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Winning book reviews – SAW 2014

Members of Ayr Writers’ Club swept the board in the Book Review category at the Scottish Association of Writers 2014 conference. Here are the three prize winning entries from Linda Brown, Dorothy Gallagher and Nigel Ward.

First prize – review by Linda Brown

The Yard

by Alex Grecian

Penguin 2013

IBSN 978-0-241-95891-9

£7.99 Pb 583 pages

Gruesome, gory and bursting with Victorian villainy – Alex Grecian’s debut historical thriller The Yard is no cosy crime novel.

Murders, muggings, burglaries, missing children, shameless whores and a dead boy wedged in a chimney are all in a day’s graft for Scotland Yard’s fledgling detective force.

London of 1890 is reeling in shock and anger from the previous year’s unsolved Jack the Ripper atrocities. Police morale has hit rock bottom and the Murder Squad are struggling to rebuild their damaged reputation and regain the city’s trust. Now one of their own, an Inspector, has been found dead, crammed into a steamer trunk, limbs broken, eyes and lips sewn securely shut. Add a series of luxuriantly bearded men found shaved bare, their throats slit and newly promoted Detective Inspector Walter Day finds himself with a dilemma. Has Saucy Jack struck again? Or has his infamy spawned a sadistic successor?

Grecian paints a stark picture of late19th century London. Hansom cabs sweep along gloomy, dung polluted streets – “Rainwater sloshed off the wheels and heavy beads ran like dew off a monstrous black beetle’s back.” The action careers down sinister alleyways to the bloodstained wards of an overcrowded hospital and the stinking hell of the mortuary. Graphic descriptions of post mortems and murders abound – “….deadly scissors snicker-snackered and the needle came past his eye…. he ran his tongue over the insides of his lips. They were sealed shut.”

Victorian values and attitudes are stitched neatly through the narrative. Life was cheap. Poverty, poor hygiene and primitive medical treatment were commonplace.

Although saturated with characters The Yard’s main cast are well defined and realistic: Inspector Day, shrewd and dedicated, Constable Hammersmith, scruffy but steadfast and Dr. Kingsley, compassionate, efficient and an enthusiastic pioneer of new fangled forensic science.

Skilfully, Grecian chooses to chop and change between the perspectives of these men, other policemen, Day’s wife, an abducted child and a blundering, psychopathic murderer. Oh yes, the murderer. Bizarrely the identity of the police killer is revealed early in the plot, making The Yard not so much a whodunit as a whyhedunit and a will-he-do-it-again? Did this spoil the deliciously dark fun? No, not really. Intriguing twists and turns kept me hooked.

However there are too many daft sub-plots; the absurd poisoning of Constable Hammersmith being a prime example. Occasionally the dialogue borders on boring with pointless conversations. Then there’s the risible mock Cockney – “We does like a man with a full beard.” simpers a flirty tart à la Eliza Doolittle.

Several interesting threads are left unexplored and Grecian’s historical research could have been sharper. Five year olds working down mines, decades after this practice became illegal, was one glaring inaccuracy even this non-historian noticed.

But The Yard doesn’t pretend to be serious literature. It’s an in your face page turner – the 21st century equivalent of a Penny Dreadful. And on a wet Saturday evening, with a glass of chilled wine it was my guilty pleasure.

 

Second prize – review by Dorothy Gallagher

‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’ by Christie Watson

Published 2011

ISBN 978-1-84916-375-0

In Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, Christie Watson tells a complex tale so simply, that it would be difficult for any reader to close its final page without feeling both informed and inspired.

This political fiction is set within the Warri bush land of Nigeria’s Delta region and is narrated through the voice of Blessing, a twelve year-old girl. Forced to leave their westernised lives in Lagos after the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Blessing and her frail brother, Ezikiel, find themselves living in their mother’s hometown, known for its ‘oil bunkering, hostage taking, illness, guns and poverty’.

Subtly and skilfully, the author leads us through the dual trauma of Blessing and her war-torn country, each fighting to find a place within a tumultuous world and for the right to determine their own futures. As Blessing struggles to understand the reasons for her parents’ separation, the community around her is trying to come to terms with the advent of American interests in Nigerian oil and the devastating impact of this on their lives, economically and environmentally.

By hearing the story through Blessing’s voice, the reader watches from her shadow as she tries to make sense of the half-truths of her family and community’s demise. We are listeners to her whispered voice, companion on her journey and witness to her discoveries as hazy images develop clarity in the darkroom of her adolescence.

This is a story that deals with the pain of disappointed attachment between adult and adult, child and parent, citizen and country. But it is also a story of hope, fearlessness and enduring relationships. The simple clarity of Blessing’s voice is complemented by that of her grandmother; the tribal matriarch. Where Blessing’s youth and inexperience bring a touching naivety to her perspective, her grandmother’s wisdom, rooted in the ancient knowledge and traditions of her people, offers a weighty counterbalance. Watson manages to spin both these strands of the story into one even thread, twisting them together effortlessly, until they are indistinguishably one.

By telling the story of each thread, working simultaneously from both ends of this yarn, Watson weaves together the optimism of youth with the wisdom of maturity. She builds a bridge that spans the generations, Blessing and her Grandmother together forming its keystone, offering stability, security and a path across troubled waters.

Once read, this remarkable novel (winner of the Costa First Novel Award, 2011) is hard to leave behind. The characters we lived alongside, the images of daily life, the scents and sounds of Nigeria, remain so vivid long after the words on the page have come to an end, that it is hard to believe that they do not spring from personal experience. But perhaps, just as Blessing reflected that ‘a person becomes part of their surroundings,’ this might just work both ways as this novel feels that it has surely become a part of mine.

 

Third prize – review by Nigel Ward

Shakespeare’s Local: six centuries of history seen through one extraordinary pub

Pete Brown

Hardback – Macmillan, 2012, £16.99, ISBN: 978 0 230 76126 1

Paperback – Pan, 2013, £8.99, ISBN: 978 1447236801

Pete Brown claims The George is “the last man standing of all London’s great, galleried coaching inns.” In this intriguing narrative he tells more than the history of a single, if somewhat singular, institution. This is not a local history book of limited parochial interest.

For centuries, inns like The George have struggled and adapted to survive the advent of the turnpikes, railways and the internal combustion engine. More recently they have engaged with the “pubcos,” the ubiquitous gastro-pubs and smoking bans. Not all have shown such resilience in addressing such challenges, never mind Puritans outlawing enjoyment, two 17th century fires and a crackdown on prostitutes and their “stews” in the 18th century.

Yet The George survives.

Though the book takes a chronological journey, Brown avoids monotonous catalogues of dates. “What’s needed are stories not lists,” he declares. The book’s strength and character lies in what he has assembled to illustrate each twist and turn of the inn’s colourful past.

The narrative is woven with the warp and weft of those who have lived and worked there, in a framework comprising the local community and the historical shifts of both a city and a nation. Travellers, tradesmen and the fractious watermen of the Thames play their part. The social spectrum stretches from local apprentices to politicians and bishops. The inn’s story is brought to life by their successes and failures.

Literary connections extend beyond those suggested by the book’s title. Using no written evidence, Brown presents a cogent case for the Bard’s custom. This is sandwiched in time between Chaucer enjoying the hospitality of The Tabard next door, and a connection to Dickens. Conjecture about the setting for Pickwick Papers adds more intrigue.

A conversational writing style helps avoid over-detailed descriptions and footnotes are chatty asides, as if Brown himself was in the room. The language of tapsters, ostlers and post boys resounds, despite fading beyond memory. The past differences between alehouses, pubs, taverns and inns are explained; tippling houses are no longer a destination of choice at the weekend.

While pubs and beer are Pete Brown’s staple, wide-ranging research and his historical insights reinforce his authority. He draws on the work of Victorian historians, then adds material gleaned from 16th century court records at The National Archive. He reveals discoveries from local libraries, and The George was no stranger to the local newspaper. Sadly, he laments the scant regard given to historical records by Whitbreads, mourning what nuggets were lost as a consequence. Prior to the existence of written records Brown ensures the building’s design and fabric tell its own story. For those wanting more, sources that are available are cited in a detailed bibliography.

Dramas were enacted in The George’s taprooms and galleries; business was conducted in the coffee rooms; journeys were punctuated by time spent in its yards and stables. The stories, asides and explanations combine to ensure Shakespeare’s Local is a living history lesson, one far better enjoyed from Pete Brown’s perspective at the bar than the classroom.

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