Book Review: About a Lover from Tunisia

Ouafa and Thawra: About a Lover From Tunisia, by Arturo Desimone, tells the story of a five year love affair between the part-Jewish narrator and a beautiful Arab woman. They lived in an apartment by a mosque, the calls to prayer marking their days and bookending their love-making. Structured as a poetry collection interspersed with line drawings there is an element of myth to what is the tale of a modern relationship.

The edition sent to me for review was bilingual – original Spanish alongside English translation (by Lucas Brockenshire). The prologue was not translated. The English edition linked to above includes an essay by the author that, as the publisher explains, adds context. Interesting though this would be to read, I was fully able to enjoy each of the poems standalone.

The collection opens with a poem in homage to a girl once loved. The narrator muses on her beauty, how much he enjoyed her naked body and the dark raven curls of her hair. In leaving her country he lost her. There is regret but also acceptance – pleasure in the memory.

The setting – Tunisia – is evocatively portrayed. Mentioned are: the minarets, latticework, encroachment of modern accoutrements, suspicion of locals towards camera wielding tourists. Referenced are virulent opinions separating Europeans and Arabs. The woman, though, is regarded by her lover as an equal.

“That din, that din I was forced to hear
for five years –
But the only inequality between us
was in height: when we stood I had to bend
over her
like beaten up crescent from a molten minaret
to thank her for translation.”

Their are musings on their differing heritages – on forbidden love and forbidden desire, religions attempting to police behaviour. The narrator is aware that women are neither powerless nor incapable.

“All those secret cops,
work for the great Stellar pimp”

“she barely needs me,
to drown her enemies.
She doesn’t depend
only on me,
to tighten the pink scarf
of her enemy –
but it’s the gesture that resonates.”

Although this is a modern love affair, the writing has tones of earth and fire. There is history, myth and tradition that predate the origins of current conflicts. There is so much beauty to be savoured in people and place whatever their daily trials.

When the man leaves Tunisia he takes with him regrets that linger.

“I want to speak to you again,
and that our voices are not dead in each other’s souls.”

She, however, has drawn a line under their affair.

“my Arab girl
across the ocean in Tunisia,
no longer thinks of me,
no longer waiting,
no longer”

The gorgeous imagery of the text is enhanced by the line drawings which offer much to unpack and are well worth making time for.

The language employed is reminiscent of a more ancient appreciation. The woman is depicted as more than beautiful – as powerful and independent. Unexpected juxtapositions add force and flavour to poems expressing love for a person and place.

That both parties have moved on reminds the reader that passion may be enjoyed and fondly remembered without it overriding what comes next.

A paean to a relationship that transcended the petty rules of religion and nationalism. Poems to savour for the many pleasures shared that are still valued though their time has now passed.

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

Book Review: Skyward Inn

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Humans had been through so many changes. Evolutionary changes, yes, but more than that, much more than that. Who lived where and who loved what and who hated who: what was allowed and what was forbidden and all of it changing, changing with every generation.”

Skyward Inn is science fiction that explores what it means to be human and its cost. It opens at the titular inn where the landlady, Jem, is drinking after hours with her assistant, Isley. They have run the place together for more than seven years, since they returned from Isley’s home planet, Qita.

Skyward Inn used to be called the Lamb and Flag, before Jem bought it with her military tour completion bonus. It is situated on a hill close to the rural community in Devon where Jem was born and raised – where her brother and son still live. This area is now part of The Western Protectorate – an area kept free from the computer connectivity, including implants, which the rest of the island accepts as a price worth paying for instant answers to questions along with other comforts and entertainments.

Jem and Isley declare their love for each other but do not touch – at his insistence. When customers have left, they reminisce about their time on Qita, an area now mined for resources. History reports that the Qitans gave up their world peacefully when humans invaded, that it was a war without casualties. The alien population are not, however, made welcome on Earth. Isley has done his best to assimilate – although his world translates this idea differently. He is still treated with suspicion by locals.

Fosse, Jem’s teenage son, lives with his uncle, Dom. The boy dreams of leaving the confines of the Protectorate, although with no clear idea of where he would go. Dom is a pillar of the community, responsible for the trades that enable its residents to acquire goods and services they cannot provide for themselves. People who can afford it want more than can be made available and a black market flourishes – a weakness in the supposedly strict control over comings and goings.

News of an encroaching virus leads to changes in travel rules and quarantine. Then three strangers arrive and take over an abandoned farm. Fosse is drawn to the interlopers, especially the women. He fears the man and his manipulations – his apparent power over his companions. Fosse is torn between a feeling of invasion and the prospect of a path towards his own escape.

Skyward Inn also has an uninvited visitor to contend with. Won is a Qitian whose arrival upsets Jem due to her apparent closeness to Isley. He shows no surprise at her presence but is concerned by her predicament. Won’s ability to travel has malfunctioned – her suit requires a replacement part. To get rid of her, Jem must take the risk of asking the law-abiding Dom for help.

“All it took was the arrival of one more Qitan and I’ve begun to separate this situation into sides. How human I am, no matter how hard I try. We residents of the Western Protectorate, setting up our boundaries, priding ourselves on not being barbaric compared to the tiny villages not a few miles away. Being human is the problem, the huge problem in a nutshell”

The story is mostly told from the points of view of Jem and Fosse. It explores how power revolves around information, and the human need to feel appreciated – to belong. There is an instinct to protect what is believed rightfully owned, be it people, property or values. There is arrogance in what is assumed to be a right, whatever the cost to other beings.

Earthlings do not understand Qitan society. The aliens are assumed to be peace loving because they did not put up a fight for Qita. This is regarded as weakness, the Quitans assumed to pose little threat to their invaders. Differing principles lead to a lackadaisical approach to finding out what is valued and why. As the truth is gradually revealed, Jem must make a difficult choice.

This is a prescient tale for a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise and historical accuracy is being questioned. It may be human instinct to fear the outsider, but change arrives whether or not it is invited.

Any Cop?: In her writing, Aliya Whiteley presents important topics to consider with the lightest of touches. This is a story to be enjoyed for its imaginative world building and development that can be mined for so much more.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: The Midnight Bargain

‘The Midnight Bargain’ is a regency romance with a fantasy and feminist twist. It makes a quick and easy read, and whilst the ideas and setting would have allowed for more depth and complexity, as it is it tells an enjoyable tale.

Beatrice Clayborn has always dreamed of being a sorceress, seeking magic in hidden grimoires and practising her art in secret. She dreads the day she’ll be married off and locked into a collar, unable to access her magic so she can safely carry children. However, her debt-ridden family have staked everything on Bargaining Season, and Beatrice must find a husband to save her family from ruin. When Beatrice stumbles across a grimoire with the key to becoming a full Magus, she thinks her troubles have finally come to an end – only for the book to be taken from her hands by Ysbeta Lavan, one of the most influential young women in town. To access the book, Beatrice and Ysbeta strike a deal – but the more Beatrice becomes entangled with Ysbeta and her handsome brother Ianthe, the more complicated her choices become.

Beatrice makes an engaging protagonist. Her forthright feminism and strong attitude makes her polarising in society but quickly wins the reader’s sympathy. She makes regular social faux pas – to the horror of her very proper younger sister Harriet – and is far too naive, but these flaws almost make her more endearing. Beatrice is clearly an intelligent woman and a powerful sorceress, but her position as an unmarried woman leaves her almost powerless, something she simultaneously rages against and is forced to submit to. The way she’s torn between warring desires is well written, with the reader feeling every inch of her frustration.

Ianthe is a very classic regency novel love interest – ridiculously wealthy, handsome, and completely besotted by the heroine. The chemistry between him and Beatrice is excellent, but there’s an element of insta-love which is frustrating. Beatrice is clever, loyal, and unintentionally hilarious with her lack of knowledge of social norms – their relationship could develop slower and more organically. Its still a sweet and believable partnership, but in many ways the romance is the weakest part of the book.

Ysbeta, on the other hand, is an excellent character, and her relationship with Beatrice is far more complex and intriguing. Ysbeta has no interest in love or romance. Beatrice has always wanted to pursue magic and therefore resigned herself to not marrying – Ysbeta, although unstated, is probably on the aromantic spectrum, and finds a joy in magic that she could never find in a relationship. Her desperation to study magic is rawer than Beatrice’s in a way Beatrice can’t quite understand. The two make a formidable team, with a heartwarming friendship – but there’s also a gulf between them, with neither quite understanding the others point of view.

The world is quite clearly regency inspired, with the magic system is worked in seamlessly. CL Polk avoids info-dumps, deftly weaving the magical elements into the overarching narrative. They also create a harsh but believable patriarchal society – at first, it can feel a bit much, but it quickly becomes apparent how such a huge divide between the genders has been created.

Overall, ‘The Midnight Bargain’ is an enjoyable fantasy romance, likely to appeal to fans of Bridgerton and similar series’. A great, uncomplicated read at the end of a long week.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 13th April 2021

Robyn Reviews: If We Were Villains

‘If We Were Villains’ is an absolutely spellbinding book. Set in the claustrophobic bubble of a class at drama college, it explores the lines between fact and fiction, right and wrong, and acting and authenticity in a complex and engrossing way. Many have touted it as the natural successor to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ – having read both, I personally believe this is better, although I imagine many will disagree. Where ‘The Secret History’ is a punch in the gut, this is more the first breath of cold air on a winter’s morning: impactful without leaving the reader feeling quite so eviscerated.

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison, having served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s greeted by none other than Detective Colborne, the man who put him in prison all those years ago. The detective is retiring, and he wants to know the truth – what really happened at Oliver’s elite conservatoire. Oliver agrees to tell his tale. Thus begins a story of a group of young actors, each with their own role both in life and on the stage, and what happens when those roles are changed.

Oliver might be touted as the protagonist, but he’s always played the supporting role. He’s a sweetheart – the glue binding his group of friends together. Naive and trusting, Oliver is blissfully unaware of most of what’s happening right under his nose – but he also has insights that others wouldn’t. Reading the novel from his perspective showcases a very different angle to most books, and whilst he can make a frustrating protagonist I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other six characters, of course, fit into the roles of a Shakespearean play. There’s Richard, the protagonist – traditionally masculine, cocky, the sort who always gets the girl. There’s Meredith, the love interest – beautiful, body confident, content to hang off Richard’s arm. There’s James, the antagonist – more delicate and effeminate than Richard, but otherwise shrouded in mystery. There’s Filippa, the supporting role – a tomboy, renowned for her versatility, but utterly forgettable because of it. There’s Alexander, the fool – a loud, flamboyant gay disaster who flirts with everyone and is always the loudest person in the room. Finally, there’s Wren, the supporting female character – slightly less seductive than Meredith but still beautiful in a quiet way.

Except, of course, they’re not just characters – they’re people, and they don’t slip into their roles as neatly as it might first seem. The protagonist isn’t always the hero. The love interest wants to be seen as more than her body. The antagonist isn’t always wrong. The forgettable character is missed when they’re not there. The fool, always laughing, isn’t always happy. The supporting character sometimes comes first. As each becomes less of the character and more the person, relationships twist, leading to unprecedented levels of damage. With the wreckage mounting, each must decide which role they actually want to play – the one they’ve been assigned, or one they craft for themselves.

This is a story about humanity. It’s about the relationships between the characters – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about what happens when actors get so deep into a character they forget how to be themselves. The plot is dark in places, but also far less important than each character and the way they interact with everyone else. There are constant references to Shakespeare, but familiarity with his work isn’t required to appreciate the intricacy and brilliance of ML Rio’s creation.

Overall, ‘If We Were Villains’ is an exceptional piece of literature – fiercely clever and lingering far beyond the last page. It will always be compared to ‘The Secret History’, but it deserves to be talked about in its own right and on its own merit. Recommended for fans of complex character dynamics, dark academia, and what humanity is capable of when left unchecked.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: June 13th 2017

Robyn Reviews: Malice

‘Malice’ is a take on the well-known fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty’, told from the point of view of the so-called villain. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, with a protagonist you sympathise with and a solid background magic system. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but for fans of fairy tale retellings it’s an entertaining read.

Alyce is the last remaining Vila, a race of monstrous creatures who terrorised the land of Briar for centuries. Abandoned in Briar by a fisherman, her power means she has been raised amongst the Graced – humans blessed by Fae magic and given gifts like Wisdom, Beauty, and Pleasure. However, her green blood and affinity for dark magic means she will only ever be the villain – the Dark Grace. That is, until she meets the Princess Aurora: the last surviving member of the Briar royal family’s bloodline, their last hope – and cursed to die aged twenty-one unless kissed by her true love. Aurora is tired of a life of kissing princes in the hope to find the one, and wants to bring change to Briar. She treats Alyce like a friend – or even something more. But can the villain of the story ever have a happy ending?

Alyce, referred to as Malyce by most of the Graced, is an excellent protagonist. Treated like a lesser person all her life for her Vila heritage, and forced to use her powers by Briar’s Grace Laws, she’s justifiably angry. She starts off terrified, beaten down by her experiences – but throughout the story, as her knowledge of her own power grows, she becomes more and more confident, blossoming into a clever, conniving, but also very caring character. Alyce isn’t evil, but circumstances have shaped her into a weapon anyway. Her feelings for Aurora are beautifully written, and their steady development feels authentic and powerful.

Aurora, on the other hand, is a beacon of confidence. As the last remaining heir, she knows exactly how much she can get away with, and stretches the boundaries as far as she can. At first, she sees Alyce as a curiosity, one more rebellion – but gradually, she starts to see the real Alyce. However, unlike Alyce, Aurora has always been relatively sheltered and privileged – and while her idealism is lovely, there will always be parts of Alyce’s life that she can’t understand. I thought this gulf in experience, and the optimism of idealism versus the desperation of lived experience, was particularly well-written, and one of the most poignant moments of the book.

The plot is relatively predictable, with betrayals and hidden powers and a usurper trying to seize power for themselves, but then this is a fairy tale retelling, and certain tropes will always exist. The ending is particularly strong. All the characters are, in different ways, very naive, so most twists are strongly foreshadowed to the reader whilst the characters remain oblivious – but it works, creating a sense of tension and anticipation as the characters stumble into entirely avoidable pitfalls.

Overall, ‘Malice’ tells a familiar tale in a fresh and intriguing way, making a basic story more powerful with the strength of its protagonist. Fans of fairy tales, and especially villain origin stories, will find plenty to like here.

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

Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 13th April 2021

Book Review: Andrea Víctrix

andrea victrix

“The excess of information made it impossible to be reliably informed about anything and every citizen would have required the talents of a Sherlock Holmes to make out the truth from the chaos and misrepresentation on all sides.”

Andrea Víctrix, by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), was first published in Catalan in 1974. It is set in an imagined future, 2050, when Palma Mallorca has been renamed the Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – Turclub for short. The narrator of the story was in his sixties in 1965 when he opted to begin a cryo-cure. His doctor told him he would come round 85 years later looking 30 years younger. Unlike many, he survived the process but then had to face a world that had changed radically.

He discovers that the political and economic superpowers of old are gone. America and Russia annihilated each other – a mutual unleashing of their nuclear arsenals. The United States of Europe rose up in their wake, exterminating many of the remaining Asian nations. The State is all powerful.

Citizens are now forbidden to form families or have children. Procreation occurs in central facilities that produce only the types of people deemed necessary. Any form of emotional attachment is punished. Gender must never be referred to – this is now regarded as insulting. The ideal is to keep it ambiguous, sometimes achieved surgically. Drugs are available for any sensation desired.

“Our world was founded on the dissolution of the family and so it was essential that love became independent from sex and lost any connection with such an incredibly dangerous concept as intimacy.”

Life revolves around consumption and pleasure. Ubiquitous advertising berates those who do not have the latest fridges and vacuum cleaners, even though housing is mostly tiny, food requiring preservation scarce, and constant purchasing leads to permanent debt. Pleasure increasingly proves elusive, with moral and ethical standards subverted. Individual lives have no value. Consensual violence is rife.

“without sentiment, pleasure was so slight that it must necessarily lead to tedium and aberration.”

The story opens with the narrator, released only a few hours previously from the casket of his cryo-cure, travelling at speed in a car driven by Andrea Víctrix. He is shocked when she (he assumes Andrea is female but his choice of pronoun causes offense) deliberately collides with pedestrians and is then rewarded for doing so. To take his mind off his obvious discomfort, she gives him drugs.

The world he now views has become synthetic. Food is in short supply so is supplemented by chemically enhanced substances that are barely edible. People live with the cacophony of propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers and on radios they are required to buy.

“Secular propaganda is less scrupulous than its religious equivalent, and this is aggravated by the fact that those behind it know they have no absolute truths to draw on. Such knowledge ought to make them question everything like Socrates, but instead it makes them stubborn and disingenuous as Xanthippe. This is what we have come to know as practical sense and cunning.”

Requiring an income, the narrator enquires about employment. It is suggested he become a performer such as an acrobat or dancer. Entertaining others – giving pleasure – is regarded as a worthwhile calling. Daring feats are undertaken in front of an audience, often by young children made carefree by drugs. Death regularly results from such risk taking and nobody cares.

Unhappy with his prospects, the narrator recalls a recent visit made to a bath house. These offer sex or violence – the two often overlapping. He discovers that Andrea, the teenage Head of the Bureau of Pleasure, is a high class prostitute. Her job requires her to entertain wealthy tourists, to submit to whatever deviances they desire.

“Industrializing the masses and exciting them with heady, coarse pleasures, the panem et circenses of ancient Rome.”

Regular drug taking shortens lives but people are disposable. What is marketed as for the collective good underpins decision making and is seemingly accepted by the masses. The health of the economy is regarded as more important than the health of consumers, who can easily be replaced.

“This is why we encourage pleasure and debauchery, but without focusing on a particular person, and without making distinctions between the sexes.”

The world building and story telling appear secondary to the opinions the author weaves into the tale. While there are obvious flaws with the way Turclub is run, he points out the similarities with contemporary arguments for changes in what is regarded as acceptable. He has picked up recent adjustments to moral and ethical ideas and run with them to extreme.

The State places faith in scientific progress, where only a specialist few understand the intricacies and potential repercussions. This is likened to faith in geography. To explain, there is a belief that Greenland exists despite most never having been there. If taken to a frozen landmass, few would know how to use the instruments necessary to prove it was Greenland. People largely swallow what they are told if it is repeated often enough and supported by peers.

“Progress cannot be stopped”

Described as part essay, the portrayal of this dystopia and its citizens explores meaty issues. The author uses the story as a device for expanding his discourse on state coercion – how the public comes to accept what would once have been recognised and rejected as socially and individually damaging. The narrative can be shocking, the point being to raise awareness of the irony in what can come to appear normal, how opinions can be changed by indoctrination. The State survives only when its population acquiesces.

The writing style is engaging if didactic in places. Although published half a century ago, what is portrayed has proved prescient. It is pointed out that when those in power fall, what rises from the ashes may be no better.

A fascinating work of fiction that is both thought-provoking and disquieting. A reminder of the importance of critical thinking when considering widely promoted changes in attitude that are supposedly for the common good.

Book Review: Every Seventh Wave

every seventh wave

“To live on the edge of things, he thought. To meeting of two worlds, a liminal frontier, from known to unknown”

Every Seventh Wave, by Tom Vowler, tells the story of Hallam, a middle-aged man recently released from prison. He is living in the crumbling remains of his old family home on a sea-facing cliff in the far south-west of England. The tale opens with him watching a woman enter the water at dusk and disappear below the surface. He rushes to her aid, thereby setting off a series of events that will change the trajectory of his reclusive existence.

The woman, Anca, is a teenager from Romania. She claims to have no family or friends for Hallam to contact and appears in no hurry to leave the shelter he reluctantly offers her. Hallam’s life has been shadowed by loss, everyone he ever cared for leaving him. As the days pass he finds it hard not to daydream of a future that includes Anca as his willing companion.

Hallam’s backstory is revealed slowly, in snippets and then detail. His family moved to the house on the cliff when he was an adolescent, running it as a guest house. Hallam and his older brother, Blue, struggled to fit in with the local teenagers. Blue was always seeking adventure, unafraid to take risks and encouraging Hallam to follow him. Their parents’ marriage was not a happy one and the boys sought escape from the atmosphere this generated.

Another thread in the story is the horror of human trafficking. The reader will learn of the trade in people and how victims are coerced and kept compliant. The gangs running such operations understand how to remain beyond the powers of law enforcement. Amongst themselves disputes are resolved with pitiless violence.

The starkness and venerable power of the setting are evoked with skill and depth. Complexities of character are recognised, with the reader trusted to see beyond what is narrated. The writing is spare yet lyrical despite the harrowing subjects dealt with. The tension built into the denouement had me gasping for air.

It was this that made me appreciate more deeply the scenes where Anca faces the prospect of drowning. Each of the characters is, in a way, caught in the riptide of the life they have ended up with. The author is uncompromising in his portrayal of the consequences of choices made; the waves keep coming whatever breakers are built.

A disturbing yet satisfying tale that both appals with its harsh truths and engages the reader. An impressive and affecting story that I recommend.

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

Book Review: Gone

“Never underestimate mankind’s capacity for mindless destruction.”

In recent months I have read several articles in the mainstream media that suggest human fertility could make reproduction difficult within a generation (e.g. here). Having read Gone, by Michael Blencowe, it is hard to mourn this potential issue. Throughout his existence man has been a scourge on our amazing planet, wiping out entire populations of his fellow creatures seemingly without caring about the carnage and suffering thereby caused.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each focusing on a species that is now extinct, often because man discovered it existed. The creatures were slaughtered: for food, for wealth, for science. Where their natural habitat contained no predators, man’s arrival introduced them. Although often passing through – seeking food and trophies – if man stayed then his desire for settlement and agricultural land further destroyed ecosystems that had previously supported healthy populations of diverse wildlife. If money could be made this was regarded as reason enough for decimation.

The supposed great naturalists of past centuries, whose interest in science was lauded as a step forward in human understanding, were often culprits in destroying that which they studied.

“Like any great naturalist of his era, he carried with him the two qualities required for such an expedition: an enquiring mind and a big gun.”

Chapter One explains how thriving colonies of great auks were wiped out. The account is horrific and heartbreaking. Subsequent chapters continue in this vein proving that extinction was not a concern if riches and renown could be obtained. A good number of natural history museums around the world were founded on collections created by zoologists and other wealthy scientists, from specimens brought to them by bounty hunters. All that is left now of many magnificent species is skin and bones stored in drawers and display cases.

As well as travelling to the last known habitats of extinct species, the author visits the museums that hold what remains of them. He talks to the curators and is granted access to rare body parts, learning more about their history and the species’ demise.

“I look again to the animals whose lives I had followed and with whom I had felt an unexpected affinity. But all I see now are bones, feathers and fur, the sad remains of the worlds extinct creatures, taxidermy testaments to the havoc we have wreaked upon the world.”

The writing style makes this an easy book to read; the subject matter is harder to digest. Beautiful and evocative illustrations of the eleven creatures focused on – artwork by Jade They – help bring to life what has been lost. It is a cry to do better.

 “On 6 May 2019, scientists from the United Nations gathered in Paris to announce the findings of a global study on biodiversity, concluding that 1 million of the world’s estimated 8 million species now face extinction, many within decades.”

“The driving forces behind these extinctions are changes in land and sea use, hunting and poaching, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.”

It seems that man has learned nothing from his past wanton destruction – and continues apace.

Although upsetting to consider, if a book such as this can touch readers and drive a change of attitude it will have served its purpose. Sadly, I question if mankind is intelligent enough to fathom fully how this planet – our life support system – is being damaged by our actions. Unlike many of the creatures we have driven to extinction – peaceful and curious, unable to comprehend the danger posed by man – we have some awareness, yet continue.

Will we be willing to change how we behave when to do so may make our day to day lives less congenial? An evocative, disturbing, recommended read.

sea cow

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

Robyn Reviews: All the Murmuring Bones

‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a beautifully atmospheric tale, winding folklore and fantasy together to create something dark and gothic. There are family secrets, lapsed bargains, a crumbling fortune – and at the heart of it all, a young woman who just wants to be free. The tale winds slowly, filled with lingering descriptions, painting a vivid picture tinged with the salt of the sea.

Miren’s grandmother, Aoife, is the last of the O’Malley’s – a family who prospered due to a bargain struck with the mer. All their ships would have safe passage across the sea in return for one child sacrificed per generation. However, pride in the bloodline has become their downfall – generations of intermarriage have left producing enough healthy children impossible, with Aoife only able to bare one child. With the bargain broken, the legacy is collapsing: the O’Malley fortune has dwindled to nothing. Miren is left to bare the burden of the family misfortune. Trapped by her grandmother’s scheming, Miren desperately seeks a way out – but in a family full of secrets, there’s only so far she can go.

Miren makes an excellent protagonist. Shrewd and determined, she fights for what she wants the quiet way – biding her time, outwardly appearing to acquiesce whilst secretly gathering information and plotting her next move. She’s spent her entire life under her grandmother’s thumb, experiencing cool disinterest rather than warm affection – but she loves her family, and wars with contrasting desires to protect the family legacy and tear down every root of it. She has her weaknesses – but she knows them, every last flaw, and she turns them into weapons. Miren might not outwardly seem like the most special or talented woman, but if there’s someone you don’t want as your enemy then it’s her.

The writing takes a little time to adjust to, but once it draws you in it’s exquisite. The first chapters are packed with dense descriptions, and the plot ambles around them like a man picking his way through the fog – but eventually, the book ensnares you and leaves you enraptured. This is very much a novel about atmosphere rather than plot. The story is solid – an arranged marriage in exchange for a fortune, a secret kept for decades, a journey full of magical creatures and ethereal encounters – but not what lingers. Instead, it’s the eerie images of mer watching on from the sea, witches hiding behind herbs and smiles, ghosts of abandoned cottages preying on weary travellers, that make this book what it is.

There’s also an element of story within a story. The O’Malleys have a book of stories, passed down through generations. There are tales of dealing with the mer, of selkies giving up their pelts, of witchcraft and herblore and – above all – the importance of family. It’s never clear how much is fact and how much fiction, but Miren grew up with these stories and remembers them in times of hardship. They’re a source of comfort – the O’Malleys are children of the sea, and the sea protects its own. Each story is as beautiful as the tale which contains them, and they add a wonderful extra element.

The main weakness ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ has is the same thing which creates its lingering atmosphere, and that’s the descriptions. It takes a long time to get past the pages and pages of description and settle into the story, and even once there, it can detract from key moments of the plot. Personally, I found this a very minor thing – the writing is beautiful, and I adore books which create an atmosphere – but I suspect some readers will find it too slow going and tedious. If you’re the sort of reader who wants action to create tension, this isn’t the book for you.

Overall, ‘All the Murmuring Bones’ is a delightfully gothic tale that would feel right at home in a book of fairytales from several centuries ago. Recommended for fans of eerie stories and classical folklore: especially those which focus on the quiet power of women who have been wronged.

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

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th April 2021

Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in Japan in the years just after the Second World War – which ended with the country’s surrender. It is narrated by Masuji Ono, a widower with two grown up daughters. His only son died in the hostilities. Resulting changes in the country are a challenge for the older generation as they watch their offspring embrace more western ideals.

Ono is a retired artist who trained with traditional painters – producing works featuring geishas and hostesses visited in the pleasure district. He and his fellow students indulged in the drink, drugs and sex on offer. He came to prominence, however, when he changed his style to support the rise of militarism. He wished to highlight the injustices wreaked by wealthy businessmen and their puppet politicians.

“In the Asian hemisphere, Japan stands like a giant amidst cripples and dwarfs. And yet we allow our people to grow more and more desperate, our little children to die of malnutrition. Meanwhile the businessmen get richer and the politicians forever make excuses and chatter. Can you imagine any of the Western powers allowing such a situation?”

Ono subsequently enjoyed influence and respect, particularly from his own students. He advised those now in power – regarded as loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. This went against the views of many of his peers who believed art should focus on beauty – not be political. Ono wished to make a difference through his work,.

“a patriotic spirit began somewhere further back, in the routine of our daily lives, in such things as where we drank and who we mixed with”

Under the new regime, traditional pleasure seeking came to be frowned upon. Changes were enforced and Ono approved.

“the new spirit of Japan was not incompatible with enjoying oneself: that is to say, there was no reason why pleasure-seeking had to go hand in hand with decadence.”

Following the war what had seemed to him a step forward for his country is viewed, particularly by the younger generation, as traitorous. The previously respected elders are blamed for sending young men to their deaths needlessly. Ono is trying to arrange a marriage for his younger daughter. He comes to believe that his prior actions could scupper her chances.

The bones of the story are Ono’s interactions with his daughters as the marriage negotiations proceed. His elder daughter is already married with a young son, her husband changed by his own war experience. Both daughters now treat their father with thinly veiled disdain. As Ono considers their interactions he thinks back on key moments in his past, his life story revealing the changes Japan has gone through over just a few decades. He went against the wishes of his parents in pursuing his career as an artist. Now his daughters are behaving in ways that do not respect him.

The rigid manners considered polite in Japanese society colour all conversations. On the surface are the endless self-effacing compliments and apologies, false laughter a device to mask criticism. Ono tries to unpick meaning from his recollections. He is an old man assessing the worth of his life’s work, ascribing value that others may not now agree with.

The author captures Japanese society in both style and substance. The tale is written to portray the nuances of interactions, the grudges held and pride felt that cannot be displayed. The changes in the pleasure district over the years reflect the changes Ono must deal with personally. Although very much a story of Japan, it is also a story of the decline of influence that comes with age.

The story is delicately wrought, fine brush strokes revealing surprising depth. There is much to think on – of societal change and aging. Although offering much to commend, the ponderous pace detracted somewhat from fully enjoying the read.

An Artist of the Floating World is published by Faber & Faber.