Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld


Anyone who's visited the coast near North Berwick will have seen the Bass Rock sitting out to sea, dominating the horizon. In the same way it looms over the lives of the characters in Evie Wyld's latest novel. 

The story follows three women, close in location, but separated by time. 

First chronologically is Sarah in the 1700s - accused of witchcraft and running for her life. 

In the mid-twentieth century, Ruth is trying to start life again, after the loss of her beloved brother during WW2.  She's moved to North Berwick with her husband, a widower with two boys, and is having difficulties fitting in to this new life with a ready-made family, in a strange town.

Sixty years later, in more or less the present day, Viv, the daughter of one of those sons, is journeying between life in London and North Berwick. Her father has died, and the house needs to be cleared of personal belongings, including some belonging to Ruth, before the house is sold. 

At first the storyline seems to jump about here and there, but persevere as it builds into a compelling but disturbing read. For all three women life is defined by rules created by men - how they should behave, what they are allowed to do (sometimes even think) - and, of course, if men are provoked to violence it's the women's fault. 

Wyld's writing is perceptive and empathic, bringing the characters to life through close observation of their actions. An initial feeling of slight weirdness builds imperceptibly into a feeling that dreadful things could be about to happen at any moment. 

Throughout, Bass Rock is there in the background, a constant brooding presence, watching every move. In part its presence seems malevolent, an all-seeing eye which will take action if anyone steps out of line (a bit like The Prisoner's 'Rover'), but at times I felt it could be seen as an unattainable land of safety.

Maryom's review -  4.5 stars
Publisher - Jonathan Cape

Genre - adult fiction, literary fiction

Monday, 7 September 2020

As You Were by Elaine Feeney

Sinéad Hynes is in hospital, ostensibly with a respiratory infection, but she's been aware for months that she has cancer, which is now spreading as she's refused treatment. Her family don't know, her fellow patients don't know, and at first even her doctors don't know.
For now, life is reduced to this one hospital ward - to the comings and goings of staff and visitors, and to the stories of fellow patients. Confined in one room, with little chance of physical privacy, the barriers that might have separated these people in normal life come tumbling down.
It's a mixed ward, but the two men are mostly silent, and the women take centre stage, representing different ages and 'types' of Irish womenhood.
Margaret Rose is a matriarchal figure, in constant touch with her large family via phone, trying to track down her missing husband and sort the problems her daughter has got into. Ex- teacher Jane, now suffering from dementia, can remember the past clearly - her one true love, and the awful toll enacted on unmarried mothers - but doesn't understand why she's here in this strange place - is it a shop, or a hotel? she wonders.
Sinéad is a more modern woman. The only girl in a family of boys, bullied by her aggressive father,
 she now seems to have taken on the male role in her family - her husband being more nurturing and home-centered than she - with her property business and a string of casual infidelities.

As You Were is a stunning debut novel from Irish poet, Elaine Feeney. Through these lives Feeney explores what it is to be a woman, and the various choices life forces upon us. The narrative technique is unusual, mixing flashbacks to Sinéad's childhood with things she overhears on the ward, but perfectly conveys the random intimacies and sudden friendships when people are forced together. And, considering the setting, it's a story surprisingly full of life and hope.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - 
Harvill Secker
Genre - 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan

 In 1973, Moll Gladney runs away from her home in rural Ireland, leaving her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, with their lives turned upside down, terrified of what may have become of their daughter, attempting to continue with their daily routines while fending off both the sympathy and inquisitiveness of their neighbours.
Time passes, as it's bound to, with no word from Moll, till five years later she returns, turning up out of the blue one day, followed shortly afterwards by her husband, Alexander, and baby son, and life for the Gladneys takes another surprising turn.

 Strange Flowers is a story of family, loss, and redemption, of three generations bound together by love, but torn apart by secrets. It takes the characters and readers from the quiet slow life of rural Tipperary, to hectic, bustling London, following the characters closely as their stories play out, though retaining some secrets till the end. Life in the Gladney's small close-knit community may seem idyllic, but there are drawbacks. It's a place where it's hard to keep a secret, where everyone must conform to what's expected, and anything or anyone out of the ordinary is looked upon with suspicion. London by comparison seems an anonymous city where you could perhaps be your true self, but it's an impossible place for Moll and Alexander to raise their son.

I've loved Ryan's writing since I first read The Thing About December, and Strange Flowers is another utterly stunning book. As always, his storytelling is beautiful and lyrical, enveloping the reader with the lilt and cadence of his native Tipperary, occasionally shocking them with abrupt outbursts of violence, but always full of compassion and warmth.               

.Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - adult fiction

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

At the end of a long single track road sits a holiday park, a small group of wooden chalets. With a lochside location surrounded by mountains it sounds like the perfect place to rest and relax, to get back in touch with nature and the simpler things in life, far away from normal everyday life. But the Scottish weather is proving a disappointment. The rain is constant. Getting out and about seems unappealing. There's little for the families on holiday at the park to do but stay indoors, and maybe watch the other holidaymakers. 
A wife tries to outrun her problems, children are forced outside to play by the water, teenagers would rather be anywhere else. A young couple think of what their future holds: an older one reminisce about the past. One family, though, is marked out as 'different'. They play music and party late at night. They don't have the proper 'serious' clothing and footwear. Maybe you aren't allowed to have fun while the rain continues to pour and ruin everyone else's holiday?

Over the course of a day, tempers start to unravel, tension rises, and, whether it's from children spotting another child who's easy to bully, or from the solitary guy camping nearby, there's a feeling of trouble brewing.

Sarah Moss has perfectly captured that claustrophobic mood of sitting hunkered inside out of the rain, day after day, in an area where all the attractions - walking, swimming, cycling - are outdoors, of longing to go out but being soaked after a few minutes, while inside wet clothes steam but never dry out, and the windows fog up from condensation. 
Following first one person, then another, we see the day unfold from different perspectives, and with each of them that uneasy tension builds. By close observation and dipping into their thoughts, at the end of the day/novel, these feel like people you know intimately, possibly better then their close families do. There's a certain similarity to Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, with the emphasis being on people going about a fairly ordinary day, doing little of importance, while unknown to them tragedy is about to strike. 
And the ending ... well, that's one that will resonate for quite a while. DO NOT be tempted to skip ahead and see what happens. On a second or third reading you'll know how things work out; just once let the full shock hit you.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Picador
Genre - adult, literary, 

Monday, 10 August 2020

Camelot by Giles Kristian

Ten years after 'King' Arthur's defeat in the 'last great battle' against the Saxons, Britain is a leaderless land, fallen into famine and desolation. Arthur has disappeared, feared dead, and the Saxons are preparing to sweep through the country and take over.

For those ten years, Galahad has lived in a remote monastery in the marshes, expecting that one day he will become one of the brotherhood who guard the Holy Thorn of Joseph of Arimathea, but fate has more exciting and dangerous things in store for him - first when he meets the spear-wielding, Saxon-killing girl, Iselle (she saves his life), then when famed warrior Gawain arrives, determined that Galahad should join his band of men and help oppose the Saxon advance. And off they go, on a series of quests, to find Arthur, the druid Merlin, and a magic cauldron, and hopefully rid Britain of the Saxon invaders.

Camelot is an interesting retelling of the story of Galahad, son of the Lancelot, which mixes legends about King Arthur and the Round Table with fairly accurate historical setting of the turbulent post-Roman 'Dark Ages'. For this isn't a tale of gallant knights in shining armour, but of a people plunged into despair, vaguely remembering the glory days of Arthur and his knights, but lacking the will to band together and bring back those days. In contrast, Gawain and his men may be grizzled old warriors, somewhat past their prime, but they still believe in the cause they once fought for, and are ready to give their all for one last chance to push back the encroaching Saxons. The involvement of Merlin and his (rather dubious) magic, takes the story out of straight 'historical fiction' and adds a 'fantasy' element.

Oddly, because it is primarily a story filled with fighting and unpleasant deaths, it's not necessarily quickly-paced. There's a lot of description of settings from the marshes of Somerset, to cliff top castle at Tintagel, to atrocities encountered along the wayside, but these help build the atmosphere of place and time (and to be honest I sometimes find blow by blow fight scenes tedious) 

The author describes Camelot as a 'companion' rather than sequel to his previous novel, Lancelot, and it certainly worked well for me as a stand alone book. 

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - 
Bantam Press
Genre - 
adult, historical fiction, fantasy

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Captivity by Lander Hawes

Josh Haddon is a well known, you might even say famous, actor. He lives in a luxury flat in an upmarket part of London, can take his pick of the many scripts that come his way, receives invites to show biz parties, gets recognised in the street, and takes advice from his equally-famous neighbour tennis star Jeff Brazer on how to avoid the paparazzi. But as the story follows him on his day to day routine, a picture begins to build of a man living in an emotional vacuum, one who has lost something precious, something that he certainly didn't value at the time but is irreplaceable. Now his days seem purposeless. Sticking strictly to a routine gives him the illusion of activity and purpose, but his mind still wanders, via the photo album prominently displayed on his coffee table, to the non-so distant past before he was well known, yet life was somehow better.

I read Captivity straight after a deeply-immersive stream of consciousness atmospheric narrative, and at first found it a shock.
The tone of the narration seems simplistic, lacking in stylistic flourishes, but they're Josh's words, capturing in detail the smallest happenings of his days, and equally adroitly avoiding any emotional issues.

It seems at first to be a story concerned with the superficialities of life - money, cars, women - but it's a slow-burn revelation of character which explores the downside of fame, and the concept of  'captivity' in a variety of ways.  He's still held captive by his past - his early married life in the suburbs, the empty days between small acting jobs, the sudden end of this time, coinciding with a meteoric rise to fame. And now, although Josh may have found fame and fortune but they haven't brought freedom with them. In fact they've brought a new form of captivity; the unwanted attention from fans and journalists, the gilded cage of his flat, his image of who he is, and even the glamour and glitz of his new life all trap him in different ways. Faced ultimately with a choice between real friendship and the superficial glitter of fame, he chooses fame. I think how the reader views the ending will depend on their own views of life - me, I found it sad.

Maryom's review - 5 stars 
Publisher - Unthank 

Genre - contemporary adult fiction

Friday, 17 July 2020

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

In 1236, young Ailenor of Provence arrives in England to be married to a man she hasn't met - the king, Henry III. Despite being only thirteen years old, she has to quickly learn how to manage her relationship with Henry, and negotiate the undercurrents of court life. As she starts to find her feet in this foreign land, she finds herself  treading a narrow path though the political mire; torn between friendship with Henry's sister, Nell, and Henry's displeasure with Nell's husband, Simon de Montfort; and seeking to, understandably, surround herself with the familiar faces of her uncles, she's accused of putting family ties before suitability for the job.

Great for lovers of historical fiction, The Silken Rose is an interesting look at the workings and machinations of the English court at a somewhat forgotten time in history.
Where Carol McGrath excels is in adding personality to the scant descriptions of history books, and in capturing of the minutiae of daily life at Court. Descriptions of feasts, and the embroideries worked by Queen Ailenor and her ladies fill, maybe not every page, but quite close. In this novel, the life of Queen Ailenor is intertwined with that of her favourite embroideress, Rosalind, the craftswoman behind the many hangings that adorn Ailenor's castles. Through her eyes we see another side of Medieval London - the prominent merchants and guildsmen of the city who bankrolled many of the king's projects.

The Silken Rose is the first of a new trilogy from Carol McGrath, which will follow the lives of three medieval queens who were regarded by their contemporaries as 'she-wolves' - mainly because they upset the nobility. Ailenor was accused of favouring her family, particularly her uncles, with titles and benefits; her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castille, subject of the second book, of greed; and Isabella of France (Eleanor's daughter-in-law) of being 'not one of us'. The author believes all of them deserve a better appreciation.