Robyn Reviews: The Story of Silence

The Story of Silence is based on a thirteenth century poem about Silence, the only child of the Earl of Cador. The Earl was promised the fiefdom of Cornwall – but only if he had a son who could inherit. Desperate, the Earl decided that his firstborn child, regardless what sex they were born, would be raised a boy – and thus Silence, by nature female, was raised as a man. The author, Alex Myers, is a transgender writer and teacher, and this book functions as both a fascinating history and an examination of what gender is.

The protagonist, Silence, is a highly compelling individual. They’re one of the genuinely nicest characters I’ve ever read about, and their struggle with their gender identity is poignant and compelling. Silence dreams of being a knight, but their father is terrified of being found out and tries to hide them away with only their dreams, their nanny, and a priest to guide them. I was rooting for Silence throughout – and whilst it’s always obvious that the reveal is coming, plenty happened in between to surprise me, and the ending took a very different direction to what I expected – one that I greatly appreciated.

This is marketed as a fantasy novel, but I’d call it pure historical fiction. There are elements of magic – with Merlin making cameo appearances – but this is essentially a bard’s tale about a famous Knight who happened to have been born in a typically feminine body. The writing is period-appropriate and chronicles the story well. The primary setting of Cornwall is beautifully described, but the writing doesn’t wax lyrical, focusing on Silence and their life rather than anything happening around them. None of the characters, save Silence, are particularly three-dimensional, but this doesn’t detract – it’s Silence’s story, and the others are simply props. Delving deeper into characters like Albert would have changed this from a bard’s tale into something else, and I don’t know that it would have worked so well.

As a cisgender person, I don’t want to comment too much on Myers’s portrayal of gender here, but it was certainly fascinating to read and seemed from an outsider’s perspective to be very well done. Gender divergence is not a new phenomenon, but historical accounts of it are rarely discussed – how Myers presented it here was excellent and, albeit fictional, very believable. I would be interested to now read the original poem and see how much artistic license the author took in his portrayal.

Overall, this is a recommended read. It’s a very easy to read book, weaving an enjoyable tale of quests and minstrels and jousting, with an undercurrent of an issue that’s rarely portrayed in fiction. Everyone who enjoys historical fiction should appreciate this, and hopefully it’ll give them something to think about too.

 

Published by Harper Voyager
Hardback: 9 July 2020
Paperback: 18 March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Girl, Serpent, Thorn

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian-inspired fairytale about a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. Kept locked away in a tower, she dreams of the day a handsome prince will come and rescue her – but when someone does, it doesn’t quite go how she expected.

The first quarter of this is a slow read and feels very trope-y, but then the story starts to take twists and turns and becomes much more fast-paced and enjoyable. I predicted several of the twists but still found the plot holding my attention. It helps that the setting is gorgeous, and the Persian-inspired elements are intriguing and give this a fresh feel even when the plot treads over familiar ground.

The main character, Soraya, is the twin sister of the Shah – the ruler of the land, blessed with the protection of the Simorgh to protect his people from evil divs. Cursed shortly after her birth to kill every animal – including humans – that she touches, Soraya stays shut in her room at the palace with very minimal contact with the outside world. As such, she’s innocent and naive, coming across younger than her years and very vulnerable. She also has a great deal of anger and resentment – at herself, her situation, and the world. Whilst at times she’s a difficult character to like, her immature emotional outbursts and naivety felt realistic and she grew significantly as a character throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with her mother, Tahmineh, and how that changed as secrets were revealed.

With the exception of Soraya – and to an extent Tahmineh – none of the other characters felt quite as three-dimensional. I would love to read the full story of Azad, and equally the story of Parvaneh – two highly intriguing individuals who weren’t quite utilised to their full potential. The childhood relationships between Soraya, Sorush, Laleh, and Ramin would also be interesting to know about in more detail – especially the dynamic between Laleh and Soraya. But the book would not have been as fast-paced and exciting if it had stopped to delve into side characters, and they all played their part.

Overall, this is a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre and worth a read for anyone looking for a story that’s a little bit different. It takes a while to get going, but once you get past the first part it grows into itself and takes you on a journey.

 

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 7 July 2020

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Book Review: Patience

Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.

Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.

It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.

And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.

All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.

Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.

The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.

“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”

Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.

“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”

The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.

Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press. 

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020

 

Monthly Roundup – June 2020

We have now survived over three months of lockdown and the world of man has become a strange place. Talk of easing restrictions is shadowed by measures put in place that make our limited social contact less enjoyable: keep your distance, wear a mask, don’t go out unless necessary. The wider impact of the various rules imposed is becoming more obvious: other health issues ignored and therefore exacerbated (mental and physical), long term economic hardship likely for a great many, disruptions to education affecting the prospects of young people.

With no client work available this month, husband and I continue to fill our days with walks, runs and bike rides in the surrounding countryside. I beat my personal 5k running time – finally getting it to below 30 minutes – and completed my second, lonely half marathon. I am also trying yoga at home, coached by Adrienne via YouTube.

Our children finished their on line exams and we celebrated with a little family party. A few days later we ordered a takeaway for younger son’s birthday. It feels important to create highlights in days that are merging and can quickly grow stale.

On the henkeeping front, we gave a new forever home to four ex-farm rescue chickens who are settling in well. As is always the case, our existing flock has yet to come to terms with this invasion of their enclosure – it is clear where the terms henpecked and pecking order originate.

I reviewed 8 books in June – 6 fiction (1 translated), 1 poetry, 1 non fiction. My reading rate has been affected by lockdown and associated concerns. To counter this I took on an intern, explaining my reasons in my first post of the month – Something is changing on the blog. I hope readers have enjoyed Robyn’s reviews. This month they included 3 fantasy fiction books and 1 non fiction. I have offered her additional slots on the blog over the coming months.

Click on the title below to read the review, and on the cover to find out more about each book.

 

Fiction

 
Death & Other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor, published by Black Swan
The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, published by Century

 
Broken Angels by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson (soon to be available from the abbey bookshop)
Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch, published by Sagging Miniscus

 

For Bookmunch – and my book of the month


The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, published by Oneworld

 

Translated fiction


Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), published by Charco Press

 

Poetry


Depth Charge by Chris Emery (limited edition, privately published)

 

Non fiction


Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian, published by Elliott & Thompson

 

Robyn Reviews

Fantasy Fiction

 
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, published by Orbit
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, published by Gollancz


We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson, published by Orbit

 

Non fiction


Sway by Pragya Agarwal, published by Bloomsbury

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She is also an avid collector of eye-catching fantasy fiction and has recently been receiving as much book post as me.

Happily, I have taken delivery of a greater number of books this month than has been typical during these lockdown months.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health, speedy recovery from any illness, and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Book Review: The Wild Laughter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Wild Laughter is one of the most complete and satisfying works of fiction I have encountered. The author’s dexterity with language alone makes it worth a reader’s time and attention. There is also a compelling plot presented with humour and flair. None of this is to deny that certain elements of the story are discomfiting. Its central subject is how the complex relationships within family burn as often as balm. It is a fierce yet poignant evocation of love in a time of impending death.

The narrator is Doharty Black, known as Hart. He is the younger son of Manus and Nóra who have one other child – Cormac. Hart has the looks and Cormac the brains. Neither wishes to take on the family farm in rural Roscommon which Manus has worked since he was sixteen. The 2008 recession sweeps away this option due to debts incurred by boom time investments. The family’s woes are compounded by Manus’s terminal illness.

Hart had wanted to travel but puts such desires on hold to stay on the farm and help out until his father’s death. He idolises Manus – the Chief. There is little love lost between Hart and Nóra. Cormac visits only occasionally yet his influence remains quietly insidious. He guards his independence while expecting all to bend to his will.

Short chapters take the reader through key events over the course of a decade. There is a disturbing attempt at revenge when the teenage brothers blame a neighbouring farmer for their father’s financial difficulties. Later, there is an actress who both brothers are drawn to – yet another example of their lifelong emotional combativeness. All this builds to the dilemma the family face when Manus’s condition deteriorates. He lets it be known that he would prefer his suffering curtailed.

Ireland, with its religious and wider family pressures, is skilfully rendered. The voices captured for the varied cast of characters provide a strong sense of time and place. Depth is built through nuance – scene building and dialogue both sharp and affecting. Cruelties are at times shocking but in context add weight.

Characters are developed through carefully crafted detail. Nóra attempting to tidy up the seaweed on a beach offered a view of her pain that Hart’s antipathy masked. Cormac reworking shared memories gave insight into his desire to control the family story as understood by outsiders. The priest, although rarely present, added layers – subtly shading.

The brevity and wit in the author’s writing deserve to be savoured. In many ways this is a dark tale but tempered by the credence of the representation. There is no pulling back from the realities of a failing body – the emotional pain and physical repugnance endured as a loved one approaches death. Yet this is just one strand of the tapestry Hart weaves as he depicts the years around his father’s death. Life is lived through more than one event, however key.

Any Cop?: Told as a recollection, the reader knows Hart survives. The author’s handling of his tale ensures we care. The prose is never heavy but its impact remains profound. Much fine writing has come out of Ireland in recent years. This story can comfortably sit alongside the best.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Into the Tangled Bank

“Honestly, there are times when nature seems to be taking the piss.
‘Here you go – have something of unfathomable beauty. Here’s another. And another. Careful not to faint.'”

Into the Tangled Bank, by Lev Parikian, follows the author as he contemplates the natural world around him as it gets on with its business of living, everywhere. He starts on the pavement outside his home in South London. Alongside the traffic and urban debris are: plants, butterflies, birds and other creatures. The reader is reminded that they too are part of nature and it is not necessary to visit a specialist reserve to observe the wonder of ecosystems.

Later in the book such reserves are visited. The author also journeys to the homes and gardens (some covering many acres) of key figures from history who shared observations of their surroundings – local and further afield – with the wider public through scientific and artistic endeavours.

First though, what is alive – and not always welcome – within homes is investigated. Efforts may be made to eradicate supposed invaders such as flies, wasps or spiders but it is pointed out that they serve a useful purpose. They are also amazing when form and habits are closely observed.

The author’s garden and local woodland are explored. The author contemplates a Perfectly Normal Tree. He also muses on how others experience place and its features.

“When we see someone looking at a tree, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads. Maybe they’re silently composing poetry; perhaps they’re wondering if they left the iron on; or they might just be thinking about the deliciousness of really good chips. It is, and should remain, a mystery. But sometimes the Thomas Bewicks and John Clares of the world see fit to record their reaction in the form of art, and that in turn affects people in different and unknowable ways.”

Encounters with people are included in contemplations. Some are chatty; others appear unmoved by what is around them. One lady, on a boat trip to view eagles, is loud and excitable – an irritation to others or a reminder that what is being observed is worth getting excited about? This is better, perhaps, than the parents hurrying children away from their encounters with the creatures they were brought to observe, enjoy, and now wish to linger with.

The text is informative but also personal with many footnotes offering elucidation along with self-deprecating humour. Birds are of particular interest and the reader is reminded that it is not just the unusual that should be sought for admiration. One anecdote shared is when bird-watchers in China rushed to view a visiting robin – a rarity there.

“a vivid reminder not to take commonplace for granted, to look at normal more closely, to appreciate the magic of the everyday.”

The author does not consider himself an expert, pointing out that information can be readily gleaned from books and the myriad of online resources available. What he urges is that readers take time to observe, wherever they may be.

Towards the end of the book Parikian turns his gaze upwards. He visits a Dark Skies observatory and is overwhelmed by the vastness of outer space. What this does offer, though, is perspective.

There are cautions against man’s habit of anthropomorphising – attributing reactions to how we would feel. The author also advises against expecting the constant action depicted in televised nature programmes. Nature does not perform for man’s benefit but rather as is necessary for continued survival.

This is a gently structured, affable study that takes the reader ‘from the kitchen sink to the cosmic void’ via museums, zoos and what now passes as wilderness. It provides a reminder that all are connected and everyday actions are truly fascinating. Informative, well written and interesting – an entertaining and uplifting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson

Robyn Reviews: We Ride The Storm

We Ride The Storm is true epic fantasy – multiple points of view across multiple factions in a world on the brink of war. It’s a delight following all the separate pieces on the board and musing how they might come together. The plot twists and turns with plenty of action and intrigue; I was always curious to know what would happen next.

The chapters alternate between three characters – Miko, Cassandra, and Rah – and all of them are fantastic. Miko is the sister of Tanaka, the apparent heir to Emperor Kin and ruler of the Kisia. Better at politics and far less rash than her brother, she wishes that it were she who had been born a boy and might someday rule the Empire. I loved her – she was strong and witty but real, still regularly outplayed and at the whims of her emotions. I’d want her on my side in a fight.

Cassandra is the most intriguing character but the least well utilised. A sex worker and assassin from Chiltae, Cassandra seduces men then kills them for whoever pays her the most. But there’s more to her than there seems, and she’s driven by motives stronger than money. When Cassandra was introduced, I thought she would be my favourite – but her role in this is smaller than the other main characters, and – without giving any spoilers – there’s only so many times you can end a chapter by blacking out. Hopefully she plays a stronger role in future books.

Rah is the head of the Second Swords of Torin, a tribe of horsemen from the Levanti. He and his Swords are searching for Gideon, head of the First Swords of Torin, who disappeared on an excursion into Chiltae nearly two years ago. Rah is a delight – loyal to his Swords and his customs but playing at a game with bigger stakes than he understands. He’s the sort of friend everyone needs – supportive but will always challenge you if he thinks you’re doing wrong.

We Ride The Storm was originally self-published, and came to prominence in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog-Off, an annual competition to find the best self-published science fiction and fantasy. It was subsequently picked up by Orbit for re-publication. Having not read the original self-published version, I don’t know how much Orbit have edited it, but I can say it’s a little rough around the edges. The plot is fast-paced and enjoyable and leaves you rooting for the characters, but some of the transitions are a little clunky. I suspect that this will be ironed out in the sequels and am excited to see how they further develop Madson’s writing.

The biggest issue I had was with the ending – it’s a complete cliffhanger, to the extent that it doesn’t feel like the ending of a book. It would be more appropriate as the end of a ‘Part One’. Still, it means that I’ll need to pick up book two which is probably what the author intended…

Overall, this is a solid addition to the epic fantasy genre. Recommended for fans of stories about revolutions and war – especially fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and the Stormlight Archives.

   

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 25th June 2020

Book Review: Lake of Urine

It is rare in the book world to find a story that is truly original while also being eminently engaging. I’ll resist describing Lake of Urine as experimental because the tale told may be tall but it is droll and never difficult. The author plays with many precepts and conceits, inverting accepted behaviours. Ideas and turns of phrase add richness to a landscape reeling in the bizarre yet woven to plausibility within the world created.

Divided into four parts, each focuses on a different key character. The first is Willem Seiler, a man besotted by Noranbole Wakeling. She is the the overlooked sister of the titular Urine. Their mother – the many times married Emma – favours Urine and treats Noranbole as their scullery maid. Unfortunately for Willem, Noranbole has no interest in him while Urine willingly complies with any and all of his requests.

Willem likes to measure things with string. For example, the depth of winter is determined by the distance that may be travelled safely from home before the cold or wolves become too much of a risk. The depth of a creek may be measured by tying a weight to one end of the string. There is a lake near to Tiny Village – where Seiler and the Wakelings live – and Willem feels compelled to measure its depth. Despite several attempts, which do not go as planned, he persists, leading to a tragedy.

Except within this story tragedies are largely accepted with equanimity. Reader be warned, scattered throughout are acts of violence and other abhorrent behaviour towards people and innocent creatures. Normally this would upset me. Here they are surreal, as are many other elements.

The second part of the book focuses on Noranbole, who has moved to Big City with her boyfriend, Bernard. This section takes a delicious dig at the corporate world and how celebrity, particularly in sport, is venerated. Noranbole is now head of Terra Forma, a company so powerful that it has the ear of the country’s president.

“She was settling into the routines of her new position, having risen to it from the post room in a mere eighteen months and a series of fortuitous events so highly improbable as to defy description here.”

Working alongside her to rewrite the company strategy manifesto is Vacuity Blanc, head of corporate branding. As the board of directors struggles to deal with – or at least discuss in unintelligible jargon – crisis upon crisis, Noranbole gives precedence to concerns of the manager at the Noodle & Burger Emporium where Bernard works, washing dishes. He is eager to move to noodle cooking, promotion the manager claims cannot be rushed.

Bernard’s voice is only understood by Noranbole. I have no idea if the dialogue included as his language, before she translates, has any meaning.

The third section takes the reader through Emma Wakeling’s life, framed by each of her marriages – in reverse order – and the rooms in her house. The setting is timeless – transport by horse and cart but mention of internet. As with the rest of the tale, these upendings of expectation are made to work well.

Emma’s father is a pastor with a particular interest in ‘fallen women’. He educates his daughter from: the bible, his many sermons, tales of those in their locale he ministers to. He is aided by the family’s stern housekeeper. Emma is the only girl attending her small school. All this may go some way towards explaining certain choices she makes in her behaviour.

The final section brings the protagonists back together and is titled Urine. The mayor of Big City visits Tiny Village to see for himself a situation that neighbouring communities have complained of. Rubbish has become a valued commodity. The smell is unpleasant. Prominent villagers proudly take the mayor to admire the art in a valued exhibition.

“”What do you mean, in what way? It’s rubbish. We are literally falling over this stuff in Big City. People complain about it.”
Chuckles from the next table. Bunbury smirks and shakes his head.
“So we understand, sire,” he says with an air of indulgence. “Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’ve got.””

Meanwhile, Seiler is still distracted by the lake. The Wakelings’ lives are about to be affected once again.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the story but after this the pace remained pleasingly expeditious. The short chapters and plays on language entertained with understated witticisms. It is certainly not a ‘nice’ love story – there is too much masturbation and violence for that. Nevertheless, it pokes fun at aspects of life taken much too seriously while presenting serious issues lightly but as worthy of consideration.

I thought the author brave to go with a title I found off-putting. Had he not sold me on the synopsis I would not have accepted the book for review. Having read it, I’m very glad I did. Satire can be difficult to maintain in storytelling without appearing pretentious. The author has achieved a fine balance between: dark, quirky, humorous, and engrossing. This is a singular and satisfying read.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus Press