Book Review: Case Study

case study

“This was what people did. They sat in pubs drinking beer and gin and listening to each other talk. They pretended to be interested and then took their own turn at talking. It was difficult to see the point of any of it.”

If you enjoyed Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, His Bloody Project, then you are going to love Case Study. Set in the 1960s it explores what Shakespeare expressed so well:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players

In the preface, the author explains that the tale he is about to tell came about when he was offered a series of notebooks written by a young woman whose supposedly successful sister, Veronica, died of suicide. The woman blames a notorious psychotherapist her sister had been seeing, without the family’s knowledge, for Veronica’s unexpected action and sets out to gather evidence. The author had written about this man, Collins Braithwaite, in a blog post and the current owner of the notebooks believed they would be of interest.

The story is then structured as a variety of entries written in appropriate literary styles and compositions. The contents of the notebooks are reproduced along with key pages from books written by Braithwaite. There are also chapters that tell the man’s life story.

The young woman starts her quest by making an appointment with Braithwaite under an assumed name, Rebecca Smyth. She does not wish to reveal that she is Veronica’s sister. Having little knowledge of mental health issues, she assumes that Braithwaite’s clients must be ‘nuts’. This assumption injects humour into the narrative as she gives herself leave to behave in ways her carefully controlled and repressed normal self would never countenance. As Rebecca, she will flirt with a handsome admirer and become inebriated. She also finds herself talking freely to Braithwaite about her past, something that surprises her and makes her think this is why people pay a therapist for their time. Braithwaite states of her:

“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you”

Braithwaite was a contemporary of R. D. Laing and railed against how the mentally ill were being treated at the time – drugged and electrocuted more than listened to. Despite agreeing on many issues, the two men were not interested in collaboration. Each thought their own work deserved the greater recognition, along with the wider respect this would garner.

Braithwaite gained fame through notoriety. He took on clients to earn money and provide cases he could write about in his books. Veronica appears in one of these under the name Dorothy. When her sister reads the account given of Dorothy’s relationship with her family she dismisses it. This was not the Veronica she had known and often derided. She could not accept that her sister may have differed from her assumptions.

As the story progresses, Rebecca Smyth and Collins Braithwaite emerge as fully formed characters, their thoughts and behaviours being at least as ‘nuts’ as those imagined people Rebecca initially tried to emulate. Perhaps if one looks closely enough at the life decisions made by any supposedly sane person, societal behaviours and constraints make little sense in terms of seeking contentment.

The author writes with skill and verve from the points of view of both men and women. There is only the one jarring inclusion. The narrator in the notebooks writes of her time at a girls’ school where sex was discussed but remained mysterious:

“At St Paul’s there was frequently exciting talk about The Penis, this chiefly concerned its dimensions”

Personally, I have never known any girls or women discuss the size of a man’s penis, although plenty of males have expressed interest in the subject. In the author’s favour, he avoids bizarre mentions of women’s breasts in descriptions of sexual encounters.

There are cringeworthy moments when Rebecca is out drinking with her admirer, Tom. These add flavour to her acknowledged difficulty in making conversation. Mostly the story builds on the emotional repression those at the time lived under, and how some strained and suffered at the behavioural shackles placed on them. Braithwaite may have pushed at the boundaries but even he could not fully escape what had shaped him as a youngster.

The young woman lives with her widowed father and has no particular wish to change this situation. She foresees for herself a future looking after him. When he encourages her to find a job, he then takes on a housekeeper his daughter soon grows jealous of. It is only when she invents Rebecca that she starts to question how she would choose to behave if freed from the constraints ingrained by her late mother.

There is much name dropping as real people coexist alongside those invented by the author. Rebecca relates many tall tales of encounters with the famous that Tom laps up. This adds to the sense that the young woman behind this mask is not as content with her lot as she has convinced herself.

The various strands come together effectively, leaving the reader questioning the fictions we create about ourselves and others. Even within close families people are unlikely to be understood, thereby building resentment, often unacknowledged. Social interactions are indeed a performance. Personas evolve but always around the foundation of upbringing.

A wise and witty portrayal of attitudes towards non conformists – how they appal but are also envied. This is impressively addictive storytelling, with breadth and depth, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

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

Book Review: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Occupation

Occupation

“I told you … about my desire to expand, to go beyond my own petty dramas. To go beyond those beloved people surrounding me, too, to examine others and contemplate their abysses”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), is once again narrated by the author’s auto-fictional alter ego, Sebastián. In his rightly lauded previous novel, Resistance, the author focused on Sebastián’s parents and siblings – their shared memories and personal mythologies. This latest work is more outward looking while still offering intimate yet clear-sighted observations of family, along with several others the narrator comes into contact with. Some are dealt with briefly while a handful are revisited over several chapters as the tale progresses.

The story opens with two encounters while Sebastián is out walking with his wife. A man in a wheelchair and then a young boy ask for favours. Both want something from Sebastián and he finds himself unsure how to react, unsure how his wife wants him to behave. He fears that making the wrong decision could be his ‘ruin’. This concern – that he could become ‘not a man, merely the ruins of one’ – gains focus from his interactions with the aged and displaced.

The setting shifts regularly to a room occupied by Sebastián’s father who is in hospital and gravely unwell. Chapters focus on how Sebastián now views this man he has known all his life, who has been changed by time and illness.

“That man existed only in photographs, it was he who was guilty of the fate of this other man now pinned to the bed”

While his father approaches the end of his life, Sebastián and his wife are trying for a baby. He mulls what it means to occupy a body, not just with illness or the effects of poverty but also pregnancy.

Sebastián seeks out migrants as part of his research for his planned book, visiting those living in an abandoned tower block that houses the homeless in challenging conditions. He tries to tell their stories in their voices but recognises he is only capable of seeing them through a personal lens. Nevertheless, he empathises with their plights and desires, recalling his own family history.

“Like my family, every family has, if we go far enough back in time, countless displacements in its origin. All humanity is made up of this incessant movement, and it only exists in the way we know it thanks to these displacements.”

In the background, during this time, the reader is made aware that the political climate in Brazil is deteriorating. The narrator may despair of the ‘imbecility of the rulers of the day’ but still believes ‘literature will remain beyond any occupation’. All has happened before, somewhere, and will likely happen again.

“violence against the other is a violence against ourselves, doomed to destroy each of us and all humanity”

Despite some of the more bleak observations, somehow these musings come across as uplifting. Sebastián’s father is still there behind the shell of a body he must now occupy. The migrants taking over another building, preparing it for new occupiers, are forward looking. Sebastián and his wife face challenges but do so together.

Structured in short chapters, the tale told is humane and succinct. The writing is taut yet close to lyrical in places, philosophical and deeply personal. What comes to the fore is the difficulty of understanding human reactions and their affects. In trying to delve deeper, Sebastián offers his readers a chance to contemplate issues – those that cause change through the passing of time and the numbing caused by familiarity. He pauses to step back and consider, enabling the reader to do the same. Thoughts and observations are all the more powerful for the the clear language in which they are conveyed.

Like its predecessor, this book was a joy to read on so many levels. Thoughtful and penetrating, it is a tale for our times.

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

Robyn Reviews: The Last Graduate

‘The Last Graduate’ is the much anticipated sequel to ‘A Deadly Education‘, Naomi Novik’s foray into fantasy dark academia. Like its predecessor, it’s a stream-of-consciousness style novel packed full of El’s righteous anger, dry humour, and general over-dramatisation – but this is also a more mature novel, showing off more of the Scholomance and its place in the world, and allowing El a great deal of personal growth. It’s a compelling read throughout, gradually picking up pace and ending on a cliffhanger that demands the next book immediately. Overall, it’s an exceptional addition to the Scholomance series and sets things up tantalisingly for a grand finale.

El, Orion, and their classmates are now seniors, with just a single year to prepare for the horrors of graduation. However, El finally has something she never expected to have – a graduation alliance – which means she might just survive after all. First, she has to navigate the daily perils of life in the Scholomance – less dangerous than they used to be, but still ever-present – the complexity of actually having friends, and of course her mother’s warning. But with her death less imminently on the horizon, El starts to allow herself to dream – and those dreams might be even more perilous than anything that has come before.

El remains a sarcastic, prickly character with no tolerance for anyone else’s ineptitude, but she’s starting to become more self aware – she’s realised that, on the inside, she’s actually a nice person, and she has no idea what to do about that. All her life she’s been told she’s an immeasurable evil. The perspective shift is fascinating – and El struggles with keeping up a tough face and accepting that she’s actually a marshmallow. She also has no idea how to interact with people – other than her mum, it’s not something she’s really had to do before – so watching her try to figure out her friendship with Aadhya, Liu, and Chloe, and her maybe-something-more with Orion is brilliant.

As the entire book is told from El’s head, the perspective on the other characters is limited, but Aadhya, Liu, Chloe, and Orion are still given room and space for growth. Orion especially is fleshed out a lot more in ‘The Last Graduate’, going from the hero who always wants to save the day to a far more insecure figure. El, with her potential for mass destruction, initially seems like the morally grey one – but the more that’s revealed about Orion, the more it becomes clear that it’s a lot more complicated. I love the way Novik flips hero and villain tropes on their head and continually obscures any clear morality.

One of my favourite characters in ‘The Last Graduate’ is the Scholomance itself, which develops hugely from ‘A Deadly Education’. There, it is simply an unusual and eccentric school packed with monsters. In the sequel it becomes a character in its own right with elements of personality and almost a sense of humour. Anthropomorphic settings are one of my favourite fantasy tropes and Novik executes it well, allowing it to develop slowly – especially because El, for someone with great powers of observation and deduction, can sometimes be surprisingly oblivious to anything happening outside of her own head.

The plot starts slowly, focusing on El’s battle with herself, but the action ramps up in the second half. I actually enjoyed both sections equally – El’s internal turmoil is brilliantly written, and the action scenes and desperation in the second half are equally engaging – but I can see how some readers would find the first half more difficult going. Those who struggled with the more tangential sections in ‘A Deadly Education’ might find this takes a while to get into, but it’s worth it for the finale.

The weakest bit, for me, is the romance – but my quibbles are very minor. For a book that takes place inside El’s head, it can be very hard to see what she actually thinks of Orion – but then, El spends a lot of time trying to hide her own feelings from herself, especially any that she finds inconvenient, so it’s easy to see why. Their interactions remain frequently hilarious, and Orion around El is exceptionally sweet. It’s not a particularly healthy relationship, but El clearly acknowledges this – as do those around her, who regularly hold her accountable for her occasional unthinking selfishness.

Overall, ‘The Last Graduate’ enhances the world established in ‘A Deadly Education’, taking the excellent characters and ideas and elevating them to new heights. It’s an excellent sequel, and one that lays the groundwork for a formidable finale. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 28th September 2021

Book Review: Winter Flowers

winter flowers

Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), brings to life the everyday hardships of ordinary working people living in Paris at the tail end of the First World War. Its protagonist is Jeanne Caillett, a talented flower maker living with her young daughter, Léonie, in a cramped two room apartment on the fourth floor of a building situated in the 2nd arrondissement. Jeanne’s husband, Toussaint, was called up to fight in the summer of 1914. In late 1916 his face was blown apart by shrapnel. He asked his wife not to visit after he was eventually evacuated to Paris for treatment and to convalesce.

The tale opens with Toussaint finally returning to his home and family. It is not just his looks that have been changed. Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”. Unable or unwilling to speak, Toussaint hides his injuries behind a mask – physical and emotional.

The story explores loss in many forms and how this is dealt with by those directly affected or who stand witness. The authorities hold up the war dead as heroes. Those who return disfigured are openly pitied but expected to cope and fit back in. The Spanish Flu is also reaping lives, while others succumb to illnesses such as tuberculosis. Parents must deal with the deaths of their partners and children with chilling regularity and little compassion given how common such suffering is.

While Toussaint was away, Jeanne worked hard to keep herself and Léonie warm and fed amidst the shortages of fuel and food. They befriended neighbours, a small group of women offering mutual support, sharing what little they had when they could. Hunger and cold were rife. Long working days necessary for survival.

Toussaint’s return means there is another mouth to feed. His lack of communication leaves Jeanne unsure if he will work again or even leave the apartment. Léonie is put out that she no longer has so much of her mother’s attention, especially as her place in the big bed has been taken by a stranger who bears little resemblance to the picture she knew as her father.

As the family dynamic shifts, one of the neighbours finds her burden increased. With only so many hours in the day, Jeanne struggles to offer the support she would have managed previously. So much is being asked of her and still she must work.

The writing is spare and exquisite, the characters given depth, their plight drawn with care and empathy. Although a war story the focus is on the experiences of those who stayed home and must now deal with the aftermath. It is a poignant reminder of the many and varied hardships they faced.

I have read of the war disfigured in The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, and of another father’s return after the war in Her Father’s Daughter. Winter Flowers adds an additional dimension and is as subtly powerful and thoughtfully written while never descending into the sentimental. A perceptive story written with incisive skill.

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

Book Review: The Bureau of Past Management

bureau

“I’d prefer it if people weren’t always looking at things from the outside, trying to explain the crime. Instead, speak of the suffering. I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate, rather than commemorate.”

The Bureau of Past Management, by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), explores the shadows that national guilt can cast on future generations. It also raises the point that history is monetised as a tourist attraction. All this is told in a tale of two middle aged friends over the course of a few weeks during which their personal lives reach a crossroads. Set in contemporary Berlin, the inheritance of the Nazi era continues to fester.

The story focuses on Hans Frambach, a middle aged bachelor who has long worked as an archivist at the eponymous bureau. Hans is facing something of a crisis, questioning the worth of the work he is now required to undertake. His private life is also largely empty, its highlight the times when his only friend, Graziela, turns to him for advise on the affair she is embroiled in. Hans is happy to offer whatever support she asks for, recognising the value of their friendship.

Hans follows the same habits each day, turning up for work where he tries to act as he believes a normal person would.

“He drew up the corners of his mouth so she would think he was smiling. There would be no other choice. He observed all social conventions, which was why he pulled up the corners – it was customary, that’s how people smiled.”

That he does not consider himself normal adds to the detachment he feels. He ponders the life he is leading, the loneliness he feels knowing he exists with little purpose. He regrets there is no one to ‘hold his hand’.

“In the time he’d found the two records and listened to both songs, a full twenty minutes of his life had been taken from the future and turned into the past.”

When out and about he watches the people around him, his caustic observations bringing to the fore how awkward he feels in company. There is little to suggest he admires anyone else or the lives they lead.

“Another man, young but not handsome, oozed sexual need from every pore. And yet he wore a disparaging look on his face, as though he’d rather torture an animal than have sex, and if a woman did happen to fall into his hands, he’d treat her the same way.”

There are few bright spots in Hans’ days. He looks forward to his regular phone calls with Graziela. When they meet he enjoys her company and conversation. His other pleasure comes when he feels he has bested his co-workers, who he regards with contempt – these small victories are rare and mostly short-lived.

In managing the nation’s past, the bureau is keeping the memories fresh as so many people rely on them for work. Hans can see that this is happening. He tries to discuss his misgivings with Graziela while she shares her own trials with him. Both appear on the cusp of change, something the other encourages, which brings further anxieties.

The irony and wit of Hans’ contemplations sit alongside his loneliness and melancholy. He suffers fearful dreams that are coloured by the Auschwitz archives he is digitising. His suffering is clear, but this is tinged by comparisons to Holocaust victims.

There are occasional chapters that I struggled to fit with the narrative. Perhaps they are internet rabbit holes Hans ventures down during his empty evenings. I do not believe I got from them what the author intended.

In her note at the end of the story, the translator writes that she regards the book’s central question to be ‘how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?’ While I enjoyed pondering this dimension of the novel, I feel I only garnered what was offered at a superficial level.

An engaging and unusual tale that provides much to consider. Despite being unable to fully grasp every aspect included, the story was well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Robyn Reviews: The Winter Garden

‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.

On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?

The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.

With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.

The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.

‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.

Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).

Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021

Book Review: The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved

passing of forms

“Looking back at the altar I see that my mother is crying again. Bea’s hand is on her shoulder and she is comforting her. I watch the two of them and they are little more than apparitions.”

The Passing of the Forms That We Have Loved, by Christopher Boon, is narrated by a man looking back on a traumatic period in his life. It is written as if what is being described is current, which gives the prose an immediacy, although can, in places, throw the reader as to when, chronologically, events are taking place. Details are rich in imagery with a wide array of language used to effect. With much to savour in the rendition, it is not a tale that can be rushed.

The story is told in three parts: Death, Disintegration, Dismemberment. The first of these details the deterioration of the narrator’s father as he slowly and painfully dies from cancer. During this time the son visits his parents regularly and witnesses the harrowing and grotesque effects of the disease. The account is blisteringly honest and repellent.

When not at the family home he lives in a house share and works at a wine warehouse. Here he meets Bea and they drift into a relationship. The narrator is much taken with the idea that the two of them could have a future together but is often distracted by the horror of his family circumstances. He is reaching for an elusive side to himself, unable to communicate his desires due to emotional reticence. In describing the burgeoning relationship there remains a detachment, a void he appears yearning to fill. The memories recounted are tinged with an almost suffocating melancholy.

The narrator is regretful that he cannot feel closer to his parents, to enjoy their company and converse with ease. It is obvious that he has always been loved and supported, yet he wears this as a yoke rather than a blessing. He remains unable to appreciate the happy lives the couple built for themselves over many shared years. Following his father’s death he cannot shake the feeling that any effort made in life is wasted. All will one day turn to dust, hard won achievements forgotten by others, valued possessions consigned to a skip.

The introspective descriptions include much detail on surroundings. The narrator closely observes objects while failing to see people as anything else. His recollections jump between the ‘now’ of the tale and his past – childhood, adolescence, the tentative steps into adulthood. The reader only knows he is looking back because of occasional mentions of future events. He is considering choices made and the shadows these cast. His memories, rich in detail, remain stunted emotionally.

“watching it all as through muslin such that the details of whether it was by medics or undertakers into ambulance or hearse remain murky yet still somehow vividly formed with the minutae of incidentals”

While deep in his grief, even if this is not in the form he imagined, a childhood friend reappears. The narrator’s inability to communicate thoughts and feelings with others results in unrealistic obsessions. He becomes consumed by his past and what might have been.

“Melancholy with remembrance and with the slow burning away of time”

What should be fun and beautiful experiences become devoid of meaning. He wallows in an invented future populated by a character he projected.

“I find it difficult to formulate meaningful responses because I’m caught up in this almost demented mythologising of her”

Fiction is often either plot driven or character driven. This is neither. The plot progresses slowly with details foreshadowed and then revealed gradually. The characters lack depth – as fits the failure of empathy in the narrator. What comes to the fore in reading this work is the richness in descriptions of observations – that ‘minutae of incidentals’.

The narrator revisits places that had resonance to try to resurrect what are blinkered memories. Throughout his life beyond childhood, the people he has interacted with are rarely valued unless players in his imagined future. When the facade he has built in his head crumbles, so does he.

There are complex and interesting layers in the tale: the impact of grief, the parent / child relationship, potential personality disorders, depression and its effects. Although still young at the time the story focuses on, the narrator is well educated and widely travelled, yet he struggles with day to day socialising – with reading people. There is much to mull from the history revealed as to causes of this.

An interesting work that may be appreciated for the intensity of language used and ideas explored. Not a quick or easy read but one that will linger.

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

Robyn Reviews: Vespertine

‘Vespertine’ is the third young adult fantasy book by Margaret Rogerson, author of ‘An Enchantment of Ravens’ and ‘Sorcery of Thorns‘. Unlike her previous works, ‘Vespertine’ is the start of an intended series – although it works as a standalone, telling a complete and intriguing story. Chronicling the life of a nun who can see spirits, parts are reminiscent of stories like ‘The Raven Boys’ and ‘Ninth House‘, but overall ‘Vespertine’ is a unique and compelling tale set in a creative world with huge potential for the rest of the series.

In Loraille, the dead do not rest, rising as vengeful spirits with an insatiable hunger for the living. Those who can see spirits are bound to become nuns – cleansing the bodies of the deceased so that their spirits can pass on – or soldiers, protecting the masses from the undead threat. Artemisia is training to become a Grey Sister – but when her convent is attacked by possessed soliders, she finds herself awakening an ancient spirit to protect it. The spirit threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard – but with an unknown threat controlling Loraille’s dead, working with the spirit and becoming a Vespertine might be her only change to save Loraille. As Artemisia travels across Loraille, she and the spirit start to reach an understanding. But the more Artemisia learns – and the closer they become – the more she’s forced to question everything she’s been taught, including whether she’s on the right side.

The worldbuilding is one of the best parts of the book. Loraille is run by a religious order worshipping the Lady and her chosen Saints – seven women who defeated the Revenants, the strongest of the undead spirits, and bound spirits to their will. The Saints are all long dead, but their power lives on in relics – objects containing a bound spirit, allowing its power to be harnessed. Rogerson avoids info-dumping, yet the story is never confusing – the worldbuilding is woven seamlessly into the narrative, with enough revealed to allow understanding yet plenty kept in the dark to maintain a sense of intrigue. Loraille feels European in inspiration, with the Clerisy sharing aspects with the Catholic Church, but there are enough differences to feel fresh. The system of dead spirits and their differing powers is also well crafted – simple in concept, thus easy to understand, but executed with impeccable atmosphere. The overall effect is a spooky book, dark in places, with a perfect combination of mystery and exposition.

Artemisia is a solid main character, but the best part about her is the contrast between her personality and that of the spirit she binds herself to. Artemisia is a survivor. Possessed by a vengeful spirit as a baby, she was rescued by the nuns – but only after her entire family died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Artemisia physically scarred and the rest of her community blaming her for their deaths. As a result, Artemisia is feared and avoided, with few friends and little knowledge of how to interact with others. She’s prickly and stubborn, with a reckless disregard for her own safety – but she’s also caring and loyal, as much as she tries to hide it. The spirit is the first companion Artemisia has ever really had – and whilst neither of them trust the other, the way their relationship grows, driven by mutual loneliness, is incredible to read. Its amazing how Artemisia’s view of herself finally starts to change as the spirit points out how differently she regards herself and others.

Unusually for a young adult fantasy, there’s no romance in this book. There are several characters who, in other books, might have developed into love interests, but Rogerson chooses to instead focus entirely on the underlying plot and Artemisia’s growth and development as an individual. Personally, I loved this – it’s nice seeing a story with the confidence to stand alone without relying on a romantic subplot to add interest, and it never feels necessary. If you’re not a fan of romance, this is definitely the book for you.

Rogerson has mentioned that there will be a few edits to the pose and flow in the final version that haven’t appeared in the advanced copy. As it stands, ‘Vespertine’ is an excellent read but one that doesn’t quite have the magic of ‘Sorcery of Thorns’. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is missing – but it’s possible that with edits that magic will be captured again so I’m excited to read the final version when it publishes.

Overall, ‘Vespertine’ is an intriguing tale about ghosts, survival, and secrets set in a compelling alternative medieval Europe. Recommended for fans of creative young adult and adult fantasy, books without romance, and exceptional character growth.

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Simon & Schuster Children’s
Hardback: 5th October 2021

Robyn Reviews: Under the Whispering Door

‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a comedic fantasy novel about death, grief, found family, and the importance of living life to the fullest. With a mixture of laugh out loud and heartwarming moments, it’s an enjoyable read – but also a superficial one that struggles to reach the depths it strives for. This is a good, gentle story after a long day, but not one likely to linger.

Wallace Price has dedicated his entire life to his company – and even then, he’s not the sort of boss you’d buy a Christmas card for. He’s outraged to find only four attendees at his own funeral – one of them his ex-wife who spends most of the ceremony talking about what an asshole he was, and one of them the Reaper ready to escort him to the afterlife. However, rather than taking him straight to the Beyond, the Reaper instead takes Wallace to a very peculiar tea shop. There, a ferryman named Hugo serves tea and cake to all who need it – including lonely souls coming to terms with things they missed in life. With Hugo’s help, Wallace starts to adjust to his death – and makes some startling realisations about his life. However, the tea shop is only a stop on the journey, not a final destination – and as deadline day nears, Wallace starts to realise he isn’t ready to move on.

At the start of the book, Wallace is a horrible person. He only cares about his company’s profit margin – not its employees. He has no real friends, an ex-wife he certainly isn’t on speaking terms with, and so little to do that he spends his entire life at work. However, the longer he spends with Hugo and his ragtag band at the tea shop – Mei, the newly qualified Reaper, Nelson, the ghost who refuses to cross over and leave his grandson, and Apollo, the adorable ghost dog – the more regrets Wallace starts to have. His distaste at their inability to bring him back to life turns to grudging respect, and finally to true friendship – and it turns out Wallace Price has a heart after all. The change is sweet, but it also happens surprisingly quickly, not feeling entirely authentic. It’s hard to match the caricaturic villain Wallace is at the start of the book with the reasonably nice guy he’s become by the middle. The message that everyone can change for the better is lovely, but there isn’t quite enough nuance to carry it off.

Mei, Hugo, and Nelson, on the other hand, are all great characters. Mei is a spitfire, full of energy and determination and unwilling to take insolence from anyone – especially not the dead. Hugo is a calm, soothing presence with a lot of wisdom – but he’s also a bit blind to what’s in front of him, and as the story unfolds it’s clear that he’s almost as lonely as Wallace is. Nelson has a wicked sense of humour, but also an uncanny knowledge of human nature and a deep love for his family. Their little family is incredible, and together with Apollo it’s easy to see why Wallace wouldn’t want to leave.

The romance is choreographed from relatively early on and more subtly written than a lot of the rest of the book. I would argue that this isn’t really the sort of book that needs a romantic subplot, but it’s a sweet relationship and it’s always lovely reading about gay couples getting a happy ending.

Stories with an underlying message are difficult to write without coming across as preachy, and while ‘Under the Whispering Door’ just about manages to avoid this, the sacrifice is a book that feels a bit twee. It’s a little too syrupy sweet and optimistic. There are darker passages – this is a story about death, and there are several subplots about grief including the death of a child and suicide – but some of their impact is lost because of the overarching sunshine-and-rainbows feel. Its a difficult balance, and some will probably love the optimism, but personally I was looking for a bit more depth and acknowledgement of just what a black pit grief can be.

One area TJ Klune is particularly strong at is humour – I regularly found myself laughing out loud while reading this. Admittedly, some of the jokes are a bit crass, but it’s hard not to laugh anyway. If you’re a fan of sitcoms, this would definitely be a book for you.

Overall, ‘Under the Whispering Door’ is a solid read but not one that I found spectacular. Fans of books with messages, sitcoms, and happy stories will likely love it, but for those looking for a more nuanced tale there are better options (like ‘A Man Called Ove‘) out there.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor
US hardback: 21st September 2021 / UK hardback: 28th October 2021