America City by Chris Beckett

america city

Set approximately one hundred years from now, America is in crisis. The warmer climate has led a divided country: the storm and drought ravaged south is emptying as citizens flee their battered homes and dust filled farms; in the north communities are under pressure as refugees arrive and set up in caravan parks – the southerners are far from welcome. A wall has already been built between the US and Mexico, and now it is Canada who are under pressure to let in more Americans each year.

Holly is a young British publicist, living in Seattle with husband Richard. Both would consider themselves delicados, the 22nd century word for liberals, but Holly has ambition. When she’s invited to join the presidential campaign for Senator Stephen Slaymaker, a man who stands against everything she says she believes in, she jumps at the chance. After all, his sole vision is to bring America together for a more successful future. Within weeks the battle to push fake news into the ‘whisperstream’ (a sort of futuristic social media) has made her his right hand woman, complicit in every move the campaign makes. Her challenge is to decide how far she will support Slaymaker’s strategies when they begin to diverge from the initial focus.

The great strength of this novel is how close Beckett drives it to our current situation. There is reference to the Tyranny, a 21st century calamity which, reading between the lines, could be the resultant fall out from the current US presidency. In the wake of this year’s storms, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that in a few decades it will be impossible to get insurance on homes in those areas, or that the houses and businesses would become worthless. Add in the increase in AI and robots, a decrease in manual labour jobs, and the situation put forward reads as an inevitability.

There was a sense of inevitability in the way that events play out in terms of the ‘human element’ of Holly and her relationships with Richard and their friends. I was less interested in this aspect and I wasn’t sure either what the Afterword was supposed to add to it. On reflection, this was just played a little too safe. Although there are various precarious situations shown to the reader, they’re a little too distant, all happening to people other than the main protagonists. In one way, this does serve to illustrate how northerners feel about the plight of southerners, that dispassionate idea that bad things happen to other people; on the other hand the human angle could have been so much sharper had danger been present.

Regardless, this was a thrilling read that is being published at exactly the right time.

Thank you to Readers First for the review copy.

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

hours before dawn

Billed as the original psychological thriller, winning the 1960 Edgar Award for best mystery novel, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s debut. First published in 1958, it is of its time in some ways but had me guessing throughout.

Louise Henderson can’t understand why her baby son, Michael, won’t stop crying. All through the night he keeps her awake to the point that she can’t remember the last time she had a full night’s sleep. She never had this problem with either of her daughters and wonders what on earth could be wrong with her son. Husband Mark complains about the noise,  reminding Louise that he never wanted a third child rather than offering to help. In fact, the only element of this novel that dates it particularly is this pre-feminist attitude that shows Louise struggling to cope because parenting is entirely her own responsibility.

It was thoughtful of Mark to switch off the alarm so that Louise should have an extra hour’s sleep after such a night. It was thoughtful of him, too, to get his own breakfast and to bring her a cup of tea when he left for work at half past eight. The only trouble was that by half past eight the girls also should have had their breakfast; should, indeed, have been almost ready for school instead of lying peacefully in their beds reading comics. Thus it happened that Louise was able to produce only the thinnest pretence of gratitude for all these attentions; and as she leapt out of bed and dashed into the girls’ room, leaving her tea half slopped into its saucer, she knew very well that Mark’s feelings must have been hurt. 

And if this isn’t enough, she has their new lodger to deal with. Miss Brandon seems to be an incredibly organised and efficient schoolteacher. She never complains about the noise and yet there’s something odd about her. Both Louise and Mark agree that there is something familiar about her, though they can’t imagine where they might have come across her before. And a friend later tells Louise that Miss Brandon asked for her address, even before the advert had been posted to let the room. But why would Miss Brandon be interested in Louise and her family?

Fremlin writes in such a way that the reader (and Louise) can never quite decide if there is really something going on or if Louise is slowly going mad through lack of sleep. She falls asleep during the day, has dreamlike moments when she’s unsure whether she is awake or asleep. It doesn’t help that Mark assumes her worries over Miss Brandon are down to jealousy. And he doesn’t help either by spending hours upstairs in Miss Brandon’s room, apparently discussing Ancient Greek and other intellectual subjects that Louise has no interest in (I spent much of my time reading this novel trying to work out if Mark was just spectacularly useless or actually a terrible person).

Fremlin slowly increases the tension as Louise becomes more convinced of the guilt of Miss Brandon, even as she struggles to work out what she could possibly want from the Hendersons. The ending, when it came, was not a surprise but was very satisfying.

Another Country by James Baldwin

Another c

Published in 1962, Another Country is set in the Bohemian underworld of New York, exploring race, sexuality, poverty and wealth existing side by side.

Rufus Scott is a Harlem jazz musician, fallen on hard times as we meet him wandering the streets, sleeping in a movie theatre during the day. Prior to this he was a success. People knew his name; they still do but now they look at him in horror, shocked at what he has become. Seven months prior, he met southern girl, Leona, at a club and began an ill-fated love affair that triggered his self-destructive nature and ended badly for both of them.

Meanwhile, Rufus’ friend, Vivaldo is a frustrated novelist, working in a bookstore to pay rent. His friend Richard has just sold his first novel and has what looks like the ideal life: married to the beautiful Cass, with two sons. When Rufus goes missing after a night out, his frantic sister, Ida comes to Vivaldo and Cass for help in finding him. It is the relationship between her and Vivaldo which Baldwin uses best to illustrate racial attitudes of the time:

Now, as she walked beside him, trim and oddly elegant in a heavy, dark blue cost, and with her head covered by an old-fashioned and rather theatrical shawl, he saw that both her vanity and her contempt were being swollen by the glances which rested on her as briefly and unforgettably as the touch of a whip. She was very, very dark, she was beautiful; and he was proud to be with her, artlessly proud, in the shining, overt, male way; but the eyes they passed accused him, enviously, of a sniggering, back-alley conquest. White men looked at her, then looked at him. They looked at her as though she were no better, though more lascivious and rare, than a whore. And then the eyes of the men sought his, inviting a wet complicity.

Where Rufus, in his relationship with Leona, struggled to deal with the attention as a black man walking with a white woman, Vivaldo owns the privilege of a white man. Despite moving in together, the barrier to intimacy is caused by Ida. Seeing this relationship mainly through Vivaldo’s perspective is particularly interesting as his frustration grows.  Ida refuses to accept his ‘I don’t see colour’ attitude; he begins to suspect she’s having an affair.

Into this mix is thrown the failure of Richard and Cass’s marriage as his literary success is reached through sacrificing his talent to produce a novel which earns him a fortune but is far less worthy than he had hoped for. The knowledge that both Cass and Vivaldo don’t rate his work becomes as corrosive to his marriage as Rufus’ inability to deal with the perceptions of others poisons his friendships and, ultimately, leads to a tragic end for both he and Leona. Eric, an old friend who’s been living in France with his lover Yves, returns to New York and becomes the catalyst for change amongst this group of aimless misfits. Sexuality becomes blurred as the friends rely on one another for comfort of one sort or another: sex, alcohol, drugs, friendship.

This novel is an immersive experience that flows effortlessly. There are so many beautifully written passages that are evocative of both time and place, and yet never once does the prose feel forced. Around halfway through the book is a sentence in which Baldwin is describing Ida’s voice as she sings in public for the first time. In some ways it could be used to describe his own writing in this novel:

This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms – while still leaving them standing mightily, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and give life, and kills.

 

Modern Gods by Nick Laird

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Alison is getting married for the second time. After an abusive first marriage to an alcoholic, she is confident that quiet, thoughtful Stephen will be a good dad to her two kids. She knows he has a difficult past but has resisted enquiring about it, happier to let sleeping dogs lie. She worries about what her older sister Liz will make of him, and of her: Alison has never left the small town she grew up in and still works at her father’s estate agency. She worries what her sister will make of Stephen and this dull life she’s made for herself.

Liz’s family had downsized their role in her life since she left home, of course, but not in the way she’d expected. They were like a village she had once lived in that had been shrunk down to miniature. The relationships didn’t loosen to old friendships; they contracted over the years, but retained all the same angles and shapes, the same functions of shame and despair and joy. It was like a scale model she lived in – and it still functioned. The little train ran, the signs swung outside the little shops, tiny people went from room to room, turning on and off the lights. Interacting with her family was like entering the village as an adult – outsized, and trying to crawl under the arches and bridges and flyovers, trying not to put one’s size-fives in the miniscule flowerbeds.

Liz is in her thirties, independent, a college professor teaching in New York City. The very day she’s supposed to fly home for Alison’s wedding, she walks in on her live-in boyfriend in bed with another man. Single and in her thirties, she feels as though her life is stalling. The offer to present a BBC documentary on a new religion that has sprung up in Papua New Guinea, on an island called New Ulster, is a welcome lifeline.

The two sisters form the heart of this novel, which throws up a lot of interesting ideas on religion, Over in New Ulster, Liz is torn between the New Truth Mission, represented by Josh Werner and his family, and the Story’s new movement led by the Werner’s former nanny, Belef. On the face of it, Belef is a grieving woman who feels lied to by the church, but Liz is shaken by several things she hears while in the village. The Werners are also far from sympathetic, Josh so desperate to quash Belef’s influence that he uses her daughter’s grave as a battleground. There is always a subtle threat of violence, both in Liz’s expectations of what PNG is, and in the actions and words of the people she meets.

Back in Northern Ireland, Alison is forced to confront the real identity of her new husband. The man who is so patient with her children has a darker past than she could have imagined. Even as she berates herself for sticking her head in the sand, she carries on, going through with a honeymoon where they are pleasantly civil to one another. It is only when she overhears Stephen telling his side of the story, to a neutral observer, that she begins to understand exactly what it is that he’s done.

This scene, with Alison in the next room and Stephen recounting his upbringing, is perhaps a little clumsy though I understand why it was easier to put his story across in this way. It’s a matter of fact retelling that attempts to explain Stephen’s actions as a younger man, a man who he says no longer exists. Elsewhere I felt that the clashing of religion was done in a more subtle way, events in PNG coming to a head after a strange hallucination scene that leads to Liz’s expulsion from the New Truth’s trust and forces their hand. The tragedy here was more simply drawn, though no less brutal.

In some ways, having the two locations interspersed kept the pace going. I did find the PNG section more vibrant but perhaps that is mainly because of the contrast with the more low-key scenes as Alison and Stephen try to move on while refusing to confront their main issue. I also felt that both Alison and Liz changed for the better during the course of the novel and there was a satisfying resolution. This book looks at difficult topics and yet remains an enjoyable read that kept me interested throughout. There are light moments as well as dark. Perhaps at times I would have liked a little more of the darker side, especially when it came to Stephen, but overall I think the balance was well-judged.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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It’s been a while since my last review but I’m finally getting a chance to get caught up! In my defence I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my novel which is finally complete (hallelujah!). My Man Booker shortlist reading fell by the wayside but there were a couple of the novels that I had still to read including this one: Elmet.

Daniel lives with his sister Cathy and his Daddy in a house built by his father by a copse two fields over from the east coast main line. The book opens with Daniel heading north along the tracks, looking for someone, before going back to the beginning of his story: their arrival at the copse as Daniel turns fourteen and Cathy turns fifteen. This life we see immediately is unconventional. Prior to their arrival on the outskirts of the village, the children lived with their grandmother, both parents fading in and out of their lives. They went to school. Now that Granny Morley has passed away their father has come back to care for them but in his own way. Both still minors, he doesn’t send them to school but instead to neighbour Vivien. She teaches Daniel from what books she keeps in her house; Cathy refuses and spends her time outside, exploring the countryside. Daddy teaches both children how to hunt and use the countryside for survival, living outside of the wider society.

I enjoyed the attention to the surroundings and reading about this different way of living. I was drawn completely with Mozley’s language resulting in vivid imagery. One of my favourite scenes was the Christmas Tree that Daddy makes, covering a pine tree in the copse with oil lanterns that are carefully designed so that they glow and dance in the darkness. So beautiful.  The characters were well-rounded and the dynamic between the family and the villagers, an element of distrust always visible, worked to keep them close but always slightly outside of the regular society.

Where I became a little less sure of the novel was when the plot suddenly becomes evident, quite late on. It almost felt as though the book had originally been one thing and, perhaps in order to make it sell, had been changed into something else that was more plot-driven. Something felt disjointed anyway, at least for me. I was alright with this until the very end when events take such a dramatic turn that I didn’t buy it at all. This is, up to a certain point, a slow-moving book. I was fine with that. I even quite liked the arrival of an antagonist and thought he was used very well. I can’t be more specific without spoilers but I think that the Biblical level finale had an issue because I didn’t understand the motivation for that level of violence, beginning with the catalyst, an event that occurs completely off the page and seemed too extreme. A Tarantino-esque ending to what had been quite a gentle literary novel. I feel like the paragraph that starts at the bottom of p298 of my copy is a literal representation for what was done to this book.

Overall, I thought this was a great debut, and I’m glad that getting shortlisted for the Man Booker will have brought it to more people’s attention. Compared to some of the heavyweights on that list, it didn’t really stand a chance but it was just the small issues with pacing that really threw me off. I’m excited to see what comes next from Fiona Mozley.

 

 

 

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire

Home Fire is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Told from five points of view, Shamsie aims to give a holistic overview of the events that lead the characters to their inevitable conclusion. You don’t need to know the source material to read this novel but knowing its a Greek tragedy is enough to work out that things are not going to go well.

The novel begins with Isma, a Muslim woman, missing her flight to Boston as she gets interrogated at Heathrow airport. After sacrificing years to looking after her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, she finally has the opportunity to recommence her academic life having won a scholarship to an American university. Responsibility fell upon Isma’s shoulders after her mother died. Her father, absent for most of her childhood, left the family to become a jihadist, a legacy that has recently caught up with Isma’s family since Parvaiz has chosen to follow  in his father’s footsteps.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn in a coffee shop. The handsome mixed race son of a British Muslim politician who has divided opinion through his hardline comments, seen by many Muslims as pandering to the anti-Islamists, Eamonn is directionless, unsure what to do with his life. He doesn’t realise that Isma already has a reason to despise his father and she keeps this knowledge to herself, surprised to find that she enjoys his company. She starts to hope that their relationship might develop but when Eamonn visits her at home and sees a photograph of sister Aneeka on a shelf, his reaction shows her that as far as he is concerned Isma will only be a friend.

What I loved about this book is the way Shamsie tackles a difficult subject matter. Rather than viewing Parvaiz the jihadi from afar, she shows us (albeit it briefly – one of the slight flaws of the novel) his radicalisation. From being approached in London by a recruiter, we see flashes of life in Syria and his growing realisation that he was an easy mark, his father’s past used to reel him in. Meanwhile back in London, his actions have split his family. Aneeka refuses to speak to Isma once she discovers that Isma was the one who alerted the police to their brother’s departure. Even when Isma points out that she did it to save Aneeka’s future career in the law, her sister cannot forgive her.

Each character in the novel has a specific role to play and this is where a few flaws creep in, at least in my opinion. Because their fate was already mapped out and the story is draped over a pre-existing plot, not all of their actions felt honest. Because we moved amongst the viewpoints of five different people, it also felt that there wasn’t enough time spent with each. I enjoyed reading each section but fifty or so pages doesn’t give great insight into a person’s actions. I felt this perhaps the most in the last section, following Eamonn’s father, Karamat Lone.

What I found quite interesting, and only noticed afterwards, is the power that each woman has compared to the men. Aneeka seduces Eamonn in an attempt to save her brother, Parvaiz, whose emotional weakness was exploited by the IS recruiters. Both Eamonn and Parvaiz are in limbo, young men with no clear career path. Even Karamat Lone, Home Secretary, is in a precarious position. Having turned his back on his religion he realises too late that even with that sacrifice he will always be considered as ‘other’. His wife is a successful businesswoman in her own right; his treatment of Eamonn when he discovers the relationship with Aneeka drives her away.

For me, this is easily a ‘one-sitting’ book. Pacy and thrilling, there were few standout sentences but the storytelling is sublime. I just wish the last few pages hadn’t gone a tad Homeland. 

 

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

broken homes

Book Four in the PC Grant series continues where the previous left off in terms of the plot concerning the Faceless Man, the dark magician who has already tried to kill Peter Grant. A car crash just outside of Crawley turns up a suspect, Robert Weil, already on Grant’s list of FM’s suspected associates, known as the Little Crocodiles. Human blood found in Weil’s car lead the local police, Grant and Nightingale in tow, to a dumping ground where they find the body of a woman, her face mutilated to avoid identification.

To add to PC Grant’s workload, another potential Little Crocodile goes under a train at Baker Street and the CCTV shows him acting decidedly dodgy just before: almost as though he were under a glamour that forced him to jump. The investigation leads him to a housing estate in Elephant and Castle, designed by eccentric German architect Erik Stromberg, and the sensible decision seems to be for Peter and Lesley May to move in…

For some reason, Stromberg had designed a hexagonal central shaft that ran up the middle of the tower so that for the first few years you could lean over and stare all the way down to the basement level. Since it didn’t function as a light-well and it was ten times wider than needed for the building’s tuned mass damper, it was a bizarre bit of architectural whimsy even for the late 1960s. The tenants soon put it to good use as a combination waste disposal area and emergency urinal and after two suicides and a notorious murder case, the council installed heavy duty wire mesh to seal it off from the walkways.

As well as the strange architectural quirks of the building, there are strange goings on amongst the residents, those who are left after the council have enticed many of them to leave. Becoming more reminiscent of the tower block in JG Ballard’s High-Rise, the reason for the Faceless Man’s interest only becomes clear at the climax of the novel as, for once, it seems that Peter is one step ahead for once.

I enjoyed the return to the main storyline with the Faceless Man, and Aaronovitch has a great cast of characters now. There are frequent ‘cameos’ throughout this book, not all of them important to the overall story but adding to the enjoyment of the reader. There is an interesting twist at the end which has me keen to get onto the next book asap and I finally feel like Peter is getting to grips both with magic and the ordinary policing side – at least he seemed less reckless in this instalment, though he still managed to get into plenty of hairy situations. It will be interesting to see how he moves on from the final events of this novel…