Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne, offers the varied voices of second generation, working class immigrants during a few days of enhanced racial tension in our capital city. An angry young ‘black boy’, calling himself ‘the hand of Allah’, has murdered a soldier on a street in daylight and then publicly desecrated the body. Far right troublemakers intent on blaming all people of colour for the country’s ills react by inciting further hate filled violence. This then spills into the streets of an enclave of north west London.

Around the tower blocks of a Neasdon housing estate a group of teenage friends, raised under a mix of creeds, are seeking ways to carve a future for themselves. Life in the mixed community is hard with options further limited by family circumstances. The boys come together to play football, chat about girls and listen to music. They rarely talk about the detail of what is going on inside their homes and heads.

Selvon lives with his mother and ailing father off the estate. He is accepted as he regularly hangs out there with his friends. Focused on his training – regular runs and visits to the gym – he is biding his time before escaping to university. His father, Nelson, came to London from the Caribbean in the late 1950s. Nelson taught his son to be disciplined, to focus on self-direction and not get swayed by the wrong crowd.

Ardan lives with his mother, Caroline, who was sent to London by her family in Belfast when she was seventeen. Ardan focuses on his music, Grime, recording creations but keeping them to himself. Caroline fights her own demons, drowning them in drink.

Yusof also lives with his mother but their family is more recently troubled. His father was Imam at the local mosque before he died in a car accident. His brother, Irfan, has since brought shame down on the family. The new Imam has radical ideas and was granted power over the boys by their grieving mother. This Imam and his ardent followers, including former schoolboy bullies, are determined to rein Yusof and Irfan in.

The story is written over just a few days and focuses on the male population. I found the supporting roles granted the women unsatisfactory – where was their strength of character and influence? Given the power of the narrative this remains a minor irritation.

The young residents of the multicultural area are portrayed going about their lives. These are shadowed by circumstances not of their making – they deal as best they can with the world they have been given. When hate filled actions encroach there is fear and anger, a powerlessness in the face of demands from a fracturing community often at odds with personal desires.

The writing adopts a local vernacular that took some time to engage with. It is not difficult to read but I am still unsure what some phrases mean – how does one ‘Kiss my teeth’? Selvon has a sexual encounter with a girl he meets on the estate which was unpleasant to read. What comes across though are lives that are beyond my experience. The portrayal appears searingly authentic.

Having recently read The Study Circle I could empathise to a degree with the Muslim strand of the story. Caroline’s background was familiar. In offering three young friends, raised in the same place but by parents from differing backgrounds, the challenges of lazy attitudes to skin colour and poverty can be explored and contrasted. We need more voices like this in our literature if we are to to better understand the weight of limitations imposed on those raised in such communities. There may be a few who get away but what of those who remain?

This is a dark tale posing questions not easily answered but which, for the good of all, need to be more widely considered. A well structured and captivating read.

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Book Review: Take Nothing With You

Take Nothing With You, by Patrick Gale, tells the story of a teenage boy growing up in Weston-super-Mare, England. Eustace lives with his parents in a large property they run as an old people’s home, those in their care including two of Eustace’s grandparents. As an only child who does not enjoy sport he feels a misfit amongst his peers at school. He has one good friend, Vernon, whose home life is also unusual. Vernon finds solace in books. Eustace discovers his passion is music. Many of the characters introduced are artists of various disciplines.

The boys attend a fee paying school despite the fact Eustace’s family are not particularly wealthy. As Eustace approaches puberty he realises that he is attracted to boys more than girls.

The story begins with Eustace in his fifties, now comfortably off and living in London but facing a health scare. The narrative moves between this time frame and his adolescence.

A great deal of detail is provided of a teenage boy discovering and exploring his sexuality. It is, quite literally, a messy business. To counter this there is the beauty of the classical music. Some knowledge and interest in making music may help in enjoying the tale.

The author writes skilfully and the story flows. It was not, however, appealing enough for me. The plot arc was of interest but not the unremitting detail provided of sexual encounters and also musical technique. While wanting to know the outcome of the various crises introduced – including around parents, their problems with themselves and what their offspring were becoming – there were sections of description I would have preferred not to have had to wade through in order to find out what happened next.

I enjoyed the author’s previous book. This one did not engage.

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

Book Review: Strangers With The Same Dream

“I did my best. I came up short. Can any of you claim otherwise?”

Strangers With The Same Dream, by Alison Pick, is set in 1921 when the first kibbutzim were being established on land that would one day form a part of Israel. The tale provides some understanding of why the pioneering Jews felt entitled to settle in Palestine. It acknowledges the righteous anger their actions ignited among those they displaced, whose families had lived there for generations.

The story is told from three points of view.

Ida is a young Russian fleeing persecution following her father’s brutal murder, whose mother was assaulted by the perpetrators and thereafter encouraged her daughter to go ahead of her and her younger child to help found a homeland where Jews could live safely and feel they belong.

David is the de facto leader of the new kibbutz who, a decade previously, was among pioneers founding another community. He was required to leave following the death of a young girl.

Hannah is David’s wife and has to live with the anguish of collective decisions made in the name of expediency and equality, which rob women of autonomy over their bodies and offspring.

In coming to this story I bring decades old memories of a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz during which I worked in the younger children’s accommodation block. As a non Jew I have always struggled to understand why, over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted. If my reading of this book is correct it is, to some extent, because they believe they are God’s chosen people and therefore have rights above other races and religions. They appear to regard Jewishness as their nation more than where they reside, wishing to breed only amongst themselves and preserve the ancient bloodline they believe goes back to biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah. They seek peaceful acceptance, to be allowed to contribute and function within society, but choose not to fully assimilate. They are not, of course, the only cultural entity seeking to hold themselves apart. And yet, exclusion fuels resentment.

The story opens with a narrator, a ghost, informing the reader that they did not commit suicide as those left behind were led to understand. This Being wishes the truth to be known claiming their honour is at stake.

Part One is Ida’s story. We are introduced to her in the straggly line of new settlers, mainly male and from Russia or Germany, as they wind their way through the Palestinian mountains. They reach the swampy lands where their new kibbutz is to be founded. They are challenged by the resident Arabs. The supplies the Jews carry includes barbed wire. Within the collective, workers may be regarded as equal but there will be a need to protect the land they are taking from those who many look down on with disdain, and also fear.

David tells the new settlers that they must surrender their possessions, that all will be shared and used according to need. This first test of the Utopian ideal lays bare the contamination of human desire and possessiveness. Ida has brought with her valuable candlesticks, heirlooms entrusted to her by her now longed for mother. Ida knows that if she surrenders them they will be sold to raise necessary funds. Jewish customs on high days make use of many revered objects yet the kibbutz ethos demands a relinquishing of personal assets and desires, for the common good.

In tableaus through the turning of the seasons the reader is offered glimpses of the challenges faced by the idealistic young people as they drain and clear the land for ploughing and planting whilst going hungry and sleeping in tents. Ida falls in love with Levi who becomes sick. Her early decisions come back to haunt her, and wreak wider damage she could not have foreseen.

From time to time further groups of settlers arrive. They are swarmed not for the skills and effort they offer the collective but for the effects they carry and must submit to be shared. There are resentments as talents do not receive the wider recognition they may achieve elsewhere. There are power plays at work as secrets are used as leverage.

Part Two is David’s story and was the most challenging to read as he is an intensely self-centred character. We learn why he had to leave the kibbutz he helped to found, and then how the events recounted in Ida’s tale are viewed through his eyes. David is the embodiment of the weaknesses of many men: lust, ego, a need for attention and laudation.

“All a boy wanted from his mother was comfort, and to be the centre of her universe. It was this they were trying to get back to their whole lives.”

There is an undercurrent of discontent, disagreements over how best to achieve the ideals for which the settlers strive, and what these may mean for the individual.

David talks of equality and freedom yet seeks out only the beautiful women. He regards them as existing for his gratification, including somewhat disturbingly his daughter, Ruth. Although he becomes irritated by the child’s demands he muses that he is pleased she is a girl rather than a boy. He quashes thoughts of his ineptitude as a leader and fears being eclipsed.

The third and final part tells the same story from Hannah’s point of view. By now we know that she has had to live through heartache due to David’s actions but not yet the extent of his betrayal and its terrible consequences. In such closed communities secrets will not stay buried. They bubble to the surface, expelled in part due to guilt and mistaken belief that others grant them the same attention and importance as the bearer.

The structure of the story is a familiar device jarred slightly by the occasional interjections from the ghost narrator. It is a compelling tale to read but not one that is entirely satisfying. David is almost too stereotypically unlikable (“It was not love, it was appetite.”) and there are many limited snapshots of characters whose roles then peter out.

What is offered though is an understanding of how the kibbutzim were created: the hardships endured by the founders in their quest for a homeland, how the land was taken. Having lived in one, albeit briefly and as an outsider, it would appear the discontents I observed in the 1980s existed from what was reminisced about, particularly by the more elderly kibbutzniks, as the exemplary beginning. As a fictionalised history of the region this makes for interesting reading.

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

Book Review: The Story Keeper

The Story Keeper, by Anna Mazzola, is set on the Isle of Skye in 1857. This setting is key. The Highland Clearances of the time were forcing many to emigrate, robbing the indigenous families of their tenancies, livelihoods and culture. The mass displacement and suffering inflicted created an undercurrent of bitterness against distant landowners, the legacy of which is still felt by many today.

Into this simmering tumult of wealth driven cruelty arrives a young woman, Audrey Hart, who wishes to take up an advertised position as assistant to a lady folklorist, Charlotte Buchanon, the sister of a local laird. The Buchanon’s are disliked for their vicious treatment of the tenants they disdain.

“these people have limited intelligence. How else do you account for the continuing belief in the mystical and for their failure to improve their living standards? They are culturally, and in every other sense, backward.”

“They have no urge to self-improvement, none of what we might call enterprise. They would live in their squalid little huts raking over their famished earth until there is no life left in the land whatsoever.”

Audrey has grown up with a fascination for mystical stories, folklore passed on from her late mother. Audrey remembers happy family holidays on Skye but also a great sadness as it was here that her mother fell to her death. Following this tragedy her father remarried and relocated to London, placing his family within a rarefied society that has always felt alien to his daughter. In trying to push her to find suitable pursuits for an unmarried lady, after she failed to secure a husband, he placed her in what became an untenable situation. Unwilling to accept her version of events he drove her to desperate measures. Audrey seeks independence, a challenge in the societal structures of the day.

Following an accident Miss Buchanon is confined to her family’s decaying mansion so requires an assistant to travel the local crofts for her collecting tenants’ stories before they are lost forever. As an outsider Audrey struggles to gain the trust of the people until she finds the body of a young girl washed up on the shore below her room in the mansion where she is staying. She is invited to attend a ceilidh, but for their hospitality the people ask something in return.

Audrey befriends one of the Buchanon’s servants and is permitted to take the girl along to assist in her story collection. The more dark tales she hears the further she is drawn into their portents and fearful superstitions. When more girls go missing, accompanied by flights of dark bird-like creatures, Audrey starts to sicken. Unable to return to London, from whence threats are emanating, she pushes on with the tasks Miss Buchanon impatiently sets.

Audrey’s preconceived notions and susceptibility to suggestion causes her to miss clues plain to the reader. This does not, however, detract from the enjoyment of a tale that has layers and depth. Apparent weaknesses in her come to be explained. A lucky escape demonstrates the extent of the risks women ran when they tried to be heard by men. It is sobering to reflect on the patriarchical power and complicity, the ease with which they dismissed any view that did not bolster their privilege.

The local minister frowns on Miss Buchanon’s endeavours believing such notions should be replaced by adherence to the beliefs he preaches. The laird expresses his view that folklore is harmless, although could be made more useful by reshaping to impart a moral lesson. These men retain control by whatever means necessary – of family, locals, foreigners in lands invaded.

“Audrey imitated a smile. Of course women should not be exposed to such things. Their delicate constitutions could not withstand it. Except that she had already read of the Cawnpore massacre. Women and children butchered; bloody handprints on walls; the dying thrown into a well. The darkest fairy tale of all.”

The denouement held few surprises, other than the final twist which I had not guessed. The insidious danger Audrey faced offers a better understanding of why women could not risk complaining too loudly about their treatment.

The folk tales offer a chilling backdrop alongside the lessons from history that resonate in the political climate of today. A story of mystery and suspense that I enjoyed for the place and period insights.

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

Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

Book Review: The Immortalists

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin, tells the story of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller and are told the dates of their deaths. Although dismissing the predictions as nonsense, knowledge, once planted, cannot be forgotten. Each of the children goes on to live their lives with the possibility that what has been revealed to them could come true.

The novel follows the siblings individually as their death dates approach. The youngest, Simon, is predicted to die first. Wishing to make the most of the few years he has left he runs away from home, to San Francisco, aided by his sister, Klara.  Granted the hitherto unknown freedom to act as he wishes without censure, Simon embarks on a hedonistic lifestyle. Appalled and hurt by her favourite’s unwillingness to bow to her will, his newly widowed mother disowns him as do the elder two siblings, an action they will come to regret. Guilt over the family’s inability to support choices that do not follow the Jewish family script will shape the survivors’ remaining years.

Klara dreams of being a magician but struggles to break into the profession. She survives by petty thievery, drowning her sorrows and setbacks in alcohol. Eventually she meets Raj and they form a partnership, but now her own death date looms. Unhappy and unsure of her place in life Klara tries to communicate with the dead.

Daniel is the sibling whose trajectory runs closest to that which their mother desires. He is a doctor, married and enjoying material success. As his death date approaches he finds his job security threatened. He is contacted by an FBI agent who is investigating the fortune teller. Daniel blames the woman for his family’s misfortunes. Despite their freedom of choice, each follows the path set.

The eldest sibling, Varya, was predicted to live the longest. In practice this means she must shoulder the heaviest burden of grief and guilt. She has chosen to live a life that revolves around the denial of personal pleasure in an attempt to secure her longevity. When one of her early choices returns to confront her she is forced to recognise the unnecessary limitations she has placed on herself.

Little is told of how the mother copes with the unfolding tragedies. There is reference to parental suffering and the holocaust but it is hard to envisage any mother not being devastated by the deaths of her children, even those who would not tread the paths she had anticipated and prepared them for.

The novel is an interesting exploration of the power of suggestion. The siblings each followed their dreams yet struggled to find happiness on these paths and resented the choices the others made. There was recrimination rather than support and a denial of the prophecy rather than shared discussion. Although well written and structured, with an original premise, I found the gloomy outcomes neither enjoyable nor satisfying to read.

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

Book Review: Gather the Daughters

Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed, is a dystopian novel that rings all too possible in a world ruled by zealous men. Set on an island, the exact time or place never specified, it revolves around a community whose elders, the wanderers, ensure that no knowledge of the world beyond may be shared. Rules are rigidly adhered to, the aims of the founding fathers both cherished and feared. Impropriety is viciously punished by family or, at worst, public shaming.

Within this community the girls are required to submit to their fathers and then husbands, willingly and with grace. They know of no other way to live. Each summer the children are allowed to run free, a break from the rigidity of their community life. For the girls this annual freedom ends as soon as they bleed. Marriage is mandatory once they can conceive.

Each girl may bear a maximum of two healthy children; defectives are not permitted to survive. Once children have borne children the grandparents drink a final draft. Those who can no longer contribute are deemed a burden and join the victims of childbirth or disease, becoming fertiliser on the farms.

The wanderers bring goods from outside, referred to as the wastelands, but no other islanders may leave. They are told stories of fire, plague and desolation to instil loyalty and fear. Few openly question how items that appear wondrous can exist in such a barren land. Those who do ask are ignored, persistence silenced.

The story follows a group of girls who dream of changing how they must live. Such a lack of willing submission will not be tolerated by the men who benefit.

Vanessa Adams knows that she is nearing her first bleed. She is fond of her father despite what he does with her, what every daughter must submit to. Mr Adams is a wanderer, proud of his status and the good house where his family reside. He permits Vanessa to read the books he has collected from the wastelands and commends her intelligence. She is eager to know more of the world beyond their island but cannot pierce the veil of secrecy that enables this way of life.

Amanda Balthazar is married to Andrew and expecting their first child. Desperate to get away from her father she had looked forward to this stage in her life. When she is told that the child growing in her belly is a girl a sense of dread descends from which she struggles to emerge. The idea of a beloved daughter having to submit to a father, which her kind-hearted Andrew will soon become, is more than she can bear.

Janey Solomon is older than the other unmarried girls but has starved herself to prevent the bleeding. She does her best to protect her younger sister, Mary, but despairs that she cannot keep her safe forever. It is Janey who arranges an illegal gathering, getting the island girls together in an attempt to make them question the truth of all they have been told to keep them compliant. She suggests that another way is possible and perhaps exists elsewhere.

These three girls set in motion events that will shake the community to its core. The hopelessness of their situation resonates, the sickening righteousness of the men as they guard their all-powerful positions evocative of many religions.

The writing is taut and engaging even though the content is deeply disturbing. I had no idea how these girls’ stories would end, and I needed to know.

A powerful, dark tale of the powerless attempting to assert themselves; a warning to women everywhere of the compliance some men still crave. Although challenging this tale is unreservedly compelling. The issues raised linger beyond the final page.

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