Saturday, 22 February 2020

Sirens - Joseph Knox

I love a title with a dual meaning, me. I mean you get the obvious meaning here - warning, emergency vehicle, police, kinda siren and then you get the more literary, metaphorical meaning -  the Sirens from Greek mythology, dangerous, luring men to their death by their bewitching singing. And it’s left to the reader which one they wanna go with. I know which one it is for me. This book was published in 2017, a debut novel, apparently. There’s debuts and there’s debuts though and this is one hell of a debut.

But in 2020 let’s create a little context here. I dabble on social media pretty unskilfully and pretty inconsistently. But I chanced upon a tweet in mid January from Joseph Knox celebrating three years as a published author and offering to give books away to readers old and new. I am both, ;)  I am old but I am a new reader. In return  - a review, reader, that’s what I do! I responded to the tweet and less than ten days later I had not one but two beautiful hardback books personally signed by the author. There’s nothing like a signed book to endear me before I’ve even begun to read it! This is a US first edition!

But due to a plethora of deadlines and commitments I’ve only just read Sirens. What a joy though! Tough, gritty, uncompromising, urban noir. Set in Manchester you can hear the Mancunian accents in many of the characters. The personnel are varied and there’s little in the way of stereotyping. Our main man is Aidan Watts, disgraced detective, flawed, so you already like him! Up against it. It’s a contemporary crime tale but it reads like the black and white B movies of the past with a  soundtrack by Joy Division. (Checkout the section headings!) It’s drugs and gangland, it’s politics and corruption. It’s them and us. 

It’s so well plotted, tight and thorough with an accomplished prose style to match. Descriptions of both people and places are salient and palpable. The mood of unease, restrained aggression and the sensation that there’s an eruption about to take place pervades every page.And every so often an eruption does take place.  For a debut novel it’s as an assured a piece of writing as I’ve come across. The depth and flow are impressive. The story is complex and the reader had best pay attention to the many who, when, where’s and whys. Not everyone is who they seem. 

The focus is on Aidan, and my delighted understanding is that this is the first in a series. Well I know it is because I also have a copy of The Smiling Man!  I don’t think it will be long before I acquire a copy of the third book, The Sleepwalker! Aidan gives a depth to the book and I imagine the series because his story offers an extra layer to ‘just’ a crime story. He has a past that smacks of unhappiness, a suggestion that he is in part detached from those around him. Yet he’s a paradox, because he cares. Right matters to him. But he’s no angel. He’s very real. But it’s as if he is wary of anyone getting to know him, getting too close? Another reason I’m keen to start book number 2. 

Right that’s enough. I could continue but I’m wasting valuable time that you could better spend seeking out this book and reading it. If you’re a fan of contemporary crime I doubt you’ll be disappointed. 

My thanks to Joseph for sending me this book and signing it. I love it!

Thursday, 20 February 2020

The Family Tree - Sairish Hussain

Oh wow. After a heart wrenching opening where a young father deals with the death of his wife after childbirth, leaving him a single parent to Saahil and Zahra, the first part of the book settles down into an interesting and evocative portrayal of Muslim life in the UK, pre 9/11. Nothing, though, prepares you for the pivotal and horrendous event that sends the novel down a different path. It elevates the book to a work that certainly offers an insight into Muslim life in Great Britain but goes beyond that to look at issues such as racism, prejudice, revenge and addiction yet the warmth of family, loyalty and friendship is never far from its pages. Stereotypes are exploded and the novel offers food for thought for the discerning reader. 

The pitfall of dealing with some inflammatory, dreadful issues and occurrences is that a book can become hard and unyielding, difficult to read and relate to but this new author has managed to strike a balance that offers the reader a redemptive and sometimes humorous warmth throughout the book allowing us to feel involved and concerned and retaining our humanity.

The dynamic between brother and sister is an absolute delight but in truth the whole family relationships are beautifully depicted. It’s a bold book that doesn’t shy away from dark and challenging issues. Prepare to have your heart pummelled by these people, the different generations, their dignity and integrity remaining intact, their failures acknowledged and repaired though the journeys are long and tortuous for some. You may not emerge dry eyed from this tour de force. 

It’s a substantial volume covering a lot of ground with a sustained prose style that moves at a measured pace offering the necessary detail. The characters are depicted lovingly and even if their actions are questionable we never stop rooting for them and willing everything to work out okay. For me, personally it was an informative read regarding aspects of Muslim life and an opportunity to understand perspectives. 

My thanks to Harper Collins HQ for an advance copy of this book. I am the richer for having read it. 

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Mermaid - Story Time

Found this amongst my scribblings, dated 13th June 1985! That would have been my Mum's 59th birthday! I don't remember writing it on her birthday but clearly I did! I thought I'd type it up and post it here. I wrote it for the kids I was teaching at that time. 

Alex lived by the sea; not the sort of sea you and I might think of - there were no donkey rides, no ice cream kiosks, no sandy beaches - no, Alex lived on the north coast of Scotland, near Strathcarron, where the sea sang of its freedom from seaside sunbathers.

Alex and his family lived in a small, stone cottage on the cliffs where the sea below spoke of its many moods and temperaments.

Alex had no brothers or sisters, just his parents, so he was often lonely. He had a two mile walk to the village school except when the road was rendered impassible by winter snows. When he trudged his solitary way to school he often felt the sea was pushing him on his way.

For the time being though there was no school! Summer holidays. They took so long to arrive yet it seemed to him that they were often over before they had begun. But there was something about this summer that felt different. Alex sensed it in the screeching of the restless gulls, the smell of the sea weed in the salt spray air. What exactly was different his ten year old mind couldn’t quite fathom, he just knew - things were different.

Yet the days took on a leisurely pattern. get up, get washed, get dressed, get fed, get out. Out, onto the cliffs, down to the sea and to explore whatever might come his way. If the tide were out he would meander among the rock pools. If the tide were in he would stick to the cliffs, explore the crevices and rock clusters. 

On this particular day he was finding some amusement from imprisoning a crab in a citadel of rock, shells and seaweed. Alex was not aware of any real cruelty towards the crab, solitude caused him to invent his own pastimes. He was so absorbed watching the poor creature scuttle every which way that he did not notice that he was being watched to begin with. When he was aware of something out of the corner of his eye he looked and thought he was dreaming. He rubbed his eyes, pinched himself then looked again. No dreaming. There, nestled comfortably on a rock was a mermaid! Real, fairy story stuff. Long golden hair, exquisitely beautiful face and from the waist down, bluey green scales and a fish’s tail.

‘Go away,’ said Alex,’I don’t believe in you.’

The mermaid raised her eyebrows but said nothing. 

Alex stood up and turned fully to face her,’You can’t be real. There’s no such things as mermaids. They’re only in books.’

Still she said nothing.

Alex was getting cross,’If this is some kind of joke I don’t think it’s very funny.’

He stepped closer. The silly thing was, she did, actually, look, very real.

‘If you are real,’said Alex,’Then speak to me.’ 

‘Little boy,’ said the mermaid,’in clear tones,’Would you please release that crab.’

Bewildered, Alec looked down at the crab still trying to escape his watery dungeon,’ Why? It’s none of your business.’

“Little boy’,she answered calmly,’all the sea creatures are my business.’

‘First I’ve heard of it,’ retorted Alex, rather rudely.

‘If you do not set the crab free,’ warned the mermaid,’I shall send the sea in.’

‘You couldn’t,’ affirmed Alex confidently.

He wished he hadn’t spoken because almost instantly a playful wave rushed in and splashed his feet. He stubbornly remained silent.

‘Well?’enquired the mermaid patiently.

There was a pause. Alex said nothing and did nothing. Then another much fiercer wave rushed in and soaked Alex from head to toe. Now if there was anything Alex had respect for, it was the sea and its unpredictability. He knew that he did not stick on the beach if the tide was coming in because to be cut off meant trouble. Reluctantly, because he really didn’t want to believe the mermaid had this kind of power, he removed the crab from its confinement. Immediately the sea retreated and was calm again.

‘Thank you,' said the mermaid.’and let that be a lesson.’

With that she disappeared into the mighty depths of the ocean leaving Alex staring in disbelief. It was a solemn boy who retuned thoughtfully to his cottage that afternoon.

Persistent summer rains prevented any beach exploration for the next few days and whilst Alex could not completely forget abut the mermaid he did put her to the back of his mind. He spent hours drawings detailed sketches of sailing ships, barnacled wrecks and galleons loaded with bullion pillaged by pirates. When he could go out again the tide was in so there was nothing left to do but wander the cliffs . Alex was skilful at negotiating the rock faces, there were plenty of footholds if you knew where to look. He descended low to watch the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocks. He notice the nest of a sea bird nearby, abnormally low. Alex wondered what circumstances had caused the birds to nest there so careless of the danger. He edged his way closer, aware the parent birds were screeching angrily  nearby. He saw three eggs in the nest.

‘You must learn not to nest so low, ‘Alex admonished.’It’s very silly. Someone could steal your eggs.’ 

And with that he stretched out an arm and removed all three eggs. Instantly the sea below began to churn and boil. Seething waves lashed against the rocks as if they were trying to reach Alex. He felt the salty spray on his face. For a moment he was mesmerised, transfixed by the fury of the sea as it whipped into a crescendo of frothing white foam and huge breakers. As he looked out into the distance he thought he could see the vague. shadowy form of the mermaid on a distant rock shaking her fist at him. Realisation flooded through him and he put the three eggs back in the nest without hesitation. At once the sea returned to normal. The birds calmed and the female sat back upon her clutch of eggs.

And so it was that Alex discovered that for every thoughtless deed of cruelty he wrought upon the marine life the sea waited in judgement upon him. Thus he learned and all was well. The summer slipped by and Alex learnt to observe the creatures in their dignity and learn from them the rhythm and cycles of life. 

Until one day; the sun rose high in the sky, the tide far out, the sea distantly peaceful. Alex wandered from pool to pool. He gazed up at the sky, content and peaceful as he breathed the salt air.But all of a sudden his foot came into contact with something soft and slippery. Wrong footing him momentarily his whole weight came down upon the soft, slippery something. When he looked down Alex saw that he had unintentionally killed a jellyfish. He was filled with fear for the sea had begun its relentless march towards the shore line. The act had not been deliberate but there was nothing he could do to reverse events.
‘I didn’t meant to!’ he yelled.’It was an accident!’

Such pleas were useless. The sea kept coming. Alex had to turn heel and make his back up the cliffs as fast as safety allowed. Once he reached high ground he ran as fast as he could to the comparative safety of the stone cottage.

All through supper that night his parents made comments about the ferocity of the sea that day and how strange it was since prevailing weather conditions gave no hint of the water’s turmoil. Peculiar, too, was the disturbance in the tide.

Alex listened is silence, increasingly fearful. Could the sea reach his cottage? If it could then they were all in danger. If he, Alex, were to be punished then it hardly seemed fair that his parents should be too. He excused himself from the supper table and sat in his bedroom listening to the contused, angry writhing of the sea. Then he made up his mind.

When the cottage was quiet and locked up for the night. When Alex was assured by the deep even breathing that his parents were asleep. he slipped clothes on over his pyjamas and made his way quietly downstairs. He donned a coat and deftly drew back the well oiled bolts before unlocking the door and stepping out into the night.  

It was a dark night. The ominous clouds obscured any suggestion of a moon. The wind was against Alex as he moved forwards with increasing difficulty down to where the sea churned - ready to greet him - arguing and spitting, its arms open wide.

They found him the next morning, huddled in a small damp cave. Wet through and shivering, white as a sheet but strangely contented. Likewise the sea was calm too. Alex’s mother was crying and could not speak. But his father wrapping his own coat round Alex could only ask in bewilderment. ‘Alex, what were you thinking? Why did you do it?’

“I had to tell the mermaid it wasn’t my fault.’

And that was all he would tell them. 

thecmn -The Little Mermaid
from Flickr

Friday, 14 February 2020

Ship in Fog

Plath’s 1963 poem Sheep in Fog is one of my favourites. In my darker moments it expresses so succinctly exactly how I feel. After Storm Ciara had calmed down a little I walked along the cliff tops and saw - a ship in fog! It resulted in the following. My apologies and my gratitude to Sylvia Plath.

Ship in Fog

The container ship navigates the estuary
In a mist tendrilled shroud.
And I who can barely contain myself
Watch in dolorous silence. 
Trapped in my own fog,
Disappointing and failing.
I watch the ship glide,
Through dark water. 
It  doesn't threaten me. 
It can't see me.
I hold my own mists,
Reality fogged.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Greenwood - Michael Christie

With a blurb that suggested this book might nestle gently into my much enjoyed dystopian fiction genre I was first seduced by the beauty of the cover, with its shimmering green cross section of tree trunk on the front and a human palm on the back. Two images that actually say so much about this wonderful book but the full impact doesn’t hit you until you’ve finished reading. Funny - I’m not normally bothered by covers but somehow I just knew this one was important!

What can you say about a book that has you weeping inconsolably by page 438, limping wet eyed to the end having shared the lives of these diverse people through 130 years of their struggles, physical, and emotional? I’ll try my best for this is one of ‘those’ books. One of ‘those’ books that grabs your heart and soul and fills you up to overflowing with the immensity of all that’s contained within its pages. 

Superficially, a family saga that spans several generations beginning in 1908 through to 2038. But using the tree as a sustained metaphor for life the book explores deeper aspects of what it is to be human. And how, whether we like it or not, place can determine, like fingers of fate, our futures. 
With images that won’t be lost on bibliophiles the relationship between tree and book is also sustained throughout the novel even exploring the idioms of language that have us ‘leafing’ through pages. The genealogical family tree image is subtly perpetuated throughout.

‘What are families other than fictions? Stories told about a particular cluster of people for a particular reason? And like all stories, families are not born, they’re invented, pieced together from love and lies and nothing else. And through these messy means, so too might this poor, destitute child become – for good and for ill - a Greenwood.’ 

Of course where you’ve trees and reverence for trees you have environmental and ecological considerations, so pertinent today.  This author loves trees but more importantly I believe he understands them. Christie lives in Canada where, if you’ve ever visited, you’ll have seen trees, with capital “T”s. 

‘But those are really know trees know they’re also ruthless. They’ve been fighting a war for sunlight and sustenance since before we existed. And they’d gladly crash or poison every single one of us if it gave them any advantage.’  

The book’s structure is clever. I was reminded of Eleanor Catton’s  structuring of The Luminaries where the twelve parts of the novel decreased in length as the book progressed to indicate the passage of the moon though its lunar cycle and also of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with its six interconnected stories. Here the age rings of the tree, 2038, 2008, 1974, 1934 and 1908 are used so that we go backwards and then forwards in time. I thought of ripples in a stream and the water trying to spread out its energy and comparing that image with the rings of growth in the tree trunk that also expand outwards indicating a life energy. 

And the characters ? They jump off the pages at you  - Jake, Willow, Temple, Harris, Everett, both the Liams and Lomax. You care about them. You want so much for them to succeed, to find the answers they’re all looking for, whether it’s confirmation of identity or origin, pain relief - physical and emotional,  or the wider, deeper issues of lives and how they’re lived. They’re as flawed as we all are. driven to behave in ways that make perfect sense to themselves if not to those around them. 

If life has taught him anything, it’s that you must be more secretive, more protective, and more pitiless than the next man. Either that or everything you are, everything you’ve built, and everyone you love, could be trampled in an instant.’ 

This is more than a work of dystopian fiction, it’s historic, its philosophic, its environmental, a multi layered work that does that rare thing. It tells a gripping and tightly plotted story yet demands that its reader dig a little deeper within the book, and themselves, to seek some fundamental truths. 

‘….. Mother Nature’s is true aim is to convert us people back into the dust we came from, just as quick as possible.’ 

It’s a book written with intelligence and elegance, substantial, a flowing narrative with evocative detail that works in tandem with the reader’s own imagination. And if I wasn’t already sold, already in love with this book, both Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were referenced within the story. ;) But there’s some lighter moments. I have two new endearing terms to fling at my oppressors when I have been sufficiently irritated - ‘Peckerwood’ and ‘Pisswidget’!

My thanks to New Books Magazine (Nudge Books) for a copy of this book which I feel will secure a place in my top ten reads of 2020. Reader, I loved it. 

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens

This book has been nestling on my periphery for the longest time. It was creating a buzz in the States in 2018 and I had one of my ‘feelings’ about it. I nearly bought a hardback copy in Waterstones last year when it was published here but money was tight so I reluctantly dragged myself out of the shop. I put in a request at my library and finally the reservation came through. The librarian was very amused by my excitement. In a good way. She actually phoned me to tell me it was there waiting for me because she knew I was desperate to read it. 

So did it live up to my expectations? Yes, I thought the writing was lyrical and expansive and an evocative homage to the natural world. The plot could be seen as implausible but this is fiction so it can be as implausible as it likes. There is something uplifting in Kya’s story of an abandoned  child bringing herself up and maturing into a functioning adult regardless of the odds against that happening. Maybe it helps to understand something of what being lonely and solitary feels like to totally relate to Kya. You can then be more jubilant at not only her survival but her success. I suppose it's a similar theme to Marcus Zusak's 
Bridge of Clay but that was a whole group of brothers raising themselves without parental supervision not someone alone.

I think it is the writing that makes the book so rich. The writer's love and expertise of the natural world and landscape of North Carolina dominates. It sustains Kya and her survival is fuelled by her own love for those surroundings that she is at one with. 

The plot is a dual one with a murder mystery unfolding alongside the story of Kya and her growing up. That is achieved with a dual chronology. Take the murder away and you would still have a wonderfully evocative story of someone clinging to life. But the crime aspect offers the reader another dimension, some elevation not to mention some tense court room moments. There is also a broader metaphysical feel to the story in terms of comprehending the nature of trust and love, maybe  and abandonment in its widest sense.
 Neat little concluding twist but I kinda saw it coming. 

I also loved the poetry in it. In fact, I will admit this, I did stop to google Amanda Hamilton because I thought she might be a real poet! 

‘Never underrate
the heart,
Capable of deeds
The mind cannot conceive.
The heart dictates as well as feels.
How else can you explain
The path I have taken,
That you have taken
The long way through this pass?’

Thanks to my library for securing me a copy. and thanks to the librarian who phoned me up the moment it arrived in my local branch. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

My Sister, The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

This is one of those books which seemed to pop up everywhere on social media, everyone seemed to be reading it, except me! So when I saw this copy sitting expectantly on the new additions shelf of my local library it felt rude not to borrow it immediately. Which I did. I took it home and read it - immediately. 

Oh what a joyous read! A simply structured, easy narrative with a wicked humour underpinning the whole lot. Two sisters, not alike in dignity in fair Nigeria where we lay our scene - oh, how different they are in character and temperament. But the absurdity of the situation cannot fail to delight the reader who in turn feels faintly guilty at finding murder so amusing! 

How far would you go to extract your own sister from a pickle, if, indeed, I might describe the murder of a lover as a ‘pickle’ ! Maybe once, I hear you ponder in consternation, but three times! And when the potential fourth is your own love interest you might start to question your motivation. This is what happens here against the backdrop of Nigerian culture and life in a busy hospital where coma patients demonstrate an exemplary ability to silently empathise with all they are being told. 

A delightful cast of characters headed by Korede, the big sister, looking out for Ayoola, the little sister. She goes beyond the call of duty in many senses and we hear the whole story from her perspective. Th dynamic between the two is well handled and those of us with sisters will identify! How ever may I state categorically that I have never offered to help my sister cover up any of her murders. ;)

This was one of those books that I had perceived in my mind as a lengthy, bloodthirsty read. It isn’t at all. It’s odd because I’d almost describe it as a light read but that feels wrong because of the murder theme and the dark humour making it feel heavier than it actually is. Whatever. I enjoyed it and read it in nearly one sitting!

And may I thank my local library for stocking a copy.