Book Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. King

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Repeat award-winner Laurie R. King delivers another gripping, witty and genuinely creepy instalment in her refreshing Holmes & Russell series.

Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

How do you breathe new life into a character almost as old as the hills? A character in which literary culture is so steeped that it forms part of its very fabric.

That’s never an easy question to answer, but California-based novelist Laurie R. King has gone some way to answering it with her Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell series. A winner of awards and frequent topper of best-seller lists, King’s rejuvenation of one of literature’s most famous characters is crafted out of pure respect and accessible storytelling.

In Castle Shade, the 18th book in the series, Holmes and his wife Russell find themselves transported to Transylvania after hearing of disturbing happenings surrounding Queen Marie’s residence at Castle Bran. With a healthy dose of scepticism intact, our protagonists are plunged into a world of shadows and plots, haunting histories and the disappearance of a young woman.

But what is behind these occurrences? Are they genuinely supernatural weirdnesses? Or is somebody trying to threaten the Queen?

A Refreshing Sherlock Holmes

Gripping detective mysteries need to kick things off with a hefty, engrossing hook. And Castle Shade doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The first sentence is as poetic and vivid as it needs to be to immediately grab one’s attention:

‘I ripped myself from the fever dream somewhere west of Ljubljana’.

The other thing that’s crucial in the reimagining of a classic character is making the depiction refreshing. Throughout the novel, King achieves that with aplomb. Whilst Holmes is still cold and emotionless, there are idiosyncrasies and nuances in his psyche that take on a new light in the context of Romanian – and slightly feminist – society. And Holmes’ relationship with his brother Mycroft is also superbly written.

King also understands that knowing, humorous one-liners are essential to bringing the uninitiated in to Mary Russell’s world, too. Wilful nods to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Countess Bathory are frequently made by the characters, extending the accessibility in a very human sense.

Bringing Transylvania To Life

Where King really excels is in atmospheric scene-setting. Her descriptions of Bran Castle and the surrounding countryside are particularly arresting, and frequently she manages to up the ante for the next chapter in a final sentence:

‘In some fairy tales, happily ever after is where things end. In others, happiness is where the problems begin.’

Similarly, the way she writes about history – particularly WW1 and the Bolshevik revolution – is sensitively handled. Evocative and timely, it all adds to the sense of suspense in this simultaneously vast and claustrophobic landscape.

In the action sequences, the tension veers from quiet and creeping to an all-guns-blazing pace. At the denouement everything comes together in a pleasingly fulsome way, and King even manages to pack one poignant and wonderfully written twist into the final two chapters.

A Charm-soaked Winner

While having read King’s other Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes novels might give you a deeper understanding of their dynamic, it’s not necessary. King leaves no room for miscomprehension – the novel is as charmingly simple as it is wittily open as it is often genuinely creepy. It’s an art that Laurie R. King has perfected, and this is another winner in the catalogue.

If Castle Shade sounds like your bag, then there are a couple of exciting giveaways taking place over at Allison & Busby.

First, a chance to win the entire Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell series alongside a pot of delicious honey.

Secondly, a promo whereby you can buy the book and an exclusive signed bookplate for £15. Snap it up while you have the chance by following here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air

Life Without Air eBook: Lafarge, Daisy: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Daisy Lafarge’s stirringly novel & beautiful debut collection refocuses and reimagines air in all its forms, encouraging exploration both personal and societal

Edition Published by: Granta Books, 2020

Much of the beauty in poetry comes from reimagining things we, as humans, take for granted. It’s one of the reasons why much eco-poetry is so powerful; it forces us to examine our exploitative subconscious.

Daisy Lafarge’s by now revered debut collection, Life Without Air, does the exact same thing with our prime lifeforce. But she goes much further than just to explore the relationship between humanity and naturism. Here, air’s status as an element allows it an entire conscience of its own, a beautiful dose of wilful determination and genuinely novel poetic licence.

In short, Life Without Air is staggeringly wide-ranging in its ability to poke holes in things we think we understand.

Confessional and Society

It’s not an official maxim of course, but it’s roundly known that what you contribute to society depends on your circumstance. If the job of the poet is to make sense of huge ailments both internal and external, then Daisy Lafarge meets that brief with exquisite gumption.

Falsification Air is one prime example, as it casts new eyes on internal imprisonment by almost anthropomorphising air:

‘Consider the sheets of air gridlocked in double-glazing’.

The starkly direct Performing The Border and Gaslit Air later on find the narrator blaming themselves for their insecurities, the implication being that these have been foisted upon them – especially as women – by society. Ghosted is remarkably affecting too, not least due to its penchant for stinging one-liners:

‘Ghosting is not an action performed by ghosts, it breeds them’.

Almost everything can be interpreted is a self-examining and wider light, making Life Without Air naturally accessible.

Catharsis

But whereas many poets don’t look for redemption from societal issues, Lafarge’s righteousness often amounts to a pervasive, life-affirming sense of catharsis. In The Daughter Channel, the ‘prehistoric pain’ of womanhood rises out of itself, and How To Leave a Marriage hands misogyny’s comeuppance to it on a plate.

It’s particularly poignant in stag night in the embassy with Genie. In it, Lafarge turns exploratory injustice outwards, honing-in on sinister men, who are:

‘Contemplating their actions of the night before,
nudging underbaked knobs of almond
croissants with incremental crumbs
of mirth.’

As these men’s world and power collapses around them come the poem’s end, Genie is in total control.

Breathing Space

Lafarge’s use of space and metaphorical silence is also a marvel. Oftentimes, the poems are separated by multiple blank spaces, decorated with non-invasive drops in their unmarked expanse. Almost rune-like in their mysticism, they serve to heighten the sheer size and variation in Lafarge’s canvas.

And when it comes to the poetry itself, Lafarge uses space to both confine and redefine her words. In the titular poem, each section takes up a half page and leaves emptiness in its place, simultaneously breaking the flow and encouraging personal debate.

But she also sometimes deliberately starves her poetry of air. What Genie Got – something of a coming-of-age narrative – is presented in half-formed near-paragraphs, and the sense of restraint young women have imposed on themselves is evident from the first line:

‘She Got in in the chest like the thump from Elijah.’

A Refreshing Poetic Paradox

The titular poem encompasses the collection’s ethos best. In most contexts here, air is as automatic as it is nefarious. As such, life without it is often cleaner, purer and more human. It’s a beautiful poetic paradox, and one which might see Life Without Air be considered a classic in years to come.

You can buy Life Without Air here.

Book Review: The Forward Book Of Poetry 2021

The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 by Various Poets | Waterstones

This year’s edition of the Forward compendium acts, as ever, as a shimmering primer of essential contemporary talent

Edition published by: Bookmark, 2020

Many would take it as given that the most resonant poems have the strongest narrative arcs. For me, that’s not always the case – take the likes of Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things, or much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. But in the case of The Forward Book of Poetry 2021, it’s pretty much always true.

While many of them have clearly defined themes and influences, their pace and connotations often outrun their parameters. For this review, I’ve honed-in on three multi-faceted themes specifically, but that’s just a microcosm of what the collection entails.  

Femininity

Straight away, Caroline Bird’s Dive Bar reflects a sisterhood; there’s a sense of togetherness, a specific experience becoming a ribbon for universal femininity. The really startling words are almost mumbled over; ‘swaying’ and ‘swallowing’ connoting adaptation and imprisonment in pure ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ style.

Vickie Feaver’s timeless 1974 highlights societal pressure on women and the extremities that can drive them too, and how unchanging those schisms are. Sarah Tsiang’s Dick Pics acerbically explores double standards and the removal of innocence. In Ella Frears’ Sestina For Caroline Bergvall, ‘the edge’ and the backs of heads become synonymous with comfort for women, while Rachel Long’s The Omen leaves women’s futures ominously open-ended, especially as mothers.

Perhaps most affecting of all is Regi Claire’s spellbinding (Un)certainties, written in tribute to her sister who died in a boating accident. A constant guessing game, Claire’s poem is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity of trauma and soul-searching, a mirage of idioms and half-truths. But by the end, assertions become more certain and it’s possible to read the options as excuses – excuses as to why society has let women down again. This is brought full-circle beautifully at its close:

‘When I tried to explain, he did not understand.
Could not’.

Claire’s mourning has highlighted just how much distance exists between men and women, especially regarding personal loss.

Form

Form is employed relatively conservatively across the collection, but when it’s not, the pieces shimmer and sting like proper guttural cries.

Nina Mingya Powles’ Conversational Chinese is the most stirring early example. Taken from her Collection Magnolia and described as one of many ‘love letters to Shanghai’ and ‘retracing steps to a language you’ve lost’, the blanks connote holes in personal and historical identity, and there’s a stark see-sawing between aspects she can’t remember and perhaps those she’s wilfully forgotten. The specificity of answering questions in full sentences also speaks volumes about the weighty expectations enacted on migrant communities.

Elsewhere, Carolyn Forche embodies the immensely tough and unyielding imagery in Museum of Stones. Likewise, the brutalist foundations of Francesca Lock’s On insomnia reflect the imprisonment perfectly, and likely resonant to anyone who has ever struggled with sleeplessness. As she says; ‘this is forever’.

In Shane McCrae’s The Hastily Assembled Angel on Care and Vitality, spaces act as cracks, a flickering image where perceptions don’t align until the very end, tangible feeling reserved for the final couplet as well.

Distance

The dichotomy between roots, belonging and identity has unsurprisingly been extensively explored by poets over the last five years – trauma for migrant communities in particular has been inescapable on a global scale. And all the ruminations on that subject here offer some unique angle; Pascale Petit’s luscious Tiger Gran, Chen Chen’s Year’s End and both of Nina Mingya Powles’ poems are exceptional highlights in that regard.

The mercurial Dean Atta tackles plenty with The Making, but there’s a clear sense of what you can learn from further afield, as well as the melding of the human and technology, of the tangible and the distant. In Fucking In Cornwall, Ella Frears finds connection in coldness, while in Maria Ferguson’s My Letters, anxiety and mundanity are far more comfortable than confronting a direct relationship.

The nature of compendiums like this are that certain selections feel slightly at odds without their entire contexts. Whilst beautiful, that’s certainly true of poems from the likes of Natalie Diaz and Martha Sprackland.

But what the Forward Book of Poetry always does best is show the extent to which resonant, powerful poetry is in rude health. The best way to view it is as exactly what it is; a primer for serious, essential talent in contemporary writing.

You can buy The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 here.

Book Review: David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders

Skelton's Guide to Suitcase Murders: 2 (Skelton's Guides) (Skelton's Guides,  2): Amazon.co.uk: David Stafford: 9780749026882: Books

Renowned literary chameleon David Stafford’s new novel is a hugely fun, humorous and accessible take on the 1920s murder mystery dynamic

Edition Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

There are few who understand multi-faceted drama quite as well as David Stafford. His experience spans decades across media for theatre, TV and radio, crafting work with the likes of Benjamin Zepheniah and Alexei Sayle.

It’s no surprise, then, that the trademarks of his addictive style – genuine laugh-out-loud humour and a wry approach to societal ills – run rampant in Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders.

Set in 1929 Britain, barrister Arthur Skelton’s life is uprooted when a woman’s dismembered body appears in a suitcase. Faced with the task of proving the murdered woman’s husband – Dr Ibrahim Aziz – innocent, Skelton and his clerk Edgar Hobbes embark on a gritty journey that’ll see them traverse London, Yorkshire and Scotland to find the true culprit before Aziz is sentenced to hang. 

Quiet Humour and Potent Ethics

Right from the off, Stafford indulges in rich character dynamics and descriptions, as well as a sense of real childlike wonder; the possibilities eeked out of bleak, rural Britain seem endless:

‘One of the great things about the gravel pit was, just like it had ate the kid who died, sometimes it sicked stuff up’.

Like a lot of the best British comedies, Stafford draws humour out of the relatively mundane; Cluedo, for example, or discussions about the sizes of suitcases. But it’s always instantly recognisable. And the relationship between Skelton and his wife, or Skelton and Edgar, thrives and is brought to life by that brilliantly dry timing.

And as theatrical as the dialogue can be, it’s also fulsome and always well realised. Just as humour quickly rises out of thin air, so too does ethical potency:

Mila: ‘Flying isn’t a matter of brute strength; it’s a matter of endurance. And women endure. Women endure’.
Skelton: ‘Yes, they do. I’ve noticed that’.

Sure-fire Political Designs

Thanks to intricate crafting and sensitivity, the morality in the book never seems crowbarred-in. Where issues of race and gender arise, he tests the temperature of modernity and mixes it with 1920s sentiment perfectly.

In the early stages of the book there are reflections of dark truths come to light at the BBC in recent years and critical thinkers who subscribed to a poisonous Eugenics mentality. And he clearly understands the political dynamic between Britain and Egypt in the early 20th century. It’s direct in its social commentary, whether it be taking aim at racism or religion. And the progression of young legal student Rose Critchlow is a whirlwind come the novel’s end.

The Most Readable Murder Mystery of 2021?

Stafford brings everything full circle with a light, deft and nuanced hand. The narrative conclusions for most of the characters are as hilarious as they are touching.

Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders can be considered one of the truly accessible, down-to-earth murder mysteries, helped in spades by rich portraits and human tangibility. It’s always immense fun and might just be one of the most readable murder mysteries of 2021.

You can buy Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders from Allison & Busby now.

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Book Review: Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time

Show Them a Good Time: Amazon.co.uk: Flattery, Nicole: 9781526611901: Books

In her debut collection of short prose, Nicole Flattery focuses on womanhood and smashing expectations to assert herself as one of Irelands most astute young writers

Edition published by: Bloomsbury Circus, 2019

If you’ve been paying attention to the short story form, then you’ll know that Irish short prose is in rude health just now. From the mercurially gifted Wendy Erskine to Danielle McLoughlin and Kevin Barry, the palette is as rich as it’s ever been. And refreshingly, all of them are forging ahead and out of the perennial spectres of Joyce and Beckett.

One can most certainly add Nicole Flattery to their company. Show Them a Good Time, her debut collection, is one of those that starts with a big subject – the nefariously multi-faceted perception of women in wider society – but lets that subject form itself out of surrealism and tangibility. It simultaneously achieves an organic sense of worth and pushes worthiness away, in frequently hilarious and headstrong ways.

And its real magic lies in the way it manages to unscrupulously and breathlessly smash expectations; both those of the protagonists and the reader. Flattery’s writing is often tricksy, and yet she holds the rudder straight via instantly realistic truths, fears and injustices.

A Tale of Two Landscapes

As well as thematic femininity, there are specific notions that thread themselves through Show Them A Good Time, a constant reminder of the crushing weight women experience. There’s the persistent cultural battle between the presence of ‘the city’ and rural Ireland – something Flattery, who lives in Galway, might be acutely aware of.

In the likes of the titular story, the notion of making a life for oneself is synonymous with big metropolitan breaks, and anyone who never gets there is left behind. But in this instance that city existence forces our protagonist back to where she grew up, judged and ashamed by her existence there in the pornographic industry. The city offers no sense of completion; when Kevin asks her why she got into that business, she replies:

‘Well, I’d gone all that way. I had to do something’.

In Flattery’s world, living rurally is just as ghostly, particularly when lurched over by the shadows of parents & familial expectations – another curse that lingers throughout the collection.

At its most direct, the notion of being outcast by all your surroundings is hammered home in juicily stark ways, whether that be via internet dating in Not The End Yet or multitudinous variations on motherhood (or the lack thereof) in Track and Parrot. In the former, for example, potential distance between mother and son – emphasised by the vacuity of fame – is laid bare when the protagonist writes a scathing review of her comedian boyfriend on a forum under his mother’s name.

Abortion: A Love Story

Very much the collection’s centrepiece and longest story, Abortion: A Love Story pulls absolutely no punches in its meandering arc. It maintains Flattery’s ability to be utterly absurdist while construing real soul, and is without doubt the most on-the-nose accounting of a patriarchal society that I’ve read for some time.

It follows two students at an unnamed college – Natasha and Lucy – both of whom have experienced enormous personal loss. Those losses are amplified by societal expectations, from both men and women, and both secularism and religion; as well as all the other societal ruminations Flattery’s covered previously.

As the two protagonists piece together a brilliantly funny, poignant play, their lives become about subverting those expectations and reclamation; and that’s where Flattery’s real structural mastery comes into play.

If instances in the story are confusing, then that seems deliberate. Not unlike Micaela Cole’s extraordinary I May Destroy You, there are plenty of ruminations on the general emotional and cognitive confusion caused by trauma; in Natasha’s case the inability to finish sentences or forgetting what she’s studying. Initially she feels threatened by Lucy, but it’s through their shared trauma – Lucy has cut herself off from her past completely, including her ‘country’ parents – that they begin to make sense of each other.

And actually, it’s amidst that confusion that the protagonists give us the most biting glimpses of their strength of character. Natasha says that she ‘doesn’t like anyone my own age’, whereas Lucy bats everything away with a rickety but hilarious sense of self:

Lucy: ‘Jesus Christ let me out of here’.
Professor: ‘Who said that Lucy?’
Lucy: ‘Beckett’.

If the derision of Beckett is a plucky comment on the way in which Irish character is canonised, then Flattery flips it on its head and makes it even more pertinent and humanly powerful later on. After admitting to having self-destructive impulses, Lucy asks her:

‘Would you say you’re a typical Irish girl?’

Eventually, the whole notion of their play becomes about not giving people what they want; allowing these women to behave how they want to societally – a place of ‘no laws’. But as the play convulses around itself and becomes a compendium of otherworldly pain and savage socio-political commentary, Flattery doesn’t just trick her invented audience, but us, the actual reader, too. It’s an exceptional, riveting double-bluff. And even if the impact of Lucy & Natasha’s efforts is left fairly open-ended, the sense of achievement and subversion takes on a life of its own.

Wit and Wisdom

A lot of Show Them A Good Time struts the line between personalisation and looking in from the outside impressively. Flattery doesn’t make every line hefty with portent, which means that when that heft is delivered – either humorously or otherwise – it rings harsher.

In her hands, dark humour becomes pretty much her most malleable ingredient. In the titular story, she manages to condense total anxiety into nifty one-liners:

‘In my entire life, not a single good thing had come from standing in a circle’.

Or marks the way sex deceives the reality of relationships with men with a giddy sense of pathos:

‘I loved being picked up. Things were much clearer from that height’.

Or in Sweet Talk, where she manages to make the Exorcist seem like a fair walk in the park from the perspective of a teenage Irish girl:

‘It was dark, but it was just priests really. Priests in unusual circumstances.’

In Hump she expertly traverses masculine sensitivity and the bleakest crags for jokes in probably the whole collection. Upon relaying that her father had only spoken for 30% of his life, our protagonist says:

‘It was a dismal percentage, and I was familiar with what dismal percentages could do to a person’.

That the protagonist is a 17-year-old shows just how much agency women have from a young age; the sneering idea that young people aren’t capable of understanding what the world holds for them is felled in one brilliant swoop here. And then mere moments later, she allows us to glimpse into body dissatisfaction with sardonic bluntness:

‘I was surprised when I caught site of my concentration camp legs. How did they support me?’

At no point does any of Show Them a Good Time feel incongruous. Flattery never leaves the real world; reality is pretty much the most intrinsic part of this collection. But she forces us to look at reality in revitalising ways. Her characters do and say the opposite of what they’re expected to, and her prose is soaked in turns of phrase that come out of nowhere. It’s a collection establishes her as one of Ireland’s most astute young writers.  

Book Review: Emily Brand’s The Fall of The House of Byron

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England:  Amazon.co.uk: Brand, Emily: 9781473664302: Books

Emily Brand’s latest about the ancestors of the infamous Romantic poet is wonderfully researched and sometimes riveting, if not always totally engaging.

Edition Published By: John Murray Press, 2020

Probably nobody reading this blog will need an introduction to George, 6th Lord Byron. Like many of the Romantic poets, he’s a ‘love him or loathe him’ character whose resonance on the page might well be overshadowed by his infamy in life.

In The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, historian Emily Brand maps the origins of his contrary condition, by examining his ancestors throughout the 1700s. As it turns out, the malaise and melodrama his poetry is renowned for was pretty much heredity.

After 3 years and a frankly astonishing amount of research – and this book really is fabulously thorough – the tome lands on our laps. But is it as scandalous and deliciously riveting as its title suggests? For me, the answer is sometimes.

How Dramatic Is Georgian High Society?

Beginning with an introduction to Newstead Abbey – which became arguably the greatest, saddest metaphor for the whole Byron dynasty – Brand writes with real vigour. She rolls through a cast of indulgent characters, all with something to lose or gain from the estate and its happenings.

She creates here something which permeates periodically throughout the book; a sense of doomed murkiness and foreboding shadows, itchy paranoia and whispers of violence. All those senses are certainly relevant at various points throughout the Byron story.

Newstead Abbey – aka the Byron estate – today. Image Credit: alan feebery Flickr.

For all her nuance, she can mediate the most outrageous moments with her own kind of tickling coarseness. When writing about Lord Byron in the chapter Folly Castle, she notes:

‘He receives word that a scornful former lover has decided not just to kiss and tell, but to f**k and publish’.

But often, the scandal and downfall promised in the title feel as though they’re a long time coming. Brand often spends a long time focussing on the characters’ esteemed military careers, or fairly innocuous everyday observations.

She sometimes writes those occurrences with gripping drama, especially in the chapter about John Byron, or ‘Foul Weather Jack’. But essentially, there’s a lot of padding around the dramatic moments, so how gripping you find large parts of the book will depend on your appetite for Georgian high society.

Amplifying Women’s Voices

In much of her work, Brand’s emphasis is on relaying women’s perceptions and perspectives in an era of strict misogyny.

While there’s not much here that suggests anything other than the typical patriarchal cruelty of wider society, Brand expertly accounts for the female members of the Byron household, either through her own characterful descriptions:

‘She indulges her melancholy ideas and inevitable tears, knowing they go unobserved in the dim light’.

Or through diary cuttings from both the protagonists and the circles they moved in.

She devotes plenty of time to Isabella Byron, identifying her place and presence in that world resplendently. As the book goes on, Isabella essentially becomes the dynasty’s great tragic figure, her eventually morose life the product of some terrible decisions but also of the ‘wolves at the door’; the mob mentally of the sneering Georgian upper classes and their insatiable appetite for gossip. Indeed, when she died in 1795:

‘Her demise elicited no fanfare, going unreported for two weeks…’

Emily Brand delivers a snapshot of Isabella Byron’s personality and life.

Brand does relay strength, both emotional and intellectual, in pretty much all of the Byron women too. It’d be nigh-on-impossible not to have sympathy for the canny Catherine Gordon, who fights on amidst the poisonous pull of the detestable ‘mad’ Jack Byron.

But any major confrontations by Brand towards women in society and sexism at the time come fairly few and far between.

It’s Not All About Him

Anyone coming to this book thinking it mostly about Lord Byron the 6th himself might be disappointed; it’s not really about him. But it is, in part, about how much he embraced his family’s ruin, in both his work and life.

If you’re as interested in Georgian England as Brand is, then you’re likely to love this. But the stories don’t feel vastly different from those you might find elsewhere, other than in the Byronic element.

You can buy The Fall Of The House Of Byron here.

Book Review: Sarah Hawkswood’s Blood Runs Thicker

Blood Runs Thicker by Sarah Hawkswood

The latest novel in Sarah Hawkswood’s Hugh Bradecote series, Blood Runs Thicker, is a gritty, page-turning medieval whodunnit packed with reach realism and beautifully realised modernity.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

The historical thriller genre has always been a fan favourite. Thanks to writers like C. J. Samson, Ellis Peters and Ariana Franklin, it has enjoyed years in the sun recently. And Sarah Hawkswood is well in the fray as well, which is where we find her new Bradecote novel Blood Runs Thicker.

Set in Worcestershire in the mid-12th century, the De Lench family is sent spiralling into crisis when Osbern, the lord of the manor, is found dead. Called to try and put the pieces of a murderous, complex puzzle together, Hugh Bradecote, his assistants Serjeant Catchpoll and Walkelin get drawn into a murky world of treachery, layers of intrigue and questionable morality.

With a vast number of suspects, finding out the truth behind Osbern’s death is as brain-bending for them as it is riveting for us.

The ‘Classic Thriller’ and Authenticity

Hawkswood’s novel has several classic elements of whodunnit storytelling. There are multiple motives and murky disingenuous characters. There’s familial disenfranchisement, dark pasts a-plenty and simmering feuds. She even has her own Poirot in the shape of Bradecote, a methodical, moral and timely detective who sees through cracks in society to its often-rotten core.

The intricacies and twists are readable and clever without ever being pretentious or having the visible urge to prove itself so.

But there’s also real authenticity here. The scene setting is often beautifully evocative:

‘The church was silent except for the sound of a lone voice chanting in Latin, which faltered as they opened the door’.

And it’s in those moments that you feel like you’re part of the novel itself, sucked in and second-guessing suspects as much as you’re trying to stay one step ahead.

Adding to that flavour is the exuberant dialogue and the cloying sense of claustrophobia in the setting of rural, feudal Worcestershire. Everything feels closer and more inescapable, and when the accusations fly it can get suitably chaotic.

Timeless Modernity

Despite taking place in 1144, central to Hawkswood’s prose is a deep and refreshingly modern lens. There’s a lot about strength in femininity, toxic masculinity and the destruction it causes, and a flipping of gender roles between men and women.

The female characters are given strident voices whilst also being conduits for ethics, personal strength and integrity. Bradecote’s acknowledgement of the cards life often deals women is established in previous novels, but even though it comes from personal loss, it still feels refreshingly modern. And as such, that modernism is always handled with total care and never feels out of place.

There are also, in the book’s more poignant moments, ruminations on the way very little changes, and in particular the lack of accountability for many men. That this is addressed makes a very welcome change.

A Gritty, Engaging Read

Blood Runs Thicker knows it audience, knows it art form and appeases both magnificently. It’s in the dynamics between characters and Hawkswood’s simple but soul-seeing writing that one becomes attached. And while the left-hooks lead to a direct conclusion, it never loses its grittiness or engagement throughout.

You can purchase Blood Runs Thicker from Allison & Busby now.

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Book Review: The Middle Of A Sentence

The Common Breath on Twitter: "And, 4 / 4. 'THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE' - our  anthology, due out 01.12.20 The incredible list of included stories &  writers can be viewed via

A new short prose anthology from Scottish indie publisher The Common Breath, The Middle Of A Sentence tackles the staring chasms ever-present in modern western society in beautiful, evergreen and shape-shifting ways.

Edition Published by: The Common Breath, 2020

The debate between the power of the novel as compared to short fiction is ages old. How can one build a world as illustrious as Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall, or as vivid as Khaled Khalifa’s Syria, with less than a few thousand words?

It’s a view that Brian Hamill, literary standard bearer, mastermind behind The Common Breath and editor of The Middle of A Sentence admits to holding previously in his introduction. It wasn’t until reading Carol Joyce Oates’ 1988 collection The Assignation that he realised:

‘… stories of such brevity did not have to rely purely on arch humour or abrupt non-sequitur for their effect, but could provide a truly great depth of characterisation and emotion also.’

That sense of world-building is easily achievable via short prose, and The Middle Of A Sentence proves it. And the myriad angles, traumas and societal commentaries that the anthology offers each react to our reality and speedily convey an alternative one, where normality and anguish become whatever the reader makes them.

I’ve attempted to sum up some – and by no means all – of the ways in this review.

Lockdown As A Mirror

If the short prose format offers a unique opportunity for experimentation, then it makes perfect sense for it to react to zeitgeist crises. As open-ended as many of these stories might be, they can at least be viewed as lockdown adjacent. Essentially, they take mundanity and run with it, but allow it to become as lucid and bizarre as any imagination might do when confined to the same four walls, 24 hours a day.

This is apparent from early on, with Jenni Fagan’s The Ship exploring notions of compassion and stagnancy in gripping, hallucinogenic style. Sometimes the assertions are direct: ‘it’s been going on for months’, ruminations on failing to get dressed, hand sanitiser and dancing words all proving weirdly relatable. But in the end, it’s only caring for somebody else that unfries our protagonist’s brain.

Fagan’s work with various vulnerable groups as well as female prisoners places her neatly and astutely at the epicentre of much of Scotland’s literary genetic make-up. The endearing desire to give something back to society on an everyman level has always existed in Scottish literature, and The Ship uses that Irvine Welsh-ian angle of weirdness as underpinning communal spirit.

There’s a pervasive sense of some of these stories being reactions to *our* reactions to lockdown, too. Take Donna McLean’s Signal, for instance. Technology – and in particular social media – is so nefariously dominant in our hands and lives these days that it’s impossible to ignore this story’s evergreen assertions. Indeed, its sinister suspense hints at a far larger imbalance, in both technology and gender relations. Its ending is multi-faceted:

‘Signal. Where all our secrets disappear’.

But I found it especially cloying given how inescapable it makes technology seem. When your only route to public expression is via social media, some people’s secrets are – often rightly – impossible to mask. Signal eradicates the distance between a user and what they might post on social media. During lockdown, when even the tiniest senses of self-obsession need a release, many people have seemed to deny themselves the choice in looking for worth online.

Similarly, the magnification of what are often everyday concerns feel totally consuming when viewed in an isolated reality. These moments don’t so much represent the abyss gazing back at you as they do make the abyss take on a multitude of different, distinctly tangible shapes. The loneliness in Kevin Williamson’s Ponderous Stuff could reflect sibling rivalry as much as either communal consciousness or struggling romance:

‘Scared of being together. Scared of being alone’.

Examples of what might have previously been written-off as absurdist hilarity now seem weirdly believable. Stewart Home’s A Hypno Kink Princess is the epitome of this, using masculinity and its commodification of sex as a step ladder to domestic embarrassment that’s probably far more widespread than many people would care to admit. Shortly afterwards, Howard Colyer’s two-line Ready embodies the same sense of losing oneself to nothingness in brilliant, beautiful style.

It also takes on far more poignant shades. The ebb and flow between stark reality and hallucinogenic mindfulness in Wayne Conolly’s quietly heart-breaking Blood Cancer seems to be as much a complete disconnection from self as it is searching for meaning and solace.

And while Stuart Murray’s How Ye Keepin Anyway is ostensibly a play on the fairly obvious notion that isolation might lead to alcoholism, its simplicity also connotes another inescapable truism: addictions might seem easy to avoid, but they’re far easier to succumb to.

How informed by lockdown any of the stories are, I’m not sure. But that’s another secret beauty to open-ended storytelling. If people see a version of themselves that has only been prevalent for the last year in these stories, then that can only be a connector. The slew of lockdown novels, albums and films has already permeated to a kind of tiresome extent, but short prose’s advantage – only having a finite time to convey anything – conversely makes them more everlasting than you might expect.

Racial Prejudice and Anti-Imperialist Sentiment

Unfortunately, oftentimes these days it seems that society’s reaction to trauma is contained by brevity. It’s a sentiment encapsulated brutally and distressingly by rapper Killer Mike in the Run The Jewels song ‘Walking In The Snow’ from last year:

‘The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy’.

How revitalising it is, then, that the myriad variations on short prose in The Middle Of A Sentence prove that brevity doesn’t have to be a shallow pit. In fact, in the hands of these writers that sense of having very little time to say something massive is melded into beautiful, if bleak, forms.

A large part of that bleakness is confronting societal ills that exist around us all the time, and that here in Britain we’re depressingly adapted to ignoring. Whether dealing with toxic masculinity, race or sexual abuse, at their most powerful the stories here make you feel queasily uncomfortable.

Rachael Fulton’s Blood is one devastating example. Whilst ‘shock factor’ is a terminally overused phrase, when Blood appears in the sequencing here it’s like a sucker punch to all the ribs at once. The seething putrescence of the mindset depicted, the hatred and embedded culture of peer pressure are all recognisably commonplace in Britain today. But again, its domesticity and vulnerability of the protagonist are its calling card; it forces society’s cracks open and a patriarchal, toxic, largely right-leaning society to gawp at itself.

Admittedly, for those of us on the left it’s pretty much preaching to the choir. With political entrenchment so thorough as it is now, showing Blood to an EDL member might not change anything. But it also calls us on the left to account for allowing this to happen. Nowhere near enough has been done about the growing far-right presence, and to some extent it has festered so much because we’ve let it.

It’s crucial to view these injustices from a non-white lens too, of course, and the anthology delivers on that front too. In Two Happy Meals, Nigerian writer Chiga Unigwe channels the paranoia of emigrating to a society (in this case the US) where the totally unwelcoming infrastructure is embodied by that most over-arching symbol of western consumerism: McDonald’s. In a sense it’s about desperately trying to be a part of something that doesn’t want you. But also – as the awful denouement contends – it’s about the realisation that maybe it was ever thus. The palpable sense of distrust she feels is inarguable in the most evidence-based way.

Ranbir Sidhu’s That Here They Call Castles offers the same distrust but in a UK environment, and almost more earthy sense in his description of ‘Ealing sidewalks’ as being wonky, ‘as if the builders were drunk or ever searching for that which was never in front of them’. It gets more direct as it goes on:

‘No one smiles here, it is a land colonized by a single expression, the lips flat, tight, they eyes unmoving’.

Sidhu’s castles, or ‘dungeons’ that are the ‘ill-lit living rooms’ become a reproach to everything that symbolises English comfort. As we know, what’s comfortable to the wealthy barely masks the societal superiority complex that pervades it. In a way, Sidhu’s perspective as an outsider looking in is the ultimate advantage; it offers the British what they cannot see for themselves, and with far more cultural sensitivity than many of us could dream of. And yet there’s no mollycoddling; British comfort allows nothing for anybody else.

Masculinity, Class & Looking Inwards

Let me be clear: it’s important, to me, not to give any credence to the ‘war on men’ narrative. And that seems to be one aim of The Middle Of A Sentence too. In fact, pretty much all portrayals of masculinity here are steeped in suitably soul-searching pathos. Given the events of the last two weeks particularly, that feels right.

And besides, literature has had enough of definitively masculine perceptions. In a society where individual dominance is still valued above any sense of equitable outcome, portrayals of masculinity like those here cannot come often enough.

There are many examples, not least Brian Hamill’s hilarious self-deprecation. On the surface, both The Marriage That Was Ended By Rice and The fucking pest control are about the breakdown of a relationship. But there’s also a massive helping of self-denial. In the former its paramount. When his parents confront him about his part in the break-up, he shoves them off:

‘But it was. I know it was. If I’d never said that about the rice, that moment would never have presented itself’.

In the latter, it unfurls more slowly. Unhealthy drinking habits and an unwillingness for confrontation gradually conspire to create an undoing that he recognises full well, but will do literally anything to keep unacknowledged, except in fleeting moments: ‘I should say her name’.

Garry Cox’s Jesus Christ, 6 Days Short Of His 53rd Birthday rolls down the same road but simultaneously takes on more cultural, communal male inadequacies. It gets back on the absurdist bike, making the divine and unreachable hilarious and not so unfathomable after all; ‘Buddhism is the only religion he feels he might someday commit to’, he writes, before he’s enlightened by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and becomes consumed by trying to reduce his Union Credit.

It’s almost as though our narrator, just like Christ himself, accepts his lot; he does what he has to do. But it also suggests that Christ is just a hyper-extension of man, probably invented by someone looking for some higher presence. And isn’t that what all of us – and maybe especially middle-aged men – are trying to do in life?

But just as masculinity needs to be considered and deconstructed societally, so too must we look inwards to injustices in class and health. Julie Rea’s The First To Leave is one of the most ferocious examples, tackling personal displacement which ends in tragedy inadvertently created by the protagonist. Seemingly set within the framework of a care system, we learn that a lady has ‘a garden full of scrap metal and garbage, and she’d been given 30 days to clear it’. When our protagonist arrives ‘one stifling afternoon with a rusty lawnmower’, one wonders whether it’s an allegory for the decimation of the NHS.

Graeme Armstrong’s Landit is also ultimately about a failed state:

‘C***s like him never last, the madness that fills them takes them n they perish’.

There’s a terrible sense of potential avoidance, exasperated and undone by the notion that middle-class carers can never truly understand working-class desperations. The drug epidemic that throttled working class communities across Scotland will permeate for as long as austerity works to view those communities as unequal.

Recovery From Trauma And abuse

A crucial element to men looking inwards is amplifying female voices, and accepting their perspectives without taking anything personally. There’s always been room for that in literature, but the sense that literary standards have been too male for too long is still hard to escape.

Frequently, that sense of a system which automatically devalues the work of women is felt acutely. Though this anthology was published in late 2020, they take on an extra urgent tone in a world where women aren’t safe even from people whose job it is to protect them.

That’s done in various ways. Kirsten Andersen’s The Space Between uses cavernous blanks and formatting discombobulation to relay perceptions of bodily and sexual autonomy, a break-up, freedom of choice, recovery from trauma, suicide and the extent to which – in a patriarchy – self-determination can achieve anything.

Ultimately, more and more we seem to exist in a world where ‘she believed she could, so she did’ seems a maxim hard to grasp, and that’s reflected in its repetition and consistent isolation on the pages. Self-determination for women is easy to out as a lie, it seems.

Farah Ahamed’s Thin Air shames us even more. It’s prescient just now that – like all great examples of brevity – you might read it and consider Ahamed some sort of seer. But this is the way things have always been. There’s no sense of futurism or foreshadowing here; this is how life has always been for women.

Sarah Ward’s The Bridge is fascinatingly bleak, excavating the cruel effect both demonisation of femininity and toxic masculinity can have on women. There’s also a sense that it reflects the collapse of society, and how this country – which is amped up to be a hive of equality-based modernity – offers nothing to young women in particularly.

And Hattie Atkins’ Food And Wine replicates a heightened sense of emptiness and desperation in a setting we can all recognise. By re-defining a constantly changing activity – cooking – to be something regimented in tandem with enormous personal loss again reflects the cyclical and constant unease many women live with.

Language And Meaning

There are several spell-binding approaches to language and dialect in The Middle Of A Sentence which, if you’ve been following The Common Breath’s catalogue & online activity, will come as no surprise.

Landit offers language as another essential arm of its assertions of class. Literature written in Scottish dialect has often been a target for sneering (mostly English) middle classes, either dismissed as being ‘too hard to read’, or fetishized as a composite glimpse into working-class Scotland. Graeme Armstrong changes the dynamic of that perception dramatically. Given that it’s a piece of memoir, it’s strikingly direct, but there is a sense of distance between the narration and the subject. Scottish dialect, here, is not so much an embodiment of class as it is deeply entrenched, rising out of a divide that, ultimately, snobbery has created.

That new spin offers Landit a unique position as a purveyor of the impact of words when reformed to fit certain perspectives. Bernard McLaverty reforms the idea of a sentence itself in The Fountain Pen, in so doing proving its liquidous endlessness and all the time keeping tabs on self-expression. Essentially, the anthology ends on a rumination on what the actual point of words is, or more specifically, saying too much or not enough. And both sides of that coin are explored in other examples too.

Sherwood Anderson’s The Dumb Man – one of several examples of short prose from the late 19th/early 20th century – is an exercise in literal non-storytelling. It creates a deeply cinematic, vivid narrative out of what isn’t said. To me, it seems ostensibly about how love is the cure for death. But via sardonic humour, Anderson suggests that words might be over-powerful in the context of love and death, even unwarranted:

‘Why was I not given words? Why am I dumb?


I have a wonderful story to tell but no way of telling it.’

It’s a viewpoint rebuffed by Kirsten Anderson in The Space Between, and one paragraph in particular:

‘Chaos often lives here, in the space between
words and feelings.
Thriving on the manufactured masochism of being misunderstood.
Again and again we try to be understood.
Yet we ask each other to read between our lines.
Why offer up spaces instead of words?
People are ridiculous’.

How much Anderson believes that is unclear; indeed, she offers a different perspective in the following paragraph. But either way, it’s a testament to the power of each and every person’s voice, whereas Sherwood Anderson might argue that there are too many voices in the crowd. The Space Between excavates the dynamics in both words and spaces, challenging the idea that the human condition can be neatly pocketed by interpersonal relationships, and should be more clearly defined by individual thought.

Conclusion

It felt quite resonant to be reading The Middle Of A Sentence in the same week that the new Arab Strap LP came out. Aidan Moffat’s writing has always belonged in the same lineage as that of James Kelman or Alan Warner – both of whom feature here – and seems tied up in many of the same, bleak machinations in navigating 2021 society.

What Moffat and many of these writers share is the ability to eek reality out of absurdity. The distinction is in the sense of fun in Arab Strap’s music, and the sense of wariness in many of these stories. But no matter what you take from The Middle Of A Sentence, the glaring sensitive accuracy throughout the whole anthology is incredible. It’s genuinely very rare for every story in a collection of this kind to strike a chord with me, but each one did, in spades.

You can buy The Middle Of A Sentence here.

BOOK REVIEW: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry

Soumen Daschoudhury's review of A Star Called Henry

Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth

Edition published: Vintage, 2000

Acclaim is a strange thing. And as much as people like to state that they don’t care about/pay attention to critical acclaim, it almost always leaves a resonant taste in the mouth.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in his The Last Roundup series, is certainly critically acclaimed. There are many who consider Doyle one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, if not *the* greatest. It’s narrated, in coarse and strikingly frank style, by the teenage protagonist Henry Smart, from his earliest years in poverty in Dublin through his ascension in the IRA and his involvement in both the Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence.

Sympathy with the Devil

From the off, Henry Smart is a deeply dislikeable voice, but Doyle measures that with his own sense of flare. His prose, whilst poetically loose, is accessibly lyrical. He presents a massive, glitzy Dublin alongside the seedy underbelly which is his emphasis with conviction.

His depictions of violence and the factional nature of the IRA, the paranoia and distrust are vivid and authentic. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the first third of the book; certain deaths and predicaments are shocking, some realisations evergreen and pertinent.

‘1916 is about contested memory and history’. A BBC Newsnight commemoration of the Easter Rising, 100 years on.

But rather quickly, as Henry becomes more involved with atrocities and delivers mean-spirited assertions, the question becomes as to how much sympathy one has with the protagonist. Essentially, how much do you care about their fate?

And by about halfway through, I didn’t care. And there’s a massive, ugly elephant in the room that seems to have been almost routinely ignored.

Gender Roles from the Middle Ages

That aforementioned elephant is that the sex/gender politics in A Star Called Henry are staggeringly misguided, even by the standards of 1999.

Firstly, the way Doyle writes sex is entirely devoid of romance – though one would expect that from the perspective of a 14-year-old. Its voyeuristic cringe-worthiness is just about manageable until incidents of statutory rape – involving Henry and one of his former teachers – become frequent.

Henry loses his virginity to that teacher, who is twice his age, at 14, and continues to have sexual relations with another older woman. He eventually marries the teacher, Miss O’Shea, at the age of 17 (he fakes his birth certificate to say that he’s 22) – she is 32. At no point is there any sense of impropriety at these happenings, neither in the novel nor in critical reception.

But just as offensive is that every woman in the novel exists entirely as a sex object for Henry. Miss O’Shea is given 1.1-dimensional portrayal via her willingness to partake in revolutionary violence, but that lasts for about two pages.

About 2/3 through, we meet a woman who is just as coarse and brutal as Henry. *Finally*, I sighed. A female character who might amount to more than a twisted take on desire. But no – Doyle writes her out as quickly as she appeared by saying that she wants to ‘rape’ Henry. I wish I was making that up.

Authenticity Vs. Distastefulness

It seems, from his own acknowledgements, Doyle did a fair amount of research into the era he focussed on. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. His gross approach to femininity and women on the page would be pig-headed in any decade.

To still have the same acclaim behind his writing, one assumes that Roddy Doyle has become better at writing women since A Star Called Henry. I’m not sure I’ll trouble myself to find out, though.  

An old, fractured image of Michael Collins, one of Irish Independence’s loudest voices. Image Credit: National Library of Ireland Flickr.

You can buy A Star Called Henry here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History of Britain Vol. 1: At The Edge Of The World?

Image result for a history of britain: at the edge of the world?

The first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain is a poetic, dramatic and page-turning revitalisation of early medieval Britain’s royal grandeur

Edition: 2009, The Bodley Head

At this point, fellow history buffs will need no introduction to Simon Schama. British-born but long-time professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York, he’s been gracing my TV screen for as long as I can remember.

Little did I know that his early-00’s BBC documentary series was also fleshed out in three books. It was his latest documentary series, The Romantics And Us, that spurned me to get my hands on any literature he’d written. So now that I’m here – and given the entirely necessary reappraisal and uprooting of much of British history within the last 12 months – how does A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? Stand up in 2021?

Well, it does and it doesn’t. On the one hand, it’s an immensely readable, poetic and entertaining thing. Schama doesn’t cover any massive new ground, nor does he pretend to. His remit and refreshing eye is contained in his lyrical writing, bringing the full peacock-ish sense of Elizabethan splendour, or the gruelling Machiavellian antics of Anglo-Saxon Britain, to zesty life.

Schama in 2009. Image credit: Monica Flickr.

Royal Grandeur

Whereas most of Schama’s focus is on the royal court, with all its scheming backstabbers and political intrigue, there are ruminations on feudal normality; how the people endured after the coronation of William the Conqueror, for example, or the helplessness of the periodic plagues that ransacked Plantagenet & Tudor Europe.

But largely, this is a book about grandeur, and how ultimately hubris has constantly determined the fate of our rulers. So far, so medieval Britain, you might think.

But where Schama really reigns supreme is in his characterisations. His reappraisal of Anne Boleyn as a chief architect in the seemingly permanent cultural Reformation is brilliantly realised. As much as he draws on Thomas Cromwell’s ruthlessness in bringing about her demise (‘pure devilry’, as he calls it), he draws out her political nuance:

‘It’s not only reasonable but essential to come back to Anne Boleyn as both the occasion and the cause of this extraordinary change in direction’.

Anne Boleyn, capable of much more than history often remembers. Image credit: Loz Pycock Flickr.

He does the same for Thomas Becket, who we ‘rightly’ think of as a stuffy religious zealot, but:

‘the truth is he was a real Londoner, with an instinctive flair for the things that Londoners have always cared most about: display and costume; the getting and spending of money; theatre, private and public; and (even though his stomach was delicate) fine food and drink. He was street smart and book smart. He was, from the get-go, a Player.’

What can we learn from it?

For all his poeticisms, there isn’t much in the way of prophetic nuance here. But it’s not a book that forgets that the modern world exists, and Schama finds parallels that were as relevant in 2000 as they are today.

He distils and summarises the lingering impact of nationalism in a brief half paragraph:

‘Nationalism, we are trained to assume, is a modern invention. But then what do we make of these utterances with their passionate attachment to territory and local memory? They document, unmistakably, if not nationalism, then at least ‘nativism’, a politics of birthplace, of land and language. After these voices were heard, Britain would never be the same again’.

Elizabeth I. Image credit: Francisco Anzola Flickr.

And as he navigates the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, he exposes how the former’s body and politics became commodified by the men surrounding her, but also how she was far from bendable to their whims. One glaring caveat is that there’s no mention of the early slave trade, which seems even more odd in today, especially given Schama’s political sensibilities.

Studious readers of medieval history might not learn much from A History of Britain: At The Edge Of The World? But if you’re looking for an antidote to the usually pretty dry storytelling of much history writing, then this is no bad place to start.

You can buy A History of Britain Volume One: At the Edge of the World? here.

BOOK REVIEW: Raven Leilani’s Luster

Luster by Raven Leilani | Waterstones

US debutant Raven Leilani comes firing out the blocks with Luster; a brilliantly funny, artistic and painful portrayal of modern womanhood

Edition: Picador, January 2021

As far as first sentences go, Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster lands on an absolute gold mine:

‘The first time we have sex we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light’.

It’s the sort of opening that tells us exactly where we are without telling us much. Almost immediately, we’re plonked down in a world of millennial dread, dating anxiety and a thoroughly modern prism. And that’s perfect. Because although we don’t quite know it at this stage, the novel’s protagonist Edie lives in that prism too.

A 23-year-old assistant at a New York publishing house, Edie finds herself dating a man twice her age, eventually becoming entangled in an open marriage. On a surface level, it’s the story of being the ‘other woman’, albeit in 21st century suburbia and not wild and despotic Thomas Hardy English countryside.

But the battles Edie has to fight – a deep sense of self-loathing, being an orphan, the struggling artist routine and normalised bouts of racism – are huge. And the novel’s prescience seeps and ekes out of nooks and crannies, rising at the most unexpected moments, slithering tenaciously from loose mundanity; a visit to an art exhibition for example (parenthood), or taking an adopted daughter to her martial arts classes (attraction, isolation AND parenthood).

Power Imbalances In An Unbalanced City

The beauty in Leilani’s writing is that it makes existential anguish and prejudice hit just as they should; like a sledgehammer. The sinister moments, executed in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it style, reflect how absorbed into everyday consciousness many biases, injustices and inaccuracies are.

The way Edie approaches the power imbalances in pretty much every aspect of her life, presents her as a personality who soaks inequity up like a sponge. Someone who doesn’t necessarily believe bad things happen to her for a reason but struggles to express internal righteousness in her shape-shifting, often unfinished self-portraits.

The mythical grandiosity of New York is unpicked in Luster. Image Credit: thenails Flicker.

Things get fascinatingly bleak in the book’s final third, where ruminations on motherhood, police brutality and a sense of belonging sting particularly hard. By this point, there’s very little humour left, Leilani instead using resonant pathos to depict a reality that is often overlooked but never – in New York’s ‘bounty of holes’ – uncommon.

Much has been written about the book’s theorising on art and the machinations of craft in particular as a mirror for life. And there’s always that sense of dogged determination in Edie, as art becomes the necessary documentation of survival that creatives will always recognise.  

Womanhood As Solace In the 21st Century

It’s a definably assured debut novel. Often as hilariously filthy as it is acerbic, Leilani has done a grand job of presenting stream-of-consciousness and unflinching trauma just as it might appear in one’s brain.

As a white man I can’t claim any of these experiences for myself. But Luster is also a unifying piece of work; Edie’s confusion eventually finds solace in womanhood, what it should and should not be, and how it has moulded survival to its hands in a unique way. The novel itself is similarly singular.  

You can buy Luster here.

BOOK REVIEW: Bhanu Kapil’s How To Wash A Heart

How To Wash a Heart' by Bhanu Kapil -Reviewed | The Blue Nib

Bhanu Kapil’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection is a phenomenal dissection of a clash of cultures and multi-varied senses of identity

Originally Published: Liverpool University Press, 2020

Poetry obsessives will recognise How to Wash a Heart as the winner of the 2021 T. S. Eliot Prize. They’ll also recognise that poetry criticism is often laced with a sort of authoritarian, imposed worth. The idea that T. S. Eliot’s work itself is the high watermark of poetic substance is problematic at best. But in this case, Bhanu Kapil’s latest collection really *IS* that good.

In an interview with Liverpool University Press, Kapil said:

‘The culture of detention and family separations on the U.S.- Mexico border, repatriation protocols in the U.K., and the aggression towards minority populations in contemporary India are the water of this book…’

In that light, the dangerously homogenising term ‘immigrant experience’, the dynamic between guests and hosts and multitudinous senses of ‘belonging’ slot together seamlessly. Though they may not have been the collection’s original impetus in terms of imagery, they’re bought to life with beautiful urgency.

Bhanu Kapil. Image credit: kellywritershouse Flickr

Identity, Surrealism and Poetic Perfection

The lack of ownership here, it’s possible to read, is reflected by the fact that all the poems are untitled. But the notion of reclaiming a life and identity is central too.

Throughout the collection, conversations between heart and head, culture and personality, Westernisation and assimilation all mirror the confusion. There’s a deep sense of a wholesome figure throughout, though its spirit is fraught with fractures. It’s a beautifully refreshing, watery and translucent assertion of self and home.

Kapil’s real magic is capturing a resonant moment in the simplest of phrases. See, for example, how a comment like ‘when you left’ denotes her exposure to new cultures and environments that are openly hostile. Or how ‘on the windowsill’ repeatedly illustrates that sense of being on the inside looking out, or vice versa.

Anxiety, paranoia and the predatory nature of colonialism are constant mines of thought and are encapsulated by surreally perfect phrases: ‘Am I your queen?’, or ‘Psychosis creams the air giving it a peculiar richness and depth.’ Those anxiety attacks are sometimes brilliantly conjoined with surrealist humour too, such as:

‘When was the last time you saw a werewolf? It’s extraordinary how afraid I am all the time.’

A werewolf is just one of the manifestations of Kapil’s insecurities. Image credit: Mr Evil Cheese Scientist Flickr.

Where Does the West Really Stand?

She also checkmates the western approach to immigration and ‘otherness’ in genuinely novel ways. With well-balanced anger she references the wilful ignorance of questions about her life that completely disregard her Indian heritage; ‘I want to hear what happened afterwards not before’.

She hands the disingenuous western sense of altruism back to us on the plate – we may act as if we’re doing immigrants a kindness or favour, but when that altruism is fake, the receiver sees right through it.

A short version of this review would read simply that this is one of those collections that makes you feel loose-limbed and liquid with how beautiful it is. It unremittingly deserves all its plaudits, but the platitudes of winning a prize don’t go deep enough in mining its cultural worth. It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

You can Purchase How To Wash a Heart here.

BOOK REVIEW: Jackie Wills’ A Friable Earth

A Friable Earth: Amazon.co.uk: Wills, Jackie: 9781911469940: Books

Jackie Wills’ beautiful ode to ageing womanhood is strangely relatable in a world smothered by Coronavirus

Originally Published by: Arc, 2019

Ageing womanhood is still a taboo in Western society. Frequently misrepresented and oftentimes ignored, the perspectives of women over 60 should be another bolt in the educational foundations of life.

As a woman in that demographic, legendary British poet Jackie Wills is succinctly placed to dictate the mental and physical realisations of that stage in life. But A Friable Earth casts its net wide, and like all the best poets, she teases those realities – sometimes beautiful, often excruciating – out of both big societal discussions and matters that seem pedestrian in comparison.

There’s also plenty here that’s relevant to many of our current realities. The places her mind wanders, the uncertainty about the future and constantly evolving approach to time are all easily accessible to those currently living in a lockdown. But almost all the poems here, whether they ooze quiet humour or real despondency, take Wills’ identity and transcend it to something that needs to be perceived.

The Natural World Can Help Us

There’s a hefty helping of ecological love in A Friable Earth. For example, in Watering she manages to encapsulate facets of love and missed opportunities via the outline of humanity’s relationship with nature:

‘the city’s staggered roofs house chicks who mew like cats, how earth sends back the sounds of rakes and spades, that you and me can blur somewhere in between’

In the staggering Road From the North she expertly uses spaciousness and contrasting language to reflect the beauty of nature, its relationship to humans, a deep spiritual connection with it and racial apartheid. Tortoise is an ode to looking for/finding purpose in the later stages of life. The obvious connotations of its title aside, this collection ultimately seeks recovery in the beauty of the natural world.

Are we more akin with Tortoises than we think? Image credit: Chris Parker Flickr.

Life Through an Experienced Lens

It being A Friable Earths default purview, there are essences of ageing on almost every page. Where they really stand out is when they’re used to highlight universal prejudices. In Glamour she wonders whether women who refuse to pluck their bodily hairs are the truly glamourous ones, taking a hammer to the Hollywood-affirmed definition of beauty.

Wandering womb is a beautiful discussion of womanhood’s purpose after having children, when shallow, misogynistic attitudes can no longer physically apply:

‘compared to a womb, which is now joined in its ambling by a kidney, eye, spleen, all of them nomads seeking relief from a 24-hour contract to remain in the same’

Vho Mjedzi – one of many poems where Wills conveys her South African experience – wonderfully explores the relatability of women across cultures, but also the ways in which femininity excels in those cultures – and they’re often ways that ours doesn’t.

South African & nature are almost constant muses for Wills. Image credit: Water Alternatives Photos

Pocket St. Anthony is an almost maudlin take on ageing, before Silver Inkwell counteracts it brilliantly, playing on the ‘you decide what to do with your time’ motif.

There are myriad other strains and resonances – revolving around death, racial prejudice and motherhood – that I’ve barely touched on here. But throughout A Friable Earth, Wills has a graceful nuance that whether in short or long-form verse, she executes with real beauty. It’s a touching and strangely relatable snapshot of a moment in life.

You can buy A Friable Earth here.

BOOK REVIEW: J. O. Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress

The Martian's Regress

Scottish poet J. O. Morgan’s The Martian’s Regress makes some powerful points about ecological collapse, but has a questionable approach to gender politics

Originally published: Cape Poetry, 2020

Last week I wrote a review a Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation. Throughout it, the link between poets, their art and the thing that dominates their lives became clear. If money has been the muse-du-jour over the centuries though, in the 21st it’s been replaced by something else: our future on this planet.

That’s reflected across all genres; last week The Bookseller reported that publishing houses are expecting massive sales of books about the natural world in 2021. Whereas nature may have been a saving grace for many of us throughout lockdown, it can’t continue to be if we don’t save it first. And that’s what Scottish poet J. O. Morgan argues in his latest book, 2020’s much-lauded The Martian’s Regress.

We’re Running Out Of Time

A narratively arced collection charting a Martian’s return to planet Earth in a Post-Apocalyptic future and his ensuing actions & emotions, it’s a brutal, forlorn piece of work pretty much from the start – though what else would you expect from a collection which opens with a poem entitled A Dream of Planetary Subjugation?

There isn’t much in the way of optimism here, but of course there’s no point in viewing the stats through a rose tint either. Morgan’s emphasis is on the lack of time left we’ve to care for our planet, and The Martian’s Regress is suitably sobering.

Eco-imagery And Cross-Medium Art

Despite the nihilism, Morgan employs plenty of hooks to draw you in. There are immediately variations on classicist poetic language in the aforementioned opener, as well as the breathless pace set by the lack of punctuation. There are instances of no-punches-pulled beauty too, like this from Frequently Asked Questions:

‘We’ve jettisoned so much metal in close orbit you can see its magnificent sky-smear glinting on clear blue midsummer days’.

The imagery in Continuity Rites is positively cinematic, and The Martian Struggles Alone might recall eco-centric horror flick The Hallow, or H. R. Giger’s work on Alien. There’s also a fairly strident anti-imperialist undercurrent that makes the likes of Supplemental Matter and The Martian Visits a Museum damningly righteous.

A sample of H. R. Giger’s artwork for Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien. Image Credit: Dreamside Flickr

Gender Politics Problems

There is one big question mark hanging heavily over The Martian’ Regress for me though: the issue of gender politics. The Martian’s companion, characterised as ‘she’, is almost never depicted in a sympathetic light. Either she’s submissive – and it’s impossible to ignore the whiff of misogyny in those cases – or she’s not compatible, emotionless and incapable.

Some readers have interpreted that it is indeed a metaphor for the constant subjugation of women by men. Given the book’s theme, it might be more plausible to argue that ‘she’ is planet Earth and is being decimated just as our home is. And in fairness, Morgan goes as far as to long for a feminine future in A Cautionary Tale. Either way though, it’s never clarified, and it leaves an odd aftertaste.

In terms of eco-poetry and the way the form reflects our immediate reality, The Martian’s Regress is a pertinent, important read.

You can purchase The Martian’s Regress here.

BOOK REVIEW: Porsha Olayiwola’s I Shimmer Sometimes, Too

REVIEW: I SHIMMER SOMETIMES, TOO – PORSHA OLAYIWOLA (BUTTON POETRY) – The  Poetry Question

Boston-based poet Porsha Olayiwola’s debut collection is a phenomenal, moving and fierce assertion of identity

Originally Published: Button Poetry, 2019

To us poetry lovers, it’s the most direct form of expressionism. Having a finite time to say something, as well as the ability to reform and restructure rules, adds to its beauty. Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola grasps all those dynamics by the horns in I Shimmer Sometimes, Too. A powerful, gut-punching assertion of identity as a black, queer, ‘hip-hop feminist’, the 73 pages here are some of the most fiery, lucid and ambitious poems that you’re likely to read for some time.

Reshaping Identity

Olayiwola combines a disregard for conventional layout and scathing socio-political commentary to rip up the rule book right from the start. The opening poem is essayistic, excavating themes like male sensitivity and the decimation of black culture in breathless prose. And crucially, amidst its full-on presentation she hides golden left-hooks, the type of scabrous zingers whose prescience will stalk and unfurl itself as it progresses, like:

‘He might lay a sheet of cayenne over the flesh – a homeland conquered by sun, a fire gouged between cheeks, eyes watering a flag of surrender’.

As surrealist as she can be, there’s always a sense of frankness masked by deceptively simple techniques. Take Continent, for example, where the breadth of the stanzas begins broadly, only to become far more restricted by the end. Interlude At A Neighbourhood Gas Station: 2001 – a total affirmation of Olayiwola’s gender identity – is thrilling both narratively and in the fluidity of its final twist.

Porsha Olayiwola performing Notorious, from I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, live.

Familiar Ground Given New Life

That surrealism, however, also means that fairly commonplace themes are totally revitalised in her hands. My Brother Ghost Writes This Poem is a damning indictment on the mass incarceration of young black men in America, and Ode To Ex-girlfriend, with its theme of the lingering horror of abusive relationships, is colourfully devastating.

The Bus Stop Is Crowned Motif links grandiose cultural posturing and a grim, multi-layered urban reality:

‘Those who have the least are often offered up at a crossroad. Those in need are often slain in the dead of mourning. Those in power smile, name this a just fate. Palms grip to makeshift knives when we travel as to not be the tale they warned us of.’

And she’s not afraid to tear off any comfort blanket that the white middle class might’ve surrounded itself with, especially on the hyper-sexual one-two of Listen: My Right Hand Is Covered In Blood and I Wish To Eat What My Partner Does Not…The Muse For This Black Dyke Is A Dead White Man is an ingenious counter to T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, espousing how where Eliot continues to be lauded after death, Olayiwola and black women like her cannot expect to be.

Vulnerability and Righteousness

Perhaps the best summation of the entire collection comes in Aladdin’s Genie On Emancipation:

‘not the first time someone has been unarmed by survival’.

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too is the perspective of someone whose identity is as righteous as any, but whose survival is always precarious. But the book is as much a celebration as it is a battle cry. The toing-and-froing within her psyche causing this collection to ebb with power in any context Olayiwola chooses. She uses vulnerability to prepare for the fight, and in a furiously strong way.

You can buy I Shimmer Sometimes, Too here.

BOOK REVIEW: Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors: The Untold Story: Amazon.co.uk: Kaufmann, Miranda:  9781786071842: Books

Miranda Kaufmann’s exploration of African presences in Tudor/Stuart Britain is an evergreen, educational powerhouse

Originally publication: Oneworld Publications, 2017

We all know that 2020 was a seismic year for race relations. The murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the US sent decades-old discussions into fever pitch. In the UK, it was the Brexit vote that triggered a rise in hate-crime and xenophobic sentiment. That’s something that Miranda Kaufmann touches on late-on in Black Tudors: The Untold Story:

‘As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants’.

And throughout the preceding pages, she expertly exposes and navigates the huge but unsung contribution African immigrants made to British society throughout the late Tudor/early Stuart periods. She focuses on 10 characters who moved through the echelons of English life, whether that be in royal courts, circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake or weaving silk in Southwark.

She turns her thorough research into fluid prose and often hits on imagery so vivid that you can almost smell the places coming off the pages. The way she writes about prostitution in Westminster, or dairy producing in Gloucestershire, for example, showcase the kind of connectivity you’d expect from classicist fiction.

Miranda Kaufmann recounting the research behind Black Tudors, the book and her reasons for writing it.

And whilst some of the stories – like that of Edward Swarthye, the first black man to whip a white man on British soil – lead us to ‘question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, she’s not afraid to shy away from the injustices faced by many of Swarthye’s counterparts, especially women. She does this in pleasingly acerbic, on-the-nose fashion too, like in the chapter about the Westminster-based Anne Cobbie:

‘Few women voluntarily chose prostitution as a career. Many recounted that they had been tricked into it by ‘fair words and great promises’. Some had received guarantees of marriage that proved as worthless as the men who gave them once the deed was done’.

The overwhelming feeling you might come away from Black Tudors: The Untold Story is one of exasperation that you weren’t taught this previously. Part of that may be to do with the fact that much of the ground-breaking research – in which Kaufmann has been involved since the early 00’s – wasn’t widespread until recently. And while the documentation on many of these figures remains scanty, this book is as much about our education as it is reclaiming their stories.

Its impact since publication in 2017 has been massive. But its message will continue to be important until sections of society are willing to become less ignorant about our collective past, and how much we owe to those from other cultures.

You can purchase Black Tudors: The Untold Story here.

BOOK REVIEW: Peter Robinson’s Poetry & Money: A Speculation

Poetry & Money - Peter Robinson - Oxford University Press

Celebrated poet and academic Peter Robinson casts his eye over the way money has impacted poetry through the centuries in often riveting style.

Poets will tell you that their art is a valuable key to unlocking life’s secrets. They’ll argue that poetry is as essential as anything else when discussing cultural and personal worth. I believe that’s true; but the elephant in the room is what gives our lives material, physical and tangible value. Money has always been at the root of that value, whether poets admit it to themselves or not. And with his new book, Poetry & Money: A Speculation, Peter Robinson removes the cobwebs on that very subject.

Well, some of the cobwebs. At a brisk 233 pages (excluding a bibliography and index), Poetry & Money’s scope is somewhat limited. There are no considerations of foreign language poetry, for instance (something Robinson notes apologetically in his introduction). There’s not much analysis of female poets throughout the centuries either, and pretty well nothing published post-2000. But there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here all the same, and when Robinson is assertive, he’s often bang on the money.

Setting his stall out early, Robinson describes the aim of the book as to ‘explore two very different, but inextricably interrelated, human instruments for the attribution of value to the world’. That exploration includes things like notions of ‘trust’ and multi-faceted ideas of exchange, the constant ways in which poetry, money and life reflect each other, shifting attitudes towards paper money and more. There are studies of ‘begging poems’, the mysterious South Sea Bubble of the early 18th century and poetry’s often misguided idealism.

If all that sounds niche and a bit dry, then probably this book isn’t for you. And it being an academic book, there’s no shallow end here. Poetry & Money assumes that its readership is well-steeped in its subject matter and focus. But if you’re interested in poetry, and its connection with the major thing that dominates all our lives (for good or ill), then there are rich and riveting pickings to be had.

A bust of D. H. Lawrence in Nottingham, close to where he was born. Image credit: Elliott Brown Flickr

For example, there’s an immense dissection of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Sea Dreams’ in ‘For a vast speculation had failed’, as Robinson takes its multitudinous readings, dynamics and Tennyson’s own financial context into his stride. As he hones in on Ezra Pound’s proto-fascism in ‘Going off the gold standard’, it’s hard to imagine how Pound could be more dislikeable, but the analysis is still rewarding. And he’s not afraid to land subtle punches either, for example:

‘It’s not the medievalism that’s the problem: it’s the assurance of a special insight into a global conspiracy’.

His discussion of D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Money-madness’ in ‘Contracts and prophets’ expertly deals with the pitfalls of overly-romanticising the relationship between any individual and money. And the web of influence he weaves when discussing W.H Auden’s ‘Casino’ is pretty spellbinding.

He saves the best for last in ‘Getting value out of money’. There are a few stellar observations here, like his perceptive brilliance when discussing Frank O’Hara’s Adieu for Norman…, or delving into the hypocrisy of poetry ‘prizes’, or discussing relationships that form out of the function of ‘feedback’.

Ultimately, Poetry & Money is preaching to the choir, and doesn’t pretend that it’s any other way. But if you’re genuinely interested in the way money has shaped poetry and several writers’ souls, then this is a must-read.

You can purchase Poetry & Money: A Speculation here.

The Best Books I Read In 2020

Image credit: Vicente Flickr

What a year 2020 has been for the publishing industry. It’s not unique in the hurdles it’s had to face of course. The Coronavirus has put a stopper in plans for growth and expansion in pretty much every sector across the globe, and has made keeping heads above water an arduous task. It doesn’t totally feel like we’re out of the woods either; within two weeks the immediate impact of Brexit will be another problem to vault.

But what’s clear is that the power of literature hasn’t diminished. Book sales have maintained a strong upward trend since the beginning of the year, and that’s been reflected by consensus amongst the general population too. I read 40 books this year, and it’s fair to say that had it not been for lockdown, that wouldn’t have been the case. Similarly, the seismic evolution of the audiobook and eBook formats has grown to achieve an all-time readership high this year.

Aside from any other context, those figures are staggering. But the other game-changing factor this year – the catalyst for increased readership of books by black writers and a continuing shift in the publishing industry itself – was the murder of George Floyd in America and the Black Lives Matter marches and movements which righteously gripped communities across the world. As someone who has spent most of 2020 applying for jobs in the publishing industry, it has been a real pleasure to follow its progress to becoming more inclusive, more diverse and more progressive.

This doesn’t just come from ‘the big 5’, though it’s great to see them being more proactive in encouraging non-white applicants to apply. It also comes from work done on the ground by indie publishers, activists, and the likes of industry publications like The Publishing Post, whose dedication to the BLM cause (and others) has been absolutely tireless. As an editor on the new literary journal Ta Voix, it’s been a mighty honour to have been involved in publishing cross-cultural poetry and creative writing. I feel proud of the fire and zeal my generation is embracing to furthering equality in the publishing sphere.

But now, for the list. There are a couple of things to point out with my selections here. Firstly, you’ll notice that it’s not really a ‘list’. These books aren’t ranked at all. They’re basically presented in the order which I read them this year. Ranking literature from as disparate genres, backgrounds and authors as the 23 books here seems like a tenuous task anyway. But in 2020, I think it’s important that we focus less on giving art numerical credibility, and more on how it actually impacts us as individuals. Most notably, the works by black writers I’ve read this year have certainly encompassed way more than can ever be expressed by ranking them, so to do so seems like a huge disservice.

Secondly – and as you may have gleaned from the title of this post – not all these books were released in 2020. In fact, only 6 of them were. There are myriad reasons as to why that is – the lack of time, the sheer volume of work released in 2020 to name a couple. But ultimately, as many others have pointed out before, it doesn’t matter whether you read 50 books from any given year, or 5. What matters is one’s response to it, and how it impacts their lives. I felt it totally necessary to go back and read books by the likes of Afua Hirsch, Alex S. Vitale and Michelle Alexander rather than ensure I was buying every new work of fiction as it was released. Many of the books here have timeless messages and qualities, and are important if you believe that a massive shift in attitudes and representation needs to happen, in both literature and wider society.

I hope you enjoy the books I’ve selected here, and please do consider buying one of them if that’s the case, either from bookshop.org or the publisher directly. Here’s to a 2021 full of more beautiful prose and reading!

Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire by Tim Marshall (Elliott & Thompson LTD., 2019)

Shadowplay: Behind the Lines and Under Fire: The Inside Story of Europe's  Last War eBook: Marshall, Tim: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Probably the best book I’ve ever read about Geopolitics. It provides an insider’s insight into the Serbia-Kosovo war of 1998-99 and exposes all the tragedy, Machiavellian politics and murkiness that went on in the build-up, during and after the war. Moving, unbiased and dryly funny.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Shadowplay: Behind the Lines & Under Fire here.

Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Music by Matthew Collin (Profile Books LTD., 2018)

Rave On by Matthew Collin | Waterstones

It was fun to read about Detroit and Berlin again, but the real highlights for me were the histories and evolution of the more off-the-beaten-track scenes. And the semi-defence of Skrillex in the Las Vegas chapter was way more interesting and reasonable than I thought it’d be.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music here.

An Elegy For Easterly by Petina Gappah (Faber & Faber, 2009)

An Elegy for Easterly: Amazon.co.uk: Gappah, Petina: 9780571246946: Books

Incredible collection of short stories about Petina Gappah’s homeland of Zimbabwe around independence in 1980 and the transitional years. It’s really interesting how they all reference colonialism, its impact and psyche of those living through it in Zimbabwe. The stories are as pleasantly surrealist and bizarre as they are funny and profound.

Read my full review here.

You can buy An Elegy For Easterly here.

Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy by David Mitchell (Guardian Faber Publishing, 2019)

Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy: And Other Rules to Live By:  Amazon.co.uk: Mitchell, David: 9781783351961: Books

For the most part, it’s every bit as funny, pedantic and sardonically thoughtful as you’d hope. Akin to other comics like Frankie Boyle, Mitchell writes about politics with a level of insight and nuance that goes way beyond the depth of many of our current MPs.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy here.

In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (Transworld Publishers LTD., 2012)

In Praise of Hatred: Amazon.co.uk: Khalifa, Khaled, Price, Leri:  9780552776134: Books

It might sound like a story you’ve heard several times before; the one about an extremist who realises the error of their ways and repents. But Khalifa’s writing is so rich, so thorough, so utterly nuanced in its subject area, that it’s the everyday happenings of the book which underpin its genius.

Read my full review here.

You can buy In Praise of Hatred here.

Citadel by Martha Sprackland (Liverpool University Press, 2020)

Citadel (Pavilion Poetry): Amazon.co.uk: Martha Sprackland: 9781789621020:  Books

Weaving a narrative that combines 16th-century Spanish monarch Juana De Castille and Sprackland’s modern experience of womanhood, the collection ebbs and flows, blurring time and memory together and using them to depict a ravaging relationship with identity, confinement, the sea, men, love and femininity. Youthful UK poetry is in rude health right now, but so far, ‘Citadel’ is the high water mark for 2020.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Citadel here.

Let Me Tell You This by Nadine Aisha Jassat (404 Ink, 2019)

Let Me Tell You This: Nadine Aisha Jassat: 9781912489121: Amazon.com: Books

Much of it works as a much-needed educational endeavour; another reason why the collection’s directness seems so necessary. Her beautiful approach to integration in ‘The Old Codgers’ and the demonstrable realisation of adulthood of ‘Inbetween Tales’ both reflect and react to her lived experience. Always coming from a deeply personal place, whether she’s angrily sucker-punching the rib cage of rape culture, or using her relationship with her parents as a signifier of her association with Britishness, she can be distinctly creative and truthful in equal measure.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Let Me Tell You This here.

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale (Verso Books, 2018)

The End of Policing: Amazon.co.uk: Alex Vitale: 9781784782894: Books

In each chapter, he painstakingly lays out the history and background of the biggest deprivations in modern America, ranging from the disastrous ‘School to Prison Pipeline’, the war on drugs and sex work to gang culture and political policing. His analysis is that, despite the desperate nature of the situation – ‘race relations in the USA are as bad as they have ever been’ – none of it is a lost cause.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The End of Policing here.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander | Waterstones

Alexander exposes how mass incarceration – or ‘the new Jim Crow’ – is a tool for social manipulation and oppression, rather than built out of any desire to keep the general populace safe. She relies heftily on stats and anger-inducing, terrifying instances of injustice to prove this, all the while maintaining a strong narrative fluidity that seamlessly entwines the links between the history of the US’ legal structure and the way in which its citizens, both black and white, have been hoodwinked into believing, or at least unconsciously upholding, a racist hierarchy.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The New Jim Crow here.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (Orion Publishing Co, 2020)

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams | Waterstones

Whether at work, with the family of her deeply problematic partner or even with men she’s dating, Queenie’s life is roll call of calling people out. And alongside focused female empowerment and affecting mental health portrayals, ‘Queenie’ manifests its discussions of race relations as a call to arms. Everybody needs to challenge any racism they encounter, in any situation. Only then will the futures of people like Queenie (not to mention her 15-year-old cousin Diana) be solidified in the context of wider society, as they obviously should be.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Queenie here.

Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters (Rare Bird Books, 2020)

Mutations: Twenty Years Embedded in Hardcore Punk: Amazon.co.uk: McPheeters,  Sam, Vail, Tobi: 9781947856981: Books

Now channelling his wit and realism-based imagination into novel writing, McPheeters’ half memoir/half essay collection comes unexpected. At various stages throughout the book, he expresses relief at getting out of the hardcore scene (and performing in general) when he did. But his connection to/regret about many facets of the scene across America (and occasionally the UK) is still as vivid, poignant and engaging as ever.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Mutations here.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Pan Macmillan, 2020)

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine | Waterstones

In To All Their Dues we meet Kyle, a Loyalist paramilitary struggling to deal with toxic masculinity and the violence of his past. In Arab States: Mind and Narrative, the academic Ryan Hughes looks to conflicts elsewhere to rationalise the situation that has dominated his life. And in Lady and Dog, the elderly Olga clings on to generational anti-Catholic bias whilst attitudes change around her. These are bleak, often funny stories that show – without telling – the lasting impact of The Troubles (both positive and negative) to this day.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Sweet Home here.

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Milkman: Amazon.co.uk: Burns, Anna: 9780571342730: Books

But Burns – through dry, subtly universal stream-of-consciousness writing – expertly exposes the way the lives of ordinary people were entwined with The Troubles, whether they wanted them to be or not. It’s a brilliantly creative yet direct portrayal of the fractures that still, four decades on, need healing.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Milkman here.

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too by Porsha Oliyawola (Button Poetry, 2019)

I Shimmer Sometimes, Too (Button Poetry): Amazon.co.uk: Porsha O:  9781943735457: Books

Self-proclaimed ‘hip-hop feminist’ Porsha Olayiwola comes through with a beautiful, profound, hard-going and always pertinent collection about identity as a black queer woman, racism & slavery in modern American society and a brilliant revision of ‘The Hollow Men’.

You can buy I Shimmer Sometimes, Too here.

Hings: Short Stories N That by Chris McQueer (404 Ink, 2019)

Hings: Amazon.co.uk: Chris McQueer: 9780995623866: Books

The debut collection by young Glaswegian author Chris McQueer is what you might expect if Irvine Welsh wrote the script for Sky One comedy Brassic. The irreverent, farcical and outrageous exteriors of these stories serve plenty of laughs. But there’s a real sense of realism at their heart; these are stories of everyday, working class Scotland, wrapped in lacerating humour but with a strong sense of pathos.

You can buy Hings here.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (Virago Press, 2003)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – She Reads Novels

Du Maurier’s dialogue is pristine and perfect, deceptively simple and captivating – her characters are like the most troubled specimens in a Stephen King story, but with more British urgency. They’re richly drawn, recognisable and un-likeable when they need to be, meaning that any twists or characterisations are completely believable and never seem contrived, even in the novel’s action-packed final third.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Rebecca here.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (Hatchette Children’s Group, 2020)

The Black Flamingo: Amazon.co.uk: Atta, Dean, Khullar, Anshika: Books

The book beautifully uses the coming-of-age trope to relate to any black non-binary teen who might be reading, but Atta also makes many aspects of an identity crisis universal to those of us not in those categories. The prose is direct when it needs to be and more coded when it needs to be. Through richly detailed characters and staunch politics he tackles homophobia and racism, ending in triumph of self and with a middle finger aloft to those who deny non-binary people their identity.

Read my full review here.

You can buy The Black Flamingo here.

Mad Bad And Dangerous To Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce by Colm Toibin (Viking, 2018)

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce:  Amazon.co.uk: Tóibín, Colm: 9780241354414: Books

At a brisk 173-pages, in hindsight it might have been silly to expect total depth on those things, or hope that I might see a thorough reflection of my own life. But Toibin wields his research into a compact, almost always fascinating and often beautiful analysis of how the masculinity and shortcomings of three troubled men impacted their sons’ attitudes and, in the case of James Joyce, pretty much his entire life’s work. As he writes towards the end: ‘In this world of sons then, fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, fulfilling their sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way’.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know here.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (William Collins, 2019)

Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder and Memory In Northern Ireland:  Amazon.co.uk: Radden Keefe, Patrick: 9780008159252: Books

Radden Keefe’s book makes no judgements, and yet reveals and explores a huge amount. It focuses on some aspects rather than others – it revolves largely around the McConville story and its protagonists, and barely mentions loyalist terrorism, for example. But its scope and woven narrative is unlike anything I’ve read before in political reporting. To date, it’s the best book on the Troubles I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Say Nothing here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin Books LTD., 2019)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo | Waterstones

Through the lives of the twelve protagonists, Evaristo examines the spectrum of black womanhood in almost every walk of modern British life. Spanning decades and occasionally centuries, Evaristo hones in on the black, female, queer perspective by way of feminism, the African diaspora, British conservatism, education, privilege, horrifying abuse and more. Whether writing about 21st century London, the Scottish border in the early 1900s or Barbados, Evaristo’s writing is always beautifully evocative, acting subtly as a foundation for the lives of these women, represented more directly via fluid dialogue and socio-political righteousness.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Girl, Woman, Other here.

Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey by Richard Ayoade (Faber & Faber, 2015)

Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey by Richard Ayoade

People who aren’t familiar with Ayoade’s work or humour might find it pretty impenetrable. It occasionally reaches such absurdly surreal heights that it loses any point or focus, but to be honest, that’s probably the ultimate goal. There are moments that made me cry with laughter, moments that shocked me AND – somewhere in there – real points of poignancy and unpleasant reflection on an industry whose duplicitous mask has slipped in recent years.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Ayoade on Ayoade here.

My Life In Red and White by Arsene Wenger (Orion Publishing Co, 2020)

My Life in Red and White: The Sunday Times Number One Bestselling  Autobiography: Amazon.co.uk: Wenger, Arsene, Hahn, Daniel, Reece, Andrea:  9781474618243: Books

With free-flowing honesty, self-deprecating humour and still exuberant passion, he charts the stages of his professional and (less so) personal life in a smart, engrossing way that operates on a see-saw; on the one hand he admits to being slightly cold and selfish, and on the other methodically charming & occasionally poetic.

Read my full review here.

You can buy My Life in Red and White here.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch (Vintage, 2018)

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging: Amazon.co.uk: Hirsch, Afua:  9781784705039: Books

She expertly exposes prime examples of prejudice where previously I never would have though to look for them. This is most pertinently done in Chapter 3, Bodies, where she deftly unpicks how swingers parties perpetuate racist body stereotypes. There’s also a plain-as-day description of why cultural appropriation is so misguided; black women will never feel comfortable in a society where the white male gaze can tell them they’re ugly, only to fawn over cornrows when adopted by white female models.

Read my full review here.

You can buy Brit(ish) here.

World Book History #9: Maps Of Desire

Love and compassion bring people together. That sounds obvious, but the current state of world affairs suggests otherwise. Now and throughout history, those things are bypassed in the name of individualistic interest.

Manuel Forcano, one of Catalan’s leading love poets, primarily focuses on romantic love. That’s true of his 2019 collection Maps of Desire (Arc Publications) too.

But he also explores how romanticism can be extended to societal love and community cohesion. As the book’s translator Anna Crowe says:

‘I believe Maps of Desire succeeds in suggesting both the physical and psychological reaching-out towards other parts of the world that characterises the poems within its pages’.

Forcano centres his sense of motion around travel in the Middle East. Crucially, he both celebrates and breaks down the differences by tying communities together via love; we all feel it, we all mourn it when it’s over, and we all need it if society is going to function properly.

So how do the poems offer insight into love’s necessity in a societal context? Here are three interesting ways…

The History of Love and Landscapes

Much of the emphasis in Maps of Desire is on how love responds to landscapes. Or indeed, how landscapes reflect or influence love.

‘The Baghdad Train’, for example, is rich in the history and geographical prowess of the Middle East and, while capturing a contemporary moment, shows how those connections stretch back centuries.

But he also uses history to explore how the end of love can unite cultures:

‘People search among the stones
for pieces of those mirrors where joy
remained engraved. Even now
we dream the pleasure of others.’

Every society around the world has a distinct culture, but feelings are universal. When societies aren’t functioning peacefully, they often look to those who are for guidance.

Foreign aid is one thing, but it needs to come from a true place of love to actually heal divisions.

Baghdad, 2018; the muse for Forcano’s epic ‘The Baghdad Train’.

Identity, War and Peace

Identity and deepening diversions due to it reflect that lack of love.

In ‘The Huge River’, Forcano hones his practice of taking the personal and making it universal:

‘But often love means trying to hold water
in the fingers of an open hand’.

Those fears and perceptible doubts are felt just as keenly by communities healing from conflict as they are by individuals. Whilst those feelings are deep-rooted, by recognising that issue we can start to make a difference.

And Forcano does offer hope for those affected by contemporary conflict. In ‘Beirut’, he combines the sentimental value of memory with nationalistic symbolism to great effect:

‘…And memory,
at first so sharp in the mind
then later leaching colour
like a flag too long in the wind.’

By pointing to decaying authoritarian power, Forcano mirrors the drive to stop the current stream of nationalist uprisings.

People in oppressed communities know they aren’t that different from us. There needs to be further recognition of that from the Western world.

‘Poetry, for me, is like an oasis in a desert of words’. Manuel Forcano on his influences and translation in poetry.

Religion

Organised religion’s relationship with love is a complex one.

With so many factions in the leading faiths having different interpretations, it’s pretty much impossible to pinpoint a unifying definition of love.

Hailing from Catholic Spain, Forcano reflects religion in a societal sense both in terms of community and via the homoerotic tones in his verse. In ‘The Baghdad Train’, he chimes into the idea that (in theory) forms the origin of all religious love:

‘God is beautiful and that is why he delights in beauty,’
someone recited from the Qu’ran’.

But he mines another inclusive angle on ‘Egyptian Mysteries’. After referencing discussions around religion and love, sex and ‘sin’, he alludes to how gay desire is STILL halted by religion within many societies. When he rounds off the poem by saying:

‘I don’t know which I should thank: whether philosophy
or religion’

he shows doubt, before deciding that he looks to religion for guidance in love in too much.

Mainstream religion has a long way to go before being a totally safe space for gay people, but Forcano owns and embraces his sexuality all the same. In some societies that’s currently not possible, but increasing awareness is a kick-starter for a more equal world.

Conclusion

Love – in all its forms – is something everybody experiences.

Identity, religion and history change love’s meaning, and politics struggles to deal with those changes.

It might seem facile to turn to love poetry as a demarcation of unity. But poetry has always been about deeper connectivity, and Manuel Forcano’s work is proof of that in a context which effects every society.

Find out more about how Forcano uses love to reflect society by grabbing a copy of Maps of Desire today.

World Book History #6: Terrorism in Western Literature

How do you write about a lived experience which is not your own? More importantly, *should* you?

Those are questions which must haunt fiction writers all the time. And they need to be considered whenever writing think pieces, articles or blog posts too. It’s clearly not true that everything worth writing has already been written. But when considering certain contexts, there is a discussion to be had around who should be doing the writing.

9/11 and Its Impact on Literature

Post-9/11, terrorism in literature became a small zeitgeist movement in the West. Unsurprisingly, most of that occurred in the US. That horrific day cemented in Western minds the terrifying reality that Arabic, African and Central Asian countries had been experiencing for decades. Terrorism is obviously a well-found fear, but paranoia can be a very dangerous tool as well.

And Western literature hasn’t risen above the more pernicious, xenophobic elements of the aftermath either. It’s not alone in that; that paranoia has been capitalised on right across Western entertainment media. Numerous Hollywood box office hits have laid themselves on a dubious bed bolted together by a distrust of foreigners since.

Unfortunately, in the hands of writers, that same alarm-ism can be wielded in just as worrying a fashion. Just like how war films are often showcases of patriotism without any real nuance or second glancing at the wider situation, authors can be fuelled by the darker connotations of the society around them.

At its core, American Sniper is about white fear
Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s 2014 blockbuster American Sniper.

Notably, you don’t see the same misguided one-sidedness in much Middle Eastern literature. Why? The difference is in that idea of a lived experience.

The Lived Experience

The history of violence in the Middle East is impossible to surmise quickly. It’s as much a result of despotic power structures and foreign intervention as it might be religious zeal or the desire to protect one’s livelihood. The issue with Western authors writing about these situations is that they often have no understanding of them beyond how their media frames them. The distinction comes down to what writers have actually seen.

An example of the dichotomy between an American lifestyle and lived experience is Khaled Housseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, a novel whose acclaim transcends the cultural divide. Housseini has lived in America since the age of fifteen but sought political asylum during the Soviet War in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s. It’s the beauty of the liquid and emotional praise which makes his book so appealing, and Housseini’s ability to challenge Western readers with both distant horror and relatability.

But when approached by writers who have no lived experience, it becomes problematic. Take the American author Richard Updike, for example. He has famously admitted that the majority of research for his 2006 novel ‘Terrorist’ was conducted via a book called ‘The Koran For Dummies’. It’s an attitude problem. If my friend comes to me and says that he hates immigrants based on the Brexit Party’s manifesto, then it reflects the same desire to absorb the quickest or most reactionary reading material.

A good example of writing which encapsulates the entire complexities surrounding extremism is Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’. Amidst a maelstrom of violence, torture and hateful worldviews, Khalifa manages (at points) to make one feel pity for some perpetrators, without ever choosing a side. There’s a caveat in this case, in that Khalifa is a man writing from a woman’s perspective. But he writes with the kind of sensitivity and understanding that many Westerners lack towards Arabic gender politics. 

Open letter from Khaled Khalifa
Khaled Khalifa, the author of ‘In Praise of Hatred’.

There are exceptions to the rule. As Ruth Franklin highlights, books like Lorraine Adams’ ‘Harbor’ provides an example of a US author with the nous to intricately research and shape their characters’ perspective and journey. And there’s plenty of ‘Troubles’ fiction which uses drama as a tool for exposing the wider reality, rather than making it a baseless, narrow pool. Brian Moore’s ‘Lies of Silence’, for example, mirrors a lot of Middle Eastern literature in that it depicts the everyday people, who want nothing to do with the violence, as the pivotal victims.

An interview with US author and former intelligence officer J. A. Walsh on writing about terrorism.

Representation of Arabic Writing in Education

Representation and format are to blame too. In the UK, there’s no foreign literature on secondary school educational syllabi at all, so readers are required to seek it out for themselves. They’re often published in anthologies, but as Ruth Franklin wrote for the New Republic; ‘anthologies are panoramas, not stereoscopes; the picture they present is wide not deep’ (2016).

The short story format suffers from the same limitations. For example, in ‘Girl, Balancing’, Helen Dunmore’s 14-page-long ‘A Thousand Roses’ – which revolves around a woman who believes her foreign lodger named Khalid may be planting bombs in her suitcase – falls prey to that very ‘Middle England’ ignorance. But the format doesn’t allow for it either. 

There’s also the tenuous reality of translation of Arabic literature. The translations are re-configured to fit in with Western reading sensibilities. That means that there’s room for the messages to get lost in translation with regards to how the author intended them to be received.

Alongside all this is the long-standing issue of reach and distribution. As outlined in this paper about Saudi Arabian writing, much of the most evocative literature hasn’t travelled ‘beyond the Arab world’s periphery’ (Moghales et al., 2018). Obviously Arabic literature is far from the only type to be undervalued in this way. But on an issue like terrorism, it exposes Western publishing prejudices against certain perspectives.

By extension, the educational value of terrorist literature in the west in general is reduced. By fuelling the inward-facing, arrogant dialogue that has seen the ascendancy of Trump, this model suggests that despite having actually lived these things, Arabian authors’ stories cannot possibly be of as much value as Western writers.

Ultimately, The Answer Is Research

Without any desire to actually understand the people they’re writing about, Western authors will only create more literature that’s shallow and vacuous. If one has not or cannot live the experience they’re writing about, then they have to trust in the perspectives of those who have.

For readers, starting from within a culture and then venturing out is the best way to get the most balanced perspective. It’s just a shame that that option has never been as accessible as it should be.