Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”

 

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

Book Review: The Absent Therapist

“because a thing is unseen doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In order to see it properly, you may find you need to look away. Some things do not like to be observed too directly. Staring fixes them and creates a blind spot.”

The Absent Therapist, by Will Eaves, is a book of vignettes arranged into five sections. The voices are various and rarely explained other than to provide necessary context. Written in the first person, they come across as thoughts and personal opinions. Some may appear shocking to more sheltered readers. Mostly they highlight situations the author may or may not have encountered, that he then runs with for effect. A superficial read may raise questions as to what is being conveyed – the intention in writing the piece. Somehow, though, the stories linger. They are clever – perhaps too clever at times for me to fully appreciate.

“Thinking is the set of mental processes we don’t understand. It is the soul in conference with itself.”

Many of the entries cover encounters with people – friends, colleagues, love interests. They highlight aspects of character that may concern the narrator along with recollections from memory that, with hindsight, shaped them. Settings vary across continents although Australia features regularly. A recurring theme is musings on AI and how it is unhelpful to anthropomorphise machine intelligence.

Certain entries go back to ancient times but mostly they offer thoughts on more contemporary, day to day situations. The narrators have varying careers, including that of a writer.

“‘I could have done that’, people cry, especially relatives. ‘You’ve taken my story and written it down verbatim. How dare you?’ To them I say: ‘Well, you weren’t doing anything with it. You didn’t see that it was a story worth telling.”

I enjoyed the final section the most and wonder if it took me this long to find the author’s cadence. Throughout the book I was questioning how much of the deeper aspects I was getting.

“What draws everyone on is knowing that we’re denied objectivity by the limits of our perception while simultaneously denying that we are denied it”

I wouldn’t wish you to think I did not enjoy what I was reading. It is more that I felt unable to fully grasp all that could be gleaned from the shadows cast by the author’s carefully crafted words.

A book that will doubtless offer more on subsequent read throughs. An intriguing and intelligent glimpse at facets of lives recognisable, here offered careful and perspicacious consideration.

The Absent Therapist is published by CB editions.

Book Review: The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields, tells the story of Daisy Goodwin, a woman born in Canada during the first decade of the twentieth century and who lived into her nineties. It enables the reader to look at how life changed, particularly for women, during this period.

Daisy’s long life is ordinary if privileged – she enjoyed material comforts but achieved no fame or greatness. The author has written that she started out with the idea of creating a subversion of a family saga but ended up exploring autobiography – questioning if anyone can know the story of their own lives or if it is a narrative borrowed from impressions other people have of them.

“Each day as I sat down to write, I conjured up an image of a series of nesting boxes. I was making the outside box, Daisy was making the inside box – and inside her box was nothing. She was thinking – not writing – her own life story, but it was a life from which she, the subject, had been subtracted. This was the truth, I felt at that time, of most women’s lives.”

The book follows a more or less linear structure but includes recollections. Chapters are given titles such as Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Motherhood. It appears to be Daisy telling her story but with regular contributions from others – friends, family, neighbours. One chapter is entirely epistolary.

A family tree is included at the beginning so the reader is aware of what may be regarded as Daisy’s key life events from the off – births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Her story, though, does not focus on such milestones. With each chapter jumping forward in time a decade or more, they are mentioned in passing. Daisy’s children, in particular, may have considered themselves of vital importance in her life but they were merely one aspect of what shaped her trajectory.

It is interesting to consider how much of what happens in a life is choice and how much a reaction – coping as best one can with the unanticipated, particularly with regard to others. Women have children with no true idea how this will impact on their time and personality. Children live with their parents for, perhaps, a couple of decades before moving on with their own lives. Parents have a before and after that also shapes what they are and become. Partners do not always offer support or even stick around. Friends have their own concerns to deal with and understand only fragments.

“Why should men be allowed to strut under the privilege of their life adventures, wearing them like a breastful of medals, while women went all gray and silent beneath the weight of theirs?”

Daisy’s father worked as a stone cutter in a quarry – hard manual labour but requiring learned skills. Her mother died in childbirth so, as a young child, Daisy was cared for by others. She reconnects with her father and moves to America. Here she finds friends, attends college, meets her first husband. Although coloured by what some may regard as tragedy, Daisy’s early life is one of compliance more than unhappiness.

Daisy develops strong attachments but much of what she goes through – throughout her long life – is not the result of any long term planning. Her ambitions are vague and she appears content to do what is expected, making the best of the situations this leads to. Her second marriage comes about due to a rare action on her part but even this is not acknowledged – at least in the thoughts provided – as a fully formed objective.

At the end of Daisy’s life the focus shifts to how her children deal with a slowly dying parent and then the aftermath, when they come to realise how little they actually knew their mother. It is a reminder of how self-focused even close relationships are.

The strength of the story is in the author’s ability to take what is an ordinary life and inject it with enough interest and tension to maintain reader engagement. The characters may be glimpsed in snapshots but are fully three-dimensional, their concerns and conceits relatable.

Carol Shields is a powerful writer yet her stories flow apparently effortlessly. I have no doubt the themes explored in The Stone Diaries will continue to resonate with me for some time to come. A tale to enjoy and then ponder. Family relationships and friendships laid bare yet offered with love.

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

Book Review: The Priest and the Lily

I came across Sanjida Kay when I reviewed her first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. Following subsequent interviews and events I became aware that this was not her fiction debut, that she had already published a number of other works under the name Sanjida O’Connell. I purchased Angel Bird as it was set in Ireland and enjoyed the tale. When she contacted me to offer a review copy of The Priest and the Lily – a new edition of historical fiction originally published by John Murray – I was happy to take the book.

Set in 1865, just a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the protagonist of the story is Joseph, a young Jesuit priest. Although firm in his faith, Joseph has a keen interest in evolutionary biology. He works as a scientist at Bristol’s Royal Botanical Gardens, retaining links with the British Museum. For years he has been plotting and planning in hope of gaining funding for a foreign expedition. He has long dreamt of travelling to Outer Mongolia – an interest inspired by boyhood stories of Genghis Khan – and returning with specimens of previously uncategorised flowers, thereby gaining him the respect of revered members of the Royal Society.

From the prologue, readers will be aware that Joseph returned from a perilous journey across Mongolia with a rare lily that brought him the kudos he had so desired. The remaining story is of the expedition, with some backstory to explain why Joseph developed his faith and scientific bent.

The first chapter details his crossing of the border with China, necessary to reach the landlocked destination. It is a shocking opening – a depiction of cruelty that lays bare the attitudes of many men he will encounter. Although distressing to read it provides effective scene setting.

Mongolia harbours a nomadic people whose culture includes a welcome for strangers. Joseph travels with a Mongolian horseman, Tsem – who will manage the pack horses necessary to carry provisions and equipment – and a translator, Mendo, who is a Buddhist monk. The three men, although very different in outlook and ambition, will become friends.

As they travel across the remote mountains and plains, Joseph collects specimens of plants and creatures – killing as he feels necessary. He regards this as important for science. Others regard it as theft. Joseph’s arrogance is that of an Englishman abroad, comfortable in his right to be there. He is willing to learn the language and fit in with cultural miens but regards his work as valuable and worth the plundering of locale.

As well as staying in tents used as shelter by the indigenous population, the trio benefit from hospitality in Buddhist lamaseries. These are under increasing threat from a Warlord whose army proves brutal and pitiless.

Having long regarded Buddhists as peaceable, it was shocking to learn of some of their practices – towards young boys placed in their care and the creatures in their surroundings.

The dangers encountered on the journey – hunger, weather, terrain and vicious people – are not the only aspects that challenge Joseph’s equilibrium. Mendo causes him to ponder aspects of his beliefs.

Events conspire to place Joseph in the care of a small mountain community. Here he meets a beautiful woman, Namuunaa, who will test his vows of chastity. He prays to his god to be delivered from evil, but who in this story is evil?

Although the various dangers added to the sense of place, offering details on the manner in which the Mongolian population lived, the long journeying occasionally felt, well, long. Joseph’s admiration for Namuunaa focused on her beauty – I could have done without the detail of their sexual activities. She was remarkable in so many other ways.

I would emphasise though that the story told has lingered, particularly the imagery. The author is skilled at touching the senses – from her vivid descriptions of the filth of Bristol’s crowded and noisy dockside to the difficulties encountered traversing the Gobi desert. The reader can almost taste and smell each location alongside Joseph as he struggles to adapt and survive.

The story took me to a place I had never given much thought to and brought it to life, adding depth by exploring the attitudes of scientists and religions in a time of change. At its heart is a story of people whose lives have been shaped by their need to adapt to personal tragedy. A tale of choices made and the cost of ambition that proved an interesting and rewarding read.

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

Book Review: The Warlow Experiment

“They err as men do that argue right from wrong principles”

The Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan, is set during the closing decade of the eighteenth century. This was the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment, when European intellectuals were debating ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and humanity. The movement instigated revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics, which grew alongside great strides in scientific discovery. It was also a time of social revolution in France leading to numerous wars that took men from their families.

The protagonist of the story is Herbert Powyss, a wealthy bachelor gentleman with an interest in horticulture. He experiments with the cultivation of non-native plants and trees on his small estate in the Welsh Marshes – Moreham House. An avid reader with an interest in scientific reasoning, he dreams of recognition by the Royal Society in London. Realising that his current interests and occupations may not be regarded as consequential, Powyss decides to set up an experiment centring on a willing human subject. He advertises for a man prepared to live alone, underground, for seven years, permitted no contact with the outside world. The subject will be provided with food and comforts, paid a stipend for life, in return for keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities while in solitary confinement.

“his actions would produce something good, a significant contribution to science”

Only one man replies to the advertisement. John Warlow lives locally with his wife and six children. He is a farm labourer surviving in a hand to mouth existence. From childhood he has taken whatever work local landowners will offer. His home is a small, badly maintained cottage, typical of those available to families in his position. He regards Powyss’s scheme as offering the only chance he will ever have to escape poverty. His involvement in the experiment certainly changes the way the Warlows live, but not in ways they could have envisaged.

Powyss’s first mistake is in kitting out the rooms in which his subject will live to entertain someone like him. There are books, a small pipe organ and writing materials. Warlow is semi-literate and used to days filled by hard manual labour. He is determined to earn his stipend but struggles with how to get through each day. The requirement to write in the journal is one he cannot comprehend.

Warlow’s wife, Hannah, visits Powyss each week to collect her husband’s wage. She is wary of wealthy gentlemen, and with good reason. Women at the time had few rights and little recourse to justice should they be violated. Even the social warriors of the time, advocating for wider suffrage, did not consider women in their campaigns.

Wider social changes are explored through Powyss’s servants. He keeps only a small staff as his needs are few compared to his peers. Some of the servants are more loyal than others. They vary in skills and education. Powyss favours his gardener, even when the man starts spreading sedition.

Moreham House becomes a microcosm of issues being fought for across Europe. Despite Warlow being willingly incarcerated, others regard him as a prisoner of the landed gentry. Powyss is assumed to be taking advantage of Hannah. The gardener, who claims to be fighting for freedom for the oppressed, cannot recognise his own controlling relationship with the maid he becomes involved with. He is angered when she proves herself more capable than him of parsing texts the rebels revere.

Powyss, meanwhile, is struggling with the way his experiment is progressing. The settled and solitary existence he had previously enjoyed has been thrown off kilter by Warlow’s habitation of his cellars. The servants complain that the man rarely changes his clothes – the state of them when he does means they must be burned. With no communication allowed, there can only be conjecture on how he is coping. Powyss had envisaged his experiment as ‘the application of cool reason, of impartial, scientific calculation.’ Unlike his plants, a human subject cannot be disposed of if it fails to thrive or infects those in its vicinity.

The structure of the story allows the reader to follow what is happening from multiple viewpoints. Taken within the context of growing social unrest – including complaints over hunger and conscription – there is pleasing depth in the depiction of all social classes and their expectations of each other’s behaviour. Powyss is educated, has travelled the world, but his naivity is the catalyst for a tsunami of destruction. Throughout, Warlow is being used by all he comes into contact with to further their pet causes, whatever the cost to him and his family.     

This is the first novel in a long time that I have picked up and read cover to cover in a day. The writing is engaging and well paced, going in directions that maintain momentum. There is much to consider around the actions of the varied and well developed characters. Secondary characters are only introduced with good reason.

The author is not afraid to include the consequences of actions, to follow through on threads that cannot end well. Although a multi-layered narrative it flows with ease. A story that can be taken at face value or as an allegory for the price of progress. This is a recommended read.

The Warlow Experiment is published by Serpents Tail.

Monthly Roundup – December 2020

We reach the end of 2020 having faced a challenging year. This month started with the lifting of Lockdown 2 and ended with more stringent restrictions for large swaths of the UK. For now, Wiltshire is in a tier that allows gyms to remain open and I had returned to my thrice weekly visits. However, in the week before Christmas, bad form on a deadlift resulted in a back injury that forced me to rest and recuperate. As I had been struggling with a number of foot injuries which hampered running efforts I decided to abandon all my digital challenges – disappointing after beating numerous personal bests before everything started to hurt even more than is usual.

Daughter returned to Wiltshire mid December for a month long stay. Thus we were all together for the festive season and could enjoy our quiet celebrations. Online grocery shopping comes with a risk of items not available or random substitutions. As we had no guests to cater for I could relax into accepting whatever was available without anxiety. The only item my children voiced regret at missing from their Christmas dinner was sprouts – I will add them to our next midweek roast.

Younger son has heard from his university that the rest of the academic year will be online. He has paid thousands of pounds for a year’s accommodation that he will not have used for even a night. Although I am glad to have him here rather than isolated in halls, the wasteful addition to his already large student debt is infuriating.

I posted reviews for 8 books in December – 4 fiction (1 translated) and 4 non fiction. Robyn added a bumper 14 more as part of her Cosmere Christmas series (introduced here). Her final review in this series will appear next week.

We each posted an annual roundup of recommended reads selected from those books we reviewed on the blog this year – do check them out: Annual Roundup: My Books of 2020 and Robyn’s Roundup: 20 Books of 2020.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction

 
The Last Good Man by Thomas McMullan, published by Bloomsbury
The Piano Student by Lea Singer (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), published by New Vessel Press

 

 
Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley, published by Unsung Stories
Beastings by Benjamin Myers, originally published by Bluemoose, now available from Bloomsbury

 

Non Fiction

 
Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops by Shaun Bythell, published by Profile
Broken Consort by Will Eaves, published by CB editions

 

 
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell, published by Elliott & Thompson
It’s the End of the World by Adam Roberts, published by Elliott & Thompson

 

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas 

All the following books were written by Brandon Sanderson and published by Gollancz, with Dawnshard due out in 2021.

 
Elantris
The Final Empire

 

 
The Well of Ascension
The Hero of Ages

 

 
The Emperor’s Soul
The Alloy of Law

 
Shadows of Self
The Bands of Mourning

 
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings

 
Words of Radiance
Edgedancer

 
Oathbringer
Dawnshard

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or was gifted a number of hard copies, including some received for Christmas.

There were no books for me under the Christmas tree. Thankfully, I was sent a good number of welcome additions to my TBR pile.

 

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

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

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


Robyn and I wish all our readers a New Year filled with fabulous books

Book Review: It’s the End of the World

“It is much better, psychologically as well as practically, to greet the impending disastrousness with a cheerful hopelessness. After all: we are all doomed. Everybody dies. There are no exceptions, and it demeans us to deny that fact.”

It’s the End of the World, by Adam Roberts, is strap-lined But What Are We Really Afraid Of? The author’s thoughts on this are expanded in six chapters, bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. He opens with the comment, ‘It’s always the end of the world’, and goes on to explain why, given the average existence of any species of mammal, humans may well be facing extinction in the not too distant future – in planetary timescales at least. He also posits that this need not concern us unduly, that it is what happens while we live that counts more than our eventual demise.

In exploring the wider picture there is the suggestion that disaster followed by reset may be a regular occurrence – that a Big Bang could eventually lead to a Big Crunch (the universe collapses in on itself) resulting in a Big Bounce as matter is flung away from the centre. All of this is speculation but what is interesting is how parochial, how miniscule, is the timescale most humans will consider about their species’ existence.

“Why should the universe we’re living in at the moment be the very first? Maybe our current reality is the millionth version”

This isn’t, however, what we’re afraid of. What many people struggle to accept is their own mortality.

“we’re not really worried about the end of the world. We’re worried about the end of our world”

Popular culture has long been fascinated by the prospect of a catastrophe that threatens to wipe out, if not all then most humans. This is an important distinction. It is regarded as disaster followed by reset, in which good men face an opportunity to build a different world than that which we currently inhabit. Sometimes the threat comes from space – such as aliens with no concept of how important man believes he is – but often the catalyst is man-made war or natural disaster. Films and books present stories triggered by an event where the moral is it could have been prevented had actions been less thoughtlessly selfish.

“Climate change is a result of us treating the world as a resource that we should exploit rather than a life-support system to nurture”

It is pointed out that one such resource is people – exploited by the more powerful for as long as they have existed.

“We are Monty Python’s Black Knight, gaily lopping off our own limbs while loudly boasting about our invincibility”

The author name-checks a great many works of literature and films. These include the Armaggeddon that closes the bible and Ragnarök from Norse mythology. In the present day, popular video games feature futuristic locations where avatars destroy and rebuild. Endings are rarely acceptable unless there is at least some chance of a new beginning.

Do we really want to live forever? A favourite chapter was on those who do not die, instead changing form. The author explores the recurring trope of zombies as harbingers of apocalypse.

“perhaps our fascination with zombies comes not from our fear of death but our fear that we won’t die […] This is perhaps connected to the different indignities we might suffer as we age. We might be fully in command of our faculties, but trapped in a body that is deteriorating before our very eyes. Or our bodies are fit and healthy but our minds are slowly being taken over by dementia.”

The book was completed in 2020 so Covid 19 is mentioned, the author pointing out how small a percentage of the world population has been killed by this virus compared to previous pandemics. Medieval plagues in Europe enabled survivors to fight off future viruses. When these countries started to conquer and colonise other continents the effect was truly devastating to native populations.

“The Wampanoag population of Native Americans, mostly located in modern-day New England, suffered up to 90 percent loss of population as a European disease, now thought to be leptospirosis, spread through their tribes. In the cocoliztli epidemic of 1545-48, in what is now Mexico, 12 million people – a staggering 80 per cent of the native population – died of a disease brought by European settlers.”

It is pointed out that such diseases do not wipe out literally everyone. However grievous and horrific, these episodes have never come near ending the world.

Although this may all sound rather depressing to read, the tone of the book is more one of irony and interest in man’s ability to ignore the wider implications of choices and lifestyles.

“Our own life, our own experiences, are the only frames of reference that we have for existence. This is why the idea of the world carrying on beyond our deaths is so troubling”

“Through our stories we have constructed a version of the world that gives an illusion of security – one made out of societies, laws, religions. But that world of our creation is vulnerable to change and upheaval; even though physically it might not end, those structures can, and have, come crashing down. Imagining the end of the world is an expression of our collective anxiety over life as well as death.”

The uber-wealthy may plot and plan to colonise another planet. The next economic level down may stockpile food and build bunkers. The poor are left to fend for themselves – we are a selfish species. Yet most of what is feared does not happen – although sometimes worse occurs in a way not yet imagined. An asteroid may strike, climate change accelerate beyond our species’ ability to survive the changes. Both these events are known to have happened in our planet’s past.

I found this a fascinating book in the ideas expounded. We use stories to work through our fears while largely avoiding the facts around the damage we cause. Man may wipe himself out but the end of the world, if or when it happens, is unlikely to be caused by us. Other than to ourselves, on a world building scale, we are really not that important or impactful.

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

Book Review: Fifty Words for Snow

Fifty Words for Snow, by Nancy Campbell, is a beautifully produced book containing an eclectic mix of history, myth and anecdote. Structured into fifty short chapters, each preceded by an illustration of a snowflake, the author travels the world to explore how snow has impacted the lives of diverse cultures. She digs into the etymology of indigenous languages as well as musing on how incomers have shaped changes in vocabulary. While there are many references to climate change, the narrative avoids polemic.

The transformative powers of snow are wide ranging. Within the varied chapters the author looks at a snowfall’s sound, shape, texture and colour. She explains where and why phenomena happen and how, over time, people have adapted to the challenges wrought. Also included are the fun side of snow – from the origins of skiing and snowboarding to the joy to be garnered from creating a snow angel.

“This time, the marks we humans leave behind will last only as long as the snow itself”

Many landscapes around the world have been carved by glaciers. Snow can bring forth life but also cause death due to factors such as cold and avalanche. Readers will learn of: a mountain that has never been climbed, the rules of using an ice road in Estonia, where snow may be found in Hawaii, how a snow shower inspired the building of a basilica. There are also details on how to build an igloo and on how an arctic whale hunters ship was traditionally constructed. Snow can be a shroud, a playground or provide shelter. It is a source of life giving water and an inspiration for art.

The text is blue on white, the illustrations white on blue. These aesthetics are notable and fitting, adding to the pleasure of perusal. This is a book that may best be enjoyed by dipping into rather than read in a lengthy sitting. It contains much of interest without going into great detail.

A reminder that natural phenomena should be respected, often defying attempts by man to exert control. A light yet informative look at snow’s influence. A gentle warning of the damage caused when nature’s cycle is eroded.

Fifty Words for Snow is published by Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Broken Consort

“There are a lot of serious idiots out there who could do with being a shade less convinced by themselves.”

A good number of the people I follow in the book world have degrees in English or similar. My degree is in Computer Science. Although I achieved A grades in the various English subjects at ‘O’ level (Literature, Language, Use of), I opted not to take English at ‘A’ level. My older sister had been through this and I had seen the books she was required to read. I had no wish to spend two years slogging through Chaucer, Shakespeare and some of the more modern classics published in previous centuries.

As a teenager I was enjoying books by various romance writers, along with output from the likes of Jeffrey Archer and James Clavell. At fourteen, I had given myself a pat on the back for finishing The Lord of the Rings but, truthfully, found the endless journeying tedious. In my twenties I tackled the likes of Homer, Ovid and Plato in an attempt to become better read. I skimmed the surface rather than gaining understanding. I could now enjoy Austin, Hardy and Eliot. I still disliked Dickens.

My appreciation of the more worthy tomes in literature was much like my reaction to the little known films or music my university friends discussed in rapturous terms. I wanted to be a part of their arty circle but, in truth, still preferred instant gratification to clever depth. Looking back I suspect I was tolerated by these, mostly male, friends because some found me attractive – opinions I voiced were of little interest.

Why am I telling you this? What I wish to get across is that I have always read voraciously but do not consider myself well read. Unlike Will Eaves who, in the many book reviews included within Broken Consort, references a plethora of mighty works. His reviews are detailed critiques, written in a style that I could only aspire to. Not having read the books he mentions, I found few hooks to draw me in.

Broken Consort is Eaves’ latest published work and offers exactly what it claims on the back cover.

“a chronicle of close attention (to books, films, plays, paintings, music, notebooks and car-boot sales) which will confound anyone who thinks rigour and generosity are contradictory.”

The entries are mostly presented in the order they were written, from around 1992 to the present day. Several include more personal details – a relocation to Australia, a back injury, mention of relationships. The essays musing on human reactions and other behaviours were the ones I found most interesting.

I engaged more easily with the film reviews than those offering opinion on books or art. This is likely because I am familiar with the Bond series and Titanic. It was entertaining to consider the depths with which these could be viewed.

Please don’t think I drew nothing from the many book reviews included. Being and Doing was fascinating in its discussion of attitudes across centuries to what we now call homosexuality. Laura Riding mentioned the ‘notion of an intellectual oligarchy’ – it seems high minded literati have long held the view that they are better than the hoi polloi, as my university friends were wont to do.

Beginnings is the car-boot sale essay mentioned and I very much enjoyed the author’s observations. In this, he came across as more self-deprecating than in certain later entries.

Situation was written during his time living in Australia and muses on many interesting ideas of home and how we deal with the past, and potential futures.

“I sat down on a bench, on which someone had carved the words ‘You Are Here’ and I realised, a bit late, that the answer to my mid-life jitters was just that.”

The more high brow literary and artistic commentary may have gone over my head but I could still learn from the perceptive writing style. I enjoyed the essays on writing, and on the author’s experiences teaching the subject at university. He notes that some students are eager to have written a book, more than actually writing one. He pokes fun at texts regarded by some as essential. Although at times playful in this way, what comes across is the rigour with which he approaches any subject.

The later essays and articles are, as I mentioned, less generous than the earlier entries. In Trees and Sympathy he offers a glimpse of what appears to be disdain for bloggers.

“If I had a pound for every blogger who demands relatable characters, I could retire.”

In Q&A he offers a view on those who consider themselves writers.

“Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague a term to be much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, Don’t they?”

The same interview provides a hint as to why I have enjoyed Will Eaves’ fiction. He is asked if he feels ‘any ethical responsibility as a writer’.

“Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform.”

The author is published by CB Editions, a tiny press run by Charles Boyle since 2007. I have met Charles on a few occasions, at events attended by authors and publishers of high end literary fiction. He was obviously well regarded and appeared a tad embarrassed by the veneration. His reaction to me came across as bemused – what was I, a book blogger, doing amongst these peers of his? I suspect I was, as in my university days, mixing with those I admired but would never truly belong alongside.

And I doubt I am the target audience for Broken Consort. I can admire the quality of the prose, and enjoy the more personal musings, but my lack of knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman texts too often stymied full appreciation.

This is a fine collection for those of a more intellectual persuasion – those who can appreciate art beyond its superficial aesthetic. I may have moved beyond my desire for instant gratification, but doubt I will ever reach the literary heights of Will Eaves and his ilk.

Broken Consort is published by CB Editions.

Book Review: Greensmith

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

In amongst her other work, Aliya Whiteley has published an impressive number of novels. She first came to my attention when I read The Arrival of Missives and realised she produced original stories in a style I wanted to read more of. Her writing is playful and imaginative, mind bending and intoxicating. Her characters defy stereotypes yet remain ordinary alongside the various features that make them extraordinary.

Greensmith opens with an introduction to its protagonist, Penelope Greensmith, in the form of an online dating profile. We learn that she is a scientist in her fifties who is now somewhat lonely. A war is mentioned, one that caused her to flee to a remote cottage with her life’s work. She collects and catalogues seeds, building a flower bank that includes many species which may now be extinct. The Collection was started by her late father, who raised her following the death of his wife. Penelope’s grown up daughter, Lily, does not share her mother’s passion for the ongoing project.

With a basic background in place, plot gathers pace when a stranger, Hort, arrives unexpectedly in Penelope’s cottage garden. He wishes to talk to her about her Collection and the device used to prepare the seeds for storage – named the Vice. Although wary at first, the thought of the online dating app reminds Penelope she was looking for greater connection with the world beyond her current existence. When news of a virulent plague reaches her, one that is killing all plant life across the globe, she must decide on her future.

When considering life and its preservation, man has a habit of focusing on himself and, perhaps, other mammals. Yet all living creatures rely on plants for air and sustenance. If the plants die suddenly – in this case coating the world in green sludge – it will not take long for every other life form to expire.

It turns out that Hort is an inter-galactic traveller looking for a solution to the virus that is affecting many planets, not just Earth. He asks Penelope to become his companion – bringing along her Vice and Collection – to try to save her world. Hort is persuasive, and Penelope rather likes the idea of becoming a hero.

So, Greensmith is science-fiction. This requires a degree of world building, or should I say universe building, which the author tackles with a hefty dollop of humour. She gets around some tricky concepts by pointing out the limitations of language. How, after all, can something be accurately and fully described in English when nothing like it has ever been seen or experienced by any English speaking people?

The human brain has a habit of anthropomorphising – it sees shapes in clouds, faces on tree trunks or such items as potatoes. When confronted with beings and situations beyond her comprehension, Penelope copes by seeing them as something she can recognise and name – she is, after all, an expert in cataloguing. Her first aliens, other than Hort, are flamencos. She views their antagonists as lizards dressed in armour, knowing they look different to beings from other worlds who will define by their own standards.

Hort is harder to pin down. Attractive and enigmatic, reservations hover around his trustworthiness. Having left Earth with him, however, Penelope has little choice but to follow his lead. The one thing she will not give him free rein over is her Vice and Collection. Hort struggles to understand how he is not unquestionably her handsome hero in the film he creates of his actions and subsequent memories.

As plot is developed and progressed, the author’s writing style comes into its own. Each diversion offered is a delight as well as a further layer in the quirky world building. Penelope never loses sight of her goal – to save planet Earth and thereby her daughter. What she comes to realise is how insignificant one time and place is in the scale of the universe – yet how important the smallest thing can be in making life worth preserving.

“when the largest things made no sense, relief could reside in the smallest objects, the ones that needed so badly to be cherished, instead.”

The denouement ties up threads with aplomb, leaving a sense of satisfaction without compromising all that has gone before.

Any Cop?: This is a tale that is clever yet lightly rendered, offering much to consider within a universe created from witty concepts playing with recognisable features. It is science fiction that focuses on the fun side of storytelling, with a hat tip to how astonishing our natural world is. A timely yet always entertaining reminder that Earth deserves wider protection – not management – for the good of us all.

 

Jackie Law