Book Review: Whiteout Conditions

“I think about all that I have expected that turned out to be wrong, in the dark before sleep, remind myself the joy and love and success found by all regular people I know are not meant for me, and when I remind myself of this, I can picture the look on my face, and would prefer no one sees it.”

Whiteout Conditions, by Tariq Shah, is set over a two day road trip that old friends, Ant and Vince, take to attend the funeral of Vince’s young cousin, Ray. The narrator is Ant, who flies into his old home town, from where Vince will drive them to the wake. Ant left many years ago, something Vince appears to resent. Vince is now married with kids. Ant has no living relatives left. He has not been good at keeping in touch. He doesn’t know if he will be welcome but is drawn to funerals, claiming to find them ‘kind of fun’. Ray died in horrific circumstances – a teenager whose family have been left devastated.

Around these bones of a plot the author constructs a story of everyday violence, grief and the costs of living in its aftermath. The car journey is fraught, shadowed by sniping conversation as Ant and Vince try to process their shared backstory and the lasting hurt this has created.

“What we say never changes. How we say it reveals our age, a history invisible to the stranger’s eye, one that is never really addressed by those familiar with it.”

The writing is taut and direct with much conveyed through dialogue and memories of shared conflict. The ancient car they travel in has footwells filled with trash from takeaways. The weather travelled through is filthy – roads clogged with slush and angry traffic. All this adds to the untidy atmosphere of provocation as Vince tries to gain a handle on why Ant left, what he has been doing, and why he has returned. There is no welcome for an old friend in these pages, rather they spill over with bitterness at the hand dealt and how it has been played.

And yet the reader will be drawn in, made to feel. In gaining an understanding of Ant’s life there is growing empathy. His coping mechanisms for losses suffered can at first appear insensitive but he has always had to harden his veneer to survive. Vince has his own demons, leaving little energy for a man he feels rejected by. There may be little to admire in either of their behaviour. This does not detract from what is a compellingly told tale.

I was almost afraid to read the final few sections such was the tension built and my fear of what images would be put into my head. The denouement fits with what went before adding a forward trajectory to a disturbing act of vengeance.

A dark yet somehow moving account of lives stymied by circumstances as much as choices made. A pithy yet potent read for those undaunted by brutal reality.

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

Book Review: Cat Step

Cat Step, by Alison Irvine, is one of those rare stories that will appeal to readers looking for a compelling thriller and also those who enjoy delving deeper into how an author uses language and form to satisfy and linger. From beginning to end there is an underlying tension. Unlike so many popular thrillers, there is no middle of the book pause to catch breath before introducing a change of direction that will allow for a twisty denouement. Cat Step remains consistent, holding attention without compromising character traits and development. The story has an intriguing plot offering much to consider. The protagonist is a tenacious, if fallible, narrator.

Set in Lennoxtown, where long time residents know everyone else’s business, the tale is told by a young mother, Liz, who is looking back on a period in her life when she and her daughter, Emily, lived there. Within the first few paragraphs it is stated that this was a time for which some explanation will be needed when Emily asks questions. Liz must decide what she will and won’t tell her child.

Liz is a dancer who, for a time, earned good money working on cruise ships. It was here that she met her partner, Robbie. She travels to Lennoxtown because his grandmother has died and his brother – who now lives in Australia – has asked Liz if she will clear the old lady’s flat and prepare it for sale. Liz had been living with her mother in London and sees the request as an opportunity to get back on her feet after a difficult few years – and to find out more about Robbie, who grew up in Lennoxtown but rarely talked about the place.

Shortly after arrival, Liz makes a decision that will draw the attention of the locals and then the police. Social Services become involved and Liz’s parenting falls under scrutiny.

Emily is not an easy child to care for. She demands her mother’s attention, throwing violent tantrums if she does not get her way. Liz wants to be a good mother but struggles to cope with a child who will not give her space even for a casual, adult conversation. Without her mother to help, Liz has no option but to cope. She sometimes makes mistakes.

The author perfectly captures the difficult aspects of parenting – the reactions and choices made in the heat of a moment that cannot be admitted to for fear of opprobrium, or worse. Liz is trying her best to make the move to Lennoxtown work, considering if it could become more permanent. She finds a nursery for Emily and then a job for herself at a sheltered housing complex. Here she meets June, who briefly becomes her friend. What Liz has yet to discover is that the residents of the town gossip freely amongst themselves but will resist opening up to her.

The facts that gradually unfold are engrossing but the strength of the story is the depiction of Liz as a struggling, single mother who is perceived – sometimes by herself – as failing. Social Services must ensure that Emily is safe and nurtured, but their involvement adds to the stresses Liz must deal with.

She may be a troubled character but Liz is no walkover and far from a fool. Is there any parent who has never taken an occasional misstep when dealing with their cantankerous offspring? Most are simply not caught in the headlights of authority, condemned by neighbours. Liz’s reactions may at times be regrettable but her situation adjures empathy.

Have I emphasised enough how well written this book is? The prose is taut and understated, flowing and effortlessly engaging. It provides a story that deals with difficult and at times worrisome behaviour, with personal grudges manifesting in overt criticism of a young woman’s behaviour. A trenchant yet always gratifying read.

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

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

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

Book Review: Judderman

From the publisher’s website:

“Established in 1919, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher of horror for nearly 100 years. Presided over by the Eden family, the press passed through the generations publishing short horror novellas to a private list of subscribers. Eden books were always published under pseudonyms and, until now, have never been available to the public.

Dead Ink Books is pleased to announce that it has secured the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist and archives. For the first time, these books, nearly a century of unseen British horror, will be available to the public. The original authors are lost to time, but their work remains and Dead Ink will be faithfully reproducing the publications by reprinting them one year at a time.

Dead Ink hopes that you will join us as we explore the evolving fears of British society as it moved through the 20th Century and eventually entered the 21st. We will begin our reproduction with 1972, a year of exciting and original horror for the Society.

We invite you to join us as we look to unearth who wrote for the society and what connected those writings to the family itself.”

 

The Judderman is a shadowy creature, a liminality between cautious fear and nihilistic despair. The protagonists of this story, Gary Eider and his older brother, Danny, have spent many years seeking out the darker elements of London that go unseen by those who prefer to focus their lives on more mundane concerns. Now Danny is missing, and Gary is reading his journals looking for clues as to where his brother could be. The two men love their city but recognise the horrors that exist in the cracks, under the radar, and on the hills where the wealthy live.

“The important things to see are there and were always there, but you need the tools to see them.”

Gary’s concern for his brother is not shared by their parents, his girlfriend, Lisa, nor the cousin who bears the scars of a war that is still waging. They have never shown interest in the topics that piqued the brothers’ curiosity – London Incognita.

“Gary became fascinated – obsessed, Lisa would say – by how two people could be looking at the very same thing and have totally different experiences. If that was the case, what was reality?”

Gary goes searching for tidings of Danny amongst the mudlarks and burned-out hippies. London is changing, as has always been the case.

Clearances: “A people and a culture, told that it was no longer of any value. Fled, were pushed”

Months pass with no news from Danny or clues as to his whereabouts. Gary finds himself alone in his search, increasingly ostracised, sinking.

“Why wouldn’t they look? I figured if they chose to truly see, then they may have to do something. To act, and to change.”

The refrain of a children’s song haunts Gary. Could his brother have found the Judderman? Did the Judderman find him?

The underlying horror of the tale is not only what could lurk in the shadows but all that is ignored in plain sight. Wars have left scars that go unspoken. Racism and violence are rife. The wealthy satisfy their appetites with impunity. Some things never change.

The author turns over the rock that is London and enables the creatures festering beneath to scuttle away from the unexpected exposure. In that brief glimpse, the reader may understand how the Judderman survives. It is a warning about the risks of revealing that which few wish to see.

A story for fans of horror and contemporary folklore. A dark and compelling read.

Judderman is published by Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Glitch

L-J is an engineer living in company owned accommodation in Hoboken, USA. For six years he worked on the national grid’s New Jersey Transmission Project until a hand injury led to him being struck off sick. He had enjoyed dangling from pylons at great heights, aspiring to be one of the linesmen who work six inches from live wires – the entire voltage running through and around them. L-J has always wanted to be a part of things, connected to the grid. Despite this, life and those he encounters wash over him. The only connection he has ever truly felt is the bond with his mother back home in England. Now she is dying.

L-J needs an operation on his hand and is offered the chance to have the procedure done in the UK where he was born and raised. He decides to return to Dunwich on the Suffolf Coast, a place he left abruptly to travel to the USA. His flight home makes headlines when it suffers a malfunction, a glitch that causes it to plummet back down to earth. As chaos erupts around him, L-J calmly reflects on his job and the people he is returning to.

“everything is already broken, everything is prone to malfunction. We spend our entire lives trying to fix things when there’s no point.”

When L-J eventually reaches London he is met by his sister, Ellen, who appears to blame him for the inconvenience of his delayed arrival. Their relationship is fractured, with a history of resentments. Ellen is married to Paul and they are worried about the financial impact of the current recession – its threat to their livelihoods. She is angry that L-J left the UK in the way he did. L-J is put out that she does not show adequate interest in and concern about the flight on which he could have died. He recalls an incident when she attacked him as a baby. Although he only knows of this through hearsay, he still harbours anger that she does not voice regret for her childish actions.

“Nobody wants to spend time examining the blips in our lives, we just hope they’ll go away, but they don’t. They remain with us, like a scar that never fades.”

L-J stays in the family home, walks along the shore, relishes the memories evoked. He sits at his mother’s hospital bedside trying to comfort her and himself. The two have always shared a closeness born of outings, art and poetry. He is her beautiful boy, reading the books she suggested as a means to retain and strengthen their connection.

“that’s the beauty of poetry, there’s nothing to understand, only something to grasp.”

“by his early teens he’d already decided that he wanted to be an engineer. Poetry, apart from serving as the living umbilical cord between him and Mother, had no other use.”

Ellen wishes to discuss practical matters and rails against her brother’s attitude and behaviour. Her priority, as she considers their mother’s imminent death, is attaining monetary security – something L-J has no interest in. He values their childhood home for visceral reasons.

This is a strangely told tale. The writing has a detached feel. The protagonist, from whose point of view it is written, is there in each moment but also in imaginings triggered by conversation or events. His musings are distracted which can be somewhat disconcerting to read.

“Everything remains just under the surface of things”

L-J’s seemingly more practical sister is living in a different reality to his. She cannot comprehend his actions, past or present, and shows her irritation. He resents her material outlook and aspects of their shared history.

In the hospital, Mother’s health continues to deteriorate. Tied to their home for this period of time, L-J looks through cupboards and drawers finding photographs and letters that fill in gaps of knowledge from the family’s past. He considers these new facts a ‘rip in the fabric of our reality’.

The glitches in L-J’s life have proved pivotal even if they did not provide what he was hoping for. It is these that he holds on to, the harness that prevents him falling from height to his demise. Whatever Ellen demands, he must find a way to cope in his own way with their mother’s death.

A story of grief and the detachment needed to survive it – the free fall suffered when connections are severed. Although not always straightforward, the reflections evoked – the understanding of human nature – linger long after the last page is turned. A poignant and original read.

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

Book Review: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas

“This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin.”

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, is an attempt by the journalist author to discover the truth behind the cult like persona of a reclusive artist known as Ezra Maas. Yet what is the truth when supposed facts are changed simply by putting them into words that rely on context and interpretation? When a man affects a persona how long will it be before they become their creation? Is the artist known as Maas a man or a myth?

Ezra Maas first came to prominence as a teenager in 1960s New York. His output was inspiring and eclectic. The tales from those times were of drugs, exploitation, and a growing number of followers attending ‘happenings’ that rode the zeitgeist.

Maas then moved cities, perhaps to Europe or elsewhere in America. He met with many of the big names of the time around the world. He is remembered without detail or clarity. He eschewed photo opportunities. For decades he was revered and remained an enigma – his life itself perhaps a PR exercise or an example of performance art.

When Daniel James is commissioned by an unknown source to write the artist’s biography he approaches the task with determination.

“He’s a writer who isn’t afraid to take risks. As a journalist Daniel James took on the newspaper industry from the inside. With his fiction he played the dangerous game of putting his own life on the page. And now, as a biographer, he is exploring the very possibility of truth and attempting to unravel one of the art world’s biggest mysteries.

A news reporter for over a decade James was best known for exploring the cult of fame and contemporary culture, questioning systems of truth and authority, and exposing the hyper-reality of modern news coverage. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction his writing questioned the representation of reality through language, and our perceptions of knowledge and power.”

Seven years prior to James starting out on his investigations, Ezra Maas disappeared. Access to his background and work are strictly controlled by the powerful and litigious Maas Foundation. People have been silenced, sometimes erased. James follows a trail through: letters, interviews with the artist’s acquaintances, leads uncovered by contacts, coded messages left by Maas himself.

The biography includes: opinion pieces, published articles, transcripts, emails. What we are reading here is not all that was intended. The pages are incomplete, brought together by the anonymous curator of what remains from the original manuscript. In copious footnotes he attempts to make sense of what is described as a literary labyrinth.

How does one uncover the truth when answers to questions proliferate and contradict? This is the story of Ezra Maas. It is also the story of Daniel James.

“You assume the world, the past, is fixed and immutable, but it’s not. What if the words I am writing here, which you are reading now, are already changing things?”

How much is any person a construct? How much are they altered by each and every experience and interaction? In seeking to uncover the truth behind the legend of Ezra Maas, James faces forces that alter his perceptions. In reading this book, the reader takes the same risk.

An astonishing, mind-bending creation that defies the limitations of cliched description. Drawing on many sources from the literary canon, it will challenge understanding of how a damn fine story may be told.

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

Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

Book Review: Three Dreams in the Key of G

Three Dreams in the Key of G, by Marc Nash, is a book that took me some time to engage with. The language used is complex in places with much play on words not often employed in storytelling. There is a reason for this which when revealed left me exhilarated. The ideas presented and their presentation will not easily be eclipsed.

The story utilises three voices. The most accessible is that of a young mother living in small town, small minded, mid Ulster as the peace process is brokered. She is married to a staunch Loyalist, despising his hate filled rhetoric but silently. Where once she had dreams of attending university in Belfast, her family vetoed this plan due to the possible dangers a young girl could be faced with living alone in a big city. These dangers concerned the freedom from family watchfulness, freedom from the ever present threat of their opprobrium, and what such freedom might enable her to become.

The second voice is that of the human genome project – somehow the author makes this work. It explores how humans seek to understand and thereby control what they are, their essential make up. Man wishes to meddle to prolong life, to affect what he creates. There is still much that he does not comprehend about what makes him what he is. This voice is resonant with irony and wit. The details bring man down to size, mocking his earnest endeavours. However marvellous scientific discoveries may be their impact will be shadowed by other influences.

The third voice is that of an elderly lady running a refuge for victims of domestic violence in America. The state is suspicious of her attempts to escape the deleterious effects of overt masculinity. They regard her venture as a threat.

The mother writes in her journal of her thoughts and experiences with her two young daughters. Having accepted this path for her life, as is expected of the women in her family and community, she rails against its constrictions. She aims to raise her children well, with little help from her husband: “the troubles (small ‘t’)“. She ponders what her girls have inherited from their parents and how this will affect them as they develop, what language they will learn to speak.

“Cooing and trilling, sound cantered asunder like spiderlings ballooning on their silk threads. But gradually she anchors her vocal drift, as she ingests the intoned gobbets spilling from my tongue. I watch her kneading the sounds, hands to mouth, a second, invisible umbilical from me to her. Passing along my dead language. That parched parchment from my cracked and parched lips that will not quench her thirst for congruence. For I recognise it will only succeed in re-sealing the esophagal aperture magically parted by her genes.”

“A dead language emanating from someone who scarcely lives a life. But even this is not the mummifying cause. The language, my language, is sententious and doctrinaire. Replete with exclamations, directives and interrogatives.”

“So the everyday arpeggio of parenting inevitably thrums and frets my stretched nerve strings. Single noted, sharp and shrill, instead of flat and even. A drone all the same. Off-kilter rather than merely off key. Whatever the issue at hand, the tilting ground, the mittened gauntlet thrown down is ratcheted up into a disproportionate response on my part. Since, no matter how much it is cloaked with the pathognomy of tiredness or frustration, behind each and every one of my emissions flares the filament of anger. The incendiary of rage and dejection at myself and what I have become.”

As the mother goes through her days – shopping, school runs, desolate beach trips, daytime TV – the genome project churns out its findings, musing on why it is being attempted.

“For there is only Sex and Death. Passing on and passing over and vice versa. How your trepidation over mortality feeds into your procreative drive. The pair intertwined round one another like poison ivy.”

“I deal in the architecture of potentia, where you are grounded in the material shoring of tenure. See, the key difference between you and I is that life and time stretch everlasting into the future, for me as DNA and you as my prized host bloodstock. But not for you as individuals.”

In the refuge women are also procreating, but not with those who drove them to reside in this place. Their choices, their autonomy to make such choices, are what the state sees as a threat. Women should exist for man’s pleasure and the perpetuation of his genes.

This is remarkable writing that explores man’s proclivities and purported cleverness. Each relationship is shown to be one sided, supposed understanding a reflection of self. Man can draw the map and tinker around the edges of the detail, but how much of true note can be changed?

All of this is explored, dissected, and presented in language rich with depth and meaning. The conclusions are salient yet, when considered dispassionately, unsurprising. Man chooses to ignore so much in plain sight as he strokes his prejudices and vanities.

A book that soars and leaves a frisson in its contrails. A challenging, stunning, wholly satisfying creation.

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

Book Review: Know Your Place

Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.

The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.

“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”

The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.

In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.

Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.

Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.

There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.

“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.

The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”

In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.

Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.

“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”

The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.

To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.

Book Review: Sealed

“I’d felt it too, the too-muchness of being in love. But I hated Pete for it at the same time. I hated his freedom and how guiltlessly he lived, how easily he took love and gave love, and how much danger he’d put me in. And most of all, I hated that he might be right, that he was living the right way and that I was wrong: too frightened, too careful, too guarded to really enjoy life.”

Sealed, by Naomi Booth, is set in a near future Australia. Rising temperatures have brought with them storms and deadly heat events. Wild fires, pollution and other environmental catastrophes make day to day living uncomfortable for all.

Alice and her partner, Pete, are expecting their first child. With less than a month to go before the baby is due they leave the city, its toxic air and growing climate of fear. They move from their cramped apartment to a remote house overlooking the Blue Mountains. It is planned as a fresh start in cleaner air, somewhere to establish their little family.

Alice has recently lost her mother. She lives in fear of a new condition known as cutis which causes skin to grow where it should not. People have died and Alice suspects a cover-up as few cases are being reported. Pete believes she is looking for problems that do not exist.

The government is trying to manage the growing threats from all quarters by moving its poorer citizens into camps where they may be cared for, monitored and controlled. As part of her job in the city housing department, Alice had visited one such camp during its regular inspection. Privately run, it ensured records of residents’ health and behaviour reflected only good practice. Detailed causes of death were not disclosed, the manager citing reasons of patient confidentiality.

Pete is excited at the prospect of fatherhood. He becomes frustrated when Alice fixates on what he regards as imaginary threats and conspiracies. Eager to fit in he befriend locals. They question why he has taken Alice from the city to a place such as this but will not explain to her what they mean. They regard Alice as a killjoy as they try to make the best of a situation they cannot change. Pete dismisses Alice’s concerns as the irrational behaviour she agreed to leave behind. She mingles with their new acquaintances but cannot put aside her fears.

“She gasps with laughter and I can’t help it, it’s totally contagious, I’m not even stoned and I start to laugh a bit too. She squeezes my hand again. This is how I used to make friends, when I didn’t see every person and every place as a contagion to be guarded against.”

With Alice’s due date approaching she tries to register for medical care but what little exists is already overwhelmed. Alice tells Pete she believes she spotted a case of cutis. He does not wish to face such a possibility.

The tension in the story builds as Alice and Pete’s backgrounds are revealed. The reader cannot be sure if her paranoia is justified, if there is any point in fighting back given the wider situation. The climax is reached when Alice goes into labour. The denouement is horrifying yet somehow inevitable.

As with the best dystopian fiction this is a parable for today. The reader fears what is being gradually revealed yet cannot look away. Government reactions are all too believable.

A tale that I flew through and shuddered at the possibilities presented. By the end both Alice and Pete’s behaviours are better understood, the outcome as complex as the circumstances all had to deal with. As grotesque as the premise may be, this is a compelling read.

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