Monday, 19 November 2018

The Girl In The Broken Mirror, by Savita Kalhan

This is a riveting read, though not a comfortable one: indeed, how could it be in any way comfortable when at the heart of it is a brutal rape?

It tells the story of Jay, a fifteen year old girl born in England but from an Indian family. Up until she is eleven, she has a comfortable, happy life: her father,who has wholeheartedly embraced English life, has a successful business, and she goes to a private school. But then her father wraps his car round a tree, and they discover after his death that his business has failed and he has lost everything.

The story demonstrates very clearly how thin is the barrier between relative wealth and poverty. Jay and her mother move to a tiny flat above a grocer's. Jay moves from her private school to a comprehensive and works part time in the shop: her mother has two jobs and studies part-time to train as a teacher, which she hopes will be their way out of their situation. Jay has a plan too: she is studying hard, in the hope of getting a scholarship to a university, and then a good job. And she has two very good friends, Chloe and Matt - who is just becoming more than a friend.

But then the grocer decides to sell his shop, and Jay's mother tells her that they are to move in with Uncle Bal and Auntie Vimala. Uncle Bal is a kindly man, but he is dominated by his horrible wife, who is a more traditional Indian - and uses this as an excuse to demand that Jay and her mother act as pretty much unpaid servants in the house. Thay have two sons, gentle Ash, who is still at home, and Deven, a very unpleasant university student who is the apple of his mother's eye.

At the beginning of the book, Jay is just waking up in the aftermath of the rape. The writing is powerful and visceral, and Savita Kalhan, absolutely makes us understand why Jay feels she is filthy and spoiled, and that all she can think of doing - once she has scrubbed herself with bleach in a vain attempt to make herself feel clean - is to get as far away from the house as she can. The next section tells us what led up to the rape, and then we learn of its aftermath: of how Jay tries to come back from it, with the help of her friends. This process is not made to seem easy or inevitable: it's painful not only for Jay but for those around her, particularly her mother.

The book demonstrates how difficult it can be to be caught between two cultures. It also shows clearly how hard it is to get out of poverty - and it shows how, apart from these more dramatic difficulties, being a teenager isn't the easiest thing either. Savita Kalhan is not afraid to confront things that it would be easier to avoid, and because she writes so well and creates such very real characters, she puts the reader right in the middle of some very distressing experiences. Yet ultimately she offers hope, and shows that generosity and kindness are to be found more often than brutality and arrogance, and will, in the end, triumph.



Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Truth About Archie And Pye, by Jonathan Pinnock

As it says on the cover, this is a mathematical mystery. But don't be frightened. I'm utterly useless at maths, but I managed!

It's about a hapless (and useless) PR man who loses his job at the beginning of the book. On the train on his way back from the incident which causes the job loss, he happens to meet a writer called Burgess, who somehow leaves behind a suitcase. Tom picks it up, meaning to return it - but finds that the writer has been murdered. Thus begins a hilarious chain of unfortunate events, during the course of which Tom loses his partner, his home, and very nearly his life. It really shouldn't be funny, but it is - very. It's a bit like a book I vaguely remember from years ago, called Aberystwyth Mon Amour, by Malcolm Pryce: or in terms of the humour, rather like Father Ted. Tom is hopeless - you can guarantee that if there's a banana skin withing ten miles of him, he'll find it and trip over it. The account of a car chase in which he is driving his partners's 'lovely, little car', and thinks he is being pursued by the Byelorussian mafia (he isn't - then) is brilliant. There's also a well-muscled zumba teacher called Arkady (actually a qualified pathologist back in - you've guessed it - Belarus) who I was particularly fond of, and a game-designer called Ali who is wonderfully single-minded and stroppy. In fact they're such good characters, I'd really like to meet up with them again.

The book is published by Farrago, a new publisher whose mission is to seek out funny books. Well, they've certainly come up with the goods with this one. Perfect for dispersing the November glooms.

Friday, 31 August 2018

'Jelly', by Jo Cotterill

Today, a review. It's always difficult to assign an age range to a book, but I'd say this is somewhere in the region of 10+. It's a beautifully written story about an interesting and complex character, who happens also to be overweight. This doesn't govern her life, but it certainly affects the way she behaves: she finds a way to cope with it, but it doesn't quite do the trick...

This is a thoughtful novel - funny, but with very serious undercurrents - about Angelica, who is known as Jelly (not only because it's short for Angelica). Jelly is the narrator, and just as in class she plays the comedian to deflect attention from her weight, she acts a part for the reader too, often trying to convince us that she really doesn't care about being teased or not being able to wear the kind of clothes her slimmer friends wear - though her hurt does show through. Jo Cotterill handles this very adeptly, using poems which Jelly writes in secret to express her real feelings.

But the poems also play a crucial part in the plot, which of course I won't reveal. But trust me, it's cleverly done.

Jelly's mum is single, slim and pretty, but seems to have bad taste in boyfriends - until she meets Lennon, a musician. Lennon is a lovely character. He is genuinely interested in Jelly, and turns out to be good for both her and her mother - which is actually a delightful surprise: writers often take delight in throwing at their hero or heroine every misfortune they can think of, so when Lennon first appears, you take a deep breath and wait for him to turn out to be deeply unpleasant beneath the charming exterior. But it doesn't happen, and I found this really refreshing: Jo Cotterill is good at upending the reader's expectations.

Jelly is a brilliantly realised character. She's clever, she gets on with people, and she knows how to deflect attention so that she won't be bullied. There are times when it could happen, but she swerves to avoid it: for example, when she's playing football - which she's good at - she gets annoyed with another player and makes a mistake. Will, another player, teases her: "You're like the Hulk, Jelly. He lets his anger get the better of him too." The ball comes at her and she falls awkwardly. Will laughs raucously, and even her friend is smiling. She could get angry, but instead, she deflects: she clowns another fall and says, "Did you see that? I was like a hippo falling off a cliff!" The others laugh, so it's worked: but 'something twinges painfully inside me, but I keep going because they're laughing.'

Even the teachers, to start off with, are amused by her antics. But somehow things start to unravel, and she goes too far and it all goes wrong.

There was one thing that I felt a little puzzled by. Jelly wants to be judged for herself - of course she does, and quite rightly so. But clearly, being overweight makes life difficult for her, and I wondered sometimes why her mother seemed not to see this, buying her doughnuts for treats and so on. A point to discuss - but only one of many: this would be a brilliant book to read with early or pre-teens: a very good read, and one with lots of layers.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

Mr B’s, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a wonderful independent book shop in Bath. I’m about an hour away from Bath, and my nearest bookshop is a small Waterstones - so Mr B’s isn’t exactly my local.

But a couple of weeks ago, I spent a whole afternoon there. The reason? Last Christmas, one of my children gave me a truly magnificent present: it’s called a Reading Spa - in my view, just so much better than the other kind of spa!

What happens is this. You turn up at the shop - which is a characterful series of little rooms, linked by narrow staircases and with a surprise round every corner - and meet your designated ‘bibliophile’. You will already have given a few details about yourself and your reading habits over the phone when you made your appointment. You go upstairs, and sit in comfortable armchairs with tea or coffee and a delicious cake - and then you talk books, for an hour and a half! First you talk in more detail about the kind of thing you like, then your guide - for me, the delightful and very expert Amy - goes off to choose a selection of books for you to choose from - you have £55 to spend.

A corner of the children's department.
There’s so much that’s good about this. It’s a joy just to talk about books with someone else who loves books just as much as I do. And Amy produced a pile of books that I hadn’t come across. She introduced each one, explaining what it was about and why she thought I might like it - in some cases, she’d enlisted the help of colleagues. It was actually very difficult to choose. Eventually I ended up with a pile of ‘definites’ and another of ‘maybes’, and Amy promised to email me a list of the ‘maybes’. 

I left with my books, a bag, a mug, and a voucher towards my next purchase from Mr B’s. And I’ll certainly use it. I think the Reading Spa is an excellent idea, and Mr B truly is an Emporium of Reading Delights. 

And the books I chose? Here they are. 



I plan to write about them here as I read them. 

With many thanks, to Richard (my son), and Amy, from Mr B’s.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Eleanor Oliphaunt is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

This book has absolutely rightly done really well, so probably lots of you have read it already. And I can’t say mouth about it because it would spoil its unexpectedness. But I’ve just finished it so I want to acknowledge it and say how much I enjoyed it.

It’s about a young woman who at the beginning of the book has very little in her life, and is convinced that’s how she likes it. She lives alone, has a job she tolerates with people who puzzle her, and can only get through the weekends by drinking copious amounts of vodka alone in her flat. But gradually things begin to change, and we find out, bit by bit, why she is in this state.

It’s sad, shocking, but also very funny. I feel better for having read it.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Assassin's Fate, by Robin Hobb


First, let's just take a look at the cover. Isn't it perfectly luscious? It's by Jackie Morris, who recently collaborated with Robert MacFarlane on a beautiful book called Lost Words, which seeks to reclaim - particularly for children - words to do with nature which are apparently no longer widely familiar.

That book is wonderful, but let's get back to this one, which I finished last night. (There were tears, but more of that later.) The bee represents a child called Bee, who has been kidnapped and taken to an island called Clerres, whose white stronghold is also pictured. If you look closely, you'll see in the decoration of the letter 'A' two candles; Bee carries with her a candle, broken into two, which was made by her mother, now dead. She dreams about candles too, and about lots of other things. This dreaming is important, and it's part of the reason she's been kidnapped.

It's a very fat book, and it's the last in a very long series, which features Bee's father, Fitz, and his 'friend' (it's not the right word, but it's difficult to really explain their relationship without telling too much of the story), the Fool. It's fantasy, and I don't often read fantasy (although some of my favourite books in the past have been fantasy, notably The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Is Rising). I got into this one because several writer friends whose opinions I respect had enthused about it. When I downloaded the first one, I read a few pages and decided I couldn't be bothered to get into this world. Months later, for some reason, I decided to have another go - and I was hooked.

Robin Hobb is a brilliant writer. Not only does she create a complex fantasy world: she peoples it with richly realised characters who you really care about, she tells a story that hooks you in and won't let you go as few people can - and somehow, she keeps all the zillions of narrative threads in her fingers, over thousands upon thousands of pages, and weaves them together with the utmost skill. One example - the first few books concern Fritz and the Fool, and their lives in the Six Duchies. The next sequence deals with an entirely separate country, the Rainwilds, and its neighbours the Bingtown Traders, who possess the extraordinary liveships, which are sentient and have talking, moving figureheads. It's not at all obvious that these two sets of stories are connected, except by virtue of taking place in different parts of the same fantasy world - but in the next sequence, you discover that they are in fact intimately connected. It's just so clever - I have no idea how she manages to keep all those plates spinning.

The way she manages to bring it all together and explain most - not all - of the mysteries, in this last book, is an absolute tour-de-force. And it's so sad at the end - sad because of what happens, but also because you know you're saying goodbye to all of the characters. (Unless - unless - she changes her mind. There are stories still to be told...)

In the meantime, I may just have to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Soothing things

Have been rather busy lately, which is why I haven't been here much. But today I felt in need of a bit of soothing, so instead of looking at emails or the news, I started to look through my photos. And they very quickly began to do the job - with a little help from William Wordsworth and John Masefield.


Here's the first. I took it one day last week, when I went for a walk round the reservoir. It was a beautiful afternoon: bright, cold and very windy. The picture is actually deceptive because it makes the water look calm - in fact, it was turbulent, full of restless energy: so much so that it seemed alive, prowling and predatory. It made me think of that bit from Wordsworth's Prelude - though, as I discovered when I looked it up, he was actually talking about a mountain, not a lake:

..............................................the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measur'd motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

And a little further on:

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men mov'd slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

And here's the next: a picture of the Bristol harbourside.



I was heading towards the ss Great Britain, which has something fresh to see every time I go. But this, below, is an old favourite, not a new one: on the door of each cubicle in the loos is an extract from a poem to do with the sea. This is one. It seemed the perfect accompaniment to Bristol, as well as to Brunel's beautiful ship. And I like the last line, which says that by travelling, we may 'know the thoughts of men in other lands'. It's what we need, but often signally fail to do: to know the thoughts of others.


And finally a picture from the dear old hill, and one from the Avalon Marshes: and a final thought from Wordsworth's poem, Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.



...........with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Thank you, John and William.