Robyn Reviews: The Final Strife

‘The Final Strife’ is Saara El-Arifi’s debut, a sweeping epic fantasy inspired by her Ghanaian and Sudanese heritage. The premise is excellent, but it takes a long time to grow into itself, and the initially unlikeable characters make the start especially slow. By the end this is an engaging and enjoyable read, with a solid ending that makes you want to read on – but the work it takes to get there prevents this from hitting its potential heights.

In this world, social status is determined by blood. Red blood equals the elite – Embers, the ruling class, with access to blood magic and control. Blue blood means the workers – Dustings – a poor faction with dreams of resistance. Clear is the blood of the invisible – Ghostings – slaves with no rights, constantly overlooked and oppressed. However, eighteen years ago, a group of Dustings exchanged twelve of their children with Ember children – and now one of those children has come of age. A pity, then, that rather than becoming the fated Chosen One, Sylah has been broken by the death of her family and drifts along, surviving only with the help of drugs, alcohol, and an illegal fighting ring. However, with the return of someone unexpected from her past, Sylah finds herself thrust back into the world of resistance. Can she overcome everything to be what she was intended to be – a saviour?

There are four characters granted a perspective in this book – Sylah, Anoor, Hassa, and Jond – but Sylah is clearly the protagonist. Bitter, worn-down, and deeply addicted to Joba seeds, she’s an extremely difficult character to like. She weilds anger not just as a weapon but as a survival mechanism, leaving her short-sighted and rash. She longs to be more than she is but the thought of putting in the work to get there is anathema. Sylah cares strongly about certain others, and about the rights of the oppressed – but it’s initially difficult to parse out how much of that is true empathy and how much is self-interest. It’s easy to feel sorry for Sylah, but much harder to connect with her. As the story develops, she starts to think more before she acts and allows herself to start to care for others, although she remains a caustic personality. El-Arifi makes a brave narrative choice choosing Sylah for her protagonist, and I’m not entirely convinced it was the best one.

Anoor gets the most page time after Sylah and is very different – although in another life the two characters could have taken each others place. One of the Dusting children left with an Ember family, Anoor has been raised in a life of luxury and privilege – but her family have never allowed her to forget that she is not truly one of them. Caring but self-indulgent, Anoor enjoys good food, fashion, and reading her zines – she’s a dreamer rather than a doer. However, when pushed, Anoor is determined, creative, and incredibly strong. Anoor has the strongest character arc, and despite the initial impression of the pampered princess she’s much easier to connect to than Sylah, providing a welcome addition to the narrative.

Hassa and Jond are given far less page time, although arguably Hassa has the most interesting perspective. A Ghosting, she has led a hard life – but also a fairly invisible one, allowing her to see things hidden from her contemporaries. The relationship between Hassa and Sylah is intriguing, and I hope more time is given to her in the sequel. Jond is never given the time to fully develop, so its difficult to have any opinion on him – I suspect he will play a larger part in later books.

The representation in this book is excellent. Sylah’s sexuality is never labelled but she has sexual relationships with multiple genders. The society has three accepted genders and individuals can identify however they please – Hassa is a trans woman taking hormones, which never impacts on her role in the story at all. Hassa, like all Ghostings, is also disabled and uses sign language. Everything is crafted to be part of the story but not key to it, and its nice seeing such effortless diversity in fantasy.

The plot is strong, using the trope of a training plotline and a competition to elect the new leaders. The first 100-150 pages are exposition, but once the training gets underway this becomes well paced and engaging, with a good balance between trilogy-furthering subplots and the main competition plot of the novel. There’s less fighting than might be expected in a novel about vengeance, but the fight scenes that do feature are well written. The writing in general is gritty and dark in places but suits the story well.

The worldbuilding leaves plenty of unanswered questions for future books, but works. The magic system, again, isn’t utilised as much as might be expected, but has plenty of potential for exploration going forward. There’s a great deal of incentive to read on to get some answers – a key element when writing a trilogy.

Personally, I would have liked a different distribution of character perspectives. The start is too slow and too much time is spent with Sylah, the most challenging character to connect to. This would be an easier and likely more enjoyable read if more early page time was given to Hassa and Anoor. For an epic fantasy, this is on the short side at under 500 pages, so using an extra 50-100 to get that greater reader connection wouldn’t make it too unwieldy. However, other readers will likely appreciate the shorter length and may find the plot engaging enough not to need a likeable protagonist. Those who enjoyed books like ‘The Rage of Dragons‘ should find plenty to love here.

Overall, this is a solid debut with an excellent premise just let down by a slow start. Future installments in the trilogy have plenty to build on to be excellent novels. Recommended for fans of epic fantasy who are happy to wait for the story to unfold.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 23rd June 2022
Paperback: 2nd March 2023


Book Review: Birthright


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Book of Niall

Book of Niall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niall infinite regress

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

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

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

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

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

My copy of this book was provided gratis.

Robyn Reviews: The Drowned Woods

‘The Drowned Woods’ is part heist novel, part an exploration of Welsh mythology, and fully an immersive and entertaining read. Set in the same world as Lloyd-Jones’ previous novel ‘The Bone Houses‘, it draws on the strengths of the previous novel and adds to them, producing a more layered book. No knowledge of the previous novel is required to read and enjoy this, but the epilogue hits hard to those with knowledge of its predecessor.

Eighteen year old Mer is the last living Water Diviner. Having escaped a life of servitude under the Prince, where she was forced to murder hundreds on his command, she’s living hidden in a small village – until her old handler returns with a proposition. He wants to end the prince’s power once and for all. Together with a crew of hesitant allies including a man cursed by the Fae, the lady of thieves, and a corgi, they set off to track down a magical well – the source of the kingdom’s riches. But it’s not easy to topple the most powerful person in the land – and surrounded by ulterior motives, it’s unclear who Mer can trust.

Mer makes a solid and relatable protagonist. Like ‘The Bone Houses’, ‘The Drowned Woods’ chooses to use established YA tropes rather than breaking the mould – meaning that Mer is a powerful Chosen One who has been wronged by those in power and is out for revenge. She’s strong, creative, but with serious trust issues and a habit of lashing out before thinking. She has elements of Vin from ‘Mistborn‘ and Lola from the ‘Shadow Game‘ trilogy, and fans of strong female characters in general will appreciate her.

The supporting cast is excellent, with the relationships between characters expertly written. Fane, a man cursed by the Fae to cause the death of seven others, is the highlight – he’s a kindhearted man with a keen eye for justice, and always accompanied by his faithful corgi. He complements Mer perfectly – where she rushes into things, he stops to ponder; where she starts with violence, this is always his last resort. Despite this, they develop a deep understanding – they’re both pure of heart in a group where sincerity is a forgotten concept.

Ifanna, Mer’s ex-girlfriend and the heir to a family of thieves, is another highlight. A girl with a point to prove, she’s showy and extravagant and an exceptional thief – but she’s made mistakes, and doesn’t always come at things with the right perspective. Her character arc is very strong, and the dynamic between her, Mer, and Fane is fascinating to observe.

Mer is never referred to on-page as bisexual or pansexual, but her attraction to both men and women is well-written without fuss or over-emphasis. Its nice seeing more YA where this is simply fact and doesn’t have to be a plot point.

The plot is the main area where this book is stronger than ‘The Bone Houses’. It’s tauter, faster-paced, avoids exposition, and has more unpredictable twists and turns. Lloyd-Jones still follows well-trodden paths in many of her narrative choices, but she also takes a few risks and they pay off in a more entertaining novel. The Welsh mythology is also allowed to play a slightly stronger role with more explicit references to origins of magic and the role of the Fae.

Overall, this is an excellent YA fantasy with solid characters and well-written character relationships, an entertaining and well-paced plot, and an excellent atmosphere. A recommended read.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 16th August 2022

Book Review: Lunate vol. 2

Lunate vol 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: God’s Country

Gods Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everywhere here there is a sense of loss”

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

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

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

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

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

Robyn Reviews: The Bone Houses

‘The Bone Houses’ by Emily Lloyd-Jones is an enjoyable, if conventional, YA fantasy novel, set against the intriguing backdrop of Welsh mythology. The writing flows, the characters are engaging, and whilst this doesn’t win many points for originality, it executes the staples of the genre with aplomb.

Seventeen-year-old Ryn is desperaely trying to hold together her family, and her family’s prized business: gravedigging for her remote village’s graveyard. Both are in dire straits. Since the disappearance of her father and uncle, Ryn has been the sole breadwinner – but her uncle left debts, and there aren’t enough deaths to make a living gravedigging. There’s also the small matter of the dead in Colbren refusing to stay dead.

Enter Ellis: an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past. Claiming to want to more accurately map Colbren, his arrival coincides with an uptick in the risen dead, or Bone Houses – forcing Ryn into a difficult position. What will she risk to save her family and town – and perhaps stop the Bone Houses for good?

The story alernates between Ryn and Ellis’s perspectives, although Ryn feels like the primary protagonist. Strong-willed, impulsive, and with a huge heart, Ryn closely resembles many other YA protagonists – but that doesn’t make her any less easy to connect to. She’s frustrated – at her situation, her age, the politics of the village, and even her family – but she cares deeply, and everything comes from a good place.

Ellis is kept more of a mystery. A mapmaker raised in luxury as part of the Prince’s household, he’s treated with suspicion by Ryn and the residents of Colbren, who don’t believe he’s there simply to make maps. He’s too well dressed and spoken to blend in – but even the local aristocrat sees an intruder rather than a kindred spirit. Ellis is inquisitive but quiet, and his connection to the reader is slower, his story taking time to unfold. However, his softness works as a contrast to Ryn’s obvious strength – and it becomes increasingly clear he’s strong in his own way.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is its depiction of chronic pain, a condition Ellis lives with. There’s no use of magic to minimise it and no attempt to define him by it – it is simply there, always in the background and regularly affecting how much he can do. It’s unusual to see pain as something which limits characters in fantasy rather than something they fight through, and the difference is refreshing.

The plot is traditional: once the characters and incentives are introduced, it proceeds to a quest-type story with various hurdles along the way. Naturally, there’s a romantic subplot woven in, and this is slow-burn and well handled, complimenting rather than distracting from the main arc. There’s also an animal companion, a goat, which is always a fun addition to a fantasy. The plot springs up few surprises but is enjoyable, easy to follow, and creates a slightly sinister but never unduly scary atmosphere. Whilst this is a YA novel with a seventeen year old protagonist, this could easily be read by younger readers, including middle-grade aged readers advanced for their age.

The Welsh mythology inspiration is one of the few unique elements, and this is intriguing. I’m not familiar with the source material so can’t speak to its accuracy, but it makes a pleasing change from the more common Greek or Nordic origins. The tales are woven into the narrative well, with each of Ryn and Ellis having heard slightly different versions, highlighting the discrepancies intrinsic to oral storytelling tradition.

Overall, ‘The Bone Houses’ deviates little from the standard tropes of the YA fantasy genre, but it executes them well, and wins extra points for its positive disability representation and unusual source material. A recommended read for all YA fantasy fans.

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Paperback: 15th October 2020
Hardback: 31st October 2019

Book Review: Nothing Special

Nothing Special

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Festival of Cats

Festival of Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a glimpse – every now and then.”

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

Book Review: The Fawn

the fawn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Law