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Orlando Ortega-Medina – Jerusalem Ablaze

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The twisted firestarter.

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 wrier 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 reknowned 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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Jennifer Donnelly – Revolution

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‘Let them eat cake’ did not happen here.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 470
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-408-80152-9
First Published: 12th October 2010
Date Reviewed: 30th April 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Andi’s little brother, Truman, died unexpectedly a couple of years ago, and Andi is struggling to come to terms with it; it happened under her watch. Failing school and with a poor outlook on university, her father tells her she must join him on a work trip to Paris. She doesn’t want to go but Paris was the home of a historical musician she loves and her father’s friends are converting an old museum into a house; the building is full of artefacts from another time, including the diary of a girl living in 1700s Paris.

Revolution is a semi dual plot line book that looks at the horrors of the French Revolution starting from before the time of the fall of Bastille; it connects a young travelling servant’s life with a contemporary person in a not dissimilar position, one grieving her brother, the other trying to look out for a young prince. The book has a lot of promise – history in tandem with the present; the possibility of time travel that is somewhat realised – but is unfortunately plagued by very lazy writing.

Andi does not read as real. Her status in society – high – is not explored enough for you to believe it. The way she speaks does not correspond to her age. Donnelly has inserted a lot of strange non-words that heighten this – ‘parslied carrots’ – and employs the likes of the unnecessary ‘shake my head no’. Were it contained to Andi’s narrative, the laziness would not be so bad, but the 1700s Alexandrine speaks the same way, anachronisms running riot, the two girls sounding one and the same – in a literal way rather than symbolically. You could say Andi is translating it, but it still doesn’t ring true.

The information on the Revolution is the redeeming factor – this book has it in spades. The musician of Andi’s thesis may not be real (in our world) but everything surrounding him and his time is. The underground tunnels. The morbid death parties. The author’s research seeps through the pages.

In regards to the sort of time travel, it’s worth knowing that Andi is always under the influence of pills – she overdoses often – and whilst this doesn’t excuse her awful behaviour, it’s enough to wonder if she would have been such an uncaring person before. (Neither character is likeable.) The time travel concerns Andi, solely. Alexandrine’s part in the novel is limited to her diary. The diary is a bit far-fetched, with Andi reading it everywhere, including the artefacts section of a library, and not being asked about it. Her restringing of a guitar from two centuries ago using modern strings without research… thankfully this is fiction!

If you want information about the underground mausoleums in Paris, it’s worth dipping in and out of the pages, but otherwise it’s one to pass by.

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Zoë Duncan – The Shifting Pools

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What you see will be.

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books)
Pages: 346
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63036-1
First Published: 6th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 14th July 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Eve’s family lived in a country that was torn by war; in childhood Eve lost them all and suffered further trauma. She moved to England where her well-meaning aunt never stopped trying to cover up any news of the war and never referred to the family. Now in her adult years, Eve is yet to confront her memories and her grief continues as strongly as ever. Her dreams are nightmares and she’s not living anywhere near her potential, but her imagination believes it’s time to heal.

The Shifting Pools is an incredibly moving novel about grief and learning to live despite it. Using many different styles of storytelling, referencing, and ideas, Duncan has created something very different and very special.

This is a slow-moving book. The pace echoes the way utter loss, grief, can take over a life, and Duncan never moves the narrative away from it. Every detail is examined, every thought spoken, in the way it naturally occurs in life, Duncan doing away with the very notion that being repetitive in fiction is bad – she shows well how it is important to delve into grief and give it the time it needs.

One of the first things of note is Duncan’s writing – it’s wonderful. It keeps the pacing constant, it stays steady during tense changes, and it brings something very beautiful to the work. It’s not difficult to fly through this book, despite the subject, and the writing and Duncan’s overall handling of the situation is why. And there is a lot of wisdom here that anyone who has lost someone or been in an awful situation will be able to relate to.

The style of the text as a whole is intriguing. Sections about Eve’s childhood are narrated in the third person. The first person is used for everything else: the ‘present’ as Eve lives through her days and details her thoughts; the vignettes of dreams dotted throughout the book, that explore Eve’s mental state in various imagined situations; the sections in war-torn Enanti, the fantasy world that may or may not be real. And then there are several well-known and not so well-known poems, generally a single verse of each, spread throughout, included in the text as vignettes in their own right. It’s almost of collage, a multi-media project, full of different ideas and voices, and works very well. The term ‘fractured narrative’ comes to mind.

The Shifting Pools uses nature, drawing comparisons between it and the themes of the story, and using its beauty as a way to help Eve. Of note is the character’s name, which, after you have spotted potential influences of other texts and concepts (including Narnia and The NeverEnding Story) does bring forth the question of Eve’s faith. Is there a comparison to be drawn between Eve and the Eden of the Bible? Of Heaven? Quite possibly.

Eve is always at war with herself; as much is said in one of the sections. Her dreams concern various war or battle or prison situations. Of the war that tore apart her family, little is said. Duncan never tells you which war – if any, in reality – she refers to, though there are glimpses of a couple of possibilities; it’s more the basic idea of war that is important.

Reading this book is something of a honour, and a surreal experience. It feels fantastical from the very first page and the amount of research, knowledge, and detail Duncan has included is excellent. She unapologetically runs straight past the border between what we are told is the ‘right’ amount of time and energy to spend grieving to show that the idea of a ‘right’ time never works. This said you can see the thought that’s gone in to getting it right in terms of the reading experience, empathy, and not repeating what has been said unless to view it differently – something that wouldn’t work in many cases but does here.

The only thing that may work against the book is the amount of time spent on the journey in Enanti. It depends on your enjoyment of the fantasy world being included alongside the real world, how much you’re invested in that genre, and how much you personally feels it all relates.

The Shifting Pools is a fantastic reading experience, full of care, love, and, ultimately, hope.

I received this book for review.

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Rory Gleeson – Rockadoon Shore

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If we took a holiday… it would be so nice.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 291
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63407-7
First Published: 12th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 12th July 2017
Rating: 3/5

A group of friends go away to a house in a remote part of Ireland for a weekend break. There have been tensions for a while but despite Cath’s best wishes, confining them all to a small space and adding in drink and drugs just makes things worse. The friends start to split off, fights begin, and from where local resident, Malachy sits with his view of the house, it looks like things will get awry rather soon.

Rockadoon Shore is a fairly short, focussed book, that looks at the sudden breakdown of a friendship group composed of very differing people. Told in third person through the various characters’ viewpoints, it’s a look at an average situation with more thought than tends to happen in reality.

There are six friends and one outsider (or, in the context of location, insider), and Gleeson casts the spotlight on each of them in turn, always continuing the narrative of the whole rather than reiterating it from different perceptions, but he does pause sometimes to look back when decisions in the group have had a lasting effect on any particular person. Whilst this style makes the book move slowly – though with its three-day focus confined to a house it was always going to be like this – it’s one of the defining aspects and when the plot – what there is, as the story is character-driven – drifts, it can be the reason to keep reading.

Part of this style’s reason for being is the characterisation. Whilst obviously devices and slight stereotypes – in many ways this book is like an episode of a soap opera – Gleeson’s characters have been developed to a fair extent. For the author, meanings are most important, personalities a little less so. This creates an interesting situation, particularly in the case of the women, where you have characters being written in a way that echoes the stereotype of men writing about women and then other times that echoes women writing about women. Due to Gleeson’s general idea to study the breakdown of friendship, this style, the switching of gender gazes, if you will, seems intentional. It allows for more reality, for ultimately broken stereotypes, to show that people aren’t all one way or another. It’s more obvious with the female characters – at least from this reviewer’s standpoint – but it does happen with the men, too.

The writing itself is okay; difficult is the decision to use dashes instead of quotation marks. It could well be, indeed, it seems to be sometimes, that the confusion as to who is talking at any one time is deliberate because it often doesn’t matter who’s saying what, but that does not necessarily put paid to reader frustration. There are grammatical and tense errors but they may well be intended.

The character of Malachy is a bit redundant. He goes through some realisations but as he does not really affect the group of friends beyond a plot device, you can skip his chapters without issue. His personal drama at the end is difficult to care about.

Of that plot device, the ending, which is more a metaphor for fissure than anything else, it must be repeated that there’s not much plot. As much as the book does an excellent job of reflecting current life, there’s little to take away with you. Rockadoon Shore isn’t a bad book or a good book, it just is.

This book was one of several available at a showcase I attended.

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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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