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

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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.

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.