Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Published 31st October 2019 this review is based on an e-ARC supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.

Starve Acre is an atmospheric, eerie story in the modern gothic tradition - just up my street. 

In an interesting exploration of grief and dissociation, we witness a couple, Richard and Juliette, grieving for their 5-year-old son, Ewan, searching for closure and spiritual meaning, respectively. The story marshals the key distinguishing components of English folk horror, landscape, isolation, skewed beliefs/perception and offers the obligatory happening/summoning. Traumatised, Juliette is unable to let go of the feeling that her son still inhabits her world. While the story appears to be grounded in rural realism, which distinguishes Richard’s viewpoint from Juliette’s, Richard’s casual acceptance of the regeneration of a skeleton seems a tad off-piste.

While the date of the story is not explicitly set, analogue clues lead us to a time frame redolent of 1970s Folk Horror; an Austin car, a typewriter, a Sony recorder. But this careful stylistic location of the story in the past as a believable setting, is fractured by occasional glaring errors; for example, a twinset does not have a blouse as a component. In any era, an academic historian would never speculate that a man might have been hanged for torching hay bales two hundred years before they were invented (unless it was a time slip plot point).

But there is atmosphere and tension and wonderfully observant lyrical passages,
“…but they’d started talking – in the King’s Head or after mass, where he pictured her altruism being broken and shared round like another round of communion bread.”

The tension mounts splendidly gruesomely to what is ultimately an unsatisfying denouement. I realise Starve Acre is in the folk horror short form or novella tradition, and as such, I was prepared for it to be short, but not for it to fall off a cliff at the end. It was as though an invigilator had said ‘pens down in 5 minutes’ and the story was brought to an all too hasty conclusion. I genuinely wanted more. But hey, wanting more from a story is A Good Thing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Tout est pardonné'?

It seems to me that there is something deeply flawed in the decision to send of the bodies of the murdered French national Jewish people to Israel for burial. Surely this corroborates the misconception in the twisted minds of the murderers, that all Jews worldwide are to be held responsible for the actions of Israel in the oppression Palestinians? French Jews, or British Jews for that matter, are no more responsible for Israeli policy, than ordinary French or British Muslims are responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders, or than Christians are for the actions of Anders Breivik.

So, why oh why, have the families of the innocent people tragically killed in the Kosher supermarket sent this message to jehadists everywhere? They're saying loud and clear, "you were right, we are Jews and as such we are all ersatz Israelis, and therefore we are all culpable". Then they compound it by releasing the most chilling of statements, "Time for a response will come". Let's pray they don't come over all Old Testament about it.
Today's Charlie Hebdo cartoon caption comes with an apology implied and absolution built in. The caption 'Tout est pardonné' literally covers a multitude of sins (and not just the murders). ALL is forgiven, including any offence caused. It is a self-aware, gracious and courageous response. Let's hope the Jewish families can put aside their reported fury and rise to something similar. Or God help us all.

Friday, November 14, 2014

HNS Indie Awards 2016

HNS Indie Awards 2015

HNS Indie Awards 2014

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Review: The Tin Snail by Cameron McAllister

'The Tin Snail' by Cameron McAllister is a charming, somewhat old-fashioned read that delights with its humour, adventure, patriotism and love. Invoking the spirit of war-time France, it tells the tale of the development of the French version of the ‘people’s car’, the Citroën 2CV. We have baddies ranging from Nazis, including the villainous Ferdinand Porche, designer of the VW Beetle and the Panzer tank, who is trying to steal the plucky French design for Germany, to young Philippe, the jealous love rival, and his father, Victor, the pompous and obstructive mayor, who are ultimately redeemed by their courage and patriotism.

'The Tin Snail' is well plotted and the story unfolds like a script for a rattling good family film. However, although the book is illustrated, it is never completely clear from pictures or text what the revolutionary designs look like, unless one is already familiar with the 2CV (which my daughter was not). I wonder whether as a screenwriter, the author was imagining that all would become apparent on screen?
It appears to be creative non-fiction, telling the true story of the development of the car, so I felt a little cheated that that having invested in Angelo, his father Luca Fabrizzi, Christian Silvestre and Bertrand Hipaux, I discovered that their names were really Flaminio Bertoni, André Lefèbvre and Pierre Jules Boulanger. I don’t even know whether Fabrizzi’s son Leonardo had anything at all to do with the design. The other niggle is the sub-title: The little car that won a war – it didn’t. What actually happened was that the prototypes were deliberately hidden from the Germans and the car only went into production in 1948.
That said, this is a delightful book for anyone over the age of eight, and it would make a tremendous film.

This review first appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 69 (August 2014). Book supplied by publisher.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Medieval graffiti in England's churches

The 'straw king', a medieval graffiti drawing that could be a pagan fertility symbol. Photo: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project.

The BBC reports a four-year-oldLincolnshire medieval graffiti project which has uncovered more than 28,000 examples of centuries-old carvings etched by bored medieval church-goers, some of which appear to depict pagan symbols and imagery. But do these graffiti drawings really reveal a lingering devotion to paganism?

On the walls near the entrance to Cranwell Parish Church, in Lincolnshire,  is a figure identified as "the straw man". Brian Porter, Lincolnshire's medieval graffiti project co-ordinator, believes the figure to be a pagan fertility symbol, possibly etched before a May Day celebration.

The BBC goes on to state that 'in pre-Christian tradition the "straw man" was made out of the previous year's crop and then eventually burned, with the ashes scattered across the fields. Mr Porter said he believed the church "couldn't stamp out" the Pagan traditions of parishioners and probably grew tired of rubbing the graffiti away. It raises a tantalising prospect. Could it be that beneath the Christian veneer, an older tradition was still being actively pursued, perhaps in a deliberately subversive way?'

Professor Ronald Hutton confirms in his book Stations of the Sun that the making of corn symbols from straw was done as part of a harvest ritual.  The last sheaf in the field to be harvested was often given a name, such as the maiden, the old woman, the mare or the neck.  Hutton specifically mentions a figure from 1598 at Windsor that is woven from straw and dressed as a woman.  There are accounts through to the 1800’s (Hutton 2001:332-347). All such folk customs are indeed fascinating and may plausibly be considered as remnants of pre-Christian practice and belief.

But why does Mr Porter conclude that this church graffiti figure is a representation of a corn dolly? Surely it is clearly identifiable as a man in rich Tudor dress? Oh I do wish Mr Porter were correct, but to my eyes there is nothing to suggest anything of the corn or harvest in the image. I suspect this is wishful thinking on Mr Porter's part, a suspicion perhaps shared by Matt Champion, the medieval archaeologist who began the project in Norfolk in 2010, who says there are a variety of different theories and care is needed when interpreting the drawings.

"Brian could be right," he says. "But we have different perspectives. To be honest, I've yet to come across a genuine pagan symbol. Not all [Christians at the time] were closet pagans."

Yeah. Dream on Brian!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman

Buffalo Soldier explores of the nature of freedom, in a searingly poignant story told from the perspective of Charlotte, a young African-American slave from the deep south of America at the end of the Civil War. After witnessing the rape and lynching of her adoptive mother, Charlotte is pitched all alone into a world of war and terror. Officially emancipated from slavery, she is still trapped by the colour of her skin but also by her gender. Now that even her value as a slave has been stripped from her, in desperation she dons a dead man’s clothes and joins the US Army, becoming ‘Charley’, a ‘buffalo soldier’. Her journey takes her from coast to coast cutting a swathe through a unpleasant period of US history, during which we see Buffalo Bill initiating the sanitisation of the record.

This is an extraordinarily powerful book, immaculately written in a sustained voice that never misses a beat. The analogies and observations that flesh out the narrative are superbly observed and always completely in character and period. We are literally observing the world according to Charley, and her take on it is skilfully developed throughout her journey. Landman doesn’t shy away from the sights, sounds and language that characterized slavery and its aftermath, but the further that Charley moves away from the former Confederate slave states, the more she adopts the different spoken styles indicating the prejudices of the soldiers around her, in a changed world order in which the Native Americans are at the bottom of the heap. Yet she is finally shown the meaning of true freedom by an Apache with whom she is able to discover a viable identity for herself as a woman.

Important material is sensitively addressed, making this a must-read book for all over-twelves.

Review first appeared in Historical Novels Review Issue 68 (May 2014)