Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: Bringing in the Sheaves

Richard Coles is the quintessential gay English country vicar.   If you didn’t know that, you simply have not been paying attention and you certainly have not been listening to his radio broadcasts.   At least, that is his public persona.   But there is nothing that could possibly be considered as ordinary about Richard Coles.   For a start, not many country vicars played in the Communards, one of the leading, and blatantly gay, groups of the 1980s.   Nor has every country parson received his training, and therefore been versed in the intricacies of Anglo-Catholicism, at the Community of the Resurrection house at Mirfield in Yorkshire.   Nor does every country vicar have a regular broadcasting slot on BBC Radio Four every week.   And the common or garden country vicar certainly does not receive a call from Tom Hollander, the actor, saying that he has to be quick because he is in Tom Cruise’s private jet.   So he may be quintessential but he is certainly not ordinary.

One of the things that always astonishes me is that people seem surprised to discover that Richard Coles, wit, broadcaster, commentator and one-time pop star, is a deeply religious man.   He is a vicar.   It goes with the territory.   It is part of the job description.   And although he is on the front cover of this book in his dog collar and cassock, and the sub-title is “Wheat and Chaff from my Years as a Priest” some people will be surprised by the content of this book.   They should not worry that they will be preached at.   They may find that they are preached to, but it is not Richard Coles’ style to hector or bamboozle.

This is a charming, delightful book.   It takes us through the liturgical year of the Church of England, although not in the right order as it starts with the Transfiguration, not Advent, and it includes those necessary parts of a vicar’s life in town and country – baptisms, marriages and funerals.   There are so many stories about the idiosyncrasies and idiocies of parish life that you cannot help but be charmed.   Richard Coles’ experiences make you realise that to be a priest you have to be a special kind of person.   You do not have to like your parishioners, but you do have to love them and some of them seem to go out of their way to make that very difficult.

One of the beauties of this book is that the author does not expect his readers to understand the details of church life.   He goes out of his way to explain everything in language that ordinary people will understand (and yes, I am making a reference to Cranmer’s Prayer Book).   Some of the descriptions, as you would expect from this author, are downright funny.   I particularly liked his describing a chasuble as a poncho.   Anyone who has seen a spaghetti western will understand this.

Richard Coles is a deeply religious, deeply human man, and this book shows how he copes with his calling to be a priest in the modern world.   And, in this difficult task, he is assisted by his partner David, also a priest, and by his dachshunds.

For the Joy of Reading: Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks

When Magi Gibson brings out a new poetry collection, there is only one sensible thing to do.: read it.   She chooses her words with a precision that skewers her meaning to the page.   How can you not love a poet who describes the effect of university on a Scottish working class girl by starting in broads Scots and then, through a seamless acquisition of words, transferring to Oxford English?   How can you not love a poet who uses words like hirplin, glaikit and thrapple in the same poem as words like caraway, porcelain and Earl Grey?   How can you not love a poet who describes the transition of using words from chippie to chip shop?   And yes, you may need a good dictionary to understand some of the Scots, but what does that matter?   Just listen to the beauty of the words themselves, and enjoy the flow of the language as if it is a stream bubbling down the mountainside.   Because that is what it is like.

There are words in this collection which may cause offence.   Certainly, if I quoted them, Internet “acceptable” words policies would go into meltdown and I would not be able to post this review on certain sites.   They may well cause offence to some women because the only acceptable word to be used for female genitalia is “v****a” which is how it is spelt in the opening poem before the use of something much more basic.   The poem however is trying to make a very serious point about the use of language and why poetry audiences in particular should not be in the least bit squeamish.

What truly delights about these poems is their humanity.   Magi Gibson confronts relationships and goes straight to the heart of the matter.    Anyone who has been bereaved will recognise the feelings expressed in Golden Daffodils.   Anyone who watched will recognise the beauty in Mother and Child.   Anyone who has thought about the lives of their parents will Miners’ Daughters or Visiting Arran with My Mother.   Anyone who has lived next door to someone will empathise with My Neighbour.   Anyone who has been in a relationship will understand Song of the Anglerfish.   And so it goes on.   Magi Gibson is someone who understands people, who knows how to describe their feelings and who does not flinch from doing so.

This is truly a remarkable set of poems, and none is more remarkable than Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks.   Why did Velda Grieve, a forceful woman if ever there was one, agree to wash her husband’s socks when she was in Cornwall and he was in Scotland?   Because she knew that he would forget, because she knew he would not do it, because she loved him.   Magi Gibson makes this plausible, believable, understandable.   She sees a truth in this simple seemingly inexplicable act.

Magi Gibson is a remarkable poet.   These are remarkable poems.   You should read them.

For the Joy of Reading: This is Memorial Device

My first shock came in the second paragraph.   “This isn’t Manchester or London or fucking Chingford.   This is Airdrie.”   For those of us who lived near Chingford in the 1980s, the idea of it as a cultural centre is astonishing.   Chingford was consigned to the outer darkness.   It was a place of wailing and the gnashing of teeth.   Its sole contribution to culture was the election of Norman Tebbit as its MP, and that tells you everything that you need to know.   How the hell did Chingford get included in this sentence?   I mean, people knew that Chingford was there, but that was no reason to visit it.   Chingfordians used to flee to Romford or Ilford on a Saturday night for their entertainment.   Now, of course, it is probable that someone who lived in Airdrie did not know this.    But even so, this beggars belief.

And the second shock was that I was reading a book about the punk scene in Airdrie in the 1980s when I know nothing about it.   I was not brought up in Airdrie, and by the 1980s I was too old to be involved in the “scene” let alone punk music.   The third shock is that I am actually enjoying it.   This is a bit like the shock I had when reading Alan Bissett’s “Boyracers” which I was instructed to read as part of a library reader development course.   I enjoyed the energy of the writing, and that is the same with “This is Memorial Device”.    The writing is extraordinarily energetic, and will take you along like a wave cresting onto a beach.   Just like “Boyracers”.   That really is a commendation.

This is the story of Lucas Black, as remembered by his friends and acquaintances in Airdrie, and of the music scene in the 1980s in that Lanarkshire town.   It is fair to say that the narrators are unreliable, some of them because they were stoned, some because it is now a long time ago and their memories are fading.   The focus for their memories, no matter how faulty, is the music of Lucas Black, who is a sort of savant.   He certainly has a profound effect upon all the narrators in various ways.

This is Memorial Device tells the tale of how Lucas Black influences everyone around him in some way, but it is much more than that.   It celebrates the joy that music can bring into people’s lives.   It celebrates the sheer indomitability of the human spirit.   It celebrates friendship.   It celebrates the culture of ordinary people living ordinary lives.   It celebrates how ordinary people create the extraordinary, and transform their lives for the sheer joy of it.   And just in case you haven’t realised it, I should say that David Keenan tells a good story.

Also when both Andrew O’Hagan and Alan Warner tell you that this is a book that you should read, as they do in the blurbs on the cover, you can make a pretty good guess that this is a book you should read.   And, no, I am not going to tell you what the title means.   You will have to read the book to find out.

For the Joy of Reading: Ragdoll

Daniel Cole has the kind of imagination that you would not want to meet on a dark night. Or indeed, in the bright morning sunshine.   The first thing that happens is that a serial killer is acquitted, and violently assaulted by Wolf, the police officer leading the investigation. Then the serial killer murders again, and is caught red-handed, literally red-handed.   Next, six people are murdered and parts of their dismembered bodies are sewn together to make a monstrous rag doll of a corpse.   And the police officer, who committed the assault, having been sent to an asylum, is re-instated and becomes the leading officer in the Ragdoll case.

Now you may question whether any of this is plausible, for the very good reason that it isn’t.   But then neither is The Hound of the Baskervilles nor The Speckled Band.   And I have always thought that Miss Marple would have been charged with wasting police time.   As for the Jack Reacher stories.   Well.I think I have proved my point.   The question with a thriller of this kind is not its accuracy, but whether or not it is able to hook the reader on the story.   I think it does.   I found it enthralling.    I had to remind myself to stop reading so that I could eat.   Sleep did not happen until I had finished.

I am not sure that I actually liked the characters, but I did want to find out what happened to them.   They did demand the reader’s sympathy because of their fallibility.   [This is one of the plausibility issues – would a police unit by staffed by so many unhinged people – but Cole makes you believe it for the sake of the story.]   And, much more important, I wanted to find out who had committed the murders, and why they had done it.   The answer was not one that I actually expected, but that was part of the pleasure of reading this story.   Daniel Cole kept keep me on tenterhooks, because I was not sure what would happen next.

One major thing to point out is this – if you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you.   There are a number of scenes that will make the weak-stomached rush to the bathroom to vomit.   The descriptions are graphic, not to mention inventive and thoroughly nauseating.   You really do not want to meet this imagination on a dark night. Trust me on this.

That, however, is the attraction of reading this book.   This is Daniel Cole’s imagination.   It did not happen.   You are safe, and you can cosy up under your duvet, scaring yourself witless for the sheer fun of it.

For the Joy of Reading: Akram’s War

It is a very brave author who makes the central character of his book a Jihadist suicide-bomber.   But that is exactly what Nadim Safdar does.   This is a very careful examination of , someone’s state of mind, of the factors that prepare someone for such a fateful, fatal decision.

Considering that we know, from the very start of the book, exactly what Akram plans to do, Nadim Safdar has created a sympathetic and believable figure which is a considerable achievement.   We also come to like Grace and Adrian, because of their flaws, because they are not perfect, because, like Akram, their lives have been difficult and fraught with mental and physical pain.   There are other characters who are much more difficult to like.   Mustafa hovers on the brink of likeability but, to my mind, does not manage to cross the line.   Bobby and Azra are just plain reprehensible, as is Adrian’s father, Chav, a skinhead and a racist who terrorizes his local community.

Nadim Safdar does not offer any excuses for his characters, but he does take the trouble to explain them and that may help us to understand the country in which we live.   One of the underlying themes of the book is the racism that is endemic in the host community.   Safdar shows us a  white community that has been written off, that has no hope, who cannot aspire to improving their lives and whose dignity is dependent upon treating others as inferior to themselves.   This has the inevitable effect of making the persecuted community seek ways to defend themselves, falling back on the values of their religion, which become distorted in this process of self-assertion.

Safdar does not present the Pakistani community as blameless.   He puts the term gora which is pejorative into the mouths of his characters to describe the white English majority, as he uses the term Paki in the mouths of his white characters.   Do not expect this to be a comfortable read, because it is not.   That is the whole point.   It is a story that is very much written to explain its time, and it succeeds in that purpose.

I am not going to go into great detail about the plot, because that would spoil the development of the story.   It is enough to say that every single character in this book is broken in some way, and not necessarily just metaphorically.   It is a story that deals with the physical and psychological damage that has been done to people over the last thirty or so years.   I do not even recall Margaret Thatcher being mentioned in the story, but her legacy looms large over the communities that Safdar describes.   All the major characters in this story belong to the underclass.   This is a lament for the way in which people have been written off, and for how they turn to extremism in their despair.

Safdar presents us with a picture of the world in which we live, the world that produced Brexit and Trump, and Jihadism.   It is not an easy read.

For the Joy of Reading: Montpelier Parade

This is either the story of the sexual awakening of a heterosexual teenager, or the story of the sexual abuse of a teenage boy.   You will have to make that decision.   There is no doubt that he is willing, but there is a question about whether or not Vera should have taken advantage of his willingness in this way.   There is also a question about whether or not any harm is done.   Clearly, he cannot get pregnant so there is not the risk of becoming a teenage mother or having to face a termination.   Our society has less concern about psychological damage, even when it considers that such damage can be done.   And let us be honest, the usual response is that “he’s got lead in his pencil” or something similar to that.   You may or may not think that any damage has been done.

We are not told Sonny’s age.   All we know is that he is old enough to consider leaving school to start an apprenticeship, but that he is not old enough to go into a shop to buy a bottle of wine.   Vera does that for him.   So he may not be underage, but Vera is still considerably older than him, and whether or not she is exploiting him is an open question.   Vera has her own issues to consider, and is clearly facing up to her own situation with great difficulty.   When you find out her situation, you may or may not consider it to be an explanation of her behaviour.   You may or may not consider that it justifies what she does.

Karl Geary is too good a writer to force his moral judgements onto his readers.    He lets the issue arise through his characters, through Sonny’s mother who wonders why Vera is taking an interest in her son. through Sharon, supposedly Sonny’s girlfriend, who decides that he will come to nothing, through Vera herself, who thinks that Sonny will come to hate her.   And Sonny is no paragon of virtue.   He steals.   He fights.   He is essentially a working class boy, who sees no future for himself that he can deliver.   The key moment here is when he tells the school counsellor that he wants to be a painter and she assumes that he means a decorator, not an artist.   And when the word “artist” is raised in the conversation, he abandons all hope of ever becoming one.

This is essentially a sad tale, about the loss of aspiration and the hopelessness of life for so many people.   The writing is spare, beautiful, considered.   There is no careless choice of words.   Each sentence has been carefully constructed with poetic thought.   This story is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

You will have to decide what Geary is trying to tell you.   You will have to make your own judgements about both Sonny and Vera.   You will have to decide whether this is a book about sexual awakening, sexual abuse or possibly both.   This is a book that will make you think, and you will have to decide how to react.   You will even have to decide whether or not you should cast the first stone.

For the Joy of Reading: The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

How can you not love a book about a detective agency where one of the main characters is a baby elephant?   Such is the genius of Vaseem Khan that he can construct a story around such an improbable premise.   This is the second book in the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency series, and some of you will already have had the delight of meeting Inspector Chopra and his elephant, Ganesha.   So you can sit back and enjoy the ride.   For the rest of you, it is time to make friends with Inspector Chopra now.

There is a spectacular start to this crime novel.   The Koh-i-noor diamond which is on loan to a Museum in Mumbai is stolen from under the noses of the police and the security guards.   Unfortunately for the robbers, Inspector Ashwin Chopra (retd) is one of the people viewing the diamond when the theft takes place.   He is to be their nemesis and their downfall.   In this he is assisted by his associates in the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency, not the least of whom is Ganesha himself, an extraordinarily intelligent baby elephant.   Chopra inherited the elephant from his Uncle Bansi in the previous book in the series.

The theft of one of the Crown Jewels is a major cause of embarrassment, and the intervention of Inspector Chopra is not particularly welcomed.   He is persuaded to intervene by one of his ex-colleagues who has been arrested and is the major suspects.   This is the motor for the plot, but it is not the only plot.   The Baby Ganesha Detective Agency has a number of cases to deal with.   There is the theft of the statue of the founder from a prestigious Catholic school, run by the terrifying Father Lobo.   There is the disappearance of Irfan, a street urchin who tends Ganesha, and who is loved by the elephant, Inspector Chopra and his wife Poppy, and who has to be found and kept safe.

There are other characters who grab the imagination – Poorneem Devi, Chopra’s irascible mother-in-law and Chef Lucknowwallah, who produces the wonderful food at Chopra’s restaurant, are two of them, locked as they are in mortal combat over the running of the same restaurant.   Vaseem Khan uses vignettes to guide us through the life of the great city of Mumbai, home to 20,000,000 people.   There is Rangwalla, Chopra’s associate in the agency, who he rescues from poverty after Rangwalla is sacked from the police.

All of these people are deftly characterised.   Nor does Vaseem Khan forget the need to keep the story rolling on towards its conclusion.   The pace does not slacken, and the sub-plots are woven into the overall mystery of how the Koh-i-noor came to be stolen, who stole it and why it was stolen.   This is the heart of the book, and you will be kept guessing until the denouement.   Which is just what you would expect of a mystery.

I do not see how anyone will not be able to enjoy this book.