Thursday, 9 September 2021

The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

Studying English Literature at a British university, Sara feels adrift - cut off from her family back in India, disoriented by the familiar, yet unfamiliar, language around her, even the strangeness of English seasons. She finds comfort and familiarity in the students' pottery studio, exploring an art she first encountered many year before as a child.

Elango the local potter is a man straggling two worlds - the huge terracotta pots he makes have drawn interest from art galleries and buyers beyond his small town, but he prefers to remain in his backwater and create practical, 'everyday' pots of use to everyone. One day he finds (or is found by) a lost dog, which, opening his heart to companionship and affection, seems to lead on to other developments. After long being in love with a local Muslim girl, he begins to think that she reciprocates his feelings, despite the impossibility of their relationship. And at the same time another passion takes hold. Sparked by a dream in which he sees a horse breathing fire under the sea, he begins to create a huge terracotta statue - what will happen to it when finished he doesn't know, but something is driving him on, and he cannot rest before it's completed. Daring to dream of something different isn't easy though, and there are always people waiting to destroy those dreams.

This is a beautifully written and crafted novel about the burning desire to create beauty from a very basic substance - mud - and the perils of daring to love or live in a different manner to those around you.

The story moves from England to India, back and forward between Sara's teenage years and her 'present day' almost ten years later, always showing how difficult it is for an outsider who doesn't wish to conform. It's threaded through with themes about the unpredictability of love, of coming of age and self-discovery, and the demands that art puts upon its creators, and I think everyone will have their own 'focus' to the story. For me though the emphasis lies on the 'daring to be different', to brave society's or parental expectations and follow one's heart - whether this is shown through Elango and Zohra's forbidden love, or Sara's fellow student following a career that wasn't planned out for her..

The Earth Spinner is the first fiction title from new imprint Mountain Leopard Press, which specialises in literary fiction and nonfiction from around the world. Anuradha Roy's previous novels have been listed for prestigious literary prizes and translated into over fifteen laguages.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Five Minds by Guy Morpuss

In a dystopian future, innovative ways have been found to cope with Earth's still growing population. Natural lives are limited to 80 years, but if you want to live for longer there are options - one of which is to become part of a 'commune' sharing one body between five minds, each of which 'lives' for only an allotted period of each day. Alex, Ben, Kate, Mike and Sierra have already spent 25 years in what was Mike's body - not always amicably but near enough - and it's become time to think about their next body, and earning the credits to obtain an upgrade. That's where the Death Parks come in; here games of chance or skill can help you accumulate more time or lose it all. They expect, playing to each others strengths, to do well, but when Kate accepts a dubious challenge things start to go very wrong, and one of the commune disappears. It's soon clear that someone is trying to kill them off - but how and why? And most important 'who'?

Set in a dystopian future Five Minds is a thriller with a difference. It's a fast-paced addictive read with five personalities in one body, trying to work out who is intent on killing them, set against the backdrop of the Death Park where, in games ranging from the purely physical to more intellectual games of out-psyching one's opponent, time and lives are gambled away - and that's without the threat of gangsters and the illegal games they operate. Unputdownable is often used about thrillers, but this one definitely is!

 The world-building is well thought-through, and explained enough to give it credibility without over-shadowing the story with explanations, the plotting is ingenious, the characterisation great. I loved it. If you love sci-fi or speculative fiction read this book before everyone else does.
There are echoes of various sci-fi films like Andrew Niccol's In Time (with Justin Timberlake) - where time is won or lost - or James Mangold's psychological thriller Identity, starring John Cusack, but ultimately Five Minds is new and original, and like nothing I've read before. This is an astounding debut, and I look forward to whatever Guy Morpuss comes up with next.

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Deep Cover by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

The body of a sex worker is found in woodland where she may have fallen and died accidentally but all may not be as it seems. When the team get together to start to look at the evidence Ian Peterson is missing and no-one will say where he's gone although Geraldine's boss clearly has an idea. It becomes apparent that the sex worker's death is suspicious and the hunt is on but the criminal has been very careful. When a second - seemingly unrelated - victim is discovered there is difficulty in finding if, and how, these two cases are linked, and, of course, finding the person or persons responsible.

The reader learns that Ian has gone under cover with the drug squad in London as his face is not known in the London area. Under very close support Ian tries to get in the confidences of the leaders of the drug gang but quickly throws his script away to execute his own agenda - he didn't put his life on the line for the drug squad!

For me the Ian Peterson side of the story (and the two stories could almost be two separate books) just didn't work well BUT was cleverly executed by Russell none the less. It felt too rushed, too sweet and not enough time elapsed in the plot.

BUT, on the other side - the Geraldine Steel side of the story is probably (in my opinion) Russell's best story yet and it's not like there's been a bad one.

Really enjoyed this for the Geraldine Steel side at least and would recommend to any crime story fans. 

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult fiction, crime

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

Matilda Windsor was locked away as a teenager, condemned to a life in a psychiatric institution without any proper diagnosis. Over the decades she's made her own little world at the home, imagining it as a grand house or hotel, and explaining away the nurses as 'staff'; maids to serve tea, or butlers to keep undesirables out.

But it's now the early 1990s, and with the introduction of 'care in the community' all is set to change. A new social worker, Janice, is determined that Matilda deserves a chance to experience life 'outside', and, whatever others think, is prepared to bend the rules to make that happen.

Henry, Matilda's much younger brother has been waiting most of his life for his glamorous sister to return to the family home. This waiting has put his life on hold. The family home is too big for him alone, but he daren't move just in case his sister returns one day. 

From these three points of view, Anne Goodwin weaves a story of heartbreak and mischances, in the course of which Matilda and Henry cross paths so many times without actually knowing. Would one casual meeting have changed things? 

Matilda's tale is a sad but seemingly all too frequent one - that young girls who couldn't quite explain their pregnancy, and produce a young man to make everything right by marrying them, were hustled away to the confines of a psychiatric institution, and then somehow just forgotten.  Henry, too, is a victim of sorts. He can't commit to a relationship, or move on with his life, because of that overwhelming feeling that one day his sister will return and things will be just as they always were.

Among this tragedy, Janice appears as a comedy character. She dresses in a colourful, flamboyant way  which makes Matilda think of a circus girl. She squabbles and jostles for importance with her fellow social workers, trying to get her plans accepted even when they're not for the best. She may be well-meaning but she's definitely inexperienced and I was left feeling Matilda deserved someone more capable on her side.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Lean, Fall, Stand by Jon McGregor

Robert 'Doc' Wright has years, almost a lifetime, of experience in Antarctic field work, spending months there at a time. Then one day things go horribly wrong. What should have been an easy, fun excursion, merely to take photographs, turns nasty when an unexpected storm blows up, cutting visibility and communications, and disaster strikes. One of the men dies, and Doc suffers a stroke. He is the only one who can say for certain what went wrong, but he's now in a position where he can't put even the simplest ideas into words.

This latest novel from Jon McGregor takes the reader from a situation where men are fighting for survival in Antarctic wastes to a different kind of fight for the return of normality and the ability to express oneself. 

The story is split into three parts, relating to the three words that make up the title; the incident in Antarctica, Anna's trip to South America to visit Robert in hospital and organise his return to Britain, and the beginning of Robert's recovery. I hadn't quite understood the nature of the story from the blurb, and found it a rather difficult read fro personal reasons; family members have suffered strokes and some of it is a little close to home. Having said that I found this a perceptive insight into how the stroke victim themselves must find the strange new world they find themselves trapped in. 

Something that I would have liked to see explored further was the relationships between Doc and his wife, Anna. There's a hint that their marriage, while seeming fine on the surface, is not as solid as it might be, and that their relationship depended on them leading very separate lives. Now, not only are they forced together, but Anna has to abandon her work to become a carer (not really part of the story here but I felt the automatic assumption that his wife would drop everything to help was worth more consideration. Would Robert have done it if their roles were reversed? Would medical staff/social services etc even have expected it if their roles were reversed?) These thoughts are really by-the-by though. I'm not always a fan of McGregor's work but this is an intimate and moving account of  a man reduced to an almost child-like dependence and inability to express himself, and his slow recovery from that state. One of his best.


Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey

Thora and Santi accidentally meet in Cologne, and feel something that immediately draws them to each other. It might not be the first time they've met, and it certainly isn't the last. Over numerous lives they meet again. Sometimes they're roughly the same age, sometimes one is old enough to be the other's parent or teacher. Each time they're drawn back to the same places in and around Cologne, particularly the old clocktower. Gradually they become aware of the things that repeat from one life to the next. What they need, with increasing urgency, is to find out what it all means, and why this is happening.

It's an ingenious concept - a sort of mash-up between Groundhog Day and Star Trek - and although readable enough in some way or other it didn't really grab me. The telling is a little slow at first, as we get to see Thora and Santi meet up in life after life, but despite this repetition, and seeing them in different situations and different relationships to each other, I never really felt I knew them - and therefore didn't really care how their story worked out.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise

In a not-too-distant future, Signy, Matthew and their six year old son, Jed, live in London, in a world that's become increasingly dependent on technology. Drones have replaced bees, and policemen. Robots replaced waitresses and doctors. 
Then one day that technology starts to fail. At first it's small things - something wrong with their phones, or a drone behaving strangely - but soon it feels like the world is crumbling around them. Power and water are cut, and people are worried, confused, angry. As things go from bad to worse, Signy and Matthew decide to leave London, and head for the village where her parents live. Surely in the countryside things will be better? The first hurdle is to get there - without electricity there's no way to recharge the car and traffic is jamming the roads - but Signy is determined that come what may she will get Jed to safety- if such a thing can still be found.

In some ways the premise and plot here are familiar; civilisation is falling apart, and the only way to survive is to leave the city and head to the country where life is 'simpler'. Along the way there are obstacles to overcome, fellow travelers who you may or may not trust, and armed troops who may help - or not. It's different maybe (though there are slight shades of Josh Malerman's Bird Box) in that the main character is a woman, desperately trying to protect her child. Despite all the vaguely familiar tropes it is definitely gripping stuff, with plenty of tension, and a strong but relatable female main character. You'll definitely find yourself  siding with Signy against all that gets thrown at her. 
Just occasionally I wondered about the accuracy of incidents - how quickly the freezer defrosts, or how many miles Signy and Jed could travel in a day - and I wasn't quite convinced by the ending - things felt a little too easily explained away - but none of this really detracted from the book as a whole.