Review | A Man of Genius, Janet Todd | Book of the Week

She knew her love was flecked with revulsion, both from him and from herself – for what she was becoming under the influence, not of his personality exactly, but of her dependence on it. She wouldn’t look too closely: for she couldn’t combat the deadly longing, the sweet need for him.

London 1816

gothic horror bookblastAnn St Clair, writer of gothic horrors “created for yearning women,” is an independent and self-sufficient woman until she meets Irishman Robert James, the successful author of Attila. He is “another kind of being” compared to other men. “He loved an audience, a discipleship. Men were drawn to him.” A scholarly force of nature, he makes sweeping intellectual statements at Mr Hughes’ dinner, and also proves to be a great entertainer as a mimic and a ventriloquist. “Politics didn’t matter. Only poetry of philosophy, philosophy of poetry – purity of language which is its beauty.” Ann is mesmerised. They meet again, and soon they are living together in her lodgings.
Continue reading Review | A Man of Genius, Janet Todd | Book of the Week

Review | Protest! Stories of Resistance, Ra Page (ed.) | Book of the Week

 “Our own, personal experience of the event – as it unfolded live in front of us – gets over-written, overlain with any narrative available that complies with Thomas Carlisle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, that ‘history is but the biography of great men’, that the rest of us, the ‘bystanders’, aren’t part of history. The short story rejects this version of events because, as a form, it has evolved to prioritise the non-heroes – the bystanders, the disenfranchised, the ‘submerged’ (as Frank O’Connor would say). And when it comes to ‘world events’, none are more suited to the short story than the protest. In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history,” writes Ra Page, editor of Protest! Stories of Resistance.

The workings of the state when it is under threat are not pretty. One man’s system is another man’s nightmare. Protest! takes the long view. From the Peasants’ Revolt sparked by the Poll Tax of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003, the 20 movements featured in this superb book have parallels in terms of ideas and tactics and emotional charge. The framework of the anthology brings to life the events and the people involved. A short story like a snapshot in time is followed by an afterword by an academic who, in certain recent cases, was an eyewitness.

Prior protests loom large over present ones. This struck me forcibly while reading the stories and simultaneously following Westway 23’s facebook posts about the Grenfell Tower Protest in my neighbourhood. It is no coincidence that safe Tory seat, Kensington, went to Labour by a narrow margin for the first time ever in the recent snap election. The gruesome fire has illuminated years of institutionalised abuse and disregard for the law on the part of the corrupt powers-that-be. Establishment standard bearers The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Spectator have been accusing the ‘hard left’ of ‘hijacking’ the Grenfell fire tragedy for their own ends. Plus ça change.

Continue reading Review | Protest! Stories of Resistance, Ra Page (ed.) | Book of the Week

Review | The Photographer, Meike Ziervogel | Book of the Week

Meike Ziervogel: “As long as you can keep disorder at bay you have control. You can see clearly, you know what step to take next. Albert can’t stand chaos. He used to be able to tolerate it. In fact, when he was young he never made a distinction between order and disorder. Never thought about it. That wasn’t how he perceived the world, neatly divided into two camps, with judgements attached: good or bad. But now he’s convinced, has become convinced over the last years, that chaos is the enemy of the people. Every now and again, for a brief moment, he looks longingly back to a time when he wasn’t so clear-sighted. He knows that this lack of a clear view helped him to take good photographs. He was open to surprise, to being surprised.

Being in a war changes a person for ever. The Photographer is a tale of betrayal, loyalty, sacrifice and survival. The evacuation of East Prussia is pivotal for the family at the centre of the story. By winter 1945, nearly 11 million Germans — mostly women and children — had fled the Eastern provinces of the Reich, heading west. Killings and rapes committed by the Red Army triggered fear and panic amongst the population.

Continue reading Review | The Photographer, Meike Ziervogel | Book of the Week

Review | Witchbroom, Lawrence Scott | Book of the Week

BookBlast® reviews Witchbroom by Lawrence Scott.

Here at the window of the turret room, Lavren, at the sill of the Demerara window, Marie Elena behind him on her deathbed telling the last tales before the end of the world as bachac ants attack the rose bushes in Immaculata’s sunken garden, and woodlice eat their way through the pitchpine floorboards, and Josephine sits by the kitchen door shelling pigeon-peas: from this vantage point, Lavren can listen and write and tell the history of the New World.” So begins a hallucinatory Caribbean tale involving the imperialist land-grab, sexual anarchy, abandoned women, religious mania, “the destruction of the Amerindians, the enslavement of Africans and the indentureship of the Indians,” and culminating in self-rule and independence. “People were dreaming in the twilight barrack-rooms, in the kerosene-lit villages for the setting of the imperial sun.”

Lawrence Scott weaves a magical, lush tapestry of words and images, bringing alive local legends and family narratives; and redressing written histories. The impact of the events recounted still resonate in Caribbean society today. A quasi-historical novel, Witchbroom recounts the story of a colonial white enclave on an offshore island through muddled memories. The central narrator repeats what he remembers “from the distracted mind of his muse Marie Elena, and her art of telling stories while they eat Crix biscuits, rat cheese and guava jelly together in the turret room overlooking the Gulf of Sadness.” The stories are bewitching and highly disturbing. The reader surfs a tidal wave of addictive fascination like a Dickensian tricoteuse sitting beside the guillotine in Paris watching heads roll during the public executions of 1793-4.

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Review | The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers | Book of the Week

BookBlast® reviews The Gallows Pole.

The Yorkshire moors: wild and untameable. Land of the Brontës, Bram Stoker, Ted Hughes and David Hockney, that much I knew, until I read Ben Myers’ pungent and addictive novel,  The Gallows Pole, about a forgotten chapter of history. King David Hartley of Bell House was the leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners, “whose brutality had put the fear in many and whose wicked practices had damaged the trade of the common man, but whose efforts had rewarded the brave too, and whose rumoured generosity had put clothes on the backs and food on the tables of the starved communities of the upper moorlands when everyone else had failed them.”

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In the 1760s, Hartley ran “the yellow trade,” creating counterfeit coins, from his “gloomy sky palace” perched on the lawless upper moorlands — Sowerby Bridge and Halifax to the east; Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall to the west. A place apart, it is well away from a changing England where the “wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man right down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and buildings and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man — he told me this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod. They’re pulling it out from beneath our feet like a widow shaking out her clippy mat. He said he had it in writing. Said it was legally binding.”

Continue reading Review | The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers | Book of the Week

Review | Leo Kanaris, Blood & Gold | Book of the Week

BookBlast™ reviews Greek crime novel in translation, Blood & Gold.

Blood & Gold, and an earlier thriller by Leo Kanaris, Codename Xenophon, are perfect examples of how well-crafted detective fiction from another culture opens windows on to a brave new world, and shows that there are more similarities than differences between us all as we get on with the business of living in failing Western societies.

As the post-war liberal bandwagon begins to roll backwards, overtaken by the populist demagogue’s juggernaut of lies, we need more cracking good crime stories like this one, to entertain, illuminate, and inform.

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Review | Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer | Book of the Week

We aged a hundred years, and this
Happened in a single hour:
The short summer had already died
The body of the ploughed plains smoked.

Anna Akhmatova

Letter-writing may be a lost art today, since we tend to email rather than sit down and write longhand to a loved one or a friend, however epistolary novels have been with us for centuries  — from Montesquiou’s Persian Letters, Choderlos de Laclos Dangerous Liaisons and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; to Stephen King’s Carrie and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple — and are still popular. To read personal, private correspondence smacks of voyeurism, (etiquette dictates that to do so is unacceptable), hence the frisson of pleasure it affords. Suspense is created by what is revealed and concealed. The letters are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and dramatic irony keeps the reader hooked until the very end: Will ‘it’ or won’t ‘it’ happen? The Last Summer, superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, is a welcome discovery thanks to Peirene Press.

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Review | Landing, Laia Fàbregas | Book of the Week

When you’re rooted in yourself, you feel settled wherever you go. I guess to feel good we need to find places to adapt to. Except once we’ve adapted we need to move on, to find a new place to adapt to. But once you’ve adapted to several different places, you no longer have one place where you belong. That’s when the place where you belong becomes the space between those two different places. Moving around and seeing new places — that’s my natural habitat. The truth is I’m a nomad.” So speaks Roberto, train steward on the high-speed Talgo.

Modern society is becoming increasingly rootless and uniformist, as the forces of global capitalism, increased migration and social pluralism influence work, lifestyle and beliefs. Economic migration is spurring rapid social change, leading to ambiguity about identity, sense of place in the world and a cultural dissonance. As governments lose touch with their citizens, they ignore to their peril how groups that are ignored, or ostracised, become desperate, rebellious and take direct action. Humans need to belong to a social group, to be heard, make sense of their identity, and develop a sense of belonging — a sense of purpose. In a shifting world, no wonder social networking on the internet is so huge.

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Review | Four Points Fourteen Lines, Tony Chan | Book of the Week

‘You doing this for charity?’
‘No, it’s entirely selfish’, I reply, ‘A wish to live, before life passes by’.

Tony Chan – originally Australian, but now living and working in England – composes a poem a day as he treks between the four extreme cardinal points of the British mainland. His walk begins on 3 January, 2015, at the northernmost point, Dunnet Head, continuing on to Ardnamurchan Point and Lowestoft Ness, before ending at Lizard Point on 21 March.

There were times, at bedtime, when my daddy
Told the one lonely tale that he knew best,
The sino-story, Journey to the West,
With its magi heroes, Monk and Monkey.
Here I stand, having chased my father’s voice,
Rock under my feet, waves against the rock,
And waves all through the line of nine o’clock:
At journey’s end, there is only one choice.

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Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week

On their first date, in the park, they got down to some serious petting. He gave Tianyi a blow-by-blow account, making her blush with his frankness: ‘She undid her bra so I could feel her breasts,” he stammered. ‘Then she pushed my hand down there . . .’
‘Is she pretty?”
‘No, but she’s curvy, and she’s really hot.’
‘So she fits the bill?’ Tianyi asked with a touch of sarcasm.
‘Yes, she does,’ Jin went pink. ‘So I need your help, I’ve been wanting to do an experiment, to watch a girl’s reaction to having sex . . .’
‘That’s not fair, if she really loves you . . .’
‘But I might fall in love with her during the experiment. So there’s nothing unfair about it . . .’
‘It’s crazy.’

It’s not every day you come across a novel in which a mainland Chinese author writes openly about women, sex and corruption − affording the reader a voyeuristic glimpse into intimacy and relationships, Chinese style.

Continue reading Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week