Book Review: Travellers to Unimaginable Lands

Travellers Unimaginable Lands

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Whenever Peter and his mother argued, part of him believed that if he just found the right words, his mother would understand and everything could be resolved”

An increasing number of books are being published, fiction and nonfiction, that explore aspects of clinical conditions indexed under the label of dementia. An aging population means more people will have to live with this debilitating disease – as patients and carers. Most literature I have read on the subject to date focuses on the patient, perhaps with the aim of providing comfort or elucidation to carers. Relatives, in particular, of those whose brain function is deteriorating can come to feel guilty and alone as they struggle to remain calm when dealing with what feels like an onslaught of personally targeted vitriol. They may know logically it is the illness talking but such attacks, often repeated and denied, come through as perceived criticism of necessary interventions and can be challenging to take.

Travellers to Unimaginable Lands documents the author’s personal experience alongside case studies they have worked on as a counsellor to caregivers. Kiper explains why a healthy human brain will naturally struggle to deal with someone whose cognitive functions are being eroded. In clear and persuasive language she details how humans are psychologically programmed to expect certain behaviours, and if these are not forthcoming there will be stress reactions. Loved ones can cause deeply felt upset as they use shared history and long running reproofs as weapons drawn from within their illness.

“when caregivers are yelled at, lied to, ignored, unfairly accused, or not recognized, how can this not affect their sense of self?”

Also examined is how the mind processes memory. Just as there is an orbital blind spot of which most remain unaware, as the brain fills in the gap and vision appears complete, so memories are rebuilt each time aspects are recalled – and can therefore differ over time. The roles of conscious and unconscious decision making are discussed, something that enables a dementia sufferer to conceal symptoms of their illness, especially in situations they have long performed within such as social or work contexts. We all like to feel in control yet are often driven by reaction rather than considered action.

“what makes the self truly sneaky is that it believes itself impervious to outside influences, whereas in fact it collapses all too easily under the weight of social pressure”

The various case studies explore why a patient may behave in certain ways. An individual’s actions and arguments often stem from their life experiences although this may be masked by how the illness manifests. Carers’ reactions to situations they have struggled with are then delved into by the author. Knowing it is the disease driving behaviour will not always be enough to prevent the healthy brain reacting as comes naturally, often resulting in deep feelings of guilt.

The psychology of care giving proved fascinating to read as did the explanations of why interactions with dementia sufferers can be so challenging. One niggle I had with the case studies was the author’s habit of describing how a client looked – their body shape and eye colour. This felt irrelevant compared to state of mind, skill sets and the reasoning around occasional breakdowns.

Mostly, however, this was an interesting angle from which to explore a growing problem that garners much overt criticism from those as yet unaffected.

Any Cop?: A worthwhile and accessible read both for carers and those who may not understand the pressures under which these often underappreciated workers must somehow find ways to survive the loss of a loved one who continues to live.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Death of the Author (in Triplicate)

death author

“All fiction is a form of detective fiction. What is a novel if not a series of clues? A code to be cracked.”

As is suggested in the full title, Death of the Author is a story told in three parts. It challenges the reader to work out what is happening, but not in a way they may expect.

The first and longest section follows its narrator, a DCI working in North London, as he makes his way to the scene of an apparent murder. It is early on a weekday morning when a PSCO spots a body on the doorstep of a house in one of the more salubrious streets in the area. He phones it in, thereby making himself a person of interest in the case.

The DCI has been assigned the role of Senior Investigating Officer, requiring team leadership and decision making rather than detailed investigative work. His low opinion of his colleagues’ intelligence, however, means he cannot help but seek potential evidence, trying to ascertain what may have happened in this strangely staged crime scene.

A large chunk of the section covers the DCI’s walk through the neighbourhood leading to the house where the murder likely took place. It brought to mind Simon Okotie’s In the Absence of Absalon, although with a leaning towards wordplay rather than mathematical entertainment. There is much witty verbal skewering of types of people and their habits. Lesser known words and linguistic ambiguities are employed to effect.

Eventually the dead body is viewed and the area around the house explored. There are many clues for armchair detectives to consider. The DCI starts to write in the new notebook he has acquired for the case, as is his habit. Colleagues may use their phones but he prefers to keep records in hard copy, one book per investigation.

The second section is dialogue – a telephone conversation between the widow of a mid list author and his agent. The author had been an officer in the Met and also a crime fiction writer, a side line kept secret from his work colleagues. His last book was unfinished when he died. Wife and agent are now arguing bitterly over what will become of the manuscript. The heated conversation skips along apace, raising issues around relations within a marriage and the business side of publishing. A ghost writer hovers in the background.

The third and final section is, appropriately, written in the third person. An author has completed his third novel and is clearing his attic study of post-it notes and other research or reminder aids – a prelude to submitting the manuscript to his publisher for editing. What is offered here is insight into the writing process, its solitary nature and the challenges to be faced when offering a finished product up to readers. The author harbours doubts about his chosen structure, if it will be deemed acceptable, but holds that a writer must stay true to what sets his work apart given all stories have been told in some way already.

“You’re far better sticking to your own artistic vision, that which made you decide to be a writer in the first place.”

This section is particularly meta and pulls the previous two together. There are hints of autofiction, although as Nash appears to enjoy setting his reader puzzles to play with, nothing should be taken at face value.

The story within story aspect it handled skilfully. Some detail may not appeal to those who prefer all threads to be tied neatly but this is cleverly dealt with. The disparate writing styles in each section keep the reader guessing. The required acceptance of practices within what is a precarious business may make aspiring authors consider their choices.

Murder, death and betrayal are mere ingredients around which Nash cooks his literary feast. The starter may appear to be a police procedural but this proves a red herring, an opening to something completely different.

“It was a mystery thriller after all. Or was it? Oh this is good stuff to feed the marketing machine”

An enjoyable read for those who savour use of language and how it may be used to provide insight into human behaviour. An adept and thought provoking exploration of the life and death – real and figuratively – of the author(s?) featured.

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

Book Review: Birthright


Birthright, by Charles Lambert, is aptly described as a literary thriller. It has all the tension and page turning engagement of a psychological thriller but avoids any accusation of appearing formulaic. Characters are well developed and necessary to the plot, not just there as window dressing or to facilitate a twist. Although some may be described as attractive they are not overly so, and this is not an aspect unduly built upon. Rather it is ambition and flaws that are key in behaviour – how they act and are treated.

The story opens with a long married couple watching a television show that claims to offer a public service – trying to track down those who have gone missing from their families. A photograph of a young girl is broadcast, one who looks just like the wife at that age. Disconcerted she tries to brush aside the resemblance. Sometimes those who go missing have their reasons for wishing to disappear.

The timeline then moves back to the 1980s, when the two protagonists were sixteen years old. First we meet Fiona, the only child of a wealthy, English couple although her beloved father is now dead. Fiona does not get on with her mother and is angry that the long summers they spent in Italy with the family of her father’s friend and business associate have been curtailed. Educated at boarding schools, Fiona longs to feel wanted and loved, to be treated as the children of the Italian family were by their parents.

When she finds a photograph in a newspaper cutting her mother has kept of a young girl who looks exactly as she did at that age Fiona is intrigued. In trying to broach the subject, another biting row ensues. Back at school Fiona makes friends with a new girl, Jennifer, with whom she shares what she has found and is still pondering. Jennifer has a brother, Patrick, who she claims knows how to find people. Jennifer is more worldly than Fiona and knows something about sleuthing herself.

The second protagonist is Maddy, the only child of an alcoholic mother. They now live in Italy, where Maddy is a student, although she spent her early years in England. Maddy hates her life, loving her mother but resenting how much she is hemmed in by their poverty – caused by her mother’s long term hippy lifestyle. When confronted by her doppelgänger she reacts defensively, causing the privileged upstart to go behind Maddy’s back to get what she wants and feels she deserves. Fiona is not averse to using a friend as distraction, their reward being the welcome possibility of polishing ego.

Now, if that all sounds a bit rich girl, poor girl, seen this done before in a number of variations, fear not. There is enough innovation in plot and character to keep this story fresh. Although both girls may make mistakes in who they trust – often due to lust, but then they are young and virile – they are not fools. They are each also blessed with a loyal acquaintance offering practical support as well as a listening ear. As the story progresses and secondary characters reveal more depths, there is a pleasing lack of repositioning required – what went before continues to sit true.

The denouement is cleverly constructed, building on the undercurrents of nature, nurture and just how unknowingly interlinked identical twins’ psyches might be. Not all questions are answered but the reader may easily infer from what has been shared. Even the most shocking action is presented with a degree of validation – the author managing expected reaction skilfully.

The Italian setting may be unknown to me but added a dimension enabling some of the greater leaps in the name of required progression to land smoothly. A tale of two families, unhappy with good reason. A story I thoroughly enjoyed and consumed avidly.

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

Book Review: The Book of Niall

Book of Niall

Barry Jones has lived with depersonalisation and derealisation since early childhood. The Book of Niall is his attempt to explain what it means to suffer from these twin disorders. By structuring the book as a graphic novel he brings to vivid life the anguish of having to act in what is regarded as an acceptable way when in the company of others, to stick to the script that is his day to day life. Veering off course can lead to car crash moments that also affect his loved ones and work colleagues. Mental health issues do not just affect the patient, but better understanding of what is being experienced can help all understand, and make allowances for, the high cost of social compliance.

The protagonist of the story is Niall Adams, a Hollywood film star best known for a series of superhero movies in which he stars as the muscular main character, Logos. Niall has a beautiful girlfriend, Kristen, who is also an actor but yet to catch her big break. His manager is Achim, a man addicted to dating a string of interchangeable young women he chooses from online escort sites.

In the opening scenes we learn that Niall has been nominated for a top acting award. Achim has worked hard – and made carefully placed investments – to achieve this accolade for his client but Niall proves reluctant to play the publicity game expected and required. Kirsten has her own good news to impart having landed a contract to be the face of a range of beauty products in a national advertising campaign. Niall struggles to offer her the excited congratulations she expects. While it is recognised that Niall has issues, and support is offered, he must, if he wishes to continue as a successful actor, go through the motions demanded by fickle fans and the entertainment industry. This may be his job but he is growing increasingly disillusioned, his mental health disorders fracturing what he can perceive as reality.

After some consideration, Niall agrees to attend the award ceremony where he makes a speech that goes viral. This leads to a slot on a popular chat show where he meets a man with an outlook that challenges popular perceptions.

“I’ve always liked tattoos but never had the conviction to put something on my skin permanently.”
“Don’t use that word – ‘permanent’. Think about it, are you permanent?”

Through all of this Niall is finding himself growing further detached from the persona others can see – the well known and popular actor. Kristen does her best to be there for him but has her own career, potentially being on the cusp of all she has worked towards.

The artwork throughout was created by the author who spent two years teaching himself how to draw for this project. It is very well done. Clever use is made of monochrome and colour, of standard frames and full page collages. What comes across clearly is the pain of the protagonist as he forces himself to live through an unreality he increasingly views from a detached void.

Niall infinite regress

A particularly memorable scene involves Niall’s interaction with a homeless – no, ‘houseless’ – man. The suggestion is that we are all acting, everyday, that other people can only see what is ultimately a performance.

“And my story? Your story… it’s all one story. Question is, are you a character in my story… or am I a character in yours?”

Niall starts to question everything in his life and what the point of it all is. The crisis this leads to then fractures the story. A magician emerges claiming to be the author – the fourth wall is broken. The disorders Niall lives with are now what the reader is experiencing in keeping track of the character’s trajectory. Will the denouement follow the path of the optimist or pessimist?

Whichever ending the reader chooses, this remains a powerful depiction of how unreal much of what is accepted as normal behaviour is when questioned – the illusion of success being at most transitory. To live detached from oneself, however, is to remain unable to gain pleasure from achievements, even if momentary, suppressing what may be offered and enjoyed with friends and loved ones. Acting as expected may feel false but can be a demonstration of love.

An important and thought provoking book but also one that tells a memorable story. Unfamiliar as I am with graphic novels, the extra dimension added by the artwork in this fine example of the genre makes me want to read more.

My copy of this book was provided gratis.

Book Review: Lunate vol. 2

Lunate vol 2

Some of you may remember that last year I reviewed an astonishingly impressive short story collection, Lunate vol. 1. The quality of writing and ideas explored made this short work stand out to such a degree that it made it onto my Books of 2022 list. Thus I was happy to receive a copy of the second print edition published by the Lunate Journal. Once again, this is a collection I can unreservedly recommend.

Lunate vol. 2 is made up of seven short stories and essays from an impressive list of contributors. Although readers will undoubtedly have their favourites, all entries are worth reading.

The opening story, This content has been removed by Kate Vine, tells of a marriage that encountered problems from the outset. Narrated by a young woman, it opens by explaining why her new husband moved to live in a different country after the wedding. The strength of the story for me is in the structure – numbered, bite-sized updates on their relationship before and after the nuptials. The taut and enticing writing is decidedly moreish, the digressions adding a touch of ambiguity and humour.

The Twist in the Maid by Elizabeth Brennan also uses an inspired structure to draw in the reader. Between commentary on a painting by Vermeer (Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid) the story of a young marketing designer is told. Charlotte is contracted to work mornings, taking on freelance work afterwards. Her passion, though, is her painting which she does in the evening. What is being explored is the balance of power within a work environment and how this can spill over into what should be personal life.

Mother’s House by Jayson Carcione is an end of life story. The protagonist has left his flat in the city to care for his mother, comatose since a fall. There are snippets on their background. The son, struggling with how best to fulfil this new role, takes it on himself to care for the crumbling house alongside its owner. I was less convinced by the more magical aspects but the denouement was uplifting.

The Naming Convention by Adam Farrer offers an entertaining riff on how children may be affected by the moniker their parents assign them at birth. This came across as particularly apt given how certain celebrities choose to name their offspring. Given this is written as an essay, I wondered if the child encountered at the GP surgery was anyone real…

Vacation by JL Bogenschneider tells of an ill-fated visit to London by an American father and son. An accident renders carefully made plans infeasible but good times are still had, mostly through moments some may not notice. Memories of holidays are not necessarily linked to expensive tourist attractions.

Burning Down Our House by Stu Hennigan is a coruscating essay on attitudes to climate change. Although including facts drawn from research and studies, the structure avoids undue dogmatism. Rather it asks why the wealthy believe the vast amounts of money they hoard from raping the earth’s resources will protect them when all human life is rendered unsustainable. The focus, though, is on the younger generations – those such as the author as a child, who wanted to save the planet through recycling, and others to come who will reap the effects of what has been sown.

“for people my age, our children could be the parents of the Last Generation”

I actually drew hope from the ending, although am aware some may not feel this way.

The final story, The Technique of Snow by Jess Moody, is an inspired follow up to Hennigan’s essay as well as being a finely told tale on its own impressive merits. A village kept picture perfect for residents and wealthy tourists comes at a cost that few will admit to. Short term thinking and blinkered vision is so familiar when personal comforts are still available (the tale also made me question the environmental cost of modern ski resorts).

A collection, then, that is very much in tune with our times but may be enjoyed by readers for the varied structures and themes as well as the quality of the writing. Thought provoking as it is what impresses most are the literary explorations and innovation. Lunate has cemented its place as a journal to follow.

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

Book Review: God’s Country

Gods Country

“Perhaps she was thinking that we’re only ever one layer away from our old selves, that our old selves might have been scraped or washed off or covered up, and a new self scribed on top. But how permanent is that?”

God’s Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, is a disturbingly atmospheric story set in The Black Country, a place without borders marked on maps, yet has shaped generations of people raised within its haunting environs. The narrator – a fabulously unsettling voice – is constructing a tale based on their own knowledge of the characters and place, and from what they have been told by the protagonist, Alison. It is made clear that this source may not be entirely reliable.

“She’s slippery. Make no mistake about that.”

Opening in a traffic jam on the M5 – caused by a car fire where two people are reported to have died – Alison and her partner, Guy, are driving to his family’s farm. It is the first time he has returned since he left as a teenager. Alison is aware of aspects of his upbringing from what he has told her during their time together. Although she chose to join him on this journey – to attend a funeral – she is now tired and uncomfortable. There is a tetchiness between them, perhaps caused by the delay but possibly just how they are with each other. There is ambiguity throughout the tale as to who in the couple may be wielding the stronger hand.

“She’s frightened of him, of course. Normally. Who wouldn’t be?”

On arrival at the farm Alison meets Guy’s father, referred to by his surname, Flood. He is an angry, taciturn man, still resentful that his son chose to make a life elsewhere. There is also a sister, Donna, who has a baby she appears to neglect. The place is rundown and filthy – the farmhouse cold and damp, held up with scaffolding.

Alison observes details – the house and its surrounds, the people living in its shadow, conversations between family symptomatic of long held grievances. She glosses over certain aspects, citing tiredness or a headache – small erasures, perhaps to acquire a degree of control over what is being recounted. The reader does not require these details to understand there may be other versions.

“Everywhere here there is a sense of loss”

Alison is a masterful creation, a character portraying herself as struggling at times but clearly relishing being part of a drama in which she is pointedly side-lined by the family. The imagery is vivid, the tension palpable. The farm pulses with putrescence in myriad forms. Flood resents any suggestion that his traditional ways of living and working may be causing problems encountered.

“It is, she will say, a heavy coffin, this place.”

The plot, such as it is, retains shocking elements despite the obvious sign posting and build-up. That said, there is no spoon feeding of detail or wider reverberations. What comes across strongly is the legacy of upbringing, however far one manages to move on.

Is Alison a voyeur or a supportive partner? For a short book this packs a mighty and lingering punch. Highly recommended.

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

Book Review: Nothing Special

Nothing Special

“The world kept telling us we had never been so free, but it was only when I was with Shelley, alive with her excitement, in her dream that had taken her across the country on a bus, that I believed it.”

Nothing Special, by Nicole Flattery, is narrated by Mae who, in the late 1960s, when she was seventeen years old, dropped out of school to work as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol. Her job was to transcribe audio recordings held on a series of cassette tapes that captured disturbing conversations between Warhol’s acolytes. The resulting text was to form the basis of a book the artist planned to release under his name. Although invested in what she regarded as a potentially life changing experience, Mae was not to know just how affecting being immersed in this decadent and depraved unfettered lifestyle would be. She may have existed on the periphery of all that went on around the artist – in his New York City studio and at a series of parties – but through what she heard on the tapes she got to know intimate details of key players, and how Warhol treated those he used in the name of his art.

The book opens when Mae is well into middle age, regularly visiting her elderly mother in a care facility. The timeline then jumps back to her teenage years when they lived in a small apartment with Mikey, not her father but still a kindly presence. Mae was desperate to escape what she felt were the confines of a life with few prospects. She did not wish to live in the way her mother seemed to accept.

When Mae had a falling out with her best friend, Maud, it proved the catalyst for change. A sexual encounter led to a meeting with a doctor and from there to the studio where Warhol made his art. Like many young people her age, Mae longed to reinvent herself. Not a carefully groomed beauty, she enjoyed watching the people who came and went through the cold, loft space. Many of the girls were from wealthy families, eager to climb on the coat-tails of an ascending if notorious celebrity. Virtue, amongst this cohort, was considered passé.

“They were all uniformly attractive, in a forgettable way.”

Mae befriends Shelley who is also transcribing the tapes. She is much taken by Shelley’s background and apparent deliberate refusal to embrace the fashions of the day. They socialise. They work together. The are changed by what they must listen to for so many hours every day.

“They weren’t having fun anymore. The tape recorder, always on, always taking and taking and taking. And my job, to record their suffering.”

The story being told is a slow burn but what is revealed in the opening chapters proves key in what is to come. The structure has a somewhat breathless quality, scenes running into each other, their impact only becoming obvious later. Characters project their versions of other people into their relationships and then suffer when the scales fall away and understanding filters through hopeful glaze.

Both Mae and Shelley are skilfully developed – outsiders yet participants in a world held in awe, gradually discovering the damage it causes. They seek a personal chimera but in the end must live with unanticipated knowledge – gained and then cannot be changed.

None of this requires undue exposition in the telling. The author creates layers but leaves it to reader how much they wish to unpeel. There is economy in what is shared yet still the tale has captivating depth. Threads may be tied by the end but so many questions over how life choices are made – of the impact of random encounters – will linger.

A complex yet easily digestible skewering of artistic lifestyle and ambition. Inventive and original, Flattery’s precise and percipient prose pulses with wit and bewitchment.

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

Book Review: Festival of Cats

Festival of Cats

The Crumps Barn Studio bookshop and art gallery is situated in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. They have been publishing books since 2012 and Festival of Cats is a recent release. This pocketbook of poetry and short stories was created in conjunction with an art exhibition that ran throughout February 2023. Intended to ‘lend a bit of cheer to the winter months’, the collection offers a playful celebration of the role cats play in the lives of the humans they deign to share their homes with.

“While I was a parish priest in Leicestershire, I was allowed to lodge at the North West Leicestershire Cats Home. Also known as my rectory.”

Cats of all kinds feature, from those feeling abandoned and unloved in rescue centres to the felines who rule their territory and are loved unconditionally. A vampire cat eyes up a family as a source of food. A long haired tabby helps bring together a shy young lady and her crush.

Two stories I particularly enjoyed were Hero by Harriet Hitchen and Nine Lives by J.J. Drover. These offered a little more structure and depth than some of the entries. Many are anecdotal in nature, a simple sharing of why the author’s cats are so much appreciated. Feline antics may be tolerated, and often found endearing, but there is no turning away from certain habits that are not so appealing.

The meter of the poems can be somewhat simplistic but what comes across is the love for these furry creatures. The entries in which the cat is the narrator offer amusing perspectives, even if they do pander to a degree of anthropomorphism.

The book is nicely bound and presented, including a scattering of wonderful cat illustrations by Lorna Gray.

A fun little keepsake or gift for the ailurophile in your life. A reminder of the myriad challenges and rewards of accommodating a feline friend.

“You never choose a cat, nor do you ever own one.
You belong to them, and all being well,
They let you share their lives and reveal to you
their mystery,

Just a glimpse – every now and then.”

(My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Crumps Barn Studio)

Monthly Roundup – February 2023


Thank you to all who sent good wishes after last month’s roundup. Husband spent a week in hospital, finally released to recuperate at home as his lung infection was so rampant he was too unwell to receive any treatment for his heart issues. After two courses of antibiotics the pneumonia eventually cleared. He still has a cough – a feature since all this kicked off in late October – but, as an outpatient, he is now at the mercy of waiting lists. I have huge respect for the efforts put in by front line NHS staff to look after and treat patients despite the systems under which they work being so obviously overstretched and flawed. With husband’s heartrate still erratic we are considering all options.

It felt strange to attend Parkrun on my own but running helps me cope with anxious thoughts. I managed to get my time under 30 minutes at two events – something that used to be standard before my own fitness took an unexplained hit in the autumn. I also ran my first half marathon distance in many months, before an irritating cold left me feeling wrung out and in need of rest. I took a full week off, also enabling a recurring hamstring injury to be given healing time. It was not sufficient and a longer rest period has been recommended – something I submit to reluctantly.

So, it has been a month of ups and downs. Not knowing what ongoing treatment husband may need, or when this may be made available, we cannot plan ahead. There are worse things, of course, than living what is still a comfortable life, in the grand scheme of things, day to day.

My teddy bear, Edward, has offered stalwart support but mostly quietly, in the background. He too understands this is not a time for adventures away.

I posted reviews for 6 books in February. Robyn made a welcome return to the blog with a further 3 reviews.

As is customary in my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.


Three Gifts  katherine parr
Three Gifts by Mark A Radcliffe, published by époque press
Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir, published by Headline


Imperfect Beginnings
Imperfect Beginnings by Viv Fogel, published by Fly on the Wall Press

Translated Fiction

leave your land  the fawn
You Shall Leave Your Land by Renato Cisneros (translated by Fionn Petch), published by Charco Press
The Fawn by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), published by Maclehose Press

Translated Non Fiction

Pharmakon by Almudena Sánchez (translated by Katie Whittemore), published by Fum d’Estampa

Robyn Reviews

thewhis  legen
The Whispering Dark by Kelly Andrew, published by Gollancz
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, published by Tor

Mio’s Kingdom by Astrid Lindgren (translated by Jill Morgan), published by Oxford University Press

Sourcing the books

Robyn received a couple of pre-ordered special editions and also accepted her first proof copies of forthcoming releases in many months. Having passed her recent exam (yay!), she now has more time and brain space for leisure reading.

Robyn books february 23

I was very happy with my monthly book post. You may notice I have accepted my first graphic novel and look forward to seeing what I make of that.

Jackie books February 23

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books 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 support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health – something we so often take for granted until issues must be faced. Here’s hoping our personal experiences improve with the weather and the year proceeds better than it has started for us all.

Book Review: The Fawn

the fawn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The protagonist and narrator of The Fawn is twenty-six year old Eszter Encsy, a successful actress in post war Hungary. The novel tells her life story through fragments of memory. These unfold and merge to explain the role she believes she must play to survive.

Born and raised in the city of Szolnok in central Hungary, Eszter now lives in Budapest. She has an older lover to whom she is directing her telling of events, including how she is feeling. Like all those she has ever known, he does not understand what she is below the surface. She acts out her own life as she does those of assigned characters on the stage.

Now orphaned, Eszter was the only child of a sickly father and an aristocratic mother whose wealthy family all but abandoned them after her marriage. As Eszter’s father did not work, for a variety of reasons, her mother earned what she could by giving piano lessons to their more privileged neighbours. Eszter was expected to clean and cook for her family as well as doing odd jobs for anyone who would pay her a few pengő. She used this pittance to buy food and medicine, much of which was then consumed by her beloved father. She was not averse to stealing should the opportunity arise.

“the cream was sweet and soft and she still had a whole bowl full of it, vanilla-flavoured, and at home everything like that went straight to my father”

Eszter regarded her parents as beautiful and adoring of each other to their end. She felt sidelined, growing bitter and resentful of the demands and expectations placed on her. She did not, however, complain, learning to internalise both her physical and emotional suffering. What festered within was a hatred for those whose lives appeared comparatively easy. This is personified in a classmate, Angéla, who harbours the mistaken belief that Eszter is her friend.

When their affair started, Eszter was unaware that her married lover’s wife is Angéla, who she had not seen at the time for many years. When this fact is revealed, the way he speaks of Angéla and their history eats into his and Eszter’s relationship. Eszter, once again, wants nothing more than to hurt her former classmate, whose life as she sees it has been filled with comfort and kindly attention. Eszter grows increasingly angry and frustrated when Angéla continues to garner support and consideration, always taking it for granted.

What is revealed is the lasting damage caused by a childhood of hunger and deprivation. Eszter learned young how to hide her true feelings in order to survive. This stood her in good stead as political turmoil changed the lives of so many, especially the wealthy. When Eszter’s family home was destroyed in a wartime bombing raid she did not mourn the loss of their few possessions – she valued them little. Rehomed temporarily in a hotel she had enough to eat and this was a luxury.

The narrative is disjointed in many ways but the structuring fits with how memory works. Images come to mind and their significance is pondered, retold as suits the time in which they are remembered. The ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the start of the book is useful in differentiating the cast of characters. Although it takes time to understand and engage with the plot, the writing style remains impressively taut and compelling, holding reader attention.

There is much screaming with laughter or faces wet with tears – these are obviously an emotional people. Even Eszter, who so often detaches herself from difficult feelings, cries and laughs, although mostly from a perspective of barely contained anger. Her lover reveals himself as shallow emotionally, self-absorbed and unaware of what Eszter is thinking. His continuing support for his wife may well stem from ego, a superficial need to believe he is a good person despite his infidelity.

Eszter is a strong if damaged character. She cares little how her lifestyle is regarded by others, believing she will never be loved having never felt valued for what she is. Her attention is focused on survival with a side dish of revenge. When a pivotal event pierces the armour she has constructed for self-preservation, those she could turn to do not recognise the crisis she now faces as they have never been permitted access to the true self even she can barely accept.

Any Cop?: Although a slow burn this is a masterfully constructed tale. The protagonist may often be somewhat unlikable but her outcome is still devastating. Hungary’s history through the mid twentieth century provides a fascinating backdrop. Another impressive translation of a story by this author that is well worth reading.

Jackie Law