Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”

 

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

Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

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

Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

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

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: Sunny and the Hotel Splendid

Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the second book in the author’s series of fiction for children. As in the first book, Sunny and the Ghosts, a key character is a young boy named Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. In this latest book the family go on holiday where they meet Ana who is at the seaside for a week with her mother. They are all staying in the titular hotel where two of Sunny’s friends now live. Sunny’s friends are somewhat unusual as they are ghosts who arrive in his parent’s shop with furniture. The ghosts can only be seen by children so the adults will not believe that they exist.

“‘It’s funny’, she said, ‘how something can be right in front of you and you just don’t see it.'”

Despite its prime location, the Hotel Splendid is not doing well. Guests are disturbed by strange noises and bumps in the night which interrupt their sleep, leading to negative reviews on TripAdvisor. The proprietor is concerned that she may have to close if she cannot find a way to make the business pay.

Ana has always wanted to see a ghost so is delighted when Sunny introduces her to his friends. She suggests that others may choose to stay in a hotel with such residents and suggests they put on a play to highlight their existence. The adults agree to indulge what they regard as a childish fantasy. When word spreads about strange goings on, the ghosts’ settled existence is threatened.

The writing is pitched perfectly at children but the quick witted humour makes this tale enjoyable for every reader. The detailed illustrations scattered throughout the text add to the pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed the ghosts’ reaction when it appeared the hotel really was haunted. Sunny and Ana are fabulous with their calm reactions, particularly to adult disbelief.

A warm and witty story of friendship and acceptance. A plot and protagonists that will fire the imagination of readers whatever their age.

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

Book Review: Lanyards

Lanyards, by Neil Campbell, is the third book in the author’s Manchester Trilogy. I have not read the previous two works, Sky Hooks and Zero Hours, also published by Salt. From what I can quickly glean online, this current story is narrated by a man who could be around the same age as the author. Their background, work experiences and publication history appear similar. The narrator enjoys reading Knausgaard among many other male writers lauded within certain literary circles. I pondered if Lanyards could be a work of autofiction.

Campbell is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School. On their website his biography is as follows.

“Neil Campbell was born in Audenshaw, Manchester in 1973. While working variously as a warehouseman, bookseller and teacher, he had poems and stories published in small press magazines, and edited the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003-2008. In 1999 he completed an MA dissertation on the short stories of Raymond Carver at the University of Manchester, and went on to graduate from MMU’s MA Creative Writing programme in July 2006. His short story collection Broken Doll was published by Salt in March 2007 followed by a second, Pictures from Hopper, 2011, and an e-novella, Sky Hooks, in 2014. He has also had two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary, and a story collection Ekphrasis, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and had a story in the Best British Short Stories 2012.”

Although much of this matches details shared by our protagonist, the narrator expresses disdain for Creative Writing courses – not least because the working class cannot afford them.

“I wanted to read great literature and try to write great literature and the further away I could get from Creative Writing the better.”

The story being told jumps around in time offering snapshots of the narrator’s life. Opening in childhood he describes: the gift of a BMX bike, hanging out with his friends, stealing from sweet shops. He writes of later when he had a job in a warehouse. This work follows a brief football career cut short by injury. Football remains important but as a spectator sport.

The narrator’s friends include local poets who meet up in pubs. Here they offer advice to upcoming writers along with the opportunity to read their work in public. At one spoken word night he meets the woman who will become his wife, an Asian born British woman who opens his eyes to casual racism.

The bones of the book are the jobs the narrator must accept to earn a living. The agency he signs up with finds him temporary work supporting SEN students and at a call centre – zero hour contracts. Wrapped around this precarious working life are the narrator’s social hours, spent mainly in pubs imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. His partner tries to interest him in theatre but he remains unimpressed, falling asleep during one show he regarded as tedious.

The narrator harbours disdain for many habits of the middle classes while nurturing his personal preferences and grievances. For example, he hankers after the old kind of pubs finding too many are now

“All too clean, somehow, too family friendly.”

The style of writing is conversational, like catching up with an old acquaintance. There are lengthy sections of dialogue interspersed with descriptions of the narrator’s day to day experiences. He recounts: days at work on his various jobs, nights out with friends, outings with his partner, football matches. The reader gains a feel for the life he is living, including his resentments and ambition as a writer.

Despite the interesting style and substance of the prose I did not become emotionally invested in the characters. Travels around Manchester painted a vivid picture of recent changes in the city, with frequent mentions of bypasses and supermarkets, but did not convey if these are more widely regarded as an improvement. At times there are sparks of anger over government policy or as a result of nostalgia. Given the choices the narrator makes I was unclear what it was he expected.

Clearly stated is a desire to emulate the authors he admires alongside derision for writers who hawk their wares on social media. All of this is conveyed within a commonplace existence where jobs are offered and lost with little regard for the worker – sadly, it has always been thus.

And yet, there is something within the tale that burrows into the mind of the reader – a spark of malcontent that demands attention. Within the ordinary life portrayed is a vibrancy, an insistence that good writing is worth pursuing. As readers we can be thankful that such attitudes persist amongst those whose voices should be heard.

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

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

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

Book Review: Melting Point

To be clear from the outset, I didn’t get on with the style of writing in this short story collection. It is published by the mighty Salt Publishing so I started with high expectations. The stories are varied and eclectic. There are fine ideas yet I struggled with their execution. I will try to explain.

The opening tale, Crime and Bread, initially struck me as quirky. Imagery is a key feature as the reader is introduced to the protagonist, a female, who states

“But life only makes sense to me when I’m burning the candle at both ends, I can’t stand that dullness, when things go stale, I can’t stand that grey area. I need sequins, raisins, spices from Morocco, French wines. What would they say if they saw me tail-spinning out of control, intravenous needles hanging from me”

So, she is looking for adventure.

She shares her dreams, then a story she is reading that she phones a friend to discuss. She sees a poster in a window that she wishes to own. Rather than purchase it, something not beyond her means, she plans to steal. The narrative follows her thoughts, actions and their consequences. The language is rich and sensuous. The reader is left to make what they will of a nebulous denouement.

I moved on to the second offering, The Watery Gowns, which explores the transformative power of confronting personal fears. The protagonist, a female, is staying in a Greek villa offered to her for a few days by parents of a friend. She goes diving with locals. She borrows their little boat to get closer to the rusting remains of a shipwrecked freighter. Again, the language is rich in description and imagery. The female’s emotions are heightened by every experience.

In Erasing the Waves the language becomes more crude in places. Two men meet after many years. They had been good friends at university. One is professionally successful while the other is frustrated by the anxiety caused by  their less than successful freelance career. Conversation veers in a variety directions.

“He said nothing. For the first time I had a fear of the evening going wrong or ending in recrimination or tension, which was not what I wanted.”

This story has sections of extended dialogue, as do others in the collection. These felt stilted.

The next tale, Island, is clever, mind-bending even, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The men, with their sexual preoccupations, are stereotypes. The women’s bodies are described in detail. I grew bored at the party attended due to the characters’ shallow behaviour.

“I have a rather pessimistic view of the world at the moment. People eat shit, they watch and listen to shit and, above all, they talk shit. The average person is so stupid they probably wouldn’t be able to define what stupidity means.”

There is a futuristic element that is well done but then fell flat, perhaps deliberately. I was disappointed that a section I enjoyed was included for a valid reason but not pursued.

The variation in writing style affected flow and engagement – a disjointed narrative that even the rich language couldn’t compensate.

The Mosque of Córdoba offers beauty, calm and peace juxtaposed with hatred, murder and horror.

“What things had to happen to a man, what disfigurement had to take place for him to be willing to have his limbs scattered, for him to be willing to massacre and maim others? What false and grotesque heaven had been promised to him, had been sold to him […] for him to be willing to swear everlasting allegiance to a god synonymous with evil, hatred and murder?”

The author is presenting interesting and timely points but plot development stutters. Characters are shoe-horned in for effect.

The Chimera is another example of an interesting idea – again futuristic – spoiled for me by a sexual thread that felt unnecessary.

The Rich and the Slaughtered is an example of a real world problem being explored but in a structure I couldn’t engage with. Set in London’s RAC Club, a dinner is being recounted. It presents the self-entitlement of the privileged.

“The moment seemed to be indicating that all was as it should be once again and that the skeleton of social injustice had been shoved back once more where it belonged – in the cupboard marked Irrelevant.”

The themes are worthy but the fractured telling doesn’t quite come together.

The Meltdown takes a playful stab at modern architecture, and offers up an extreme case of a clash of musical tastes. The protagonist is a village schoolmaster with an interest in world cultures and history. He cannot understand those who are content.

“Would Marjorie Bowles, the local pharmacist, one day realise that life was not merely waking and working and supper and television, that another music played somewhere”

By now I realised that each of the stories in the collection offered not just one plot or one theme – that the frequent changes in direction were deliberate. This didn’t work for me as a reader.

I didn’t enjoy The Balls which felt predictable and, again, presented man driven by sex, and woman as an object to be attained and then owned. The characters lacked nuance and depth.

The Visitation has fishermen pondering on what could be living beneath their vessels after a grotesque creature is swept ashore. These men have accepted the horrors they live alongside, gossiping inanely of such things as a twelve year old relative who is pregnant. They fear the consequences of the natural more than the man made.

Alba introduces yet another beautiful young woman, as if love can only be offered to the aesthetically pleasing. She muses

“Sometimes I think you are in love with a sense of me as someone else, sometimes I think you don’t know me at all”

According to the metaphors employed, men only value what they can have sex with and looks are key. A ‘bovine woman’ is described as reading an ‘airport novel’ – terms employed as derogatory.

Again, in The Fever

“She was on the wrong side of forty, with depleted features and a beaten-up body, but not unattractive, not without a certain 3am allure”

I wondered if this tale, an American road trip, was intended as a pastiche.

The final story in the collection also jumped between plot threads, stilted dialogue and vivid imagery. Two sisters are travelling together in Sri Lanka. The horror of an evening changes their life view.

Aware that I am sensitive to what I regard as unnecessary sexual description, that I prefer my fiction to be character driven, this collection may simply not have been targeted at me. I won’t be retaining it for rereading.

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

Book Review: The South Westerlies

“the land was in her blood”

The South Westerlies, by Jane Fraser, is a collection of eighteen short stories mostly set in and around the Gower area of South Wales. The land is depicted as windswept and often damp. Family roots run deep although some branches long for an escape.

Each tale stands alone yet there are suggestions that the cast of characters interweaves. Many in the community have familiar names. Places feature in numerous tales.

The farming families have tended the land for generations. Young men who take on their father’s farms look for wives who, like their mothers, will have dinner on the table at a set time whilst raising sons to ensure a continuum.

“Gower born and Gower bred
Strong of arm and good in bed”

The farmers’ teenage daughters accept as husbands the sons of neighbouring farmers – those suggested by their parents. They feel complimented when described as “good breeding stock”. They consider with satisfaction the agricultural acres joined by such marriages. Later in life these women ponder their lot. Stories included tell of widows who do not mourn the loss of husbands who demanded that they “put up and shut up”.

Other stories introduce young people who left the area to build lives elsewhere. They return to visit embittered parents, still critical of the strengths shown that enabled their offspring’s escape. School friends who stayed – met up with again after many years – conjure memories and thoughts of what might have been. Severing from a root may not eradicate it.

There is much grief in the tales: longed for children who were never born; children lost young whose shadows forever weaken sunbeams of happiness.

Within families there is blame and resentment. Men try to control wifely behaviour. Parents complain of their grown children’s choices and distance. Friends ponder what they have missed by letting time drift.

In Look What the Wind’s Blown In a young couple try to help an increasingly infirm elderly parent. The old man wants his daughter-in-law to look after him as his wife once did. When more practical alternatives are offered there is an impasse.

In Search of the Perfect Wave introduces a surfer’s consuming need to chase the perfect wave. In this and other stories, unhappiness exists when a character cannot find the strength to insist that their needs are considered. Desires are individual and rarely transferable.

This is the Boat that Dad Built is a moving account of a family man who tries his best and, for one summer, succeeds. It offers a reminder that happiness is hard to bestow without willing acceptance from a recipient. Individuals cannot be all things to all people.

The stories are often bleak yet the sense of place evoked is one of dark beauty and an innate affinity. The writing is polished but also affecting with each story harbouring nuance and depth. This is a recommended read.

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