Book Review: Spanish Crossings

Spanish Crossings, by John Simmons, is set mainly in London in the years around the Second World War. Its protagonist is an unassuming young woman, Lorna Starling, who has left behind her quiet upbringing in Kent to live independently in the city. She is well respected by her colleagues at the lawyers office where she works. In her free time she is an active supporter of socialist causes.

After a short prologue the story opens in the spring of 1937 when Lorna attends a meeting at the home of Diana Seymour. Diana’s wealth and connections intimidate the young secretary but she soon finds herself trying to emulate the older woman’s confidence and style. At the meeting Lorna encounters Harry James who is recently returned from Spain where he had fought Franco’s forces with the International Brigade. After a night of passion he returns to this battlefield leaving Lorna bereft at the loss of her first, brief love.

Wishing to do her bit for the cause, Lorna has signed up to ‘adopt’ a child refugee, one of four thousand shipped from Spain by the Basque Children’s Committee. At Diana’s behest, the firm Lorna works for are to provide the committee with legal services pro bono and Lorna will be their representative at meetings. Diana and Lorna visit the camp where the children are being processed before being dispersed to colonies around the country. Lorna is introduced to the child she will ‘adopt’, a fifteen year old boy named Pepe whose age and grasp of the English language has made him something of a leader amongst the children.

Pepe is moved to a house in London where Lorna visits him regularly. With Franco gaining control in Spain, and the prospect of war with Germany increasing, the boy grows restless. Lorna understands Pepe’s discontent but cautions him to remain within the law that he may avoid being sent back to a Spain that is now killing its dissidents with impunity.

The timeline moves to 1943. Lorna has taken an active role during the war years, volunteering as a watcher for the ARP. She lives behind boarded up windows but appears largely content with her solitary existence. Her chief regret is that the life she had dreamed she could have had with Harry was taken from her. All this changes when Pepe reappears, declaring his love. Despite recognising their significant differences in core values, Lorna is tempted by the prospects this offers. She encourages Pepe to sign up to fight, thereby gaining his British citizenship.

By 1947 Lorna is settled in a comfortable council flat, raising a child but feeling frustrated at the limitations this has placed on her developing career. Although pleased by the social progress being made by the Labour Party she no longer feels that she is contributing as she once did. Her fear is that she will become like her parents who she has long regarded as insipid in their desire for quiet compliance with societal expectations. She contacts an old lover, risking the life she has built for reasons hard to justify. The guilt this elicits drives her to comply with a plan that she appears blind to.

Much of the book is written in measured yet evocative prose. It offers a picture of the difficulties faced by a young woman raised to be reticent yet determined to break away from such restrictions and stand up for herself. As she ages she changes, and she resents that this is happening. Her desire to be more like the self she aspires to plays out in the final section of the book where the pace changes to one of increasing tension.

I wondered at the continued obsession with Harry James who Lorna was with for just one night. Perhaps it is another case of curated memory, a comfort blanket she carried. Later in the book Lorna makes a return visit to Highgate where “She had enjoyed living […] ten years earlier”. She nurtures this thought, apparently forgetting that she had left because the flat she now views with nostalgia had become tarnished. It was earlier described as “not home, it was simply where she lived”.

There are a great many subjects explored within the pages of this book, many only briefly touched upon but nevertheless impacting Lorna’s life and those who influenced her. The Spanish Civil War is not a conflict I know much about so this added interest. The reactions within government to the child refugees is depressingly familiar.

I enjoyed the understated strength of the author’s writing which I first came across in his previous novel, Leaves. His characters are rounded, relatable yet never sepia tinted. Their imperfections enable a greater understanding of the scars created when life is lived.

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

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Book Review: Mother of Darkness

Mother of Darkness, by Venetia Welby, tells the story of a drug addict and his descent into psychosis. The protagonist, Matty Corani, is born into material privilege and emotional distress. His mother died giving birth to him, an event his father, Daniel, struggled to cope with. Daniel worked for the Foreign Office, accepting postings around the world. Sent to boarding school aged seven, Matty nurses a jealousy of his younger brother, Ben, who he believes his father favoured. Under the influence of alcohol, Daniel had spoken cruelly of Matty’s failures. Matty believes his father blamed him for his mother’s death.

The story opens in Soho where Matty is living in a bedsit having sold the luxury family flat near Marble Arch. His current lifestyle revolves around drugs supplied by a man he regards as his best friend, Fix. Reeling from the loss of his girlfriend, Tera, Matty picks up girls for sex and then sends them away. Meanwhile Ben is in a coma following a car crash. Matty has little sympathy, believing his brother took Tera from him. Ben’s current hospital care is eating into the inheritance Matty considers should rightfully be his.

Aware that Matty is struggling, his stepmother, Katya, persuades him to see a psychotherapist, Dr Sykes. There is mention of an upcoming court case, another part of his life Matty takes drugs to forget. Dr Sykes suggests Matty write down his life story for them to discuss, an attempt to face his personal demons. While not believing she can help him, Matty finds this task constructive. He starts describing himself as a writer, the pages he produces the basis of a book.

The story unfolds from these various strands. There are descriptions of Matty’s days and nights – the gatherings in pubs and at people’s homes where copious amounts of drugs, supplied by Fix, are ingested. Alongside these are the emails Matty sends to Dr Sykes which enable the reader to better understand his backstory. Case notes are included giving Dr Sykes’ opinions on the rambling, often incoherent story she is being sent.

Matty has always been solitary, inventing characters inside his head in an attempt to navigate a world filled with what he considers to be serial rejections by those he has loved. Under the influence of the drugs he takes these manifest and mix with the stories from the philosophers he studied while at university. As his delusions become his reality, Matty’s ability to function is slowly derailed.

Although Katya and Dr Sykes are trying to help neither are aware of just how twisted Matty’s thinking has become. When even Fix starts to pull away the stage is set for crisis, just as the reader gains an understanding of the extent of Matty’s past actions. The denouement is shocking, somehow suitably deranged.

The author succeeds in garnering a degree of sympathy for what is an unlikable protagonist thereby building interest in how he arrived in this situation. When the truth is revealed it is recognisably a tragedy, for just about everyone involved. There is no attempt to moralise although it is a stark warning against degeneracy. There is much to ponder around whether Matty’s descent could have been prevented.

The variety of styles of writing are not always easy to follow but my interest was retained and I had not guessed the pivotal twist in the tale. A reminder that drug addicts have histories even if their behaviours border on the contemptible. This was a sobering, engaging read.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books.

London Bookshops #BookshopDay #BAMB

Today is National Bookshop Day, organised in conjunction with Books Are My Bag, a collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors to celebrate these friendly, knowledgeable  havens and help keep them on our high streets. Bookshops are businesses – we need to use them or lose them.

Last Thursday, due to an event cancellation that came two days after I had booked my transport to London to attend, I travelled up to the capital to spend the day visiting the bookshops I am familiar with thanks to on line bookish friends – what better way to make use of a bus ticket now surplus to requirements. The sun shone as I walked a ten mile circuit enjoying the architecture and revelling in the opportunity to discover for myself why these bookshops regularly appear on my social media feeds.

Arriving in Victoria Coach Station around lunchtime I met up with my daughter and we made our way past Hyde Park and north to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street.

   

Described as a bookshop for travellers, stock is organised by location. My daughter, a fantasy fiction fan, was unable to find an Out Of This World section but they seem to have Planet Earth well covered. The bookshop itself is gorgeous. I was pleased to discover many books from the independent publishers I read.

   

We then headed south to Piccadilly where we visited the UK’s oldest bookshop, Hatchards.

   

This is another gorgeous shop with a warren of rooms to explore over several floors. It proudly proclaims itself bookseller to the Queen. I wonder what she enjoys reading.

Just down the road from Hatchards is the huge flagship store for Waterstones.

This is Europe’s largest bookshop offering over eight miles of shelves. We could have spent a lot longer here than we had time for.

   

From Piccadilly I was left to my own devices for a few hours so headed to Charing Cross Road, a mecca for booklovers, to vist Foyles, the only bookshop visited that I had been to before.

As well as browing the shelves I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the cafe, surrounded by friends.

   

Suitably refreshed I set out on another stretch of my planned route, heading west through Bloomsbury to Persephone Books.

   

This small but perfectly presented bookshop, in a lovely location, fronts a publishing business that:

“reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 122 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

The books are so aesthetically pleasing I wanted to buy a stack just to admire them on my shelves. I can feel a new collector’s seed germinating.

To finish the day I had arranged to meet back with my daughter at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road.

This was the only part of the day that did not meet expectations. The bookshop provides signed first editions, fine quality books that will be future investments. It is not really a bookshop to browse. Having spent more time than was probably necessary ascertaining that there were no further rooms where more ordinary books were displayed I left regretting that I had not done a little more research.

With shops closing their doors for the day I met my daughter at Piccadilly, pleased that I had her company as I waited for the late bus I was booked on. Although not arriving home until the wee small hours, it was a fine way to spend a day.

 

One bookshop I did not visit was the Big Green Bookshop as I will be there next week when I travel up to the capital again for an event I hope will not be cancelled – Not The Booker Live.

 

 

 

Book Review: Five to One

Five to One, by Chris Chalmers, tells the stories of five groups of people whose lives intersect when a helicopter crashes on Clapham Common in London. Due to the moving timelines and number of characters involved it took time to fully engage with the disparate plots. There is humour in the narrative despite the various difficulties the protagonists must navigate. This is a story of individuals and the challenges of living.

The prologue introduces the pilot as he flies east along the path of the Thames. A brief background is offered but little else is revealed. The remainder of the book is divided into five parts. These progress the tales being told of the remaining protagonists, just a few scenes each at a time.

Ian is a middle aged gardener who used to work in the city. Married to Carla, he embarks on an affair with Agnes, a young Polish nanny employed by a client. He tries to convince himself that he is doing nothing wrong for reasons that will become clear. Carla is seeking direction and ends up finding fame, if only for a day.

Glory works in a care home, a job she enjoys, unlike many of her colleagues. She lives with her self-absorbed sister, Mercy, and helps support her young nephew and neice. When one of the elderly residents at Glory’s workplace complains that a stranger is entering her room during the night the often confused old lady’s concerns are dismissed. Glory decides to investigate further, bringing down trouble on herself.

Tony has recently arrived in London from New Zealand. He is on sabbatical from both his job and relationship, neither of which he is convinced he wishes to continue. Asides about his increasing girth drive him to exercise on the common where he meets Shelley, a young woman who tells him she is seeking an opportunity to become pregnant. The encounter plants the seed of an idea in Tony’s head about fatherhood and the direction he now wishes his life to take.

Mari and Adam have also taken extended leave from their safe and sensible jobs. They have travelled to South America where they teach English as a foreign language in between exploring the region, especially the indigenous wildlife which Adam reveres. Their relationship appears solid if unexciting, but the cracks that exist become harder to ignore when marriage is proposed. Neither can be fully satisfied in quite the way the other thinks.

The plotlines and characters are appealing yet their potential is never fully realised. The writing flows but the continuous movement between arcs distracted from the empathy being built. I enjoyed the windows into ordinary lives, the self-inflicted difficulties and awkward attempts to extricate. Whilst the ideas and the writing were resourceful and assured, the story structure didn’t work for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

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

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

Book Review: Western Fringes

Western Fringes, by Amer Anwar, is a crime thriller set within the Asian community of West London. There is a strong sense of place in an area of the city not normally portrayed in popular fiction. It is this which gives the story its edge.

The protagonist is Zaq Khan, recently released from a five year prison sentence, now trying to keep his head down and put his life back together. With his criminal record he struggled to find work so is eager to hold on to his job as delivery driver at a builder’s yard. When his boss, the volatile Mr Brar, needs someone to do a private job for him quickly and discreetly, he threatens Zaq with false accusations of theft in order to bend his employee to his will.

Mr Brar’s daughter, Rita, was to be forced into an arranged marriage so has run away from home. Mr Brar suspects she is with Kasim, a Muslim man her brothers claim she was dating. Such would be the alleged dishonour to Brar’s Sikh family if this became known, he requires Zaq to discover Rita’s whereabouts before the community realise what has happened, that she may be brought back and dealt with in a manner that her father deems appropriate. His strong armed sons, Parm and Raj, are eager to get to their sister first.

Zaq has dubious skills and contacts from prison, and also good friends he can call on for help. The Brar brothers are well known in these circles for their violence, although they are not the only ones keeping an eye on Zaq’s movements. The closer he gets to Rita, the more criminal activity he uncovers. He also finds himself ambushed and beaten on a regular basis, the details of which are graphically described.

The plot is engaging although at times the writing explained more than I felt necessary. The window into a culture I am unfamiliar with was interesting even if it was depicted in a largely negative light. The men seemed intent on gaining the upper hand in every situation through violence and intimidation. The only woman of note appeared to be victims despite their supposed intelligence.

There is tension and intrigue but I was not fully drawn into the tale. I could empathise with Zaq’s predicament but there was what I regard as a bleakness to so many of the lives. This may be a story more appealing to those who gain a vicarious thrill at comeuppance served through fighting. I prefer my princesses to save themselves with bravery and wit rather than relying on the arrival of a sword wielding knight.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

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

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.