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review 2018-01-02 01:06
A Funeral for an Owl - Jane Davis

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.


‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.


Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.


In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”


Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.


However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

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review 2017-08-04 22:08
Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This novel of Indian immigrants struggling to survive in modern England straddles the line between fiction and op-ed. It’s a compelling story, but one in which the author’s interest in documenting the abuses the characters suffer at home and abroad is clearly the top priority.

 

Three young men travel from India to England in search of work, and for a time are all residents of one overcrowded house inhabited by the members of a construction crew. Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi each represent a particular experience: Randeep grows up middle-class with a father in government, but as the only son, is forced to drop out of college and support his family following his father’s nervous breakdown; Avtar’s family is urban working poor, a precarious existence that offers no future to his middle-class girlfriend; Tochi comes from a rural family of the “untouchable” caste, which falls victim to horrific violence in the book’s most over-the-top scene of emotional manipulation. (I almost stopped reading upon reaching this section early in the book, but am glad I didn’t – nothing else in it is quite so manipulative or unearned.) The men find various routes to England depending on their resources; in Randeep’s case, it’s by marrying Narinder, a devout young Sikh woman from an immigrant family who rounds out the primary cast.

 

In a sad irony for a book devoted to chronicling the lives of desperate immigrants, Sahota seems much more capable of inhabiting those characters who come from comfortable backgrounds. Randeep and Narinder are fully-realized characters with inner lives. Avtar and Tochi are object lessons in the difficulties of being poor in India and the reasons young men would immigrate to England even under harsh conditions. Both can be thoroughly described by the word “dutiful,” and neither has any discernible inner life, unless you count occasionally becoming angry at their circumstances. Randeep and Narinder are shaped by the circumstances of their lives but have personality that isn’t a direct response to the events around them; Avtar and Tochi read like hollow representatives of “typical” poor immigrant men.

 

That said, the story moves briskly and Sahota does an excellent job of chronicling the characters’ day-to-day lives in a compelling way, which had me eager to return to the story even when I wasn’t fully convinced by the characters. As a work intended to raise awareness about a social issue, this does an excellent job: Sahota writes with authority about the characters’ circumstances, shaping readers’ understanding of their lives so that we understand their choices and the protagonists remain sympathetic characters throughout. At times the tragedy becomes predictable (I was reminded of Rohinton Mistry, though this isn’t quite as tragic or of the same literary caliber), though it isn’t simply an endless catalogue of misery; more often the characters experience good things only to have them snatched away. The end is rather weak: the final chapter leaves the characters at their lowest point, only to jump 10 years into the future for the epilogue. Seeing how the characters pulled out of those circumstances would have improved the book, though it’s long already. And for a 10-years-later epilogue, this one is surprisingly inconclusive.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that the text includes many Punjabi words (and without a glossary); unlike most books that do this, this one does not always make the meaning evident from context. A few times I tried to find translations online (with varying success), though they are not so crucial that you wouldn’t understand the story.

 

At any rate, I enjoyed reading this book and think it’s a good one for raising awareness and for those who enjoy social realist novels. Rounding the rating down on sites that require it because although the plot kept me engaged while reading, I would have appreciated a little more literary quality and a little less of an object lesson.

 

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review 2017-01-13 12:31
An Aching Kind of Growing- Brittany Rowland

    This is a really engaging piece of social drama that takes us deep into the life of a marginalised and abused teenaged girl. Most of the book appears as profoundly real as any dramatic fiction I’ve been privileged to read. Sadly, I know the story is an accurate reflection on too many young lives. Natalie comes from a theoretically ‘middle-class’ home, in a middle-class street, in a normal enough town, yet her young life is for the main part anything but comfortable.

    Natalie is a bright girl who is blighted by having a physically abusive father, and an emotional detached mother. She is the constant scapegoat for every wrong, for every misfortune, for every failure in her family, while being personally deprived of all but the necessities for life. No wonder then, that she ends up on the streets and as the victim of further abuses. Thankfully the author stood clear of introducing sexual abuse as well. Perhaps that on top of everything else wouldn’t have only detracted from credibility. The main thrust of the story is that Natalie is let down by the care system as much as by those close to her. That is a woefully familiar story, as cash strapped social programmes fail in almost every corner of the world.

     The story is very well written from a technical point of view, and very well crafted as a story. This appears to be this author’s first real leap into fiction writing, from a non-fiction writing background. I hope there is far more of her penetrating fiction to come. This is the sort of book that encourages all right-minded people to be generous towards those that are struggling; especially the young, routinely down on their luck and short of consistent support. Natalies exist in every towns’ shadows, marginalised by systems that just about support the luckiest, but which seem only to make the lives of the emotionally and physically deprived comparatively and inexcusably more intolerable.

     I recommend this book to all those with less than solidly frozen hearts, as a reminder that most street kids, usually driven by desperation to petty crime, or worse, don’t volunteer for their roles; even when that sometimes appears to be the case. This is powerful writing that, as others have said, makes this book hard to put down.

AMAZON LINK

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review 2016-08-07 00:00
Runaways, Vol. 3: The Good Die Young
Runaways, Vol. 3: The Good Die Young - Adrian Alphona,Brian K. Vaughan

'The Runaways' follows a group of teens and tweens who have known each other all their lives. Their parents were friends and for the most part they merely tolerated the annual get-togethers of their families. That is until they discovered their parents' secret identities as "The Pride", a super-powered criminal organization that all-but-rules Los Angeles.

In the first two volumes, the kids escape from their parents and discover their inheritance: one way or another, each one of them has skills, powers and access to materials that allow them to be as powerful as their parents.

'The Good Die Young' picks up as the team try to regroup after a failed attack on their parents, and on the news that one of them has been informing their parents of their whereabouts and plans. I've rated this one a little higher than previous issues, simply because I appreciated how it wrapped up many of the questions I had when I started the series. There is a significant amount of closure. I've heard there's a television show in the works, I look forward to it.

 

The Runaways

 

Next: 'True Believers'

 

Previous ' Teenage Wasteland'

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review 2016-07-24 20:51
The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This another hardest reviews that I have ever written and just because my feeling and thoughts are all over the place. I have a hard time between giving this three or two stars.

 

The Year of the Runaways is a bleak book, it tells account of the lives of young Indian men trying to make a life for themselves in Britain, working illegally in the guise of students, contracting fake marriages to qualify for a visa, being exploited by employers without a conscience, and living in conditions that would break anyone's spirit. There’s no doubt that it’s a realistic picture of the lives of illegal Indian immigrants to Britain, and we do sympathy with the young men who are its subject.

 

I can only appreciate the way that two of the four central characters are developed. The parallel drawn between Tochi's mistreatment as a chamaar in Bihar and an immigrant in London was painful but essential to see developed. As Tochi journey to see something valuable in himself, torn between two worlds that think him worthless, a very clear spoken call to action is cried out. The fact that any nation inevitably produces Tochis of its own is appalling. As is the fact for that matter, that the world produces versions of Narinder. As a woman, she's been told time and again that her life is not her own. As she progresses to claim something for herself, I again found something so real in her struggle. Both she and Tochi are unfairly tangled up in their struggles because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the injustice of their circumstances is impossible to miss.

 

There are many characters in the book to keep track of initially and sometimes with going back and forth between present and the past, I had a hard time distinguishing them apart. There are also so many, and I mean many, times Punjabi words or phrases are in the book and usually I did not know what it meant. I hard a hard time getting into this at first but then the story picks up.

 

 

In the end, the narrative reel out of series of events that earnestly demonstrate different angels of the illegal immigrant problem. Sahota is not a bad writer, and his story is a strong one in terms of human interest. The year of the runaways is a good read.

 

My only opinion is that novel shouldn't be more than a group of moving stories, relevant to the problems of our time. I want more than that.

 

Would I recommend this novel to anyone? It depends if they want to read a realist of being in the shoes of illegal immigrant then yes, you should read it. But if you don't want to read the lives of illegal immigrant then you shouldn't read it.

 

 

This review can also be found on DW

 

 

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