Wednesday 21 December 2016

Echoes of Time by Anne Allen

Reviewer: Gillian Hamer, author of The Charter, Closure, Complicit, Crimson Shore & False Lights. (

What we thought: This book ticks many of my boxes – particularly the 'time and place' values of Triskele Books. Set on the beautiful setting of the island of Guernsey, Allen brings the past and present alive by detailing two generations of families who both live in the same cottage.

It’s 1940 during the German occupation of the island, and the cottage is owned by Bill and Olive Falla, who endure an unhappy childless marriage – until Olive falls in love with a German soldier and Bill is taken away to a prisoner camp in France. Moving forward to the present day, businesswomen Natalie Ogier returns to her childhood home of Guernsey looking for a fresh start after escaping an abusive relationship in London.

Although the cottage Natalie buys has been beautifully modernised, it’s not long before its secrets come back to haunt her – quite literally. As Natalie tries to make a new start, she finds herself increasingly wrapped up in the cottage and its history. The new man in her life, Stuart, also has his own roots in the cottage’s past and so finds himself also drawn into the real truths behind the rumours.

I totally enjoyed this read and become engaged with the characters and drawn into the mystery. I’m a fan of books that move between the present and the past, and the writer cleverly maintained both threads effortlessly here. The locations, both past and present, were brought alive in the writing and I admit it’s left me planning a visit to the Channel Islands in the future!

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jan Ruth, Liz Fenwick, Linda Gillard.

Avoid if you don’t like: Family secrets and ghosts.

Ideal accompaniments: Fresh crab sandwiches and a pint of cider.

Genre: Contemporary.

Available on Amazon

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International, is one of the strangest, most compelling books I have read for a long time.

The story revolves around a Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian – something still comparatively rare in that country. Her family’s extreme reaction to what they see as her subversive decision drives her progressively into a shadow world that eventually is indistinguishable from madness.

Yet we almost never privy to Yeong-hye’s point of view, seeing her, in the course of three successive narratives, from through the eyes of her austere husband, her artistic brother in law, and lastly her sister. The spare language of Deborah Smith’s translation works exceptionally well here. The lack of emotion in the husband’s narrative serves to heighten our empathy for Yeong-hye. The artistic obsession of the brother-in-law is initially more beguiling, but ultimately just as self-obsessed. It is only through the sister’s narrative that we begin to touch on what has shaped Yeong-hye.

Like Alex Pheby’s Playthings, The Vegetarian examines the psychological consequences of a living in a male dominated society. And like Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, it uses food as a metaphor for the female condition.

By the end of the novel, though, I began to suspect another underlying metaphor. Could it be that the two sisters represent the two divided halves of Korea, North and South? Could the father represent the brutal Japanese regime that governed Korea from 1910-1945? Are the husband and brother-in-law personifications of two forms of corrupt government – one more openly more cruel than that other, but both guilty, in one way or another, of raping their country?

This may be me overthinking things, as I can’t find any other reviewers who have made this interpretation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Playthings by Alex Pheby, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

Avoid If You Dislike: Brutal, dispassionate accounts of violence; frank exploration of mental illness

Perfect Accompaniment: Lotus leaf rice and vegetarian kimchi

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction in Translation

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Unrelenting: Love and Resistance in Pre-War Germany by Marion Kummerow

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel and Blood Rose Angel

What we thought: Unrelenting is the first novel in Marion Kummerow’s World War II Trilogy, spanning the years 1932 - 1936. It is a very special story in that it is a non-fictional account of the author’s remarkable grandparents –– the courageous and unrelenting World War II German resistance fight of Ingeborg and Hansheinrich Kummerow.

In this first story we meet the main characters, following their journeys that brought them together as a married couple. We also learn of the unrest in Europe at this time, and in particular, in Germany, with Adolf Hitler’s election as Chancellor. Following the Great War, the country is suffering political unrest and economic ruin, which Hitler promises to rectify. The author’s grandparents however, are skeptical. The stage is set for the darkness and tragedy that we know will follow.

I was captivated by the moving romance of the author’s grandparents, as well as each one’s personal history. The prose evokes unrest, fear, trepidation and anticipation for another war. For anyone interested in the human stories behind the WWII resistance fighters, I would highly recommend Unrelenting, and I am very much looking forward to the second in the trilogy, Unyielding.

You’ll like this if you enjoy
: Bravery tales about World War II resistance fighters

Avoid if you don’t like: tragic war stories

Ideal accompaniments: plate of Schlachtplatte and a stein of cold beer

Genre: Historical non-fiction

Available on Amazon

Dalila by Jason Donald

Review by JJ Marsh

What we thought: 

I started reading this in public but within four pages, decided it would be likely to provoke unrestrained bursts of emotion, so took it home. A wise decision.

Dalila arrives in London from Kenya, escaping violence and danger. She knows what she has to say, she’s ready to act the part she’s been given, she will do anything to escape the brutality and indignity she suffered at home. She’s alone and everything is different. Almost everything.

The people she has paid to help her are out for what they can get, so Dalila is left homeless, friendless and adrift. From being a college student with a future to a fearful bundle in a doorway. Charity volunteers help her survive and apply for asylum and so begins a day-to-day existence and an epic battle with bureaucracy.

The system relocates her to Glasgow while she is processed. Her isolation both increases and lessens as she meets other refugees and asylum-seekers, local people and charitable volunteers. She makes tentative friendships, builds bonds but all on a fragile web of hope.

If they grant her Leave to Remain.

Meanwhile, the people who arranged her trip are still seeking their cash cow. She is collateral and they want her back.

Dalila’s story both heals your heart and breaks it. People are kind, cruel, thoughtful, caring, careless and ignorant. The small gestures and daily routines give us flashes of optimism. One woman’s journey makes us believe in, or at least hope for, the human race.

A novel to help us understand the global by engaging with the personal, this book leaves you profoundly shaken. It also offers a real insight into a situation reported with more hysteria than humanity.
Everyone should read this.  We are all responsible for Dalila.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu, or Minaret by Leila Aboulela.

Avoid if you don’t like: 
Grim truths about the immigration system, reality for refugees & asylum-seekers, feelings for other people.

Ideal accompaniments: Porridge and pan-cooked tea.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday 7 December 2016

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Reviewer: Barbara Scott Emmett, author of Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion, The Land Beyond Goodbye, and The Man with the Horn.

What We Thought: Following on from his television series on masculinity, Grayson Perry investigates how far society's ills can be laid at the feet of traditional man. Wars, crime, rape, vandalism, competitiveness and corporate bullying are all in the main male activities, he suggests in his new book The Descent of Man. How can men release the tension of these urges (which he acknowledges experiencing himself) without causing havoc?

In a world where aggressive hunting behaviour is no longer necessary for survival, what can men do to defuse their natural male urges? Looking at the role of men in today's society, he considers how Default Man (white, middle class, middle aged, grey-suited) can change and grow and find new avenues for self-realisation.

This is not an anti-man book but it does come out against fixed male gender roles. In the new more gentle model of manhood Perry promotes, men can benefit themselves and their health while benefiting the world. Many perceived norms, he suggests, are actually male behavioural traits but so deeply embedded are they in the mass consciousness, they have gone largely unchallenged. With the greater role of women and alternative males in business and politics these are now being eroded. Attempted adherence to these traditional male identities can cause stress, depression, illness and suicide in men who fit the Default Man mould and in those who do not.

Throughout this thought-provoking book Grayson Perry releases snippets of information about himself and his early life with a bullying stepfather. He acknowledges his own aggression and desire to get one over on other men. He sees this as partly a learned trait but also something in the male psyche that needs to be channelled. Though not going quite so far as to advocate military conscription, Perry does not dismiss the potential advantages inherent in some form of organised release of male aggression.

An easy yet compelling read, this book would make a great stocking filler for any man, especially those who may resist its message.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Popular Psychology, Anthropology and Grayson Perry.

Avoid if you dislike: Anything that challenges male norms.

Ideal accompaniments: A pint of Heavy or a sweet sherry, take your pick.

Genre: Social Sciences/Gender Studies

Available on Amazon

A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu (editor)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: In the past few years, the issue of refugees has been brought to the attention of the Western world in a way unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Yet despite Britain priding itself on its long history as a country of refuge, and despite moments when individual images have roused us to compassion, most of what we see and hear about migrants and refugees has been overwhelmingly negative.

This anthology seeks to redress the balance and open readers to a deeper understanding of what drives ordinary people to flee their homes to make a life in a new country. It has been put together by Lucy Popescu, who for the last five years has worked as a volunteer mentor in the Write to Life programme of Freedom from Torture, hearing at first hand the terrible stories of refugee victims of torture, but also discovering their enduring warmth and resilience.

The anthology comprises a mixture of short stories, essays and poems. Given the prominence of refugees in the news, it seems extraordinary to me that publisher after publisher turned it down. So hurrah for Unbound, with their crowdfunding model of publication.

Though the authors are not, for the most part, refugees, many of the stories are drawn from the experiences of family. Sebastian Barry’s ‘Fragment of a Journal, Author Unknown’ takes us back to the ordeal of the Irish famine. Alex Wheatle recalls his father’s journey from Jamaica and Nick Barlay, his parents fleeing Hungary in 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled in. Katharine Quarmby reflects on her family’s complex mix of migrants and refugees.

In ‘To Avoid Worse’, Joan Smith notes that the romanticisation of the story of Anne Frank obscures that fact that, before they went into hiding, her father tried desperately to get his family out of the country, but was refused visas by countries that might have given them refuge – and draws parallels with the family of Aylan Kurdi.

Hassan Abdulrazzak, who came to Britain with his family as a child refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, reflects on how easy their path now seems in comparison with those trying to escape the war in Syria.

Some of the short stories seem designed to make us squirm. The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s ‘Selfie’ wants the man selling selfie sticks on the streets of Rome to understand he is different from all the other people ignoring him, even though he’ll do nothing to help him. In AL Kennedy’s ‘Inappropriate Staring’ two people eat their lunch outside the high fence of a detention centre while discussing the detainees like animals in the zoo. In Marina Lewyska’s ‘Hard Luck Story’, a security guard turns a deaf ear to the pleas of a woman he must put on a plane back to the country she fled.

Courttia Newland turns the tables on us, and imagines British citizens fleeing towards the coast, hoping to make it to a safe haven somewhere like Syria. Amanda Craig’s 'Metamorphosis' wreaks Kafka-esque revenge on one of Britain’s nastiest media commentators.

Roma Tearne contributes two heart-rending stories about families torn apart, one from Sri Lanka, one from Iraq. In ‘Shakila’s Head’ by Kate Clanchy, a teacher running a poetry writing class confronts some of the terrible things her young charges have experienced.

There is poetry from Ruth Padel, Hubert Moore and Elaine Feinstein, and essays from Hanif Kureishi, Noo Saro-Wiwa and William Boyd.

The final essay, by AL Kennedy, updated from a lecture she gave at the European Literature Days Festival in October 2015, warns us that the path that leads to a culture of cruelty is well known and that we are in danger of following it. She calls upon artists, and writers in particular, to fight against this. “We can make dreams to lead mankind forward and expressions of individuality that can make many free,” she writes. “Without those dreams, we face only nightmares.”

A much needed antidote to mass media vitriol, and a reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson; From There to Here (Second Decibel Penguin Prize anthology); In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, Helle Abelvik Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton (editors)

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and humble pie.

Genre: Short Stories, Poems and Essays

Available on Amazon