A couple in their sixties from Los Angeles, on their way home from a vacation in one of California’s National Park areas close to the border with Mexico, discover a young girl alone by the roadside. There is no evidence of a vehicle having left the road so why is she there? Where are her parents or other significant adults?
Kate and Laurence set out to find the answers to these questions, thereby providing the reader with an unfolding mystery that has moments of joy and sadness as the traumatised child gradually responds to the love and compassion of the couple. There are encounters with the kind of racism, born of ignorance and fear that, if the media are to be believed, is quite common in the USA. But the majority of the people that Kate approaches are sympathetic and helpful within the constraints of their own limited knowledge. Many are operating close to, or beyond, the boundaries of the law, a fact that adds an atmosphere of danger to the search.
It is Kate who is most committed to the search, a fact which, from time to time, places a strain on the relationship, not least because Laurence is an African American all too used to the atmosphere of distrust between the forces of law and order of the United States and the non-white citizens of that country. If, as they quickly suspect, the girl is an undocumented immigrant, they and she could be in trouble if agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Authority (ICE) become involved.
Their attempts to evade the authorities add to the tension, as does the fact of Kate becoming trapped by a minor earthquake during one of several journeys following leads, some of which prove false.
The word DREAMer of the title is used in the USA to define “an undocumented immigrant who is protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. The name comes from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) act that was introduced in 2001 but failed to pass in Congress.” (quoted from slangit.com)
I enjoyed this book, both for the entertainment provided by the unravelling of the mystery and for the insights I, an elderly English man, gained into the lives of Californian farmers and the migrants they employ – or exploit, depending upon your point of view. I must add that the issues are handled in a way that does not come across as being politically partisan, merely as compassionate towards people doing their best to make their way in the world. I congratulate Emily Gallo for having achieved that balance in this, her most recent novel.
I’m very happy to award this book 4 stars.
Kate and Lawrence drive through the desert on their way home from vacation and find a young girl sitting by the side of the road. Who is she? Where is she from and where is she going? Why is she there? When and how did she get there? What can they do to help? The girl won’t speak, but that doesn’t deter them from embarking on a journey through central and southern California to find the answers.
Frank has been reading Stephen From The Inside Out by Susie Stead
For me, reviewing this book presented a dilemma: should I judge it on its literary qualities or on the effect of the subject matter on me as a reader? In the end I chose both options.
The first is easy: Susie Stead has demonstrated, in her first published full length book, that she is a talented writer. She relates Stephen’s story in a way that cannot fail to draw the reader into his extraordinary life, at the same time, revealing a great deal about herself.
As for subject matter, I need to begin by defining genre. In the strictest sense this is a biography: Stephen is a real person and this is his life story. But the biographies that most people read, that most publishers are only interested in, are of people who have already caught the public imagination. ‘Celebrities’ of one kind or another, however well deserved their celebrity. As the author reminds us in her final paragraph, “[Stephen] said his life was a waste of time but he lived it as if every particle of it mattered.”
It is also, in part, Susie’s autobiography as she compares her own early life with Stephen’s and as her personal life changes in profound ways, independently of, but in parallel with the later years of Stephen’s.
So who, then, was Stephen? Why is his life story important – much, much more important than that of any ‘sleb’?
When the author first met him, in 2000, she was a vicar’s wife residing in the Home Counties of England. Stephen was a 45 year old inmate of a psychiatric hospital, attending a day centre which Susie and a group from her husband’s Church had decided to visit. Susie struck up a conversation with Stephen. Her friendship and advocacy for him continued until his death in 2018. In 2014 she decided to write her book about him. He agreed to allow this. The book is peppered with his responses to sections of the book she read back to him as his story progressed.
But this is not just the story of one disturbed individual’s tangles with authority, it is also the story of changing attitudes to, awareness of, and treatments for autism/Asperger’s, schizophrenia and mental illness in general. By 2000, Stephen had spent most of his adult life in institutions, 18 of them in the same psychiatric hospital. For most of that time his status was that of ‘voluntary patient’ – except that he was informed that, should he discharge himself, he would immediately be ‘sectioned’, meaning that he would still be a patient but now subject to release only when the professional staff deemed it ‘safe’ to do so.
Official policy on the treatment of mentally ill people in the UK changed significantly between 1955 and 2000, with a plan to significantly reduce the number of individuals detained in this way. Most were henceforward to be cared for in a community setting. Stephen’s story tells us a great deal about the practical implications of such a policy when pursued without adequate resources.
The book raises many questions about personal autonomy and the freedom to choose how one lives one’s life. Under the most recent legislation in the UK, every patient/client of a care organisation has to have his/her views, and those of family and informal carers, taken into consideration when decisions are made about when/where/if they should be admitted to a care home. What if such views are unrealistic in regards to the safety of the patient/client in their own home? Where do you draw the line between a desire to achieve the best outcome for someone, based on compassion, and unwarranted interference in that person’s chosen way of life?
Whilst considering these questions I was struck by something else. In addition to Susie, Stephen had a number of individuals who not only cared about his welfare but were able to articulate their concerns to the professionals and to assist him as he negotiated the labyrinthine bureaucracy they tend to hide behind. There are many who are not so fortunate, who either do not have anyone to speak up on their behalf, or whose close relative(s) that may wish to do so lack the confidence and determination such advocacy requires.
Stephen’s story, as told by Susie, is full of highs and lows. There are many farcical episodes that brought a smile to my face. Other incidents that made me sad or angry by turns.
It is said that autistic people experience the world differently from most of us. That is a statement with which I have some difficulty. I have similar reservations about a term I have recently seen used in articles by and about people diagnosed with Asperger’s: ‘Neuro-typical’. The implication of both is that the majority of people, those without such a diagnosis, all perceive the world in exactly the same way. My own opinion is that we all exist on a spectrum somewhere between ‘sanity’ and extreme mental illness, between ‘normal’ and ‘batty’ in our habits and foibles.
Stephen’s view of the world is certainly unique. He has an understandable fear of hospitalisation. He believes that various individuals and organisations are out to get him. And yet he is capable of holding perfectly rational conversations about politics and religion. He writes poetry. By the end it is his physical disabilities, rather than his mental illness, that proves to be his downfall.
Long before the end I came to regard Susie, and the other men and women who care about Stephen’s welfare, as something of a saint for the way she and they put up with Stephen’s constant demands, expressed in phone calls the frequency of which would have driven me to distraction.
The same goes for the professionals who are legally responsible for his care and treatment. At least most of them are able to move on as their careers progress or the care contract expires. Not that Susie sees herself in that light. On the contrary, she clearly wishes there was more she could have done for him.
I could not help feeling guilty at my own inadequacies as a son and brother. What might my own response be should any of my siblings, my wife or son find themselves in Stephen’s predicament?
Why is the book important? Because it demonstrates how knowing someone like Stephen teaches the importance of compassion, empathy, or just plain kindness. Perhaps we all need a Stephen in our lives. As Nick Knowles says at the end of every episode of “DIY SOS: the big build”, ‘perhaps you know someone who needs your help.’ Read this book and be inspired.
‘In our love, however little, we create a web that breaks a person’s fall.’
“Susie, my life has been a complete and total waste of time”.
In 2012 when Stephen said this, he believed it to be true. But was it? And how do we decide?
From the outside, it may have looked like this. Stephen spent 25 years inside British psychiatric wards, was finally diagnosed with autism in his late forties and never felt acceptable in the ‘normal’ world.
From the inside, though, here was a man with powerful convictions, deep longings, wide interests and an incapacity to be anything other than himself, whatever the cost.
This is his story, inside and out; a story of grave injustices, saints and bigots, a faithful dog, a wild woman, a fairy godmother and angels hidden in plain sight.
It is also the story of the author, Susie, who started off by wanting to ‘help’ Stephen ‘get better’, and instead found herself profoundly challenged by a friendship she did not expect.
Idiosyncratic, unorthodox, tragic, yet at times hilarious – this book not only tells a compelling and important story but will be vital reading for anyone who cares about mental health in our contemporary world or who might just be open to a different way of seeing: from the inside out.
Frank has been reading Landscape Of A Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted
I imagine that most Americans are aware of the man who designed and oversaw the creation of Central Park in New York. And they will know, too, that he went on to create many parks for cities, institutions and private individuals across the USA in a career spanning over 30 years. What, however, do any of us know of the woman he married at the height of that first project and remained beside him for four decades? What do any of us know about the wives of any of the men who made an indelible mark on our history?
In writing her imagined biography of the wife of Fred Law Olmsted, Gail Olmsted* has created a work that gives a fascinating insight into the lives of upper middle class American families in the second half of the nineteenth century.
She has chosen her title well. After close on 58years of marriage I can testify that a long marriage does indeed contain many of the characteristics of a landscape. There are sunny uplands, deep dark valleys and everything in between. Surviving them requires the emotional equivalent of the physical resilience demanded of the intrepid traveller in unfamiliar, and occasionally hostile, territory.
Whilst the Olmsteds were blessed with an income that enabled them to maintain a large house, with servants to lighten the physical load placed on Mary’s shoulders, the couple encountered tragedies that would break many a less solid pair.
Fred was a workaholic who frequently spent many days, weeks even, away from the family home. He had a high public profile and was in constant demand. Ms Olmsted accurately observes the pressures this can place on a marriage. That the marriage survived despite recurring tragedies is a testament to the strength of the love between the two.
This is a book that some may be tempted to consign to the category of ‘Women’s Fiction’, a category whose existence I have queried elsewhere. But, if you are a man hoping to learn about techniques of landscape design and architecture you will be disappointed. I do believe, however, that it should appeal to the general reader who appreciates the opportunity to explore the lives of the people who helped create the world in which we live.
It is certainly historical fiction. The political background of Civil War, the rise of the suffragette movement and the arrival of such innovations as the telephone is evoked without intruding too heavily onto the narrative. So, too, is the debate over the funding of conservation. Fred regularly rails against the committees of bureaucrats and politicians who constantly sought to frustrate the realisation of his dreams for the green lungs that generations of citizens since have come to take for granted and which he pioneered.
But it is, above all, a story about the resilience of a woman supporting her husband and her children: emotionally, as they face various tragedies together, and in practical terms, as she takes on the reorganisation of record keeping in what quickly becomes a family business. The portrait that emerges is of a woman very much ahead of her time; courageous, resilient and devoted to her husband and his work.
*Gail Ward Olmsted is married to a descendant of Frederick Law Olmsted’s brother.
A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose. A shared vision transforms the American landscape forever.
New York, 1858: Mary, a young widow with three children, agrees to marry her brother-in-law Frederick Law Olmsted, who is acting on his late brother’s deathbed plea to “not let Mary suffer”. But she craves more than a marriage of convenience and sets out to win her husband’s love. Beginning with Central Park in New York City, Mary joins Fred on his quest to create a ‘beating green heart’ in the center of every urban space.
Over the next 40 years, Fred is inspired to create dozens of city parks, private estates and public spaces with Mary at his side. Based upon real people and true events, this is the story of Mary’s journey and personal growth and the challenges inherent in loving a brilliant and ambitious man.
Frank has been reading The White Rajah by Tom Williams
To anyone unfamiliar with the history of Sarawak it will come as a surprise to discover that, unlike much of the rest of the British Empire, it was ruled for 100 years, not by a Governor General or Viceroy acting on behalf of the British crown, but by a series of members of the Brooke family.
James Brooke resigned his commission in the private army of the East India Company to become a privateer, trading around the islands of the South China Sea. In 1839 he was invited by the Sultan of Borneo to help put down a rebellion in what was then a province of Borneo. With that achieved, Brooke was then given the role of ruler of the province, thus becoming the White Rajah of the title of Tom Williams’s latest book.
The overthrow of the rebels, the development of an economy based around the trade in antimony, a second rebellion from which Brooke escaped to Singapore, his return and the defeat of the pirates responsible for the rebellion and the plundering of indigenous tribal villages, together form the meat of this fascinating account.
It is told in first person by Brooke’s fictional companion and aide. In his end note Williams explains which parts of the story are true and which fiction. He does not say whether or not Brooke’s homosexuality is real or imagined (Wikipedia is ambivalent about Brooke’s sexuality and his relationships, although it also claims that he had a son). For me it certainly worked as a device to get to the heart of Brooke’s character. Only a lover can get close enough to witness his changes of mood and the inner feelings behind the public face of a man in a position of power. And only a lover can properly express an alternative view of the horrors he witnesses whilst in that man’s company.
Once again, Williams has given us a riveting account of a little known episode in the history of colonialism. Along the way he provides some superb descriptions of the flora, fauna and traditional culture of this corner of Malaysia. As a side note, Brooke’s story has been told, with the same title, by Nicholas Monsarrat, the writer best known for The Cruel Sea, and other novels based on his service in the Royal Navy during the second World War. I recall reading the first of these in my youth but have no recollection of that earlier iteration of The White Rajah, which was published in 1961. As a further note, Williams’s book was first published in 2010.
When James Brooke arrives in Borneo on the schooner ‘Royalist’, he plans to make a quick profit trading with the natives. Instead he finds himself taking sides in a civil war. And when his side wins, he ends up the ruler of his own country. As the first White Rajah of Sarawak, Brooke is determined to show how the Britain of Queen Victoria can bring civilisation to the natives. But life in Borneo proves complicated. Soon pirates are exploiting the divisions in the country and, when the old rulers stage a coup, Brooke is forced to flee into the jungle.Faced with the destruction of all he has worked for, Brooke is driven to desperate measures to reclaim his country. But is he bringing civilisation to Borneo or will his ruthless annihilation of the pirates just bring a new level of brutality to the people he meant to save?The White Rajah is about a man fighting for his life who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery.
Frank has been reading Burke In Ireland by Tom Williams.
It is 1793. In Ireland Wolf Tone and the United Irishmen are producing pamphlets and speeches advocating for the extension of the franchise. They are also in close touch with groups prepared to do more than advocate: to organise armed insurrection and encourage a French invasion.
A young James Burke is sent by the British government to infiltrate the organisation and report back on the details of their plans.
Another book by Tom Williams dealing with real events from British history, something which he does so well, this is the fifth in the series featuring James Burke. In the chronology of James’s career it is his second adventure.
The atmosphere of late eighteenth century Dublin is superbly evoked; both the physical and the social. The squalor of the slum districts is set against the plush interiors of the homes of the wealthy.
This differentiation between the masses and the privileged extends to the prison where a lawyer friend of the campaigners is allocated relatively comfortable accommodation.
The story progresses at a good pace as James inveigles his way into the organisation and is welcomed into the home of a wealthy man at the centre of a network of safe houses and secret arms caches.
He quickly learns that all is not as it seems in this household. He accompanies the man’s daughter as she brings food to starving citizens but danger lurks in her apparent affection for him.
The working out of the central conspiracy, to assist the escape of a prisoner, is gripping. It does not go precisely as intended and the possibility of James’s true identity being revealed is ever present.
The style makes it an easy read. It is not over-long. The history and the political background are infiltrated almost unnoticed into the story.
I have read many books dealing with Irish history since I made my home in Ireland. Most present an Irish perspective, often overtly anti-British. It should come as no surprise that a British writer does not follow that trend. Nor, however, does he present a viewpoint biased towards the British. As when dealing with British-Indian history in “Cawnpore”, he shows us both sides.
James, consorting with the Irish conspirators, learns some of the injustices they are seeking to correct. But he is, first and foremost, a soldier loyal to the crown and sees, too, the way in which different branches of government pursue their own often conflicting, agendas.
Read this book for the pleasure of watching a conspiracy unravel and discover how the campaign for Irish home rule drew on, and was a part of, the fight for human rights across Europe and America.
James Burke’s first mission! 1793 and James Burke is under cover in Ireland, spying on Irish Nationalists. His objective: to discover any plots to conspire with the French to bring down English rule in Dublin. Dublin is full of plotters. Finding them is easy. Staying alive is not as straightforward. A tale of spying, love and death against the background of the early struggle for Irish independence.
It’s real history but not how you learned it at school.
Frank has been reading Stalking Gideon Cain by Kerry Alan Denney
At first I thought the set up for this psychological thriller was unrealistic. Perhaps it would turn out to be one of those tongue in cheek spoofs. I am not sure at what point I became hooked, but I did. I surrendered completely, suspending disbelief and settling back to enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was!
The principle protagonist is a successful writer, recklessly pursuing a playboy lifestyle. It does not take long, however, to realise that he is still wracked by grief resulting from the tragic loss of his wife and daughter a decade before.
As I became engaged in the increasingly complicated plot; as new, well rounded characters were introduced, I thought of one of my favourite British writers, Kate Atkinson. But Denney is an American author, writing for an American audience, so there is far more violence than you would find in any of Atkinson’s novels. In addition to the violent scenes, there is some clever technology deployed in the campaign against Gideon and by his helpers in retaliation. This made me think that the book is much closer to Stieg Larson than to Kate Atkinson. But interspersed with the violent scenes are some beautifully described periods of respite during which Gideon’s relationships with his parents and his closest friends are explored, complete with interesting back stories. The settings, interior and exterior, in Georgia, are exquisitely described without over embellishment.
Among the characters are animals, children and mentally handicapped youngsters, all brought vividly to life. A number of different points of view are utilised. Two extraordinarily well realised scenes come to mind in particular: a dog running away from one of the villains, written entirely from the dog’s point of view; a mentally handicapped youth in captivity describing his situation and his captors. Both are completely believable without falling into the trap of becoming over sentimentalised. They demonstrate the range of skills Denney is able to deploy and that raise this book way above the high tech, high body count, bloodfest it might otherwise have become.
Gideon’s parents, too, are sympathetically drawn and play a significant, if minor, role in the plot’s resolution. Along the way we are introduced to several characters whose talents make them candidates for inclusion in future novels from this author. Indeed, it is quite possible that one or more have already appeared in previous novels. Whether they have or have not, I intend to delve deeper into Denney’s oeuvre in the future.
As already indicated, this is a book for you if you enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. If too much gore and an escalating body count put you off, you might want to avoid it. But I would urge you not to. You might discover, as I did, that you will be captivated by the sheer skill of this writer as he takes you on a roller coaster ride in the company of a cast of memorable characters.
I unhesitatingly give it five stars.
Bestselling author Gideon Cain is losing his mind. Everywhere he turns lately, the femme fatales from his psychological thrillers show up—live and in person. Are they actresses playing a cruel joke on him, figments of his increasingly terrifying delusions, or fantastical vigilantes sprung to life from the pages of his books? All he knows for certain is if he doesn’t find answers soon, he’s bound for the psych ward.
When one of his fictional antagonists poisons him on a flight home from a book-signing tour, he realizes that someone isn’t just messing with his mind—they’re trying to kill him.
Now he’s running for his life from an enemy with a weapon so deadly it can kill with the touch of a button. Only an enigmatic woman from his tragic past can help him discover the truth behind his adversary’s vendetta. And time is running out to stop the madman who is stalking Gideon Cain.
Frank has been reading Viking Voyager by Sverrir Sigurdsson
If you are seeking proof of the old adage that travel broadens the mind, look no further than this informative memoir. Sverrir Sigurdsson is an Icelander. For him and his fellow countrymen travel is in their DNA, from their Viking ancestors who colonised most of Northern Europe and parts of North America long before Columbus.
Sigurdsson begins his story with the history of each of his parents. Like most of their generation of Icelanders in the early ears of the twentieth century, they were self-sufficient, dependent upon farming and/or fishing for their livelihoods. Both are of course subject to the vagaries of climate, especially so for a small country close to the Arctic Circle where winter can last for half of each year. Having thus provided a brief but comprehensive overview of the history and geography of Iceland, he describes the two educational institutions he attended in the 1940s.
Like many of his fellow countrymen he completed his education in a neighbouring country. In this case Finland. Once again we are given an insight into the history of that nation and its relationship with Russia. Sigurdsson studied architecture. He began his career as an architectural draughtsman, designing details of windows, staircases and doors for apartment blocks whilst studying in the Finish capital, Helsinki.
After graduation he received an offer of a job in Kuwait. I won’t spoil the story for readers by continuing with the details of his career and travels. Suffice to say that he secured a number of roles within the World Bank, overseeing the construction and provisioning of schools and colleges in several developing countries. Each gave him the opportunity to explore his surroundings and absorb local history and culture. And it brought him to his ultimate destination, the USA – specifically Washington DC, location of the Bank’s headquarters.
Following retirement he designed and built his own house on the shores of Chesapeake Bay.
The writing style makes this book easy to read. No doubt this is down to his co-author, his second wife, the journalist and novelist Veronica Li (there is a chapter devoted to a frank account of the breakdown of his first marriage). At the end of the book is a handy guide to pronunciation of the Icelandic language.
There is a great deal of difference between travel, as exemplified here, in which the traveller gains new insights and knowledge about the places he or she visits, and tourism. All too often the latter involves returning repeatedly to a familiar place in order to luxuriate in pleasant surroundings. In Sigurdsson’s case, the former is a by-product of a life dedicated to improving the opportunities of others.
On television Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley, and others share their travels with us. In this book Sigurdsson and Li have done the same. Until we are once again able to travel as freely as we did before the advent of Covid 19, we have the joy of books like Viking Voyager to entertain and inform us.
This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favourable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. Join him on his roaring adventures!
Frank has been reading Tokyo Mayday by Maison Urwin
This is a dystopian novel with a difference – and with an important message. Around forty or fifty years from now the Western economies have collapsed, replaced by a resurgent Asia led by Japan. There, migrants are employed on low wages to undertake the jobs that native Japanese don’t want. A right-wing political movement uses the media to foment resentment about such migrants, as well as those without jobs who are housed in squalid camps adjacent to the ports. Those with jobs are provided with sub-standard accommodation.
When a Japanese monopoly auto-manufacturer closes its three plants in the former UK, now reduced to the Federal Republic of England and Wales, or FREW, one employee from each is offered a position in a Japanese plant. One such is Jordan May. He sets out for Japan accompanied by his wife, Shaylie, and their son, Alfie. As the family attempt to settle into their new life, they become embroiled in a peaceful protest movement dedicated to improving the lot of immigrants.
By inverting the present situation in Europe, where migrants are often resented and exploited, Urwin is able to show what it feels like to be the object of such discrimination and abuse. The plot, and counterplot, as a mysterious former diplomat fills the role of puppet-master to the boss of the corporation, in opposition to the corrupt right-wing politician, has several threads which come together as a huge demonstration takes place on the streets of Tokyo.
The tension is gradually ramped up as the various protagonists go about their daily business and the thugs employed by the right-wing politician engage in clandestine bullying of the migrant family. Jordan’s conflicting emotions, as he balances the possibility of jeopardising his family’s future well-being against his desire to help those migrants who are worse off than him because of their lack of appropriate skills, are convincingly portrayed. So, too, is the evolution of the relationship between fifteen year old Alfie and the older Japanese girl assigned to mentor him as the only gaijin (foreigner) in the Japanese high school.
I can readily imagine that some readers will sneer at the inclusion of one or two too many coincidences. Yet it is hard to see how else the author could have shown different aspects of the personalities of some of the principle players. The business man’s life as a family man and the politician’s private perversions are given greater weight by their impact on members of the May family.
Unwin has lived in Japan and presents a convincing portrait of Japanese culture and the geography of Tokyo. The family’s English home, in the author’s native Essex, is equally well drawn, with descriptions of the future devastation expected to be caused to that county’s coast by rising sea levels. Where I take issue with a central aspect of the story is in the depiction of the puppet-master’s background. Institutionalised child sexual abuse, racist abuse, and bullying are all topical subjects. To be credible as influences in the development of a particular personality they need to be properly contextualised. Here we are offered, instead, clichéd depictions of a British public school and the UK diplomatic service.
This is Maison Urwin’s debut novel, which follows the ordeal of a family’s economic migration from the Federal Republic of England & Wales to Tokyo.
The power is in the East.
The Federal Republic of England & Wales is in crisis.
Western economic collapse has led to mass economic migration to China, Korea and especially Japan. Jordan May is offered a transfer with Matsucorp and takes wife, Shaylie, and son, Alfie, to a new and bewildering life in the Orient. The book is set in the 2050s when, following the end of capitalism in Europe, the Far East is now considered the developed world. Society in the West has fallen apart and the East Asia is the destination of choice for economic migrants who are prepared to take risks and endure prejudice in the search for a better life.
The May family emigrates from Harwich, England to Japan and husband, wife and son battle discrimination, are embroiled in political activism and forbidden romance, are targeted in racist attacks and are endangered by unwitting gangland involvement. As the climax approaches in a violent political demonstration on the streets of Tokyo, we begin to discover the extent to which a mysterious, wiry Englishman has manipulated each of them.
This work of speculative fiction sees the Mays thrust into industrial politics, illegal unionisation and hostessing. Teenage love and the organisation of a mass demonstration take place against a backdrop of racial tension and the rise of the far right.
Could Shaylie’s life be in danger? Is the mafia involved?
And just who is the Machaivellian Stepson Struthwin who sits on Matsucorp’s board and has such a hold over the lives of those around him?
Frank has been reading The Bird That Sang In Color by Grace Mattioli
What is the secret of happiness? According to Donna, the first person narrator of this family saga, it is doing your own thing, not making room in your life for other people.
Donna is one of six children of second generation Italian migrants living in a New Jersey suburb. Her story begins in 1970 and continues in instalments at 3 and 4 year intervals until the present day.
At the centre of the story is her older brother, Vincent, the ‘Bird that Sang in Color’ of the title. The family is comparatively well to do. All six children have everything they could possibly want. Not unnaturally their father tries to control their lives, steering them towards college and a well paid career, or, in the case of the girls, to marry a rich man. He is an alcoholic who is frequently abusive towards his wife, the matriarch who does her best to protect her children from his angry outbursts.
It is a pattern that repeats in Donna’s own marriage to a young law graduate with whom she has four children. Unlike her mother, Donna is able to have a life beyond her family responsibilities, returning to college, first as a mature student, then as a teacher. Throughout, she feels responsible for Vincent as well as her own family, encouraging him to make more of his talents as an artist and musician. It is only when she is much older that she realises how mistaken she has been.
“I started trying to convince him to listen to our parents and to take himself real seriously and go for all that stuff that I thought was necessary for him to be happy, like a good career and a family, a house, a nice car, the whole nine yards. . . [Now} I realized that he was happy without all those things, and the big irony was that I had all those things, but I was unhappy. . . I had it all, and I was miserable.”
I opened my previous review for Rosie Amber by arguing that it is wrong to characterise a book by the gender of the intended readership. After reading The Bird That Sang in Color, I’m less certain. This is very much a woman’s book, in that it presents an essentially feminist interpretation of family life, showing us the sacrifices that women make and extolling the life choices of the one male character who eschews such responsibilities.
As a man, I would have wanted to see some recognition of the fact that the comfortable life that Donna and her siblings lead is as much the consequence of their father’s hard work, and the rents paid by the tenants of the apartments his property company owns, as of their mother’s home-making. The same goes for her husband. She seems to take for granted his working two jobs whilst studying. She glosses over his frustrations at his inability to convince a biased jury that the person he is defending deserves their sympathy. She even conceives a fourth child despite being aware that he does not want it.
All too often feminists who condemn traditional family values because they limit women’s lives overlook the fact that men’s lives are similarly limited. The imperatives attached to being the sole, or main, breadwinner imprison men just as securely into careers chosen for the income generated rather than the pleasure taken in performing the task.
I disagree profoundly with Donna’s answer to the question “What is the secret of happiness.” And I suspect that, if she were honest, she would realise that her own happiness, in the company of her children and grand children, is just as valid as that which she imagines Vincent achieved in his life free of responsibilities. More so, because it has been bought by the sacrifices she and others have made.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, and not only to women readers. Firstly, because the periods and places are so well realised, with the kind of simple, yet revealing, strokes Donna admires in her brother’s drawings. This is writing of the highest quality. Secondly, because, whilst I disagree with the central message, it is a book that makes you think, to question your assumptions. And that is something that the best literature sets out to do. I am grateful to Grace Mattioli for making me question my own beliefs about the nature of happiness.
Part family drama and part self-actualization story, this is about Donna Greco, who in her teens, subscribes to a conventional view of success in life—and pushes her freewheeling, artistic brother, Vincent to do the same. However, he remains single, childless, and subsists in cramped apartments. She harbors guilt for her supposed failure until she discovers a sketch-book he’d made of his life, which prompts her own journey to live authentically.
While this textured story combines serious issues such as alcoholism, death, and family conflict, it’s balanced with wit and humor and is filled with endearing, unforgettable characters. The story spans decades, beginning in 1970 and ending in the present. Readers will be immersed in this tale as it poses an intriguing question: “What pictures will you have of yourself by the end of your life?”
Terry has been reading Transgression by Frank Parker
Transgression by Frank Parker
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by me as part of Rosie Amber’s Review Team
This is an intelligently constructed, fairly complex drama that deals with the changing social attitudes of England since the 1970s, written from the points of view of three main characters. It opens with Roger, who has written a book about a recently deceased soap star. He meets a young woman who claims to be the soap star’s daughter, which opens up old wounds and secrets from four decades before. Roger is forced to face up to his own guilt about his part in the cover up, which involved family friends and a local MP, and deal with the impact of the revelations on his own relationship.
The book covers many decades, with nostalgia-worthy details in each. I was a teenager in the 1970s, and this book did make me think about how far we have moved on in terms of prejudice and ‘the permissive society’, as it was called back in those days; sometimes for good, sometimes not so much. As the story goes on, suggestions of historic sexual harrassment are uncovered—very topical and sinister.
I found the subject matter quite interesting to read about; after all, soap operas and dramas themselves are so often based around hidden affairs and secret offspring; you can’t go far wrong with a bit of family intrigue of this type! I’m afraid, though, that I found it all a bit flat. The main problem was the dialogue; each character used similar vocabulary, tone, mood and rhythms of speech; I kept forgetting who was who because they all spoke in the same way, the dialogue being mostly used to deliver facts, as was much of the narrative, as opposed to telling a compelling story with atmosphere and emotion. A trait I’ve noticed in many self-published mystery type books with intricate plots is that characters have lengthy conversations in which they discuss the whys and wherefores of a situation, in order to impart chunks of information to the reader, but if the characters have not leapt off the page and become real people, it’s hard to care. I also felt that some of the references to social media and popular culture were a little forced.
Having said all that, the writing did improve when it moved onto the second character, Mabel, and more so again I reached the third, Douglas. The book’s other good point was that the plot strands worked together well; I didn’t find any inconsistencies or parts that weren’t feasible, a huge plus. To sum up – it was just okay for me, but I daresay readers who care more about a carefully constructed plot than character connection would enjoy it more.