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.

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.

Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

 

‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

Desert Island Books

There is a weekly program on BBC radio that has been running for almost seventy five years now, called Desert Island Discs. The format is that a well-known, or not so well-known, person is interviewed for forty five minutes on the premise that they are to be stranded on a desert island, and that they can take eight pieces of music with them, so which ones would they choose and why? They are also asked to select a favourite book and a luxury item, and are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. This, then, is my take on it, substituting books for pieces of music. The obvious advantage of this is that I don’t have to rescue a gramophone from the shipwreck as I crawl through the surf towards safety. The disadvantage becomes obvious just as soon as I look at our bookshelves or glance through my Goodreads lists. What not to take?

So, I bite the bullet. I think that I’ll do this in a kind of chronological order, and the first choice actually proves to be an easy one; it is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I still have the copy that my father bought for me when I was seven, and this book was probably the first one that I read that had real substance. The story can still captivate me and although there is some surprisingly deep writing for a children’s book of the time (The chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, especially), there is an enchanting innocence flowing through the book, too.

The second book would be The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. I discovered Hesse when I was eighteen and, having ploughed through the mountain of crime novels that we had in our household, this was the first modern ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ work that I had read by choice. At that time I had, of course, been introduced to works such as ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Shakespeare and Dickens, at school, but this was the first time that I had read a book that really seemed to resonate with my life. There are other works by Hesse that are better, and which I enjoy more, but this was probably the single work that changed the way that I read as an adult. A very short, but deceptively deep and complex book, the Journey to the East is ostensibly the story of a movement in Germany in the early years of the last century, based on spirituality and not a few drugs, and charting the spiritual progress of the narrator within this movement. It still has the power to speak to people today, and not just to old hippies!

The third book would be SeleFeatured imagected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I picked up a copy of this second hand when I was really beginning to discover poetry, and was captivated by the long poem Zima Junction, in which he describes  a visit that he makes as an adult to his family home in the small Siberian town of the same name.  Descriptions of eccentric family, strawberry picking, meals and drinking, cart rides in rainstorms…by the end of the poem you feel that you know and understand the countryside and the society there. It is a poem that I continually go back to re-read.

The fourth book would be The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien. This is another book that I discovered in my late teens. All of my friends and acquaintances at that time were either devouring this book, or Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and this happened to be the one that I picked up. And, having picked it up, I really did sit up reading it through the night, taking a short nap the following morning and then reading through to the end that evening. I don’t suppose I need to describe it to anyone, since the plot is known to most, either through the book or through the Peter Jackson movies. There is a tendency to denigrate the story in many quarters, yet I feel that this has a lot to do with the fact that elves and dragons are not to everyone’s grown up tastes. The story, though, is well constructed and true to its author’s created world. It is just a damned good page-turner, really.

I have to include a travel book in my list, since I read so many of them, and this is the hardest choice that I would have to make. However, the fifth book would be The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. When it was released, there was so much praise for it from almost every reviewer who read it, that it seemed impossible that it could ever live up to the hype. But it does. It is a beautiful evocation of all sorts of ancient paths around the world, from Neolithic footprints in the sea to desert trails. It is also a book that should be embraced by anyone with sympathies for the slow book movement.

The sixth book is Devices and Desires by P D James. Although it is not the best murder mystery that I have ever read, or even, perhaps, her best, it was a surprise when I discovered it to find that there were more exciting ways to write in that genre than the ones that I had read before; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others. I read the first chapter and suddenly literary murder seemed dark and terrible, whereas before it always seemed a bit of a jolly game and an intellectual puzzle.

The seventh book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. One of those books that is technically written for young adults, it is a powerful, emotional rollercoaster of a read. As the Second World War looms, Liesel arrives at her foster home in a suburb of Munich. She has seen her brother die, and been left by her mother who can no longer care for her. Now she has a new family; the foul-mouthed Rosa and her husband Hans. As the family and their neighbours try to survive amidst the increasing horrors of the war, an unexpected visitor comes to stay – Max, a Jew fleeing the slaughter. Funny, sad, devastating and hopeful, often all at once, with a cast of characters you will fall in love with, the book builds to a very powerful climax.

The eighth book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the hype and hysteria currently surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but is because I only got around to reading it this year, and found it to be far better than I had imagined it could ever be. And, talking of that hype, in Atticus Finch I discovered a literary hero.

My luxury would be unlimited reams of writing paper and pens. And the book? Uh, I think we’ve covered that one. Perhaps, since I’ve changed the pieces of music to books, I should substitute the choice of a piece of music for the book that the BBC guests choose, but then I’d be back to dragging that gramophone through the surf, and so I really can’t be bothered. It would only spoil the peace and quiet of the island.

‘Thank you, Mick.’

‘No, thank you, Kirsty.’