Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Far out to sea off the Cornish coast, the Maiden lighthouse rises 50 metres above the waves; a tribute to Victorian engineering, and home to three men - principal keeper, Arthur Black, assistant keeper Bill Walker, and relative new-comer the supernumerary assistant Vince Bourne.

In December 1972 those men disappeared. The entrance door was bolted from the inside. The clocks stopped at quarter to nine. The table laid for two places. Investigators from Trident House can find no explanation for the event.

Twenty years later, Dan Sharp, a writer of maritime adventure novels, approaches the women left behind. Arthur's wife Helen has tried to accept that the men must have been washed out to sea by a freak wave - the most logical of the various explanations, she believes. Jenny, Bill's wife, refuses to believe any of the theories she's heard, insisting that somehow the men must still be alive. Younger than the other women, Vince's girlfriend Michelle is the only one who's tried to move on, marrying and having children with a man who'll never quite compare to Vince. Talking to Sharp brings back memories the women would rather forget, but maybe this way the past can eventually be laid to rest.

Inspired by the disappearance of three keepers from Scottish lighthouse in 1900, this stunning novel from Emma Stonex is a classic closed-room mystery, and an exploration of the lives of keepers and their wives -  love that keeps them together, the independent temperament needed by both, the strains that long separations put on a relationship. And on almost every page, there's the sea - shimmering on a summer's day, raging in storms, calm under a full moon - and the Maiden lighthouse, almost a character in herself, standing firm through the worst weather, forming a third party in any relationship, and through loneliness and monotony ultimately twisting the men's minds. 

It is a brilliant book, which had me engrossed from the first page! It has everything I want from a mystery - characters that feel like real people, lots of atmosphere, a satisfying ending, neither too prosaic nor too supernatural. 
The Maiden has cast her spell over me too. There's something quite extraordinary about a man-made structure standing alone at sea. A remote island has a certain fascination but with a tower lighthouse there's no surrounding ground - the tower sits solitary above the waves. I've seen them plenty of times off the coast but never really thought about them. Now Emma Stonex has really sparked something in me - a desire to run away to a lighthouse, to feel the waves crash over it and the building shake, but still but sheltered from the elements - that's excellent writing!


Monday, 1 March 2021

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were all students at the rather 'select' Hailsham school. Raised there from early childhood, their lives were free from outside influences and stress; in many ways it was an idyllic time. Now in her early thirties, Kathy reminisces about their years together, at Hailsham and afterwards, and the gradual realisation that their lives, and deaths, have been planned out for them.

This must be the fourth or fifth time I've read Never Let Me Go and it never fails to pull me in, to enfold me in its parallel world; one which seems so normal on the surface but is dark and dystopian underneath. 

At different times, it strikes me in different ways. Sometimes it's a coming of age tale, A fairly normal one of childhood tiffs and squabbles, of 'queen bee' Ruth who must be humoured else she'll make everyone's lives a misery, of the obvious differences of being brought up in an institution, even if it's one as supportive as Hailsham, Sometimes, it's far more sinister - a chilling tale of  human clones being bred to become organ donors. Or it can be nostalgic for the past, in which Hailsham represents a more caring world which no longer exists.

However it strikes me, Kathy's narrative plays out carefully, hinting at, but never outright declaring, the fate which awaits her, Ruth, Tommy and their classmates. Expressions such as 'donations' or 'completion' are bandied about as if both the children and the reader know what they fully entail; then the full enormity is revealed, and it's not quite a surprise, just a dreadful acknowledgement of what we'd suspected, but ignored, all along. That implicit acceptance leads to a far more chilling ending than if Kathy had raged against her circumstances throughout.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Nick by Michael Farris Smith

 Anyone who's read The Great Gatsby, or even just seen a film adaptation, will be familiar with Nick Carraway - Daisy Buchanan's second cousin who accidentally rents a house across the bay from her, and right next to Gatsby's huge mansion - but beyond his role as narrator he doesn't really exist.

For Fitzgerald, Nick seems little more than a convenient plot device, sitting watching a love triangle tragedy unfold around him, privy to the desires and actions of all sides, fully committed to none.

Now Michael Farris Smith has brought Nick into the limelight. From his Mid-West childhood, where his life stretched planned and orderly in front of him, through the chaos of  World War 1 trenches, and a doomed love affair in Paris, to the violent saloons of New Orleans, Nick makes his winding way to a small house in West Egg on Long Island, and the green light shining across the Bay.

I'm normally a bit wary of 'spin off' books, which give characters lives way beyond the ones dreamed of by the original authors, but I read an online article by Michael Farris Smith about the inspiration behind Nick, and it somehow appealed. 

If you saw The Great Gatsby as a romantic tale of unrequited love, played out against a backdrop of fabulous parties, huge mansions, and flash cars, then this probably isn't for you. It's far grittier and more violent - like Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald - but I very much enjoyed it. It's a story that could well have stood on its own - naive young man traumatized by war, and unable to fit back into the world he left behind - but being the story of Nick Carraway gives it an extra twist. We know where he's going to end up; just not how.  

The Great Gatsby is now out of copyright so there are bound to be an endless number of spin-offs. Get in early and read this one. 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

 Lenni is seventeen; Margot is eighty-three. They're an unlikely pair to become friends, but when they meet up at a hospital art class an instant bond forms between the two. 

Lenni knows she doesn't have long to live but with Margot around that doesn't seem to matter. Together they decide to paint a hundred pictures to mark their joint hundred years, to celebrate the lives they've lived rather than mourn the years they'll miss.

I think you'd expect that a story involving a teenager diagnosed with a terminal illness would be full of sadness. But Lenni herself isn't - she's full of life, enthusiasm and humour - and her story reflects that. Margot on the other hand seems to be someone who's always missed out on things in life, but with Lenni's encouragement she determines to make one last grab for happiness.

This is a lovely, life-affirming, heart-warming tale of an unusual friendship in unusual circumstances, and of two women finding out that it isn't the length of life that matters, but of making the most of the time we have.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Superior by Angela Saini

"Where did the idea of race come from, and what does it mean? In an age of identity politics, DNA ancestry testing and the rise of the far-right, a belief in biological differences between populations is experiencing a resurgence. The truth is: race is a social construct. Our problem is we find this hard to believe.

In Superior, award-winning author Angela Saini investigates the concept of race, from its origins to the present day. Engaging with geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists from across the globe, Superior is a rigorous, much needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of the belief that race is real, and that some groups of people are superior to others."

Non-fiction books on politics and social issues don't usually form part of my reading, but I'd been watching David Olusoga on TV where he mentioned race science as part of the justification of slavery, then caught Angela Saini at the online version of  Edinburgh Book Festival talking in greater depth about the subject, and wanted to know more about how pseudo-scientific ideas take root and influence public opinion.  

In a vague way I knew before of the theory that people can be divided into different races, and that some are not as intelligent (or even as 'human') as others. It was used to give 'justification' for the slave trade, for robbing indigenous peoples of land and wealth, and returned in a different form in Nazi Germany. It's a ludicrous idea, and one that I believed was totally discredited today, not one still lurking around. Superior has definitely proved to be an eye-opening read.

Saini takes the reader through the development of race theory, how it affected Europeans interaction with indigenous population of  Africa, Australia and America, and how it continues today in the social and economic effects it has on black people. What surprised me most was its proliferation today. Modern genetic studies have surely proved once and for all that 'race' is a social or cultural concept, but people still want to believe they are in some way 'better' than others - than their neighbours, the folks in the next town, neighbouring country - and unfortunately there'll be someone on the internet or in specialist, right wing journals, ready to support their claims with alleged scientific evidence. 

Superior is definitely a book that deserves the adjective 'thought provoking'. I understand now where the prejudices of my parents' generation came from, and was left feeling that it's so very easy to feed those prejudices with dodgy scientific 'facts'.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines

 Review by The Mole

 About a charismatic but troubled Irishman and his effect on his family, explores the way that the secrets forged by cultural, religious and sexual prejudice can reverberate down the generations. It’s also about telling stories, and the fact that the tales we tell about ourselves can profoundly affect the lives of others. In a framing narration that exposes the slippery and contingent nature of story, an adult daughter, brought up on romantic lore about her now dead father but having experienced him very differently, tells how she tried to write about him, only to come up against too many mysteries and clashing versions of the family’s past. Yet when a buried truth emerges, the mysteries can be solved, and, via storytelling’s power of empathy, she finally makes sense of it all.

An author decides to write the biography of her father, a man who seemingly never loved her and a man she spent most of her growing up years in conflict with. But to flesh it out she needs to reconnect more closely with her family. It's then that she finds that there was so much that she didn't know.

Be prepared to become involved in the story as it unfolds, piece by piece, in random order, like a jigsaw, only revealing the picture to the reader and narrator at the end of the telling. He is a man that sees the worst when there's nothing to see. He's prone to very violent fits of rage that he turns against his family. But he's a man protecting a secret - one that the writer doesn't know but her sister thought everyone in the family knew.

It's a very tumultuous journey for the reader but a journey worth staying on. 

The more I learned, as a reader, about the man then the less I liked him but I couldn't stop reading. It's very well written and there are pieces along the journey many of us can relate to, but don't expect a happy ever after. I was left sympathising with the narrator and her family but also understanding a little of why she had missed so many signs growing up while her sister hadn't.

I really loved this story, which I received an ARC PDF version of, but it's not for the faint hearted. Highly recommended.

There ought to be a "If you are affected by any of the issues in this book..." to accompany it - but if you are then PLEASE find someone to talk to about it.

Genre: Adult fiction

Publisher: Salt Publishing

Thursday, 28 January 2021

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

Agnes Darken is a silhouette artist, with paper and scissors summoning up a person's likeness. In Bath's heyday it was a profitable occupation but now, like the city itself, it's fallen out of favour, and Agnes struggles to make enough income to support herself, her elderly mother, and orphaned nephew. Then, one of her clients is murdered shortly after posing for a portrait. Then another ... and another ...

Trying to make sense of these events, Agnes decides to contact those who've died through a medium - a young girl, Pearl, who's managed and manipulated by her older half-sister - but instead of clarifying anything, Agnes and Pearl manage to raise troubled spirits out for revenge. 

 Part ghost story, part whodunit, The Shape of Darkness is gripping and enthralling; a book I didn't want to put down.

I loved the depiction of Bath; shabby and down at heel, full of memories of better times when visitors flocked there to 'take the waters', but by the mid-1800s no longer popular with the leisured upper classes. Agnes' fortunes have mirrored those of the city. Her hopes of love and marriage were dashed, and now she's a lonely middle-aged women struggling to get by, and desperately trying to avoid her memories of the past. 

Through Pearl and her sister the reader enters the world of professional mediums and mesmerists. As you might expect, it's a world where things are not quite as they seem. Pearl may have some ability to contact the dead, but her sister knows that isn't enough to bring people back time and again, that a certain level of showmanship is required to make a living out of it. 

There's a dark, brooding atmosphere throughout, as is fitting for a ghostly thriller. It's a book in which nothing is quite what it seems, and in the best tradition, it has a twist (or more) waiting at the end for the reader. 

Maryom's review - 4 stars 
Publisher - Raven (Bloomsbury)
Genre - Adult  gothic ghosts

Thursday, 21 January 2021

The Survivors by Jane Harper

 Kieran Elliott is on a rare visit home to the small Tasmanian coastal town he grew up in, where he's still remembered as the person responsible for the deaths of his older brother and his brother's best mate in a freak storm twelve years previously. On the same night a young teenager went missing, presumed washed out to sea, and the town has struggled to forget the three fatalities. 

Now tragedy is ready to strike again. Another body is found on the beach, this time a student working on the island for the summer. There seems at first to be nothing to link this death with previous events, but the past has a way of returning to haunt the community.

Part whodunit, part a study in long-term grief, The Survivors looks at the impact on a small close-knit community of a night which robbed them of three young people. For the close families the loss will never go away, but in a hurry to smooth things over it seems the police may not have investigated quite as strenuously as they might.

Although I've rather 'gone off' crime recently, a Jane Harper novel is always something to look forward to. To me, there's always quite a feel of a Miss Marple mystery about them; the tight communities where everyone knows everything about their neighbour (or thinks they do), the buried secrets that nevertheless manage to persist, the limited number of suspects, the red herrings that confuse detection. There are no psychopaths or serial killers, just 'normal' people driven to murder for very human reasons - of love, anger, or fear. 

There's just no replacement for Jane Marple as each story takes the reader to a different part of Australia. and this time the backdrop feels almost familiar - an out-of-season coastal town, dependent on tourists for livelihood, but with a beautiful setting of beaches, dramatic cliffs, and dangerous caves.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Sugar and Snails - giveaway

 Next month (February 2021) is LGBT history month, and throughout that time author Anne Goodwin is making her first novel Sugar and Snails available free for subscribers to her website. The story is of a woman who has kept her past secret for thirty years following a momentous event which changed the course of her life, and in 2016 the book was short-listed for the Polari First Book prize. 

Click here to subscribe

Below is Maryom's review of Sugar and Snails from 2015

Diana is a forty-something, set-in-her-ways university lecturer; an intensely private person, she lives alone with only a cat for company, and even her closest friend who has known her since their university days isn't aware of the secrets hidden in Diana's past. For thirty years she hasn't told anyone about the momentous event which altered the course of her life completely but now, entering into a new relationship which offers the hope of lasting happiness, that past seems back to haunt her.

Sugar and Snails is a portrait of a woman in crisis; at first Diana's actions seem extreme but as I got to know her, and her back-story, I came to understand her reaction. There's a feeling throughout that Diana is as uncomfortable with who she is now in the present day as she was as a child. Her work as an academic psychologist leads her to suspect the decision she made as a teenager was wrong, to think that maybe, at fifteen, she was too impulsive and ill-informed, and that her actions haven't really led to a happier life. Now Diana has a chance of happiness, but to grab it she needs to step out of her comfort zone and face down her fears. Advised as a teenager to forget about the past, and 'put it behind her', that was exactly what she did but, never truly happy and always frightened that someone would find out, she's put much of her life on hold for 30 years; relationships, as such, have failed and, rather than risk change and scrutiny, she's stayed in one job settling for the familiar but unchallenging and dull.
So, what was the traumatic event 30 years ago? It's kept a secret for much of the book but I'd spotted an accidental reveal in the publishers media-pack. Now this isn't the ideal way to approach a story - it's always nice to have the big reveal sprung upon you the first time through, whether it's the plot twist in Bruce Willis' film The Sixth Sense or not knowing whether Elizabeth and Darcy will get together in the end. Knowing before hand loses some of the tension and build up, but both books and films have to stand up to a second read/viewing and I find myself in the curious place of having read Sugar and Snails once but being able to say that it's a re-readable story; that it doesn't just rely on that one surprise element. Through the flashbacks to Diana's increasingly troubled childhood and adolescence, I could stand back a little and appreciate how the author had cleverly built up hints at what is to come without actually giving anything away, while still being immersed in the unfolding of Diana's life.

This is the story of one specific person and her problem, but it raises a lot of wider issues from gender identity and stereotyping, and the way society forces us to conform, to how impetuous decisions made when young can affect our whole lives. Although she's written many short stories, this is Anne Goodwin's debut novel - I hope to read many more by her.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Witchbottle by Tom Fletcher

 Once Daniel had a family - a wife and child - and a career, somewhere in a city vaguely 'down south', but now he's living alone, working as a milkman in the rural north-west of England. His job is undemanding, monotonous, but he likes the lack of pressure, and being out driving round the countryside. Recently though odd things have begun to happen - Daniel's seeing ghosts, and it seems like many of his customers are too, and although Daniel's girlfriend can help out with a 'witch bottle' to keep phantoms and nightmares at bay, it seems to be just a stop-gap measure. There's also the mystery surrounding the men driving the Fallen Stock vans, ostensibly they're collecting dead animals from the farms for safe disposal, but Daniel feels they're up to something far more sinister.

It's a synopsis that feels full of dread and suspense, but for my taste it took just too long to get round to the creepy bits. The detail about milk rounds and the quirks of the customers would have been all very well in a different sort of book but here they just seemed drawn out, and unnecessary. When the story eventually gets round to Daniel's nightmares, and the ghostly presences appearing all over the neighbourhood, the chill factor cranks up a notch or two, but it was too little, too late for me. 

Friday, 8 January 2021

The Humiliations of Welton Blake by Alex Wheatle

 Welton Blake thinks things are looking up for him - he's plucked up his courage, asked out the best-looking girl in school, Carmella McKenzie, and amazingly she said yes. Welton can't quite believe his luck. 

But life isn't that easy. Welton's phone breaks (so he can't set up their date), he sees Carmella hanging out with another guy, the school bully seems to have him ear-marked for special attention, and his mum decides her new partner and his young son should move in - and Welton will have to share his bedroom. Could life dump more indignities on him?

This is the first book I've read by award-winning author Alex Wheatle - and I can see why he's so highly praised and popular. He looks at teenage life, relationships, and problems in a funny but sympathetic way (sort of like Netflix's Sex Education but for a younger audience) Welton's doubts and insecurities are the sort that all teenagers share, and though you may laugh at them, secretly you've been there, done that.

Published by Barrington Stoke, it has all of their hallmarks - dyslexic-friendly print and page colour, and simple, straightforward language, which moves the story along instead of snaring the reader with unfamiliar words. It's an excellent short book for any teens (though particularly boys) who might think 'they don't write books about folks like me'.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Bloodsworn by Tej Turner

Review by The Mole

Book 1 of The Avatars of Ruin

Everyone from Jalard knew what a bloodoath was. Legendary characters in the tales people told to their children often made such pacts with the gods. By drawing one’s own blood whilst speaking a vow, people became ‘Bloodsworn’.

   And in every tale where the oath was broken, the ending was always the same. The Bloodsworn died.”

Since the War Of The Ashes the people of Sharma kept a standing army in case... well, in case. Representatives of the academy travelled around the country selecting the most promising candidates to be trained. In Jalard, Baird's job was to train the youngsters and recommend those he saw as fit for the academy. Kyra was the only woman this year who had got close to being noted by Baird and had high hopes of going.

Then an unexpected war started in an unexpected way and life promised to never be the same.

I received an ARC from the author/publisher as a PDF. We have as little to do with PDFs as possible because of formatting. They won't deliver any longer to our kindle (a very early model with no backlight) and my phone has a much smaller screen making reading very difficult, if not nigh on impossible. But I gave it a try so I could honestly say "no". I tried reading the first few pages with a lot of page manipulation. 

You know when you start to watch a TV box set on Netflix and suddenly it's two in the morning and you don't want to stop? That.

In most fantasy you quite quickly know who the hero is to be and who will be the focus. In this book Turner has a cohort of heroes who come and go so bank on no-one. Yes, a Bloodoath is sworn but what does it actually mean? It becomes apparent that the swearer may not know what needs to be fulfilled.

It moves fast in many arenas and jumps around time a little to rejoin earlier events. It's cleverly crafted but you never seem to get too attached to any one character. 

Combining magic, fighting skills, and characters who have left their village for the first time and are learning hard truths, there seems to be something for everyone in this.

It feels like this volume is almost stand alone leaving no cliff hanger but threads are left to carry forward to book two. The bloodoath is not fulfilled and happy ever afters still seem a long way off. I really loved this book and can highly recommend it to fantasy lovers.   

Having been reading Austen, Dickens, and some truly excellent crime recently, I wanted a change of pace - and I got it. 

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Elsewhen Press

Monday, 4 January 2021

Best of 2020

 I haven't been able to settle and read as much this last year. A much higher number of books than usual have been abandoned part way through because they didn't grab my wandering attention, but it means I was left with lots of really good reads. Out of those, here are the ones I'd really push onto people, saying 'read this!

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan - Moll Gladney runs away from her home in rural Ireland, leaving her parents distraught. One day five years later, she just as unexpectedly returns, not long after followed my a husband and small son. I've loved all of Ryan's books, but this is a tie for favourite with The Thing About December. As always, his storytelling is full of compassion and warmth. seeking to understand those who might not quite fit into society, and the writing is lyrical and beautiful, capturing the lilt and cadence of his native Tipperary.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow - One day January Scaller discovers an old book in which she reads of doors to other worlds. This can't be true, can it? but among half-forgotten childhood memories is one of a door which did exactly that. Pure escapism, which we all needed last year, and possibly will this, not though to a sunlit beach somewhere exotic, but to a myriad of other worlds. A mesmerising tale of romance and adventure, loyal friends and evil societies. I just wish I could have found a door to take me away from this past year.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell - speaking of plague years, Maggie O'Farrell's first venture into historical fiction takes the reader to Stratford on Avon, to the home of Will and Agnes Shakespeare, their son and two daughters, in the year that plague spread through England. O'Farrell is spot on at capturing the period, the characters, and the all-encompassing emptiness of grief and loss. 

We've all been forced to live like hermits this year, but Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini takes things a stage or two further - an elderly man living in self-imposed isolation high on a mountain, is slowly losing his grip on reality. As winter's snows thaw, he uncovers a human foot, and his state of mind finally slips, muddling current events with those of the war. 

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare - a coming of age story told in the words of its fifteen year old Nigerian heroine, Adunni. A disturbing tale, spotlighting the treatment of girls and women as commodities to be traded, in a society where men are all-important, and the gap between rich and poor is astronomical. It's a stunning debut novel told in a highly original voice, as through everything that happens Adunni keeps her cheerfulness and a belief that things will one day be better, not just for herself but for all Nigerian women.

Another African author I discovered this year (via her online Edinburgh Book Festival event) was Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, billed as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. Her novel The First Woman is both the story of Kirabo, a young girl finding her place in the world through the discovery of her family history, and that of the wider history of Uganda, its culture and way of life.

It's a long way from the heat of Uganda to the setting of my next pick. Sarah Moss's Summerwater is set in the Scottish Highlands on a day of endless rain. Through close observation and dipping into their thoughts, the author follows the visitors at a holiday park - bored with the weather, tired of trying to entertain the kids, curious about the other holiday-makers - as the day unwinds and tragedy waits to strike. It's a brooding, atmospheric novel, reminiscent of Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things in that nothing in itself seems remarkable, until the ending.

Carys Bray's latest novel, When the Lights Go Out, has, I feel, slipped under the radar a bit - its original launch a victim of the first lockdown, a re-scheduled date overshadowed by the autumn lockdowns. It tells of Chris and Emma, and the gradual breakdown of their marriage due to something bigger than them both - climate change. Once, they both were equally concerned about saving the planet, but whereas Emma, weighed down by juggling a job, family and income, has compromised her beliefs, Chris has become more focused, preparing for the end of the world-as-we-know-it. Something, somewhere has to give.  

I'm going to end on a cheerful note with Kate Spicer's autobiographical Lost Dog: a love story - a happy ending because he's no longer lost. You might, like me, have followed Wolfy's story on social media when he went missing, leaving Kate in disbelief and despair, and was eventually found, with much rejoicing. What I didn't know then was the impact Wolfy had had on Kate's life - bringing meaning and purpose to a life which was beginning to seem empty and aimless, turning alcohol-fueled late nights and subsequent hangovers into cosy snuggled-up evenings and early-morning walks. It's a story which speaks of the bond between dogs and men, and the unconditional love our furry partners offer.