, and the asides on class prejudice and social mobility. The action moves between London, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna during the years when they were being remodelled to encompass the political debris created by the outcome of the Second World War. During the coarse of the story the Berlin Wall is put in place and the aims and attitudes of the various government representatives made for good reading.

This is a well constructed tale that fits the mould of spy thrillers I have watched on screen. I would therefore recommend it to fans of the genre. It is a fandom I am unlikely to join.

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