Book Review: The Swimmers

swimmers

“Loneliness had been one of the few consistencies in my life for the past year and a bit. It was a gaping, untouchable kind of loneliness that I’d never previously experienced.”

The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane, is set over five days in a New Zealand June that culminate in a woman’s death. The protagonist is Erin Moore, a twenty-six year old whose mother, Helen, is suffering from motor neurone disease. Helen left the family farm to attend university, something denied Wynn and Cliff, her siblings. She raised her daughter independently, meeting with the wider family annually for a traditional dinner on the Queen’s birthday weekend. Erin is now travelling to the farm, where her mother chose to return when she required more end of life care than she could afford and her sister offered to step into the breach.

The story opens with Wynn collecting Erin from the bus on which she has made her journey north. The younger woman had not planned on visiting, but then work obligations changed. She had indulged in an affair with her married boss that was abruptly terminated. She intends to stay on the farm for just a couple of days. This plan is altered when Wynn informs her Helen has decided to take her own life the following Tuesday. Over the course of the next few days, Erin must come to terms with this. The pressure it puts everyone under leads to a reassessment of familial relationships and preconceptions.

Narrated by Erin, the unfolding tale has elements of dark comedy alongside the pathos of individuals whose lives have not gone in hoped for directions. Erin recognises her own mistakes yet continues to make them. She comes across as caustic and brittle, wading through the mud of the days before the fatal Tuesday with unspoken desperation.

“I had also needed to do something brazen, something insane that would make what was happening with my mother feel a little less insane.”

Helen has been a critical mother but she and her daughter were a team. Erin didn’t understand the reasoning for her mother’s return to the farm as Helen had rarely spoken positively about Wynn – Erin had offered to provide the help Helen needed herself. A new side to the sisters is gradually revealed showing how complex sibling relationships can be. It becomes clear that the sisters have been discussing and then planning how Helen may bring about her own death for some time, only revealing this to Erin as the final countdown proceeds.

“Aunty Wynn was a pinball machine of emotions. I think she was concerned that she might say something wrong, or something right but with the wrong tone, or that her face might reveal how little she was holding it together.”

Although a secondary character, Cliff adds much to the narrative. For the most part he exists quietly, yet clearly takes in the nuances of everything that is happening around him. He retains his own interests, keeping somewhat apart from his sisters and their absent daughters. Nevertheless, he steps in when needed. He may not be able to prevent foolish actions but can offer help to mop up the messes made.

Wynn, Helen and Erin were competitive swimmers, the focus and dedication required brought in as an occasional metaphor for the strength they must now muster. This is not, however, necessary to the plot which is about losing someone to death who has already been lost to illness. While I didn’t warm to Erin, her predicament demands sympathy.

The writing is precise and succinct, relying on character development over plot tension. There are farcical elements in certain encounters, their crudeness or illegality disturbing but also thought-provoking. In viewing the siblings only through Erin’s lens, assumptions must be made about life choices depicted. Enough background is provided but the reader may crave a little more detail and depth.

A story that leads to the death of a family member is never going to be cheery. What we have here though is the basis of an important conversation many try to avoid. Death is inevitable – and with certain illnesses predictable. A tale that explores the cost and effects on loved ones who are left to keep on living.

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

Book Review: Goodbye, Ramona

Goodbye, Ramona

“I’ve been chasing chimeras all my life”

Goodbye, Ramona, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall), follows three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Ramona – each of whose lives tilt on what turns out to be defining encounters with men. They lived in Barcelona through its varying, tumultuous times, although their personal concerns remained insular. Despite close family ties, they misunderstood the impact of each other’s experiences and preoccupations.

The stories being told of these women jump from one to the other. Although chapters are headed by name, secondary characters serve to remind the reader which Ramona is being focused on. The novel is bookended by a key event in the life of Ramona Ventura – the mother – on a day during a violent uprising, when she searched for the remains of her husband amongst a sea of mutilated bodies. She would hark back to this episode regularly in the years to come, her family growing weary of her focus on that one day.

And yet, it was an earlier period in her life that shaped her, the summer a republic was declared. It was then that she first fell in love, with a man regarded as dangerous. Ramona was eager for new experiences, regarding herself as ready to escape the ordinariness of her life to date.

“everything always began and ended in the same way. Except in the summer of ’34, and that fall when…
But everyone has a summer and a fall in life. The truth is I’ve been molded out of details and miniscule events that will never add up to much of anything at all.”

The grandmother’s story, Ramona Jover, was my favourite. As a young bride at the turn of the century, her early life experiences were more salubrious than they later became. This did not, however, bring her happiness. She longed for passion, but both she and her husband remained repressed by their upbringing.

“He loved me measuredly, properly. But I never felt seduced by him.”

Ramona was happier when they moved from a quiet district to an apartment in Barcelona, although this brought with it dangerous temptations to stray.

Each of the three women depicted are introspective, the men they become involved with self-absorbed. Love is declared but with the aim of providing personal satisfaction – in matters of: desire, art and literature, politics. Women were required to be supportive and compliant. Mostly the Ramonas try to perform as was expected by their peers.

“You know you’d prefer to be more like Telele, who gets whatever she wants using her feminine wiles. Knowing to always keep quiet, to pay attention to men when they speak”

Many of the other women depicted seek husbands, fearing the prospect of being an old maid. Once married they get together to complain about their husbands, secretly jealous of any single, financially independent ladies.

Although living through changing political times, the Ramonas are preoccupied by lovers along with their love / hate relationship with their home city. They each seek to broaden their horizons with travel. Those who do get away briefly then long to return. Barcelona is a vivid character in these stories as it adapts and homogenises with the passing of the decades.

“The city… A city that was no longer the same idyllic place it was in the 30s, and nowhere near the legendary Barcelona of the turn of the century. She crossed Gran Via and passed by the student bar. The prostitutes were just getting to work”

What the stories of these three women reveal is how rose tinted recollections can be.

I struggled to warm to the daughter, Ramona Claret. Described as impulsive she comes across as foolish. Perhaps she is simply young, but then all three women were in the periods of their lives being shared. What is interesting in her story is how she views her mother and grandmother, unable to consider that they too once had lives shaped by parents and grandparents, lives that did not include her.

“Her family would depict the war in a million different ways, and the differences always came down to the highly peculiar, highly singular way that each person had experienced it”

The pacing of each women’s tale is recounted with a degree of breathlessness, despite the mundanity of many of their experiences. This serves to build tension and retain interest. The Ramonas seek freedom from constrictions, a desire for passionate encounters, a longing to break the bindings that provide security yet feel suffocating.

A skilfully rendered, vivid history of life in Barcelona during a changing half century. With my lack of knowledge of the city’s history I struggled at times to place and differentiate each Ramona, but their stories remained taut and engaging.

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

Edward Explores: Cornwall

Edward Cornwall bay view

Readers may remember that, back in March, Edward kindly consented to partake in some modelling for photos to be included in a hotel review. He proved himself so skilled at this he was asked to repeat the experience on his latest adventure, to beautiful Cornwall. This time, rather than helping to celebrate a birthday, he was assisting in the celebrations for a wedding anniversary. You may read the subsequent review of the hotel he stayed in, at Talland Bay, here.

Edward entered the county via the Tamar bridge. As well as a road bridge, there is a railway bridge. Although Edward was travelling by car this time, he remains fond of trains and was pleased to observe one as he read about the history of providing means of crossing the river.

Having arrived at his destination, Edward was whisked off for a bracing coastal walk. This time of year is bluebell season, and he stopped to admire the many more unusual white specimens growing along the verges.

On his return to the hotel it was time for a little sustenance. Dinners included delicious puddings that he was eager to sample each evening.

Edward Cornwall hotel pudding

An early start was required on Saturday morning as Edward’s bearers wished to take part in the Eden Project Parkrun. Edward waited patiently for them to cross the finish line that they may all enjoy breakfast together. He wasn’t convinced by the bacon butties they seemed to be enjoying but approved of the small snack provided for him.

There was then time to look around the landscaping and biomes – complementary entry was offered to runners and their support crew. Edward was pleased to spot a bee, even if it was rather large and inactive, as he has read they are vital yet endangered. He also took time to admire the unusual plants growing in the areas visited.

Next on the agenda was a visit to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which proved easier to find than the Eden Project had been. Edward wondered if the friendly giant rising from the earth to greet him had a friend who had lost their hand. He contemplated this over the tasty cookie provided to replenish his energy levels.

It was a tad damp on the Sunday but Edward was brave and agreed to climb out of his waterproof snooze bag to pose on rocks as his bearers looked out over Looe island. As a reward he was given a bag of Cornish fudge, freshly made on premises in the town.

The final day held the promise of a fine afternoon tea before journeying home. Edward accompanied his bearers on a woodland walk that they may build up an appetite for this treat. Although excited to join such adventures, teddies always have sufficient space in their tummies for cake.

Edward enjoyed his few days in Cornwall immensely. As he bade farewell to the friends he had made there were quiet words with the balloon bear at reception. We hope they realise how far it is to Wiltshire and no risky journeys are attempted for a reunion…

Talland Bay balloon bear

Book Review: Trespasses

Trespasses

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.

It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.

The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.

Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.

The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.

“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”

When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.

Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.

This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.

Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Hidden Child

hidden child

“He has an easy grace, a birthright, like all of those of his class, suave sophistication and certainty of their own superiority being served up alongside their morning milk.”

The Hidden Child, by Louise Fein, tells the story of a well-to-do family living in leafy Surrey towards the end of the 1920s. The patriarch, Edward Hamilton, is a respected scientist with a particular interest in eugenics. His wife, Eleanor, supports her husband in his thinking. Her mother was murdered by a man who had suffered severely all his life due to mental health issues. When the couple’s young daughter, Mabel, starts having seizures, they must face the personal consequences of policies they have been vocally promoting as for the wider good.

The story opens on the day of Mabel’s first seizure. This enables the reader to see how gilded the Hamilton’s lives had been. Eleanor has taken the pony and trap to the local railway station to pick up her younger sister, Rose, who has been touring Europe as a way to complete her education. Edward has been supporting his sister-in-law financially but now hopes to find her a suitable husband. He and his wife are horrified to discover she has indulged in a liaison with a French artist. Rose, it turns out, has developed certain socialist leanings.

Friends, neighbours and colleagues are introduced at house parties, conferences and other meetings. These characters and their conversation serve to portray how the privileged view what they regard as the lower orders. With the advent of birth control and a growing demand to have their opinions listened to, wealthier women are choosing to have fewer babies. The eugenics movement draws support from those who observe how the poorer in society continue to have large families, and that they are believed more likely to develop criminal or other deviant behaviours due to inherited low IQs. Edward lectures and writes papers promoting possible solutions, which include incarceration of those with supposed defects alongside their sterilisation.

Edward suffers vivid nightmares that stem from his experiences during the war. He is a decorated hero but knows the truth of what happened in the trenches. This is not his only secret. Although accepted by polite society due to his education and subsequent career success, his background is not as salubrious as his peers may assume. Eleanor, although falling into a degree of hardship following the deaths of her brothers and parents, had a more privileged upbringing.

All of this adds depth due to the issues being explored within the story of a family in crisis. The eugenics movement believed good genes were key and that inheritable diseases could be eradicated by curbing procreation amongst those with defects. Epilepsy was on their list of conditions. For the sake of his work, and to protect Eleanor and their new baby, Mabel’s existence must become another of Edward’s dark secrets.

A loving mother and loyal wife, Eleanor struggles with the decisions Edward makes, especially when she discovers some of what he has kept hidden from her since they first met. With a potential knighthood on the cards, Edward ploughs on with the work he truly believes in. Eleanor starts to question all she had once viewed as certain – the sanctity of marriage and family, the efficacy of her husband’s research, the dehumanising of the ill and the poor – and must make some difficult choices.

I had some familiarity with the eugenics movement in England but this tale opened up just how prevalent such thinking became throughout the western world at the time, especially within circles of power and philanthropy. What is most chilling is how it still lingers, even after what is now known of the genocide in Nazi Germany. The current state of affairs in America makes this horrifically relevant.

A  story, then, of a privileged family but one that digs deeper than much historical fiction. It is all the more effective for avoiding polemic and politics, presenting behaviours as perfectly normal during the time it is set. Although engaging and easy to read, it asks difficult questions around even the well intentioned plans for societal improvement – the effectiveness of state interventions and how this may be measured. Eleanor and Edward trusted the experts without considering fully how scientific knowledge is constantly changing, how research is skewed to ‘prove’ desired outcomes.

Much may have changed in the past century but the prejudices that drove the eugenics movement sadly remain. Fiction such as this has the potential to encourage readers to think about issues that do not have clear cut and easy answers, within the framework of a compelling tale.

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

Hotel Review: Talland Bay Hotel, Cornwall

Talland Bay sign

At the end of last month husband and I travelled to Cornwall to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. We stayed for three nights at Talland Bay Hotel on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. The hotel is situated above the titular bay and offers uninterrupted views of the nearby coastline. At the time of booking all sea view bedrooms were already taken so we were allocated one with a country view. This looked out over the carpark and access lane but was still lovely – spacious, clean, an interesting decor, and with pleasing extras such as a variety of loose leaf teas and freshly baked cookies that were replenished daily.

The hotel has recently been refurbished and we appreciated its many fresh and quirky features. It is proudly dog friendly and several guests had brought their canine friends. All were as well behaved as the ones we encountered in our bedroom and the various public areas.

One of the reasons we chose this hotel was for the food, which has won several prestigious accolades. We were not disappointed, dinner each evening proving a highlight of the day. It was also pleasing to find that, wherever possible, both food and drink are sourced locally.

Our short break was booked direct with the hotel and the package included some generous extras. On the first evening we enjoyed a complementary gin, distilled just down the road and using ingredients grown in the hotel gardens. We also ordered wine from a local vineyard. Both were so much enjoyed we had them again the following evening.

The hotel gardens look out over the bay and also contain many singular installations. The weather was not warm enough to sit outside but we spent a pleasant half hour seeking out just some of the entertaining artworks that created a curious and fun ambience. 

We noted the existence of beach huts in the grounds, and a shuttered kiosk. I suspect when warmer weather arrives these will also be brought into play. 

The bay itself is just a short walk down a steep lane. From here there is access to coastal paths that offer those willing to tackle many ascents and descents, as we were, scenic walks to Polperro (west) and Looe (east) – both of which are well worth exploring.

Within the hotel, residents, may look out for both amusing and tasteful details in what is a truly individual establishment.

As I mentioned above, we were celebrating our wedding anniversary so, on the actual day, wanted to toast the occasion with some fizz. Having enjoyed the locally produced wine we were happy to accept a recommendation from the sommelier and ordered the local vineyard’s version of champagne. As promised, it was lighter, fresher, and slipped down remarkably easily.

On our final day, having built up an appetite with a longer walk from the hotel – taking in lanes, woodland, river and coast – we sat down to the final item on our holiday package, an indulgent and delicious afternoon tea.

Service throughout our stay was both friendly and efficient. When we mentioned we would be unable to get to breakfast on our first morning – due to our participation in the Eden Project Parkrun and subsequent exploration of the place – a takeaway breakfast was offered that proved most welcome.

Our package included complementary tickets to the Lost Gardens of Heligan – well worth taking the time to visit. Touches such as these make a place more memorable, tempting a return visit. 

Access to the hotel is via a narrow and winding lane but there is ample parking in the grounds and the location is gloriously peaceful. All of this contributed to what was a delight filled few days of fine living with plenty of options for walking and sightseeing locally.

It is well known that Cornwall is a beautiful county to visit. For those planning to do so, I have no hesitation in recommending Talland Bay Hotel.

Book Review: The Former Boy Wonder

“Even though I know I shouldn’t, even though the last time I did this I swore I never would again, I get up and go to look for the past”

The Former Boy Wonder, by Robert Graham, tells the story of a man going through a midlife crisis. It is narrated by Peter Duffy, who is approaching his fiftieth birthday. His once glittering and lucrative career as an Access All Areas music writer is on the wane with interested readers turning to blogs and similar free internet content rather than paying for specialist magazines. Peter’s marriage to Lucy has turned stale. Their teenage son regards his father with resigned contempt, considering him an idiot. Given the tale being told, the boy’s summation is hard to disagree with.

The story opens in the 1970s. Peter’s father, a professional comedian who becomes a renowned television personality, leaves the family home in Bangor, Northern Ireland, for London following another row with his wife. Peter adored his father but the schism created by his leaving proves hard to heal. Peter romanticises events in his life, viewing the past through a prism coloured by his beloved comic books, fiction and film. His dealings with other people focus on how their behaviour affects him. He assigns blame with little consideration for any role he might have played, or how he may have chosen to react differently.

“I had been the little prince, the apple of my father’s eye, and then he left. The little prince had lost his kingdom; he had been a happy little boy before it all went wrong.”

Peter leaves Bangor to study at the Poly in Manchester. Here he makes friends he will remain close to for decades – Lucy, Bill and Caitlin. At the latter’s twenty-first birthday party he encounters a student from the University, Sanchia Page, who will become his first true love.

The narrative shifts between this younger Peter as he navigates an all consuming love affair and the older Peter looking back on a time he has gilded. Although he wants to make his marriage to Lucy work, acknowledging her many positive attributes, he hankers after the passion he remembers with Sanchia. When Caitlin invites Peter to her fiftieth birthday party he cannot stop wondering if Sanchia will be there – and what that could possibly mean for his future, and hers.

Although the older Peter’s career has stagnated, Lucy remains a successful businesswoman. She is organised, efficient and likes to keep her house pristine, something her husband both admires and struggles with.

“Someday she’s going to fold me up, shove me into a cupboard, slam the door shut and lean against it until I’m restrained.
I wrest myself away from contemplating our clinical surroundings and the fun I haven’t been having”

Nevertheless, Lucy remains encouraging and supportive, until she realises Peter has been fantasising about Sanchia again. Peter is a man who has achieved everything that matters, yet properly appreciates none of it. He wants the life he had – or at least how he remembers it – over what he has now and could still achieve.

A strong sense of period and place is threaded through the story – the housing, nightlife and gentrification of both Manchester and London; the impact of this on a boy from Bangor. The popular music of Peter’s youth adds to the atmosphere, especially that which has stood the test of time. The author includes detailed descriptions of clothes, especially as worn by the women. While I would usually find this unnecessary, even irksome, here it adds to the evocative scene setting on which the story is built.

I struggled to warm to Peter, a man so obviously self engrossed and self entitled I wondered how Lucy had stuck with him (this does become clear later). Perhaps because of this it took some time to fully engage. Once I did, the slow motion car crash of Peter’s life held me in its thrall despite his continuing foolish behaviour.

A slow burn of a story then but one that is well worth sticking with, not least because of Lucy’s development. A reminder of how gloriously painful it is to be young and eager, but that fifty can also be memorable if lived in the present and with the right mindset.

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

Book Review: None of This Is Serious

none of this serious

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut has been likened to the published works of Sally Rooney. Although equally compelling, it is harder hitting and more authentic. The reader is placed inside the head of a modern day twenty-one year old named Sophie. It proves a troubling place to be.

Sophie lives with her parents in Dublin and has recently finished college where she studied politics. She has a close network of friends but feels more comfortable interacting via the internet. She is aware that her thoughts and views are coloured by what she compulsively reads there.

“I absorb it all like a sponge, trying to give my own thoughts substance. I hope for clarity, but instead my head is regurgitating content I’ve read on a loop. I don’t have anything to add.”

Sophie regards her generation as facing particular difficulties those older than her cannot comprehend. She is obsessed with house prices, unable to see how she will ever be able to climb onto the property ladder without the parental help many in her network benefit from. She has yet to find a job and has little enthusiasm for those she applies for. She despairs of the economic and political choices made by those in power, naively believing older generations do not understand their effects.

“The one advantage of the shift in political discourse to the online sphere is that no one over the age of forty understands what they’ve unleashed upon the world.”

Sophie over thinks everything, particularly her interactions with other people. She may struggle to articulate an original thought but can quote at length from online articles read. She hopes to come across as informed. This is not always the impression that lingers in social situations.

“I wish this whole exchange had been a message, so I could contemplate each individual word”

Social media is portrayed as both a minefield and an addiction. The story captures with honesty the disconnection between knowing posts are carefully constructed and curated, and being unable to disbelieve other people do not live and think as depicted.

“The flat holds a certain amount of mystery for me, the way physical spaces do. I’ve only ever seen pictures of it on Instagram or in the background of selfies”

The story being told is set during the summer following the completion of university degrees. Alongside the drunken nights out are milestone events: results come in; job offers are accepted; Sophie’s twin sister, Hannah, returns to the parental home from Glasgow; they celebrate their birthday; Sophie spends a weekend at a coastal summer house owned by her best friend Grace’s parents. What sets the unfolding tale apart is the spiralling voice of the narrator. Following Sophie’s life feels like watching a slow motion car crash.

In amongst her friends are some Sophie is closer to and can talk with more easily. When she becomes involved with potential boyfriends she turns to Grace for advice, sharing details of texts received before responding. She uploads certain information to group chats, and then wonders what is being discussed about her. She puts on a front of compliance when home with her family, knowing that her parents have no idea that she is always on edge around Hannah who has bullied her for many years. Sophie uses food as a coping mechanism and hates the way her body looks, especially when compared to that of her twin.

Alongside what is going on in the lives under scrutiny, a crack has appeared in the sky.

”Where there was only light pollution, how there’s a hairline fracture spanning as far as I can see in either direction. It’s lit from within by a violet glow that seeps across the night sky.”

Experts cannot explain how it was caused or if it is having any effect on the earth and its inhabitants. This dominates news coverage initially but, as with every major event, interest soon wanes when nothing new about it can be revealed.

“if the crack is merely an illusion, then parts of the world not bathed in its glow should be the last bastions of normalcy … Instead, there’s nothing about it. This could be evidence of a grand conspiracy, or simply because we’re not used to sending reporters to those places unless there’s been some kind of disaster, especially if we can catalogue the damage in dead white people. We aren’t used to looking at these places and thinking normal, so they don’t exist.”

It is left to the reader to deduce what metaphor the author intends by running with this strange occurrence. When the crack briefly does more than simply exist, this corresponds to a serious implosion in Sophie’s lived experience.

Although not a slow start, the story builds momentum that inexorably draws the reader further in. When Sophie’s choices cause a serious unravelling, her friends are initially supportive but quickly turn from this to cast judgement. What is so disturbing to consider is how familiar all these behaviours are, and the known effects on the victim. Existing online offers little scope for privacy, and supporting a person under fire can lead to personally damaging associations.

Throughout, Sophie actively seeks a path that will enable her to move forward from the stalemate in which she finds herself on leaving university. She views her parents’ lives as no longer attainable. Her feminist leanings dislike the pervading thought that a wealthy partner could make her life so much easier.

Any Cop?: This is a remarkable work of fiction that portrays the contemporary lifestyle of young people who benefit from numerous privileges but remain shadowed by pressures caused by the all pervading internet. It is the Black Mirror of Instagram perfection.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Seven Deadly Sins

seven deadly sins

“humans cannot understand a full life without fun and pleasure; as such, we cannot possibly comprehend a truly human life without some aspect of lust, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Yet the sagest Christians demurred from going into details about what was attractive about the life to come: they weren’t sure. And humanists have done the same thing. When they tried to imagine a perfectly ordered human life it was far from appealing.”

The Seven Deadly Sins is a collection of essays written by seven Catalan authors who each explore the history and development of one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins. They discuss when the sin was selected and how it is defined. They ponder why a natural human emotion would be regarded as bad.

As these sins are a Christian concept, the tenets of that religion are focused on. There are also many reference to ancient beliefs and the more modern development of humanism. Key episodes in history are alluded to as markers in how what was considered sinful changed and developed. Philosophical thinking through the ages is analysed. A feature of the essays is the many digressions taken.

“nothing is excessive, disordered, or immoderate except in relation to a gradation that marks the point where excess begins.”

The first essay, by Oriol Qintana, covers sloth. It looks at changes to social and work culture in various societies and the pressure to perform productively and efficiently – to amass wealth for self or others. It is suggested that obligations are imposed to encourage aspiration for an idealised vision of ourselves.

“We don’t have the obligation to be the best people possible, but to be decent people, good enough people, each in our own way.

As in many of the essays, there are references to well known works of literature as the author introduces threads of personal opinion, each backed by argument but at times linking tenuously to the sin under discussion.

“We live among naysayers and enthusiasts, and the chaos is considerable. We certainly have a lot of opinions about good and evil.”

The second essay, by Adrià Pujol, looks at gluttony. The author suggests this is more of a man’s sin than a woman’s, a premise I disagreed with. He also offered gyms as an antidote – a way of offsetting overeating and its obvious manifestation, fat accrual – despite it now being known that, while exercise is vital for good health, weight loss still requires, first and foremost, a calorie deficit. Perhaps there is some cultural difference that made me struggle to engage with the arguments presented.

Lust is covered by Anna Punsoda. Once again I disagreed with the framework around which she built her reasoning. She seemed to be suggesting that all thought like her – I do not.

“It is not the most frowned-upon sin, because secretly we can all understand and forgive it.”

Desire may be a compulsion but the author appeared to devalue love, suggesting the value of maintaining monogamous relationships could not outweigh the pleasure to be found in moments of passion, paying little heed to the hurt and damage wrought when sexual excitement is valued over devotion.

“Their passion places them beyond good and evil and, more than loving each other, they love the very act of loving.”

Having struggled to engage once again, I was relieved to find more to consider in Raül Garrigasait’s thoughts on wrath. In this essay, the author expands on his thoughts with many references to the ancients – their wars and philosophy.

“Their ideal sage possessed an unflappable cold intelligence that never grew irritated, fell in love, or got depressed. They saw the passions as impurities that sullied the individual.”

As with other arguments propounded in the collection, there are suggestions that each sin may also offer positives. The key is to remain in control, to avoid excess. Being constantly angry can lead to embittered obstinacy, but wrath can also offer strength to say no to degrading commitments or evil collaborations.

Marina Porras writes of the sin of envy, pointing out it is harder to recognise as it comes from profound feelings difficult to articulate. Much of this essay references a work of literature I am not familiar with (A Broken Mirror by Mercè Rodoreda). While I could follow the opinions being shared I did not find them compelling.

Oriol Ponsatí-Murlà then looks at greed, referencing both modern and ancient texts to argue his case. He suggests that the concept of greed cannot be analysed objectively, that it and other sins are relative contextually.

“Raising awareness of our basic fallibility at comprehending our cultural past and present is absolutely indispensable so as to avoid making dogmatic fools of ourselves”

The author writes of a golden mean, one that can be a challenge to evaluate and determine.

The final essay, by Jordi Graupera, looks at pride. The golden mean is once again referenced along with texts that illustrate the basis of the author’s thinking. There are a smattering of personal anecdotes that added interest. I admit though, that by this stage in the book, my attention had waned.

The writing throughout verges on the academic in elucidation and clarification. There is much on the historical perspective along with the function of ethical thinking – sins as instruments of social control. The many digressions, although considered and explained, too often veered off topic. Essays are, of course, an author’s opinion. That I disagreed with many of these won’t have added to my enjoyment while reading.

How the seven deadly sins were selected was of interest. Although not new to me, the adaptation of ancient beliefs to make religious dogma more palatable was well expressed.

“The vast operation of translating – from Greek to Latin – and of conceptual transposing – adapting ancient philosophical notions to the Christian spiritual paradigm – that was entailed in moving Greek pagan wisdom to a religious imagery (along, largely, the footbridge of neo-Platonism) still constitutes one of the most monumental and successful intellectual efforts ever carried out in the Western World. Without it, it is impossible to understand the course of the last two millenia of our civilisation.”

I found aspects of these essays worth my time and consideration. On the whole, however, the collection was rather too dry to appeal to my reading tastes.

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

Monthly Roundup – April 2022

april

April included Easter and I had a lovely long weekend at home with my family, enjoying the fine weather. Husband and I managed a couple of sunny walks around the grounds of our local country house estate, recently reopened for the season. I feel lucky to have this on our doorstep. I also ran my 50th Parkrun event, something that entitles me to a new milestone t-shirt. I take pleasure in such small things, necessary positives given the wider issues in the world over which I can have negligible impact.

Given such thinking, I was particularly gratified by one of the books I read – Seven Steeples by Sara Baume. My reading this month has been mostly excellent but this particular title offered a reminder to appreciate the day to day. The life led by the couple featured is neither luxurious nor easy but they get by and find satisfaction in observation through the changing seasons. I loved the metaphor of the mountain – that it is not always necessary to make the effort to climb, even if the opportunity presents itself.

I have also allowed myself more rest time this month. While continuing to run regularly and visit the gym for strength sessions and swims, I have spent days at home allowing achy bits a chance to heal. My children have enjoyed the fresh bread I have been baking. My new hens are laying lots of eggs and I have been sharing these with neighbours.

I ponder if this more reflective time has been necessary as I approached the second anniversary of my parents’ deaths. It was interesting to read Will This House Last Forever by Xanthi Barker at this time as the author had a very different reaction to the death of her father than I had to mine. For the first time I tried to put into words something about how I felt – you may read it here.

I posted reviews for 11 books in April, mostly new publications although I did pluck a couple of older titles from my shelves – one when I spotted it had recently been released in paperback. Robyn added a further one review.

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

Fiction

voting day  swallowed man
Voting Day by Clare O’Dea, published by Fairlight Books
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey, published by Gallic Books

Seven Steeples  mischief acts
Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, published by Tramp Press
Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert, published by Bloomsbury

Good Man Jesus  The Gamekeeper
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, published by Canongate
The Gamekeeper by Barry Hines, published by And Other Stories

Translated Fiction

Love Novel  jacobe and fineta
Love Novel by Ivana Sajko (translated by Mima Simić), published by V&Q Books
Jacobé & Fineta by Joaquim Ruyra (translated by Alan Yates), published by Fum d’Estampa Press

marseillaise my wayMarseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (translated by Helen Vassallo), published by Naked Eye

Non Fiction

will this house
Will This House Last Forever by Xanthi Barker, published by Tinder Press

Translated Non Fiction

dancing in mosque
Dancing In The Mosque by Homeira Qaderi (translated by Zaman Stanizai), published by Fourth Estate.

Robyn Reviews

1freyA Marvellous Light by Freya Marske, published by Tor

Sourcing the books

Robyn’s book post will be shared next month as she has not been around as much recently to provide me with a picture due to holiday and then working night shifts.

Publishers provided me with a fresh pile of enticing titles, some of which I read immediately.

books received april 22

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 once again 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