#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon – the Conclusion

As I’d completed all but two of the longlist, I decided to jot down my own shortlist on the morning before the formal shortlist was announced.

I believed No One is Talking About This and The Promise were two shoe-ins, alongside the yet to be widely available offering from Richard Powers (Bewilderment) which I’d yet to read. I suspected the remaining three would come from Second Place, An Island, A Passage North and Great Circle. While being right on the last two, I completely missed The Fortune Men in my reckoning, and now wonder if it will go on to be another of those winners I’ve managed to underestimate. Before I talk further about it, back to my review in order of reading…

The Promise – Damon Galgut

Galgut is never an easy read. Even though his writing is beautiful, it is always sharply knowing, and the subject matter can be decidedly uncomfortable. The opening pages of this book will ever sit with me, and they perfectly set the scene for what was to come. The Swarts are a white South African family – the father Afrikaans, the mother Jewish – with their three children. The father makes a promise to his dying wife – but does so lightly and without any intention of keeping it – except his youngest daughter is witness to it and is determined to make it happen. But it takes decades and the death of every family member before she is able to fulfil that promise – her dying mother’s wish. Each family member is well-drawn – their weakness depicted in sparse but sharply witty detail, even the youngest and most moral of them. The tale is also placed against major events in South Africa, and reinforces that there is simply no getting away from the unresolved complexities of the country.

The prize-winning potential in this one is evident – the first of the shortlist to receive the full 5/5 from me.

The Fortune Men – Nadifa Mohamed

I didn’t realise this was based on a true story until I read the Epilogue. Mahmood (Moody) Mattan was only 24 years of age when he was falsely convicted of the murder of a Jewish lady in Tiger Bay, and at a time when the sentence was still death by hanging. Those bare facts are weaved into the beautifully imagined tale of a youngest son in British Somaliland (now Somalia), leaving home to make his own way. He goes to sea, works hard and travels the world, until he ends up in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. There he meets her – the woman who will go on to fight to provide his innocence. Mattan is dapper and charming, but a gambler. A small time crook to make ends meet, he won’t go back to sea because he’d be unable to see his boys and his estranged wife. But he’s made enemies along the way – one of whom is a police detective. Powell decides that Mattan fits the bill for the murder and goes about making sure that the jury see it too. Believing in the British justice system, Mattan is shocked when the jury are less inclined to believe him than the contradictory stories of the witnesses Powell has rounded up, even despite the only two genuine witnesses – the sister and niece of the murdered woman – insisting he isn’t the man they saw. Underlying this tragic story is the parallel tales of outsiders – the Somali community and the Jewish community in Tiger Bay – one distrusted, hated even, the other accepted and – to an extent – assimilated.

As I failed to see it’s appeal to the judges in moving from long to shortlist, I’m not the best person to judge on its winning potential, but – for me – Galgut still has it.

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

This has that same feel as Never Let Me Go – that of a dystopian future in which much seems the same as now. But something about Klara, the Artificial Friend, got to me more than I expected, and I found myself feeling genuine sadness at the end. In truth, it was easy to relate more to the AF than the other characters in the book, as they were not ones to warm too – with perhaps the sole exception of Rick. Where now we have wealthy parents in the US paying to ensure their privileged children gain entry into the college of their choice, in Klara’s world, those same parents are paying to get their children ‘uplifted’ – despite there being a danger that those children may become sick and even die as a result. Those uplifted children do not attend a normal school, but instead receive 1-2-1 tuition virtually, meaning they require “socialising” events to learn how to behave and mix with their peers before they go to college. This somewhat solitary life creates a gap in the market which is filled by Artificial Friends, who will be their companions during this potentially lonely time. But once they go to college, the AFs are of no use…

I’d be surprised if this was to go on to be the winner due to its very obvious YA roots. While I enjoyed reading it, I don’t see it having what it takes.

The Sweetness of Water – Nathan Harris

Set in Georgia after the South was defeated in the Civil War, this is a tale of George and Isabelle – a couple of independent, strong-willed, social misfits, who part love/part tolerate one other in marriage. Believing their son dead in the war, George invites brothers – slaves freed from their neighbour’s estate – to live and work their land, for fair pay. When their son unexpectedly does come home, he returns to a fateful friendship with the indulged son of the area’s most rich and powerful family. When the underlying social and sexual tensions finally explode into first a brutal murder, then a wrongful arrest, George and Isabelle’s son and the surviving brother go on the run. While George is away helping them, that powerful family incites some of the townsfolk to burn down his crops, and George is also fatally wounded by an old style slave tracker turned sheriff. But Isabelle decides to continue the work George started, offering freed men a chance of a better life on their land, aided and abetted by her fellow widow and good friend, Mildred.

Despite being a most assured debut and a good read, this didn’t feel Booker-ish to me, so I’d have been surprised to find it on the shortlist.

Bewilderment – Richard Powers

This is another Powers tales of humanity and its wrongs, wrapped up in the personal tale of Theo and his son Robin. Struggling to cope with parenting a special child following the death of his wife, Theo is determined not to drug his child in order to make him a more compliant student. Robin is a smart, loving and kind child, but with a deep rage within him. His mother campaigned passionately for the natural world and while it is something which Theo also cares about, Robin’s passion for the subject is making life very difficult for them both. A newly pioneered treatment allows Robin to share his dead mother’s feelings (obtained via fMRI before her death). This helps to calm him, allowing him to attend school and cope with difficult social events. But his passion for the natural world builds into obsession and he attracts attention while campaigning, leading to his participation in the new treatment becoming a virtual phenomenon. The politicians decide to withdraw funding from the treatment project as they don’t like Robin’s campaign, and he descends once more into a world of overwrought emotion.

If I’ve not just read the Booker winner for 2021, I’d be very surprised – especially as this is a more accessible read than Powers’ previous offering Overstory, and the judges are on record as seeking more accessible reads this year. We’ll find out on Wednesday evening….

© Debra Carey, 2021


#ReadersResources: Read across the UK part II

A little while ago, Debs wrote a cracking post on Reading across the UK. We still need to agree a date for this, but I thought I might follow up with some further suggestions. Being naturally contrary, I’ve decided to present mine by genre…

Science Fiction

As might be expected, I’ve chosen to kick off with science fiction. Whether or not you enjoyed the film version with Tom Cruise (2005) or a repeat of Orson Welles’ (1938) panic inducing radio adaptation, you might not know, or may have forgotten that H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds is set in the Home Counties around London. The description of the terrain – and the subsequent destruction of most of it – is beautifully evocative. I’m tempted to start running tours of some of the locations mentioned.

Similarly, the Day of the Triffids is worth your time. John Wyndham’s depiction of a world brought low by hubris and dubious experiments takes in a swathe of ground between London and the South Coast, not to mention the bastion of the Isle of Wight.

J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World sees London semi-submerged in a future where climate change has reeked havoc. Any day that is to hot for my liking makes me think of this book.

Detective Fiction

In the comments to Debs’ original post I mentioned Ian Sansom’s County Guides series. He’s going to have to pick up the pace if he’s going to manage to get round the whole of the UK, but so far the five published books give an interesting perspective on 1930s England, particularly bits that are not often looked at. The conceit here is that a prolific author is off collecting research material with his daughter and assistant for a series of books cataloguing the best bits of Britain, especially the things that are likely to fade in the face of technology and social change. Of course, they court disaster wherever they go. The assistant is, of course, plagued by demons: in this instance they arise from his time in Spain as part of the International Brigade.

The British Library has recently (over the last decade perhaps?) been republishing classic detective fiction, much of which has a locale element to it. So for example there is The Hogsback Mystery by Freeman Wills Croft and starring Inspector French. There are several others with this detective, and whilst he occasionally makes a foray abroad he is a Scotland Yard man at a time when local constabularies would call upon the Yard if they felt a case was a bit too much for them for whatever reason. So whilst a lot of French’s cases are set in and around London, he also travels extensively around the UK.

I’m also going to put in a shout for The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if it is not properly Detective Fiction. Whichever film version you’ve seen, the book is sufficiently different and exciting that it is worth your trouble to look it out and give it a read. Some lovely descriptions of Scotland in there, as well as the South Coast.


I thought it might also be helpful to put in some non-fiction suggestions too. In this regard one cannot really go wrong with Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I’m less enamored of the follow up, The Road to Little Dribbling: to my mind, the Bryson who wrote the second book has become a grumpy old man and has lost some of the shine and verve of the younger Bryson – but that is just my opinion. There are still some splendid observations.

Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes is, on the face of it, a bit niche. A description of walks around stomping grounds associated with particular writers. It is so much more though. Twelve mini-biographies which focus on a particular period of time or a particular piece of work by some of the greatest British authors of the last two hundred years or so, and how the landscape had an impact on their work. Beautiful.

Finally, this one really is niche, and is all about London, but is so joyous that you need to read it. Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go is, primarily, about Monopoly. Or is it? Sure that’s the framing narrative, in particular his carrying a board and some dice around so that he can work out where he’s going next, but this is, in a way, more of a socio-geographic history of London, and the changes that have occurred leading up to the London version of Monopoly, and those that have occurred since. Moore takes us around London, set by set, and explains the hidden meanings behind some of the collections – for example, Orange is the colour of justice… He even goes in search of Free Parking.

Do add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

©David Jesson, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Writing a Family History when there’s cultural implications

The working title of my Family History is Indian Duty, Catholic Guilt, from which you’ll be able to gather there are significant cultural aspects to my family history. In addition to India, my family also lived in Nigeria and Bangladesh before we returned to the UK when I was 19 years old.

Once we got “home”, I felt like the proverbial fish out of water. I was surrounded by people who’d lived in the same area all their lives, who’d grown up in one community, who greeted (and were greeted by) people they’d known all there lives everywhere they went. In contrast, I had to work to make friends in the location my family had chosen for our “forever” home – I’d been at a boarding school elsewhere, and had spent most of my holidays in whatever country my parents were living at the time – whereas my peers in the local community had little experience of overseas life, let alone in countries of the third world where I’d spent my childhood.

Frivolously, I learned the beer was warm and bitter, you had to ask for ice in your drinks and were lucky to get more than a one piece. On a more serious note, I was brought up with servants and had a lot of practical stuff to learn. I taught myself to cook from cookbooks, and learned how to clean properly from a landlady who taught her tenants how she expected them to clean. While I gathered from fellow tenants that she had exceptionally high standards, I was simply grateful for the practical lesson.

While any tales I will share of my years growing up in India, Nigeria and Bangladesh will be authentically my own experience, and though there will be many a parallel with others who grew up in those countries as the children of expats – they will be different to the lives lived by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis, regardless of caste or creed… and so there are cultural implications.

It’s been a while since I first started to ruminate on the spectrum of cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I love my Indian background, I love the impact living there for my first 10 years had on how I see the world. Equally, I love the lessons I learned from Africa – about humour, pride, independence and race. Returning to spend my final 2 years overseas in Bangladesh, I was amazed at how much was the same and how much was different between it and the country of my birth. I am grateful for having had the full spectrum of experiences, even though they included civil unrest and civil war.

For many many years, India was home in my heart. It was where I’d felt safe, and where my entire family had lived. The sights and smells and sounds were as familiar to me as my own family. My catholic God managed to co-exist comfortably alongside the gods of India’s multiple faiths; indeed I was more familiar with the mythology than with the bible. I ate Indian food by preference, using my hands rather than a spoon and fork. Before leaving India, I spoke English with a Bengali accent. Last, but most decidedly not least, my grandfather was Indian, his wife revoking her British passport to marry him.

If leaving India was a massive wrench, landing in Lagos airport was absolutely terrifying. The country was in the throes of civil war when we arrived and although the fighting wasn’t happening in the capital city, the place positively thronged with soldiers. My father, used to the polite deference of Indians, found the brusque nature of Nigerian soldiers hard to deal with. We did make it safely home – but the lesson I learned that day was not to pick a fight with a man carrying a gun. I was yet to have my 11th birthday. Soon, us children were spending term time at boarding school, returning home to the sunshine in between. It had started badly, but we had 6 happy years of outdoor life. Africa is a continent like no other – it has the ability to make me both laugh with joy and positively weep.

Bangladesh was a shock to the system. We expected something akin to India, but were surprised to find its capital city more akin to small Indian towns. It was easy for my parents to slip into the old ways, but Nigeria had changed me and made me notice more, even if I didn’t question aloud. We spent 3 years there, the final year of which I worked – for the British High Commission (a British girl didn’t just rock up and work anywhere, something Nigeria had made me notice). Even so, life was indolent and lazy, one of sitting around doing not much, of constant socialising, of drinking – a lot of drinking. Oh yes… and the government were overthrown twice during our 3 years. After that, my mother said “no more” and we returned ‘home’ to a place even more alien to my mother than to me.

My experience of those childhood years is undoubtedly one of white privilege, but I don’t seek to culturally appropriate any of those experiences when I admire and speak with affection of my time there. Not all my observations will be glossy, some not entirely complimentary, but so are my observations of where is now my home. Every one of those countries formed the person I am now; they were the building blocks upon which I grew – and grew up. I wouldn’t change those years and those experiences for the world – I feel incredibly lucky to have had them.

In short, I believe telling my own story is more cultural appreciation than cultural appropriation for I cannot tell the stories of India, Nigeria and Bangladesh like anyone else – I can only tell of my own experience. If you look at my Goodreads, it’s clear to see that I read many stories told by Indians, Nigerians and Bangladeshis about their lives and of their country – and I hope you will do likewise.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction: The Stories – Hitman for Hire

Family Business

My name is Theodore and I’ve been a Hitman for Hire for four decades now. I’ve been training my eldest son to take over from me, just as my father did with me, and as his father… well, let’s just say it’s been a family business for generations back. It’s not always handed down to the eldest son –  I’m a youngest son myself – but my elder brother don’t have the requisite skill.

He’s got no aversion to killing, it’s just he’s not able to see our clients. But there’s still room for him in the business. You see, I pride myself on doing a job clean and quick, whereas my brother is a downright messy killer. I save him for those jobs when a client wants the hit to suffer. In truth, those jobs offend my sensibility, so I make good and sure that the hit really deserves it before I take the contract.

After my folks died, I lived a solitary life as a result of my line of work, for I only wanted a wife who would be understanding of what I did. I had to move around lots, for each time I shared my secret with my sweetheart, her reaction meant I’d be attracting the wrong sort of attention. But, if the family business was to continue, I had to keep trying.

I was in my forties when I met Dorothea. She was younger than me but had a calm practical way about her. I could see she was shocked when I first told her, but she gave me the time to explain instead of screaming right off. When I’d finished saying my piece, she nodded, then asked a few questions to satisfy herself before expressing her agreement that I was providing a valuable service. We were married a month later. I’d agreed we’d let our boys attend college and not talk about the family business until after they’d graduated. I gave my word there was to be pressure – for I know this must be a choice freely taken. But both our boys displayed they had the requisite skill from quite an early age, so that marked them out as separate from other folks anyhow.

My eldest boy attends all client meetings with me and he’s a real natural with them. He’s been shadowing me on the hits too, just to see how I go about it. I’m not rushing it, he’ll let me know when he’s ready to make the step up. The youngest boy is champing at the bit to join us. He refused to go away to college but is attending classes locally. He’s promised his mother he’ll graduate before he joins his older brother and me, so she allows him to help out with the research on potential hits, so long as his college work is up to date. He’s a real flair for it, and I believe my boys are going to make a great team when I retire.

Twice a month, we go up to the cottage to do our practical training. Dorothea packs up the truck for us with hearty stews, big steaks, lots of fresh veggies and salad, plus plenty of home-baked bread and pies. There’s always the fixings for good hearty breakfasts, and she never forgets to include some pancake batter together with a big old jar of maple syrup. We drink cowboy coffee while we’re up there, but no beer. We enjoy our time together, but it’s work and not play. We take beer with us when we go fishing – those are the weekends just for fun.

My brother hasn’t been quite so lucky in a wife, but has three fine sons. Like him, none have the requisite skill to see clients, but they get on well with my boys, and who knows – maybe there’ll be a place for them in the family business should they want to join.

The current hit we’re working on has a real sad backstory. Our client is a real nice lady, very gentle and genteel. She’d no idea her charming boyfriend was going to turn into a wife-beater after the wedding, but that’s what happened. Not just an ordinary one either, but a real nasty piece of work. She’s one that wants him to suffer, and she showed us photos and her physical scars in support of that. From our research, he looks to be – what’s the word now – grooming, that’s it. He looks to be grooming a young gal who’s the spitting image of our client. He’s such a piece of work that I’ll be happy to set my brother on him.

We have the meetings with our client in the church graveyard. She always waits for us seated on her family crypt. She was an only child and is the last of her line, for she’s had no children. We slip in once the minister goes home, and some nights it’s a long wait if he’s struggling with his sermon. But she’s always there, waiting for us. She says she’s looking forward to going, to be with the rest of her family. She’s tried to join them many a time, but the pain always drew her back. She saw us meeting with another client one evening and decided we might be what she needed to get free. I sure do hope it works for her. Sometimes it does, but other times it doesn’t – and it’s real sad when we find our ex-clients still here after we’ve completed our contract.

Maybe only the minister could help them… if only he could see them. I’ve suggested it once before to a minister, but we had to leave town real sharpish that time, and Dorothea made me promise not to do it again. She realises I’ve a soft heart and feel for my old clients, but I’ve given my word and she knows to rely on it.

Although we’ve done our best for them, the boys and I always greet our old clients when we see them still here, and we spend a bit of extra time with each one when we can. It’s a lonely life when you’re stuck between this world and the next, and I’d hope someone would be kind enough to do the same for me.

© Debra Carey, 2021

Pete looked at the magnificent silver-back gorilla through telescopic sights.  Although he was hundred of metres away, the gorilla appeared to right in front of him.  Only his professionalism kept him from shuddering.  He really wouldn’t want to go toe-to-toe with the creature.  The gorilla was sat like an untidy sack of mail in a small clearing across the valley from the hide that Pete had created.  The intel was good, and today would be the day.  He’d set up his forward base a week ago, settling in with a patience borne of years of training and experience.  Not much longer now and he would swiftly retreat, leaving not a sign that he had ever been here.

Taking a couple of calming breaths, Pete exhaled, focussed and let off the first shot.  A poacher fell to the ground; another had barely enough time to register his comrade’s demise before searing agony spread out from his chest.  One by one, the small group of hunters were picked off, the suppressor on the rifle ensuring that they never heard the shot that killed them, nor realised where the sniper’s nest was located.

Pete didn’t really like the suppressor as it changed the whole feel of the rifle, but it was good for this relatively close work in the jungles, where lines of sight were much more limited.  He keyed the short-wave radio’s speak-button and listened to the static become interrupted as he toggled the button on and off.  Dash-dot-dot-dash.  He waited a moment and there was an answering dot-dash.  Pete policed his brass and then any other gash that he hadn’t already dealt with over the last few days.  As he did so he took frequent glances to where the fallen poaches were already starting to attract flies.  His mucker Slade appeared from the nowhere he’d hidden himself on the same side of the valley as the gorillas and checked that the poachers really were all dead.  Pete had just finished stowing his gear when the radio hissed out another staccato message.  Dot-dash-dot, pause, dot-dot-dot-dash, pause, dot-dash-dot, dot-dot-dash.  Pete grinned.  He’d been through a lot with Slade, one way and another, and still his mate could find a way to make him laugh – a race to the RV, yeah, right…

Three hours later, and Pete was back at the land rover.  Bob was providing security whilst Jag was stowing the last of their gear and ensuring that the vehicle was in tip-top condition – or at least as tip-top as could be achieved in the middle of nowhere.  In a matter of minutes Slade joined them.

“Looks like the beers are on you, old son” Pete drawled, attempting to make it look like he’s been back at the rendezvous for a lot longer than a couple of minutes.

Jag picked up the handset of a bigger radio than the little short-wave jobs that they used for local comms.

“Stanley calling Attenborough. Stanley calling Attenborough.  Livingstone and Tarzan secure repeat Livingstone and Tarzan secure out.”

Pete and Slade slung their packs into the back of the Landrover, climbed in themselves and were just seated when Jag tore off down the dirt track.  Not for the first time, Pete wondered what the real Attenborough would think of what they were doing here.  Not an awful lot, Pete suspected.  Was this a case of two wrongs not making a right?  Would there always be others to take the place of the men who’d died today, trying to set traps for creatures that should be left alone to live their lives in peace?  Still, from Pete’s perspective, there were wore ways to make a living, and with the skill set he’d developed over the years there weren’t exactly a lot of career options. 

“Attenborough calling Stanley, come in, over.” The radio crackled to life.  Bob picked up the handset while Jag continued to weave his way down the mountain track at speed.

“This is Stanley, receiving you loud and clear Attenborough, over.”

“Congratulations on successful mission, Stanley.  We have reports of poachers heading towards a herd of elephants.  It’s on your exit route.  We can provide you with an alternate route, or provide intel for engagement. Over.”  Bob looked around and collected nods.

“Understood Attenborough.  We will engage, but we will need a re-supply on route. Over.”

“Affirmative Stanley.  Standby for co-ordinates for resupply by drone.  Out.”

“Looks like those beers will have to wait”, Slade grinned.

“Reckon so.  And a shower if it comes to that.”

“I’ll miss the beers more.”

“We won’t!”

Pete and Slade settled down into the watchful doze of the trained professional who doesn’t know what the future held.  Yeah, Pete thought as he drifted off, there are worse ways to make a living.

© David Jesson, 2021

#IWSG: Drawing the Line

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

October 6 question – In your writing, where do you draw the line, with either topics or language?

In real life, I swear a fair bit – yet I don’t when I write. I could suggest that’s because writing is a more thoughtful process and so there’s time to come up with a wider vocabulary to express myself – but, in truth, I’ve made a conscious choice not to. There are many things which can take a reader out of the story, so why not exclude something which is known to cause offence and is easy to avoid. I’ve read books – mostly set in the future – where words are clearly used in the same way as I swear. The difference is those words have no meaning to us in the here and now, and so are unlikely to cause offence. I have to say, I particularly admire this technique 😉

In terms of subject matter, we made a decision on this website to exclude anything which would be regarded as NSFW (not safe for work). In my off-site writing, I’d not made a similar decision but, when working on a series of short stories about love based upon one-liners sent in to a competition, I’ve found myself skipping over the one which would be overtly sexual in nature – even though my intended take on the prompt is light-hearted and humorous. The Bad Sex in Fiction award is enough to make me extremely cautious and so likely to avoid that particular genre… unless using a nom de plume 😉 I’m also not drawn to anything containing depictions of extreme violence or abuse – either as a writer or a reader. That said, one of the best books I’ve read contained both, but as they’re not topics I seek out, I feel I’m unlikely to write anything where they feature.

Finally, can I put in a plea to the large number of you using the Blogger platform. Please consider setting your comments to include Name/URL, otherwise the demise of Google+ means those not on Blogger are unable to fully participate in this blog hop with you.

The awesome co-hosts this month are are Jemima Pitt, J Lenni Dorner, Cathrina Constantine, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, and Mary Aalgaard – do take a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction prompt?

Every month, we run a different #FF prompt and this month it’s about a hitman for hire, but with one twist – your clients are all supernatural. Your business motto is “… because ghosts need revenge too.” Tell us your story, or tell us their story.

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.

© Debra Carey, 2021

#FlashFiction Prompt: Hitman for Hire

You’re a hitman for hire, but with one twist – your clients are all supernatural. Your business motto is “… because ghosts need revenge too.”

Tell us your story, or tell us their story.
As ever, any genre you like.

Word count: up to 1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 10th October 2021

If you can’t make this deadline, don’t forget you can use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.