Book Review: Growing Pains by Mike Shooter

The two sub-headings of this book is ‘Making Sense of Childhood’ and ‘A Psychiatrist’s Story’. In essence, it is a mix of the writer’s professional and (to a lesser extent) personal autobiography, a series of case studies of children and young people that he has helped in his career and a personal plea for the kind of multi-disciplinary approach to helping young people with psychiatric issues that the writer believes gives real results.

Dr Mike Shooter CBE was President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and specialises in treating children and adolescents. We must believe, therefore, that he knows what he is talking about but as it is told from his viewpoint only, it’s unclear to the reader what alternative perspectives might be on offer. Certainly, his beliefs in the importance of listening closely to the children to determine the underlying cause of their issues and working with a team of specialists in a variety of fields to help them manage and sometimes overcome their personal and psychiatric problems seem sensible and convincing; but a non-specialist would not know of any alternative views.

Dr Shooter feels that it is too easy for medical professionals to label a child’s problem as a particular syndrome for treatment with drugs. He notes that some families prefer a diagnosis like this as having a medical condition carries less of a stigma and removes some of their own responsibility for dealing with it.

The chapters in the book are a series of case studies from Dr Shooter’s career; each one highlighting an issue or theme (e.g the nature of adolescence, anorexia, cultural differences, peer group pressure & aggression). The stories of the children and adolescents Dr Shooter has helped are told with compassion and a lack of sensationalism. His description seem to indicate that he is able to determine the root of a child’s particular issue quite easily but it must surely have been more difficult in reality but, perhaps, that approach is just for the sake of brevity.

Very little is said about the actual methods used for helping the children to overcome and/or manage their particular issues. Whilst the stories are moving and sad, one cases study follows another, follows another. It starts to feel formulaic and, unfortunately, monotonous. The words of patients and their families are quoted but in many cases they feel like they are ‘paraphrased’ as they seem to be too polished and too perfect to ring true.

Dr Mike Shooter is to be admired for his compassion and his long commitment to helping children and adolescents. His message of listening to the children rather than rushing into a diagnosis seems important. However, as a book, it is not a compelling read.

Growing Pains is published by Hodder and Stoughton.


Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (by Deepa Anappara)

I was provided with an uncorrected advance proof copy provided for review purposes.

This book is not what you might expect from the title alone. Sounds like it could be a fun, feel-good, adventure story doesn’t it? It isn’t. Djinn and the Purple Line are not key to the story and are really quite peripheral.

The story focuses on Jai, his sister Runu and their parents who live in a tiny one-room shanty dwelling in a settlement that is at risk at being bulldozed at any moment. Despite the poverty, the family own a TV and mobile phones. Jai thinks the TV is the best thing they own and loves true-life detective and cop shows with their focus on lurid and shocking crimes.

A neighbour’s son, who is Jai’s classmate, goes missing and this sets the scene for the remainder of the book. Jai decides to act as detective to find out what is going on.

There are funny elements in this and, at first, it felt like this was going to follow the template of Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly the themes you might expect to find in a book set in an Indian city are there; prejudice, extreme poverty, inequality between the sexes, police and government corruption and a pretty harsh existence for poor children.

There follows a series of other children and adolescents who go missing without trace, causing rising alarm, fear and suspicion between neighbours, Hindus and Muslims.

The story is largely from Jai’s viewpoint, but his sister, Runu’s, life seems far more interesting and poignant. Runu has dreams and ambitions for her future but knows she will end up being seen as just another disappointing daughter and wife.

It becomes clear that there will be no redemption or happy ending for this story and this is reinforced near the end when Runu goes missing. The popular media is criticised for being shallow, overlooking the human suffering whilst focusing on the salacious and shocking elements of the disappearances. Criticising tabloid media for doing stories that sell seems pointless, regardless of how much we might not like it.

The writing itself is descriptive and helps to build up a picture of the slums and the life of those who live in them. There are many Indian words used that are unfamiliar. I had to assume what a number of them meant from the context of the sentence they featured in. It’s not a major problem but it can be a bit confusing if you don’t want to be checking meanings on Google translate every few minutes.

Deepa Anappara tells a very important story about the number of children and young people who go missing every day in India and are never heard from again. However, I got this message from the short author biography on the inside cover at the back of the book. This book could easily have been edited down to a shorter, more focused story. many elements seem irrelevant and not particularly interesting from a scene-building point of view.

In summary, despite the importance of the message, the book itself is just ‘ok’. You may love it but it’s not one I will be telling people they must read at the first opportunity.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is due to be published by Chatto & Windus in January 2020.

Book Review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach

Fabrizio Collini meets well known German industrialist Hans Meyer at a Berlin Hotel and brutally murders him. He then waits in the lobby for the police to arrive.

Struggling novice defence lawyer, Casper Leinen, is on the legal-aid rota and receives a call from the magistrate’s office to ask if he will represent Collini. Sensing the possibility of making a name for himself, Leinen is keen to take on the case. Finding his client to be uncommunicative and also discovering that the victim and the bereaved are known to him, Leinen questions his commitment.

It appears to be an open and shut case. Can he, should he, defend Collini? Of course, he does, and his efforts to do his utmost to defend his client sees him delve into his personal history and friendships as well as the troubled past of Germany.

This is the first book I have read by Ferdinand von Schirach, a respected defence lawyer in Germany who has written short stories and novels that have become bestsellers.

This is a slim book and von Shirach’s style is spare but efficient. The characters are introduced and the plot moves along at a pace. At first, the brisk, unfussy style comes across well but later, narrative jumps and some questionable scenes in which the characters choose to release information when it would suit the writer best, rather than when it would be natural for them to release it, serve to irritate.

As an example, during a crucial cross-examination scene an expert witness answers the prosecutor’s questions with mostly ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, which is great for the prosecution. She does not qualify her answers in any way, as would be natural to an expert who wanted to convey full information and the nuances of what they were saying. The full picture only comes out when Casper Leinen cross-examines her and, conveniently, she gives a fuller statement that changes the weight of her evidence considerably.

There are also scenes which seem to add nothing to the story other than perhaps ticking off a list of items that the writer has been told are necessary for a crime-thriller. Autopsy (tick). Sex scene (tick). Montage of the protagonist making a name for himself and in a dashed off paragraph listing all of the cases he has successfully defended before the main murder case comes to court (tick). Defence lawyer receiving homely but sage advice from a shop owner (tick). However, without these, the book would be more a pamphlet given von Schirach’s unfussy style. The reader may also roll their eyes when the prosecution lawyer stands up and blusters ‘I object.’ Can this ever not happen in a fictional court case?

The story is readable however, and you will want to get to the end to find out what happens. It also raises some interesting and though-provoking questions about how we adjust to new knowledge that affects long-held beliefs, experiences and memories.

The Collini Case was translated from the German by Anthea Bell and published by Penguin Books – 2015

Book Review: Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Anyone who has read Children of Time will know that Adrian Tchaikovsky can create marvellous science fiction.

This new short novel tells the story of a British astronaut who is part of an international team sent to investigate a mysterious anomaly at the fringes of the Solar System. The anomaly turns out to be an ancient alien ‘artefact’, which, due to its appearance is dubbed the ‘Frog God’.

I know! Mysterious ancient artefacts, what’s not to like?

The artefact is riddled with tunnels which humans can move through but which are inhospitable to technology. The astronauts call the labyrinthine interior of the artefact ‘the crypts’. Mostly the interior is barren and boring but sometimes they come across oddities and horrors. The ‘egg men’ are a particular delight, I would leave to read a book on their back-story and exploits.

The story is told from the point of view of Gary Rendell, who always wanted to be an astronaut but is having second thoughts on this mission. Like me, some of you may be looking at that name and thinking what it reminds you of. Perhaps if you view the name as G.Rendell it might help you to think of that legendary exiled creature of darkness who is the bane of mankind.

The story switches between the mission out to the artefact and Gary Rendell’s increasingly desperate and deranged wanderings around the interior, where time, space and gravity do not act in the way that they should.

Tchaikovsky even manages a reference to Ack Ack Macaque, simian creation of Gareth L Powell.

This is a great little book and will help Tchaikovsky fans in the period before the sequel to Children of Time is released.

Walking to Aldebaran is published by Solaris.

Book Review: Muscle by Alan Trotter

In this dark, comedy the narrator and protagonist (for the most part) is a large man called Box, who is good at violence but little else that would earn him a living.

He was given the nickname Box by his colleague/partner named _________, a line 1cm long. How do you say it? How do you read it? For the sake of not having a mental hum every time I came to the name, I decided to refer to him as ‘Line’.

Line is first introduced to Box in a very unconventional, violent and acrobatic manner. It’s hilarious. Afterwards, they are both muscle for hire. Their start in the business is inauspicious and they have to resort to strong arm tactics to persuade potential clients to give them work. Their lives seem to consist of long-periods of ennui in run-down buildings, interspersed with briefer flashes of work. Box sees it as a way to get by but Line appears to be more sadistic, enjoying the savagery for its own sake. Line can be violent towards Box, who tolerates it, believing that Line could lose control.

They play card games with associates and strangers. A man called Holcomb plays poker with them. Holcomb is a science-fiction writer. Box picks up a SF mag that contains one of Holcomb’s stories, which is described in detail. The story seems to be about fear of difference and violence towards the ‘other’. Box is mesmerised by it and the thought of time-travel. He wonders what he would do with such a machine, a thought which will stay with him for the rest of his life.

Box is a man of very few words and struggles to make his thoughts and feelings known. A girlfriend of Holcomb, called Evvie, shows some kindness towards Box, as one would to a frightened or tongue-tied child. Box reads into it more than Evvie intended.

In the later parts of the book, the narrative switches away from Box. We find out that things have not gone as expected for him and Box, which has resulted in doublecross, the alienation of Evvie and death. Box is shown in a self-made head contraption of his own making, which is his attempt at time travel. Does it represent a pathetic attempt to undo the past and make things right, or could it be the real thing?

This is a very enjoyable alternative take on a hard-boiled gangster noir theme. Plenty of the language would fit well in a gumshoe/hoodlum book written several decades ago. It’s got an authentic feel but with a contemporary outlook and theme. There are a number of interesting characters throughout, most have some redeeming feature. The red-headed pickpocket triplets are a particular highlight, particularly the description of their synchronous way of moving around. The style of writing gives the reader a contemplative feeling, the words are measured and thoughtful. The Science Fiction theme gives a twist that makes Box and the reader think about regret and revisiting the past.

Muscle is published by Faber and Faber

Book Review: Children of Tomorrow by A.E. Van Vogt

After 10 years away, Space Commander John Lane returns home to Spaceport, Earth and is reunited with his wife Estelle and 16 year old daughter, Susan.

Lane discovers that the role of raising children in their teenage years (when they are colloquially known as ‘jabbers’) has passed to officially sanctioned ‘outfits’. Lane is not happy with this change and puts wheels in motion to undermine the outfit and return responsibility for raising his daughter to the parents (more specifically, him).

A member of an alien race watches Lane from afar, aided by his son (Bud) who is disguised as a member of Susan’s outfit. The aliens are very interested in learning the capabilities and weaknesses of Earth. The alien seeks to protect and guide his son from afar.

Matters come to a head when an alien fleet is detected at the fringes of the Solar System but in a trajectory that will intercept Earth. Commander Lane must respond to the threat. Bud, attempts to escape Earth prior to the confrontation. Both must consider their loyalties and conceptions about parental responsibility.

Written in 1970, the book is dated by the use of language and the vision of technology. Teenagers are called ‘jabbers’, parents, like Lane who oppose the ‘outfit’ system are ‘booters’. Teenagers say ‘sack’, which appears to be a general affirmation/agreement along the lines of ‘you dig?’. Telephones are still wired into houses and call-boxes and there are many mentions of lifts which take people up and down to the underground transport system. Most of the focus is on the characters themselves and the reader doesn’t really get a picture of Spaceport. In some respects, the setting and language feel dated even for the 1970s.

More problematic from our viewpoint is Lane’s attitude to his daughter. His view of parental responsibility seems to be that he owns his daughter and he will decide what is right for her future. To be fair to Van Vogt, Len Jaeger, the unwitting father of alien imposter Bud, also treats his son as a chattel and violently resists all outside influence. In a plot to undermine Susan’s ‘outfit’ (the Red Cats, groovy man!) Lane orders a good looking Flight Officer under his command to take her on a date. The Flight Officer is more than 10 years older than Susan and uses his greater strength to force her into kissing against her wishes. In a strange counterpoint, a scene involving Lane receiving a late night call is at pains to highlight that he and his wife have twin beds. No funny business here.

The outfits themselves are semi-autonomous and apply approved ‘outfit regulations’. For the most part, outfit members are very sensible, studious, independent and prudish (Susan is sanctioned for lip-kissing, even though it was against her will) Considering that the outfits are made up of of boys and girls from the ages of 13 to 19, this might not chime with the readers experience of teenagers or their memories of themselves at the same age. Outfits have been adopted because evidence showed that men like Lane, who seek danger and tests of courage largely as a result of trauma in their own teenage lives which condemns them to remain as overgrown teens forever. Their actions subsequently cause trauma to their own sons and daughters and the loop continues on and on. It is felt that teenagers are better able to raise themselves and younger children and the results in Spaceport, seem to support the theory.

Intergenerational differences are the main topic of the book and, indeed, feature in the confrontation with the alien fleet at the climax. If you can accept the vision of the future was written almost 50 years ago and that relations between men and women and their children were somewhat ‘different’ then, this is for the most part an enjoyable book, which makes you consider modern relationships between the sexes and the generations.

Book Review – Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

Noted as ‘Britain’s favourite graphic novelist’ on the back cover blurb, but I’m ashamed to say I had not heard about Posy Simmonds before I became aware of the release of this book.

Cassandra runs a London art gallery. We are introduced to her as she is trying to avoid the widow of an artist. We soon learn she is very greedy and selfish. Her assistant at the gallery resigns almost as soon as she is introduced in the book due to Cassandra’s selfishness and lack of empathy.

The art in the book is mixed with text and speech bubbles. It feels a little incongruous to have substantial chunks of text within a graphic novel.

The artists widow discovers that Cassandra has been selling unauthorised copies of her late husband’s work, there is public scandal a court case and community service. Cassandra doesn’t much care.

Simmonds Art is clear, muted colours and textured shading give a wintery feel. There are occasional bright flashes of colour, a picture on a wall, a shop window display, chicken nuggets with chips and baked beans on a plate.

Cassandra takes in Nicki, the daughter of her ex-husband. Gives her a room and some money in exchange for Nicki being her ‘gofer’ essentially. A game of dare at a friend’s hen-do leads to the attempted rape of Nicki.

The attacker is a man named Deano. Nicki learns this off Billy, a former acquaintance of Deano who becomes her boyfriend.

To add to her list of endearing qualities, Cassandra is a hypocrite. She has ripped off clients in a big way, but accuses Nick of stealing food when the housekeeper giver her the left overs from Cassandra’s meals. Cassandra is mean and uncharitable.

Deano has a history of abusing women, aided by his small gang. We learn that Billy has come uncomfortably close to Deano’s crimes and has come into the possession of a gun, which Deano desperately wants back. Unwittingly, Nicki and Cassandra get sucked into a dangerous struggle.

I really wanted to like this book. Whilst I thought the art was excellent and Posy Simmonds makes reference to some pressing contemporary issues, I found it difficult to love. Cassandra does not come across as evil, just someone you wouldn’t have much to do with if you could help it. She’s meant to be unloved but it was also difficult to feel much empathy with the remaining cast of characters.

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (Jonathan Cape – 2018)