The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

Review of The New Asylum by Frank Prem

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This is Australian poet Frank’s third collection of poems, and in a way this is a return to the narrative arc of his first collection; Small Town Kid, after the heartbreak of his second collection, Devil in the Wind, which dealt with the horrors of the bush fires in Australia on what became known as Black Saturday in February 2009

Not only is this a personal, time-ordered narrative like Small Town Kid, but it takes up Frank’s life where that collection left off, with his taking a job at the institution in his home town housing people with mental health problems. At that time (around forty years ago), these institutions were generally known as ‘mental asylums’ although that name, as well as a lot of the attitudes that coloured people’s ideas of them, have supposedly been consigned to history.

These poems take us on Frank’s journey from his visits to the institution where both his parents worked, then as naive and wide-eyed Trainee Psychiatric Nurse through to today, introducing us to a wonderful collection of colourful, sad, genial, well-meaning and, yes sometimes, mad characters, both staff and residents of the institution and, latterly, the hostel that acts as a ‘half-way house’ between incarceration and release.

All these characters are realistically and sympathetically drawn, and I suspect that not a few readers will be surprised at the humour (occasionally black) and warmth that comes through from the average day in their lives. Frank does not shy away from showing the attitudes prevalent in those earlier days, when patients were severely regimented and often treated less than sympathetically, although I suspect there is much he does not reveal. But where he is at his best, I feel, is in depicting the almost unutterable sadness of many of the inmates. In ‘Huntington’s Marionette’ it is for the young victim of this, one of the cruellest of all diseases, In ‘Lost: One Cockerel’ it is for another youngster, this time a young man with his mind destroyed by illicit drugs. Then there are the families of these victims, often victims themselves in so many ways – dealing with loss or aggression, blame, or just the horror of watching a loved one disintegrate before their eyes.

And the institution is frequently under-staffed and the staff are over-worked, a situation all too familiar to anyone working in public health today as well as then. The final poem  ‘Still its Creature’ is the book’s epilogue, and it is worth quoting the first few lines..

in aftermath

it seems so clear

there are few mental-health

happy endings

and there are no

simple cures

I give this five stars out of five.

Review of You beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

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First, a disclaimer: I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book with no obligation to post a review.

A psychological crime procedural novel set in Delhi, You Beneath Your Skin quickly paints a vivid picture of the streets, drawing the reader into a dark and desperate world. Although Indian society is divided into the haves and the have-nots more starkly than many, here the two worlds soon collide.

The central character, Anjali, is the divorced mother of a teenaged boy with a form of high-functioning autism that makes him extremely challenging and demanding. She is having a long-term affair with Jatin, who is both the Special Commissioner of Crime in the Delhi Police Force, and the married brother of her best friend, Maya.

Jatin has been charged with investigating a crime supposedly committed by an opposition member of Parliament, but while the government want a conviction, the politician has friends who will pull strings to ensure it is hushed up. The crime under investigation never made clear, but this conflict has resulted in pressure being brought on Jatin to have the case dropped. On top of this, a series of brutal murders are being carried out in the slum areas of Delhi, and although there are elements of the police and the wider establishment who don’t consider them worth investigating, Jatin and his team are determined to track down the perpetrators.

As the tension increases, and the investigations unexpectedly threaten to draw in more of the central characters, one of them is suddenly the victim of an acid attack. And from now on, there are two main storylines, one being the on-going police investigations into the murders, and the other following the victim of the acid attack and the search for reasons and answers to that.

The unfolding storyline, the large cast of different characters and the continuing atmosphere of menace is handled skilfully throughout. Both the brutality both of the criminal underworld and of the police themselves is an ever-present threat, as is both the desperation felt by the poor and the sense of privilege and entitlement by the rich and powerful. And throughout it all, the misogyny intrenched in Indian society overlays everything that happens.

Damyanti Biswas is a Delhiite, writing with the knowledge and authority of someone who knows their area intimately. This a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, powerful and fluent. I was hooked from the beginning, sympathising with the characters and intrigued by the twists and turns of this powerful plot.

Acid attacks are a horrendous phenomenon, scarring and disfiguring, and even killing the victim. I think that many people view them as almost ‘minor’ crimes, and assume that the victim merely suffers a bit of pain and discomfort, and a bit of damage to their skin, but these attacks can inflict injuries as terrible as the burns from fires, and cause almost unbearable pain. Yet partly because of the easy availability of corrosive liquids, they have become almost commonplace in some ways, being used as revenge for perceived slights and ‘dishonours’ as well as for gangland feuds.

This novel, as well as relating an excellent detective story, is also Damyanti’s vehicle to help bring understanding of this horror to the attention of the wider world.

I would certainly give this book five stars.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

Review of Devil in the Wind by Frank Prem

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Like Frank’s previous book, Small Town Kid, this collection of poems tells a story of rural and small town Australia. But the similarities between the two books end there.

Whereas the previous collection was a celebration of boyhood in Frank’s hometown, this is an account of the dreadful bushfires of February 2009 that swept through parts of Southern Australia, the area that is home to the author, killing 173 people and leaving a huge area a fire-blackened moonscape.

The poems are a mixture of first-hand accounts, from those who ran desperately from the flames, saving what they could and suddenly terrified at the unbelievable size of the fire and the terrible speed the flames moved at, from firefighters who fought the flames like small companies of soldiers attempting to halt the progress of an overwhelmingly large army, until they literally dropped from exhaustion, from the fire-spotters, and from the frightened friends and relatives trying to raise loved ones down unresponsive phonelines.

In many ways, this is a very difficult book to read, although it is important to do so, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have never had to live through events as terrifying as those described in its poems. It is full of raw emotion and naked detail, traumatised victims and quiet heroes.

At times, I found it essential to look away and take a breather, much as the firefighters had to do, as the emotion became just too much for me.

Poetry is an immensely personal art form. Even when the subject is neither the poet nor the reader, intense emotions come through. Presented in this form, these accounts are shocking. I cannot tell whether they would have felt as shocking had they been prose, but the sparse brevity of the language confronts you almost aggressively, defying you to ignore what they say. Each one seems to scream ‘Listen to me! Don’t you dare turn away until I have finished!’

It is extremely rarely that I would suggest a book should be required reading, but I genuinely think Devil in the Wind should be and is unquestionably a five star read.

Wordy Wednesday 5

Words.

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On World Book day I blogged about the wonderful collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words, and in this I suggested that perhaps it grew out of Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks.

But Landmarks is a marvellous book in its own right, and has much the the same aim as The Lost Words, in that it introduces the reader to scores of words it is unlikely they will have come across before.

These are almost exclusively words from Britain used to describe objects and phenomena in the natural world, be it a word peculiar to East Anglia for a small stream (a currel, since you ask), a word from Sussex for a heap of dung (a maxon), or, from Suffolk, a measure of herrings or sprats (a cade).

Most of these are obscure because they are words in local dialect, and therefore only used in a small number of places, or have fallen into disuse and been virtually lost over the years, or are very specialised words that it is unlikely the majority of people would ever come across.

The book is filled with background stories by the author, either of his own experiences or those of other writers and scholars with a deep love and understanding of words and the natural world, which makes the whole book far more than simply a glossary of lost words.

The reader is introduced to a wealth of knowledge and experience on all aspects of the subject, from seas and rivers to woodlands and mountains, farmed land, the strange no-man’s land at the edge of settlements, and even deep underground.

Personally, I have been trying to drop the word smeuse into conversations since reading the book. It is a Sussex word, and so was / is in use fairly locally to me and means…well, read the book and find out what it means.

Oh, and maxon. Naturally.

Certainly a five star read.

Review of Masks and Other Stories From Colombia by Richard Crosfield

In Masks and Other Stories From Colombia, Richard Crosfield brings us twenty five tales set in Colombia, the majority of them viewed through the privileged eyes of Printer, a British expatriate.

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Printer, we are told, has a good ear for a story, and is much in demand by hosts and hostesses at parties to recount these tales. He also has more empathy and sympathy for the Colombians who surround him than do most of the other cossetted expats. Naturally, this acts as a good device to introduce several of the stories.

Some of the stories are little more than vignettes, bringing the reader into the lives led by the mixture of the very poor, the well-to-do middle class, and the extremely well-off and powerful of Colombian society, as well as the expats among whom Printer lives and works. These appear to do little more than illustrate what the lives of these people are like, yet at the end of each story something has changed; there has been resolution of some kind.

Of the others, some demonstrate that you don’t always require an earth-shattering event to create a satisfactory ending, but just a quiet re-drawing of the landscape. Something has shifted, perhaps so subtly that not all the protagonists have even noticed. But we, the readers, see it clearly.

Yet it is easy for the reader to become lulled into a false sense of security by this, so that we are caught out – shocked, perhaps – when we come to one of the stories that has a more powerful and emotional conclusion.

The temptation when placing stories in a setting that is very different from the writer’s own setting, even when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – perhaps especially when that writer has spent a good deal of time there – is to either set all of them in the almost artificial world inhabited by the expat, or to try to set them in the wider community, a community that perhaps they may not completely understand. Richard has managed successfully to do both, something that demonstrates an easy familiarity with both these worlds.

Throughout the book, we can see that the author’s sympathies lie very much with the underdogs of Colombian society, although the stories never become clichés of the noble poor versus the evil rich. They are told with too much intelligence and enough humour to escape that, and, perhaps above all, the writing itself is easy and a joy to read.

Expect to encounter amateur cricketers and murderous bandits, whores and priests, street kids and artists. And a whole host of others.

This is most certainly a five star read.

My disclaimer – I received a copy of this book having beta read one of the stories for the author, although I was not asked to write a review. But my admiration for the stories and my pleasure reading them is entirely genuine.

Review of Small Town Kid by Frank Prem

Small Town Kid (Frank Prem Memoir Book 1)

I have enjoyed Frank’s poetry ever since I discovered it a couple of years ago.

Small Town Kid is a book of poems about growing up in a small town in Australia during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The town is provincial, the way that small towns invariably are, where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business.

In those days, a small town was very different to a small town today, now the internet and social media have changed even the slow-paced life of these places forever. And so those of a certain age will recognise many of the situations and much of subject matter of these poems, while to those much younger they may well seem almost alien.

Rich in emotions, as well as in visual detail, we listen to Frank describe experiences such as hunting rabbits, letting off fireworks, and going on picnics, turning his nose up at his mother’s cooking and enjoying his grandmother’s cakes, suffering school and returning home at the end of the day. We find ourselves both observing and participating in the day to day life of his town.

This could be any small town, and any child. If you could extract the peculiarly Australian nuances and replace them with others, the poems might be about a small town anywhere and any child who grew up in it.

The poems are presented in an order showing the boy growing up from his earliest years through to reaching young adulthood, taking the reader on a journey alongside him.

And they have that power, that they transport you there.

Frank writes sparingly, knowing like an artist when to stop. But everything is there, and the writing invariably has beauty no matter what its subject matter.

Unhesitatingly, I give this book five stars.

You can find more of Frank’s poetry on his blogsites:

https://frankprem.wordpress.com/

https://seventeensyllablepoetry.wordpress.com/

Review of An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

A year ago I read The Folded Earth, Anuradha Roy’s second novel, and decided it was so good I would have to read all of the others. And so recently I finished her first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In this, Anuradha Roy tells the story of three generations of a family who have moved from Calcutta to live in a huge, rambling mansion in Songarh, a small town in the hills of Bengal.

Amulya’s wife, Kananbala, hates the isolation of the town, with its lack of fashionable shops and social life, and longs to return to Calcutta. Their oldest son, Kamal, longs for children, and his youngest, Nirmal, is widowed and longs for his unmarried cousin.

Everyone appears to long for something that proves unattainable, and at the centre of the story are two children, thrown together by chance circumstance and then separated by the cultural fears of adults, but who have formed an unbreakable bond that endures through years of separation.

Mukunda is an orphan of unknown caste adopted by the family, and his only companion is Bakul, daughter of Nirmal. They pass their time playing in the grounds of their home or in the woods and fields around the town.

As Bakul and Mukunda grow towards adulthood, their friendship slowly begins to become something more, and Mukunda is sent away to Calcutta by the family, suddenly fearful of the consequences of this.

As the years pass, Mukunda graduates from college and becomes prosperous, even through the years of Partition, without ever returning to see the family who raised him, although he thinks frequently of Bakul. But then chance sends him to Songarh, and he realises he must find out what has happened to her.

The pace of this book is deceptively languid, but this enables Roy to paint the characters and settings in exquisite detail, and for the plot to unfold at an easily assimilable rate.

I feel you always gain more from re-reading a book, and I am longing to do this, to immerse myself again in the rich landscape and characters Roy has created.

Most definitely a five star read.