Monday 31 August 2015

If the dead could tell the real story

Echoes from the Dead (The Öland Quartet #1)


Johan Theorin

The death of a child must remain with its parents for ever. How much worse when there has been no body found. The story of Jens, a five-year-old boy who went missing 20 years ago, but whose body has never been found, is told alongside that of Nils Kant, a wayward boy from the island who lies buried in the local cemetery. Jens' mother, Julia,  and grandfather, Gerlof, unearth the true story of what happened that day. Their search brings Julia back to life from her paralysed state of denial. This is a really great thriller, so no surprises then that it won Best First Mystery Novel by the Swedish Academy of Crime in 2007. It has an excellent plot that holds the reader all the way through. Moreover the author gives excellent descriptions of the local terrain, the Swedish island of Öland and bleak remoteness of the alvar. I could see Max von Sydow  playing old Gerlof in a film version quite easily as Theorin's characters are well described, but upon checking it was Tord Peterson who played him in the 2013 Swedish film. Definitely good to see more of these great Swedish thrillers available in English, hopefully more as movies soon as well

ashramblings verdict 4* Excellent thriller

Saturday 29 August 2015

Bringing back memories of India but with a hint of darkness

Sleeping on Jupiter


Anuradha Roy

As a seven year old Nomi sees her father murdered by armed men, looses her brother, and is finally abandoned by her mother before being picked up and transported to an orphanage run by a great spiritual guru who heads an ashram. Instead of love, she finds abuse and finally aged 12 she escapes the sexual gratification of the Guruji only at the cost of leaving behind her only friend. She ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Norwegian woman.  At 25, a now slightly punkish, English speaking westernised woman with a splattering of broken, long unused Hindi returns to the fictional town of Jarmuli on the eastern seaboard of India ostensibly to make a film but with a wish to tie up the loose ends of her life story, to keep promises made to her friend Piku, to finally tell the truth.

Old ladies on the beach_croppedOld ladies on the beach_cropped2

Roy intertwines Nomi’s return with the very contrasting lives of three elderly, very conventional, Indian women, Gouri, Latika and Vidya, who have come on their first ever holiday together. The town’s beach and  temple provide a living for the locals and a focal point for much of the action of the story. There we encounter the women’s tour guide Badal trying to woo street boy Raghu, the subject of his unrequited homosexual love. Raghu makes out as best he can, cadging from others, working at the beach tea stall of Johnny Toppo etc. Johnny Toppo continually sings and hums sad songs and may well have been the young gardener of the ashram back in the day. And finally there is Suraj, Nomi’s assistant, I suppose a bit like a local fixer, but who is trying to work out the breakdown of his own marriage.

Each of them is escaping something, each has their own dreams, in Badal’s case of “living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons” where there just might be a full moon every night, to bring light into the darkness and keep you safe. Because rumbling constantly just below the surface of one’s life is danger, despair, and violence. Perhaps it is the somewhat minor character of Raghu who shows best that this precariousness still exists in today’s India, bonded labour, living from hand to mouth on the streets, at the whim of the tea stall holder. Badal has his escape fund hidden in a bank account his uncle doesn't know he has, he has his scooter.

Kornak temple detail 2Kornak temple detailKornak Temple.


Reading this reminded me of visiting the beach resorts on this part of the Indian coastline, the temple at Kornak with its salacious, almost pornographic stone carvings on the Kama Sutra and the double standards of Indian views on sexuality and the place of women.

Overall the book touches on an important subject matter thread, but I got to the end of it wishing it had been more. More what? I am not sure. More explicit, more violent? Perhaps I am now too used to reading Scandinoir! On the other hand, one could argue the softening of the violence is appropriate as it is how it was all being related, years after the event, by Nomi and that her blurred memories, jotted down from 12 to 25 into her manuscript are a collage of fleeting moments, muddled by emotions of the moment, of regret, and of survival.

ashramblings verdict 3* Evocative read.

Saturday 8 August 2015

An orchestral composition - The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes


Anna Smaill


Many of the write ups about this book cite it as challenging, unusual, difficult to get into and as requiring perseverance to work into the storyline. Yes, those statements might be true and Winner it will not be but surely this has to be shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. It is on the Longlist and deservedly so, because it is a remarkable piece of writing.

In telling the story of a post apocalyptic world (London and Oxford) where memories have been destroyed, writing is long forbidden, in which communication is via music with all its chords, harmonies, rhythms, modulations, cadences and key changes are used to signify distance, direction, shape etc.

Simon has come to London where the population’s communal memory loss is enforced by means of the Carillon, an immense musical instrument which brainwashes everyone with its musical message beginning with “Matins” which tells the “OneStory” of the “AllBreaking”, the “dischord” that destroyed the past and created the present now, and ending the day with “Chimes” at “Vespers” when mental faculties are bombarded leaving the people with only their “bodymemory” to get them through sleep, and to wake again the next morning in a endless repetition and dying in a state of “chimesickness”. Simon carries with him a bag full of precious “objectmemories” which enable him to recall and fell calm about some moments in his life. Loss of these would mean total “memoryloss” and destitution.

Simon falls in with a group of young “pactrunners” (Lucien, Clare, Able and Brennan) who scour the leftovers of London’s underground networks of tunnels  for nuggets of Palladium which they sell. The Palladium is used by “The Order” to build the Carillon. In this first half of the book the author needs to deftly find a way to tell us the story when the world is supposed to not use words and writing. How she does this is what makes the first part difficult for many readers – words are misspelt eg trompet, prentissed, poliss, others words are used just ever so slightly out of context and unexpectedly but continuously eg subito, presto, lento, and place names and slightly altered eg The Isle of Dogs becomes Dog Isle. All this gives you a sense of how over time what had been the English language had changed once writing disappeared and only sound communication survived on the street.

SPOILER ALERT But as with all dystopian states the disorder and chaos of the masses is controlled and the elite exist in a different place, in this case Oxford where the Order overseas the production of music and the “Orkestrum” of the Carillon’s calls. Also not surprisingly their has been a underbelly of resistance, “The Ravesguild” a network of “memorykeepers” to whom people brought memories for storing before they were completely lost. The Ravesguild is all but annihilated, and only the last memorykeeper, Mary, survives behind her mad-woman facade.  It falls to Simon and Lucien to bring all the memories together in a new music piece which tells the true story behind the Allbreaking and to somehow play it through the Carillon to open up and birth a new dawn and free the people from their enforced collective amnesia.

Yes there are obvious similarities here to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, but for me that doesn’t distract from the work. The storyline held me all the way through. Whilst reading it I kept thinking that the real challenge for this book is to fund a film director and a musical score writer who would take up the challenge of composing the score in such a way that the different characters, the “bodymemories”, the mapping of the tunnels, tube lines, sewerage systems of London could all be made music. At one point in the book, Simon is being given the last memories held by Mary and each one of them tells a part of the story of what it is like to really be human – each with their own melody. I’m not knowledgeable enough about musical composition but I’d just love to see this done, with phrases to identify each of the characters, using rhythm for direction, key change for shape, modulations for direction etc. and then bringing them altogether in the final Carillon piece for full orchestra. The idea has tremendous potential. Potential also for a backstory/prequel about how The Order rose to power, how The Chimes first started, how the sickness spread, how the Ravensguild was inaugurated, founded and eventually fell.

I don’t expect this to be Longlisted, but I do hope t gets shortlisted to encourage a wider readership.

ashramblings verdict 4* An orchestral composition on the theme of memory, freedom, identity and the essence of humanity, love.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Caine Prize 2015 – The Sack by Namwali Serpell


I’ve been reading this short story by Zambian writer Namwali Serpell, with my online book club buddies at Constant Reader and you can follow the discussion here where much of the discussion surrounding our understanding of eactly what happened at the end. The ending left us debating 3 possible scenarios. Don’t let that put you off reading this little masterpiece as it is, I suspect, a classic Serpelian play with uncertainty!

The author is a Zambian writer and It is the story of two old men as they wait for the imminent death of one of them who is sick. The other men, his lifelong friend cares for him during this period. They have a past together – they are old freedom fighters who both fell in love with the same woman, whose death they are mourning each in their own ways. This unsteady calm is rocked by the arrival of a young boy selling fish. The writer executes the story in an unusual way with one strand telling the story chronologically in real time, whilst the other is a dream like sequence told in reverse of what happens after the death of the old man. It is almost like you have to finish the story, then reread only this second thread to get the full chronology.

Here is a good interview with Serpell after she won the Caine Prize for Fiction in 2015 and a video of her reading come of her work – just speed forward past the awful high pitched American voice who introduces the video with her consistently raised pitch end of sentences which are not questions  - an style of intonation that is sadly too common in today’s thirty something women. She reads first a short story which is sci-fi in style, then the first chapter entitled C from a forthcoming novel with the working Title Furrow. There is some interesting Q&A at the end where she describes her style and method of writing, albeit that the video mic has not picked up the actual questions.

ashramblings verdict 5* – One to watch out for - looking forward to her novel coming out This is a writer we shall hear a lot more of judging from this story.