SARI CASTE by Catherine Kirby (Review)

Never judge a book by its cover. Sari Caste seems to have been published by a no-longer-existent ebook website (E-booksonline (UK) Ltd – http://www.e-booksonline.net) back in 2001 and then forgotten. I picked it up on a stall in Darjeeling, carried it back to England with me, still unread, not very optimistic about it, but intrigued by the title. It was a phrase I had come across before. It can mean women in general. Or it can mean hookers, prostitutes: their own name for themselves, because of course, to everyone else they have lost caste, are outcastes. And anyway, the phrase “sari caste” would be considered a great joke, chortle, chortle.

Then I started reading it one boring English Sunday, and was hooked. (Sorry.) Manasa, our heroine, has a drunken father, a broken, abused mother, three sisters and no brother. Daughters mean dowries (legal or not) and the father, who hates the four of them, especially Manasa, and blames the mother for giving him no son, drinks away what little money he earns. Finally, the two eldest are married off but there is no more money for further dowries. Manasa, the third daughter, is sent to work as a weaver in a cotton-mill, and there she gets to know the son of the owner. They fall in love. We’ll get married! cries Patap, the boy. We can’t! No money for a dowry! cries the girl, Manasa. He doesn’t care. His father is rich and dowries are illegal. After that, of course, she allows him to seduce her – only to hear, later, that he is engaged not to her but to her younger sister, Kajal. The fathers had arranged it. And now Manasa has to work even longer hours at the mill earning to get together a dowry for her sister!

But it turns out she is pregnant.

When the baby is born, her mother gives her some of Kajal’s dowry money and she flees the house before her father comes home and learns of her defilement and throws her out.

She goes to Calcutta where, after a period living on the pavements among all the other street people, she becomes a prostitute. And that is what the book is about. Her life as a prostitute in Calcutta. And it is good, very good, and very realistic, believe me.

I am happy to be able to tell you that this enthralling story is now available on Kindle – UKUS

ARE FLOWERS WHORES? (by Elizabeth Smart)

Flowers aren’t choosy
Which bee which bug
Come one come all.

Bees and bugs
Aren’t choosy either
All entries sweetly natural.

Imagine a flower
Closing its throat
Against a bee it thought a bore.

Who said object
Should excite act
That that was moral?

If only the verb
The act acts,
Why call your sister a whore?

Sin and shame!
Abandon the word
Moral. You can see it’s immoral!

RUNAWAY by Evelyn Lau (Review)

Having just reread this marvellous book, and being moved even more by it this time than I was the first time, I am reposting this review I wrote back in January 2011. 

Subtitled “Diary of a Street Kid”, this is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a Chinese-Canadian who, at the age of 14, ran away from an oppressive, loveless home, only to end up, a few weeks later, in a psychiatric hospital. Why? Because she had swallowed thirty aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide.

I remember feeling superior in the waiting room, dismissing the psychiatric patients as crazies I’d never have to join. There was the scrawny Chinese woman with the greasy hair, the mumbling Caucasian woman with the wiglike hair she brushed from her face with nervous hands. Loonies. I was going to get out; I belonged to the outside world.

Then they hand me hospital clothing, dull blue, and the walls begin to spin. […] The Chinese woman runs to me in her fluffy yellow slippers that remind me involuntarily of Big Bird (just another way of degrading the patients here), holding me, her sharp face begging, ‘Don’t hurt her. Please don’t hurt her.’ The man on duty drags me to the floor, so used to doing it that he no longer needs a reason. […] I make a run for the washroom […] A nurse forces her way through the bathroom door, then another; white-clad nurses spill into the bathroom, murmuring, hands searching my pockets for sharp objects. I’m kicking, screaming, crying, wrenched from former freedom.

I’d rather be living on the streets, standing in puddles of glistening black and neon – at least I’d be free. […]

A deaf, dumb and blind woman performs the Thorazine shuffle endlessly, methodically, from early morning till bedtime.

At last she is released into the care of the parents she has come to hates. And immediately runs away again.

Two a.m at the bus depot. […] Unshaven men are my company tonight, picking out items from the garbage can in front of me. […] Two strangers pull up in their car and ask if I need a ride and do I give head […] It’s graduation night for three of the High Schools in the district, and everyone is either drunk or high. The girls laugh at Death, hair wild in their faces in the limousines, while the guys in their tuxedos feel like men. I’m sure the men in this depot don’t feel so grown up […]

Now I’m in a restaurant; at least it’s warm. […]

The staff in this place just kicked out a derelict in his tattered, stained clothing, who apparently seeks out this restaurant each night to slump into a chair and try to sleep. I beg them to let him stay, offering to buy him food, but they refuse and then gossip in the kitchen. […]

The restaurant closes and I migrate to a twenty-four hour coffee shop, where I meet the derelict again, drinking coffee and shaking. Beside me at the counter, he asks tentatively, ‘Can I touch your leg?’ and places his fingers there in a curiously obligatory manner, as if he had to because I was female. I shake my head tiredly. He takes his fingers back in silence, and doesn’t try again.

That is just the beginning. Soon the drugs begin. Then the “giving head” to get money for the drugs … She too becomes “a derelict”.

But I am not approaching this right. I am giving the wrong impression. Let me start again:

This is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a writer who had it much harder than most. Living in a garret is nothing to this. Her day job was giving head to jerks who picked her up in their cars, then, gradually, as she became known, her own clientele. The day job, I stress. (Or should I say night job.) Because all the time she was writing. This wonderful diary is only the half of it. She was also writing poetry. Winning prizes! Even giving readings!

When she first ran away, at the age of 14, the Vancouver Sun splashed her on their front page with the words “I’ve never met a kid who could write like that” – “the only kind words they allow,” Evelyn comments. But the reporter was right.

And the closing paragraph of the book says it all: If I had saved the story of my adolescence to write when I was older, it would have been a very different book …

It would indeed. And that it was written at the time is its beauty. It is not a book by a writer about the life of a street kid. It is not a book by your ordinary, everyday, inarticulate street kid. It is a book by a writer written while she was living as, no, while she was a street kind. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. He was down and out in London and Paris. Like Evelyn, he had known the comfortable life of the relatively wealthy. Like Evelyn, he was now authentically down and out, on the street. And like Evelyn, he was a great writer.

Think of it, then, as Down and Out in Vancouver and New York. (Yes, she spends a while in New York, too.)

It is really something very special.

DAUGHTER OF THE GAME by Tracy Grant (Review)

Daughter of the Game is a sequel to Tracy Grant’s Beneath a Silent Moon and is, in my opinion, even better than the first book, which I read (but never got round to posting a review of) some time ago when I was actually in London – albeit a very different London from that of the early nineteenth century, immediately after the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, though still often enough dismal and dark and misty and mysterious.

 

In Beneath a Silent Moon, Charles Fraser, scion of an old Scottish family and grandson of the Duke of Rannoch, is settled in London with his wife Mélanie. Both are survivors of the wars in Spain and France (she is actually of half French, half Spanish aristocratic descent), both have been spies, and both prove very capable as well as very sympathetic when their past suddenly catches up with them in London. It is a good story with some great characters and plenty of fascinating period detail. I do suggest you read it first.

 

Then, as I say, go on to Daughter of the Game, which I came across second-hand on a street stall out here, and grabbed. Which game is that, I was wondering as I set out on this new adventure with Mélanie. And I imagine all readers wonder the same thing. Without giving the game away (sorry!), I can tell you that the Great Game (as Kipling puts it in Kim, a book I adore) continues, but Mélanie’s background turns out to be not all she claimed and Sir Charles would certainly not have married her if he had know about it!

The story starts when their six-year-old son, Colin, is kidnapped by Spanish anti-monarchist activists who want a certain gold ring that they believe the Frasers have in their possession. It is an ancient  “ring of power” (to quote another great favourite from my childhood!) that is widely believed to bring victory in battle to whoever is in possession of it. “The ring Princess Aysha had commissioned for her husband or her secret lover. The ring Ramón de Carevalo had taken as plunder or received as a gift of love. The ring that had been the cause of victory and betrayal and murder ...”

Unfortunately, the Frasers do not have it, and they have only one week in which to find it, or Colin dies.

Then one of Colin’s fingers arrives in a small packet, to let them know the kidnappers are serious, and the search through gambling-dens, theatres, brothels and the notorious Marshalsea debtor’s prison for someone who knows of its whereabouts, becomes desperate. And all the time behind them comes another, a silent hunter seemingly intent on killing one or both of them before they succeed.

One of those books where you you become so much a part of their make-belief world that you are reluctant ever to return to reality.

THE SUN AND THE MOON by Patricia Ryan (Review)

Another by Patricia Ryan, author of Still Life with Murder, which I noted was “one of the best – and best written – historical crime novels I have ever come across”.

When I began The Sun and the Moon, I didn’t know it was a sequel. In fact, I didn’t realise that until I had finished it and found I was being recommended Book 1 – Silken Threads. So don’t let that put you off. It really does “stand alone”.

I also thought it was going to be a medieval spy story, but it turned out to be much more than that. Spy story it certainly was – the hero, Hugh of Wexford, a sort of 12th-century James Bond, working for Henry II – but it is also a medieval love story which occasionally crosses genres yet again to become erotica. The long and detailed description of the gentle deflowering of a virgin is perfect, but there are a couple of other set-pieces – one overt BDSM scene – that strike me as perhaps gratuitous here, in this context. Only having read the one other book by Patricia Ryan before, I am not sure whether this kind of thing is characteristic. Maybe it is. In Still Life with Murder, there are frequent references to Nell’s past life as a prostitute, but no flashbacks; perhaps there should have been. Yes, I believe now, having read this other book and seen how good she is at this kind of thing, that there should have been, that it would have filled out the background. So, on second thoughts, those scenes in this medieval story are not gratuitous after all. I’ve changed my mind.

I’m rambling here, but I am going to leave this as it is. Suffice it to say that while Patricia is not as at home in 12th-century Oxford and Southwark as she is in 19th-century Boston, Mass (“Bloody Hell!” seems hardly medieval – I’m more used to such colourful and authentic sounding phrases as “God’s Bollocks!”) this is another very good story and while Hugh of Wexford is a bit stereotyped (the hard case with a heart of gold) Philippa of Paris, the virginal James Bond girl, is completely original.

MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

a 340 dollar horse and a hundred dollar whore (by Charles Bukowski)

“you? you . . . a poet?”

don’t ever get the idea I am a poet; you can see me
at the racetrack any day half drunk
betting quarters, sidewheelers and straight thoroughs,
but let me tell you, there are some women there
who go where the money goes, and sometimes when you
look at these whores these onehundreddollar whores
you wonder sometimes if nature isn’t playing a joke
dealing out so much breast and ass and the way
it’s all hung together, you look and you look and
you look and you can’t believe it; there are ordinary women
and then there is something else that wants to make you
tear up paintings and break albums of Beethoven
across the back of the john; anyhow, the season
was dragging and the big boys were getting busted,
all the non-pros, the producers, the cameraman,
the pushers of Mary, the fur salesman, the owners
themselves, and Saint Louie was running this day:
a sidewheeler that broke when he got in close;
he ran with his head down and was mean and ugly
and 35 to 1, and I put a ten down on him.
the driver broke him wide
took him out by the fence where he’d be alone
even if he had to travel four times as far,
and that’s the way he went it
all the way by the outer fence
traveling two miles in one
and he won like he was mad as hell
and he wasn’t even tired,
and the biggest blonde of all
all ass and breast, hardly anything else
went to the payoff window with me.

that night I couldn’t destroy her
although the springs shot sparks
and they pounded on the walls.
later she sat there in her slip
drinking Old Grandad
and she said
what’s a guy like you doing
living in a dump like this?
and I said
I’m a poet

and she threw back her beautiful head and laughed.

you? you . . . a poet?

I guess you’re right, I said, I guess you’re right.

but still she looked good to me, she still looked good,
and all thanks to an ugly horse
who wrote this poem.

THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this?I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.

AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory (Review)

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (A Deadly Brew) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

THE BONE FIELD by Simon Kernick (Review)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

A police procedural that quickly morphs into something more like a thriller with a tough ex-special forces hero, now a Detective Sergeant with the Metropolitan Police, but very much of an outsider because of his history and suspended halfway through the story – though he of course goes on investigating unofficially and illegally.

The story is set in London, but starts with a disappearance years earlier in Thailand. Then the body of the young woman who disappeared turns up in England. Can it really be her? And why is the body of a thirteen-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in England at much the same time buried in the same suburban garden?

There is sex-slave-trafficking. There is a serial sexual predator and murderer. There is ritual magic and human sacrifice. There is perhaps the nastiest villain ever to sully the screen of my Kindle Reader – not just nasty, but smelly – yes, downright gross, as well as evil. Horrifying – and certainly the one whose hands I would least like to fall into!

It is a gripping must-read.

However, it does need some serious editing. Not only is not properly formatted for Kindle, but it is full of jarring Americanisms despite the fact that the setting is entirely British and that there are no American characters whatsoever in the story. The Metropolitan Police (the Met) are referred to repeatedly throughout the story as “the Feds”. Homeless down-and-outs are “hobos”. A black Londoner thinks of his mother as a “ho” yet at the same time thinks of “Yankee rock music”. I could go on, but I won’t. American readers might not notice this, I suppose, just as a British reader might not notice similar lapses in a book set in the US and written by a British author. But to a British reader, they end up spoiling an otherwise enthralling story.