Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Chinatown

Once upon a time in Chinatown, by Robert Ronsson, is an engaging and not too demanding story inspired by a film – Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, released 1974 – that I haven’t seen. The writing has a noir quality and beat, featuring an apparently benign narrator who can never quite be trusted. Within the tale various characters are drawn to a grand but unfinished building in Malaysia – Kellie’s Castle – which actually exists and has the general history used by the author to fine effect. He is a self declared film enthusiast and this shines through in the writing style and references.

The story opens on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London in 1996. This introduces the reader to the protagonist, Steven Cross, and plants a seed that he may have been involved in nefarious activities. He vaguely refers to events of the previous six years, pondering how the past is always open to interpretation.

“Yesterday can be changed in its recollection and retelling, particularly if you have something to hide.”

The timeline then moves back to 1990, with the rest of the book offering Steven’s version of how his life changed radically following the death of his mother, Stella, in the late summer of that year. She was a foundling who raised her son alone after his father died before they could marry. These facts resulted in Steven having no known wider family. After Stella’s death, her middle aged and financially stable son cleared their shared house of her belongings. In doing so he came across the name of his father for the first time, and a photograph. Clues to the identity of an enigmatic but never discussed figure from his past set Steven on a road that would eventually lead him to similarly aged cousins who help him piece together their family history. Their forebears’ ambitions and love stories started in Scotland but took them to Malaysia, Lisbon, and to Steven’s locale in London.

The history and culture of Malaysia in the twentieth century has a key role to play but the focus of the story is one of family and expected loyalties. Steven states many times how much he values now being a part of a known and shared ancestry. In light of his actions, the reader may not be quite so convinced of his motives in becoming involved in his cousins’ lives.

Aspects of plot development, particularly those set in Lisbon, at times dragged a little. Nancy’s beauty and the effect this had on men appeared clichéd. Nevertheless, there are enough interlinked threads made plausible and necessary for added depth and progression. Film quotes fitted without feeling shoe-horned in.

The tale is told as a straightforward narration yet there are blurred lines in admitted asides. Steven’s claim to be offering a truthful account are tantalisingly believable – for what constitutes truth when certain facts can always be omitted?

In these strange times I was looking for a story that offered effortless escapism. There is enough of interest in this deliciously equivocal tale to more than meet this criteria.

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

Book Review: She-Clown and Other Stories

She-Clown and Other Stories, by Hannah Vincent, is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring women recognisable from ordinary social situations. Their everyday lives require that they compromise their potential in order to survive the hand chosen or dealt. They are described as feminist stories and this is accurate in a myriad of ways. Some of the women are chafing against the restrictions of marriage or motherhood. Others are pushing for their right to be themselves within a family that expects them to be something else – a facsimile or ideal. The tales are succinct, layered and fierce in their observations. They are also funny and refreshing in the spotlight shone on behaviours.

The titular story tells of an entertainer working at a child’s birthday party. The mothers congregate over wine and complaints about husbands and children. On arrival, She-Clown is introduced.

“‘You probably know half the people here,’ the mother said, turning to Charlie, and it was true that Charlie did recognise some of the faces. One of the men had sat in her car. She had given him a blowjob. She recognised his moccasin shoes. Another man, in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, had fucked her in a laundry room among mountain bikes and drying washing while his wife gave out party bags.”

Charlie goes through her routine, aware of how she is being watched by some of the men. The children accept everything offered as their due, refusing to be impressed.

Other stories tell of parents called to schools – teachers expecting them to sort out a child’s behaviour where it doesn’t fit with the expected agenda.

Single parents push against their situation, and against their lack of agency in the face of authority figures.

Working mothers juggle the satisfaction of their professional lives, trying to find balance with family needs amidst parental criticism.

One story features a young couple recently returned from travelling, who are considering going down the road of motherhood. A catching up is required of one of them if they are to remain together. Love is all very well but people change over time and have diverging desires and expectations.

Not all of the women’s lives revolve around children.

Carnival offers the reader a young women whose office life demands she dress up (never well enough) and accept her boss’s disturbing behaviour. Making a fuss is frowned upon.

I enjoyed the stories featuring older women, many of whom behave badly in the eyes of their offspring. One mother gives her grandson an inappropriate gift, watching carefully for her daughter’s reaction. The grown up daughter of a controlling mother finds a novel way to exert her will when the mother is hospitalised.

These power plays between family members are presented with insight and wit.

In The Mermaid and the Tick a young couple go on holiday abroad at the behest of the husband. The wife is compliant, submitting to his plans despite reservations. When he notices she is fitting in better than he expected and that, while his needs are met, she can enjoy herself without him, his enjoyment is not as he anticipated.

Many of the men featured do not come out well in these stories, mainly due to their habits of wanting wives to revere them while they look lasciviously elsewhere.

A few of the stories offer more surreal elements, set in a world that may be futuristic. One explores how important it actually is for experiences to be real or useful if they are enjoyed by those who partake. Another is set at a dinner party where nobody knows who invited them or the purpose of the evening. There is a hankering for the past, or a might have been present, yet women continue to behave as others expect them to – even in the face of impending chaos.

The Sparrow is set on a successful doctor’s retirement day. It has a poignancy wound around why she ended up in the profession.

“‘Couldn’t be more proud’ is an expression of a surfeit of pride, and that wasn’t David. It wasn’t Daddy’s way either. I assumed it would please my father to have me follow him into medicine, and at a time when there were far fewer women doctors than there are now, but he was more concerned with Howard and his career, for all the good that did either of them. It will be good to have more time for my brother after today.”

It is interesting to consider the drivers in decision making – how women are conditioned to be pleasing. The denouement of this story is quietly moving.

Another moving story in the collection is 3 o’clock which is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she struggles with the tasks necessary to enable her to leave the house – remembering to take her smart bag and good purse, doing up the buttons on her coat – voices from the past haunt her. Each time she opens her fridge she hears ‘Close the door, it costs me money every time you go in there!‘ As she does her very best to make herself presentable she hears her mother-in-law say ‘You could wear the same outfit, Clem, and it wouldn’t look so smart.‘ Oh for more kindness within families…

I commend this collection to you for the variety of themes explored and the assiduity with which they are presented. The lightness of the writing belies the intricacy of the narrative. An entertaining and deeply satisfying read.

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

Book Review: You Never Told Me

You Never Told Me, by Sarah Jasmon, is a story of the pulls and disconnects inherent within families. Parents work hard to provide what they believe is best for their offspring without comprehending the blinkered lens through which they regard an ever-changing world. Decisions made reverberate across decades leading to schisms where appreciation was expected. Children struggle to regard parents as individuals rather than providers of support, in whatever form necessary. They resent criticism or any attempt to take control of decisions. Siblings grow jealous when caught in a net of duty when another appears to have achieved freedom and, perhaps worse, greater admiration.

The story opens on a Thai ferry where a hungover Charlie is returning from a disappointing party weekend at an island getaway with colleagues from the language school where she has secured temporary work. Charlie is on a sort of gap year, despite being a decade older than most who partake of this indulgence. She ran away from the prospect of the life she was expected to lead: marriage to her loving, long term boyfriend; paying off the mortgage on the house they bought together; caring for their dog. She is coming to realise that her current hand to mouth existence in this hot and sticky place is not the answer to her restlessness, and that maybe it is time to return to England.

Any potential for her usual prevarication is removed when she receives a message from her sister that their mother has been hospitalised. Charlie’s contingency planning for a need to pay for an emergency flight is non-existent. She appears to be living her life in the moment with no sense of what to do should her trajectory change. Not for the only time in the story, a kindly stranger steps in to help. She arrives back in Sheffield safely, albeit with minimal luggage and no money. By the time she walks to the hospital, her mother has died.

Charlie’s sister, Eleanor, is capable of taking charge – this despite, or perhaps because of, also having to deal with her father, husband and two young children. She cooks meals for Charlie who has installed herself in her childhood bedroom and borrowed clothes left by their mother. Charlie goes through the motions of each day without making plans. When it is announced that the family home is to be sold and that their father will move in with Eleanor, Charlie understands she must move forward but appears to have no idea how. Once again, her predicament is resolved thanks to the actions of others. Unbeknown to her daughters, their mother had purchased a canal boat. Charlie moves to this until she can work out what she now wants.

The mother, Britta, is portrayed as a bland and submissive character so her secrets – especially the uncharacteristic purchase of a boat – intrigue her daughters. Charlie resolves to dig further using the few clues uncovered. Eleanor is obviously struggling to spin all the plates she has been handed. Whilst supportive of her sister there is still resentment at the way Charlie upped and left for Thailand.

And then there is Max, the jilted fiancé, living in the joint owned house that he was left paying for, along with their dog who was left in his care. Charlie now wants her share of the house. And she wants the dog. All readers will get behind the dog’s right to her best life.

The main plot involves the slow uncovering of Britta’s background. This is well presented and structured. There are a few coincidences that help in Charlie’s investigations along the way, but also sufficient within the threads to maintain reader engagement. Depth is added through character development, especially around the familial relationships.

The story is told from Charlie’s point of view but in such a way as to offer balance. I became irritated by her constantly jangling nerves leading to loss of concentration, having to remind myself she was grieving. I wanted to tell her that headaches and inability to focus could be due to her apparent inability to feed herself, and then wondered how many people in her life had felt compelled to try to voice such unasked for advice. As usual I did not enjoy the sex scene but concede that it added another aspect to her backstory.

Charlie connects with her elder niece, Martha, who she recognises as needing a friend. I thought it a shame that even the little that was asked for – and promised – went largely undelivered. I understood the wider reasoning for inclusion within the plot but there is still a desire for children to be listened to and treated fairly; perhaps we all harbour scars from being ignored by adults with their skewed priorities.

One important thread that shines through is the portrayal of life on the canal. Despite her apparent flakiness (the escape to Thailand must have appeared like a bolt from the blue to her family), Charlie manages to pick up quickly how to manage a boat, largely thanks to the generosity of other canal people. Living on the water, by a public towpath, takes some getting used to. Charlie’s appreciation of her surroundings – its disconnect from life on land despite their proximity – is beautifully rendered. Wider attitudes to crusty canal folk is touched upon lightly.

The writing and pace are fluent and well balanced (although I did wonder from time to time what had been cut during editing). The nuances of family life are presented in a multitude of forms and from several points of view. The denouement neatens the weave of threads without offering solutions that are too machine perfect. This book was a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: In Lieu of a Memoir

“This is a work of the author’s imagination […] Even the author is a figment of the author’s imagination.”

Tadhg Muller may or may not exist. In this collection of short stories his narrator shares episodes from his life – autofiction – that remain riddled with inconsistencies. The effect is destabilising as foundations are created and then shifted. At times the experiences related are quite base and graphic, which would normally put me off reading. However, there is so much wit and humour within these pages I remained entertained.

Interspersed with the stories are notes, written as if by the Editor, who also writes the introduction. In this he explains that the tales cover a period in the author’s life when he was living in London. They represent an existence fraught with financial worries – meagre food, housing, and a succession of energy sapping jobs offering little reward. Tadhg claimed to have arrived in the city after a hasty exit from the Islamic Republic. The collection opens with a dream recounting his escape.

That the author is writing stories is occasionally mentioned (meta, but go with it). The Editor recalls an encounter at a bookshop in Bethnal Green that Tadhg nearly missed, despite being down to give a reading.

“I was so overwhelmed by the mass of people outside the bookshop when I arrived, I paused to consider my next move, thought about cutting and running,” he confessed with tight-eyed gravity, “then a double-decker came, and the footpath cleared.”

One of the stories sets out an attempt to join a writers’ group in London. The group has guidelines as to who it is aimed at, those it will welcome.

“They declared they were “a friendly group of writers.” I then read that not everyone could become a member.”

In retaliation, the narrator attempts to set up a rival group. This trundles along ineffectively until he loses his job at a bakery after insulting his boss, a fellow writer, who is “working hard to meet the deadline imposed by insatiable penguins.”

“Still working on this crap? I said.
She sat back obviously stunned, obviously wounded, but mostly just aware of the truth of my statement.
You’re fired, Tadhg.
I nodded and thanked her and so walked out, past the Tartar who offered me one last smile, then closed the door on that world, a world that was a far greater lie than all the fictions I’d concocted.”

The author regularly pokes fun at the pretensions of self-appointed elites. An artist who has achieved preeminence is observed to have been granted “deification amongst the London cultural establishment”. Staff in a coffee shop who serve this artist are “sunned by his eccentricity”. The narrator is determined not to fall victim to such behaviour.

“He paused, and turned his head to take a better look at me, opened his eyes wide, very wide, wider than usual. He’d realised I’d anticipated his behaviour. He realised he’d been anticipated.”

There are stories during which the narrator seeks shelter with a friend. At times he is trying to support a wife and child. In others he is alone. Jobs change but the struggle to make a living continues. He writes of encounters with a variety of characters, some struggling and others whose supposed success he despises.

“Mr M took us – us being the main players – to a cafe for a debrief. There he settled into his allocated role, shifted to instruction, and authority, his sense of isolation in the world and amongst others only broken by the execution of authority, I imagined his folk had done it for a thousand years or more.”

What is offered in this collection is a picture of life in the city through the piercing eyes of a narrator who is trying to find a way of fitting in without compromising what he is. Or maybe he would have been willing to compromise had a break been offered. The reader cannot know because of the shifting nature of the writing. What in lesser hands may be pure pathos becomes humorous without losing the bite of the difficulties faced. It is a cleverly constructed and rewarding read.

In Lieu of a Memoir is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: The Prick

Open Pen aims to encourage

“growth within our talented, fertile, literary underbelly. We are a platform for up-and-coming writers from all backgrounds, with particular interest in working class writers.”

The Prick, by Mazin Saleem, is one of Open Pen’s novelettes – there are currently five of these available. Each offers a topical and thought provoking story that cuts through the gloss sometimes applied to apparent reality. The authors are not afraid to say it as it is.

This tale opens with a young couple, Will and Agatha, during the final week of what they had planned as a year long world adventure (don’t call it a holiday). They are in Greece preparing to go snorkelling. Once out in the open water, Will gets caught in a riptide. He is rescued by a bodyboarder, Roland, who is part of a stag party. Feeling that he owes the man his life, Will seeks Roland out to offer his thanks. Thus begins a decade long ‘friendship’ between two men who all but despise what the other chooses to be.

The chapters deal with ‘That Day’, ‘The Day After That Day’, ‘A Week After That Day’ and so on, as Will and Roland meet up socially and quickly come to realise how little they like each other. Will considers Roland to be a prick for the way he talks and acts. He is, nevertheless, strangely fascinated and obsessed. Much to Agatha’s bewilderment, Will stalks Roland over social media, relaying what he finds as amusing anecdotes to his friends. Without Will’s feelings of obligation, these friends are bemused by Roland where Will is often appalled. Somehow, though, he cannot break away. They attend the same parties and partake in mutual interests together. It is a fascinating study of how frenemies choose to interact rather than seeking avoidance.

There are many cringeworthy moments along with humour in the story. Both men behave badly at times. Roland appears content with his actions. Will, a seeker of admiration and affirmation, feels vicarious shame.

The climax occurs when the men go on an adventure holiday together. Thrown into extended close proximity, there is a dangerous reckoning. The denouement offers added depth and is skillfully rendered.

When stories as satisfying as this can be told in just over a hundred pages I am left wondering why we need so many lengthy books. I will be looking out for further work from the author. This is an entertaining and recommended read.

The Prick is published by Open Pen.

Book Review: blueeyedboy

blueeyedboy, by Joanne Harris, is the second book in the author’s Malbry Series – psychological thrillers set in the fictional Yorkshire town. Having enjoyed Gentlemen & Players and Different Class, I was eager to read the remaining instalment. Although there are linked characters across the three books they are standalone stories. The structure of this one is notably different. Beware the media quotes on the cover telling the reader there is an ‘almighty twist’ in the tale and an unreliable narrator. While these elements are not unexpected in the genre, the hype did raise certain expectations. That I had guessed where the ending was going by the time I got there left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

The story is told in the form of a web journal called badguysrock. Most entries are written by the titular blueeyedboy with additions by one of his fellow members of the online group, Albertine. They and some of the post commentators appear to know each other offline. Who each of them is and their relationships to each other are kept vague initially to enable a slow reveal. blueeyedboy is writing what he claims to be fiction. The reader must tease out what is the truth from: the varying strands, changing details, and snapshots of key scenes.

blueeyedboy is one of three siblings born to a domineering matriarch who violently imposes her will on her children. The coercion and vicious punishments described are disturbing to read. That blueyedboy still lives with the women can only, perhaps, be properly understood by someone who has suffered domestic violence. blueeyedboy dreams of killing his mother. He writes in the web journal of previous murders he orchestrated but then reminds readers that his writing is fiction.

There are references to a dead girl, Emily White, who was regarded as a prodigy. There are also a number of women from the town who, over the course of his life, upset blueeyedboy and who are now dead. The strands of fact and fiction are kept shadowed by the changing details, and then additions by Albertine.

All of the characters interacted over several decades. Class boundaries caused resentments. The upper hand was gained on occasion through lies and threats. A wealthy gentlemen, Dr Peacock, took an interest when he discovered children had synaesthesia – the subject of a book he was writing. Their parents vied for the attention this presented, the chance for their offspring to be recognised as special by the wider community.

The portrayal of parenting is devastating. While most may not beat their children with a length of electric cable as blueeyedboy’s mother does, there are mental wounds inflicted when a child fails to live up to much vaunted expectations. Parents are eager for their peers to acknowledge the admirable qualities and talents of their children to the extent that young people are scarred when they feel they have disappointed. When do support and encouragement morph into parental obsession?

As the story unfolds and the nature of relationships is revealed there remains a question over what the truth may be as regards certain details. Names and nicknames overlap requiring a degree of going back through the text to work out who is being written about and how they met their end. blueeyedboy’s fictions are at times confusing. Albertine has memories she declined to share during attempts at investigation.

By the end of the book it is possible to work out what happened to most of the characters but, as a linear read, this was at times confusing. It is a puzzle whose pieces can shift in shape. There are themes explored – such as the parenting fails and domestic abuse – that add depth and deserve consideration. Compared to the other books in the series however, it is not as satisfying to read.

blueeyedboy is published by Black Swan. 

Book Review: One Thing

“If she’d been his wife, he’d be a widower. But if your ex-wife dies, you’re left with nothing at all.”

One Thing, by Xanthi Barker, is a piercing exploration of grief. Its protagonist, Len, is fifty-eight years old when he receives a phone call informing him his ex-wife, Violet, is dead. Violet walked out on their marriage and daughter twenty years ago to set up home with her accountant, Ivan. Len has never stopped loving her, and also hating her for what she did to him. Instead of phoning his daughter, or driving straight home on hearing the news, he tries to finish the big job he has been working on for months that is almost complete. This does not go well. When he eventually leaves, in time for the funeral despite being told he would not be welcome there, he is facing the prospect of bankruptcy.

Len is struggling to cope with his memories of all the things he has lost: his wife, their daughter’s smile when she was a baby, his beloved green van, the life he once thought he would live. At the centre of it all is Violet, how she was when they first got together.

“Len didn’t know, had never imagined the sun would come out in his life like that. He had settled on overcast drizzle for the most part, women who thought he couldn’t think because he didn’t think to say every thought he had”

“She said she couldn’t live without him. She couldn’t sleep without him in her bed”

“She was the first person in his life that made him want to say things”

Violet left Len for Ivan when their daughter, Lila, was still just a toddler. Len has never stopped wanting the shared life she took from him. Now he has a plan, one he knows carries risk. He will reclaim from Ivan one thing that Violet left. To do so he must enter their home, which he does when everyone else is at the funeral. Being in the place she chose over him proves overwhelming.

This story is told in the form of a novelette – just over sixty pages – yet is powerful and complete. The reader is taken through Len’s life, understanding why Violet meant so much to him. The writing is taut and direct yet breathtakingly tender. The lens through which grief is viewed – with its impuissance and jealousies – is masterfully rendered.

A short yet evocative tale from a writer whose work I will now look out for. A rare find that I recommend you read.

One Thing is published by Open Pen.