Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A History of Stone and Steel by Christopher Fisher

A History of Stone and Steel by Christopher Fisher is an unusual read that is both compelling and thought provoking. I was hooked from the first page and it is a credit to Fisher’s skill as a writer that he drew me in so effectively and made me care about a character who is not very likeable.

Paul Keppel is like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield – 43 years old and still going through life in a self-absorbed bubble with no idea who he really is. The story is told in first person narrative and the only thing that kept me from fully detesting Paul was his wry humour and the fact that he knows that he is a “ridiculous man.”

The novel begins in the present where Paul is married with one year old twin girls and another child on the way. He is a dissertation away from completing his PHD which will allow him to teach and take the financial pressure off his family. However, he is stuck in some kind of no man’s land unable to put pen to paper. Matters are compounded as he is suffering from debilitating headaches and insomnia caused by a recurring dream.

The dream takes on a life of its own and forms part of the structure of the story when Fisher takes us on a journey which alternates between the present and the summer of 1991 when Paul worked in a steel plant. As the novel unfolds the tension increases as Fisher hints that the incidents of 1991 have impacted massively on Paul’s present. By the time the time line meets up at the end of the novel the suspense is almost unbearable.

My favourite parts of the novel are the ones in the steel plant. Fisher creates a world that is vividly terrifying. He describes inside the plant as being like hell with the heat and physical labour and the reader is left with no doubt of the harsh conditions and danger that the men are working in every day. All this is offset though by the camaraderie of the men and the unique relationships that develop in such a tough environment.

One of Paul’s weaknesses is that he is unable to accept people as they are. He is easily disappointed when people can’t be who he wants them to be. His father is a hard working man, often working double shifts in the steel plant to provide for his family. He clearly loves his son, there is a tender scene where he makes Paul breakfast and he’s also given him his beloved old truck and paved his way into the steel plant. However, he’s not particularly demonstrative for which Paul can’t forgive him.

Paul’s sense of dislocation seems to stem from the fact that when he was just eight years old his ‘fire and brimstone’ grandfather, “the reverend”, declared him to be a prophet. Consequently Paul’s childhood was defined by his feelings of being special and his grandfather’s dream of him attending bible school and becoming a preacher. It is only as a young man that Paul is able to free himself from his grandfather’s dominating presence.

Maybe as a result of his grandfather’s overbearing personality, Paul becomes like a spectator in his own life. He loves his first girlfriend, Angela; because she wants him to and then goes on to marry Carrie because she makes it easy for him. At no time does he make an actual commitment. It’s ironic that his anger towards his own father stems from their lack of communication because his relationship with his own daughters seems very distant which is emphasised by his friend Gary’s ability to easily engage with them.

Fisher uses Gary as a direct contrast to Paul. A mature student working his way through college, Gary is an ex-Marine who perhaps has reason to feel sorry for himself. He walks with a limp due to a bizarre accident whilst in service and is troubled by his wartime experience. Paul has everything that Gary doesn’t and, maybe due to his loneliness, Gary quickly insinuates himself into Paul’s life and becomes his partner in crime. Paul and Gary’s antics provide much of the comedy in the novel. As Paul’s behaviour becomes increasingly out of control, Gary is like the voice of reason even though he clearly has a great many mental health issues of his own.

I’m not sure what to make of Paul’s long suffering wife, Carrie, or indeed why she puts up with his unreasonable, selfish behaviour. Despite being pregnant she is the one who keeps the family together, working in a bank, taking care of the twins and seemingly doing all of the household chores. She even collects Paul’s medication for him while he wallows in self pity and pretends to write his dissertation. Since marrying Paul she has found religion which perhaps explains why she stays with him or maybe she is simply a realistic portrayal of why people stay in marriages that to outsiders don’t seem worth the trouble.

The end of the book came as a massive surprise to me which, despite the escalating tension, I never saw coming. I think A History of Stone and Steel is an intelligent book which raises lots of questions. Religion runs through the entire novel and with it the idea that it is not religion but the way in which we interpret it that causes so many problems. It is very much a novel of our time and Paul is the perfect representative of our self obsessed society. He mirrors the way we all seem to spend our time looking inward and struggling with existential angst rather than just getting on with life and making the best of what we have.

I loved A History of Stone and Steel and as much as I wanted to slap Paul I was completely intrigued by his story. It’s a thoughtful and at times hilarious book which is extremely well written. If you like something that is a bit quirky and different then I can’t recommend this one highly enough. e He stems

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow

Changing Patterns by Judith Barrow is a nostalgic novel set in 1950 which succeeded in evoking lots of different emotional responses as I was reading it. It’s in turn, funny, sad and heart warming but also has a serious dose of tension thrown into the mix.

Barrow has created this novel as the second in her Shadows’ trilogy. As with all series, you can’t beat reading them in the order that they were intended; however, this is a story that works perfectly well as a standalone. Five years have passed since Pattern of Shadows and Barrow does a great job of providing her readers with just enough back story.

Mary and Peter, the seemingly star-crossed lovers, have been reunited and are living in idyllic surroundings in a coastal village in Wales. Sadly though, tragedy never seems to be far away from this couple and, just as it feels like they may get their happy ever after, Mary is pulled into a family drama that threatens to rip her relationship with Peter apart.

One of Barrow’s many strengths is the amount of historic research she has done and the attention to detail which brings her story alive. As someone who was brought up in a Northern industrial city as part of a working class community, lots of Barrow’s descriptions brought a smile to my face as memories of my grandparents’ back to back houses, complete with outside toilets and front rooms that were rarely used, came flooding back. It is a credit to Barrow’s writing that her settings are not only realistic but become a central part of the story. At times, it reminded me of the setting for a drama and I could well envisage the whole thing being played out on our TV screens.

I like so many things about this novel but not least the dynamics of the Howarth family. As the oldest girl, Mary has been conditioned to put other people’s needs before her own and she does this time and time again at the expense of her own happiness. Her younger sister Ellen is almost childlike due to her reliance on Mary to take control every time life becomes difficult. No matter that everyone around them can see that their relationship isn’t healthy, they seem destined to carry on playing their predetermined roles.

Barrow gives us a warts and all glimpse of life in a close knit community. The back to back housing means that there is no space for privacy or individuality and that can be oppressive and limiting. However, it also has its positives, for example when a child goes missing everyone in the community immediately pulls together as part of the search. Likewise, it’s easy to idealise the idea of strong women and a matriarchal society but Barrow reminds us that women can be just as bullying and aggressive as men. Ellen’s mother in law is the epitome of a spiteful, angry woman dominating her family’s life in such a way that she is making everyone unhappy.

Strangely my favourite character is Mary’s brother, Patrick, who on the surface is an unpleasant bully. He has been brought up in a home where domestic abuse is the norm. His only male role model was a man who expressed his anger and frustrations by lashing out. Patrick has seen his mother’s suffering as a victim of domestic abuse and has vowed to himself he will never be like his father. However, he struggles with his own anger and does in fact strike his wife. He’s also a womaniser who measures his self-worth by his attractiveness to women. There is no doubt though that at heart he is a good man and Barrow allows us to see his journey to become a better husband, father and human being. By the end of the novel, I was really rooting for him to rise above his upbringing.

Barrow also explores racial prejudice in the novel through the difficulties that Peter endures. It’s hardly surprising that, during the years following the war, communities who had suffered devastating losses refused to welcome a German into their midst. However, the story expresses hope for humanity as gradually tensions ease and it becomes clear that Peter is no different to anyone else. Parts of the story felt very relevant to modern day Britain where we are becoming increasingly wary of outsiders. There is poignancy in the way Peter insists that his children have English names because he doesn’t want them to be singled out. This sadly reminded me of my own new Hungarian neighbours who have anglicised their names to try and fit in.

From beginning to end the novel is threaded with tension. The Howarth family are burdened with secrets that they are each trying to keep in order to protect the ones they love. It’s clear though that the secrets are destined to come out as the longer they are kept the more potentially toxic they become. In George Shuttleworth, Barrow has created a villain who is always lurking in the shadows threatening to cause heartache for the Howarth family, which ultimately he does. Cleverly though, Barrow doesn’t make George a one dimensional baddie. He is odious and repulsive but he is also a victim of violence and anger and is deeply unhappy.

I can’t recommend Changing Patterns enough; it is a top notch read that kept me glued to my kindle well into the wee hours. If you love a series then I suggest you opt for Pattern of Shadows first. If not then dive straight into this one – you won’t regret it.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Blue Ridge Project by Neil Rochford

The Blue Ridge Project by Neil Rochford is a beguiling mix of crime thriller and sci-fi. I found myself enthralled from the very first page and the break neck pace didn’t let up until the last.

Rochford’s success lies in the way he shrouds his story in mystery, leaving his readers compelled to read on in order to find out what might happen next. The story is based in Beacon City which is controlled by the rich and very sordid Hamilton family. From the onset, the mysterious and strangely deserted Regent Hotel seems to be at the centre of much of the action but we don’t find out to what extent until the very end.

Likewise, Rochford throws lots of characters at us in the beginning, almost playing with us as they jockey for centre stage before being discarded and creating yet another layer of mystery. Finally two protagonists emerge from the crowd, in the form of homicide detective, Andrea Nox and freelance investigative journalist, Robert Duncan.

Rochford further demonstrates his hold over both his writing skills and his readers by employing an extremely complex structure. The novel opens with a prologue which is actually set two days before the start of the novel. We are allowed to catch up before Rochford cleverly uses his characters’ memories to take us into the past, thereby providing us with some of the answers to the many questions buzzing around our heads. In parallel running chapters, Andrea relives her past via a conversation with a therapist while Robert unburdens himself in a drunken conversation with a recent acquaintance. For the final section of the novel, we are brought back to the present day in time for the denouement.

I really like the way Rochford presents his characters. There are no perfect heroes just flawed, damaged, not necessarily likeable people, getting by the best they can. Rochford has an excellent eye for detail and brings his characters alive with unusual observations. For example, he describes a lawyer in the book as someone who, “looked like a man who would die in his office rather than retire.”

Andrea Nox is my favourite character, a hard drinking, angry woman who is not averse to drunken one night stands. Her counterpart in the novel, Robert Duncan, is a heavy drinking idealist whose reputation is in tatters as a result of trying to expose a powerful politician as a brutal deviant. Both characters experienced traumatic childhoods which have had far reaching effects on their adult lives.

Andrea and Robert find themselves thrown together as a result of “the project,” a mysterious experiment with mind control. As the two of them get drawn further and further into the murky world surrounding the experimentation, they find themselves questioning their own sanity. Rochford raises the philosophical question of what is real and how do we know our perceptions of events are valid? After all, do people who are insane know they are insane and what is to say that they are?

I really liked The Blue Ridge Project; it is an exciting page turner that also provides the reader with food for thought. The novel ends on a cliff-hanger ready to continue into a sequel and, I for one will definitely be coming back for seconds.