Posted in Book Reviews

Wonder Valley – Book Oxygen Review

Wonder Valley

Ivy Pochoda

Published by The Indigo Press 20 September 2018

282pp, paperback, £12.99,

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

There is a dream-like quality to Wonder Valley, Ivy Pochoda’s third novel. Sometimes it is beatific, sometimes surreal, and sometimes the stuff of nightmares. Set in modern-day California but not in the affluent areas often portrayed in films and television programmes, this work is located in the grimy, smelly underbelly of the sunshine state and the city of angels. It opens with a traffic jam on an LA freeway, people sweating in their cars as they try to get to work. Suddenly a naked man appears, running between the cars at a steady pace. Tony, hemmed in by his boring job and inflexible wife, is overcome by the sense of freedom that the naked man inspires and he abandons his car and runs after him. The incident is all over the news channels and the internet. While Tony is stopped, the naked runner goes on.

Six disparate characters are revealed in a series of vignettes set in 2006 and 2010, the year of the naked runner. There is Britt, a young woman trying to escape her former life. She turns up at a chicken ranch in the desert where interns work in return for bed, board, and spiritual healing from the charismatic Patrick. Patrick has twin sons, Owen and James, who hate being on the chicken farm as much as their mother. Previously inseparable, they are suddenly split apart by a single act of rebellion. Britt joins in one of the most disturbing episodes in the novel, when two hundred chickens are individually beheaded and plucked, ready for sale.

Not far away in the desert, Blake and Sam are holed up in a shack hoping that Sam’s bad leg break might heal. They are a curious pair, petty criminals who have stuck together for years, surviving rather than living, and always one step in front of the law. Sam, short for Samoan, tells Blake about the myths and legends of his people and Blake steals medications to help his friend cope with the pain of his rotting leg. When another person joins them in their shack, the bonds of their friendship become strained.

The most heart-rending story is that of Ren, a young man who has just been released from juvenile detention on the East Coast. He hasn’t seen his mother for years but decides to travel to the West Coast to find her. What he finds is a shell of the woman she used to be, camping out on the pavements of Skid Row, who has no interest in Ren’s idea of home.

Slowly, and with skill, Pochoda brings these characters together in a melancholy tale of people who have been bruised and abused by life and spent their time running away from rather than running towards something. Pochoda gifts each of her characters with a rounded backstory and a sense of dignity that their circumstances have denied them. Despite the endless sunshine there is a dark side to SoCal, a whole society of people living on the fringes, hanging on by their fingertips, and occasionally glimpsing the clean, bright, safe world just out of their reach.

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Hotel Silence – Book Oxygen Review

Hotel Silence

Auour Ava Olafsdottir

Published by Pushkin Press 22 February 2018

224pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Jonas is a middle-aged man in crisis; getting tattooed is just one sign of his malaise. The anchors of his life have come loose and he is not sure there is a reason to go on. His wife has divorced him, but not before telling him that his twenty-something daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his biological child. His mother has dementia and is sliding into another world. Her lucid moments are becoming more and more rare, and Jonas misses the woman she was. He decides to end it all and calmly contemplates his options. He feels he can’t subject Gudrun Waterlily to the horror of finding his body and decides to disappear, choosing to travel to Hotel Silence, in an unidentified war-torn country, currently experiencing a lull in hostilities. He takes a toolbox and drill with him in case he decides to hang himself and needs to put up a hook.

Icelandic author Olafsdottir’s prose is pleasingly, engagingly spare as she allows things to be left unsaid between the various characters and in the narrative as a whole, leaving gaps that readers must fill in for themselves. Considering the initial subject matter – suicide – this novel is by no means a glum or depressing read. The author has gifted Jonas with a dry wit and an often funny, matter-of-fact attitude to ending his life.

Unexpectedly, Jonas finds life amongst people who have suffered great losses and hardship gives him a new perspective. Hotel Silence, run by brother and sister, Fifi and May, is rundown and in need of many small repairs. Toolbox in hand, Jonas starts to enjoy the feeling of being needed again as he fixes problems around the hotel. He befriends May, who has a young son, Adam, and feels he has a place in the world again. The locals, many of whom are physically and mentally scarred, make Jonas re-assess his life and his decision to end it. Whilst he feels cast adrift, these people have faced the ghastliness of war and yet they do not talk about the past, only their plans to rebuild their shattered lives. He also reads his student notebooks and rediscovers himself as a young man.

Hotel Silence (winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize) could easily become a run-of-the-mill story of one man’s search for redemption but Olafsdottir makes sure that there are no simplistic, happy endings for everyone. Jonas’s spiritual journey from depression to a kind of normality is echoed by the attempts of the locals living around Hotel Silence to return to their pre-war lives. A sense of hope for the future is present in the latter part of the novel, in contrast to the opening chapters. In Jonas, Olafsdottir has created a rounded, humorous character and it is a pleasure to spend some time in his company.

 

 
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A Skinful of Shadows – Book Oxygen

A Skinful of Shadows

Frances Hardinge

Published by Pan Macmillan 21 September 2017

415pp, hardback, £12.99

 

 

Frances Hardinge has written several young adult novels since her award-winning debut Fly By Night was published in 2005. Her last, The Lie Tree, won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year, the first YA novel to win since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001.

Set at the beginning of the English Civil War, Hardinge’s new novel follows the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl called Makepeace, who lives in Poplar, then a small village outside London. Makepeace and her mother, Margaret, are reliant on the charity of relatives to put a roof over their head and food (however meagre) on their plates. Hardinge paints a grim picture of Makepeace’s life in a village that is Puritan in all but name. The outlandish names of its inhabitants – Fight-the-Good-Fight, Spit-in-the-Eye-of-the-Devil, Sorry-for-Sin, Miserable-Sinners-Are-We-All – offer an insight into the kind of society in which Makepeace lives.

Makepeace senses that she and her mother are different from the other people of Poplar, and just as keenly senses that she must hide any differences lest they be cast out of the village. Secretly, Margaret begins to teach Makepeace how to resist the ghosts of the recently dead who are desperate to find a body to contain them once more. Makepeace is special in that she has spaces in her mind where the dead might hide. If she is taken over by an evil spirit, or too many spirits, Makepeace will cease to exist. She will become a vessel that the spirits will control. Once a month Margaret forces Makepeace to spend the night in a graveyard so that she will learn to resist the marauding ghosts. Makepeace learns her lessons well but just once she lets her guard down and a spirit enters her. This spirit will help and hinder Makepeace as she tries to discover more about her origins.

Hardinge introduces some complex ideas about the nature of death and what might lie beyond which in other hands might bamboozle a young reader. However, she explains the crux of her plot well, making sure there are many opportunities for Makepeace to find herself in jeopardy, whether physical or spiritual.

With her mother’s death, Makepeace is packed off to her father’s family. Never having known her father, the rich, noble Fellmottes are a mystery to her. She soon discovers a number of strange relatives who frighten her with their dark, searching eyes. She tries to keep herself out of sight, working hard in the kitchen to earn her keep. But things are going on behind the respectable façade of the Fellmottes that spell danger for Makepeace and even her spirit lodger cannot help her. Again and again, she tries to escape the gloomy Fellmottes and then the outbreak of the Civil War suddenly presents her with new opportunities for flight.

Although aimed towards the young adult market, this is a well written novel with some extraordinary ideas that may be enjoyed by readers of any age. Hardinge employs enough cliff-hangers to keep the pages turning and her insights into the day-to-day privations in a country at war with itself are fascinating. She has a smooth style and the pages slip by with ease, making this absorbing, substantial novel feel much shorter than it is.

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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.

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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.

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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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Cartes Postale from Greece – Book Oxygen Review

Cartes Postale from Greece

Victoria Hislop

Published by Headline Review 22 September 2016

429pp, hardback, £19.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

 

This is Victoria Hislop’s sixth work of fiction, and rather than a novel it is a series of short stories and vignettes framed within two narratives. Filled with photographs of Greece, it’s a charming book designed as the ideal read for busy people or those on holiday.  The comforting, conversational style means it easy to put the book down for a while and then pick up the threads of the stories again.

It opens with Ellie, a newcomer to London who is feeling lonely and isolated, wondering where the bright lights and beautiful people are hiding. One day a postcard arrives from Greece, signed ‘A’. Ellie assumes that the postcard is meant for a previous occupant of her rented basement flat, but the postcards keep arriving and Ellie begins to look forward to them. The collage she makes of them brightens her miserable home and she is dejected when, after six months, they suddenly stop. Although Ellie is the first frame for the short stories, Hislop does not dismiss her with a thumbnail sketch. Ellie is given a backstory, and her feelings of isolation are authentic. The postcards from the mysterious ‘A’ fill a clearly outlined emotional void and Ellie’s sudden decision to see Greece for herself does not feel forced.

Just as Ellie is leaving for the airport a notebook arrives and she stuffs it into her bags. She soon discovers that ‘A’ has written it, recording his journeys through Greece and his feelings about the woman to  whom he had addressed the postcards, who seems to have left him. So begins the second frame, as ‘A’ travels through Greece and relays the stories, myths and gossip that he hears. The stories range from funny to touching and scary, and each is a short, self-contained tale. Hislop manages to convey the rhythms of Greeks speaking English without lapsing into parody, which is a relief. The character of the country comes through strongly as do the events that shaped it, such as the Turkish occupation and the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The current financial crisis is well covered, as are the blood feuds of ancient and modern times.

‘A’ spills his anguish into the notebook as he tries to heal his heartbreak. Slowly he begins to put things into perspective, taking a more philosophical view of the break-up of his relationship. Greece, a beautiful and diverse landscape, works its magic and brings him a measure of peace.

The many photos scattered throughout the book show Greece in its various guises. At times if feels as if there are perhaps too many images. It is said that radio has the best pictures and that often applies to books too. The book’s ending is rather too neat and tidy but it will appeal to romantics. ‘A’s story may be sad but the book closes on a positive note for him and Ellie.