Annual Roundup: My Books of 2021

new-years-books

Christmas once again approaches and with it the excuse, should one be needed, to buy books for family and others we care for, including ourselves. The titles selected here represent just some of my personal recommendations from my reading over the past year. I posted reviews for well over one hundred books in 2021 so choosing just a few from the many enjoyed wasn’t easy. I hope those who share my literary tastes will find this post useful, or at least of some interest.

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

We start with fiction likely to appeal to a wide variety of readers.

stone diaries case study
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, published by World Editions
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Saraband

Beautifully told stories dealing with just one of the shameful periods in Irish history.

emmet-and-me  small things
Emmet and Me by Sara Gethin, published by Honno
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

Short stories that capture the Irish mindset with aplomb.

the last resort   intimacies
The Last Resort by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday
Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber

An academic study of contemporary Northern Irish writing that is fascinating and written to be accessible to all.

northern irish writingNorthern Irish Writing After The Troubles by Caroline Magennis, published by Bloomsbury

Exploring areas of Great Britain – fine non fiction.

coasting  where
Coasting by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland
Where? by Simon Moreton, published by Little Toller

Non fiction with bite.

chauvo feminismChauvo Feminism by Sam Mills, published by The Indigo Press

Fiction with a darker edge.

beasts turned away  fox fires
The Beasts They Turned Away by Ryan Dennis, published by époque press
Fox Fires
by Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt

Fiction that shines a light on our less than admirable behaviours, beautifully told in imaginative ways.

the high house  Pupa
The High House by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press
Pupa by J.O. Morgan, published by Henningham Family Press

Poetry that powerfully explores our present situation, living through a time of plague.

SpringJournal  the heeding
Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, published by CB editions
The Heeding by Rob Cowen, published by Elliott & Thompson

Should have, at least, made the Booker shortlist if not gone all the way.

an islandAn Island by Karen Jennings, published by Holland House Books

Deliciously dark short stories.

dead relativesDead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy, published by Dead Ink

Reminders that I should read more translated fiction.

ramifications  winter flowers
Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), published by Charco Press
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), published by Peirene Press

For when we need a laugh, within damn fine storytelling.

domestic bliss
Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions, published by Bluemoose

Encourage children to pick up books by giving them compelling reads.

sunny wicked lady  last bear
Sunny and the Wicked Lady by Alison Moore, published by Salt
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Collins

So there we have it, 23 books that particularly impressed me, many published by our wonderful small, independent presses – do please support them when you can. Whatever your choice of literature over the festive season and coming year, I wish you many hours of satisfying reading.

Book Review: Four Minutes

four minutes

Set in post-communist Bulgaria, Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva (translated by Izidora Angel), tells the story of a young woman named Leah who suffers the legacy of a traumatic upbringing. Placed in a state institution for unwanted children as an infant, and with no knowledge of why this happened to her, she has spent her life longing for a loving home and family. Since being ejected from the care system when she reached the age of eighteen, she has gradually made a life for herself. Nevertheless, scars remain.

Interspersed with Leah’s recollections are nine short stories about other ‘frequently ignored voices’. Each of these is structured to be read in four minutes, the length of time studies have shown it takes to accept and empathise with a stranger. Some portray events that are as shocking as Leah’s own childhood experiences. All are heart-rending although never mined for schmaltz. The power of the writing is in how matter of fact the accounts are presented to be – horrific behaviours accepted as to be expected by all who could wield their powers to effect change.

Life in the children’s home is brutal. Hunger and beatings – from both Matrons and the other children – are lived with daily. Leah learned young that she was all but invisible. Few outside cared about the unwanted, often blaming them for their predicaments given unruly behaviours. Reasons for this were rarely questioned. When donations were occasionally sent in by the more charitable, they did not reach the intended recipients.

“One Christmas, a big box of donations arrived for us at the Home. Clothes, toys, sweets. We were elated, and jumped up and down for two hours. Sure enough, the Matrons ransacked everything. They kept the nicer clothes for their own kids or to give away as Christmas presents to relatives, and what remained they sold to the sales women at the department store, reaffirming that enduring, two-way relationship. Those same saleswomen then sold everything off-register for a percentage of the profit – even the youngest of us at the Home knew this.”

As the girls grew towards their teens, they became the prey of older boys who would break into their sleeping quarters nightly and rape them. If the only Matron on duty heard the screams she ignored them.

“I will forever associate the smell of semen with those painfully importunate, feral attempts by the boys in the Home to reach their sacred orgasm while I writhed in hell.”

Salim is one of the nine additional stories. It tells of a ‘not yet seven’ year old boy required to earn money for his family as a pickpocket.

“For his fifth birthday, his parents cut off his right thumb”

“Salim’s lucky. They cut off his older brother’s leg at the knee and now he begs”

Salim is proud to have a ‘trade’. When his mother is taken to hospital with failing kidneys, he determines to acquire for her replacements.

Elina is another deeply shocking vignette. The abuse suffered by the titular young girl is sadly commonplace throughout the world. What is it about some men that drives them to act in this way?

Kaloyan takes the reader down a different route, one of consensual sexual pleasure that nevertheless raises underlying questions.

Each of these short stories shines a light on the lived experience of those the mainstream often frowns upon, preferring not to be made to think too deeply about the hows and whys of their plights. Overheard conversations relay how the troubled are judged superficially by those who live comfortably.

Getting back to Leah, her tale takes us to a time when she wishes to adopt a child from an institution, just as she had longed to be adopted by the potential mothers who occasionally visited. She discovers the prejudices that lie hidden behind rules described as safeguarding the children, ironic given Leah’s personal suffering within the system.

“As I said, you live alone. I don’t want to comment on whom you choose to see, namely other women, but I can tell you that this is not a healthy environment for a young, vulnerable child. Or any child for that matter … It’s the rules, I’m sorry.”

It is not just a child Leah wishes to help. She also offers practical assistance from time to time to the hungry and homeless, recognising herself in them. These efforts are not always met with the gratitude those who try to be kind may expect.

Much is covered within this short book, written with uncompromising clarity that lays bare hard truths. Although asking the reader to consider issues, the author avoids polemic. A reminder that being humane is not about giving a few coins and forgetting. Looking away, because that is easier, makes us complicit.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Open Letter, via the author.

Book Review: Pupa

Pupa

Pupa, by J.O. Morgan, is another triumph from the Henningham Family Press. The author has created a story of the pains and pleasures of young love – although the emotions portrayed are never described in this way – that is eerily disturbing. It explores repercussions when one party chooses to move in a new and unanticipated life direction.

The protagonists – Sal and Megan – are not human as we would understand the term, and yet they populate a world recognisable for its behaviours. The power of the novel comes from the skill with which this world is built and gradually revealed, avoiding detailed exposition yet giving the reader everything they need to know to understand why choices are made. What comes to the fore is how any future remains unknown until personally experienced, however much research and preparation is undertaken. Even those trusted will, at times, prove unpredictable.

The story is divided into two sections – early phase and late phase. It opens with Sal in bed at home recounting a dream, and provides the first descriptions of what we will learn are known as larvae – the juveniles of the population. Sal lives with his father, Madox, although this older being is also a larval.

Adults exist, such as a family acquaintance, Inspector Augustine, who claims he wants to help Sal with whatever decisions he makes. Free choice and support is available, but the young do not always fully understand or trust the vague promises and reassurances of their elders. Occasional transcripts from radio broadcasts suggest a strange type of propaganda is being deployed.

The larvae are humanoid if not human. The young are fragile creatures but as they grow become capable of working repetitively. I was drawn to examine, as the story unfolded, how every stage in their development can easily be transposed onto our own life choices and changes – emotional as well as physical. Any such comparison is subtle and nuanced, adding depth without clagging the flow of reveals.

Larvae can pupate and, in this world, it is a choice, but one that comes with risk. Lurking in the shadows are beings who choose to destroy potential lives, something Augustine’s job requires him to investigate and which he attempts to share with Sal.

There are areas of housing within the locality of the setting regarded as dodgy, in which goings on are kept hidden despite authorities being aware of what is likely happening there. Sal and Madox are just beginning to explore what lies beyond the routine of their safely controlled day to day, although doing so individually. Each wants to share with the other but fears their disapproval.

The undercurrents may be disturbing but this is not a horror story. Rather, it holds a mirror to our own supposed civilised existence, reflecting attributes that discomfort when stripped of veneer. The precision of the prose is impressive, enabling the plot to retain pleasing momentum even as it percolates.

The build up to the denouement is imaginative while oozing trepidation. The author skilfully renders some of the costs of maturation.

As with every book from this press, the physical form is something special. From the feel of the cover through the artistic end papers and quality typesetting, the complete product is a pleasure to hold and peruse. All this would, of course, add little if the story told were not so beguiling and engaging. An audacious and highly recommended read.

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

Monthly Roundup – November 2021

november

There have been positives this month. I’m going to try hard to focus more on the positives.

Husband and I spent the first weekend of November in the Lake District. Despite the wet weather we had a lovely few days away. We climbed a mountain, walked around several lakes and ran a Parkrun in nearby Ambleside as tourists. We also enjoyed lots of lovely food. Naturally, Edward, my adventuring teddy bear, accompanied us. I wrote about his exploits in Edward Explores: Grasmere.

Edward had further adventures locally. I posted about these in Edward Explores: Fungi. Included is a family meal out to celebrate what should have been daughter’s second graduation, which she could not attend. We are so proud of all her achievements.

Daughter and I attended a ‘gig’ in Bath, visiting Toppings Bookshop on its reopening day. I wrote about this here.

Time has also been spent at the two gyms I frequent, with longer, loopy bike rides taken to get there – so cold at this time of year. I continue to run regularly and beat my personal best at our local Parkrun – pleasing given the course has now turned muddy and therefore slippery following recent weather. After much procrastination, I finally contacted a friend I used to walk with weekly and arranged to meet after many months of no communication. It was good to catch up with her news – we now hope to get back to walking together more regularly.

Hockey season is in full swing so the other members of my family come and go between training sessions and matches. As two of them also work shifts, it is a rare treat to all sit down to eat together.

I posted reviews for 8 books in November. Robyn added her thoughts on a further 2 books.

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

Fiction

learwife  Emperor-of-Ice-Cream
Learwife by JR Thorp, published by Canongate
The Emperor of Ice Cream by Brian Moore, published by Turnpike Books

small things
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published by Faber & Faber

Short Stories

building a wall  colchester writenight
No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall by Ruth Brandt, published by Fly on the Wall Press
Colchester WriteNight, published by Patrician Press

Translated Fiction

Brickmakers   Byobu
Brickmakers by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), published by Charco Press
Byobu by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning), published by Charco Press

Translated Non Fiction

intimate resistanceThe Intimate Resistance: A Philosophy of Proximity by Josep Maria Esquirol (translated by Douglas Suttle), published by Fum d’Estampa Press

Robyn Reviews

1tad  1susa
Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson, published by Orbit
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury

Sourcing the books

Robyn purchased her usual pile of pretty hardbacks, none of which she has yet found time to read…

robyn books november  robyn trilogy november

I received a pleasing quantity of books through the post and also made some purchases while at the Toppings gig.

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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 continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health 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: Byobu

Byobu

Byobu, by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning) is structured as a series of short vignettes that take the reader inside the head of the eponymous protagonist. The episodes recounted are often playful but also poignant, offering insights into how Byobu sees himself and the effects he has on others. He lives alone but is not a loner, aware that his inability to recount amusing anecdotes can lead to boredom in any audience he secures. He prefers his days to be predictable, following habits, even when he recognises they do not make best use of his time.

The book opens with a musing on what makes a story and how, when told, they will roam free, ‘like a lightening bolt no lightening rod has grounded’. The reader is then offered a description of a typical day in Byobu’s life, how he makes choices yet often gets sidetracked, time passing due to his ‘habitual indecisiveness’. We learn that he ‘loves the sun’ yet seeks shade when it shines. He claims to be continually seeking ‘how to be more’.

Thus the reader gains an image of Byobu’s character. From here we are taken through some minor events that he has experienced and what he thought as they were happening. They mine the mostly everyday but demonstrate how thoughts are wont to wander.

“Often, distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important.”

Most of the short chapters are easily understood, relatable or likely metaphors. Some, however, are more opaque. I remain unsure what the author wished to convey in The Race.

One chapter relates the fate of Byobu’s generational home, which he valued highly. When potential structural faults started to cause anxiety, his life became intolerable. He found it easier to accept loss and move on than live with the gnawing unknown.

I enjoyed the anecdote about the wife who, realising her husband didn’t listen when she spoke, came up with an entertaining means of regaining his attention, of trapping him in his rudeness, thereby forcing him to admit he was in the wrong.

Another chapter detailed Byobu’s discomfort when he found himself on a bus amidst a gathering of deaf people who were chattering away happily with their hands. It offered a powerful reminder of how the deaf may feel if alone amongst the hearing.

There are thoughts on: resistance, rebelliousness, order to be found in personal actions, boring others and being bored.

The final chapter muses on what are, or perhaps are not, original thoughts. I was particularly taken by one of these short summaries.

“Poetry seeks to extract from its abyss certain words that might constitute scar tissue we are all unconsciously chasing.”

There is much within these pages to ponder, yet each chapter deals lightly with what are deeper concerns. That the author has drawn them together in such an entertaining way is impressive. An engaging but also lingering read.

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

Edward Explores: Grasmere

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While the Cop26 climate fandango was happening in Glasgow, Edward’s bearers were as confident as they could be that lockdown restrictions would not be tightened for its duration. It seemed unlikely that international bigwigs flying in for photo opportunities would be further inconvenienced. Such a window of opportunity offered the chance for a longed for adventure of which Edward heartily approved. A hotel room was booked in the English Lake District and a five hour car journey embarked on.

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At the half way point some refreshments were required, especially by the driver and his co-pilot. It is a long time since Edward visited a motorway service station. He’s sure he remembers biscuits being made available at previous Costas.

IMG_20211104_145324461   IMG_20211104_145352916

After such a long journey, Edward was pleased to arrive at what was to be his home for the next few days – the Bridge House hotel in Grasmere. He tested the bed and declared it comfy before phoning his friends back home to reassure them of his safe arrival. He preferred the telephone provided to those he is usually offered – much easier to dial with paws.

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One of the perks offered by his welcoming hosts was complementary afternoon tea. Edward availed himself of this yummy treat on each day of his stay.

IMG_20211104_150901037   IMG_20211104_154027814

The hotel was also home to some other friendly creatures. Edward enjoys making new friends – such a sociable bear.

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On a walk around the local village he encountered a pumpkin that also looked friendly, telling Edward all about the recent Halloween antics they had witnessed in Grasmere. Edward didn’t understand why tricks would be played on anyone but approved of the widespread sharing of treats.

IMG_20211105_210740442 IMG_20211105_210817786

Adventurous bears always enjoy the opportunity to try new foods. The Bridge House did not serve hot dinners so a trip up to The Inn nearby was required for these. The set menu did not change over the course of Edward’s stay but the puddings he sampled were declared delicious. Of the cheesecake, lemon posset and sticky toffee pudding, the latter was his favourite.

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After the first day of the trip, weather turned decidedly wet and windy. Edward therefore opted to rest in bed rather than joining his bearers on their mountain and lakeside hikes. This proved a wise choice given the tales they told him afterwards:

  • climbing a mountain for the 360′ panoramic views only to find the top shrouded in cloud;
  • getting lost on the descent and encountering large, scary cattle emerging through the mist;
  • having to cross worryingly boggy fells only to find themselves far from the paths being sought on their maps;
  • getting soaked to the skin in torrential downpours that masked what should have been splendid views.

Somehow the bearers still claimed to have enjoyed their days. Edward pondered if this was the adrenaline rush of human survival.

Edward is convinced that his was the more sensible option although remained concerned about his bearers’ joints. However much they try to convince him that water will not cause damage, he has observed the many times they return from exertions filmed in moisture only to subsequently complain of pains. He remains glad that he only has five joints to look after – and he always takes good care of them.

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It was, however, lovely to travel further afield after such a long period of confinement to his local area. Edward brought home cookies for his friends as an easily shared present. They were all eaten and enjoyed before they could be photographed.

Book Review: The Intimate Resistance

intimate resistance

Having studied philosophy for a couple of years at university, when I was offered The Intimate Resistance to review it sounded right up my street. It wasn’t, however, an easy read. Described as a masterpiece, the culmination of years of work, the author has done well to condense the many ideas discussed into a book of less than two hundred pages. The result is a densely packed essay that, while interesting and well argued, requires the reader to maintain concentration. Several times I had to backtrack as I realised I hadn’t taken in the concepts propounded after several pages of parsing words.

Among other things, the early chapters cover nihilism, nothingness and angst. Not the cheeriest of ideas to consider. The human condition is described as a constant disintegration. There are many mentions of death and suicide.

“For a long time (and for too many people, even now) to live meant striving to survive, employing all of one’s strength to do so. In richer societies, however, this push to survive has given way to something else: the struggle not to disintegrate. And while the apparent enemy is much less terrible, failures and defeats are all the more frequent.”

The importance of a shelter – home as a refuge – is introduced. There was no mention of those for whom home is an emotional prison or place of danger. What does come to the fore is that individuals should look to themselves more than others in how they speak and act. The author extolls the value of everyday life, the ordinary and non-elitist, over wealth, fame or power.

“Evasion is not evasion of the world, but rather of my own self, from the nothing that I am, from the mortal being I am.”

Alongside the need to look inwards is the importance of socialising. This was challenging to read given our current situation, when other people are regarded by many as a biohazard and blamed for non compliance with a new belief system. I agreed with the author, especially the arguments around the wisdom of local, person to person, discussion as opposed to relying on screen based soundbite propaganda and supportive echoers, virtue signalling on social media.

“The sugar-coated scepticism propounded by cut-price intellectuals is painful to watch as they belittle ancient gods and old beliefs while fanning the flames of new dogmas”

Finding the strength to stand up for common sense – to resist – can appear in short supply when there is conflict over issues. The author argues that such strength also enables one to endure, to not fall into excessiveness, to avoid judging all and sundry.

“Strength is not expressed through heroism or daring, but rather through stability, faithfulness and perseverance. It doesn’t stand out, but provides confidence to those close by, embraces and helps.”

The author’s arguments are stated repetitively, perhaps to ensure that key points are understood from a variety of angles. He states a need for quiet reflection and careful consideration – done silently rather than indulging in the all too common verbal diarrhea that attempts to stifle dissent. Thinking rather than merely talking endlessly is to be encouraged.

“To think is an experience because it doesn’t leave things as they were”

Moving on, the difference between scientistic ideology and scientific reasoning is discussed. It is proposed that haughty and dogmatic pundits appearing on radio or screens spout more rubbish than is witnessed in a village café among ‘simple folk’ who have common sense and, importantly, an ability to recognise their ignorance.

“We are being overwhelmed by know-it-alls”

“They are all answers and leave almost no room for the questions to which they have no answers”

Throughout the text there are many references to the work of philosophers from ancient times through to the more recent thinkers. Etymology is mined in arguments presented.

There is discussion of act and potency. What came to mind for this reader was a consideration of those who loudly state that others, who do not agree with their point of view, must be ignorant, thereby alienating them in an attempt to silence resistance.

“We ‘obtain’ information. We don’t obtain the meaning of things.”

The constant flow of words in modern media is noise with little space for reflection and has proved damaging, not least by stifling calm and considered debate.

“Egocentric by definition, those who mutter nurture a sentiment of dissatisfaction and avarice […] muttering is the perfect example of the empty word”

The importance of human connection and conjunction is discussed, as is the value of silence. Attempts to stifle resistance through brow-beating and berating can lead to dangerous frustration when the vocal forget to listen.

“Violence comes from dogmatism”

To reiterate, the human condition, shadowed by nihilism, requires shelter and resistance alongside proximity to others.

“One’s fellow being, the home, the day to day care”

Resistance against following dogmatic words spouted by media pundits matters.

I have tried to highlight key points I took from this essay but should make clear that a great deal more is covered and all in greater and more eloquent detail. Also, it was first published in the author’s native Catalan in 2015 so, although I found the arguments highly relevant, the book was not written in the time of Covid. And this is important as it is about the human condition and therefore not tied to a particular time period.

An intense and inspiring reminder to resist the baying of the most vocal and continually question both others and ourselves. A stimulating reminder of the relevance of philosophical thinking in what is happening every day.

“Philosophy is simply self-questioning: we ask ourselves”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press.

Book Review: No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall

building a wall

No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall, by Ruth Brandt, is a collection of eighteen short stories that explore, in eminently readable and engaging prose, a myriad of challenging lived experiences. Whilst there is an undercurrent of melancholy, this is infused with the beauty to be found when one pays attention. Love, with its many shades, is valued yet cut through with the cruelties inflicted by individuals who, inevitably, look out for themselves. There is also humour alongside an appreciation of transitory moments that prove pivotal. It becomes clear that the now can only be experienced through a lens coloured by what has gone before.

The collection opens with Happy Ever After, in which a mother waits desperately for news of her grown son, who is missing. The structure is clever and effective in offering the reader events from a variety of perspectives. The ending elicits sympathy despite its shocking nature.

Several stories explore child and parent relationships – the love and the disconnects alongside the damage inflicted by parents’ chosen actions, however well intentioned.

Strands features a young boy as he is moved between foster homes, a process that colours his development into adulthood, his ability to trust others and himself. He is regarded as trouble and continues to believe this.

There are a number of stories that follow the difficulties encountered due to sexual attraction. Petrification, set in Iceland, follows a hoped for holiday romance. Lifetime looks at the worries caused by age difference, but in a wonderfully off-centred way.

I enjoyed Superstitions in particular with its supposedly practical and fact valuing protagonist. She is taking part in an experiment involving a ladder and a cat but with questionable measures and aims. The humour provided in the ending was neatly executed.

Many of the stories have a pleasing ‘life is for living’ element, one that feels particularly valuable given our current situation. In Heading West an elderly man sets out to visit the seaside. His pursuit may seem foolish yet comes across as hopeful. His attempts to gender a young driver who helps him adds nuance to a poignant yet uplifting tale.

Snow Blindness is set during a ski holiday. A woman is spending her time focused on living longer by not taking risks.

“obsessing over whether the next check-up will be clear, retreating from the world to live in total safety all those extra minutes, months or years gifted her by expert doctors.”

Meanwhile, her partner determines to enjoy the moment, however foolhardy this may appear to a woman who believes he should deny himself pleasures she does not approve.

“Today he is going to squander his life, spend every last moment of it. Christ, today he feels alive.”

Stories include: spies and refugees, the bullied and depressed, young carers and children caught up in parental conflict.

Stop all the clocks imagines a seventeen year old Turing, dealing with school in the aftermath of his best friend’s death. Knowing how this affected him in real life adds to its power – how authority at the time tried to quash and ignore what was a desperate cry for understanding.

The writing is skilfully rendered, offering stories that are affecting and humane. There is much to consider in how we choose to live, the effect choices and personally proclaimed edicts have on others in the longer term, the walls being built between loved ones when they will not act in an approved way.

This is an engaging, timely and worthwhile read.

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

Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Emperor-of-Ice-Cream

The Emperor of Ice-Cream was recommended to me by an author on Twitter whose book, Source, I very much enjoyed. Having heard Brian Moore mentioned by other authors I rate highly, receiving the recently released new edition of this book offered me a chance to find out what I made of his work. The tale being told is set in Belfast during the early years of the Second World War and culminates in the blitz that killed around 1000 people, hitting half the houses in the city and leaving 100,000 people homeless. My parents lived through this event, my father being of similar age at the time to the protagonist in the story.

Gavin Burke is seventeen years old and has just failed his Schools Leaving Certificate, much to the disgust of his solicitor father who had planned for Gavin to join his older brother at Queen’s University. Gavin is straining at the leash his family hold him by. He has lost faith in the god they worship yet fears he is being punished for his impure thoughts and actions, especially his sexual desires. Fond as he is of his girlfriend, Sally, her unwillingness to step outside the constraints of her religious upbringing cause frustration and a questioning of how suited they are.

While he prepares to sit the London Matric, an alternative and supposedly easier route to university, Gavin joins the Air Raid Precautions unit – a chance to earn some money and step beyond the bubble he has been raised within. His nationalist father is appalled that any son of his would be willing to don such a uniform. It is his view that Hitler offers a chance to defeat the British colonisers and return the North to a United Ireland. Gavin has little time for his father’s opinions, although he still struggles with ingrained shame at the route he has chosen.

“Gavin, watching him, decided that his father read the newspaper as other men played cards, shuffling through a page of stories until he found one which would confirm him in his prejudice.”

The ARP trains recruits in first aid, their role being to provide a first response to casualties of air raids and bear the stretchers that will take them to the local hospital. Gavin is assigned to a unit run by an unhinged and power hungry Post Officer. He quickly discovers that most of the men and women he will work with are misfits from a variety of walks in life. Nevertheless, he makes friends and joins them in outings to pubs and dance halls. He tries to hide his drinking from family and Sally – drunkenness being regarded by them with disgust. He longs to escape the confines of expectation but then dislikes how he acts when offered the chance to break out.

“The grown-up world was no different from school, it was a world where bullies came out best, where excuses satisfied no one, least of all one’s self”

There is humour within these pages, such as when the literature loving Gavin encounters a group of arty types and it is revealed they are homosexuals. Suddenly he is questioning his own prejudices. Like his view of Sally, he had considered himself tolerant and interesting until forced to make choices.

The ARP training comes to appear pointless as the war continues to be waged only on distant shores. Unsure of the direction he now wishes his life to take, Gavin struggles when his father states he is washing his hands of his failed son after another refusal to follow the line set out for him and go to work for a wealthy uncle. Neither Sally nor his father can understand why Gavin won’t conform to this future, especially when he can offer no acceptable alternative.

When the war finally arrives in Belfast, it shakes things up both physically and emotionally.

“Now, for the first time, his father would have to put his principles to the test. Would Hitler still be a great fellow, if Hitler bombed one’s house?”

I was fascinated by this historical setting and the attitudes portrayed. I had no idea people in Liverpool took to the streets in protest against the government continuing with the war after the terrible bombing they endured. I had no idea there were those who admired the fascists, who would do almost anything to see the British government and their pay lords stripped of power. We are taught only the glory and heroism of the victors, the ‘blitz spirit’, rather than the looting. In this story there are men pushing women and children off overloaded vehicles attempting to escape the city. There are men refusing to help casualties as their condition is too sickening to stomach. The heroes are not the brave but rather those who, in the moment, can distance themselves and recognise the personal benefits of being regarded heroic.

The writing skilfully captures the insularity of family life alongside the frustrations of children on the cusp of adulthood. Gavin wants to break away from the religious and political ideologies inculcated by the parents he no longer respects yet cannot help but care about what they think of him. His encounters with a wider variety of cultures proves thought-provoking – portrayed here with understated nuance.

I pondered if the prejudices portrayed, although obviously realistic for the time, could be written of so openly today without bite-back, especially the anti-Semitism. Gavin’s thinking and development around these issues are allowed to be irresolute as he experiences his own reactions in settings where, in his head, he would have acted admirably. His inflated disdain of others’ actions and intolerances is pricked by his disappointment in himself when tested.

His final test is both tense and evocative, his actions and reactions offering a powerful elucidation of how young men function in the moment. I sped through these pages, desperate to know what the outcome would be. The author takes the reader into the heart of the blitz with stunning clarity.

An engaging but never sanitised portrayal of the apathy and horror of the war years. It is also a story of family and community – how these can both stifle and anchor those seeking to spread their wings, only to find the sun can burn.

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