Book Review: Dark Chapter

Dark Chapter, by Winnie M Li, is the story of a rape. Told from the points of view of both the victim and the perpetrator, the subject matter has been informed by an assault the author suffered which changed the course of her life. The narrative is detailed, stark and harrowing. The portrayal of a sordid lifestyle within the Irish Traveller community withering.

Vivian Tan is a Taiwanese-American living in London. A Harvard graduate, she works for a film production company in the city. Her work is demanding but enables her to live in a flat share overlooking the river. She enjoys socialising with her many friends; travelling both for business and pleasure. Often she will take the opportunity of visiting a new country to hike alone and discover quiet places where she may admire natural vistas. She enjoys the challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes from being independent.

On a trip to Belfast Vivian sets out on a hike from the west of the city towards Cave Hill. A young Irish Traveller, Jonny, spots her on the trail and decides he will have sex with her. His rough upbringing, where domestic assault was routine and casual theft expected, has led him to consider good looking girls fair game. He boasts to his friends of his conquests, feeling no shame that his victims were forced, often violently, to accept attentions that satisfy the cravings he feeds with pornography, first offered to him at a young age.

The timeline jumps back and forth between the protagonists’ childhoods, the attack, and the aftermath. The writing is precise and measured with no shirking from graphic detail. Jonny is shown to be incapable of understanding how his victims are feeling. Vivian is shattered by her experience and by the painful process of seeking what passes for justice when she refuses to quietly shoulder her ordeal.

This is a powerful account of a crime that is too often maligned and misunderstood. For this alone it could be regarded as an important work. In deriving empathy for the unremitting and ongoing horror it can also, in places, overwhelm. The bitter undercurrent and raw pain, although understandable, are challenging to read.

 

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

 

Dark Chapter has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

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Book Review: Chains of Sand

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Chains of Sand, by Jemma Wayne, tells the loosely connected stories of families whose lives are affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I know little about this highly contentious region, despite having worked on a kibbutz near Gaza many years ago. I had hoped that this book might offer some enlightenment.

From the minuscule knowledge I have of Jews I assumed that, apart from the black suited and hatted Orthodox variety, they were generally well educated and intelligent. I therefore struggled to empathise with these Jewish characters. They appeared overly bound to tradition, family and religion. Even those who believed themselves liberal struggled with the ties of ritual. They viewed themselves as Jews first, believing themselves assimilated in their host nation yet living largely amongst people like them.

Of course, we all gravitate to those who share similar values. Perhaps it was the incursion of religion that discomforted me.

The theme throughout the story is one of belonging and the disconnect some feel to the lives their loved ones expect them to live. Many young people rebel against the demands of the previous generation. This tale vividly demonstrates how difficult cultural bonds are to break.

Udi is an Israeli Jew born to Iraqi parents. He has been damaged by his experiences fighting for his country, as all young Jewish Israelis must do. He dreams of moving to England where a similarly aged cousin has made a prosperous life for himself. Udi compares this to his own prospects and plots his escape.

Daniel is a financially successful investment banker in London who believes a move to Israel could give his life the depth and meaning it lacks. His grandmother is a concentration camp survivor, his best friend a British Muslim. His sister is engaged to a gentile, a choice he supports but struggles to consider for himself.

Kaseem is an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. Despite graduating near the top of his university class he cannot find the work he expected his qualification to bring. He rails against the discrimination he must live with due to his race. When he meets the beautiful Dara, an artist from a supposedly liberal Jewish family, they both discover that prejudices are difficult to overcome.

The challenges of living in Israel are well evoked. The young people struggle with the responsibility they feel towards their families. However accepting the men may think themselves, they still expect to dominate. The girls are beautiful and strong but also tied to tradition. Only Udi’s sister, Avigail, seems willing to truly challenge the patriarchy, and she pays a terrible price.

Daniel’s family at first appears to have fitted in well to British society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that they choose to exist within the confines of a Jewish community. When Daniel decides to join a rally he cries out for peace whilst planning to join the Israeli army. The juxtaposition is telling.

The course of all the characters’ lives, the expectations they have for themselves and for those around them, was, for me, summed up as a metaphor in a comment made about birthday presents:

“Gifts are funny things. I know you’re meant to try to think of something the receiver would like, something they would want, nothing to do with you, but it never works that way. There’s always a not-so-subtle hint of the giver in there, an intimation of their perception of who the receiver is, or who they wish them to be.”

Each of the younger family members struggles with the disconnect between what they think they want and the mould their family is trying to push them into. The three young men’s view of themselves is a deception. Prejudices picked up from the cradle run deep.

Even though I was often discomforted by the content, the quality of the writing is impressive. These are difficult issues to explore and the author does not flinch from presenting differing points of view. Her sympathy appears to be with the Jews, but she vividly portrays Palestinian issues. Having said that, I feel no closer to understanding why this region evokes such widespread ire when the world is full of troublespots, or why the Jews have been singled out so often and by so many for persecution.

An interesting and challenging story that is well worth reading. I would now like to peruse more of this author’s work.

Guest Post by Lyn Farrell, author of ‘The Wacky Man’

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When Lucy at Legend Press invited me to take part in the blog tour for ‘The Wacky Man’ I had not yet read the book. I was told that it was “very hard hitting, fiction but part of it autobiographically inspired.” I was intrigued but also a little nervous given the subject matter (child abuse). The author told me that some agents had rejected it because of the brutality, but that she needed to give a voice to the voiceless, the child/teenager at its heart.

When I finished the book I immediately emailed Lyn to say “Wow!” Yes, it is hard hitting but what a fantastic read (my review is here). I am today delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this guest post which gives some insight into why the author wrote as she did.  

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Books saved me. They got me through a traumatic childhood and ever since have been my anchor and joy in life. It’s no wonder then that fiction holds a special place in my soul. I think the seeds of wanting to write could well have been planted the minute I learned to read the Mr Men books, particularly my favourite, Mr Dizzy. I can still feel the delight I got from entering his world only to shed tears when poor Mr Dizzy was bullied and then, finally, to laugh again when he triumphed. I wanted to create more worlds like this to escape into.

I’ve carried ‘The Wacky Man’ around with me for about thirty years. I ignored it through self-doubt for about twenty then finally gave it a shot and took another ten years to write it. On reflection most of that final decade was spent learning how to write – vast amounts of prose that never made it to the book – so that I could, at long last, transfer what I held in thought onto the written page. I know it’s a brutal read. There was no way around that without changing the essential essence of the book.

The world in this particular novel had to be bleak so that readers get a sense of what it is like to be a battered child. It wasn’t an easy novel to write either. It is inspired by real events, real horror, real violence. Many times I’d be overcome with sadness or anger and have to stop working and there is one section of it that I still can’t read without crying. It needed to be written, not only for me, but for all children who live through the nightmare of violence at home. I’m proud that I managed it. And I’m absolutely proud of my sisters and brothers who have encouraged me since I finally admitted I was writing it (I kept my writing a secret from everyone except my mentor until it was almost finished).

Writing the novel was also difficult in the technical sense. I’ve had sleepless nights and fruitless days where words disobeyed and refused to line up in the right order and when events got muddled up time wise and I had to rework whole chapters to sort it out. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion at times, fuelled by too much sugar and not enough vitamins and I’ve sat for weeks on end without adequate exercise just because I couldn’t leave a chapter alone until it was ‘better’. However, I’ve also been extremely fortunate that the amazing Clio Gray, herself an award winning author, was my novel mentor. We met online by chance and she supported me for the last 2 years of writing the book. She taught me so much about how to hone my writing and when I lost faith she demanded that I kept going. Without her, I wouldn’t have finished it and I certainly wouldn’t have known about the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award.

From winning the award onwards it’s been a wonderfully exciting, and at times surreal, journey to publication. And though I thought I’d only write one novel, I’m currently addicted to writing. The novel I’m working on at the moment is about the healing power of unusual friendship. I hope it turns out as well as The Wacky Man but I also hope it doesn’t take as long. I don’t think Legend Press could wait that long.

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The Wacky Man Blog Tour

‘The Wacky Man’ is published by Legend Press and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Wacky Man

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The Wacky Man, by Lyn G. Farrell, recounts in painful, vivid detail the childhood of Amanda, whose vicious father took out his anger and frustrations on his children with a cruelty it is hard to comprehend. The story opens with Amanda talking to her ‘new shrink’, trying to piece together the fractured memories of her past. It is a past filled with fear, yet the bruises she carried were as nothing compared to the emotional damage endured. The beatings she suffered hurt from the outside in. The barrage of words which bombarded her both at home and at school cut from the inside where they festered, damaging the goodness that should have been nurtured.

Amanda’s father, Seamus, came from Ireland where he had a large and sprawling family, many of whom never accepted his English wife, Barbara. He worked in a factory and was regarded as hard working and jovial, seen to be providing a good home for his wife and twin sons. He put up with the banter about his background, taking home the resentment he felt at how he was treated by his peers.

Barbara also resented how her life had turned out. She rarely intervened when her husband beat their young children in the name of discipline. They lived a life on edge, always fearful of Seamus’s violent reaction to the slightest provocation.

As the youngest child, Amanda was born into a family already suffering. She was a noisy, demanding baby but started off wanting to please. She absorbed her father’s cruel taunts, his kicks and fists. Her mother appeared impotent, often drugged up on medication. Despite references to social services, nobody seemed willing to act in the best interests of the children.

The unfolding story is told from Amanda’s point of view but never descends to the style of a popular misery memoir. It is a first hand account of an abused child, their thoughts and feelings, dreams that morph into nightmare. Each incident is recalled as a snapshot from a troubled life, the detail told in a manner that is factually shocking but never gratuitous.

Amanda’s treatment over the fifteen years narrated leaves her damaged beyond anything imaginable. It is hard to see how it could be allowed to happen, yet this too is explained. When the father owns the house and provides the only income how is a woman to leave with three young kids and survive? In the competitive environment that is school, children are inherently cruel to one another. When kindly teachers try to help a pupil who is physically violent and abusive, who turns on them for reasons they cannot comprehend, how much can they practically do? Amanda saw many psychologists but struggled to tell them what they needed to know. Adults and children talk different languages.

It is hard to avoid blaming the wider family for not doing more but perhaps this was a product of the times. These were staunch Catholics, church going people who would frown upon marriage breakdown. What went on behind closed doors was rarely regarded as any business of those outside.

The extent of the damage being wrought was not understood. A story such as this can help counter such ignorance by laying out in raw and harrowing detail the full effect of childhood abuse, emotional as well as physical.

A searing, challenging tale written not to engender mawkish sympathy but rather to promote understanding. This is a stunning, agonising debut from a talented writer.

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

Inside the Happily Ever After: Guest Post by Tara Guha

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Today I am delighted to welcome Tara Guha, author of ‘Untouchable Things’ (which I reviewed here) to my blog. In considering this guest post, which is a part of the blog tour for her book, I asked Tara if she could write about the past year. I was interested in her experience of taking her novel from submission to publication, and if this and the post publication process have been what she expected. I am thrilled by the insights offered in her response, and hope that you will enjoy reading it too.

 

It’s the fairy tale moment. Posh frock, London location, and my name called out as the winner of the Luke Bitmead Bursary. Eyes on me, bewilderment, a stuttered thank you speech, the start of my life as a published writer. Champagne and tentative jubilation. Lights dim, curtain drops… and then what?

What lies beyond the happily ever after? For me, as for many would-be novelists, publication was my elusive Holy Grail. I’d spent so many years chasing it that when it finally came looking for me I was flummoxed. I’d almost given up the quest anyway; I was reconciled to the fact that my novel might never be published and I’d made peace with that, made other plans. These included a great new job at a mental health charity, which I was loving. And then suddenly before me, shimmering like a mirage, was a publication contract and with it a whole other life as a writer.

Well, I was hardly going to say no, was I? This was my dream come true, my chance to see one of my many creative endeavours turned into something real and tangible and “proper”. Everyone around me was incredibly excited. There’s a general understanding of how hard it is to get a book published, and I was very touched at the response from family, friends and colleagues, although I did have to manage a few expectations (I lost count of the number of times people said “JK Rowling” to me!). I was excited too. I was also downright terrified. It’s all very well to claim you want your book published as you guard it jealously in your little writer’s room, but quite a different matter when someone says “OK, let’s do it.” What if people hate it? What if they think I can’t write? What if they’re so shocked by the sexual content they can never make eye contact again?

I didn’t have much time to dwell on all of this. Suddenly, along with my job and my children there were marketing questionnaires to fill in, contracts to sign and editing to start. The novel’s title, which I’d lived with for eight years, needed to be changed and we had a few days to decide on a new one. Book jacket visuals started to arrive. Did I like them? I didn’t know! My working life as a writer started at about 9pm each night after I’d got the kids to bed, and strong cups of tea laced with adrenaline (amongst other things) became the order of the evening.

As it turned out, that was the easy part. After Christmas the editing started in earnest. Luckily there were no big structural edits (which I’d expected), but believe me the itty-bitty stuff can keep you busy. It didn’t help that I’d experimented with different narrative voices which needed different fonts and formatting – I think my poor editor might have had a minor coronary at the pantomime scene, but to my surprise she liked the more experimental sections and, barring a few tweaks, it all stayed.

And before long, I had a proof copy in my hand. The kids shrieked and danced. I shrieked, danced, and started proof reading. The end was in sight.

All those ends, which are really beginnings. Winning the Bursary. Getting a publishing contract. Getting the finished copy in my hand. It was amazing, stupefying (I adored the look and feel of it), and straightaway it led somewhere else: sending it out to opinion formers, getting it up on Amazon, and finally seeing it racked out in my local book shop. My launch event in my home town of Hebden Bridge was a joyous and memorable night; after so many hours and days and years hunched over a computer in a dark little study, emerging into that room of light and love – forgive me a moment of sentimentality – was overwhelming. Novelists are lucky in that respect; people seem to want to celebrate with us when we finally get one out, so to speak. We get our brief moment in the sun, before scuttling back to our keyboard for another few years.

And even the launch wasn’t the end. I see now that promoting the book – and myself as a writer – is an ongoing process to which, if I want to continue to write, there is no end. The biggest change that publication has brought to my life is that after years of being a social media refusenik, I’ve had to grit my teeth and take the plunge. All that I feared has more or less come to pass. Hours of my life disappearing: check. Being more distracted: check. Getting sucked into trivia: check. But promoting and selling my book? Check check check. Like it or loathe it, there’s no doubt that social media can play a vital role in the early stages of a writer’s career – and, if truth be told, I’ve had a fair bit of fun with it along the way.

I’ve also, despite every intention to the contrary, got hooked into the next phase of sales figures and the book’s “presence” in the market. I’ve had wonderful days of good reviews and good sales (climbing the Amazon Kindle chart recently to number 22 was a particular high), and other days where it seems as if everyone’s forgotten about Untouchable Things. It’s hard not to care. I write for the love of writing but a nicely honed paragraph doesn’t contribute to the family finances. If I want to continue writing novels – and I do – I need to be making at least some income from them. Which brings me to the next development. “The book”, once a single entity, has now bifurcated into “promoting the first book” and “writing the second book.”  Once again I find myself with a huge opportunity, lots of excitement and no time.

And once again, I’ll find the time.

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Untouchable Things is published by Legend Press and is available to buy now.

Other stops on this blog tour are as detailed below.

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Book Review: Fractured

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Fractured, by Clár Ní Chonghaile, is a political thriller set in and around contemporary Somalia. The country is overflowing with insurgents, power hungry terrorists, and local people reluctantly drawn into the latest bloody conflict by the mayhem their everyday lives have become. It is a fascinating exploration of how and why seemingly ordinary people become killers. It offers a chance of empathy if not understanding.

The protagonist is a journalist, Peter Maguire, who has been kidnapped and held hostage by a group seeking wealth from their unexpected encounter with a white man on the streets of Mogadishu. As he lies beaten on the floor of a crude shelter, mentally numbed and awaiting his fate, Peter strikes up a tentative rapport with one of his captors. Abdi is working for his uncle and feels some sympathy for the westerner:

“I did not want to be a part of reducing a man to less than a goat to be slaughtered when he has no way to defend himself.”

The local people value the ties of kinship and clan, something that strangers to the country sometimes struggle to grasp. They will seek to avenge the injustices rained down on their people, but resent the rules imposed by each set of incomers claiming to have their best interests at heart.

The story is told from three points of view: Peter, Abdi, and Peter’s mother, Nina. Although now retired, divorced and living alone in Paris, Nina was also once an intrepid journalist in troubled Africa. She has lived a life full of regrets and seeks redemption in working to secure the freedom of her only child.

As a reader who struggles to understand the forces driving the relentless killing in these far away places, I was perplexed as much by small details as by the overall picture painted in this tale. There was hatred of the west and their values, yet coca cola seemed to be regarded as an esteemed treat. Those who had travelled and received an education abroad appeared to be revered more than those who had stayed true to the traditions of their homeland.

The author wishes readers to consider the concept of freedom, be it of place or ways of thinking. Each character is hemmed in by their history and struggles against personal and familial expectations. The westerners travelled in an attempt to escape the bonds they had placed around themselves. This was rarely an option for the Africans, hemmed in as they were by poverty and travel restrictions imposed by an unwelcoming world. They were forced to cope with their demons in the full glare of those who bound them in emotional chains.

I enjoyed joining the journey with Abdi and Peter but felt less empathy towards Nina. As a woman this makes me uncomfortable. I wonder how much my own history and expectations feed such prejudices.

This is an unusual but highly readable account of a terrifying ordeal which changes the lives of all involved. The story is not so much about the catalyst though, the kidnapping, as about lives lived and the ripples these cause.

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

Book Review: Untouchable Things

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Untouchable Things, by Tara Guha, is one of the most chillingly perfect works of fiction I have read. The prose is impassioned. The characters brim with a raw honesty that is almost painful to explore. The plot grabs the reader with the intensity of a drug: alluring, dangerous and addictive.

The protagonist, Seth, is a Machiavellian character: wealthy, handsome and enigmatic. He tries to make sense of what he sees as the senselessness of life by filling it with sensation, sensuous pleasure, the power of a successfully orchestrated seduction. He feeds off other people.

To this end, Seth seeks out

“waifs and strays, artists lost in a world of commerce”

Before meeting him, his followers

“walked briskly, London style, towards the empty weekend ahead”

He invites his chosen ones to join him at soirées, gatherings that add glitter and excitement to lives that had previously been grey. Certain members of the group recognise the danger but all are enticed by Seth’s charisma. The reader is left to wonder if they were chosen for the damage they have suffered, or for their potential to be damaged further still.

The book is written in scenes, divided up into acts as in a play. It opens at a performance of Hamlet. Rebecca is playing Ophelia and Seth is watching, drinking in her performance, a connoisseur.

Interspersed with the prose is the text of police interviews. The reader knows early on that something is amiss, but what exactly this is requires a slow reveal.

Rebecca is invited to join Seth’s Friday Folly, an existing set of disparate individuals who, at some point in their lives, harboured dreams of artistic accomplishment. They meet fortnightly in Seth’s opulent home. Each gathering is assigned a theme and the players are required to perform. Seth exercises control, pushing beyond comfort zones and forcing each to reveal aspects of their history or character along the way.

The group become friends but how well do they really know each other? Seth is a master manipulator. He takes the natural, human desire to be accepted and admired and uses it, sometimes cruelly. He teases and flirts, encouraging and then rejecting. The friends struggle with their growing need for this damaging stimulation.

“they torture and depend on each other in equal measure”

As the tension in the group mounts towards the chilling denouement the destruction Seth is wreaking becomes tangible.

“She knew she needed to let him go […] as if he were a butterfly between her hands, as if she had caught him rather than the other way round. A more accurate term for what she needed was exorcism.”

Seth offers extremes of pleasure and then pain. As the group try to work out what he is, and why he acts as he does, they uncover terrible truths. Some struggle to comprehend that their valued bond with this man could be an illusion.

The story is a stunning display of artistry. There are layers of potential meaning alongside each allusion. It is clever and intoxicating, dangerous and gratifying with an ending that leaves the reader shaken and sated. I cannot recommend it enough.

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