ANWAR’S PUNCHY DEBUT STEPS OUT OF THE FRINGES TO DELIVER A KNOCKOUT BLOW

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Western Fringes CvrIf Jimmy Van Heusen’s 1953 song lyrics are to be believed, supposedly love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But that rule doesn’t apply the world over. There are certain religions and societies where you don’t need love to have a marriage, just the decision of a group of third parties that a man and woman should marry, more for money and social standing than any other reason.

In the west arranged marriages are frowned upon and go against all the social norms, this is why it is usually leads to fatalities in the form of “Honour Killings” committed by family members against other family members. In most cases the victim is the girl when she follows her heart and falls for a man naturally and often outside her social and religious circle.  According to www.HBV-awareness.com there are 5,000 of these murders perpetrated around the world each year, 1000 in Pakistan and 1000 in India annually while in the UK there are 12 reported annually. That’s the basis and setting this month’s second book, its Western Fringes by Amer Anwar, published by Edurus Books (www.edurusbooks.com) in June of this year.

In Southall, West London, Rita Brar the daughter of a Hindu builder’s yard owner has gone missing, so her father summons Zak Khan, a lowly but tough looking, delivery driver to his office. There he blackmails Zak, who’s just out of prison for killing a man in self-defence.  He asks Zak to find his daughter or he’ll go back to prison on trumped up robbery charges. With no experience and a few leads, in the form of a list of phone numbers, Zak ,with the help of his best mate Jagdev (Jags), a savvy and successful salesperson, set out to track down Rita. Thinking this could be a walk in the park, Zak soon finds himself, slightly out of his depth and the target for everyone with a right hook including those from his past, with a taste for revenge. However, Zak has spent his time wisely inside and can look out for himself. What was supposed to be a simple missing person location turns out to be a girl escaping an arranged marriage and the prospect of an honour killing. Before long the body count is starting to add up, along with discovery of more sinister and high stakes reasons for the family fallout. Can Zak stay out of trouble long enough to find Rita? If he does find her can he convince her to trust someone who works for her dad?

To say this book comes out of its corner fighting is an understatement, it arrived in the post with a tea bag and a plaster in the envelope with it. From the first page, Anwar sets a staggering pace and within the first thirty pages, I thought I was going to need to have a first aid kit next to me.

Then there’s the taut drama and rapier wit which is mixed skilfully into this punchy debut, to help drive the story forward. The descriptions of Southall are expertly described and immediately you are immersed into the close-knit community so much so you can smell the spices and easily get a hankering for the food.

This is a very gritty and full on novel that always makes you feel as if you are actively involved in the hunt.  One example is a very graphic torture and subsequent murder witnessed by Zaq, that will leave even the most stoic readers uncomfortable.  Although, this is all par for the course in one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a while.

Minder

Arthur Daley and Terry McCann in Minder

Zak is a very believable character – expertly crafted with just enough flaws to bring him to life on the page. He comes across as a regular Terry McCann, the whole story has the feel of “Minder” with an Asian twist. It’s a pity it’ll probably a once off, although who knows if Anwar has plans for another adventure featuring Zaq and Jags.

If there is anything that takes marginally away from the book, it’s the Punjabi language which is used very liberally (on almost every page) throughout the story when the characters are talking to each other. Whilst this may add authenticity and really does bring the story to life, without any sort of hint as to what they are saying  (maybe the addition of a one or two-page list of popular phrases translated at the front or back of the book) it detracts from the experience and at times I felt as if I was being deliberately left out of the conversation.

Amer Anwar

Amer Anwar

This is London born Anwar’s (www.ameranwar.com) first book and it has already won the CWA Debut dagger award for its first chapter. His own back story is almost as colourful as his lead character, he’s been a driver for emergency doctors, a chalet rep in the Alps and graphic designer.

So, if you’re looking for a hard hitting and edgy book, with refreshingly original characters. Download a copy or pop into a local bookshop and on your way home pick up a curry, a naan and some poppadum’s, then settle in for a great British-Asian thriller.

O’BRIEN’S FIRST NOVEL IN A DECADE SLUMPS DOWN IN ITS LITTLE RED CHAIR AFTER ATTEMPTING SHOCK AND AWE

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Little red Chrs cvrDuring my wedding weekend in Lincoln in June, Lincoln castle had some very important guests. they were a segment of the 888,246 ceramic red poppies that were installed in the Tower of London in 2014. The poppies represented the British men and women who were killed fighting in both world wars. This isn’t the first time inanimate objects have been used to represent those slain in battle, on the 6th April 2012 an art installation was unveiled on Sarajevo’s main street, it consisted of 11,541 red chairs which represented the victims of the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from the 1992-1995. In the midst of this audience of empty red chairs were 643 little red chairs representing the children killed during the siege, and that is the inspiration for the title of this month’s book, it’s The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien.

The story centres around the arrival of a mysterious foreigner to a west of Ireland village, he claims to be a faith healer and soon sets up a practice, where he uses his charismatic personality to bring the villagers under his spell. One woman in particular, Fidelma Mccarthy, falls heavily for his charm. When the strangers past – he’s responsible for war crimes in the Balkans – catches up with him, the untimely ending of the relationship in the glare of the media and the close-knit community has long and harrowing repercussions for her. So to try and distance herself from the fallout she goes away to what she thinks is a new life in the UK.

When I said harrowing , I really mean down right in your face gratuitously violent, one scene especially. If O’Brien is going for ‘Shock and Awe’, she hits you straight between the eyes. After that, the rest of the book is rather tame and very weakly stitched together.

At the recent book group meeting at which this book was being discussed, this was the main topics of discussion. There was divided views whether it was really necessary. Some of the members found it quite difficult to carry on reading after that scene , taken along with the inept actions of the main character leading up to this event, they found it a poor piece of writing by one of Ireland’s leading literary figures .

The book is basically two stories, the first part which is the story of the stranger from the Balkans arriving in the village, the relationship and its climax.Then the part of the story set in England reads more like a series of short stories about the lives of refugees in the so called land of the “Bright Lights” and “Streets Made of Gold”.  It was generally agreed that O’Brien had seemed to run out of steam after the ending of the relationship and instead of just writing some sort of short story or Novella, she either decided or was advised by her editors to hang a couple of short stories off the end to give it some sort of substance, which I feel it doesn’t.

Born in Co. Clare Ireland in 1930, Edna’s mother was a strict Irish mammy and O’Brien has often described her Irish upbringing as “fervid” and “enclosed”. She trained as a pharmacist and after marrying the Irish writer Ernest Gebler, against her parents’ wishes,they emigrated to London, where she still lives. There, she started writing full time. Her first book of 17 novels, The Country Girls was published in 1960, others included August is a Wicked Month (1965), Zee & Co (1971) and finally The Little Red Chairs in (2015) published by Faber & Faber. She’s also written nine collections of short stories as well as Plays, TV scripts and works of non-fiction.

Edna O'Brien

Edna O’Brien

O’Brien is among a select and elite group Irish literary luminaries who have had their books previously banned in Ireland, but as history has often shown, banning something doesn’t make it less popular but on the contrary more desirable. The majority of her books  express her despair over the condition of women in contemporary society in particular, they criticize women’s repressive rural upbringing. Her heroines search unsuccessfully for fulfillment in relationships with men, often engaging in doomed love trysts as a escape from their loneliness and emotional isolation, something which is seen clearly in The Little Red Chairs.

Near the end of the book Fidelma visits her ex-lover, now a convicted war criminal – whose inspiration is clearly Radovan Karadzic . The scene is so out of place and really does nothing for the story that again begs the question as to why it’s there? If its to take the rough edge off the story and conclude it somehow, it doesn’t reach any real conclusion just adding  a few extra pages to justify the print costs maybe?

Sarajevo Chairs

The Red Chairs of Sarajevo

The characters in the village are stage Irish and are in keeping with a style of character that often populates O’Brien’s books. They are always 20 years out of date, if it was an attempt to see how the remnants of modern warfare might fit it modern Ireland, firstly you have to write about modern Ireland and stop harking back to “The Quiet man”. As for the London stories, they are not really believable and have been written better by other Irish writers.

My advice is, read it if you are a fan of dark tales about repressed Irish women stuck in another era, otherwise a more enjoyable book set in the aftermath of the Balkan war is People of The Book by Geraldine Brooks, previously reviewed on this site.

FAULKS LEAVES US STRANDED, WITH A WEEK IN DECEMBER.

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A week in DecmbrIf you’re familiar with Ralph McTell then you’ll know in 1969 he took us by the hand and led us through the streets of London. After that, others such as Cliff Richard, Sinead O’Connor and Roger Whittaker, have also led us through the fabled streets of the English capital, while covering the song.

In 2006 Maeve Binchy took us under London’s fog bound streets in Victoria Line, Central Line. Re-titled London Transports for our unimaginative yankee cousins, who couldn’t get their heads around the simple title of a book set on the London train network. Americans obviously don’t read the blurb on the back of books! Then in 2010, the best selling author Sebastian Faulks, decided we needed to spend ‘A Week in December’ on the London underground.

This is the novel my book group was presented with for March, as the self explanatory title states this book has us spending the third week in December following the lives of seven characters (ahem), whose lives are all connected by the central line on the London underground.  There’s John Veals, a hedge fund manager trying to make a quick killing on the markets, while Vic line Cent Linedestroying the world economy in the process; Tadeusz “Spike” Borowski, an eastern european professional footballer finding his feet in the premiership; Gabriel Northwood, a young barrister trying to get over the memories of an old flame; Hassan Al Rashid, a student being radicalised by an Islamist faction; Roger Tranter, a book reviewer hoping to win a major literary prize. Also John Veal’s son Finbar, a drug and reality TV addicted school boy and finally the character that links them together, Jenni Fortune, a train driver on the central line getting over a suicide involving her train and who worries about her out of work brother.

Faulks may have been trying to copy the success of Binchy’s book. What he ended up doing was producing a rather messy attempt. How?  Well, Binchy’s book, like her previous compilation of short stories, ‘The Lilac Bus’, set on a rural bus route in Ireland, had each of the characters stories nicely rounded into a chapter each or as in the case of ‘Central Line, Victoria Line’, set around a particular stop on the tube line. Faulks has his stories clumsily chopped and intermingled all over the place  as the days progress so that just as you get into one story it jumps to another and you have to remember what’s happening.

The blurb on the back, said the book follows seven characters. Well each of these actually have four or five others who interact regularly and distract from the story and get large chunks of  chapters dedicated to them, a couple prime examples are Sophie Topping and her husband Lance, a recently elected local MP and rising political star. Their sole aim seems to be hosting a dinner party at the end of the week at which four of the characters will attend along with a gaggle of others, who just seem to exist as page fillers.

Then there’s the uneven allocation of space, with lots of space given over to certain characters and not enough to others. Veal’s story for example, takes up almost half the book and if Faulks had put his mind to it, he could have got a full novel out of this character. While Borowski the soccer play gets at most ten pages of story all the way through the book, his story, like that of Veal’s son Finbar, rather limps through the book with no real conclusion. The same goes for that of Hassan, the English born Muslim kid being radicalised. Here again, is another ideal opportunity to write a rather enthralling and taut full length thriller. But as the narrative leads  up to the bombing of a fictional London hospital, (Which is being targeted  for no apparent reason, other than it is full of white people), where a number of the other characters have  found themselves in the course of every day life, it whimpers out to nothing when Hassan gets second thoughts.

The nicest story of the whole book is that of the blossoming love affair between Jenni Fortune and Gabriel Northwood. Gabriel is representing Transport For London, the company who run the underground. In a case brought by the suicide victim’s family. we are led nicely through their relationship over the course of the seven days which, in anyone’s book is a whirlwind romance to say the least, then just as you get that funny warm feeling for the two characters and happy that they are finding true love… the book ends, leaving the reader hanging. What happens next? Do they live happily ever after? This again is a theme through the book, with most of the stories, they stop dead; with no epilogue as to what happens after midnight on the Saturday when the dinner party ends… We never know whether Veal’s deal goes through…

This is what keeps the reader turning the pages, the expectancy of what might happen. One classic technique used by Faulks is that of a mysterious cyclist dressed in black with no lights on their bike who speeds along the pavement forcing each of the characters to jump out of his or her way. But again, this individual appears to have no role in the book except to nearly run down all the characters.

BikeSilhouette1

These characters are here to be lampooned and it came out at the discussion in the book group that the sole aim of this book was for Faulks to “have a go” at these types of people. He seemingly hates wealthy financial types who play risky games with our money to line their own nests; book critics (Oh well, I’ll be in the next book, represented as an online faceless blogger!) and  cyclists who speed around pavements with no lights on.

So all in all, you’re getting the picture that I was not impressed by A Week in December. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a Sebastian Faulks book. I read his 2008 James bond novel Devil May Care, commissioned by the Ian Fleming Foundation to commemorate the writer’s 100th birthday.  I was rather disappointed, after reading Fleming’s books and the follow-on series by John Gardner. Faulks’ attempt was a lack lustre affair with no memorable storyline and very little in the way of gadgets or excitement, which Fleming and Gardner had delivered on and which the film going public had grown up with over on the past 25 years.

Seb faulksSo I’m not surprised by how this Faulks book turned out. Take my advice-‘mind the gaps’ in the story-telling and miss this stop to avoid the over crowded platform or if you haven’t done so already, change here for Binchy’s Victoria Line, Central Line.

(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com 2013)