Thursday, 23 January 2020

The False River by Nick Holdstock


I think somewhere within us, you could probably chart it back to childhood's fairy tales, there's an expectation that stories will have a happy ending. The hero or heroine may struggle through loss and hard times, but when they reach the final page their ending will be happy. Well, not here.  

In this collection of twelve short stories, Nick Holdstock brings us a glimpse of a world where it seems like if something can go wrong, it will. The characters struggle with loss, anger, ill health, or just the weight of day to day life, and circumstances thwarting their hopes of happiness. Somewhere, I felt, they'd all had a chance of a better life, but missed out.

The last story, The Curve of the Heavens, takes a step to the side, inviting the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, letting them see how the story is crafted, the characters moved around, good and bad luck distributed, and destiny decided by an omnipotent author. Here for once there's a happy ending of sorts, but my favourite was the preceding one, The Slope, about a young pianist determined to enjoy music (and, by extension, life) and leave the hard bits for another day.

Holdstock's prose is sparse. He writes as if watching his characters from a distance, uninvolved other than as an observer, but still building empathy for them in the reader.

I first read this book a few months ago but the overall mood seemed sad, and I wasn't in the right personal place for sad stories. Looking through the list of 'read but not reviewed' books I realised it had somehow slipped through and revisited it. I still found a lot of sadness, of life going pear-shaped, of missed opportunities, but this time, from a better personal position, I saw people still trying to hang onto hope despite everything. One of the characters describes them as "Broken people ill-treated by life who still cannot give up" - and I can't put it better.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Picks 2019

My reading/reviewing took a knock last year, and I haven't read anything like the number of books I usually would. As a result, I haven't gone for a full Top Ten of the year (also, you might note, I'm late posting this). Anyway, here we are, with some of my favourite books of 2019

Stillicide by Cynan Jones. Breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in a bleak, not-too distant, future where providing water to big cities requires military precision and armed guards. Although it's a long step from Jones' previous works set in rural Wales, there's the same precision and attention to detail, his ability to get inside a character's head and create living, breathing people is just the same.

The Sea Within Me by Sarah Dobbs. More dystopian sci-fi, this time in an England threatened by rising sea-levels and terrorists. In grim, beleaguered Newark by the Sea, the government is trialing a scheme to combat crime and fear which erases anything unpleasant from people's minds - a way to keep the population happy, or a form of mind control?

The 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' vibe continues with Bridget Collins' The Binding. A gripping tale of betrayal and hidden secrets set in a vaguely Victorian setting, unhappy memories are gathered by a form of magic, and bound into books. When Emmett is apprenticed as a bookbinder, he starts to uncover his own hidden memories - and his view of the world changes completely.

And The Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson Another collection of short stories, this time fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle to paint a portrait of the inhabitants of an Icelandic fishing village. At a cursory view they seem happy, respectable, comfortable in their life and ways, but behind the smiling faces heartache, betrayal and deceit lurk.

My last pick - Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield - is a bit of a cheat as I also included it in last year's 'best of' list; it was only available then as an e-book, now it's in 'proper' book form. It's an astounding piece of storycraft - a tale as much about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the frequently puzzling world, as it is about a girl rescued from the river one dark, stormy night.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Review by The Mole

Many of us know of this story of slavery in the 18th century and dismiss this book as irrelevant today - which I think is a mistake.

The book follows the story of Tom and begins and ends with his cabin. Tom is fortunate in that in Kentucky he has been acquired by a benevolent owner who treats all his slaves well. But they are 'property' and when the owner falls on hard times he needs money.

The story tracks Tom and some of the slaves he comes into contact with during his travels. Some escape and make it as far as Canada, some don't make it to the final chapter.

Throughout the book the author, using research sources open to her at that time, explores the attitudes of different owners and their treatment of their slaves. She also explores the relationship of attitudes (including racism) in the slave free north and the slave owning south. She further goes on to compare the slaves of America to the workers of Great Britain at that time.

While much pain and suffering is inflicted on some of the slaves throughout the book these incidents happen 'off camera' so as not to offend public taste at that time.

This is, in truth, an anti-slavery publication with messages that are still relevant today regarding racism and slavery. I was left wondering about the concept of freedom over the ensuing decades.

****There are many versions of this book available still today and I acquired a free kindle copy from the kindle store which (sadly) had been scanned in and OCR converted which left MANY errors making reading a little challenging at times.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

White Bodies by Jane Robins

"Callie loves Tilda. She’s her sister, after all. And she’s beautiful and successful.
Tilda loves Felix. He’s her husband. Successful and charismatic, he is also controlling, suspicious and, possibly, dangerous. Still, Tilda loves Felix.
And Callie loves Tilda. Very, very much.
So she’s determined to save her. But the cost could destroy them all…
Sometimes we love too much."

Tilda and Callie are twins - but possibly as un-alike as could be. Tilda has always been attractive, outgoing, admired; at 27, she's a well-known actress, able to pick and choose her roles. Callie has remained in her shadow - quiet, reclusive, and dowdy, she works in a bookstore. Despite their differences the two have always been close, but now Tilda has a new boyfriend, Felix, of whom Callie doesn't approve. She feels Tilda is being dominated by him too much, letting him decide too many things for her. She even thinks he might be violent, and is determined to do everything possible to save her besotted sister. Tilda meanwhile is determined to marry him.

As the book opens Felix is found dead in a hotel bedroom. As with any unexpected death how? and why? are the obvious questions, and the story takes us back through the preceding months as Callie's mistrust of him builds, and then forward to the aftermath of Felix's death.

Like most psychological thrillers, it strings you along by only revealing the truth in installments. The story is told from Callie's point of view, so we see her quick distrust of Felix, and the bizarre actions she takes in her attempt to separate him and Tilda, but aren't privy to the thoughts of any other characters. It's definitely a page-turner - I wanted to speed through it non-stop to uncover the ending - but I'm not sure it's one for me.

Unlike most of my 'review' reads, this isn't a newly published book. It's been sitting on a TBR pile for a couple of years because I didn't feel in the mood for the tension and drama of a psychological thriller. If you're a lover of this genre, and somehow missed this on publication, go and check it out; for me, although I found it a hard book to put down, I'm still not in the right head-space for it.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

He Wants by Alison Moore

A while ago - a long while, actually - at the launch for Alison Moore's novel Missing, I picked up a copy of one of her previous books, put it on a shelf, and half forgot about it. I have quite a stack of my own personal books which tend to get neglected in favour of review copies, but this last month or so I've been trying to take time out to read them. So here I am, over a year later, to tell you about He Wants.

Lewis is a retired school teacher. He's had an uneventful life, and retirement is even less exciting. Now a widower, he still lives in the village where he grew up. His daughter visits regularly, bringing lunch that he doesn't really want, and making sure he's okay, but there seems to be little love or companionship between the two. This isn't the middle-age he wanted, in fact much of his life he seems to have just drifted along the easiest path rather than make active choices. With time on his hands, Lewis wanders through his memories, regretting chances he never took, wishing he'd done things differently. He's made to feel worse by the return of an old friend, Sydney, who seems quite glamorous in comparison - he's traveled and seen the world, and seems to have generally made a success of his life.

As with Alison Moore's other work, this is a gently-paced, quiet, contemplative story, focusing on the inner turmoil and hopes of her characters.

I read this at a point when I was feeling very low, and although, with its themes of loneliness, regret and missed chances, it's hardly what you might call a cheerful book, I found it soothing. It's not all doom and gloom though. There are many instances of Moore's wry humour, and the ultimate message is one of hopefulness. To me it said 'it's never too late; if you've got an unfulfilled dream, give it a go'

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

A couple of years have passed since the events of Red Sister (the first book of Mark Lawrence's The Book of the Ancestor trilogy) and Nona Grey has been living comparatively quietly at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. She's not, as you might expect, spending long hours in prayer, or working on calligraphy or needlework, for this is a convent with a difference. One where, under the supervision of Abbess Glass and the sisters, novices are trained in martial arts - both practical hand to hand combat and the subtler ways of poison and mind manipulation.
Nona is now leaving many of her friends behind and moving up a level to Mystic class; making new enemies there, to add to the powerful ones she already has outside the convent. Combined they're determined to see her thrown out of the convent, preferably killed. Fairly obviously, Nona isn't going to co-operate - and a lot of other people are going to end up dead.

The second book of a trilogy is always tricky - the characters have been introduced, the world building is done, but the reader needs to be reminded of things they may have forgotten from the first book, while the action has to move forward to keep us engrossed. Despite a slightly slow start with a little too much emphasis on the 'school' aspect of Nona's life for my liking, I really enjoyed this return to Nona's world. As the story progresses the pace picks up with plenty of fight scenes and danger, but I also liked the less violent, sly, political manoeuvring of the abbess.

Something I hate about fantasy series is the hiatus between books as the next is written, edited and finally published. It's taken me an awfully long time to get round to reading this, so I'm lucky in that the third and final book, Holy Sister is already published.

Just a couple of warnings - despite the school style setting this is NOT a children's book (don't confuse it with Harry Potter or The Worst Witch) and you DO need to have read book one, Red Sister;without it little will make sense.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Faces on the Tip of my Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano

translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis

I'm not sure whether to describe this latest book from Peirene as a novel or a collection of short stories; the thirteen stories which make up the English version of Emmanuella Pagnano's work read like something falling between the two. Although each can stand alone, they link together to bring to life the inhabitants of a remote community high on a plateau in rural France. 

Some of the shorter pieces are more vignettes than stories, capturing a moment or mood rather than telling a tale, but I found a sense of loss - of happiness, or innocence - pervading them all. They aren't stories of 'happy ever after', more of the things that can go wrong in life - whether devastating like the accidental death of a small child, or the dark comedy of a random stranger turning up at a wedding instead of the expected relative. A childish prank goes wrong, an elderly man whose only purpose in life is automatically trotting out the tales of the district, another who waits everyday at the spot on a mountain road where his family died, a woman weighed down by life trying to commit suicide but thwarted by random strangers.

The plateau itself seems a slightly other-worldly place - the weather is always colder to that in the valley below - and somewhere that 'misfits' can find a home. In some of the stories there's a feeling that life is simpler there, that people are more in touch with themselves and nature, but maybe they're just more inured to pain and suffering.

At first the stories appear to be a random selection linked only by location, but as the reader progresses the relationship between them becomes apparent. Characters, while not appearing in every tale, show up again here and there, often seen from a different point of view, or at a different point in time; the child in one becomes the parent in another. Noticing this, seeing how the stories fit together, has the satisfaction of spotting that strangely-shaped jigsaw puzzle you've been searching for and seeing the whole picture come together as it slots into its space.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction