Book: Park Life by Katharine D’Souza

I’ve been meaning to read this book by the Birmingham author for some time so it thanks to bumping into another writer, AA Abbott, who lent me a copy!

I wanted to take a light, quick read with me while spending a few days of reading/writing/coffeeing in France and this is perfect. 

Even after reading it, I’m unsure of the title as there are only a few scenes based in parks but it is a great title! The story works around two main characters who find themselves living in the same building somewhere around Kings Heath/Moseley. Craig is a 20 something corporate who is on the first rung of the housing ladder and trying to advance his career. Susan has just left the only man she has ever been with after becoming stifled in a 20 year, domineering relationship.

They befriend each other as both have a distinct lack of friends, Craig after his best friend stole his girlfriend and Susan because she never had a life outside her husband and now, grown up son.

An easy read, I found it difficult to learn about so many, what I would call, weak characters in one book. Susan’s ex is a bully and Craig’s is manipulating. The only strong people are the two new café owners who offer Susan her first job since she left school.

So, I love that Susan does leave her husband but find it difficult to always route for her.

Joyfully, there are plenty of characters in the book, café customers, Craig’s colleagues and Susan’s non-friends from her suburban life and there is the old trick of using excerpts of a childhood diary to explain an adult character’s flaw.

Park Life makes you turn the pages to find characters steadily changing and that’s what makes it a good read.

By avid reader & Brum Faves founder, Rickie J @RickieWrites

 

Book: Beatrice by Fiona Joseph

Coffee was considered a little too stimulating for female workers!

I’ve always had interest in the Cadbury family’s business methods anyway so was delighted to find out that local author Fiona Joseph was writing a book about them. More specifically, Beatrice Boeke, nee Cadbury, daughter of Richard was born in 1884.

On the strength of this book, I went to hear the author do a talk. I planned to buy a signed copy to read and hearing Fiona talk with so much love and admiration for Beatrice, I ‘fell a little bit in love’ too.

The story starts as Beatrice is born into what is already a wealthy family. Her father’s first wife died after giving birth to their fourth child and Beatrice is a result of his second marriage to his treasured Emma. They go onto have a long and happy marriage but are long gone before Beatrice rebels and this is when the story takes off.

We are introduced to Beatrice’s future husband, a trained architect, when she is already doing missionary work and she is on a panel interviewing him for a role in Syria. By the time he starts the role, they are already about to embark on a marriage.

Even before this, I enjoy every bit of the story and the book gives me a greater understanding on the Quaker beliefs held by the Cadburys. They are already known for ‘their mix of thrift and generosity’ and I love that sentiment. The most interesting aspect is that the simple life led by Quakers is at odds with the wealth the family accumulate. But, the wealth is very much redistributed in that they open their home to those less fortunate, offer them the opportunity to wash and have fresh clothes and most famously, they treat their employees with the utmost respect and care.

Bournville in Birmingham is still a dry village and no alcohol can be sold and there are other quirks in this little suburb of the city that totally adhere to the original Cadbury ethos. It’s a beautiful, well-kept place as I learn from my first visit their last year for a much-needed view of a Christmas lights switch on that was actually in December and not several weeks previous!

Back to Beatrice, most of the book now centre’s on how the conflict within her heart grows and what leads her wanting to give up her shares and inheritance. It is odd that she did not feel the same way as her father in that their wealth could be put to good use help others. I’m left wondering what they could have done with all that disposable income rather than giving it back to the factory workers, something her brothers, now the Cadbury directors, urged her against.

Beatrice’s and her husband’s legacy centre’s on what they did for education in Holland, where they both lived after Kees was deported. Both in England and Holland, they were routinely arrested for publicly speaking their minds about being anti-war primarily, something that is against Quaker beliefs anyway. But their belief in letting children learn through play, at their own pace rather forcing tests and learning (they called this sociocracy) is fascinating and something I have had a long-term interest in. We are guided through the time when Kees started home schooling their younger children (they had 7 in all), mainly as they could not afford the school fees. The popularity grew and eventually they set up a proper school, with some funds from the Cadbury Trust that Beatrice started with her dividends.

The couple lived through two world wars, struggling and at one point living in tents. I’m at odds at this when there brothers and sisters were living in luxury but still doing managing to do good for others. Either you work and earn a living and pay taxes – something they were against as they didn’t want their money paying for the wars – or you do good with the money.

But the family Boeke stood their ground and eventually, later in life managed to earn their keep through educating others.

This is a fascinating read.

By Rickie J, Founder and editor of Birmingham Favourites. @BrumFaves or @RickieWrites

Birmingham Books: Must Haves

Looking for ideas on original book presents? Here are some Birmingham infused book recommendations put together by city tour guide, Ian Braisby in 2013. Birmingham Books and Writers

Mainly regarded as a city of commerce and industry rather than culture, there is actually a very good reason why Birmingham’s coat of arms offsets the man with hammer, anvil and crucible with a lady carrying a pallet and a book.  Over the years, it has been the birthplace, home and inspiration to many well-known and hugely successful poets, playwrights and novelists.

Book: The Father of Locks by Andrew Killeen

I do have a love of historical novels that make me pay attention to history as an adult like I never did at school. This however, from Birmingham based author Andrew Killeen, is a whole other level of history.

We are following the adventures of Ismail, a young thief and (aspiring) poet who is desperate to get to Baghdad and be part of the world’s capital city’s vibrant culture.

As we read of his adventures, we learn of his history and how he came to be so young and travelling to the biggest of city alone. He soon falls into the hands of the most famous poet, womanising bi-sexual Abu Nuwas. ‘The Father of Locks’ takes him under his wing although this doesn’t stop either of them cheating death many times as they weave in an out of Baghdad’s back alleys and uncover ancient cults, multiple religions and beautiful people of both sexes.

Then there is the mystery of the missing children which unlocks more questions than answers.

I found it a tough to keep up with the colourful cast as we’ve weaved back and forward in history buy enjoyable nonetheless. If this era appeals to you, you will love it.

By Rickie J. Reader of books & founder of Brum Faves.

Contact @RickieWrites or @BrumFaves

 

Book: After the Interview by AA Abbott

The book is based in our two major cities, Birmingham and London and is full of thoroughly familiar landmarks in both. I now can’t walk past St Pancras without looking around for the flat featured!

As the author commented at the recent Meet the Author event, in this book, all the bad things tend to happen in London and the good in Birmingham. The main characters run companies. One started his and the other is an employee that’s risen up the ranks.

Whereas AA Abbott is fascinated by offices and what goes on in them, the book just served to re-remind me why I don’t like working in them. Even non-corporate ones. Every office that looks like, well, looks like an office!

The book title is only explained a little later on as we hear about all the characters eventually bumping into one another or indeed, we discover where they have met before. That must be the most fun part of writing fiction – creating the characters and seeing how they are going to collide.

Despite disliking all of the characters, even those that came good in the end had some major character flaws, it’s an enjoyable, quick read.

By Rickie, reader and founder of Birmingham Favourites

Contact @RickieWrites or @BrumFaves or directly @AAAbbottStories

Book: Clovenhoof by Heide Goody & Iain Grant

 

After 27, I've gone and read another book based in Birmingham, or more specifically Sutton Coldfield. As the title suggests, demons of an entirely different kind feature in this book .

Satan has been ousted from the role that he has had almost his entire life – the job he was born to do. Hell has been running too slowly and the lines to get in are simply too long so something has to change. Having been made redundant, he has been transported to earth – to suburban Sutton Coldfield – with the Archangel Michael making sure he doesn’t return to his evil ways but blends in with local society.

But of course he doesn’t!

Former #MeetTheAuthor guests, Heidi Goody and Iain Grant jointly tell us all the ways he just doesn’t settle on Earth without bringing his bad ways with him.

Now named Jeremy Clovenhoof, we learn about Satan forming a heavy metal band – not realising you are meant to sell tickets – not buy them all yourself and give them away free.

We witness Clovenhoof realising money doesn’t grow on trees when his generous allowance runs out after putting on a ’sold out’ gig at Birmingham Symphony Hall (see above).

We then find out all the ways in which he obtains money – rather than having to work for it.

‘He had decided that if he ever returned to his old  job he would create a special level of hell…and then Nerys had taken him to IKEA and Clovenhoof realised that humans had once gain beaten him to it’.

And we hear how he makes friends/enemies/friends again with the other flat dwellers in his building.

There is a fantastic cast including dead vicars, Joan of Arc and when the angel Michael says he has friends in high places, we know what he means.

The story travels from what’s going on in hell, heaven (they have a monorail that takes you 500 miles in 30 minutes) and Birmingham and the latter is definitely the most interesting. I’m making the most of my time while I’m here on earth!

A highly recommended read and now that I have caught up with this 2012 release, I’m moving onto others written by these amusing local writers.

8/10

Smile factor 9½/10

Find out about MeetTheAuthor events here.

Book: No Mean Affair by Robert Ronsson

No_Mean_Affair_Cover_low-198x300Having just read a book based in my one of my favourite cities, Birmingham, move on to this, based in another, Glasgow. This one however, is delightfully, a history lesson too, of the best kind. It opens in Glasgow in 1912 in a tenement – that is – a one room dwelling. The poverty of Glasgow has been well-documented and when I visit now and look at the gorgeous architecture in the West End, it’s astonishing to think those lovely buildings once held multiple families. Large families too and the one featured in No Mean Affair is that of Mary Ireland, the grandmother of the author.

Her husband didn’t think much of it, but Mary had bigger plans than to raise their three bairns in one room in a smoky, smelly Glasgow. Mary didn’t think it was right that women couldn’t vote either, but her main concern was the living conditions of the poor. They moved to Glasgow to live in the same building as his brother who gave him a job as a milkman – a job she took on when he went to war.

It was while standing up for the rights of the poor that Mary came across John Wheatley, a prominent, wealthy businessman who had raised himself up from his boot straps.  A miner’s son, Wheatley built his business interests through suspect methods, including using thugs to chase money, which is how he came across Danny, the third main character.

He hired Danny, as his right hand man who lived in the big house along with his wife and family and then progressed to do more for the poor in the city. During a #MeetTheAuthor event, Robert Ronsson tells us there is a biography of JW (as Danny, who holds more than a torch to Mary, refers to him) which helped with the research.

Being a key player in the new Independent Labour Party, JW moves to improve conditions including reducing the working week down from 54 hours and letting women join political parties. I learn at this stage they can’t vote and even later in the 1930s can only vote if they are a home owner. How many women owned homes then?! This only really started happening to a greater degree in the 1980s.

So why No Mean Affair? The story is centred on the 20 year deep-rooted affair that eventually developed between Mary and JW. Despite the generation gap between them, they had the same believes and sacrificed much to develop housing reform in the 1920s. While JW rose to be an MP, Mary was still in the one room with her husband and now four children. Neither will get a divorce in Catholic Glasgow and Mr Ireland turned a blind-eye to the affair to a point, as it kept him in money to stay drunk. Mrs Wheatley was less patient but the managed to stay married while the affair evolved to a solid working relationship as well as a deep affection.

Of course this book is fiction based on historical events and real people and that’s the best way I know to learn about history.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning how JW seemed to have his heart in the right place while political ambition roared inside him and we learn exactly why a poor women from Glasgow left three of her children behind to come and live in London.

Take me back to 1930, I need to know more!

8½/10

Smile factor 9/10

By Rickie J, founder & editor of Birmingham Favourites. Contact via twitter on @BrumFaves or @RickieWrites

Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin by Barney Hoskyns

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the great Led Zeppelin, although you may not be aware that both the vocal and percussive powerhouses of the band (Robert Plant and John Bonham) were West Midlands boys, and cut their teeth on the vibrant music scene of the region in the 1960s.  Barney Hoskyns’ new oral history of the biggest band of the seventies provides us with a fascinating insight into those days, where bands would traipse from venue to venue performing multiple gigs a night.  The region is more than just a jumping off point for Plant and Bonham, with the industrial heritage of the area being cited (not for the first time) as a driving force behind the “heaviness” of the music, competing to be heard with the roar of the factories.  Lest we forget, it is perhaps no coincidence that Birmingham and the West Midlands are widely regarded as the birthplace of heavy metal, with Led Zeppelin (arguably) the first metal band.

Barney Hoskyns’ book is based on exhaustive interviews with a wide range of people who “were there” as Zeppelin conquered the world. As well as the band there is testimony from roadies, friends, musicians, management, and many others.  The result is a book that leads the reader into feeling like an insider, from the first gigs as the band rose from the ashes of the Yardbirds, through to the death of John Bonham, the end of the band and their endeavours since.

Zeppelin were renowned for their excess (as the title suggests), and this is presented unflinchingly, painting a rather tragic image of how this side of success ate away at the band.  However, there is also plenty of time devoted to how powerful the band could be (especially live) and how much joy they gave in their huge performances.

The book is divided into four sections which broadly cover the origins, formation and rise of the band, then covering their demise and the subsequent work of the surviving members. Each section is prefaced with a short description of the bare bones of what happened in the period but most of the text is made up of word of mouth descriptions of the action, which leads to a patchwork view of the events in question and a real sense of immediacy.

At 552 pages, the book is heavy in more than once sense, but well worth the effort of picking up.

Blake can be contacted on Twitter  @brum_enthusiast or take a look at his blog.

Book: Tourmaline by James Brogden

Tourmaline is the second novel by author James Brogden. Brogden faces quite a challenge due to the success of his debut novel, The Narrows. He set the bar so high with his first publication and must now follow his own critically-acclaimed, accomplished piece of writing. As with any second novel, fans want to see everything they loved about The Narrows but they also demand something new and improved. As such, Tourmaline was set to be Brogden's difficult second album.

Suffice it to say, Brogden has made this second album look easy. Tourmaline is every bit as masterful as The Narrows. It is grounded, gripping fantasy, with strong elements of horror, plenty of dark humour and a cast of beautifully-realised characters.

If The Narrows was Brogden's Reservoir Dogs, then Tourmaline is his Pulp Fiction. Or, to use a literary reference, if The Narrows was Carrie, then Tourmaline is Salem's Lot: bigger, bolder and more ambitious.

The Stephen King reference is apt because Brogden shares the prolific storyteller's talent for inserting humour into the darkest of moments. There are many laughs to be had from the hradix, for example, which is essentially a reptilian monster stuck in the body of a child, who the heroes adopt as a pet halfway through the novel. Brogden also has King's flair for depicting scenes of utter horror. A scene where a swarm of floating bones and tendons attacks the heroes like ravenous wasps instantly springs to mind. And the monstrous araka is a fearsome creation, perfectly introduced in the opening prologue.

However, King-sceptics needs not fear. Brogden bypasses King's penchant for over-writing and Tourmaline is therefore a lean, mean, fast-paced and well-edited read. Equally, those not keen on fantasy should not be put off. Tourmaline is not high fantasy. There are no dragons and wizards. The story is grounded in reality, with recognisable characters, much like George R R Martin's first entry in A Song of Fire and Ice.

Indeed, half of the action is set in our everyday world. Brodgen takes the ingenious decision to adopt a dual narrative structure in the early chapters to ease newcomers into the idea of another world. We glimpse this new world a piece at a time: at first, it contains only one man lost at sea. Then, gradually, other characters are introduced in the form of a small crew on a scrap-ship. This softly-softly approach makes the reader comfortable in another universe so they won't even blink when Part Two arrives, set almost entirely in the other world.

Ironically, it is the action in the real world which is one of Tourmaline's greatest USPs and an author trademark that Brogden established in The Narrows. Specifically, the story takes place in Birmingham (UK), second largest city in England, jewel of the Midlands, home of the balti curry and a place with more canals than Venice and more parks than Paris. It is the perfect place to set a fantasy novel: large, diverse, cultural, modern but traditional and rough around the edges.

Locals to Birmingham can enjoy references to the Sea Life Centre, Hagley Road and the infamous Spaghetti Junction. Meanwhile, University of Birmingham students and alumni will be excited by the opening which is set in the campus-based Barber Institute of Fine Art. Even better, a University of Birmingham security guard saves the world. Now that's something to put in the 2015 prospectus.

The vast ensemble is brilliantly put together. Brogden skilfully captures the voices and personalities of dozens of characters, making us feel sympathetic to all of them, hero or villain. It is testament to the characterisation that the inhabitants in the fantasy world are just as relatable and recognisable as those in the real world. Brogden switches between their perspectives with admirable dexterity. Brogden's talent for language is worth a special mention. With so much story, action and snappy dialogue, a lesser writer may have skimped on the poetry but this is not a luxury that fantasy writers can afford. After all, they have to build a new world in our mind's eye. Brogden accepts this mantle with relish. A ship encounters "a maze of beautiful but navigationally perilous coral reefs which rose into thousands of shimmering pillars, as if the microscopic creatures which built the coral had one day decided to build up towards heaven." The Birmingham locations get their own share of Brogden's poetic pen. Describing the Sea-Life Centre as echoing with the "shrieking of children, tinny ocean-themed muzak and the pervasive thunder of water" is one of many observations that will have local readers nodding.

Tourmaline is one of the finest books published this year: addictive, thrilling, fantastic, saturated with imagination and brimming with story. It deserves a long print-run, critical acknowledgement and commercial success, as does the talented James Brogden.

So tell your friends, tell your family, tell yourself: go read Tourmaline.

Tourmaline is published by Snow Books and available as a paperback from Amazon, currently priced at £7.16.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks

Book: Million Dollar Dress by Heide Goody

Book review by Simon Fairbanks Million Dollar Dress is chick lit packed with quick wit by local author Heide Goody.

It tells the story of Justine, who obtains a high-tech dress which can change the body shape of the wearer. Once Justine masters the technology, she can alter her slightly plump body image to match that of a Hollywood supermodel. Meanwhile, a host of interest parties are looking to take the dress for themselves.

The synopsis may suggest this is targeted at a female audience and it would certainly please this market. However, Million Dollar Dress offers a rich plateau for readers of any demographic and genre: the plot moves with the pace of a thriller, the dress itself is pure science-fiction and its comedy is universal.

It is this comedy element that propels Million Dollar Dress above the rest of its canon. Heide Goody has a particular knack for delivering an ensemble of sharply-observed characters and executing comedy set pieces with the chaos and energy of a Carry On film. Anagram fans will note that Million Dollar Dress contains two LOLs and you will certainly be laughing out loud as the story escalates.

The titular dress is a clever concept. As with all best science-fiction, it introduces a futuristic notion that addresses everyday concerns, specifically those relating to the body image culture which keeps certain magazines and reality shows in business.

The dress also acts as the MacGuffin and provides the perfect excuse to bring together an unlikely ensemble, ranging from fashion designers to military operatives. Particularly memorable characters include Blake Charwood (Sutton Coldfield's answer to Justin Beiber) and Justine's interfering mother figures, Pat and Irma. Their recreation of a scene from Alien to scare off an interested party is hilarious.

And best of all, the novel is set in Birmingham so there are plenty of regional references (the Bullring, the Jewelry Quarter) which act as an extra reward for local readers.

You can download Goody's novel for Kindle for a reasonable £2.05. And Million Dollar Dress is worth every penny.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks

Contact Heide Goody via @HeideGoody

Stuart Maconie: The People's Songs

By Blake Stuart Maconie, for those not familiar with his work on radio and print, is warm, witty and erudite, and an unapologetic champion of pop music.  Through his radio 2 series “The People’s Songs” (and accompanying book) he has explored the role of music in shaping and reflecting the realities of modern Britain.

Birmingham Town Hall is an iconic venue marking the edge of Victoria square, and will be familiar to many Brummies.  The hall opened in 1834, with one of the architects being Joseph Hansom, later the inventor of the Hansom cab.   The Town Hall project actually bankrupted Hansom, the experience of which may have led to him later becoming a radical socialist.

I mention this as the Town Hall is therefore an appropriate venue for Maconie’s discussion of music, politics and everything in between, with particular focus on ‘ordinary’ people, as the building has served in the past as a forum for political debate and a meeting place for local government.  During his talk, Maconie drily noted he felt the pressure, knowing that Charles Dickens gave readings at the Hall (apparently, the first public reading of a Christmas Carol).  The venue symbolises the grandeur and optimism of the city in the 19th century, and we should remain proud of it today.

Maconie is an engaging speaker, and his talk this evening is fairly fluid, structured loosely around some of the themes from The People’s Songs radio programme, a good format for a raconteur used to performing on live radio. As well as The People’s Songs, the talk includes excerpts from Maconie’s amusing and insightful books on music, food and The North, all of which he links well to his personal stories – his tale of being taken to see The Beatles as a small child is particularly hilarious.  In the hands of a less likable host, some of the tales could have descended into grating “here’s a story about my famous mates” anecdotes, but Maconie is unpretentious and grounded and these instead become fascinating insights.

The only downside of the evening, ironically, is the venue itself.  Despite being a spectacular building, both outside and in, the Town Hall is too large and “showy” for Maconie’s warm and inclusive manner.  The hall was less than full and this did give rise to a slight sense of being present at a sparsely-attended political gathering.  Overall, this reviewer felt that the event would have felt better in a more intimate setting.

This is, however, not a criticism of either the Town Hall, or of Maconie himself – both are things to be treasured.

During the evening, Maconie noted with glee that The People’s Songs programmes are on the iplayer for 800 years (I’ve checked, and it seems he was getting ahead of himself – the latest episode is due to expire in 2099…).  Let’s hope that the heirs to this warm chronicler of the modern world are appearing at the Town Hall then.

Were you at this event? We would love to know your thoughts so please do add your comments below.

Blake can be contacted on Twitter  @brum_enthusiast or take a look at his blog 

Photos by Blake & Brum Faves.

In Other Hands by Iain Grant

Book review by Simon Fairbank

In Other Hands is a novel about five characters living in Birmingham who cross each other's paths in a series of unlikely coincidences. The story is written by local author, Iain Grant, and published by Pigeon Park Press.

The five-perspective approach with such a rich ensemble keeps the story fresh and makes for a page-turning reading experience. A lesser writer might struggle with such breadth (and depth) of characters but Grant slips between them effortlessly.

Readers will be divided over which character is their favourite: homeless Templeton, fox researcher Karen, amateur sleuth Nadia or terminal psychiatrist Jane. Many will rightly favour Danny, the reformed paedophile who regularly escapes into the fantasy of online gaming. Danny is a particularly difficult character to make sympathetic but Grant appears to relish the challenge. The scene where Danny is holding a little boy's hand is a tense, uncomfortable and brilliant piece of writing.

As ever, Grant's talent for witty dialogue exchanges is correct and present. One feels it is only a matter of time before he tries his hand at a screenplay. Perhaps his collaborative comic novel Clovenhoof will get a much-deserved BBC3 adaptation in the near future.

The sixth character in this modern day masterpiece is the setting. Joyce had Dublin, Dickens had London and now Grant has Birmingham. The city is realised in all of its timeless, charming Midlands glory with plenty of shout-outs to locations both in and out of the city. It will provide an extra frisson of joy to any Brummie or Birmingham graduate turning the pages and is worth buying for this reason alone. As Grant himself writes in the Dedication: “You might be able to imagine a story like this being set somewhere else. I can’t.”

If a criticism can be levelled at this masterful work, then it is this: Grant should have called the novel Five Ways, after Birmingham's infamous roundabout. Then again, the film adaptation can resolve that one.

In Other Hands is available for Kindle download on Amazon, currently priced at £1.94. A true bargain in this reviewer’s opinion.

Contact Iain Grant via  @iainmgrant or @pigeonparkpress.

By Simon Fairbanks who can be contacted via @simonfairbanks