Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Her Mother's Daughter - Alice Fitzgerald

This is an extremely well written, keenly observed book about a contentious and harrowing subject. Fortunate that it is well written for in the hands of a less competent author it would possibly be unreadable. I do not want to offer any spoilers but do prepare yourself for an uneasy read. I do feel concerned that the writing of this book is an act of catharsis for the writer for it seems too dark a subject to choose to write about unless you have some deep and first hand experience of it that you need to deal with. For the intention is surely to heighten awareness of the long lasting damage done by such despicable acts. It also demonstrates keenly how difficult it is such to speak of such things for the suffering victim and how that in turn impacts upon others. Specifically here effective parenting has been compromised, possibly, irrevocably. 

Told through the eyes of mother, Josephine, and daughter, Clare, the juxtaposition of adult and child perception was skilfully handed. The writer clearly understands children and their ability to perceive which is often under estimated. In fact the child seemed to understand more than the adults! Troubling for the reader, though, is the fact that although you know how damaged Josephine is and how that influences her moods and behaviours it is hard to really empathise with her. She is such a prisoner within herself and her treatment of the children so unreasonable at times. All our emotion goes to Clare and her brother. Maybe that is another intention of the writer. Or maybe I’m playing amateur psychologist too much . Perhaps it illustrates that even if you have a devoted partner, wonderful children  the extent of the damage done to you as a child throws all of that into jeopardy. 

It’s not the first fiction to deal with the subject, it won’t be the last. It is a book to make you think but don’t expect to feel uplifted. I couldn’t say I enjoyed this book unless I divorce myself from the subject matter and merely examine the structure, narrative, characterisations et cetera . However I have no regrets about having read it. I thank Readers First/Allen & Unwin for the opportunity. 

Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Two Houses - Fran Cooper

If you’re hoping for a light hearted, feel good read then this might not be the book for you. But if you’re up for a primal, sometimes ethereal story of buried secrets and crumbling lives with a hint of the supernatural and spiritual then look no further than this, Fran Cooper’s second novel. For I strongly doubt you'll be disappointed.

There’s something of the familiar in the idea of two southern city dwellers disappearing into the depths of northern, rural England hoping to rediscover themselves with a suspicious tight knit, closeted community reluctant to welcome them. And if I am pressed for anything resembling criticism of this work it is that there is some stereotyping. However there is no such thing as perfection and this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of this book. 

A bleak atmosphere was created of this hamlet, think, possibly,  Royston Vasey but without the comedic element. Eerie and creepy though much of the descriptive passages are many of the characters attempt to be as normal as they can with varying degrees of success! I thought for the most part the characterisations were well crafted, particularly Heather, and Tom. Although they weren’t essentially the main protagonists I found them more accessible than Simon and Jay who I found it hard to engage with initially. I thought it was clever for it seemed that the reader, too, was made to feel that Jay and Simon were outsiders. But I did feel that Jay’s character developed believably as the novel progressed and I was rooting for her as I got to know her better, 

Jay is a ceramicist and Simon an architect and I enjoyed the word play with section headings relevant to both disciplines. The notion of two houses being divided and then made whole again is a pleasing if less than subtle metaphor for some of the relationships in the story. And this is a very pleasing book. It is well written and easy to read yet not without some substance that gets the reader wholly involved. It's not edge of the seat stuff but there were some creepy moments. It’s well constructed and the story flows to its redemptive conclusion. It's one of those satisfying reads that is economic in its language but doesn't leave anything out. 

I found it quite refreshing to come across a fiction that progresses chronologically with most of the salient events from the past being divulged through the present day narrative itself. Paradoxically it felt curiously old fashioned to read a straightforward fiction and at the risk of stating the obvious I felt I was a reading a story. My thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the opportunity to read this fine book. I’ve not read Ms. Cooper’s first book, These Dividing Walls , but on the strength of this one I want to. 

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Dhow House - Jean McNeil

I read Fire on the Mountain and it seemed like some kind of karma that the good folks at Nudge Books had a copy of The Dhow House up for grabs. So I grabbed it! 

Once again having read this book I feel like I’ve actually been on holiday to Africa, so vibrant and potent are the descriptions. But this tale is more than a mere homage to a country of paradoxical beauty and brutality. It’s a wildlife treatise to the avian bounty indigenous to the location. I loved that each chapter was the name of a bird. It’s a tale of terrorism and espionage.A story of love and the human condition. An odyssey of the eternal search for oneself. But I found too a wealth of almost philosophical aphorisms that had me turning back the page to reread and ponder. Phrases such as ‘Time is a surprise delivered in moment sized parcels’, ‘Religion was a facade for ideology, which was a facade for power.’ are just a couple of examples. 

There was some thematic similarities between this story and Fire on the Mountain, an almost marginalised white family in Africa hosts an almost stranger who turns their lives inside out. It’s less cerebral here with more action and some chronological switches from present to past and vice versa. The full horror of Rebecca Laurenson;’s story and how she comes to be staying with her late mother’s sister unfolds throughout the book. 

I found it hard to engage with the characters; it was as if they were all trying to keep me at arms length with only the very occasional chink in their respective armours. I did find the narrative confused sometimes and I had to re read to satisfy myself as to who I was reading about. I think overall the power of the book is dependent upon the superb descriptive ability of this writer which brings it all so alive and cements the narrative together.

It was interesting to compare with Fire on the Mountain, to see how a writer is developing and to understand their style and motivation. It’s a substantial work and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Zero and the One - Ryan Ruby

If you are a bookish sort of a person the older you get the more books you will have read and, a tautology of sorts, the wider your reading experience. That in itself is no problem except that you find the act of comparison becomes an almost automatic reflex. And so I found myself doing just that with this debut novel of Ryan Ruby’s. I could elaborate on parallels with Donna Tartt and Patricia Highsmith for starters that might infer either criticism or approval. But ultimately it’s meaningless for readers beginning their literary journeys who have no need of such comparisons. I believe it’s possible in years to come that their future reading may end up provoking comparisons with Ryan Ruby!

For this is a highly intelligent, clever work and a most credible debut novel. It has something of the gothic and neo-romantic about it with its foundations firmly based in philosophy, much of the metaphysical and epistemological kind. The title derives from a philosophical work that one of the main characters finds completely absorbing once he has tracked down an English copy.  Each chapter cleverly begins with a philosophical aphorism from the book. These in themselves, even though they are fictional, could occupy the reader for some sustained length of time. They are fascinating.

The narrative is of dual construction between the past and the present told in the first person by Owen Whiting an Oxford student who finds himself somewhat solitary and misplaced until he strikes up a friendship with American student Zachary Foedern. Foedern from a seemingly privileged  background is a maverick in his thinking and his actions. It would be a criminal act to divulge details of this clever plot. However as the the book blurb does allude to the suicide pact I’m spoiling nothing by mentioning it, for it is fundamental to the story. But the ensuing exposition of all that happens, causing one reviewer to label this work aptly as a ‘philosophical thriller’, is extremely well plotted and absorbing especially as the tale gathers momentum. There are those who might find it shocking, certainly there are unexpected situations. Usually in a thriller you might call them  ‘twists’, but somehow that term doesn’t quite fit here. There are slow dawnings of realisations. It’s a dark tale and in no way uplifting. But it suggests that Mr Ruby is a writer of some considerable talent, it’s beautifully written. Without a doubt someone to watch out for. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Ruby for Nudge Books a couple of months ago. You can read the review by following the link below. 


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

In Our Mad and Furious City - Guy Gunaratne

Sometimes you read a book and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stiffen because you know you’ve read something remarkable. It’s an indefinable sensation that elevates a work beyond the mere story it sets out to tell. 

And so it is with Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel. Ostensibly a tale of 48 hours on a London Housing Estate following the lives of three young men of colour, Sevron, Yusuf and Ardan.  Also the memories of two older members of this multi racial community, Caroline and Nelson, all in the wake of the killing of a soldier by an extremist.  It’s fiction but there’s so many truths here it’s like a documentary. In fact I think it could start a new genre - ‘ficumentary’. 

It’s chillingly authentic with a powerful narrative that pounds along as much as Sevron’’s running and Ardan’s rapping. The rhythm of the streets, syncopated, discordant made real with words that flow like spontaneous prose, raw and alive. I’ve walked past those football cages in similar areas of London and barely given a second glance to the lads playing footie there. I won’t be able to pass any again without thinking of this story. On a visual level I was reminded of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. But this is not a tale for those who wish to be entertained. It’s bleak and uneasy. 

What really penetrated the core of me was how little I previously understood of this environment and the people who populate it. What this book does is open up the hearts of individuals who, for many of us, are just moving images on a TV screen as we watch the news reports of the latest riots and protests, the current tragedies and atrocities, hear a few seconds of eye witness accounts before the reporter moves on. This book delves beneath the surface to examine the motivations and emotional responses of those caught up in it all and uncovers a compassion and a softness that offers some redemption against the backdrop of poverty and anger. And you think it is a book about one part of London but to me it seemed that it could be describing the whole world, mad and furious, examining extremism and radicalism and what that really means for the people living immediately beneath it’s shadow. 

It’s a debut novel that almost isn’t a debut novel because it reads like the wisdom of the age. It’s a bold and substantial work. Go read it. 

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Fire on the Mountain - Jean McNeil

At some point whilst reading this book a premonition came to me that at some point in the future, no idea when, a person of some notability, no idea who, will remove a gold card from a gold envelope with a flourish and announce  ‘The award goes to Fire on the Mountain.’ 

For some peculiar reason this is the second consecutive book that I have read where Africa features as the location and almost main character. Another offering from Legend Press’s impressive catalogue, (maybe they should rename themselves Legend Impress), this latest novel from Jean McNeil is magnificent to read.

I don't wish to give too much away. I'm never one to do spoilers and I never really want to offer a synopsis of the work. I prefer to give my overall feelings and impressions and hope that that's enough to lure readers into seeking out the book. This is very beautifully written, graceful and dignified. It's a wonderfully visual book and the descriptions, the sounds, the smells are palpable. It allows the reader to travel vicariously to Africa and feel the very heartbeat of the country, its dangers and its delights. 

The fire of the title is metaphorical because there's just so many allusions, both obvious and oblique, to fire. The whole book is a conflagration of words. But conversely unlike fire it's a slow paced, considered book where you can immerse yourself luxuriously in the language and the action, if action is the right word.

The characters are relatively few but drawn with much depth.  The book is about their relationships with each other. Relationships of immense complexity and written with such compassion and understanding. Pervading the book, too, is a sense of Fate and inevitability. At the beginning of the book the main protagonist, Nick,  seems so emotionally vulnerable yet paradoxically emotionally closed that, as a reader, you fear for him. The story is a wonderful account of how relationships begin and develop, flickering like a flame that can either burn steadily, extinguish or ignite fully. In some ways the characters are hard to engage with until you realise that, like all of us, they are grappling with their own demons. There seems to be a pivotal point in the novel where, as a reader, you realise their own needs become intertwined with the needs of the other characters and you engage more fully with them all but most particularly Pieter, Riaan and Nick.

I think in some ways that this is the kind of book that demands re-reading. It isn’t as simple as one reading not being enough, or that the book is in any way unsatisfying it’s all of those things and more besides. But there’s a sense of discreet subtlety that might not have surfaced first time around. It's a book that stays with you long after you close the cover on the last page.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sister Sebastian's Library - Phil Whitaker

I’m always curious to know what propels a book into the wider consciousness of the book buying/reading population. Is it downright talent? Skilful marketing and PR? Or a case of right time, right place ?

For here is a book published in 2016 that found its way into my hands via Nudge Books (thank you) by a writer I have never heard of yet it’s an intelligent, compassionate book that touches on varying issues. I checked it out on Amazon and there are only five customer reviews and only two on Goodreads with eighteen reviewless ratings. That makes me feel sad as it is no better, no worse a book than many that garner several hundred reviews. But perhaps it is a perfect example of how important book reviewing and book blogging is if it can bring a worthy book to the attention of bibliophiles everywhere.

Ostensibly a missing person book; Elodie travels to Western Africa to search for her missing sister, Bridie, who is the titular Sister Sebastian. The search is somewhat metaphoric as the book evolves into an ubiquitous search for oneself on the part of both sisters but particularly Elodie. 

There is a present day narrative taking place in Africa and a past narrative detailing the lives of the sisters from childhood through to maturity. Elodie is the main focus and she’s a believable, well drawn character who it is easy to warm to. Many of the other characters are functional and don’t really leap off the page at you. Bridie/Sister Sebastian is a little more developed but I guess ultimately the real story is Elodie’s.

The Western African locations are authentically described and the heat is palpable. It isn’t a fast paced book. It’s rational and considered. I found it well structured and it was a satisfying read. Without wishing to open politically correct gender issues I found it wonderfully refreshing that a book abut two women written with understanding and compassion was produced by a man.  

There are several issues touched on in this book. The political fragility of the nation where it is set. The Catholic religion and its impact. Sibling relationships. Parental relationships. Friendships. Some science and biology. And that perhaps is where the book falls a little short of its mark. All of those ideas are touched on. You never get the feeling that any are expanded to the optimum with perhaps the exception of the fraternal issues. I found myself wanting more depth yet that would have impacted on the book’s length. There were perhaps too many ideas thrown into the mix.

Notwithstanding I found this to be a worthwhile and enjoyable read. Intelligently crafted it surely deserves a wider readership that it currently enjoys. Or is that just me? Read it and see……….