Book Review: Mothlight

Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside other creatures, such as a pupating caterpillar, where they will hatch and feast on the host from the inside out. These body snatchers are referenced in Mothlight – a darkly atmospheric tale of a young academic, Thomas, who becomes obsessed with the past life of an older acquaintance from his childhood.

Thomas first meets Dr Phyllis Ewans when, as a young boy, he accompanies his grandfather to the home she shares with her much older sister, Billie. Thomas notices the dust and disorder in their terraced house along with the many mounted moths hung on the walls. At first he is more taken with the faded glamour and financial generosity of Billie. Phyllis shows little interest in the child until she decides to share with him the details of one of her moth specimens. Thomas is transfixed.

Over time Billie dies and Phyllis moves from The Wirral to London where she continues her research in Lepidoptera. Thomas loses touch until Dr Ewan’s name is mentioned in connection with a paper being prepared at the London university where he is now working. Despite not seeing her for many years, Phyllis’s influence has been pervasive. Thomas lives alone spending what free time he has walking, collecting moths and studying them. He often visits the Welsh hills that Miss Ewan talked of so fondly. At times when he contemplates the vista he feels strangely detached from reality.

On renewing their acquaintance Thomas seeks to uncover more of Miss Ewan’s personal history, in particular why she appeared to hate Billie. He draws on photographs from her past and snippets of their conversation – clues to a story she avoids telling. He recognises that, in many ways, he has followed in her footsteps. He retains an underlying impression that he has experienced the tales she shares with him. There is an echo of the uncanny in their mutual recollection of events when only one of them was there.

The first person narrative offers the reader access to an increasingly disturbed mind. Scattered amongst the pages are the photographs Thomas pores over in what becomes a puzzle he feels a desperate need to solve. He recognises that he is allowing this compulsion to derail his career. He is haunted by a past he has appropriated, or so it seems.

Thomas tells his story looking back after what he describes as an illness. Who is the host and who the parasite in the house holding close the lepidopterist’s secrets? The uncanny elements float through the tale like motes from the slowly disintegrating specimens. The reader cannot help but breath them in.

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

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Book Review: No Place to Lay One’s Head

No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), is a memoir written immediately following the author’s escape into Switzerland from Nazi occupied France in 1943. First published in 1945 by a Geneva based publishing house, the few copies printed were quickly forgotten. Rediscovered in 2015 the book was republished and subsequently translated. This edition includes a preface by Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano. He writes:

“That curious impression I had upon reading No Place to Lay One’s Head was also the effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life.”

The tone of Frenkel’s writing is strangely detached, perhaps reflecting the trauma so recently suffered. She was fifty-three years old when she crossed into Switzerland and lived for a further thirty years, dying in Nice. Little is known of these later decades.

Born in 1889 to a wealthy Jewish family in Piotrków Trybunalski, an industrial town in Poland, Frenkel enjoyed beautiful books, music and intellectual conversation from a young age. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris where she frequented the city’s libraries and bookshops. Her family back home lost many of their fine possessions during the occupation of the First World War but remained alive and well. The memoir does not detail what became of them later.

Frenkel’s first job was in a Parisian bookshop. It is known that she married yet her memoir makes no mention of her husband (he died in Auschwitz in 1942). When they decided to open a bookshop dedicated to French literature, their plan was to return to Poland. Finding that this market was already catered for they instead moved to Berlin and, in 1921, established a bookshop in what Frenkel describes as the city’s fashionable quarter. The enterprise quickly attracted

“experts in literature and languages, professors, students and members of that aristocracy whose education had been so strongly influenced by French culture”

The author writes warmly of this period, lasting for more than a decade, during which she befriended many of her clientele. The bookshop became a cultural focus, hosting events featuring many of the famous authors of the day. However, by the mid 1930s political events were intruding. As a foreigner and a Jew in Nazi Germany, Frenkel’s comfortable and intellectually rewarding way of life could not continue.

“Oh the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness or pity…
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”

In 1939 the author fled to Paris. When France fell to the Germans she travelled to Avignon. This was the start of many months spent moving from place to place as she sought safety from the ever increasing politically motivated dangers. Jews were being rounded up and deported to camps. Frenkel was fortunate in having good friends willing to risk their own lives to protect her.

One aspect that is not explained, yet undoubtedly enabled her to survive, is the author’s wealth. When she was forced to abandon her beloved bookshop and leave Germany she was denied currency and took with her only what she could carry in two suitcases. Despite this she lives in hotels and eats in restaurants. When the round-ups start she pays exorbitant rates to board in small rooms. She bribes those she hopes will lead her to safety. Her French friends are vital in seeking out contacts and posting letters to those abroad who may be willing to assist but there is no suggestion that they provided the funds she required.

Life in France at this time was hard for everyone with the occupying forces requisitioning food supplies leading to a burgeoning black market. Many French citizens believed the propaganda and blamed foreigners and Jews for their difficulties. There were still good people willing to help the refugees but also many who took advantage, whatever the human cost, regarding the situation as an opportunity to make money.

This is a fascinating personal account of an horrific period of history. Its publication is timely given our current political situation. Frenkel writes factually, almost dispassionately, with little attempt to garner sympathy. Her words offer a lesson in the importance of retaining our humanity, whatever indoctrination is being disseminated on behalf of self-serving politicians.

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

Book Review: Wolf Country

Wolf Country, by Tünde Farrand, is set in a future dystopian England. The rise in cost of supporting welfare claimants – the old, the sick, the disabled – was regarded as economically unsustainable so the elites changed the system. Only they may now own property, living in fenced off tracts of land in the countryside or in exclusive high rises in the city. Others – those capable of earning their Right to Reside – are provided with a home in a redeveloped area of a city, its size and facilities based on their monthly spend.

High Spenders populate the salubrious areas with Mid Spenders aspiring to join their ranks. Low Spenders are given little space and less security. People who run out of funds – non profitables – are either sent to a walled off wilderness known as the Zone to die amongst gangs of criminals or, if they had been consistent spenders for enough years, retire to a Dignitorium where they will be looked after for a set period of time before being terminated.

The story is told from the point of view of Alice, a school teacher married to an architect, Philip. On Boxing Day he goes missing, presumed dead in an explosion at a shopping complex. Distraught at her loss Alice struggles to cope, especially when she realises their extensive savings are severely depleted. Instead of looking forward to the expected promotion to High Spender, she faces the prospect of a future downgrade.

Chapters move around in time to offer glimpses of Alice’s childhood and then courtship with Philip. Her older sister, Sophia, had been a keen proponent of the new social order, going as far as to turn in a non profitable family member who resisted the local authority’s demand that they enter a Dignitorium. Alice hasn’t seen or spoken to Sophia since she left the family home to marry the son of an Owner.

Dignatoriums are not just for the elderly. Anyone who cannot maintain the prescribed lifestyle as a profitable member of society is regarded as an unacceptable drain on resources paid for by the hard working. Non profitables are openly castigated with anyone supporting them accused of selfishness in allowing them to live.

Philip’s father, a talented artist, lives in the Zone where he has somehow managed to survive for several years. He disapproved of his son’s choice of wife, regarding Alice as a willing puppet of a deeply flawed and cruel system. When Alice tries to find out what happened to Philip she gradually uncovers the truth behind the propaganda she has accepted all her life.

The denouement offers a salutary lesson. Although a bit much in places for my tastes, the clever final lines once again raise the bar and leave a strong impression.

Given contemporary attitudes to those in need – the rise in hate filled rhetoric and blaming of the poor and displaced – this is a chillingly believable depiction. The writing style brought to mind Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with Alice’s compliant acceptance of the brain washing that ensures propagation of blatant consumerism and dehumanising of the needy or aged. The structure and flow are well balanced with moments of tension adding to reader engagement. This is an addictive and worryingly prescient read.

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

Book Review: Not a Hazardous Sport

First published in 1988, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley offers an account of the author’s travels to and around the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. For a few months he lived amongst the Torajan people, known in academic circles for the carvings on their buildings and their traditional ancestor culture. Barley interacts mostly with the men and this is reflected in the narrative. As an anthropologist he is there to observe. To get the most from the book the reader would be advised to set aside certain western sensibilities – something I struggled with. I baulked at many of the attitudes described, especially towards women. Certain incidents involving animals were also upsetting.

The author travels to Indonesia to undertake ethnographic fieldwork. Funds are limited so he travels economically. His preparations and the journey, although undoubtedly trying, are recounted with humour. A stopover in Singapore, where he stays with a Malay family, includes a visit to a red light district much to the discomfort of his hosts. This set the scene for conversations that would occur throughout the book. Women are sexually objectified, expected to produce babies and look after the home, children and the men. Whilst recognising that this was the accepted culture I would have liked to read of the women’s thoughts on how they were treated and if they desired change.

Indonesia is described with fondness despite its dangerous transport, mosquito infestations and often uncomfortable accommodation. The author describes the people as largely welcoming – impressive given the appalling behaviour of other tourists. He visits several villages, befriending those he meets and staying in their homes. The exchange rate makes him comparatively wealthy and he enjoys his ability to pay generously for services rendered.

The book is written as a series of descriptions of journeys and encounters. I found the cock fight episode distressing – I suspect the author wished to demonstrate the humour of the situation. A ritual he attended that required the killing of a buffalo offers up a picture of a painful and drawn out death for the poor animal, yet this entertains the local children. In a later chapter a bus driver deliberately runs over a puppy.

Other behaviours described increased my distaste for these men. They would wake up each morning and noisily clear mucus and phlegm from noses and throats – not a scene I want to have in my head.  It was, of course, interesting to learn of western habits that they observed with similar disgust. My recoil is not an attempt to take any sort of moral high ground.

At the time of writing Indonesia was changing. Many traditional beliefs were being abandoned for Christianity. Buildings with galvanised iron roofs rather than bamboo tiles were regarded as modern. Woven cloaks coloured with plant dyes were no longer as popular as those made from rayon.

Following his stay the author invites a small group of men to travel to London and build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. The final chapter describes the reaction of these Indonesians to English habits and behaviour. Their experiences have repercussions when they return to their country.

Although well written and witty in places, I struggled to engage with the author’s portrayal. He may have been fond of those he met, impressed by their openness and welcome; my reaction was largely negative. I would have preferred a more rounded representation of a country populated by more than just men. From an anthropological point of view there is much of interest. As a casual reader I was put-off Indonesia.

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

Book Review: Never Be Broken

Never Be Broken, by Sarah Hilary, is the sixth and possibly final instalment in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with DI Rome attending a crime scene – the wreckage of a car that is stained with the blood of her colleague, Noah Jake. The timeline then moves back forty-eight hours leaving the reader to ponder if a favourite character from the series has been killed.

DS Jake is receiving counselling following the murder in prison of his brother, Sol. Noah feels responsible for Sol’s incarceration. Despite knowing it must be his subconscious speaking, Noah is haunted by his brother’s ghost. He is reluctant to lose even this tenuous link and refuses to speak of it to anyone.

Marnie’s crime team are investigating the growing number of deaths of children from London’s less than salubrious estates. There are links to drug dealing, the supply of knives and guns, and perhaps even people trafficking. When the latest victim, a white girl named Raphaela Belsham, is gunned down in Muswell Hill close to her parent’s expensive home, questions are asked about possible links to the run-down high rises where the dark skinned victims lived. Raphaela’s father is furious at the suggestion that his privileged daughter could have been caught up in any form of criminal activity.

The police are widely regarded as either incompetent or the enemy. Belsham blames people of colour for the country’s ills. When Marnie takes Noah along to question the Belshams about Raphaela, her father’s anger and racism manifest. He accuses Noah of planting evidence.

Much of the action revolves around Erskine Tower, a block of flats within sight of the fire damaged Grenfell. The residents include the elderly who have lived there for decades and younger people caught up in the escalating violence. Raphaela had been a visitor to the tower as part of a supervised school project. Her level of supervision comes under scrutiny.

Although following the fast moving, tense and twisty structure of many compelling crime fiction novels, the author digs deeper into complex issues raised. This is skilfully done, never compromising effortless reader engagement. Her use of language is impressive conjuring the tastes, sounds, smells and feel of challenging locations. Shocking events are presented to the reader in high definition.

The denouement is violent and rendered without compromise whilst avoiding sensationalism. There are several heart palpating moments involving key characters. There is a nagging fear throughout that the author will kill her darlings – she has ensured that the reader cares.

This is a tenacious and troubling exploration of the many colours of life existing beneath the shiny veneer of our capital city. It is crime fiction at its best.

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

Book Review: Last Ones Left Alive

Orpen has been raised on the island of Slanbeg, off the west coast of Ireland. She has known only two other people in her life – Mam and Maeve. From reading old papers and listening in on conversations she has gleaned that these two women once lived in Phoenix City but managed to escape. They have instilled in her the knowledge that the mainland holds many dangers. There are the skrake – powerful, crazed, half dead beings who hunt the living and whose bite will turn their victim into one of them. There is hunger because, since the Emergency, the plentiful supplies of foodstuffs people once took for granted are now scarce. And there are men. Neither Mam nor Maeve have explained exactly why but Orpen understands that men are to be feared.

Last Ones Left Alive opens with Orpen taking a bitten Maeve east in the hope of finding Phoenix City. Mam is dead. Orpen brings with her a crate of chickens and her dog, Danger. She has been trained since she was seven years old to tackle the skrake. Nevertheless she is afraid – she has been raised to fear this place. The island was safe but also lonely. She has a deep anger that Mam and Maeve refused to answer her burning questions and now it may be too late. They regarded her as a child to be protected when she felt a need to understand the reasons the world changed.

The Ireland in which this story is set is a dystopian future with many familiar elements. The rules appear to favour the suppression and control of women. The skrake are the stuff of nightmares.

Told from Orpen’s point of view, the timeline jumps between the girl’s past and present difficulties. It could be a coming of age tale. Dig deeper and it is a study of loneliness, trauma, grief, and the power of determination. Orpen feels anger that Phoenix City, a place where other people may live, has never been explained to her. All but alone now in her world, she is afraid it may not exist.

The writing is taut and vivid with a strong sense of place including a lingering Irish vernacular from the young narrator. Encounters throughout add volatility. Alongside the violence is the risk inherent in trusting, and the mental difficulties of solitary living.

At times I questioned the direction of the plot but the denouement provides a satisfying conclusion. Not all questions are answered but plenty is inferred and a circle is completed. This could easily be the start of a series.

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

Book Review: Our House

I had been eager to read Our House since I heard Louise Candlish speak at a Greenwich Book Festival event last year. I now understand why so many readers have enjoyed this cautionary tale.

Set in an affluent and still upcoming residential street in South London, where house prices have quadrupled in a decade and aspirational families enjoy good schools and a sense of like-minded community, the story is told from the points of view of a middle aged married couple who have recently separated. Unwilling to sell the valuable family home, which in their time living there has been subjected to near constant ‘improvement’, they agree on what is known as a birds nest arrangement. At weekends the husband, Bram, will sleep at the house and look after his two sons. During the week the children’s care will fall to their mother, Fi. A small flat is rented nearby offering a bed for whichever parent requires it. Thus the children may always sleep in their own rooms, cared for by a loving parent without having to shuttle between residences to fulfil custody agreements. Each parent is free to do as they please when in the flat but will respect the children’s need for constancy and stability in their home.

This apparently amicable arrangement is shattered when Fi returns from a few days away to discover strangers moving into the family home, which has been emptied of all possessions. Doing their best to deal calmly with a distraught women on their moving day, the new couple assure her that they have legally purchased the property. A neighbour steps in to support Fi while lawyers are tracked down and the situation clarified. Bram cannot be reached.

Events of the preceding months are then recounted. Fi’s side of the story is told in the form of a transcript from a popular and sensationalist podcast featuring crime victims. Bram writes his version of events in a lengthy word document, describing it as his suicide letter.

The picture that emerges is one of a marriage where each party is striving to create what they regard as an ideal. Each recognises the attractions of the other yet requires them to be different.

Fi was drawn to Bram for the excitement – he is the fun parent for their boys – yet tries endlessly to tame him. Bram understands the stability Fi offers but struggles to control his need for occasional release. Fi turns to her close circle of female friends for day to day support. Bram keeps to himself the guilty secrets he accumulates as he finds outlets for his frustrations – ultimately these lead to tragedy.

There is a reason why books like this sell. The writing is engrossing and easy to read. The structure and flow are well balanced. The plot is fast moving with an underlying tension that encourages questions and second guesses. The twists and turns encourage the reader to turn the next page.

I did find the middle section – the why such a mess could occur – irritating, despite it being well enough developed. I struggled to accept that such a course of action would be contemplated by Bram despite the reasons given (as an aside, in the past I have been informed by authors that such difficult to believe situations have been based on real events, so what do I know?). It is fiction – I accepted to move on.

Threads are brought together in a devastating denouement, again with a few details that I struggled with given previous character development. The ending – the final lines – bring with them an ‘oh shit’ moment, although by this time I had little sympathy for the protagonists given their previous actions. I was left to ponder motives and consequences. I wonder why, as a reader, I insist on taking a story intended to entertain so seriously.

This is a well constructed and chilling domestic thriller that does a fine job in making the reader question if events could truly happen, especially the selling of a house without one owner knowing. I read it in a day which demonstrates how addictive such a tale can be.

Our House is published by Simon & Schuster