Book Review: Common Ground

“That was the thing about other people. You owed them a particular version of yourself. You had to make them laugh, or feel safe, or whatever else they expected of you. You had to seem like you had the whole thing under control.”

Common Ground, By Naomi Ishiguro, is a story of tribes and the difficulties in forging friendships that cross cultural divides. It focuses on two young men who first meet when they are teenagers. Stan is thirteen and is being bullied by peers at the posh new school where he is a scholarship pupil, standing out in his ill-fitting secondhand uniform. He is socially awkward and still grieving for his father who died a protracted death that still shadows Helen, Stan’s mother, creating distance between them. When Stan meets Charlie, a slightly older boy from a local community of Travellers, he finally finds a friend he can admire and connect with. Charlie has also lost his dad, although in less tragic circumstances. The absence of these adults has unmoored their offspring.

Stan and Charlie hang out on the local common, riding their bikes and shooting the breeze. When Charlie invites Stan back to his home for a traditional celebration it becomes clear that non-travelling folk – Gorjers – are unwelcome there. Stan would like to get to know Charlie’s cousin, Cindy, better but is warned away. The suspicion and discrimination between those who choose to live differently exists in both directions.

Charlie is particularly ill at ease around his uncle, Martin, the de facto leader of his community. Away from him, the boy has swagger and bravado, coming out with rebellious phrases Stan admires. All the same, Stan keeps his friendship with Charlie a secret from Helen who regards Travellers as troublesome, best avoided. The antics the boys get up to only prove to confirm her prejudices.

The second section of the book is set in London eight years later. Charlie is now married, as was expected and required by his people. Stan works as a journalist while studying for his Masters at UCL. An unlikely coincidence brings them together.

While much of what happened previously is told from Stan’s perspective, the remainder of the story mostly plays out from inside Charlie’s head. He comes across as trying to escape himself, to find a way to deny reality. With each unwise choice he makes there is a building of tension, the approach of impending crisis. Charlie harbours big thoughts as he considers his future, stymied by how unfairly he and his people are treated. His ill considered reactions and inability to articulate what is happening do nothing to change how Travellers are perceived by wider society.

Stan, who has plenty of words and ways to convey them, wants to help his friend. His efforts drive them apart again.

The final section opens up the differences between Travellers and Gorjers to include other tribal divisions. These are skilfully woven in. The author shows how people are drawn to tacitly accept an us/them mentality, be the divisions: intellectual achievement, religion, nationality, small community, or even football teams. The desire to belong, to be accepted and feel wanted, enables leaders to gain followers who rarely question too deeply the consequences of what they are supporting. There is power in a catchy chant, a soundbite, a suggestion that something valued requires defending.

The writing style is less quirky than the author’s short story collection, Escape Routes. This is a straightforwardly told story whose easy reading belies the depth of the subject matter. There is no attempt to sugar coat the depictions of Travellers and those who wish they did not exist. This adds strength to a narrative that may otherwise have come across as lightweight – as a perfectly acceptable 400 pages of fiction but nothing special. By dealing head on with the lasting damage of prejudice while acknowledging the reasons for its prevalence, the bar is raised.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read that opens a window on a community that more usually gains negative comment. No easy answers are suggested, other than the need for both sides to listen and consider the consequences of imposing cultural divisions. I would be interested in hearing a Traveller’s perspective on this tale.

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

Book Review: The Book of Longings

“I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus”

Sue Monk Kidd was inspired to write a novel about the fictional wife of Jesus after reading an article in National Geographic magazine. A newly discovered fragment of ancient manuscript contained a reference in which Jesus spoke of ‘my wife’. It is now thought by scholars that the fragment is a masterful forgery but Monk Kidd’s imagination was ignited. It matters little if a wife existed – although this may have changed the western world’s religious and cultural inheritance. What the author wished to explore was the life and times such a woman would have experienced.

The novel grew out of extensive research. It is written from the point of view of Ana, beginning when she is fourteen years old and about to be betrothed to a much older man in order to further her father’s ambitions. Eighteen year old Jesus is portrayed as fully human, still finding his own way following the death of his father. It is a fascinating premise from which to develop a story.

The first section of the book made me feel sad and angry. Ana is living with her wealthy parents in Sepphoris – a town in the central Galilee region. Unusually for a girl at that time, she has been permitted literacy, learning several languages. She reads and writes extensively much to her mother’s chagrin. On a fateful morning she is dressed to impress and taken to visit a local market where she discovers the plan for her future. Distraught, she makes a fuss – considered disgraceful behaviour – and draws the attention of a young man named Jesus.

Women at the time were chattels – belonging to father, husband or brother. They had few rights and could be traded, discarded, or worse, for misbehaviour. Ana rails against her fate. She is comforted by her disgraced aunt, Yaltha, but neither can change what has been decided. The author evokes well the actions women of this time were required to accept – especially within marriage.

Ana would be regarded as privileged. Her father benefits from his role as advisor to the local tetrarch, Herod Antipas. Nevertheless, the reader is shown how dangerous noncompliance can be when a friend of Ana’s is raped. Even Antipas’s wife has little agency.

The second section of the book is set in Nazareth. Events have enabled Ana to marry Jesus and she enters his household. With his father dead, Jesus and his brothers support their mother, wives, unmarried sisters, and children. Ana must learn to perform daily chores that her parents’ servants would have carried out. There is no money for writing materials.

The marriage is presented as a rare love story but both Jesus and Ana have ambitions – longings. When Ana intervenes to help a friend she puts her life in danger. Although not as emotive as the first section, the story continues apace.

The third section takes Ana and her aunt to Alexandria where they seek shelter with Yaltha’s older brother, Haran. This is an act of desperation but the women require a man’s protection. Haran is wealthy but ruthless with a strong vindictive streak. Ana and Yaltha are well housed but also imprisoned. Ana can write her stories again but misses her beloved husband desperately.

I found this the least compelling section. The author weaves Yaltha’s tale into Ana’s well to enable the years of Jesus’s peripatetic ministry to pass but the pace felt slower than previously.

The final two sections of the book are fairly short and offer a satisfying conclusion. The reader learns of Jesus’s death and what becomes of Ana. This is her story rather than her husband’s but the role he plays is well presented. Being a messiah is all well and good but comes at a cost to his family. In giving Ana drive and her own aspirations, the author makes plausible her acceptance of this. The risks Ana took appeared foolish in places but enabled the various threads being woven to progress.

Monk Kidd succeeds in portraying the difficulties of being female in ancient times. The writing is smooth and each character introduced adds to understanding of options and dangers. Much is covered with varied characters and mostly convincing development. An enjoyable if somewhat lengthy read.

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

Gig Review: Naomi Ishiguro in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Bath for a rather special author event. Naomi Ishiguro was at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – where she used to work as a bookseller – for her inaugural public gig as a published author. It was lovely to observe the warm welcome she received from former colleagues. Friends and family were also in attendance to support what came across as a relaxed and open interview with her former boss, Nic Bottomley. He expressed his pride that one of his booksellers had gone on to create her own shiny book, especially one as good as Escape Routes.

As ever when I write up literary gigs I attend, the following is taken from notes I made on the night. I hope it is of interest.

The nine short stories in this debut collection explore themes of entrapment and flight – escape. After his introduction, Mr B opened by talking about the three tales that feature a rat catcher, asking if these started out as one story or the three included in the book.

Naomi explained that they were from a series she worked on while studying at UEA. She placed her characters in a fairytale world but set herself a rule not to make it too magical (in the real world contemporary settings of the other stories she allowed magical elements). The initial concept was Gormenghasty. A tutor dismissed the stories as full of tropes so they were set aside until a new tutor was more encouraging and suggested they were worth revisiting.

Naomi likes to try different voices and to test herself in order to develop as a writer. Her stories grow organically.

She started writing while working at Mr B’s. Having been raised in London the move to Bath felt like an escape, although she required some re-education. The first time she was in a wood and heard an owl she was unaware it was a natural sound.

Naomi regards each story as a song. It captures a moment and endings don’t need to be entirely settled.

Mr B asked if the book, then, was an album, and how the order of the tales was decided.

Naomi explained that she had heard that George Saunders prints his stories onto paper and then physically moves them around to find an order he believes works. Naomi liked this and her stories were shuffled during the editing process.

Mr B asked if she could introduce some of her stories, as she would have done for a customer on a Reading Spa.

The first story in the collection is titled Wizards. It is about a boy and a bogus magician who meet on a beach. The boy is looking forward to receiving his Hogwarts letter, although this is not specifically mentioned. The magician is trapped by his anxieties, especially his father’s voice in his head.

Mr B asked if Naomi had expected such a letter, if it was something her generation had hoped for.

Naomi admitted that the Harry Potter books had seemed so real to her, the ordinariness of Privet Drive, that at some level she had hoped to receive her letter.

She disagreed with Mr B that the ending of Wizards was ambiguous. She likes it when she is writing a story and can see the ending as it gives her something to work towards.

Mr B concurred that Gormenghast came to mind when he was reading the collection, and also Patrick de Witt.

Naomi told us that she read a great deal of Victorian fiction growing up, enjoying the Gothic elements. She only started reading more contemporary literature at university. She wrote a dull dissertation for her MA – about characters moving from place to place – to work through the technical aspects of moving between scenes. She much prefers writing voice led stories, listening to people and capturing them in her work. She enjoys writing dialogue and would have liked to write screenplays but could see limited demand so instead adds dialogue to her stories.

There followed a discussion about urban malaise. Naomi spoke of the differences in culture between London and Bath – the pace of living and demands made. Without wishing to idealise she mentioned how much more friendly Bath is and how people appear less busy. She told us the stress in London is insane.

Her story titled Accelerate features a guy who becomes addicted to coffee (which Naomi first drank when she started working at Mr B’s) as it streamlines his efficiency. She enjoyed the idea of taking an effect to its extreme.

Mr B commented that he liked this guy…

Naomi regards office life as a privileged existence although she never wanted it for herself. Friends who are, for example, lawyers are expected to work so many hours.

Mr B observed that many routes put young people on a conveyor belt to an office job resulting in many ending up there when it doesn’t suit them.

He asked if Naomi liked writing from a child’s perspective as quite a few of her characters are children.

The answer was yes as she uses their sheltered world, the wonder of possibilities that haven’t yet turned cynical. Children’s lives are more protected and still in flux. She regards two of the boys she created – Alfie and Jamie – similar in many ways despite their very different circumstances.

Mr B suggested they talk about books. Naomi and he agreed there should be book trolleys on trains and that an idea the bookshop once had – to offer recommendations to customers who sent photographs to Mr B’s of books for sale at airports – had potential. If she were still a bookseller, what books would she now recommend to customers?

Becky Chambers. Julia Darling; Pearl contains beautiful writing – humour, warmth, quirky characters who are doing their best.

Mr B asked if her family connections helped on her road to publication or if there were still surprises.

Naomi didn’t recall talking to her parents about this. She learnt about getting an agent and so on while doing her Masters at UEA. Having said that, she told us it is all a bit surprising. Skype interviews, talking at events, it can all seem a bit odd at times. In any other social interaction she wouldn’t constantly be talking in this way about herself and her work.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Naomi’s boyfriend kicked off, mentioning that she didn’t talk about her story, Bear, and asking how she inhabited the head of a middle aged man.

Naomi explained that writing is empathy and it happens naturally – a voice enters her head. It is a way to live lots of lives. She joked that the man could be based on her university supervisor.

Question: Which authors inhabited your head growing up? (ed. during this long list my pen ran out of ink – gah – but I include as many here as I could write down when I grabbed a replacement)

Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Gormenghast, Patrick de Witt, loads of science fiction and fantasy, geeky voices.

Question: You hear characters’ voices. Are these discrete or a part of you?

Definitely a part. It is nice to express different sides of my self. I can manifest in many different ways – thinking, what if I was this – and write.

Question: Were any characters, traits or moments from real life or were they all in your head?

Amanda Palmer has talked about an art blender. She says that her husband, Neil Gaiman, has his on a high setting. So yes, all things I’m thinking about are mixed in an art blender.

Mr B asked how Naomi felt when she got a quote from Neil Gaiman endorsing her book.

This came from a tweet he posted while reading Escape Routes that Naomi’s publisher subsequently asked if they could use. It felt amazing. A huge moment to have someone admired so much read her work and say they enjoyed it.

Mr B commented on how great the hardback cover is – such an important aspect for a bookshop.

Naomi explained it was created by her publisher’s in-house artist. She open the book to show both the front and back cover and revealed a bird – perfect for the themes explored, including flight, in the stories.

And with that Mr B raised his glass in congratulation and invited the audience to join Naomi in the bookshop’s Imaginarium where she would be happy to sign copies of her book.

Naomi thanked so many for coming out to see her when most can’t yet have read her book.

A long queue formed and I overheard her proud dad, there in support, saying he too had purchased copies for Naomi to sign.

Many from the audience were to be seen admiring the recently expanded bookshop which has become quite a labyrinth – it is gorgeous. I was pleased to find my name inscribed on the ceiling as a supporter.

And with that I took my leave and headed home. It was a lovely evening.

Escape Routes is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now from all good bookshops, including Mr B’s (click on cover above for the link) 

Book Review: Escape Routes

I was drawn to read Escape Routes when I learned that the author used to be a bookseller at one of my favourite shops in Bath, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. It was only when I read the acknowledgements that I realised she is also the daughter of Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro – quite the pedigree for an aspiring author. I subsequently discovered that, in April of last year, Tinder Press ‘snapped up’ this, her debut short story collection. I am pleased not to have known these facts before I started reading. It is a book that could easily have come from the carefully curated lists of my beloved small indie presses rather than the accountant driven committees of one of the big five publishers (that I suspect can stymie the literary passion of commissioning editors and publicists).

Enough. This eclectic book is so good.

There are nine short stories in the collection although three are one story presented as a trilogy. Titled, The Rat Catcher, this divided tale is set in a kingdom suffering from rodent infestation and associated disease. The new young king has gone into seclusion, abandoning his rundown palace to his half sister. The titular rat catcher is commanded to rid the palace of its vermin. Unbeknownst to him, his work will stoke a family feud with unsettling consequences. The writing is fable like with elements that are dark alongside the playfulness.

The opening tale, Wizards, features a ten year old misfit, Alfie, who is counting down the days to his next birthday when he expects to attain magical powers.

“he realised he loved being on holiday. Perhaps most of all like this, alone, the sea like a magic door or threshold he just had to cross to find another place where the things to be afraid of were clear, monstrous things you could face down with weapons and with shouting and heroic resolution, like magic beasts or evil armies. He would be much more suited to a life like that, he considered, than the one he had been allocated here.”

Alfie is in Brighton with his sad, controlling mother and her out of work partner when the child encounters a man working a beach booth as a fortune teller. Luciano the Diviner, also known as Peter, has ideas of himself as: a dude, a child of the universe, catching rays, drinking in the beauty of a place, living for the moment. Peter’s confidence in his self-styled persona is too often punctured by a voice in his head that reminds him, annoyingly, of his eminently sensible father. Peter’s reaction to Alfie sets of a potentially catastrophic chain of events, for both of them.

Bear is the story of a newly wed couple who buy the titular large, stuffed animal and then find it becomes a metaphor for their marriage. It is a fine evocation of how love can cause individuals to invent the person they want their beloved to be, blinding them to reality and creating lonely resentment.

In a strong field, the prose in Heart Problems impressed. Dan is living in London with his fiancée, Beatrice, but is deeply unsettled.

“it is so uncomfortable, so unpleasant to exist here in this city, only the fittest allowed to survive and all the elderly and children tidied into hospitals, nurseries, and goodness knows where else, conveniently out of sight.”

Without a job, Dan spends his days wandering the streets, talking only briefly each day to a newspaper vendor. His father, back in Ireland, is ill and Dan misses the life he and Beatrice had amongst their mutual friends in Dublin. In trying to articulate how he feels, he dwells on his fear of being unwell. He keeps a suitcase packed with ‘essentials’ and imagines escaping.

“I added a compass, because it’s always useful, I’ve decided, to know where you are in relation to something fixed, even if you’re unsure of where you’re going.”

What keeps him in London is Beatrice, but he is unconvinced this is enough to sustain him.

“Beatrice is one of those individuals who is consciously trying very hard to be a good person. Not that she isn’t naturally a good person. It’s just that she’s always making such an effort at it”

Another favourite story was Shearing Season. Jamie is a ‘strangely gifted eleven-year old’ who wants to be an astronaut but lives on a remote sheep farm in the Lake District. When Miles, a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering, comes to lodge at the farm the boy sees a potential opportunity to ‘break into the space travel industry’. Miles sets Jamie a series of tests. The denouement of this tale is exquisitely rendered.

Accelerate is a fabulous read – layered and nuanced with the added bonus of a scene set on a hill not far from where I live. It gently mocks office work, and unrealistic expectations in relationships where each partner will try to mould the other rather than accepting difference. I wasn’t convinced that the dialogue section fitted (I am reviewing a proof so it is possible this will be changed in the final edit). I adored what the author did with the starling murmuration. The poignant ending was perfect.

The Flat Roof is one of the shorter of the stories and offers less breadth and progression. It is a study of grief, the weight of it, again using avian imagery.

The voices used throughout are original, quirky in places but perfectly fitting the structures employed and character development.

An enjoyable, striking collection with a fine balance of contemporary elements and more mythical themes. This is an author to watch (in her own right) and a recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Carer

The Carer, by Deborah Moggach, is a bittersweet story of two sexagenarian siblings. It presents their personal travails as they navigate the murky waters of remaining independent whilst dealing with a frail elderly parent. Their eighty-five year old father, James, is a retired Professor of Particle Physics. He was married for sixty-four years to the equally intelligent but now dead Anna. Since breaking his hip, James cannot manage the stairs in his cottage so sleeps alone on a single bed at street level. His children, Robert and Phoebe, wish to continue with their own lives unencumbered by their father’s practical needs. They therefore hire a live-in carer to enable him to stay in his own home several hours drive from where they live.

Finding a carer willing to move to a sleepy Cotswold village and give James the attention he requires proves a challenge. After a couple of false starts they find Mandy, an overweight and garrulous fifty-two year old who arrives with impeccable references. The recently morose James is transformed under her care. Gone are the stimulating conversations and intellectual musings. In their place is an interest in village gossip, scratch cards, daytime TV and visits to shopping centres.

Robert and Phoebe retreat feeling both relieved and guilty. Robert is writing a novel in his garden shed in London, avoiding his beautiful and successful wife who goads him about his failures. Phoebe, an artist living in a small Welsh town where every second person harbours artistic tendencies, is indulging in an affair with a local woodsman. Both siblings feel frustrated at the direction their lives have taken, blaming parents they remember from childhood as neglectful.

Mandy berates Robert and Phoebe for still harbouring grudges against their parents. She has little time for such self-pity when they are farming out their father’s care. As her employers, the siblings do not appreciate being spoken to so plainly. Privately they worry that what Mandy is saying may be true.

Story chapters are told from key characters’ points of view. The reader learns the bare bones of the siblings’ backstories, their thwarted desires and concerns. As Robert and Phoebe go through their days, James and Mandy appear to be getting on well. There is, however, a growing suspicion that the affable carer is not trustworthy. Phoebe and Robert prevaricate over whether they are being paranoid or if they should be concerned. And yet, do the family want to lose a carer doing a job they are unwilling to take on themselves?

There is a gentle humour in the writing as key events unfold and threads are spun together. The author captures the pathos of aging, both the elderly James and his no longer young children. It is a nicely structured depiction of some of the challenges and risks inherent when bringing a stranger into intimate contact with a loved one. There are gently mocking observations to lighten any darkness in the tale.

The final third of the book adds an unexpected dimension. It offers an interesting exploration of familial secrets and their impact on relationships.

I found the pace somewhat slow in places but then this is not to be the sort of book I normally read. The topic is timely given our aging population. A complex issue wrapped within a wider, droll tale – easy but not empty entertainment.

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

Book Review: Last Ones Left Alive

Orpen has been raised on the island of Slanbeg, off the west coast of Ireland. She has known only two other people in her life – Mam and Maeve. From reading old papers and listening in on conversations she has gleaned that these two women once lived in Phoenix City but managed to escape. They have instilled in her the knowledge that the mainland holds many dangers. There are the skrake – powerful, crazed, half dead beings who hunt the living and whose bite will turn their victim into one of them. There is hunger because, since the Emergency, the plentiful supplies of foodstuffs people once took for granted are now scarce. And there are men. Neither Mam nor Maeve have explained exactly why but Orpen understands that men are to be feared.

Last Ones Left Alive opens with Orpen taking a bitten Maeve east in the hope of finding Phoenix City. Mam is dead. Orpen brings with her a crate of chickens and her dog, Danger. She has been trained since she was seven years old to tackle the skrake. Nevertheless she is afraid – she has been raised to fear this place. The island was safe but also lonely. She has a deep anger that Mam and Maeve refused to answer her burning questions and now it may be too late. They regarded her as a child to be protected when she felt a need to understand the reasons the world changed.

The Ireland in which this story is set is a dystopian future with many familiar elements. The rules appear to favour the suppression and control of women. The skrake are the stuff of nightmares.

Told from Orpen’s point of view, the timeline jumps between the girl’s past and present difficulties. It could be a coming of age tale. Dig deeper and it is a study of loneliness, trauma, grief, and the power of determination. Orpen feels anger that Phoenix City, a place where other people may live, has never been explained to her. All but alone now in her world, she is afraid it may not exist.

The writing is taut and vivid with a strong sense of place including a lingering Irish vernacular from the young narrator. Encounters throughout add volatility. Alongside the violence is the risk inherent in trusting, and the mental difficulties of solitary living.

At times I questioned the direction of the plot but the denouement provides a satisfying conclusion. Not all questions are answered but plenty is inferred and a circle is completed. This could easily be the start of a series.

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

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.

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.