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Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 
Nancy Bilyeau – The Blue

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Colour shades and shady practices.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44562-3
First Published: 3rd December 2018
Date Reviewed: 3rd December 2019
Rating: 4/5

1700s London – Huguenot Genevieve Planché wants to train to be an artist, but that is not the done thing for women; she steals her grandfather’s invitation to an event hosted by William Hogarth, hoping to gain his support. Instead she meets Sir Gabriel Courtney, a man who seems open to her ideas; the next day he arrives at her home to talk to her and her grandfather and later presents her with a proposition – if she goes to work at Derby Porcelain (as her grandfather wishes) and spies for him to find out the formula of the latest shade of blue the factory are working on (which isn’t her grandfather’s plan) he will see that she gets to Venice where she’ll find people willing to train her in painting. It’s not the best thing Genevieve’s ever heard – she doesn’t want to work on porcelain full stop – but the promise for the future proves too irresistible.

The Blue is a thriller that looks at the extent people might go to in history in order to be ahead of the rest of the game. It also gives time to the Huguenot refugees (as Genevieve says, ‘refugee’ was a word coined in this period) and the political situation between England and France in the time of King George II/Louis XV.

Bilyeau’s attention to research, first highlighted in her Joanna Stafford trilogy, is alive and well in The Blue. The amount undertaken as well as the careful balancing of fact and fiction when fiction is needed for the story, is evident on the majority of pages. The use is careful too, with the detailing abundant yet never straying into info-dumping territory; when the characters discuss contemporary industry, it is always necessary to the story. You’ll learn a good amount about early western porcelain and the creative industry in general. (You just have to keep in mind the areas that are fiction – easily discovered thanks to the author note. Genevieve’s story itself is fictional but it’s woven around many different factual elements to the extent that the majority is true.)

Genevieve is a fair character for the fictional ride – she’s not always ‘strong’ per se, but it’s with good reason (she falls in love, whilst a spy). There are anachronisms involved, mostly in terms of Genevieve’s phrasing – she is the narrator – generally limited to times when the stakes are high.

For the most part the book is fast-paced; it slows down towards the middle when Genevieve starts to like her above-board work, gets used to Derby, and starts to question her role in Sir Gabriel’s plan, but the last third is as swift as an arrow and an absolute riot for it, the truths and lies flying quickly at you as the full extent of the espionage on all sides shows itself.

As well as the main story and the industrial history, Genevieve’s experience as a Huguenot and a close descendant of those who fled from France is given time. As well as the idea of the refugee and the basic history of the Huguenots, you also see the effective cycle of experience as Genevieve corrects those who would call her French, worries about what will happen if France wins the war, supports England wholeheartedly, and so forth. Her experience, her description and thoughts on it, echo in many ways present-day debates and stories of refugees and immigration which brings a nice comparison and particular historical look at the issue.

There are quite a number of proof-reading errors in the book which do detract, but given the research and storytelling, you may find that to be less of a problem than it might have been.

The Blue looks at how something so seemingly simple can create a commotion on an international scale, and it does this not only in the context of manufacture but of many other social and political concepts and issues of the time. It’s informative, and for all its many pages it flies by.

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Gabrielle Malcolm – There’s Something About Darcy

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The world has loved him ardently.

Publisher: Endeavour Quill
Pages: 197
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-44556-2
First Published: 11th November 2019
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2019
Rating: 3/5

For over 200 years (since 1813), Jane Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy has captured readers’ and audience’s hearts. Malcolm looks at the character’s popularity from those first readers to the present day.

Malcolm begins incredibly well. Her premise is intriguing – specific yet broad-reaching. She has chosen a casual style of writing that, whilst perhaps out of the norm, makes the book very accessible; for all it is studious, it’s anything but dry.

The first few chapters look into the basics, with some depth, of the interest in Darcy, the social and literary scene and expectations of Austen’s time, and the writer’s influences. Malcolm detours into accounts of people you might not normally associate as influences – theatre and fashion icons for example – and the ways Austen contributed to the literary culture beyond her work. Favourite authors are looked at, favourite books and their relevant aspects discussed with aplomb.

From here, Malcolm moves on to those who wrote after Austen. She looks at Charlotte Brontë’s response to reading Austen’s books and the way her own writing was different (and the way she thought she herself was different – Brontë did not like Austen at all). This is where the book is perhaps at its best, peppered with details. Less appealing are the comparisons between Darcy and later heroes and anti-heroes – for all Malcolm’s analysis, it’s difficult to see where she is coming from in comparing Darcy to Heathcliff and Dracula. The comparison with Mr Rochester is a more interesting debate.

Unfortunately, when the book moves on from the nineteenth century it loses its way. It does look at the genre of romance fiction as a whole through the passing of the centuries and the derision writers and readers find – this is excellent – but it quickly becomes waylaid by summaries of other books. Where Malcolm has chosen to look at Darcy fandom solely in derivative works, her research becomes bogged down by it. Beyond the look at TV and film adaptations, which holds interesting facts, you’d be forgiven for wondering when the regurgitation of book plots will end and the book will move on – the problem is it doesn’t. This said, the first half is well worth reading and fans of Austen will find new ideas of interest in it.

I received this book for review.

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Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance

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Small book. Big message.

Publisher: Penned In The Margins
Pages: 72
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-05852-2
First Published: 1st October 2018
Date Reviewed: 11th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

The Perseverance is a magnificent collection of poetry. Full of variation in method, the themes of racial identity and identity as a person who is deaf, together with the social perceptions of both, the book offers a wealth of examples of difference between stereotype and reality, reworkings and reclamations of misinterpretations and ignorance, in a deceptively small number of pages.

Whilst Antrobus’ poems share just a few themes between them, you’d be wrong to think that subjects are similar. Umbrella-wise, they are, but to see the poems as coming under a couple of umbrellas would be to miss the point. The ideas of discrimination and prejudice don’t by themselves, as we know, infer how much is actually going on behind the scenes, as Antrobus’ collection brilliantly shows.

This is a collection about the poet himself – his family, his experiences and thoughts – but they will speak to many. His small studies of people’s perceptions of his mixed-race self and heritage and his explanations of how it feels to be treated as lesser then because he can’t hear, which will resonate with those who’ve suffered similar experiences as well as those with other disabilities and conditions, are profound. They are needed.

The first poem, called Echo and split into a few verses, each introduced by an illustration in BSL, combines and compares Catholicism with moments in Antrobus’ experience. It looks at how a lack of sound is so often equated to otherness, before moving onto other questions and situations in Antrobus’ childhood, the days before his parents realised he couldn’t hear them.

In Jamaican British, the poet looks at the two branches of his racial heritage and the way difference is perceived, this at a time when he’s seeking to find his identity:

They think I say I’m black when I say Jamaican British
but the English boys at school made me choose: Jamaican, British?

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.
Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British. (p. 25)

Then there is Dear Hearing World, an absolutely stunning piece of writing that looks at the social treatment of deafness in general. It may prove very validating. From page 37:

I call you out for refusing to acknowledge
sign language in classrooms, for assessing
deaf students on what they can’t say
instead of what they can, […]

Miami Airport, a poem full of white space that tells you everything else the words themselves do not, is based around a particularly alarming case of ‘you don’t look deaf’ whilst the redaction and response to Ted Hughes’ poem about a school for deaf children is profound as much for the redaction (it deletes Hughes’ poem in its entirety) as it is for Antrobus’ response where the present-day poet looks at Hughes’ lack of ability to see the students, both literally and metaphorically, taking away from Hughes both a human sense and his wholly inaccurate interpretation. (You don’t have to have read Hughes’ poem to understand Antrobus’ response, though you may wish to.)

There are no half measures in this collection, and just as important as the words and language are the line breaks and that use of white space, the emptiness often saying just as much as the words.

The Perseverance is just incredible. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.

 
Julia Armfield – Salt Slow + Podcast

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Short periods of the paranormal.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 189
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-529-01256-9
First Published: 28th May 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

A girl with a skin condition grows more and more different to everyone around her; in a city people start to awaken to Sleeps – their sleeping self – and find they can stay awake all the time, the ghostly beings following them; a stepmother’s adoption and humanisation of a wolf signals her stepdaughter’s decent into animalism.

Salt Slow is a stunning collection of short stories that differ in their subjects but share an eerie quality. All the stories are about women, with men featuring in only a few.

This is a collection that is from start to finish absolutely brilliant. Every one of the stories makes for a good read, studies of ideas and playings with extreme versions of everyday occurrences that are a literary delight – to be sure this isn’t a fun read in the usual sense (it’s far too weird for that) but the literary experience is wonderful.

A lot of this has to do with Armfield’s choice of which angle to take. The stories balance well morals, with a starting point that makes the story easy to understand; this is to say that whilst you’ll want to pay attention anyway, the collection is one that’s very accessible. This in turn adds to the enjoyment of it, the ease at which each story moves to the next; whilst there are few shared specific subjects, you can read the collection as the well-planned series it is.

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap (p. 24).

The first story, Mantis, where a girl finds friends and seeming support enough but still a pull of something else more dark and unarguably paranormal, introduces this whole concept. But it’s perhaps in the second story, The Great Awake, which looks at the idea of our twenty-first century attentions pulled in every direction 24 hours a day that the concept is solidified. It’s hard to call any one story better than the others, such is the strength of the book, but of meanings and relatability, The Great Awake is perhaps the best, Armfield’s paranormal expression of something that is widely known and studied bringing with it, for all its fictional aspects, the very real truth behind this particular reality. Another standout, Formally Feral, looks at the anthropomorphism of animals – in its extremes, of course – and offers a look at how animals can be just as aware, juxtaposing where a wolf takes on the parenting for a child who is meant to follow suit with her parent’s strange choices and decisions pertaining to siblings.

Salt Slow‘s offering is long-term; whilst the book may have the most impact the first time around, there is plenty to take from it on subsequent readings where you can pick your favourites and delve into them more. The themes of identity – both the basic sense of self, and in relation to others – the themes of relationships, and the various concepts intrinsic to them (as well of those that are intrinsic in the sense of being away from them), and possible effects of religion, are a joy to discover. Armfield’s collection both sits well alongside others and carves a place all of its own, at once a great new work in the genre and a fantastic voice completely unique. It’s weird and wonderful and utterly worth it.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.


Today’s podcast

Tune in with Orlando Ortega-Medina and me as we discuss celebrity fictional reincarnation, writing short stories that don’t have messages, and working with ideas that could – if misinterpreted – look like something else.

If you can’t use the embedded player above or want to access the purchase links, click here to go to the hosting site. The podcast is now also available on Spotify.

 

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