Category Archives: Book Reviews

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosely #book review

What happens in our bodies when we eat a meal or swallow a drink?

clever gutsMany people would rather not know the answer and yet the last few years have seen more and more evidence about the importance of our digestive system to overall health and well-being. Three separate specialists from different branches of medicine  and health have all told me in the last year that the gut is now considered as a second brain: a highly integrated system that manages a set of processes as complex as all those neural pathways. When a surgeon, a physiotherapist and a mindfullness teacher all sang the same song  I began to sit up and pay attention.

Which is how I came to be reading Michael Mosely’s book: The Clever Guts Diet: How to Revolutionise Your Body From The Inside Out.

I’ve seen Michael Mosely multiple times on British television through his Trust Me I’m A Doctor series and he always struck me as the kind of man who isn’t swayed by fads or pseudo science of the kind  trotted by many a clean eating celebrity.  He has a deeply inquiring mind  that often leads him to take extreme actions in a search for answers. In this case, his desire to know how the digestive system really works, what foods might trigger problems like allergies or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cancer, led him to an experiment with a live audience at the British Museum.

After a meal of steak, chips and kale washed down with apple juice he then swallowed a microscopic camera called a “pillcam”, which captured digital images of  his gastrointestinal tract . The idea was to watch in real-time what happened to his meal.

Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence our mood, weight and immune system.

Mosely loves those microbes.  He can name the different species of the 50 million microbes (mainly bacteria)  that live in the gut and make up the microbiome.

The bad news? A diet limited in variety and heavy in processed food – along with antibiotic overuse – has ravaged the modern microbiome. This helps explain dramatic increases in health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, allergies, food intolerances, asthma and eczema.

But there is good news in the book too. It’s possible, says Mosely, to halt the damage and reboot the system back to health with a gut-friendly eating regime. Avoiding fruit juice is an early piece of advice. It moves through the body so quickly there’s little time for its nutrients to be absorbed. Worse still: it creates a spike in blood sugar levels.  Sugar encourages the growth of the microbes that love sugar,. They crave even more of it – telling your brain (and you) to eat more … and more….  In the meantime, the good microbes get destroyed.

So message number one: cut down (or even better, out) uncessary sugar.

Message number two:  encourage the growth and variety of “good” gut microbes, by eating probiotics (fermented foods that contain live bacteria and yeast) and prebiotics (certain vegetables and pulses containing indigestible plant fibre).

The Clever Guts Diet is based on research Mosely conducted for more than a year during which he interviewed multiple experts and read scores of research papers. The result is a  treasure house of insights and factual information.   It’s often amusing. Often provokes a reaction of Yuck when you read it. But it’s also thought provoking. This is not a book for anyone who feels in the slightest bit queasy when confronted by information about bodily functions but it is definitely a book for anyone who wants to take back control of their health.

 

About the author

Michael Mosely  was an investment banker who retrained as a doctor. After studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London and qualifying as a doctor…he decided that he was better suited to the world of television. He has made numerous science and history documentaries for the BBC, first behind the camera and more recently as a presenter.

He has won numerous awards, including being named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association in 1995. 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje #bookreview

WarlightMichael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.

It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job. They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book. 

Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.

The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.” Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.

Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth. 

In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.

But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”. 

We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.

Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight. In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms.  They are scenes that will longer long in my memory. 

There is a poignancy too in this novel. Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man. Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable. 

Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:

In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.

Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.

 

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin #bookreview

my brilliant careerEvery time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn.

Hers is a passionate nature, a force that will not be suppressed or controlled and in whom ambition is ablaze. Sybylla believes she is destined for “a brilliant career”, one that will offer more than a life rearing cattle and sheep. Nor does she envisage a life shackled in marriage. Marriage to her is a degradation, a result of social laws arranged so that it’s “a woman’s only sphere” in which she would have to suppress her inherent nature. . Not that any man would want someone “so very plain” and “as ugly” as her, she reasons. But she reckons without the wealthy young landowner Harry Beecham. He does want her for his wife.

Sybylla however is a wilful girl, “utterly different” to other girls her age and instead of viewing  him as a highly attractive partner, she leads him a merry dance.  Even as the novel comes to an end Miles Franklin keeps us guessing whether Sybylla will succumb to or hold out for her dreams of a life as a writer.

The tension between vocation and marriage as potential exit routes out of the stagnation of a rural life, forms the dramatic heart of My Brilliant Career. Sybylla’s intellectual and artistic talents are stifled in the environment of Possum where her father ekes out a living and his wife grows bitter and complaining.  Sent to live temporarily with her grandmother, Sybylla delights in the more refined atmosphere. It brings her “three things for which [she] had been starving”: good taste, music, and, above all, books.

But the idyll doesn’t last.

Drought exacerbates the problems created by her father’s excessive drinking habits and his poor business decisions. To pay off the family debt, Sybylla is despatched to work as governess and housekeeper for a family to whom her father owes money.  Among this illiterate farmer’s family, denied intellectual and creative stimulus and aghast at the filth of their home, she suffers a breakdown.

There are many enjoyable elements in this book but chief among them is Sybylla herself. She’s a sharp-witted, sharp-eyed narrator who doesn’t hold back from highlighting the weaknesses and faults of those around her. She views her mother scornfully because she has  “no ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value.” Her father comes in for equally harsh treatment for his drunkenness and disregard for his family’s welfare.

But she’s also an irritating girl, too absorbed and self-pitying to recognise other people’s emotions. The kind of girl who, when you hear her lash out at poor Harry Beecham, you think she deserves some of the knocks that come her way.

I also loved Franklin’s descriptions of the Australian landscape. It’s a very honest portrayal, showing both its beauty and its unforgiving harshness when the rains fail, the land shrivels and livelihoods are endangered. Sybylla alternately loves the “mighty bush” and loathed.

My Brilliant Career isn’t without its faults. Sybylla has a tendency to get on her soap box , resulting in prose that sounds more like pamphleteering than how a young girl would actually express herself. But given this was Miles Franklin’s debut novel and it was written when she was 21 years old, primarily to entertain her friends, I think I can forgive her the occasional over-inflated, melodramatic passage.

 

About this book

My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 under the pen-name of  Miles Franklin (real name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin).  In her introduction she said the book was “all about myself…. I make no apologies for being egotistical. In this particular I attempt an improvement on other autobiographies.” She describes it as not a novel, but simply a yarn about a life of “long toil-laden days with its agonising monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality.”

It was hugely successful, but Franklin was upset that contemporary readers believed it to be closely based on her own life and that of families in her locality. She ordered it to be withdrawn from publication until after her death.  It was revived in the 1960s, and underwent a critical evaluation, particularly in the light of the feminist critique. Today it is viewed as a key text within the Australian literary canon.

For an assessment of the key themes of the novel, take a look at the critical essay by  Susan K. Martin at Reading Australia.

 

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ultimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Free State by V S Naipaul #Bookreview

V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.

free state coverThe power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.

He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.

The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.

The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.

The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.

Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.

An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there ­– and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.

As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.

A sense of displacement

Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”

Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.

The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.

In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.

Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.

free state naipaul

Naipaul: “Depression touches everyone in the novel.”

In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”

The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”


V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).

Ash by Alys Einion #bookreview #writingWales

Ash

Anorexia, domestic abuse, female subjugation, religious extremism: Ash by Alys Einion contains an abundance of issues but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially a story about relationships.

Ash is the follow up to her debut novel Inshallah which traced the fateful decision of a woman to swap her native Wales for her husband’s home in Saudi Arabia. When her life is threatened and no-one believes her claims about her husband Muhammed’s abusive behaviour, Amanda flees the country with her children.

Ash finds her back in the UK, struggling to bring up the children, moving from one squalid home to another, always fearful that Muhammed will find them.  The boys eventually find their own way to survive in a country and a way of life that feels alien. But Ash (Aisha) the only daughter, finds it impossible to adjust. Impossible to fit in. Impossible to relate to her mother.

Ash is a moving portrait of a troubled teenage girl and her alienation from her mother. It’s told in the voices of these two women whose experiences have given them a bleak outlook on life.

“Everything is fake, in the end,” says Ash.

All the people who say they love you, they don’t mean it. Those women, the ones my mother shacked up with, they said they loved her, they said they’d be there, and they’re gone. It’s a lie, all of it.

Amanda deals with these frequent disappointments in her life, the times when people let her down by losing herself in her painting. Ash takes a different approach, starving herself and exercising fanatically to lose weight and avoid cruel jibes at school. 

The gulf between these two women is the strongest aspect  of the novel. Initially I found it hard to believe that Amanda would be so engrossed in her painting she wouldn’t notice her daughter’s unhappiness. Forget to shop for groceries yes. Forget to eat, certainly. But fail to see her daughter isn’t eating and has no friends? Not really. As we learned more of Amanda’s background however, her often eccentric behaviour became easier to accept: art is her refuge, a way of forgetting the pain of the past.

Many of the chapters deal with these past events. They help provide the necessary context for the main characters’ current state of mind and explain the tension between mother and daughter. This means there is a certain degree of ‘telling’ in this novel but that wasn’t any barrier to my enjoyment of the book. I found the rewinds to Amanda’s life in Saudi Arabia and her first months back in the UK also helped fill in the background that I was lacking because I hadn’t read Inshallah.  Every chapter is labelled with a colour which often reflects a key mood though this wasn’t always successful and many times I failed to see the significance of the selected colour.

Where the book worked better was in showing the pain and confusion experienced by the teenage Ash. Her response to the psychological warfare waged against her by her class mates — the willowy, slim hipped girls who call her fat — is to reduce her food intake to almost nothing.  Control over her body gives her strength.

They all hate me, they despise me, but they can’t beat me because I am better than them, I can do this now and no-one can stop me. No one is stronger than I am …

If I eat this, they win, and that mens they’re right about it all, that I’m just a fat nothing.

Though Ash is a highly intelligent girl, her predicament makes her vulnerable to exploitation. I won’t go into details of that aspect of the plot because it would spoil the book for other readers, but it gives the novel a highly topical dimension and provides a cliff hanger ending. I suspect that means Alys Einion has a follow up novel in the offing.

There were times I thought the book was a little repetitive but the thrust of the narrative and the depth of the characterisation kept my interest throughout.

Footnotes

About this book: Ash was published in 2018 by Honno Press, independent women’s press in the UK. 

About the author:  Alys Einion has had a varied career. She has been a nurse and a midwife but now works  as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing

Why I read this book: I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last couple of years to read more books from authors and publishers based in Wales. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw it on the Honno website. Aly

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng #bookreview

little-firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng explores the nature of motherhood and the secrets that lie bubbling beneath the veneer of an ultra perfect American community.

Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.

Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.

It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.

Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.

Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born,  confidences shared and affiliations formed.

Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma  that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.

It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?

As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?

The  story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose  highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.

The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name  “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak,  a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.

… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.

Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter,  Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.

At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.

I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.

 

 

 

 

Recent reads in brief

Best selling authors Lisa Jewell and Peter James both had new books out this year. Since I’m running way behind with my reviews and I don’t have a lot to say about either of these books, I’m just going for a short

Then She Was GoneThen She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

I’d never read anything by Lisa Jewell until this year. I know she has a large fan club but she never appealed to me. I read this only after significant badgering from a friend who is a devotee….

Then She Was Gone is set ten years after a teenage girl goes missing one day when she was on her way to the local library. Ellie’s disappearance led to a divorce and the break up of her family. Her mum Laurel is living a half life, never feeling she can move on while the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance is unresolved.

Then she meets a charming man who makes her feel there is hope. He has a nine year old girl who has a remarkable resemblance to her missing daughter. It proves to be the first in a sequence of coincidences. Questions come flooding back to Laurel. She has to know the truth no matter how painful this may be.

I’ve seen this book described as gripping and heart-breaking. I didn’t experience either of those emotions myself. I’m afraid I guessed the secret at the heart of the book a long way before its ending though it was interesting to observe how Lisa Jewell manipulated the plot to send her readers down several blind alleys. Then She Was Gone was a perfectly acceptable story and told cleverly through different narrators (the identity of one only becomes apparent a long way into the novel). It just wasn’t that special.

 

Dead if you don'tDead If You Don’t by Peter James 

This is the latest in a long running series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, based in the seaside town of  Brighton. I’ve not read all of them so I rely on my dad to fill in the blanks about Roy Grace’s personal life (his wife disappeared on the day of their wedding anniversary).

What always impresses me with these novels is the insight into police procedure that James provides. He does extensive research to ensure his story lines are feasible and the actions of Grace and his team are accurate.  Roy Grace himself is based on a real life former Detective Chief Superintendent in Sussex Police, David Gaylor, who works closely with James on his books. But James also does the rounds with police officers, attends conferences and has lunch with ex convicts.

In Dead if You Don’t I was fascinated to learn how emergency calls from the public are handled when they come into the operations centre. But the biggest eye opener was that patrol car teams on night shift duty like to play jokes on other drivers by deliberately driving below the speed limit and and seeing who is afraid to overtake.

As is always the case with Peter James, this book has a multi-stranded plot. There’s a suspect device planted at the local football ground during the home team’s biggest match of the season. Then the teenage son of a local big shot financial advisor is kidnapped; a drugs mule dies at Gatwick airport from an overdose and body parts are discovered at another location in Brighton.  Somehow they are all connected to a fight for control between the members of a large and powerful criminal network.

If you like high octane drama filled novels, this will definitely fit the bill.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny #bookreview

Kingdom of the BlindHow long can a series endure before it runs out of steam?

Louise Penny’s crime series set in Quebec has long been one of my favourite crime writers. Her central character, Armand Gamache, chief of police, is a superbly conceived character; he’s surrounded by some equally well-executed personalities among his friends and family and he lives in the delightful (fictional) village of Three Pines. Penny’s

When we reached book ten of this series however I did wonder how much further Penny could go with this set up. She settled all my doubts with book eleven A Great Reckoning (my review is here). 

But she’s just published book number 14  and it saddens me to say that my earlier  doubts have resurfaced. I so wish that wasn’t the case because the fact that Kingdom of the Blind was written at all is a testament to Penny’s resilience and courage.

Penny’s husband Michael, who was the inspiration for Armand Gamache, died in September 2016. In the introduction to Kingdom of the Blind, Louise  Penny says she didn’t feel she could write again after his death.  “How could I go on when half of me was missing? I could barely get out of bed,” she said.

But one day she found herself at the dining table where she always did her writing. The first day she wrote just two words  — the name of her protagonist. The next day the word count trebled and kept on increasing day by day.

Kingdom of the Blind was begun. Not with sadness. Not because I had to but with joy. … Even as I wrote about some very dark themes, it was with gladness. With relief. That I get to keep doing this.

The darkness she mentions relates to one of the two major plots in the novel.

A new ultra powerful, ultra dangerous, opioid drug is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The finger of blame is pointed at Gamache who allowed a large cache of the drug to escape seizure during a major drugs raid. As a result he’s been suspended from his role as Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, pending an internal investigation. Then one of his proteges at the police academy, the rebellious cadet Amelia Choquet, is discovered with drugs in her possession.

Against this background Gamache receives a letter summoning him to a dilapidated house in a small rural village. There he discovers he is one of three people named as executors in the will of a woman who called herself The Baroness. Gamache has never met her, has no idea why she should have entrusted her last wishes to him,  a retired psychologist (his friend Myrna Landers from Three Pines) and a young accident-prone  builder from Montreal.  It’s not long before a body is found and Gamache’s suspicions are aroused.

Penny hasn’t lost her gift for evoking the spirit of the Quebec countryside and its fierce winters. Early in the novel a winter storm descends upon Gamache and the village of Three Pines; a metaphor for the turmoil that threatens to engulf the police chief. But these villagers take the weather in their stride; it’s just an excuse to indulge in their favourite foods (a word of warning – reading this book will get you salivating for tarte tatin and cafe au lait) or to head to the village bistro for a gossip. All the usual people are in evidence in Kingdom of the Blind:  Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie, his son-in-law and assistant Jean-Guy Beaulieu, the artist Clara Morrow, bistro owners Gabri Dubeau and the poet Ruth Zardo.

Gamache is more introspective in this novel than in all the previous titles. He’s always been conscious of his failings, following a code of conduct based on the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He advises his junior officers to take on board four statements: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.

In Kingdom of the Blind he seems more vulnerable, more weighed down by ghosts from the past.

… he remembered  … all the raids, the assaults, the arrests. The investigations over the yers. The victims. All the sightless, staring eyes. Of men, women, children whose murder he’d investigated. Over the years. Whose murderers he’d hunted down. All the agents he’d sent, often led, into the gun smoke.

There’s a sense in Gamache’s mood — which is reflected in some scenes at the end of the book — that he is facing significant changes in his life and his career. Without giving the game away for people who have yet to read this book, the nature of those changes make me wonder how it’s going to be feasible for Penny to continue this series. The inheritance plot of Kingdom of the Blind wasn’t one of her best, another indication for me that the series is reaching a natural conclusion.  Even so it is still superior to many of the crime novels currently in circulation. 

I could be wrong. Louise Penny surprised me once before. She could do it again.

 

 

 

 

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