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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Terri Fleming – Perception

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Redux.

Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
Pages: [to come]
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-409-17062-4
First Published: 13th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

With Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia married and away from the family home, only Mary and Kitty remain. When Mr Montague arrives in town – single, wealthy, – Mrs Bennet sees possibilities ahead. Mary is inclined to believe marriage is not for her, but the man proves bookish, has a large library, and may have taken a shine to her.

This is a superb book, a fine follow up to a famous book by someone else.

Fleming has chosen to stick with Austen’s way with words; the language is Victorian and the effort to get it right practically leaps off the page – but it’s never overwhelming: Fleming blends in. Are there occasion moments of modernity? Yes, but more often than not it’s a discrepancy with grammar, wherein one could say that perhaps, maybe, Austen or her contemporaries might have said whatever it is. It would be impossible to say that this book has not been gone through with a fine tooth comb and that those few errors are not the equivalent of the odd typo found nowadays. (Indeed there are far fewer errors here than there in new books sets in our present era.)

The overall literary atmosphere is also Victorian, with Fleming keeping to the same relative lack of action as Austen. In terms of physical movement, nothing much happens – it’s all in the character development, which is rather good. It’s also an easy read, a book that makes you want to keep reading and isn’t at all difficult to resume reading when you need to take a break. It can be read in short bursts to no ill effect.

As said before, the character development is good. Fleming’s got them just right – they match Austen’s well yet Fleming manages to bring a bit of our present day feeling into it without distracting from the original context. Where, for example, some now say that Mr Bennet did not treat Mrs Bennet well (I’m personally of the opinion that they are a bad match and Mr Bennet is dealing with a lifetime of unnecessary drama), Fleming slides this idea in finely, looking at the question without detracting at all from the surface dressing.

There are a few characters that the book could have done without, namely the two shopkeepers whose role doesn’t have any true impact and who could have been edited out without issue. Thankfully their chapters are very short and there are only a handful of them. (They are also two of the purely fictional people so that combined with their lack of impact renders them completely irrelevant.) The other new characters work well and the original characters have been handled carefully, Fleming putting her own spin on proceedings and detracting from the original context as little as possible.

This is a book for book lovers. In addition to the major factors of the book, the story revolves around libraries, with Mary’s bookish nature allowed full reign. Whereas Jane and Lizzie’s stories are full of sweeping romance, Mary’s is more quiet (though no less compelling). It could be said it wraps up a bit too neatly but the same could very well be said of Mansfield Park.

Kitty’s romance is a lot less important in context, and isn’t as developed – at least in terms of time – as Mary’s, but given the relative shadow over her from Lydia’s presence, it’s not so out of place, so to speak. That Mary is provided more time, with all things considered, does make sense.

Perception is fantastic. It looks to conquer any language and structure issues head on, and creates a story that whilst factually unnecessary, does provide a lot of value, enough that you can say that its worth goes far beyond the simple idea of continuing a story very much loved. It’s also an excellent read just for the effort put into it, Fleming’s time spent researching and getting it all right being a delight to witness for itself.

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Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze

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Tempted by the fruit of another has nothing on this.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 286
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63116-1
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th September 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Norwegian Mats sees something changing in his marriage to his beloved Nina, and true to his thoughts, she wants to split up. He gets a job in Edinburgh, moves overseas. Meanwhile, Romania Marta, a girl from a poorer family, is lured into a hotel meeting with a man a gut tells her has bad intentions. She pushes past her worries; she is trafficked to Edinburgh to work in a brothel. Mats’ life is unstable, his new wife depressed and relying on alcohol, and Marta is trying to find a way to contact home.

The Squeeze is a fairly fast-moving thriller that looks at trafficking in 90s Scotland – girls from Romania in this case. It uses both regular chapters and a diary format to tell a tale full of narrators (but never too many).

This isn’t a particularly long book – it teeters on the 300 pages mark – but it manages to get through three periods of time without any rush. More an exploration than any edge-of-your-seat action (though due to the subject matter you will be wanting to find out what’s happening), Glaister takes the story beyond transport and prostitution to the home life of the regular person. And this is really what makes the book what it is – the lack of rush and the incorporation of the everyday of 90s Scottish living brings an added horror to what’s going on as well as a nod towards the fact that this goes on where others would not think it. Glaister uses accents to good effect, using a stereotypical Scottish dialogue that makes you think things are okay, normal, before pulling the rug from underneath you.

In this book, the trafficked girls – mostly girl, singular – are main characters. The book looks at both happy and bad times, with Glaister structuring it all carefully, considerately, but still with enough of the hopes of the reader in mind to, well, keep you reading. There’s detail in the book but not too much, again the three periods of time, the progression of it but all you need to know, is done well. There’s also a good mix of plot and character development, enough that it’d be difficult to say which is more significant. Glaister likes both.

The ending perhaps ties the book up a little neatly – it’s personal preference here all the way; does it really matter how it ends when what Glaister had to say has been completed already and achieved with aplomb? The only area in which the book does fall somewhat is in the editing – besides the somewhat broken English of Romanian Marta, which fits her, there are missing words and typos. These don’t make it difficult to understand, but are noticeable.

The Squeeze is good – well, as much as it can be given the subject matter. Glaister has produced a book that deals with a current subject of news but kept it well away from being a report or an opinion. Difficult sometimes but never so much that you feel the need to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina – Jerusalem Ablaze

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The twisted fire-starter.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 174
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-46570-1
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th September 2017
Rating: 5/5

In Japan, a young man finds himself with blood on his hands and looks back at how he came to be beside the dead master. In Israel, a priest finds himself in a prostitute’s erotic fantasy. And in town, a child finds themselves in the presence of a crowd running towards a tiger.

Ortega-Medina’s Jersusalem Ablaze is a collection of short stories full of darkness, both the humour and macabre, as well as a few stories dotted about that are less so (and can be a blessed relief!) It’s a fantastic collection, devoid of messages, but nevertheless leaves you with a lot to think about.

This is an incredibly well-written book, with a general style of writing used throughout yet the voices of the individual characters are unique. Told through a thin lens, the writer is there throughout, both at a distance from the text – letting the people speak for themselves – and in the definite position of storyteller, the darkness of the narrative as a whole echoing the idea of sitting around a fire listening to spooky tales. It’s at once both a fair boundary – the reader being far enough away from the character to see the subtext – and wonderfully immersive.

Unsurprisingly, considering what I’ve said above, there are many stand outs, which amounts to most of the collection, given the size of it. A particularly good piece, covered briefly in the summary, Torture By Roses looks at the forming of identity and vulnerability in youth, going to the extremes of having the character taken in by a renowned figure who in the privacy of his own home spends his days sitting amongst a mass of dead roses, wounding himself on the thorns deliberately; his promise of an inheritance for his young companion (or, to the reader, servant) causing the boy to stick around even though his mental stability is crumbling under the weight of what the man is doing to himself. After The Storm tells the story of a woman isolated in a lighthouse who, after said storm, finds a body on the shore and takes it home. The title story, Jerusalem Ablaze, again, summarised, puts an impressionable Israeli priest in the house of a prostitute with a specific fetish (that’s putting the whole situation lightly), and The Shovelist studies the way an old housekeeping agreement can continue once the house changes hands, an elderly couple persuading the younger to let them shovel their access routes.

On the subject of a lack of messages, it’s worth noting that the book isn’t something you read through and put down. There are no morals or so forth in the book but Ortega-Medina does provide much for you to think about, sometimes in the fashion of ‘stay in your mind for days pondering it’ and, suitably more often, the content will keep you thinking simply due to its weirdness. On the whole the lasting impact of the book is as a collection – the general quality and interesting ideas.

Jerusalem Ablaze – excellence all round.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Adrian Mourby – Rooms Of One’s Own

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For some writers.

Publisher: Icon Books
Pages: 228
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-78185-8
First Published: 11th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 3rd September 2017
Rating: 3/5

Mourby travels around the world to experience the living and working spaces of famous past writers in order to get a feel for it all.

Room’s Of One’s Own presents a very specific idea that is appealing but doesn’t always achieve its purpose. Where it focuses on its premise of the way a writer interacted with their residence, it’s excellent, with some choice quotations included, great anecdotes, and the sort of information that you do have to travel to the place in order to learn.

It’s good to note straight away that this is as much about Mourby’s experience than a general report on the places. Most pieces of information are filtered through his own thoughts on the subject and the book is in many ways a travel log. However the histories of the buildings, away from the context of the writers’ lives, are often there to make up for the lack of personal experience and description Mourby is able to include; a sizeable number of the buildings are inaccessible to him – he is barred access by the staff or present residents – which will almost inevitably result in a sense of disappointment on your own part as you wonder why he didn’t just exclude that particular place in favour of another. On a few occasions, the places chosen were not used for writing.

There is a lack of diversity in the book, which is very noticeable. All 50 chosen are white, despite the fair number from the 20th century in particular.

Mourby’s interest in the writers is apparent and some of the angles he takes on them are particularly good to read, it’s just that the book is in many ways more for those interested in architecture.

I received this book for review.

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