Tuesday 21 November 2023

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

A man, Nealon, returns home to find his house empty; not just empty but seemingly abandoned. No heating. No lights. No inhabitants. The only welcome (as such) is from an unknown man on the telephone. A man who seems to know all about Nealon, and certainly more than the reader does.. 

As days pass more of Nealon's life is revealed - his childhood in rural Ireland, his career as an artist, his relationship with his wife and son, and, crucially, where he's been for the past few months - but he himself remains an enigma. He may, or may not, have been behind an enormous insurance fraud. He may be the person behind an ongoing security alert ... but, then again, he may not

This is definitely a difficult book to describe, but for its length (under 200 pages) it gives the reader a lot to think about. It's a strange book, weird but absorbing, enigmatic like its protagonist, which raises more questions about characters and events than get answered. (I once read that a lack of resolution was the mark of a literary novel - in which case this must be the most literary of them all). For me, it's a book that I'd go back to and mull over; I feel like there are hints and details along the way that didn't register with me on a first read-through but which would help clarify the ending. 

I haven't read anything previously by Mike McCormack but knew he'd been long-listed for the Booker, so was intrigued when I saw this come up on Netgalley. I'm not certain if this is typical of McCormack's style but to me it seemed reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work, with that feeling of a character creating the world around him as he names things and people.


Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Harbour Lights Mystery by Emylia Hall

"As The Shell House Detectives try to solve a family mystery, their investigation runs dangerously close to a murder case. Are the two linked?"

 The Shell House Detectives are back. Thrown together over the solving of a murder case, unlikely couple Ally, the widow of a retired country policeman, and Jayden a much younger ex-city cop have set up the Shell House Detective Agency. Over summer they've solved some low key cases but the approach of Christmas finds them on the fringes of another murder.

Ally Bright is in Mousehole for a fun evening of carols and Christmas lights when the evening's festivities are cut short by the discovery of a dead body. Her friend Gus, despite being a budding crime writer, wants to head home immediately, but Ally is eager to find out more. This time, though, she really does have to leave things to the police.

 The dead man is quickly identified as J P Sharpe, a chef at a local restaurant, and someone with a string of enemies. An added complication is an unposted letter found in his coat pocket, which might be the solution to a local family mystery. This is something Ali and Jayden can get involved in, especially as they know those involved, but their inquiries lead them back to the killer and a dangerous situation they may not be able to get out of. 

 I really enjoyed the first in this cosy crime series, The Shell House Detectives, and if anything this return to Porthpella is better. I felt there was more opportunity this time for Hall's ability to create atmosphere and location.  The real Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, setting for the murder; with its jolly festive lights sharply contrasting with the empty dunes and lonely out-of-season vibes of Porthpella.

There's also opportunity to get to know the characters better. To explore Ally's unsettled relationship with Gus, Jayden's absorption with fatherhood and misgivings about leaving the police force, plus the lives and backstories of the 'supporting cast' of Saffron, the cafe-owning surfer, and Mullins, the inexperienced and slightly immature local policeman. 

If you're looking for a Christmassy cosy crime adventure this is perfect, but if you're looking for a snow-filled coming-of-age mystery I'd also add a suggestion to track down one of Emylia Hall's earlier novels - A Heart Bent Out of Shape 

Thursday 19 October 2023

Julia by Sandra Newman

 "London, chief city of Airstrip One, the third most populous province of Oceania. It's 1984 and Julia Worthing works as a mechanic fixing the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. Under the ideology of IngSoc and the rule of the Party and its leader Big Brother, Julia is a model citizen - cheerfully cynical, believing in nothing and caring not at all about politics. She knows how to survive in a world of constant surveillance, Thought Police, Newspeak, Doublethink, child spies and the black markets of the prole neighbourhoods. She's very good at staying alive."

To be honest, when I first heard about 'Julia' I wondered if we really needed a re-telling of "!984" -  it's a dystopian classic after all - but I was intrigued enough to read it, and I'm glad I did.The story is told this time from the point of view of Winston Smith's lover Julia, and their relationship given a new twist. 

While outwardly following the rules laid down by Big Brother and the Party, following the dull, regimented life expected of lower Party members, Julia has found ways to sidestep the regulations and live a slightly fuller life - or so she thinks. Big Brother has eyes everywhere, Julia's activities have been noted, and she finds herself drawn into a plot against Smith. 

Newman has managed to catch Orwell's writing style, cleverly twining a new story around the original, and incorporating much of his dialogue. If anything the dreariness of existence under Big Brother's regime seems more overwhelming - perhaps because Julia desires more from life than Winston does. Unqualified support of the Party is necessary, sex and marriage are frowned on, and entertainment consists mainly of meetings given over to Party propaganda and the occasional game of table tennis. Being selected as part of a conspiracy plays into Julia's craving for excitement, but she isn't as essential as she feels; in fact she's merely being manipulated along with everyone else.

To say I 'enjoyed' this is maybe not the accurate word - hard hitting and brutal, it's a story about living without hope and with no real prospect of any in the future - but it's a powerful read. A word of warning - there are disturbing torture scenes, and explicit sex scenes.

Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "1984" immediately afterward, and actually found "Julia" the better of the two. Maybe it speaks more directly to me as a woman, but it benefits, I feel, from losing the long chapters of Goldstein's subversive text and the torture scenes which go on for far too long. In Julia they're short and sharp, but lose none of their terror. 

Also, when your lover has betrayed you rather than face a couple of rats, what do you do? Julia's way is gruesome, if not sickening, but definitely effective. Proving once again that the female of her species is more deadly than the male

Saturday 14 October 2023

The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby

Hannah Tyrell's childhood was a happy one. She and her mother lived and worked on a farm in the Waveney valley in Norfolk, and despite some villagers looking down on her mother for being unmarried, their lives were settled and content. Then tragedy struck - Hannah's mother is arrested for the suspected murder of her newborn child, and commits suicide, and, the village not wanting to support her, Hannah sent away to a Refuge for the Destitute in London.

The one instance of companionship and love she finds there is deemed 'unnatural' and 'vicious' , and an attempt to run away leads Hannah into further trouble. Moving from one bad situation to a worse, her life cycles downwards until eventfully she's transported to Australia. 

The Low Road is the moving story of a young girl caught up, through no fault of her own, in the early 19th century system of Refuges and Workhouses that took care of the destitute. If you've ever watched the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? which traces family trees, you'll be aware that once part of that system there's very little chance of escape.

It's a gritty, realistic story - both depressingly familiar, and yet unique; focusing on one individual, Hannah, and bringing life and compassion to the 'statistics' of Refuges' drudgery and transportation. An interesting read based on real-life records which brings the injustices of the past vividly to life.

Thursday 5 October 2023

Upon a Frosted Star by M A Kuzniar

Once a year, as the snow begins to fall on London, invitations arrive to a fabulous party held in a remote manor house. Attending for the first time, Forster is amazed and bewitched, by the opulence and magic of the evening, not least by the ethereal, enigmatic ballet dancer who steals his heart. Determined to find out who she is, he returns at a later date but finds nothing but an abandoned house and a lake on which a solitary swan is swimming. He must wait till the next winter before he can see his beautiful dancer again.

Through his love for Odetta, Forster finds inspiration for, and success in, his art, but they cannot be together until he can unravel the spell that ballet impresario Rothbard has cast over her

A mix of fantasy and historical fiction, Upon A Frosted Star is a beautiful, heartbreaking re-telling of Swan Lake, with a sprinkle of Gatsby-inspired parties thrown in. The story is simple in some ways - we know who the good guys are, we want them to live happily ever after, and we know that Rothbard is undoubtedly evil despite the magical ballets that he produces - but the telling is captivating.

The only negative I could find was that at times things move along a little too slowly. Part of this is due to Forster and Odetta being only able to meet in winter, but I also thought there was a little too much unnecessary (in my opinion at least) detour into the relationship between Forster and his friends, Marvin and Daisy. I wanted the story to stay with Forster and Odetta, and their attempts to be free from Rothbart's evil designs 

Thursday 21 September 2023

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm. 

Then one day, one of those very undergraduates, Jocelyn Luke, calls in at the shop, falls head over heels in love, and proposes. To Mr Pinner this is an ideal way to solve the issue of Sally's safety - get someone else to look after her. She and Jocelyn will marry and all will be well - but having fallen for Sally's looks Jocelyn discovers that there were perhaps other things he should have considered. Sally's conversation, education, and manner of speech are all an embarrassment to him - plus he now realises the stir that Sally creates everywhere, and that he is the one to keep such unwanted attention at bay.
Meanwhile, back in her refined but tiny home, Jocelyn's widowed mother has a not-quite romantic entanglement of her own. Her distress at hearing of her only son's marriage and the possible throwing away of his bright academic future led to her accepting a marriage proposal from her undoubtedly rich, but not quite of her class, neighbour. Can she really tolerate his free and easy manners and turns of speech?

Introduction to Sally was first published in 1926, and, although we probably think we're above such matters these days, I feel we all love a comedy which laughs at our perceptions of, and about, class - think of Henry Higgins trying to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak 'proper English', or, more recently, wannabe social-climber Hyacinth Bucket.  There's certainly more than a touch of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady in this comedy of manners as Jocelyn and his mother attempt to improve Sally's speech, but she is no Eliza Doolittle, and refuses to hear the difference between her words and theirs. Sally has her own ideas about how to behave well (a husband doesn't dump his new bride with his mother and go and live elsewhere, and he certainly shouldn't swear) and won't tolerate anyone contradicting her. 
Von Arnim is probably best known for The Enchanted April which, although it has its humorous moments and ironic observations, isn't as thoroughly funny in the way of Introduction to Sally;  from the crowds who flock to gaze adoringly at Sally, the loss of luggage from the back of the car and its subsequent retrieval, to Mr Pinner's obsession with keeping Sally 'safe' the humour ranges from sly wit to farce. As with the best comedy scriptwriters, von Arnim has the knack of highlighting the short-comings of her characters while still leading the reader to become fond of them. I think it's rather a pity that there were no follow-ups to this Introduction, for a I suspect Sally would have triumphed over prejudice every time 


Wednesday 13 September 2023

What it was like to be an Ancient Roman by David Long

Following on from What it was like to be a Viking, Blue Peter Award winner David Long takes us to Ancient Rome to discover what life was like there.

Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini, this is a short but all-encompassing introduction to life in Ancient Rome aimed at readers of 9 and over (KS2). It introduces children to the history of Rome, from a group of huts to a sprawling empire, and its many accomplishments of roads and buildings, legal systems and calendars, echoes of which can still be seen today.  They can learn about amphitheatres and bath houses, about life in town or country, what Romans ate, what jobs they would have had, the gods and goddesses they worshiped, and what ultimately led to the Empire's downfall.

An excellent introduction to the Roman world whether to spark an interest in history or back up school lessons.