Book Review: Course of Mirrors

Course of Mirrors tells the story of a young woman named Ana who leaves her privileged but unhappy home seeking an elusive purpose. This is fantasy fiction and harnesses many of the genres tropes. There are magical elements with many of the characters having special powers. Ana uses a talisman to heal, to spread light, and to help her make decisions. Her talisman provides a useful distraction when she is in danger. Ana also has the power of telepathy, especially with animals. She has an unseen friend, Cara, who occasionally speaks to her from the future. All of these elements I could accept given the nature of the story. What I found harder to understand was why they were used at certain times and not others. During her journey Ana encounters many people, some of whom suffer injuries that she makes no attempt to heal. Her talisman is powerful yet is used intermittently.

Other aspects of the story were used repeatedly. A great many characters grew up believing they were orphans taken in by those who raised them soon after their birth. Given that most of the key characters live within well maintained households of kings it seemed strange that babies could be whisked away during much anticipated births without any servants noticing. Revealing who birth parents are, and the affect this has on their offspring, provide pivotal aspects of the plot.

The story opens in the summer when Ana has just turned eighteen. She lives with her father, Katun, who is the ruler of a kingdom that has suffered six years of plagues. To avoid contamination, Katun has kept his family in isolation. He is estranged from his wife, Inti, who maintains her own property across the river that divides their lands. Ana considers herself a cause of their unhappiness. She feels more loved by her paternal grandmother than by either parent.

Katun is described as ordered and practical although he has neglected those he rules over, nursing the resentments he feels about the hand life has dealt him following his marriage. Inti irritates him due to her more artistic nature and demands for independence. Katun is annoyed that she has not granted him control of her lands as he expected. Instead, Inti has delegated her wider duties to her brother’s widow whose two children are Ana’s friends until visitors are banned from their home.

With the decline of the pestilence Ana’s cousins are permitted to visit once again. They take her on the first of her adventures. The danger this exposes her to leads to a confrontation with Katun who attempts to exert control over his daughter. Ana reacts by deciding to run away.

What follows are a series of encounters and further adventures. Ana meets a group of travelling actors and musicians. She is kidnapped by a religious fanatic. There is a shipwreck and danger from mercenaries. Ana enjoys several sexual encounters before coming to understand that love interests will not provide the meaning she seeks. Through trying to develop her artistic talent Ana meets the influential Ruskin, a former friend of her mother. An uprising brings together many of the friends she has made on her journey.

The extreme poverty under which some of the populace exist is briefly mentioned, as are the many deaths that result from the various conflicts. There seems to be little concern about this from Ana and those who have enjoyed privileged upbringings. Although realistic this was disappointing. Even in fantasy, it seems, there is limited humanity.

The prose is fable like, rich in metaphor and simile. Although each aspect of Ana’s travels is used subsequently, I found the plot was at times slow to progress. The writing style was engaging and plenty happens. There were, however, rather too many fortuitous if seemingly coincidental meetings. I wondered if Cara is to become more important in this as her role here was questionable.

World building and the many interrelationships are made easier to follow thanks to a map and cast list provided. There is mention of a sequel although it is not yet available.

A diverting if not entirely satisfying read. Ultimately, the pace and repetitive reliance on coincidence detracted too much from my enjoyment.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: On Silbury Hill

On Silbury Hill, by Adam Thorpe, is another fascinating addition to the Little Toller Monograph series (I have previously reviewed Snow, Landfill, Eagle Country, and Limestone Countryall these books are also worth reading). Thorpe first became interested in Silbury – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe – while he was a pupil at nearby Marlborough College, an exclusive public school where he boarded during the 1970s while his parents lived abroad due to his father’s work. As well as providing the reader with information about the enigmatic hill and the varying theories about its original purpose, Thorpe writes of his time in Wiltshire as a schoolboy, and later in life when he would return to visit. Like many who are drawn to the area – I have lived nearby for over three decades – he finds something elemental in his reaction to the location and its ancient artefacts.

Silbury Hill was built, probably over several generations, more than 4000 years ago. She is around 130 feet high – the equivalent of a 13 storey building – and has a base covering around 5 acres. Nobody knows why she was created although there are many theories. Archaeologists have drilled down into her, dug tunnels through her and taken away samples to try to work out her purpose. She is neither a burial mound nor a treasure trove. There are few clues as to what she may have been used for.

What is known is that she was one of three man made mounds in an area that also includes the Avebury stone circles and its associated avenues. Nearby are several large barrows that exist to house the dead. There is evidence of massive gatherings in ancient times suggesting significant rituals were enacted. Today, gatherings are of tourists or those who claim a religious link.

“Sometimes I think that invasive archaeology is a metaphor for our whole current situation: the process of discovery necessitates destruction.”

What we know about Silbury Hill is due to the investigations that broke her open and allowed modern man in. These were halted earlier this century and repairs made to the damaging invasions. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the location must now be protected. Visitors are no longer granted access to the hill.

Thorpe writes of his time at boarding school and also of the visits he made at that time to his family in Cameroon. He found an appeal in what he perceived as the simpler, less materialistic lifestyle of certain Africans and compares this to what is known of Britons in Neolithic times. The latter, of course, had short life expectancy and high death rates. Their bones show signs of painful afflictions – it was hardly an ideal way of living.

At the time of Silbury Hill’s construction, much of the country was still wooded and large predators roamed free within their dark canopy. Man was transitioning from hunter gatherer to farmer but would still be reliant on the small community he lived within and contributed to.

“the examination of period burials reveals not only a ghastly catalogue of ways to suffer and die (plenty of fractures and wounds, severe arthritis, tooth abscesses, gum disease, rickets, polio, spina bifida, tetanus, tuberculosis, plague, malaria), but the likelihood that ‘four people in ten died before they were twenty’ – not including the 50 per cent who didn’t make it past their third year.”

As a schoolboy, Thorpe visited East Kennet Long Barrow – 5000 years old and the longest in Europe – and ‘had an extraordinary sense of my own mortality’.

“I was a mere blip, soon to be extinguished, in comparison with the multiple generations witnessed by this earthwork, and those stretching out onto the future.”

The ancients were closer to death and, perhaps therefore, revered the ancestors. Rituals would reflect this and their reliance on nature for survival.

“death was woven into the landscape here in the chalklands in a colossally evident way.”

“Alternatively, Silbury might have been a brilliant means to unite a people with a common project that gave their brief lives a meaning.”

Perhaps the hill draws so much interest because its purpose remains unknown. It has existed through several rounds of climate change – warming and cooling, with associated changes in water levels – and multiple ages as man’s habits and beliefs have endlessly shifted. She has been probed and speculated over. Her surroundings have been desecrated and rebuilt. It is her age and continuing existence – from such ancient times through to now – that demands pause for contemplation.

“So frail the summer,
I would like to plait it
like grass, and keep my place

in the book of my life
forever, now, here.
I’ve noticed this is not possible.

Something is always ushering us.”

The author writes in a personal and compelling style that pulls the reader in. He weaves the memoir elements with a wider history of the area and how these have contributed to shaping his own development. In a time when man has all but detached himself from his surroundings – the cars on the busy A4, that runs adjacent to the hill, whizzing by in too much of a hurry to pause at the millennia old wonder they may glimpse as they pass – it is good to consider how transient our existence, inventions and prideful acquisitions will be. Silbury Hill remains a mystery – just one facet of its allure – but stands as a monument to that which can endure, and the value of reflection.

On Silbury Hill is published by Little Toller Books.

Book Review: The Ground is Full of Holes

The Ground is Full of Holes, by Suzy Norman, is written in an abrupt and often opaque style. Much is inferred but little explained with the plot unfolding mainly through ongoing dialogue and character’s thought processes. The story focuses on a middle aged couple, Nancy and Marcus, who have been married for a decade and have no children. They live in a small terraced house in Fulham, West London, that is not entirely satisfactory to either of them – for differing reasons. Irish born Marcus is a consultant anaesthetist at Barts Hospital. Nancy is on extended leave from her high ranking position in the banking sector. Their marriage is under considerable strain.

Circling this couple are Nancy’s sister and her husband – Georgia and Shiv. Before Marcus, Nancy had been involved with Shiv and there are still tensions because of this. Neither Nancy nor Marcus are maritally faithful although they do not admit this to each other. Marcus’s current affair is with a nurse who assists him in operations. Nancy has her eye on another of her old flames.

Nancy clearly has ongoing issues to contend with that her family are growing impatient with. She turns for solace to her friend, Anna, who has troubles of her own.

His wife’s behaviour frustrates and at times angers Marcus. The fallout from this leads to a tragic error at work. Everything he has built appears to crumble at a time when Nancy needs her husband’s attention. Marcus directs his anger at his in-laws, deflecting the shame he feels for letting down, as he sees it, his own parents.

It took me some time to engage with the writing style and structure to the extent that I nearly gave up reading around a quarter of the way in. Once it became clear that development is more character study than plot driven I was able to accept what was being explored and dissected. I did not always enjoy the reading – the hankering for romance without effort at times veered too close to elements of genre fiction – although there is plenty to consider in the handling of troubled relationships. It is a family tale offering a snapshot of flawed characters, a marriage, and the difficulties inherent in wider family posturing and expectation. I did not find it satisfying to read.

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

Book Review: Planet in Peril

“This anthology was founded upon the belief that words have the power to change.”

Planet in Peril, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, is an anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces focusing on climate change, pollution, and man’s impact on Planet Earth. Whilst timely given current interest in the subject matter, it is not exactly cheery reading.

An early poem, Mother Earth by Rachael Ikins, injects early controversy with a possible solution to the humans causing so much damage to their beautiful home and life support system.

“She urges them to genocide, war, the moon;
sends in viruses, bacteria, her fiercest warriors the smallest –
anything to rid
the plague that consumes her”

I was entertained later in the book by a poem written by one of the younger contributors, Niamh Hughes, whose Animals reversed imagines the outrage a person would feel if Earth’s other animals treated people as humans treat their fellow creatures. Throughout the book human actions are shown to be selfish and damaging to all, including themselves.

Early entries explore the importance of trees and the true cost of deforestation.

There is a section focusing on the polar regions – a sanctuary under which people dump their nuclear waste.

Preserved in Ice by Dr Sam Illingworth offers a strong portrayal of man’s grasping invasions. Information provided after the poem explains that researchers have collected and radiocarbon dated samples of ancient plants in the Canadian Arctic continually covered by ice for at least the past 40,000 years, until now. Whilst I understand the concerns about melting ice and rising sea levels, I was curious about the time when these plants grew. Planet Earth has experienced fluctuating global temperatures throughout its existence.

The many photographs included of our world and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it are a joy to peruse. I did wonder at the footprint left by the scientists cited and the artists who captured the images. Habitats and species are best preserved if left to nature rather than adapted for man’s convenience, even when intentions are worthy.

In some ways this book felt like an elegy to the world as we know it today. Life on Earth is constantly evolving. Whilst it appears obvious that modern man is a scourge, our own actions may eventually provide the cure. This is a difficult process to dwell on and one many refuse to contemplate despite their lifestyles bringing it ever nearer.

The blazing sun and what to do about it by Peter Ualrig Kennedy takes a wry look at human attitudes, capturing typical responses to growing but ignored crisis. As is pointed out later by Geoff Callard,

“we humans are incredibly bad at trading off short term gratification for long term gain”

There is suggestion that the speed of current change prevents other species adapting. In the futuristic Specimen by Joanna Lilley, Homo sapien is described as “architect of annihilation”. Our unwillingness to radically alter our behaviour is cleverly captured in Sleepwalking by Amélie Nixon.

“we are tired
put your alarm clock on snooze;
shove your head back under the pillow.
just 10 more minutes.”

Another young contributor, Jenna M, provides a poignant hand drawn picture of Planet Earth and the creatures suffering man’s pollution and incursions.

Automachine by Aviva Rynne Browne brings vividly to the fore how wasteful we are with resources, and how little we seem to care about this.

The contributions may be moving but are somewhat didactic to read. The lack of hope would be my main criticism however realistic the portrayal may be. The purpose of the anthology is to inspire change in human behaviour. The bleak picture painted puts into question how possible this is.

There is talk in the news of tipping points, and perhaps the damage wreaked has already taken us beyond what can be fixed. As a species it is troubling to consider that Planet Earth may only flourish if we are removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

A proportion of the profits from this book will be donated to The Climate Coalition and WWF.

Book Review: The German House

The German House, by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) is a story of ordinary people woven around the first Auschwitz trials that ran from 1963 to 1965 in Frankfurt. The protagonist is a young woman named Eva who lives with her parents and siblings above their thriving restaurant. She works as a translator and is drawn to offer her services to the specially created legal court when she realises the truth of what happened at the Auschwitz camp and how it has been swept under the carpet of her country’s collective conscience. Jürgen, the wealthy young man she hopes will become her husband, is against Eva taking on the job, going so far as to try to forbid her. Likewise, her parents are concerned, although for more intimate reasons.

Twenty-two defendants were tried in Frankfurt under German criminal law for their roles as officials in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death and concentration camp complex. They all denied the charges. The court’s proceedings were largely public and served to bring many previously unknown, horrific details to the attention of the German population who, two decades after the events, had chosen to move on with their lives. The hundreds of witnesses called included camp survivors, many of whom had observed the worst of the atrocities. The sheer scale of what had happened was not believed by many, including Eva’s sister, Annegret, a nurse with dark secrets of her own.

The subject matter – systematic Holocaust – is obviously distressing to read about. What makes this story particularly powerful is the parallel consideration given to more everyday matters. After listening to the terrible detail of witness testimonies, the characters continue with their family concerns and pleasures. Jürgen and Eva meet each other’s parents. Annegret starts an affair with a colleague. A Canadian on the legal team grows closer to a prostitute he has been using, who is distracted by her son’s educational aspirations. All have personal issues to contend with, now affected by the reminder of what their fellow man is capable of.

The writing is jagged in places, – dynamic and direct – as the trial progresses. Eva is struggling with the growing realisation that her beloved parents have not been entirely honest with her. Annegret is disdainful, accusing the witnesses of attention seeking, something she understands all too well. Jürgen grows jealous and attempts to exert greater control, fearful of taking on a wife who will not obey him. Eva’s crisis of identity results in her becoming less pliable and ever more alone.

It is too easy to assume that those who do monstrous things must be monsters. What this story brings home is the selfish complicity of supposedly good people and how shame leads to secrecy or even denial. Towards the end of the story there is a scene where Eva, wracked with guilt by association, talks to a camp survivor. His response provides a moving and candid understanding of how self-absorbed even those seeking some form of redress often are.

This is a moving but also compelling tale that opens a window on human behaviour – and how the instinct for survival can result in a terrible cost. It is a timely reminder that, “crimes of such magnitude […] could never have come to pass had only a tiny sliver of the population been complicit.” As Eva discovers, complicity can include doing nothing.

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

Monthly Roundup – November 2019

November on social media has seen the emergence of annual lists and memes of personal achievements, along with their naysayers. I haven’t taken part. I looked at photos of me taken in 2009 and 2019 and concluded that I look much the same, just older as expected. I thought of the many things I have done over the past ten years and these largely involved my three children – they own their achievements. I have read many books and written many words but this is hardly noteworthy – it is what I do. I live a quiet life and very much hope this continues.

One highlight of this past month was a rather damp weekend in Cardiff where I spent time with my student son. While there I completed week four of the ‘couch to 5k’ running program. I am still strength training at the gym and the weights I shift are gradually increasing. Small steps to meet personal goals that affect only me.

I was tempted by two literary events, both to be held in Bath. One disappeared from the bookshop website before I could book a ticket – I have no idea if it was cancelled. The other event didn’t offer a no book ticket option and, as a family, we already have at least three copies – for the talk alone it was too expensive to justify. Thus my event hiatus continues.

It has been a mixed month in terms of reading. I posted reviews of twelve books – eight fiction and four non fiction (one translated) – of which two were originally written for Bookmunch. If you wish to check out my November reviews click on the title below. Click on a cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction

These two books did not work for me. Beautiful Place is set in Sri Lanka and The Frequency of Magic in Trinidad. Neither place is written about in a way that would encourage me to visit. Too many of the characters were unremittingly unpleasant. I found the second book so unpalatable I DNF’d it after getting a third of the way through.

 
Beautiful Place by Amanthi Harris, published by Salt
The Frequency of Magic by Anthony Joseph, published by Peepal Tree Press

These next two books provided much good reading but were not entirely satisfactory – interesting concepts that weren’t always presented in a compelling enough way.

 
The Faculty of Indifference by Guy Ware, published by Salt
Mud by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Two very different books and I enjoyed both. The first is a picture book exploring how to deal with unhappiness. The second is an imaginative and chilling horror story with an underlying exploration of what horror is in reality.

 
She Ran Away From Love by Mawson, published by Odyssey Books
Judderman by D.A. Northwood, published by Dead Ink Press

I reviewed The Starless Sea for Bookmunch – fabulous storytelling. The Lighthouse is a much shorter book, which for me is always a plus, and was excellent. These are two of my three contenders for Book of the Month.

 
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, published by Harvill Secker
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt

Non Fiction

In these two books the author explores a place and what it means to them. The first was interesting if perplexing – why would anyone choose to put themselves through such an experience? The second book I adored – the writing and the artwork. Highly recommended.

 
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (translated by Jane Degras), published by Pushkin Press
The White Heron Beneath the Reactor by Gary Budden, with artwork by Maxim Griffin

I enjoyed both of these final two titles. The first is a beautifully illustrated memoir that I reviewed for Bookmunch. The second details fifty important mathematical breakthroughs in an accessible and entertaining format. Do check them out.

 
Time for Lights Out by Raymond Briggs, published by Jonathan Cape
Fibonacci’s Rabbits by Adam Hart-Davies, published by Modern Books

 

As ever I wish to thank 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.

Book Review: Time for Lights Out

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Raymond Briggs is now in his eighties and apparently contemplating life’s end. He has stated that he expects Time for Lights Out to be his last book – it took him over a decade to create. Given the subject matter it may sound depressing but this is not the case. Although searingly honest about an aging body’s failings and inevitable future, the tone is more reflective than bleak.

Throughout the varied entries the author demonstrates an awareness of his increasing frailty. He writes of eating healthy food and taking regular exercise. He still indulges in the wine he enjoys, trying to temper concerns without becoming obsessive. He lives in rural Sussex where the countryside is teeming with life but also deaths, such as road kill. Briggs visits a local cemetery and notes the prevalence of young people buried in his parents’ time. He reads newspaper obituary pages and feels a sense of achievement when he is older than the recently deceased.

The contents of the book are a mixture of: pencil drawn illustrations, comic strips, poems, photographs, quotes, lists, and short opinion pieces. All are based around the author’s personal memories and experiences. Divided into three sections – Now, Then, Soon – they offer a picture of the life Briggs has lived and his concerns about its end. His wry musings cover day to day activities including: walking his dog, habits when at home, interactions with friends and neighbours. Certain memories are triggered by items kept for decades, often unused but hard to throw away due to their history.

“Old people are always absorbed in something. Usually themselves.”

The ‘Now’ section presents Briggs as a seventy-something year old who surveys himself as an old man and is somewhat annoyed that this is what he has turned into. On walks he finds the hills are harder to climb. His days are marked out by routines he and his partner doggedly adhere to. He observes that he has become less tolerant of other people’s appearance and behaviour. All of this is written with unflinching insight and wry humour. Briggs recognises his foibles and failings. Although poignant in places there is no expectation of sympathy.

‘Then’ looks back at: Briggs’ parents, his own childhood, the death of his wife, visiting grandchildren. Much has changed in the world during each of their lifetimes. The lasting effects of the two world wars are remembered along with more welcome advances – illustrated by conversations Briggs has with the young children. He remembers those who have died but acknowledges also that they are sometimes forgotten – that life goes on for those who remain.

“Death hovers around us every day.
Somehow, we close our minds to its closeness,
even when it is just outside the window
or is staring at us from the television.”

‘Soon’ is wound around a fear the author has about ending up in a care home for the elderly. He ruminates over personal possessions that are dear to him and how these would have to be disposed of. He recalls the deaths of acquaintances and that this must one day happen to him. Yet all of this is contemplated without rancour. I found Briggs’ willingness to confront what is inevitable refreshing. Contemporary society is so often eager to avoid acknowledging the prospect of death.

“He who is not anxious has no imagination”

Briggs’ inimitable illustrations are a mix of finely rendered drawings and more blurred images – appropriate when conveying the speed at which time passes (and perhaps the deterioration of eyesight) when on life’s downhill trajectory. The importance of memory in old age, especially of childhood, is given thoughtful consideration. The structure of the book allows the reader to peruse pages without the necessity of reading in order from cover to cover.

Any Cop?: A frank and originally presented memoir depicting what living day to day feels like having exceeded one’s allotted three score and ten years. If this is Briggs’ swansong it is a fitting tribute to his artistic talent and percipient story telling.

 

Jackie Law