Posted in Book Reviews

Protest: Stories of Resistance – Book Oxygen Review

Protest: Stories of Resistance

Edited by Ra Page

Published by Comma Press 6 July 2017

464pp, hardback, £14.99

This is a fascinating book, full of facts and figures about British protest movements from the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 to the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003. It also gives voice to some of the lesser known protests over the centuries.

Each author was asked which protest movement they would like to write about in order to be paired with an expert, to learn all the salient facts. The authors then wrote a short story, bringing the history to life not with usual famous people from their era, but with ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary times. Each short story also has an accompanying essay by the expert, to put the events in context and explain the wider ramifications. As a structure it works well, lending breadth and depth to the fictionalized version of the protest and illuminating the reasons for the events.

There is a distinguished roster of authors, including Kit de Waal, Alexei Sayle, Kate Clanchy, and Frank Cotterell-Boyce, and the time frame is chronological. While this is an easy book to dip in and out of, reading it from page one onwards rewards the reader with an overview of the history of British protests, and a sinking feeling as the same issues come up again and again. The poor and dispossessed often protest to their lords and masters about their harsh living conditions; kings and the nobility burden their serfs with extortionate taxes; a legal system is skewed towards the rich and powerful; and men and boys are forced to go to wars they did not start or understand.

Highlights include Sara Maitland’s ‘The Pardon List’, about Wat Tyler and the Great Rising of 1381. A woman defends her looting and destruction at the Savoy Palace, insisting she has done nothing wrong and has no need to beg for pardon. Professor Jane Whittle’s essay explains the background to the rising, and the fact that a lot of the rebels were reasonably well off craftsmen and town dwellers and not a horde of ignorant peasants.

Laura Hird writes one of the longer pieces in the book, the excellent ‘Spun’, about the Scottish Insurrection of 1820. Sixteen-year-old Andrew White, a real person, gets caught up in the excitement of protest, only to be brought down to earth as the movement is outflanked by the military and the protestors are soon on their way to prison in Stirling Castle. Dr Gordon Pentland of Edinburgh University writes about the reasons for the insurrection which burned bright and fast.

There are so many good short stories and accompanying essays here, it is difficult to leave any unmentioned.  Tales by Frank Cotterll-Boyce on Venner’s Rising, Maggie Gee on the Night Cleaners’ strike, Martyn Bedford on the Battle of Orgreave, and Joanna Quinn on Greenham Common are all thoroughly absorbing and enlightening. Protest is an important collection highlighting the history of dissenting voices in the UK. It teaches rather than preaches and should be required reading for many of our current politicians.

Posted in Book Reviews

A Message from the Other Side Review

Books: Moira Forsyth’s A Message From the Other Side explores the dynamics of modern relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

MOIRA Forsyth’s fifth novel begins with the extraordinary statement, “The dead are everywhere”. Catherine sees them in crowds, in coffee shops, the friends and family she has loved and lost. It doesn’t disturb her, even when she realises she is mistaken. She is comforted by the thought that her loved ones are not far away.

Forsyth delves into the secrets and lies of one extended family, tracking their lives and loves from 1994 to 2014, showing how lying by omission can be as damaging as a bare-faced lie. Relationships ebb and flow, and consequences have to be faced sooner or later.

Catherine and her sister, Helen, married young but neither relationship lasted. Catherine decides to make a fresh start and takes a job in Inverness, moving there with her young daughter, Flora. Hugh, Helen’s ex-husband, lives locally and he becomes a lifeline for Catherine, showing her around the area and introducing her to his friends. The friendship between Catherine and Hugh is beautifully handled, the initial awkwardness of their former connection soon transforms into a close friendship. Hugh is a gentle, rather diffident character, wounded by the failure of his marriage. Catherine is charmed by Hugh’s friend Gil, a shambolic, charismatic man who ekes out a living with The Factory, his second-hand furniture business, housed in a former corset factory. Catherine finds The Factory magical, and in Forsyth’s descriptions of the building it is easy to see why. When seven-year-old Flora reluctantly joins her mother in the Highlands, it is through Gil and The Factory that mother and daughter start to connect again.

Helen has remained in London and is mystified by Catherine’s move to the Highlands. Although they speak often by phone, their former intimacy is lost and it becomes easy to keep secrets. This suits Helen when she begins a relationship with Joe. He is handsome and attentive, offering Helen a financially and materially comfortable life. How he earns money is a mystery, one that Helen, overwhelmed by Joe’s charm, is willing to overlook. “Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies”, he says. A Glaswegian, he also has some old-fashioned views on the roles of men and women within a family, something that Catherine finds astounding but Helen pretends not to notice. Joe is an amorphous character who Forsyth never quite pins down. He is like a ghost in Helen’s life, coming and going when he pleases and never explaining his income or his absences. Hugh introduces Catherine to Gil’s brother, Kenneth, and there is an immediate attraction between them. Kenneth seems to go out of his way to antagonise Catherine, but eventually they begin a relationship which results in a second marriage for both. Kenneth seems to hate Gil, seeing him as a failure who scrounges money from his family rather than sorting his life out. It is a constant bone of contention between the couple, made more so by Flora’s love for Gil and enmity towards the strict Kenneth. If there is one jarring note, it is why Catherine falls for the dour and argumentative Kenneth. The couple spend so much time disagreeing with each other that it seems unlikely that even their undoubted physical attraction can paper over the cracks. Forsyth tells her story in six sections, covering a twenty-year period but not every year is included in her narrative. Instead, she lets the natural flow of the story and the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. It is refreshing to have an author trust her readers to follow the tale without being spoon-fed and makes for a much more satisfying read. The sense of the lead characters waiting for a sign to start a new phase in their lives is well communicated.

This is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships. The imagined or actual slights that exist in most families lends authenticity to the sisters’ extended family. Forsyth examines the everyday niggles of marriages as well as the complex reasons why they break down. Secrets are finally revealed and ghosts laid to rest, and families go on whatever happens. Forsyth’s prose is as smooth as silk, letting her substantial novel of over four hundred pages slip by with surprising speed and no little pleasure.

Posted in Book Reviews

Greatest Hits – Sunday Herald Review

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett


Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

LAURA Barnett follows up her best-selling debut, The Versions of Us, with a tale about Cass Wheeler, a singer-songwriter who found worldwide fame in the 1970s before mysteriously retiring from public life. Barnett fashions Cass as a kind of British answer to Joni Mitchell, with her ethereal voice and folk-influenced music. The story takes place over one day as Cass listens to her old albums to prepare her choice of songs for a greatest hits album, a primer for her return to making music. She wonders whether her incredible success has been worth the sacrifices she has made. With every track, she is thrust back into her past. Most of the chapters open with the lyrics to a song that Cass has written, the story of her life in music. In fact, Barnett has collaborated with Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams to write the lyrics and music, which have been recorded and released as a soundtrack to accompany the novel.

Francis, Cass’s beloved father, is overjoyed by his daughter’s birth in 1950. Her mother, Margaret, is less than thrilled, seeing her as “… a small, damp-headed creature, ugly and mottled, screwing up its face against the light”. Margaret is a cold and withdrawn woman who escapes her unhappy marriage by taking off for Canada with a new lover in tow. Francis is broken by his wife’s desertion and the young Cass feels betrayed and abandoned. Through this, Barnett subtly foreshadows Cass’s own dilemmas as a wife and mother, and her secret fear that she will fail the people she loves most.

Music is Cass’s saviour and she forms an intense professional and personal partnership with Ivor Tait, who brings the best out in the shy teenager. Together they head for Swinging London and form a band, Vertical Heights, writing songs, gigging in pubs and clubs, and travelling around in a ramshackle van. With shades of A Star is Born, Cass is offered a record deal as a solo artist. The rest of the band feel betrayed, none more so than Ivor whose drinking spirals out of control. The clichés continue as Cass and the reluctant Ivor set off on a punishing touring schedule, filled with grubby dressing rooms, and the obligatory alcohol, drugs and groupies. This section of the novel is too long, treading water rather than progressing Cass’s story. The saving grace is Barnett’s expressive descriptions of Cass becoming lost in her music. “No place but this place, no time but this time, and she is nowhere, and everywhere, diving and swimming in this pool of sound.”

The music, fashions and social mores of the 1960s and 1970s are colourfully depicted, with Cass and Ivor caught up in a whirlwind of writing music, recording, and touring. Cass does take time out to have their daughter, Anna, but the pressure to return to work leaves her exhausted and constantly feeling she is short-changing both her child and her music. Meanwhile, her relationship with Ivor is in tatters. He is still furious that Cass was picked out for stardom while he has had to stand in her shadow.

The singer spreads herself too thinly as she tries to be a good daughter, wife, and mother, while staying true to herself and her art. Broken by a tragedy, she stops making music altogether. She is, she says, an ‘Ex-mother. Ex-daughter. Ex-wife’. Poignantly, she also considers herself an ‘ex-musician’. At its heart, Barnett’s novel examines the compromises women make in order to pursue a fulfilling creative and personal life. She offers no easy answers but Cass does eventually find a measure of forgiveness and peace.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Tyrant’s Shadow – Herald Review

The Tyrant’s Shadow

Antonia Senior

Corvus, £17.99

ANTONIA Senior’s third novel is set during the Interregnum, the 11 years between the execution of King Charles I, and the restoration of his son, Charles II to the throne. With various factions struggling to gain power, it is left to Oliver Cromwell to impose a measure of order. With the horrors of the English civil wars behind them, it was a time to remake society along more God-fearing lines.

Patience Johnson is thrilled by the possibilities for change and when she meets charismatic preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she feels it is her destiny to marry him and assist his vocation. Patience is a naïve character, annoyingly so at times, but she is a young woman of her time, and Senior has been careful not to impose modern ideas of women’s lives on her female characters. Sidrach Simmonds is a Fifth Monarchist, a sect which believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and he must prepare the way for the Lord. His public charm is contrasted with his private cruelty, and it is Patience who suffers most.

Patience’s widowed brother, Will, is a lawyer in the employ of Oliver Cromwell. Will’s observations of Cromwell form a far more nuanced view of the man than is often the case. As Cromwell tries to negotiate with the various squabbling cliques, Senior subtly shows him being presented with many of the same problems that led to the downfall of Charles I. Cromwell lives a humble life but slowly the trappings of power seduce and when he becomes Lord Protector, king in all but name, Will is confused and wonders if he was wrong to hold Cromwell in such high regard.

Sam Challoner, brother to Will’s late wife, is a royalist, and follows first Prince Rupert and then Charles II into exile in Europe. He tires of the aimless life at the shadow court and decides to return to England. When he turns up at Will’s door, penniless, Will finds his loyalties divided. Patience is struck by Sam’s cheerful disposition even as he finds himself in such penury. The contrast between her husband’s way of life and Sam’s means that Patience’s loyalties are also divided.

At times Senior’s characterisations verge on cliché. Sidrach Simmonds is an archetypal baddie, devious and cruel under his charming façade. Sam Challoner is a typical Cavalier, merrily enjoying life and having a far more relaxed view of religion than the Puritans. Patience, the heart of the novel, is innocent and wildly idealistic. Her brother Will is the least developed character, grieving for his wife, but he is an important observer of the political upheavals of the time.

Senior’s title is ambiguous and could refer to several men; the executed king, Cromwell, or Sidrach Simmonds. As a picture of a family trying to survive in unsettling times the tale lacks emotional depth. However, as a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times, it never fails to engage.

Posted in Book Reviews

Want You Gone – Herald Review

Want You Gone

Chris Brookmyre

Little, Brown £18.99

ONE of the defining characteristics of Chris Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels is the development of his protagonist. While other crime luminaries rest comfortably in stasis, Parlabane, like a great white shark, keeps moving. This makes him one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction, stumbling into one bad situation after another, but finding a way through thanks to his own particular sense of morality.

In this tale, Parlabane is called on to repay a favour and is plunged into the cyber world of hackers. He is in London to attend an interview with Broadwave, an achingly hip online news outlet. His disreputable past is proving a sticking point but the young editor is a fan and Parlabane soon finds himself in gainful employment. He is living in the flat of a friend who is abroad and his life is settling down. When the Royal Scottish Great Northern bank is hacked, Parlabane decides to get in touch with ace hacker, Buzzkill, who has both helped and hindered him in the past. He is hoping Buzzkill will give him inside information, so that he can start his Broadwave career with an exclusive story.

Meanwhile, Sam Morpeth is living in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Her mother is in prison, and Sam has to look after her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down’s syndrome. Giving up her dream of going to university, Sam leaves school and takes a job in a sandwich shop. In order to work full-time, she tries to access benefits to pay for an after-school club for Lilly. However, she must already be working full-time in order to qualify, the benefits officer with a face “like a recently slammed door” tells her. Brookmyre is no stranger to including social comment in his novels and here he takes aim at the benefits system. He piles misery upon misery on 19-year-old Sam, pushing her to the extreme. Sam’s online life keeps her sane but when a stranger calling himself Zodiac, threatens to expose every facet of her life, she is blackmailed into committing crime. Turning to Parlabane for help, she in turn threatens to expose his more illegal actions to ensure his cooperation. Together they devise the crime, all the while looking for a way to outwit Zodiac. Sam has to think of Lilly’s welfare while Parlabane is trying to keep his new job.

Brookmyre’s black humour is evident throughout the novel. Parlabane comes across a receptionist, “wearing roughly as much foundation as Joan of Arc would need for an open-casket funeral”. When he attends a Broadwave party, “everything is so on-trend that the leftovers are likely binned in a few hours for being out of fashion”.

The online duel between Sam and Zodiac could make for very dull reading. However, Brookmyre injects plenty of jeopardy to ratchet up the tension. Sam explains her plan to Parlabane who knows a little about computers but is lost when she starts planting Trojan Horses and finding back doors. He is more at home when he has to charm vital information from unwitting employees. Although a lot of the action takes place in cyber space, it doesn’t stop Parlabane from breaking and entering premises and almost freezing to death while stealing a prototype from a sub-zero lab. Much of the time he and Sam seem to be one step ahead of the police but one step behind the mysterious Zodiac.

This is an older, somewhat wiser Parlabane, who is trying to get his life on an even keel. He develops an unexpectedly paternal relationship with Sam, which means he takes the kind of risks he had promised himself were in the past. It is curious to see him in this role. Disarmed by Sam’s courage and determination to look after Lilly, he seems bewildered by his feelings.

Brookmyre’s plot is full of surprising twists and turns that make it pleasingly difficult to guess the ending, while Parlabane’s evolution forms the emotional heart of the novel. It is an engrossing read, combining appealing characters with a contemporary scenario drawn from the murkier corners of modern life.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth – Book Oxygen Review

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 16 February 2017

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Mothers and daughters have long provided inspiration for writers. Their complex, multifaceted relationships are like no others. Lilias, a jobbing actress, is the Lady Macbeth of the title in Ajay Close’s fifth novel. Now in her later years, Lilias was a reluctant mother to Freya, who spent her childhood being dumped on friends while Lilias was working, or helping out the landladies in countless theatrical digs. Freya has never known who her father is as Lilias refuses point blank to reveal his identity. It is hard not to be amused by Lilias even as she displays her innate selfishness. She is a narcissist and has a casual relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to her career. The world revolves around Lilias, or it should, and Freya is a bit-player in her mother’s life.

Now in her early forties, Freya and her husband, Frankie, are trying to have a baby and are going down the IVF route. It is costly but Frankie is a television sports reporter and Freya is a senior civil servant working for the Scottish government so they have the funds. They sign up with a private clinic out in the glorious Perthshire countryside and Freya is told she must live locally in order to visit the clinic daily. This, she is told, is the secret of their success. Freya sees the photos of dozens of cherubic babies pinned to the walls of the clinic and grudgingly agrees. There is a business-like brutality to the clinic. Vast sums of money are demanded and couples are put on a production line, desperately hoping there is a baby when they reach the end of it.

Freya is a fascinating character, seemingly well-adjusted in spite of her peripatetic childhood and hoping to give a child a very different upbringing to her own. She is often the adult in her exchanges with her mother but Lilias can still cut her to the quick with the sharp side of her tongue. Working to create a family gives Freya the impetus to find out more about her own.  She decides to look for her father which enrages her mother but Lilias has one more great dramatic role to perform. The past echoes in the present as Freya, unwittingly, seems to be reliving her mother’s life during Lilias’s pregnancy, which is told in vivid flashbacks.

Frankie has adored Freya since they were children but the IVF process takes its toll on their marriage. Freya displays some ambivalence about their relationship and her impulsive actions put it at risk. Frankie is also having a mid-life crisis as a younger colleague at work threatens his position, which only adds to the strain on their marriage.

Close is exploring important matters; nature and artifice, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, loyalty and betrayal. Her prose, as usual, is beautifully polished but this is her most emotional novel to date and is partly inspired by her own experiences. As a picture of a marriage crumbling under pressure it is melancholy and all too genuine. However, it is the rounded and byzantine relationship between Freya and Lilias that lingers long in the mind.

Posted in Book Reviews

Here Comes the Sun, Book Oxygen Review

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Published by Oneworld 16 March 2017

346pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Nicole Dennis-Benn goes behind the bright sunshine, golden sands and blue seas of Jamaica that visitors see to explore the lives of four very different women. Beyond the tourist traps, many Jamaicans are struggling to survive as new developments threaten their already impoverished lives. Those who can leave, those who can’t wait and worry.

Margot lives in a shack in River Bank, with her mother Dolores, younger sister Thandi, and her silent grandmother Merle. Margot works at a tourist hotel, supplementing her salary by providing ‘personal services’ to the rich men who book in. Dolores sells souvenirs and trinkets to the visitors who arrive on cruise ships, but business isn’t good. Both women work to send fifteen-year-old Thandi to an expensive school, vowing that she will have a better life than either of them have known. Thandi, who has to deal with her mother and sister’s expectations that she will become a doctor and leave River Bank far behind, wants to be an artist. She also fall in love with a local boy of whom Dolores disapproves.

Margot may prostitute herself with guests and her boss, but it is Verdene, the village outcast, who holds her heart. Verdene lives alone in a pink house, shunned because she was caught with another girl at college and sent abroad in disgrace. Verdene came home when her mother died but she is still considered a witch by all save Margot. Their love puts them both in serious danger. The girl that Verdene was with at college was raped and murdered when she went back to her home town. Verdene worries that Margot may be subject to the same fate, so their affair is conducted under the cover of darkness.

Dennis-Benn excels in laying bare the love/hate nature of the relationships between the women. Margot and Dolores are constantly sniping at each other, trying to score points and have the last word. There is an unspoken anger hanging in the air between them that is almost tangible. Dolores feels that life has dealt her a bad hand and can’t understand why her daughters aren’t more grateful to her. Margot feel she owes Dolores nothing, having sacrificed her young body to earn the money that will be her passport out of River Bank and away from Dolores. Both women adore Thandi but the daily pressure they put upon her to do well at school is taking its toll.

Dennis-Benn roots the story firmly in Jamaica by using local patois in speech which has a musicality and poetry all of its own. Through Thandi she shows the discrimination against girls with dark skins and the lengths some will go to in order to have the light brown skin that is considered beautiful. It is another desperately sad example of healthy young women being told they are not enough in themselves.

Here Comes the Sun is a wonderful exploration of the very particular world in which these four women find themselves. All of them are looking for a better life away from the poverty of River Bank, all of them wanting to share in the seemingly perfect lives of the rich tourists. It is a very different view of Jamaica, but it feels more honest and authentic than the glossy travel brochures.

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