Book Review: The Speech

The Speech, by Andrew Smith, is set over a ten day period in April 1968 during which Enoch Powell, as local MP, gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. It is written from a variety of points of view thereby enabling the reader to gain a better understand of each of the protagonists. The era is evoked with a perceptive wit, whilst the story told – the machinations surrounding a Jamaican immigrant’s wrongful arrest for GBH – reminds how little certain people have progressed.

“He moved on to the effects on the “native population” of the granting of rights to so many immigrants – people were confronted by crowded maternity wards and their children forced to study in overflowing classrooms. Their neighbourhoods were being transformed against their will. He applied words to the British public such as “defeated” and attributed to them the feeling that they were “unwanted”. Powerful words […] painted a scene of utter degredation of ordinary native citizens as a result of immigration”

The tale opens with some background to Powell’s ancestry and upbringing, wryly salient given the opinions he developed. By 1968 he had been Wolverhampton South West’s MP for eighteen years and was serving in a shadow cabinet led by Ted Heath, who he wished to usurp. Powell’s constituency home is in a neighbourhood becoming popular with an increasing immigrant population and he is concerned about the effect this will have on property value.

Powell is supported in his local Tory party office by the intelligent and loyal Mrs Georgina Verington-Delaunay, known as Georgy. Whilst she acknowledges the strengths of Powell’s work ethic and values, she is increasingly disquieted by his beligerance. His regard for the days of Empire and conviction that England should not change frustrate her efforts to demonstrate the benefits of enabling recent arrivals to integrate.

Meanwhile, Wolverhampton art student, Frank McCann, is in his favourite bar examining a set of photographic prints taken at the previous day’s student demonstration in support of racial equality. The bartender points out that every face in his photos is white, suggesting that the images would be more powerful if a darker skinned person were portrayed. Frank accepts a wager from a couple of fellow students, disparaging his talents, that he will successfully doctor a print to replace one of the marchers with the image of a Jamaican friend, Nelson Clark, in a manner that makes the change undetectable. This challenge sets in motion a series of events that result in Nelson’s incarceration. Frank, with the help of his strong minded girlfriend, Christine, must then try to find a way to persuade the police, who are all too eager to prove Nelson guilty, that the photo they are using as evidence is a fake.

Racism, intolerance and hatred are never going to be comfortable subjects to read about but the warmth and humour of the narrative, and the breadth of characters populating each page, make this an engaging tale. Even Powell comes across with a degree of poignancy, notwithstanding his damaging rhetoric. It is sad that, despite improvements in many other areas, his ilk are still being listened to today.

The author uses dialogue to expand on arguments which, although succinct and well constructed, did not always segue with plot progression. The denouement relied on a stroke of luck, admittedly a familiar device. These were minor niggles in a work that offers an entertaining story as well as an evocative history of a period this country should by now have learned from. This is an intelligent and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Electric Souk

Electric Souk, by Rose McGinty, tells the story of a young, single, Irish woman’s experiences working in Arabia during the period of regional uprisings known as the Arab Spring. It is a story of expatriates, culture clashes, clandestine friendships and betrayals. In the simmering heat of a desert city, nothing is quite as it first appears.

Aisling Finn leaves the grey and damp of Ireland following the breakdown of a lengthy love affair. Drawn by the lure of sunshine and a lucrative contract she ignores her mother’s warnings of the potential dangers in a fiercely segregated, veiled land. Her Grandaddy understands Aisling’s need for adventure.

‘Woman, let her go will you.’ Grandaddy roared from his chair by the stove, ‘I remember when I was a young’ un my mother, and her mother before her, were always covered from head to toe in black. My mother was a clever woman, but she was dead behind the eyes from peeling spuds all day. We had our own Taliban, those fecking Christian Brothers.’

Aisling takes some time to acclimatise to expatriate life with its raucous parties, illicit activities and conspicuous wealth. Many of the woman look on her with disdain while the men veer between charm and sleaze. Although her work at the National Health Board is well regarded by colleagues, she discovers that powerful rivalries are ubiquitous and vicious. With everyone there to make money, trust is a rare commodity.

Aisling wishes to experience life outside the gilded city but requires male escorts and female chaperones if she is to stay within the law. Those who offer to accompany her invariably have ulterior motives and she finds herself enmeshed in schemes she does not fully understand. When she declines advances, the spurned warn of dangerous consequences.

News filters in of protests and uprisings in the region leading to a clamp down on previously overlooked activities. Foreign workers are blamed for sewing the seeds of discontent amongst the locals. With their privileged way of life under threat, governments are eager for scapegoats to punish as a warning to others. Aisling finds herself caught between her new western and eastern friends with little idea who, if any, she can rely on.

The plot is fast moving with a taut, hungry prose that evokes the precarious simulation of high-class living conjured out of a hostile desert. The Arabian family Aisling becomes involved with are discomfited when she acts like a western woman yet many of their compatriots yearn to enjoy the freedoms she takes for granted. Men from both cultures regard her as a pawn to be subjugated, by whatever means, to further their own dangerous games.

This was a fascinating look at an area known to offer luxurious conditions for visitors willing to look only at the glittering facade, possible because of a hidden army of mistreated workers. The arms and oil trades are considered too important for other nations to attempt interventions, whatever the human cost. If foreign worker contracts are truly as tightly controlled as portrayed here I wonder why anyone would choose to go, whatever the reward. Nonetheless, this provides a searing backdrop for a compelling tale.

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

Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

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

Book Review: The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.

The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.

“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”

When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.

“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”

The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.

A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.

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

Book Review: All Grown Up

“They tell you that you grow up, you get a job, you fall in love, you get married, you buy a home, you have children, you do all that, you get to be an adult. […] But you can’t be something you’re not. You can’t.”

All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg, introduces the reader to Andrea Bern, an intelligent and independent woman on the cusp of forty, living alone in New York City. Andrea is single and child free by choice. She has a decent job, even if it isn’t the one she once dreamed of, and lives in an acceptable apartment. She carries emotional baggage but isn’t convinced therapy will help. She drinks, enjoys sex, and ponders the direction her life is taking, if this is what it is to be.

Told in a series of vignettes, the book explores Andrea’s relationships with family and friends as she watches many of them settle into the lives society expects – marriage, babies, discontent. There is much humour in the telling but what stands out is the raw honesty.

People come and go from Andrea’s life. Their experiences affect them and all they interact with as needs and desires progress. Individual choices don’t always segue with those made by loved ones. Is it possible to ever truly know someone when time only moves forward and disparate actions, especially within one’s varied relationships, auger personal development?

Andrea has no interest in children. She distances herself from those whose lives now revolve around their offspring. She observes how others regard her, some chafing against how she behaves. Whilst she recognises that her life is not ideal – she feels lonely sometimes, frustrated by her job – those who have chosen to follow society’s conventions have issues to deal with too. Many struggle to accept her right to autonomy if she is not providing them with what they crave.

“no matter how much you own yourself and your body and your mind, there are men who will always try to seek power over your body, even if it is just with their eyes”

In poignant, fierce, uncompromising  prose the reader is offered insights into personal thoughts and feelings often shrouded from public consideration. Whatever one’s relationship status or occupation, life is experienced as an individual. This story portrays what it is to be a woman, sentient and alive.

Although unsparing in its observations this is an affirming read. It is powerful, perceptive and recommended.

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

This post is a stop on the All Grown Up Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: The Stolen Child

The Stolen Child, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s second psychological thriller. Much as I enjoyed her first, Bone by Bone (which I review here), in this latest work she has upped her game. An underlying darkness pervades every page. I needed to know what happened next but at times had to pause, so acute was the tension.

The protagonist is Zoe Morley, an artist and mother of two. Seven year old Evie was adopted as a baby; two year old Ben was a delightful surprise for a couple who had given up hope of birthing a healthy child themselves. Zoe’s husband, Ollie, is a hard working accountant. The long hours he puts in at the office in order to provide for his family are resented by Zoe who struggles with the demands of parenting alongside her desire to further her artistic career. She feels that Ollie does not take her work seriously as it yields little additional income for the family’s material needs.

When Zoe discovers that Evie has received cards and presents from someone claiming to be her real daddy she is concerned and aggrieved that Ollie will not offer her the comfort and support she craves. He is angry but does not share her feelings that their position in their daughter’s life is threatened.

Zoe’s attention is fragmented between her work, a demanding toddler, and a daughter who is starting to question her place in their family unit. Zoe is also dealing with the distraction of another artist, a sculptor named Harris, who pays her flattering attention and supports her work.

In the small town where they live Zoe has plenty of options for childcare. Evie and Ben are regularly looked after by professionals, friends and babysitters, giving Zoe time to walk the moors for inspiration and then to paint. She trusts these people with her children, until her world is turned upside down and inside out when Evie disappears. Suddenly everyone she knows, including Ollie, is under suspicion.

As the police investigate, personal secrets threaten to derail trusted relationships. Zoe’s devastation at her loss is compounded by feelings of guilt and anger at her husband for not being more present. As days pass and progress appears to stall in the search for her daughter, she takes matters into her own hands.

The writing is taut and visceral. I did not warm to Zoe but empathised fully with her pain. The events related tear many lives apart, not least the children’s. Trust is shown to be such a fragile thing.

This is an emotive and disturbing tale presented with compassion and skill. A thriller with soul and depth that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: One Little Mistake

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One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

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