The Ash Museum by Rebecca Smith

I’m delighted to be a part of The Ash Museum Book Tour!

About The Ash Museum

Through ten decades and across three continents, The Ash Museum is an intergenerational story of loss, migration and the search for somewhere to feel at home.

1944. The Battle of Kohima. James Ash dies leaving behind two families: his ‘wife’ Josmi and two children, Jay and Molly, and his parents and sister in England who know nothing about his Indian family.

2012. Emmie is raising her own daughter, Jasmine, in a world she wants to be very different from the racist England of her childhood. Her father, Jay, doesn’t even have a photograph of the mother he lost and still refuses to discuss his life in India. Emmie finds comfort in the local museum – a treasure trove of another family’s stories and artefacts.

Little does Emmie know that with each generation, her own story holds secrets and fascinations that she could only dream of.

My Thoughts

I was delighted to review The Ash Museum as part of this publisher book tour. Smith has penned an enthralling and elegantly written tale of intergenerational loss. The novel follows the current fashion for disjointed non-linear narratives, novels that make the reader work that little bit harder to follow the story. It takes skill to pull off this technique. Rebecca Smith has that skill.

While it may not have been the intention of the author to compose a YA novel, that is how it came across to me. Somehow, as I was reading I could picture myself in my old high school classroom, discussing the various interwoven threads of the tale. I wrote a detailed review for Trip Fiction. Here’s a taste:

Beautifully conceived and plainly told in a soft and gentle style, The Ash Museum tells the story of nine-year-old Emmie’s quest to discover what happened to her father and his birth parents in India. The opening chapters are set in the 1970s somewhere in Sussex, and depict the casual prejudices and embarrassing ignorance of the times with gentle irony as young Emmie’s father Jay Ash is roped into helping organise the local fête.

Visit the Trip Fiction website to read my full review. (link in the quote above) With warm thanks to Legend Press for the opportunity to be a part of this tour.

Book review: The Visitors by Catherine Burns

Horror fiction takes many forms. Good horror is an art form, one that requires considerable mastery and imagination. Psychological horror shades into dark fiction – bleak, gothic at times, often literary – and as ever, books can be hard to categorise. Catherine Burn’s The Visitors is one of those books.


I’m only sharing some of the blurb as I think the rest is a spoiler.

“Marion Zetland lives with her domineering older brother, John in a decaying Georgian townhouse on the edge of a northern seaside resort. A timid spinster in her fifties who still sleeps with teddy bears, Marion does her best to shut out the shocking secret that John keeps in the cellar.”

The Visitors is a grim read, more disturbing as the story unfolds, the narrative devoid of humour but not wit. The is novel driven by its backstory, and amounts to a acutely observed character study of the protagonist, Marion Zetland, as she observes her brother, John, and his deviant habits. Burns makes a study of dark passion, but not the brooding malevolence of a serial killer, more the banal evil referred to by Hannah Arendt, one laced with pathetic and inane self-justifications. For Miriam, a sad-sack of a woman in her fifties, is as drab, anxious and miserable as they come.

What ensues is a slow unfolding, a game of seek with no hiding, the reader allowed to peak first here, then there, as the narrator reveals Marion’s foibles, and those of her brother, their mother and father. The collective past of the Zetland family is not pleasant. And neither is Marion. She is impossible to like. She is irritating, repellant and frustrating. She has no willpower, no ambition, instead she is a hopeless figure stripped of her will, immobilised by indecision, her morality compromised by the voices in her head. Existing on a diet of biscuits and tinned food, she loses herself in imagination and fantasy, her escape from a lacklustre existence inside the only home she’s ever known.

Then there is the small matter of the visitors in the cellar.

What begin as justifications for Miriam’s inertia eventually turn into justifications for why she acts the way she does when she finally exercises her will. And it is only then that explanations of certain little mysteries emerge. Burns exercises perfect narrative control, in command of her plot and her characters at every turn, her premise a powerful one and demanding to execute. I can only imagine what it must have taken to write this book.

Not for everyone, but for those who do enjoy dark fiction, this novel is superb.


Liam Brown’s Wild Life


As the title suggests, Wild Life by Liam Brown is not a sober story comfortable within the confines of the ordinary and the every day. Instead, protagonist Adam Britman takes the reader on a downward spiral into a nightmarish underworld.

Adam is an accounts manager for a digital marketing company, husband, and father of two. A self-made success it would seem, only his work style and his own propensity for addiction lead him, with the assistance of his little plastic bag of white powder, headlong into alcoholism and gambling. Adam is Dionysius gone wrong. He doesn’t seem to know it but he’s on the archetypal hero’s journey, one filled with the trials and tests and tribulations of the initiatory transition to manhood. His fall is sudden, dramatic, and absolute. He loses his job, walks out on his family, and ends up, drunk, on a park bench.

He’s found by a trickster figure reminiscent of Santa Claus, and welcomed into a cult of homeless men ruled by a bully bent on back-to-earthing, boot camp style. These are not wild men. They are feral, a by-product of shallow, hedonistic, consumption-driven late-capitalism. And as the story unfolds, the reader wonders if Adam will ever find his way out.

Composed in the style of an older, wiser man looking back on a younger, foolish self, Adam’s is an acidic confession. The wry and self-admonishing prose, laced with gritty hyperbole, makes for a face-paced and intense read.

“No, the pros understand that the best way, the only way, to tell a lie is to swallow it yourself. Better still, you have to let the lie swallow you. You have to commit to it totally; to eat, breathe and shit the lie twenty-four hours a day until it becomes part of you, inscribed not only on each and every strand of your being, but on the genetic code of future generations of relatives yet to be born.”

There’s a forward drive to the writing, and a punchy, urban beat. Little space given over to introspection; Adam is not an especially thoughtful narrator. Yet this is the story’s appeal. And while Adam may not be all that reflective, there is much for the reader to reflect on, not least the nature of depravity.

It’s hard to pull off what is essentially a coming of age story, albeit of a man suffering a kind of arrested development the result of his decadent lifestyle. Brown succeeds with a story of betrayal and brutality, that serves as the antidote to Robert Bly’s Iron John.

(Big thanks to Legend Press for my review copy)


Liam Brown is a writer, filmmaker and former-life model. His debut novelReal Monsters was published in 2015 and long-listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children.





Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne

ac7c49b4bf0fb37c39206bf3a1dc9ced_w200Legend Press, June 2016

A work of contemporary fiction, Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne is a timely and important portrayal of a realm of Middle Eastern conflict made familiar to most of us in the West through the distorted lens of news and current affairs coverage, a lens too often smeared with the Vaseline of prejudice, its purported wide angle little more than a pinhole. Perhaps it is only through the lived experience of people to some degree inside the context of Israeli/ Palestinian tensions and conflict that our awareness can broaden and deepen. Set against the backdrop of another looming conflict with Gaza, Chains of Sand offers the reader a chance to share in the lives of an endearing cast of characters rendered as vivid and as real as the reader’s intimate friends, and through this cast, to consider perspectives from within what is widely considered the aggressor nation: Israel.

The architecture of the narrative is in essence simple, two young men hankering for a better life: Iraqi-born Israeli, Udi, craving a life in London; and Jewish Londoner, Daniel, bent on moving to Tel Aviv. Neither is religious, they represent a generation pulling away from orthodoxy, yet they are each influenced by and wrestle with the beliefs, customs and rituals of the Jewish faith as it impacts on their lives through their families and friends.

The story begins with Udi, fresh from the army, unemployed, listless and frustrated, his application to reside in Britain a source of constant anxiety and hope. Despite the third person narration, the reader is beside him, in his home with his mother and father, out in the streets of Ramat Gan with its cosmopolitan vibe, caught in the mayhem of the traffic, hanging out with his friends on the beach or in a cafe, and sharing in his flashback memories of fighting in Gaza. Udi is a young man haunted and determined to rise above it.

He is also is a man loyal to the Israeli state and keen to defend it. Yet through lessons learned from his own troubled past, Udi understands the need to keep the human actor present in descriptions of conflict. In questioning an army friend’s statement that his brother was killed by a bomb, and not a bomber, Udi states, “The semantics allow him to hold a whole people to blame and salvage at least some opportunity to put things right: a tooth for a tooth.” Yet it is Udi’s unreflective habit of rolling bits of shrapnel in his palm, “like prayer beads,” that confronts the reader with the realisation that in Israel, war is in danger of replacing religion as a system of faith.

The reader is soon in London and introduced to the headstrong, self-analytical, angst-filled and not entirely likeable city banker Dan, the narrative switching to first person to fully exploit his egocentric introspections. Through Dan, Judaic believing and practice in London in all its variants is depicted with wit and warmth, no better conveyed than when Dan describes his father’s consternation over changing attitudes to the customs of faith, the same father who helped found a cross-cultural London dialogue group. “Perhaps this is why he speaks now like a man clutching desperately to a stream of water escaping from a tap that he himself turned on.”

Written in clear, unsaturated prose, the narration remains close, calm and measured throughout, the story’s horrors, tragedies and triumphs depicted with just enough detail and never overplayed. There are echoes of Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, both novels delving into the complexity of being Jewish in London. Yet refreshingly, Wayne’s Dan lacks the intense and almost stereotypically neurotic introspection of Jacobson’s protagonist. Instead, and especially through the eyes of her female characters, Wayne conveys the realities that confront ordinary people struggling to exist and find work and love and fulfilment in cities prone to attack, where prejudice can turn to violence with little provocation.

Both Udi’s and Dan’s mothers reflect more orthodox perspectives, their anxieties those of any mother agonising over the welfare of the son she is about to lose. It is through the two men’s sisters and girlfriends that the reader is presented with progressive, sophisticated, complex responses to a Jewish identity in crisis. Dan’s sister Gaby is emphatic that she is British first, and Jewish second; that in matters of identity, nationality is paramount. Dan’s girlfriend, talented artist Urli, speaks of the diversity and elusiveness of truth. And Udi’s sister Avigail, wife, mother and daughter too, is a cross-cultural intellectual feminist activist campaigning for peace and taking risks with her own life to achieve it.

A parallel narrative takes the reader back in time, before the wall went up in Jerusalem, a time when a naïve young Jewish girl snuck into the Arabic quarter of the city searching for inspiration and finding love. It is an intoxicating, acutely observed depiction of the Romeo and Juliet scenario, for Dara’s love is surely forbidden, Kaseem’s just as surely doomed. Here, Chains of Sand becomes almost a whispered narrative of the immutable social strictures that separate Muslim Arab from Jew.

The Muslim Arab perspective is again explored with the softest of brushstrokes in Dan’s girlfriend, Safia, who serves as his moral stanchion, quietly goading, quizzing, testing, as he defends his prejudices, and his decisions.

The female characters in Chains of Sand are positioned somewhat in the shade cast by the male protagonists, yet this shade is not obscure. It is shade made all the richer for being beyond the harsh rays of the stark either/or realities of Udi and Dan. In the shade are the textures, the nuances, the depths, and the deeper the reader ventures into its recesses, the closer she is to the truth.

Chains of Sand is a brave book, one that reveals the complexities of being Jewish and of being Israeli, of identifying with Israel as a nation, as a concept, as a home for the Jewish people, complexities hampered by a modern zeitgeist that is wont to be blindly anti-Israel. Chains of Sand challenges a viewpoint unable to see a polyglot cosmopolitan nation struggling to grow and understand itself, whilst fully cognizant that this same nation is blinkered by the politics of aggression towards its neighbours, a nation apt to stumble into overreaction through fear of losing itself. It does the reader no harm to explore perspectives born of the lived experience of those we may apparently oppose. For that alone, I salute the author.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley. A version of this review will appear in the August edition of Shiny New Books, UK)