A Wicked Old Woman – Ravinder Randwana

Some time ago I joined a Facebook group of UK book bloggers. You know what it’s like these days – there is no activity which doesn’t have a social media group to give you help, advice and general support. You can probably work out when I joined the group (and started taking their very sensible advice) because that’s when I started posting more regularly and generally organised my reading and reviewing. One of the types of post that comes up fairly regularly in the group is the ‘blog tour’ post – they seemed fairly self-explanatory but when I saw a post asking for contributors to a tour recently I decided to give it a go. Mostly out of nosiness to know how the whole thing works….It turns out it is pretty much like any other book review but to a set time scale (I bet you could have told me that yourself). The time scale was my main issue with this review – I was sure I’d have plenty of time to read, digest and review the book (which isn’t hugely long at less than 250 pages ) but I’d rather forgotten that I also have a job and a social life as well as a reading one. Oops. Still, a couple of days off spent reading and taking notes solidly and I’m ready to go.

A Wicked Old WomanThis is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider. At first you notice the obvious ones – Kulwant, the central character, caught between her traditional Indian upbringing and England in the 60s, 70s and 80s; Shirley, who marries Kulwant’s son; Rani/Rosalind the teenage rebel who seems to run away from anyone who tries to forge any kind of relationship with her – but as you progress it seems that everyone in the book is an outsider of one sort or another. They don’t fit in to their families, their culture or the society they have to live in and they often tend to blame those who they see as the ‘insiders’ (although we can also see the difficulties those lucky people have). Most of them are angry or sad about this status – although the wonderfully vibrant Bahadur, the Punjabi punk, revels in it.

This is not an easy book to read. The language is often quite dense and almost jarring – like the poetry which bursts out of Michael, Kulwant’s erstwhile first love – and I did get a sense of storytelling in a tradition which is not mine. In this it had some similarities to books like Naseem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, books where you start to get a feel for the narrative forms of India and other South Asian cultures. It took me a while to warm to this (I read primarily for story rather than poetry) but, I have to say, the characters eventually drew me in.

Kulwant (Kuli) was the character who did the most for me and the book’s setting in the 70s and 80s helped me to understand her. I was at University in the 80s so there is a sense of familiarity in the gender and race politics which dominate Kuli’s life. It wasn’t something I had directly participated in (I’m not one for demos, too scary for me) but I was struck by the way that it was her involvement in this world which alienated her family. I think we are given a fairly chilling view, at times, of the realities of mainstream British politics for women of colour. It was awful, by the look of Kuli’s experiences, and I wonder if, perhaps, Naz Shah would feel it is not much better now.

Kulwant spends a lot of this book pretending to be a much older woman than she actually is. In a way, I guess, she feels her life is as over as if she were in her eighties – at odds with her family and adrift from both the politics which were so important to her and the lover she met through those politics. The message I think she has worked out by the end is that what is most important in life is to work who you are. Once you are able to stop worrying about how you are different you can concentrate on how to be ‘you’. And, as importantly, you allow others to be themselves too….

Jane

 

 

Medusa – Torkil Damhaug

Sometimes as a reader I find that my main problem is, when I find an author I enjoy, that they can’t write them as fast as I can read them. Now, I could just say that authors should write faster (and I know quite a few George R R Martin fans who’d agree with me there) but I know it is not as simple as that. I have author friends and I know how hard they have to work to get a book written – research, writing, editing, more editing, a brief period of despair filled with cake and/or alcohol and, finally, a book. Which then leads to more work promoting said book. Honestly, just reading and selling them is so much easier….Sometimes when you discover a new author you find them fully fledged, with a nice big backlist to keep you going, but on other occasions you stumble over a writer at the start of a series and realise you’ll have to wait for ages until their next book.This is the case with Torkil Damhaug. medusaMedusa came out at the end of October and the next in the Oslo Crime Files series isn’t due until May next year. Which is a long time to wait when there are so many other books to snare your attention. On the evidence of this first novel, however, it could very well be worth the wait – particularly for fans of Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg and other Nordic Noir authors.

The plot is fairly typical of the genre – murders of a fairly grisly nature, a police force with enough quirks and issues to keep an entire conference of psychiatrists busy and a central character who keeps you guessing. The murders appear to involve bear attacks but occur in relatively urban areas with no bears; the police are not characters you warm to and their main role seems to be to hound the central character, their main suspect, Doctor Axel Glenne. Throughout you are teased by Axel’s references to his disturbed twin brother Brede and yet, like the police, you start to worry about the fact that this elusive brother hasn’t been in touch for years. So long, in fact, that Axel’s wife and children have never met him. What I enjoyed most about the book was the way you are drawn to sympathise with the central character but find, as you progress through the book, that you, like the police, begin to suspect that things are not as they seem in the Glenne family.

Worth a read then. And, hopefully, like me you will be guessing who the killer is most of the way through (and be wrong for a large amount of the time). And, if you are a fan of dark Scandinavian crime fiction it is always worth adding another author to the list to fill in those pesky gaps in the publishing schedules…

Jane

Bryant & May London’s Glory – Christopher Fowler

I am learning to love short stories. They can be unsatisfying if done poorly – no real plot, no depth to characters – but when handled well they are a perfect format. Personally, I can get through at least a couple on the bus journey home without the risk of missing my stop. And sometimes a couple of stories by Connie Willis, Andy Knighton or Margaret Atwood, to name a few I’ve enjoyed recently, is just what you need on a crowded bus after a long day at work. And now I have added a new author to my list of fairly foolproof short stories and some new favourite characters in the shape of Bryant & May, stalwarts of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Bryant & May

Arthur Bryant and John May are described by their creator, Christopher Fowler, as ‘Golden Age detectives in a modern world’. They are also a brilliantly depicted pair of curmudgeonly old fusspots with a fairly Wodehousian turn of phrase who are only ever, it seems, temporarily stumped by the cases that land on their desks at the PCU. I don’t know if they would thank me for it but I found them quite endearing. In fact, oddly, the combination of their old world methods and the references to modern-day technology like emails and mobile phones makes me think of these stories as a kind of reverse steampunk.

The stories in this collection are cases which hark back to other Bryant & May novels. This means that they do exactly what short stories of this nature are meant to do and tempt you into delving into the longer works – my only issue with this is the usual one. When am I going to find the time!

Jane

Boy 23 – Jim Carrington

Now I do like a good dystopia but I seem to have avoided some of the big name teen/young adult worlds (Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner for example). In fact I reckon that the only actual teen dystopias I have read would be Matt Haig’s Echo Boy and Francesca Haig’s Fire Sermon so it was fun to read something in the genre not written by an author with the surname ‘Haig’! If fun is the right word for a dystopia…

9781408822777Boy 23 is Jim Carrington’s fourth YA novel and seems to be a slight departure (in a post-apocalyptic direction) from the first three. They were all stories of fairly normal, if troubled, teens set in a recognisable Britain coping with issues which many young people can identify with – anger, bullying, boredom and relationships – so this book has quite a few differences. For a start the setting is somewhere in a future Germany and Jesper, the main character, is fairly obviously not normal. As the book opens he is abandoned in a forest, which would be traumatic enough for any boy of his age, but Jepser has previously known nowhere other than ‘My Place’ – a room where he has shelter, warmth, regular food and some kind of computer access but has no physical contact with any other person. In fact his only human contact at all is with The Voice who has mentored his education and then dumped him with the instruction to head north-west to escape those who would want to kill him.

This book is fast-paced and gripping – I read its 350 or so pages in just over a day – with plenty of suspense. The three main characters – Jesper, Carina and Blake (the Voice) – take it in turns to narrate events and there is enough difference in their tone to make each of them stand out. Jesper sometimes sounds rather childish with his talk of squawks and hoppers (birds and rabbits) but this must just reflect his emotional immaturity. The forces who are trying to harm Jesper, as well as the sinister organisation running this society, are proper ‘baddies’ – the obvious German influence and the name New Dawn add chilling overtones of fascism both neo- and old school.

There is a fairly big plot twist towards the end of the novel which I certainly didn’t expect and an ending which does not rule out a sequel. Although I’m not sure if the story isn’t better left as it is – after all, there are enough dystopian series out there for everyone, surely…

Jane

Carrying Albert Home – Homer Hickam

It seems likely to me that there are two different sorts of people in this world. Those who would rather read the book and those who prefer to watch the film. Now, I’m not saying one is better than the other but I am a book person through and through – I enjoy films based on books but the only ones I’ve ever seen that were as good for me as the reading experience (so far) are The Martian and Princess Bride. I spend a lot of my time in conversation with various friends repeating the phrase ‘I haven’t seen that’ when the discussion turns to film – I’ve never even seen Citizen Kane… So, it should come as no surprise to me that I had never previously heard of Homer Hickam (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film of his first book, October Sky) until he was presented to me in book form.

albertCarrying Albert Home is a wonderful, warm novel. It is also downright odd but I don’t hold that against it since I positively enjoy the quirkier side of reading. I’ve worked my way through the Hundred Year Old Man, The Museum of Things Left Behind, a novel about a moose by Erland Loe and The Rabbit Back Literature Society and enjoyed them all. Add in Harold Fry (and the wonderful Queenie Hennessy) and I’m thinking of inventing a new genre. I’m going to call it ‘books with charm’. It isn’t just about being quirky or unusual but about stories that leave you smiling, feeling positive about the human race and with a major dose of the warm fuzzies. There’s plot going on, there could even be tragic things happening, but, in the end you are happy. In film terms I’m talking about O Brother, Where Art Thou I reckon.

And the plot here has plenty in common with O Brother since, like the Coen brothers’ film, the setting is 1930s America.  Both are concerned with epic journeys, although only one heavily involves an alligator and a rooster, and both offer their heroes a shot at All-American fame and fortune.  Carrying Albert Home is, basically, about a trip which Homer Hickam and his wife Elsie undertake to return Albert, the alligator, to his birthplace in Florida. So far, so good. But the story is about far more than that: without being preachy it is also about how Homer and Elsie find each other and create a marriage that lasts them a lifetime. It is full of incident and humour and characters you want to get to know – if they make a film of this a) I hope they get someone like the Coen brothers to make it and b) I’m going to go and see it anyway…

Jane