Wednesday, July 30, 2014

After Before by Jemma Wayne - book review #1

After Before by Jemma Wayne - published by Legend Press

Emily, Vera and Lynn:  three women with very different backgrounds. Emily is a Rwandan refugee, scarred both emotionally and physically by the genocide there. Vera swings between memories of her drug and drink-laden past and a present in which she seeks redemption for her previous life through Christianity and Lynn, brittle but determined to control the progress of her fatal condition, is beleaguered not by its symptoms but by the regrets that surface as she looks back on her life.

Something of a slow burner, this book weaves the stories together, bringing the women into contact with each other and creating a context for their personal experiences around issues of faith and spirituality. Whilst relatively realistic, some elements of the story are symbolic and some players too - John, one of Lynn’s sons, is not much more than a character sketch and Omar, who appears towards the end of the story, is almost a caricature. I found one key element of the denouement unconvincing, but, not wishing to be a spoiler I won’t go into details. Let me just say it won’t spoil anybody’s enjoyment of the resolution of this novel, even if they find it as unlikely as I did. Hint for those who do read the novel - scene takes place in the kitchen! 

Given those minor caveats this is an accomplished piece of work, giving equal depth to three stories of life and loss that converge and diverge only to converge again in a well-balanced exploration of women’s lives. Wayne paces the book well, keeping each storyline moving forward and giving us alternate glimpses of the women through each other’s eyes that create momentary startlements for the protagonists and the reader alike. 

London is also one of the players in this story and it’s well rendered; Emily’s life in a tower block and Lynn’s in a comfortable suburban home are beautifully juxtaposed,  while no urban commuter could fail to recognise the daily details of Vera’s existence. 

Above all this is a redemptive novel without any easy sentimentality - Wayne succeeds in bringing the reader to a point of acceptance along with her protagonists and that’s a major achievement. This book is likely to appeal to serious readers, to those interested in moral, ethical and spiritual issues, and to anybody who wonders whether a life that strays off course can ever be restored to the path. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


It's a long time since I've been here!

Life has been .... complicated. Not everything in the garden has been lovely Houses have been sold and bought, gardens (not this one, this one's Wisley) redesigned, books written, husbands (okay, husband) diagnosed with cancer, operated on, returned home to convalesce ... well that's me up to date, how about you?

So with a supposedly recuperating husband (mainly he's grumpy or fishing) and in the hiatus while we wait to hear if he will need chemo or not, I thought I needed a new challenge.

Yes, I'm crazy. This blog is not called Writing Neuroses for nothing!

The challenge is to write 100 book reviews. I was going to write 100 reviews in 100 days but that would have been seriously crazy and I'm only crazy. Then I was going to write 100 reviews in 100 weeks, but I think I can do better than that, time-wise. So I'm just going to write 100 book reviews.

First up, starting tomorrow, After Before by Jemma Wayne published by Legend Press!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent

Well, you see, I knew this man. This man was very confident. He was a great speaker, a fluent and funny man. Actually, maybe not funny. He wasn’t funny. He was witty – acerbic even.  And he was tall and wore black (you know, that might have been a clue, had I been looking for clues) even in summer. Not ‘Man in Black’ type black, but a lot of black, a lot of the time.

I wanted to win this man’s attention. I wanted him to think well of me. Did I mention he was very good-looking? Well he was, but that wasn’t particularly germane – it was his intellectual calibre that mattered most. You see, he seemed rather dismissive of me; he didn’t seem to rate my intellect as highly as I did his.


Looking back, what this man didn’t like about me was everything that made me and my life worthwhile. He didn’t like what I read – he particularly didn’t like H E Bates and Nabakov and Colette, all the earthy, vital, life-enhancing writers (well, I accept that Nabakov is somewhat dubious as ‘life-enhancing’ and maybe not even earthy, but vital, yes … read Lolita and feel America thrum through their mad road trip like an electric current) I loved. He didn’t like that fact I wore red. He didn’t like it when I laughed.

He suggested I read Simenon and Conrad. He didn’t go quite as far as suggesting I buy a black roll-neck sweater and read Ginsberg, but he wasn’t far off. I think the only reason we didn’t get to the sweater moment is that it would have hidden my cleavage which was largely on display when he was around. He did like my cleavage.

I liked Simenon – in translation and in the original French. I didn’t notice at the time that the man didn’t appreciate that I could read Simenon in French – but he didn’t like it at all, it turned out. He couldn’t read French, you see.

I didn’t get on so well with Conrad. I tried. I really tried. But both The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness were so unremittingly unpleasant that I struggled to feel any connection to the narrative at all. I liked the brevity of Conrad’s prose and I found the subject matter he chose powerful. There’s no way that you could have visited most African states in the 1990s, but Somalia and Niger in particular, and not have found Heart of Darkness surrounding you whenever you stepped out of the International airport terminal. I went to those places, and I saw Conrad’s fiction in reality.

I got the man. He wasn’t worth it. His cool rationalism extended into his (lack of) emotional life. It was like spending time with an alabaster egg: smooth, cool, pale, attractive - ultimately purposeless. Looking back, I can’t even remember him, only the desire I had to win his attention, which, once achieved, was a worthless achievement.

The man went. The book goes too….

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Amin Maalouf – The First Century After Beatrice

I have been distracted from posting by (a) needing to do the mundanities of moving house (b) the necessity to be writing. And yet the books must go, and soon. Onward then, to the shelves.

I first read this book as part of a high level think-tank exercise. The think-tank, composed of a number of thinkers of international high renown, was looking at population and migration and this book, along with a whole stack of tomes from Malthus to UNHCR reports, was the grist from which we were supposed to mill … something.

I’m not sure we milled anything very much. But this elegant little fable certainly had an effect on me. Two things struck me very strongly – the first was the lyricism of the relationship between an anonymous entomologist who falls in love with a free-spirited woman. It is a love story of the most unusual type, in that it defies most conventions of relationships and writing about love, and it works on a prickly, sometimes disturbing, level. The second was the parable of economics that results from the scarcity of a product. In this case, the scarce product is young women, and it results from consumer choice – a form of bean, readily available and affordable, allows poor families to only have boy children. Their choice, inevitably and inexorably, is to do so – but the effect of the bean is irreversible. When a couple have their first boy child, they find they cannot have anything else … so who will produce the girls for those boys?

I don’t want to destroy the value of this book by spoilers, but it’s a fantastic exercise in terms of how, with extreme brevity, it explores the role of choice, the nature of gender bias and the way that commodification destroys humanity, on the individual and the global scale.

A keeper.