Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

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

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Book Review: Sunny and the Ghosts

Sunny and the Ghosts, by Alison Moore, is quirky and captivating. It is the author’s first book for children (there is wise advice for aspiring young writers on her linked website). The tale is enhanced by appealing pencil illustrations by Ross Collins. It is the first book in a proposed series.

The protagonist is eight year old Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. When not at school Sunny helps out with tidying, polishing and arranging the stock. His dad mends any items that are broken. Sunny’s mum then describes them as ‘good as new’, a phrase that Sunny and his dad find curious. They like old things and Sunny feels regret when favoured items from the shop are sold.

The story opens with the arrival of a Victorian piano and a blanket box. Inside the box Sunny finds a ghost. His parent’s accept this disclosure calmly even though they cannot see the apparition. Sunny isn’t sure if they believe him.

A regular visitor to the shop is Mr Ramsbottom. He browses until well after closing time and sells more things than he buys. Often he then changes his mind and wants the items back, paying no heed to the fact they may now be mended.

Over the course of days and weeks more stock is brought into the shop and Sunny finds more ghosts. They play the piano at night, read books plucked from shelves and move things around leaving the shop untidy. Sunny’s parents ask if he is responsible. Even the ghosts deny culpability. Sunny discovers that, just like living people, not all ghosts are well behaved.

Sunny takes the ghosts along on a trip to the seaside. He teaches one of them to read. He comes to realise that it doesn’t really matter what others believe so long as they remain open to possibilities.

The writing is clear and well structured, avoiding over simplification. Interest and momentum are maintained. There is humour and kindness alongside the mischief and mystery. A delightful and satisfying read for any age.

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

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

  

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling, is the second installment in the popular series chronicling the eponymous boy wizard’s years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This review is of the 20th anniversary edition and is a reread of the main story. As Pottermore sorted me into Ravenclaw and my daughter into Slytherin I had access to both house hardback editions. I reviewed the first in the series and wrote about these anniversary editions here.

The book opens with an introduction to the chosen house, naming key alumnae who will feature in the story. For Ravenclaw these include Gilderoy Lockhart (five times winner of Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award) and Moaning Myrtle (a ghost haunting a girls’ toilet at the school). For Slytherin there is Tom Riddle and Severus Snape.

A double page spread containing a map of Hogwarts reminds readers of key locations. It is then straight into the story.

Opening on Harry’s twelfth birthday, the boy has spent a miserable summer being bullied and belittled by the Dursleys, his reluctant guardians following his parents’ murders. Compounding his misery is the fact that promised letters from friends have not been received. Harry wonders if he has been forgotten and the invitation to stay with Ron at the Weasley’s home, The Burrow, rescinded. The reason for their silence is explained when a house elf, Dobby, appears in Harry’s bedroom demanding a promise that he will not return to school.

Ron has not forgotten Harry and, along with his brothers, mounts a daring rescue involving a flying car. This vehicle is also deployed when the boys miss their connection with the Hogwarts Express. Starting the year by risking expulsion puts a damper on their reunion with Hermione. It is not long, however, until further trouble attracts the trio of friends.

The academic year is marred by unexplained attacks on pupils at the school. There is a strange voice coming from behind walls that only Harry can hear. Graffiti written in blood claims that the legendary Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Speculation is rife as to who the Heir of Slytherin can be. Due to his unfortunate proximity to each attack, and his outing as a Parselmouth, Harry finds himself in the frame.

Determined to find out if the chamber exists, and what links there may be to events from fifty years ago, Hermione uses her books and magic skills to help her friends investigate. There are potential links to Hagrid whose expulsion from Hogwarts and ban on using magic has never been explained. And then there is a mysterious diary.

As attacks continue, Dumbledore is discredited leaving the future of the school in its current inclusive form at stake. Harry and Ron realise that they must piece together what little they know in an attempt to enter the chamber and face whatever is within.

In rereading the story with the benefit of having read the entire series there are many details to enjoy that foreshadow future events. Although there were now no surprises, it was still a highly enjoyable read.

The book ends with information on house elves which differ slightly in house detail. Ravenclaw focuses on the work the elves do, Slytherin on how harshly some are treated and how they may gain their freedom. There then follows a quiz on The Alumni of Hogwarts (I didn’t do very well) along with a line drawing of the appropriate house common room. The final extra content is a Q&A with illustrator Levi Pinfold on how he created the house crests. A line drawing of the relevant crest explains the symbols he employed and what they represent.

These editions of the book are beautifully presented and the extras provide interesting detail about Hogwarts and its history. The story at its heart remains well worth reading.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: Flare and Falter

Flare and Falter, by Michael Conley, is a collection of thirty-five short stories which present a somewhat cynical interpretation of man’s reaction to a wide variety of imaginative scenarios. Many are disturbing but all are written with an underlying dark humour. They brought to mind short stories by M. John Harrison but offer more clearly pertinent and piercing insights. They are, in a nutshell, brilliantly written.

The book opens with a memorable first line:

“He wakes to an echoing quack.”

This first story is titled Antidaephobia, a word that I was entertained to discover means “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”. Throughout the narrative is the question of whether the duck exists. As with many tales in the collection what emerges could be interpreted as metaphorical. In trying to avoid a fear, it breeds.

If the beginning of this first story drew me into the collection it was the final line in the second offering, Marked, that had me hooked. The alphabet falls from the sky permanently marking all it lands on. Although at first newsworthy, the world quickly moves on with people accepting change and continuing with their lives. In their lack of curiosity as to what the strange event may mean, what has been missed?

There are many stories that resonate with current events. When It Starts explores the suppression of news, Krill Rations the suppression of freedom.

The God Quetzalcoatl Has Retired and Now Runs a Pub in South Manchester is exactly what it says in the lengthy title. The god settles into life on earth, observing the behaviour of his pub clientele. He registers to vote in an election but then questions the wisdom of the exercise – of democracy itself.

“He doesn’t think much of either main party, but he does notice that the most objectionable people in the pub all seem to belong to the same side, so he registers in order to vote for their opponents. He marks his x with a pencil tied to a piece of string […] He looks at the pencil, the string. How can we be trusted to elect leaders if we can’t be trusted not to walk off with the fucking pencil?”

A number of stories reference the same character – a feared despot – and progress from the point of view of one of his body doubles. Given how many of these tyrants are currently in power around the world it is hard to guess which provided the inspiration.

Other stories explore reactions to beings considered different. Man likes to feel superior. When his position is threatened, violence ensues.

Toddler Ninety-Six is deliciously disturbing. A child in a scientific experiment does not behave as expected, however long they are given. The reaction of those who observe this quiet rebellion is disquieting and believable.

There is a series of stories involving robots which begin with the trope of lifelike and apparently submissive female ‘dolls’. Men may be drawn to violence if faced with an invading army wielding guns and explosives. They become easily overpowered when apparently consequence free sex is made available.

Robots also appear as waitresses, the predictable algorithms under which they operate generating anger from those who resent their presence. In Amok one man enacts a small, angry and futile mutiny when faced with such technology.

In Speed Dating this is taken a step further. People become paranoid about being tricked into dating “one of them”. Is this a necessary step to ensure the continuation of the race or a metaphor for supremacists who resent encroachment by or acceptance of any they deem different and therefore threatening?

The dying of bees is explored with a suggestion that robotic bees – “wound up during the night by poor people” – may be a solution if this serves to benefit senior staff at the Ministry. Bee keepers are regarded as troublesome and therefore expendable.

“Real bees would exist only in poetry.”

Dispatches From the Last Great War of Good vs. Evil questions how to define good and evil. As war progresses, atrocities on both sides increase as each enacts desperate bids for the upper hand, whatever the consequences.

Silence Is Golden depicts an inexplicable cruelty. If such behaviour were not known to happen it would be hard to believe, being senseless and upsetting.

Man’s selfishness is demonstrated to fine effect in All The Little Yous. The world is changed for the better, for all but one person. Those who feel hard done by will not always accept a wider good.

The People looks at the variety and multitude of street protests.

“The only ones who never get involved are the people wearing expensive suits, who remain in their high-rise apartments, silently high-fiving and taking all the most exhilarating drugs.”

There are stories of parents and children, the variations in how they come to regard the other due to perceived selfishness. There are stories of relationships in which casual and disturbing cruelties are accepted because this is now how society operates, whatever disquiet is privately felt.

As for the War ponders how a remote community may be reached when roads are impassable for most of the year.

“nobody has yet been up the mountain to tell the people of the village who to hate and why”

Kraken explores the national reaction when a murderous creature attaches itself to a bridge and feeds on passers by. The eventual solution to the problem is short term. Man’s approach to nature may not be deliberately malevolent but is usually short sighted and focused on the problems of today rather than longer term effects.

Not all the tales deal with such serious subjects. Who Are International Moon Team takes a delightful swipe at music fans who are convinced their knowledge and taste, especially if not pandering to widely enjoyed pop culture, is significant and superior.

Many of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet provide recognisable slices of life while asking apposite questions. Familiar problems and scenarios are presented in weird and wonderful confections. This is a clever, at times twisted, but always entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Aftershock

“The only time the world cared about rules was when you lost. If you won, any infractions became invisible.”

Aftershock, by Adam Hamdy, is the final installment in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy which started with Pendulum and continued with Freefall. These all action crime thrillers provide plenty of food for thought alongside fire, suspense and entertainment. Concluding a complex web of storylines to the satisfaction of both new and existing readers requires verve and skill. With Aftershock, the author delivers.

The story opens with Detective Patrick Bailey – now leader of a Metropolitan Police task force established to disable and dismantle the elusive Foundation – being brought back to consciousness by vicious assailants. They wish him to watch while they kill his girlfriend. Physically and emotionally damaged by the resulting nightmare of an experience, he calls upon the few friends he can trust to assist him without question as he seeks retribution.

Across the Atlantic, FBI agent Christine Ash is struggling with trust issues. She too is leading a special task force that is tracking down and neutralising the remnants of the Foundation. Unable to shake off her memories of being held hostage, and the treatment she was subjected to, she remains wary of potential infiltrators on her team. When she refuses to divulge plans and sources she leads them into a deadly situation from which she emerges with self knowledge that horrifies her.

In various prisons, apprehended Foundation members are attempting to strike deals with those on both sides of the legal divide. These people could provide essential information that Bailey and Ash are each eager to utilise. The Foundation may have been damaged but it still has reach. Many have been compromised. Not all Foundation members act due to the philanthropic recruitment promises of a societal wealth redistribution.

John Wallace is leading a nomadic life as he attempts to live under the radar and find a way to do good to assuage the guilt he feels at previous choices made. When Ash asks that they meet he is drawn back into the web of deception required if the Foundation is to be neutralised.

In a quiet corner of Arizona, the normally quiet and subdued Cheyanne has found comfort in a relationship she has quickly developed with new, local arrivals. Arno and Beth have set up home in a trailer located just outside town. They charge for private sessions in which clients talk out their problems. Cheyanne’s teenage daughter is conflicted by the resulting change in her mother. Encounters with Beth leave her suspicious of what the pair are planning which, when Arno’s history and location are discovered, leads to tragedy. With an eye on the power of the Foundation this pair harness the methods of cult leaders in their quest for acolytes.

The cat and mouse antics of these various players are portrayed in tense and violent encounters across London and locations in America. Ash and Bailey find more loyalty amongst their underworld contacts than with those who are looking at their careers and families – who may be susceptible to threats and bribery. This topsy turvy depiction of good and evil leaves the reader questioning the meanings of such categorisations.

“As he moved from a story about a bomb on a bus in Kabul, to a serial stabbing in London, a shooting at a school in Minneapolis, a family slaying in Florida, a drone attack in Yemen and an attack at a security checkpoint in Gaza, Rafa wondered whether the perpetrators all believed they were doing good.”

I felt a little frustrated that key men wished to be knights in shining armour, heading into battle to protect or avenge their women. There is a scene where one of our heroes seeks permission to divulge a secret that he may gain the trust of a woman he is sexually attracted to. These are, however, very human failings so have their place in the narrative.

I was wryly amused by the depictions of successful businessmen with their past shady dealings that enabled them to rise above their peers. There was bravery and honour amongst the gangsters and thieves despite their violence, drug dealing and arms sales. As is pointed out, governments are active in all of these areas, enabled by their self-declared legality.

Such questioning of the blurred lines around which laws are made and broken, and who is punished when lines are crossed, adds depth to the story. This remains though a hard hitting action thriller in which the reader can never be sure who will survive or who will be turned. It is a fine conclusion to a trilogy that sits firm within its popular genre yet punches seamlessly beyond. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Blue Salt Road

The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), is a modern folk tale from a master storyteller. It takes the legend of the selkies – seals that can temporarily shed their skins to become people – and weaves a dark tale of passion, loss and revenge.

On an island in the cold north sea, where for weeks in winter the sun barely rises, a community of hunters live with their families. Successful among them is John McCraiceann who wields the harpoon that enables boatmen to kill sea creatures – including dolphins, seals and the lucrative whales. John has a daughter, Flora, who seeks a husband more exciting than those available locally. Her grandmother has shared the secret of how she may capture a lover from the sea.

A young man of the Grey Seal clan has ignored his mother’s stark warnings and visits the island. Intrigued by the people there he sheds his skin and explores while they shelter in their houses after dark. When Flora approaches the coastline and makes her call he answers. He is happy with what she offers, unaware of her plans for him.

Too late the young man realises what Flora has done. Her cunning forces him to attempt to assimilate. To survive he must eat, drink and work as the island people do. He cannot fathom why this feels so wrong.

John convinces the skipper of the boat he works on to accept his strange, new apprentice – both men are happier out at sea than on land. The hunters look to nature for their livelihood and do not regard the sea creatures as sentient. The selkie can no longer understand their songs but is aware that what he is required to do by his new peers is horrific.

Flora tamps down any guilt she feels, convincing herself that her actions were necessary. Her grandmother looks on from a distance, aware that she is responsible. Banished by her daughter there seems little she can do.

Although simply told there are many details that increase the tension. The tale is disturbing and recognisable in its depiction of humans with their casual and accepted violence. The reader is conscious of the peril the selkie finds himself in. Those who would help can only do so at great risk to themselves.

With such a story the denouement is key. It is dealt with deftly, although not all practical questions are answered. The author balances well the need to maintain inherent aspects of the various characters. Despite its dark heart the story is beautifully written and enhanced by exquisite illustrations.

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

Book Review: Milkman

Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.

Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.

Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.

Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.

Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.

“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”

As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.

Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.

“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”

Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.

“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”

When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’

As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.

In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.

The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.