Book Review: Larchfield

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, is an intricately constructed tale of the devastating impact of prejudice and hate. Set over two distinct yet entwined time periods, it introduces the reader to two young poets – Wystan Auden and Dora Fielding. Both have recently had their debut collections accepted for publication but, for personal reasons, have left the supportive circle of the Oxford literary elite to live in the Scottish coastal town of Helensburgh.

The book opens in 1930 when Wystan travels north to take up a post teaching English and French at a small boarding school for boys, named Larchfield. His part in the tale is loosely based on known facts. The reader will know him as W.H. Auden and he wrote The Orators during the two years he spent in this place. The poem is a meditation on paranoia and repression set in Helensburgh. The author also lives here and mined her experiences to portray the suspicion with which those regarded as outsiders are treated.

Alternate chapters follow modern day Dora, recently married and expecting her first child, who moves to a seafront apartment constructed when a large house, once owned by a wealthy shipbuilder, was divided up into more affordable living spaces. Dora’s husband, Kit, was raised in Scotland and has an involving job as an architect so is easily accepted. Bereft of her friends and facing the challenges of new motherhood, Dora struggles with the local’s expectations of how she should behave.

Kit and Dora live below an elderly couple, Mo and Terence, who are popular members of the community and church. Dora finds her neighbours’ blatant antagonism difficult to bear. Kit is sympathetic but believes his wife is over reacting. When the health professionals also berate her, making thinly veiled threats for the choices she makes in caring for her child, Dora seeks solace in escape.

Wystan is barely coping with the legally required suppression of his desires. He visits a good friend in Berlin where their lifestyle is overlooked, but in early 1930s Germany this is about to change. The consequences when an individual will not conform to what an intolerant society considers necessary for the wider good has been proven to be devastating.

The comparative similarities in how Wystan and Dora are treated will be recognisable to any modern mother, as will Kit’s assumptions that his wife’s complaints are overplayed. When both protagonists refuse to back down and act as is demanded, the ramifications, although shocking, seem inevitable.

Like its protagonists, this is a book that does not conform to a standard. The originality is never a challenge as the prose is so satisfying to read. I felt Wystan and Dora’s pain and frustration, their determination to remain true to themselves. As Dora realised early on, belonging requires giving up something of self.

“Dora suspected she had probably never belonged anywhere […] while many thought her shy and brainy to the point of passionlessness, they were wrong. There had been love affairs […] These had always fallen apart at the point where she was expected somehow to change, to accommodate them in some profound way. She never wanted to, enough, and they certainly seemed to have no notion of accommodating her, and her need to scribble and read.”

The plot threads are intense but also entertaining. The writing throughout is utterly captivating. I enjoyed everything about this book but especially how it made me think and feel. It is a literary depth charge that I recommend you read.

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

Book Review: An Ounce of Practice

This review was written for and first posted on Bookmunch.

Leo Zeilig’s An Ounce of Practice is a sweeping exploration of human connections and a search for meaning beyond mere existence. It is a journey driven by sex, politics and idealism. The flawed characters are radicals fighting for personal freedom and a better way of living. They are striving for a Promised Land, unable to be present and satisfied, unwilling to accept.

The protagonist is Viktor, a member of the teaching staff at a London University where he is prevaricating over completing his PhD. Viktor struggles with his everyday situation and seeks a cause to champion. Having befriended members of the outsourced cleaning staff, many of whom are illegals, he becomes involved in their campaign for worker’s rights. His contribution is to document their protests on his blog.

Through these workplace connections Viktor is put in touch with a group of resistance fighters in Zimbabwe and acquires an interest in their struggle. Eventually he will be coerced into visiting, to gain his ‘ounce of practice’.

In London, Viktor lives with Nina. They embarked on a passionate love affair but soon grew discontented. Viktor has detached himself from Nina’s attempts to facilitate understanding of her needs, leading to rows that drain his energy. Despite moments of clarity when he recognises his flaws they serve only to pull him further into self-contemplation. For all his efforts to make a positive difference in the world, his focus remains on himself. Even their daughter, whom Viktor adores, struggles to maintain his attention.

When Viktor travels to Harare he is perturbed by the crumbling infrastructure and disparate living conditions. He joins a small group of socialists who eagerly pontificate on revolution. He meets NGOs enjoying their pampered lifestyle whilst ‘helping’ poverty stricken locals. He is told of the former socialists who gained power but then grew out of touch, travelling the world fund-raising, always business class.

The sweeping narrative can at times feel bogged down in the details of the radicals’ polemic. It is worth wading through these sections for when the pace once again picks up. The section set in Bulawayo is tense and pivotal, although does little to improve Viktor’s naval gazing and insatiable need for affirmation.

Viktor is not the only conundrum. Biko, the cogent student radical, the future hero of the movement, trades the fine jacket his dying mother worked and saved for a year to buy for a few moments on a sofa with a girl. Details are shared of sweat, phlegm, mucus and semen. The reader is offered little respite from the messiness of being alive.

Although this is partly a tale of a white man’s attempts to save Africans, there is no glossing over the locally endemic corruption. Easy answers do not exist for a problem centuries in the making.

Their flaws may make many of the characters difficult to like but they add depth to the complex personal and political situations.

Any Cop?: There is little to raise the spirits in this tale despite the many well meaning efforts. What it does provide is rich food for thought.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices, by Philip Reeve, is the third book in the author’s Predator Cities Quartet. This is a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at young adults but enjoyable for all competent readers. I reviewed the first two books here and here.

In this instalment, Tom and Hester have settled in the now static city of Anchorage where it came to rest on the Dead Continent, presumed sunk by all who knew of its existence. Their daughter, Wren, was born here and has known nothing but a peaceful if rather lonely existence in her fifteen years. Having grown up listening to the tales of her parents’ adventures she dreams of experiencing some excitement for herself.

Caul, the former Lost Boy, inadvertently presents her with opportunity when she stumbles across a secret meeting he attends in the dead of night. She turns thief in exchange for passage away, but when events turn deadly, ends up being sold as a slave.

Appalled by this unexpected reminder of their past, Tom and Hester set out to rescue their child. Assuming that she will have been taken to the Lost Boys’ hidden headquarters at Grimsby, Caul goes with them. He wishes to be reunited with Uncle, the closest he has ever had to a parent. This desire the young burglars feel to belong to a mum or dad has been their undoing. Wren is not the only freshly captured slave.

The action moves to the pleasure city of Brighton where the wily Pennyroyal continues to spin his web of deceit. Unbeknownst to all, just as Tom and Hester launch their rescue attempt, powerful forces are about to be unleashed. The Green Storm has set its sights on Brighton, although its stalker leader is not telling her minions why.

As with the previous two books, there is plenty of action and many imaginative contraptions that playfully mock the terms and technology we enjoy today. Beneath this humour lies an unavoidable dark truth, that man’s greed, selfishness and lust for power overrides any semblance of sense.

An entertaining romp that plays fast and loose with coincidence, bravery and luck, not that this detracts from the enjoyment of the tale. Amidst the carnage there lies much for the reader to consider. A fun but also poignant read.

Book Review: Six Stories

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Six Stories, by Matt Wesolowski, is a murder mystery told in the form of transcripts from a series of podcasts. This original construction took some getting used to, perhaps because I do not choose to listen to the popular broadcast medium. I am not a fan of audio or visual discussion or reporting, also eschewing vlogs and their ilk. I prefer to savour the written word, which to be fair is exactly what is offered here.

The tale is told in the six broadcast episodes. To be more precise, the same tale is told from six differing perspectives. The concept for these podcasts is that the reader (listener) should be offered up the facts of a now forgotten, never fully explained controversial incident and then be left to make up their own mind as to what actually happened. In this way it is similar to recent TV programmes such as Making a Murderer – which I watched a few times before growing bored with the repetition. Six Stories also contains repetition but, despite this, the author has succeeded in maintaining the intrigue and tension. Its approach reminded me of local gossip, where behaviour is dissected and judged based on personal prejudices and ideals.

The incident being investigated is the unexplained death of a fifteen year old boy, Tom Jeffries, who disappeared twenty years ago whilst away from home on an informal outward bound type weekend. His badly decomposed body was discovered after a year by a group of twenty-something year old privileged young men, one of whose father still owns the land.

Tom had been one of a group of five teenagers who had been regular visitors to the area, Scarclaw Fell, which harbours the raft of spooky myths common for an isolated location. The young people are tracked down by the podcast maker and interviewed, along with family members, former teachers and local residents, to determine if the interactions and dynamics within the group could shed light on what happened so long ago.

What they relate of the trips away is that the adults believed they were enabling the supposedly sensible teenagers to enjoy healthy, outdoor pursuits while the youngsters took the freedom granted as an opportunity to ingest copious quantities of alcohol and other drugs. There were the usual plays for power and some all too typical bullying.

“You see, the thing is, unless you’ve been on the other end of bullying, you don’t really know how much these smaller things can affect you. People’s perception of bullying is still so archaic or cliched: the ‘give us your dinner money’ schoolyard stuff, or else the ‘OMG you’re so ugly’ stuff online. [] bullied [] in a professional way. […] It’s the little things – the name-calling, the comments, the giggles when your back’s turned. That’s how the professionals do it. Like water-torture, or death by a thousand cuts. ‘Professional’ bullies crush your soul a sliver at a time.”

The alphas were mimicked by those who admired them and had yet to find their own niche, something recognised and derided by their peers.

“He didn’t have any personality of his own. He borrowed everything.”

The background and exploits shared demonstrate how self-absorbed and fickle memory can be. I did wonder why these now settled thirty-five year olds, who no longer interact, would agree to talk to someone about their teenage high jinks – which are always likely to contain embarrassing details – knowing that they will then be publicly shared. However, the popular and enigmatic investigator has a reputation for presenting his findings without the usual edits and distortions. He creates a compelling story, although if other media outlets take an interest the risk of public judgement and condemnation for the participants is only likely to increase.

There is much to be said for presenting a murder mystery in an original format and I was quickly drawn into this tale. The denouement was unexpected with a few threads left for the reader to interpret. Just as the podcasts were designed to encourage discussion amongst listeners, so the tale raises issues it would be interesting to further consider. With this in mind, it would be a perfect choice for a Book Group.

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

This review is a stop on the Six Stories Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below. 

Six Stories is published by Orenda Books.

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Book Review: Say Nothing

Say Nothing, by Brad Parks, is a crime thriller written from the point of view of an unusual protagonist – an American federal judge. These powerful justices are appointed for life, unless deemed unfit for the role due to breaking their oath of impartiality and fairness under the law. They may sentence as they consider appropriate. Rulings may be grumbled about but are rarely questionned.

The Honorable Scott Sampson enjoys the privileges of his elevated position to the full. He can take time out every Wednesday afternoon to go swimming with his children, six year old twins, Sam and Emma. Their home is a secluded farmhouse on the banks of the Chesapeake river with a broad swathe of woodland protecting them from public roads. His beautiful wife, Alison, holds down a challenging and worthy job working with children too intellectually disabled to attend mainstream schools. A foreign student, Justina, provides childcare in exchange for accommodation in a cottage on their land.

The story opens on a swimming day. Scott receives a text from his wife to tell him the twins have a doctor’s appointment so she will collect them from school. That evening, when she returns home, she is alone. They get a call informing them that if they ever wish to see their children again they must follow instructions that will be sent regarding a case due before the judge the next day. They are to say nothing to anyone about what is happening. If the kidnappers even suspect that they have sought help they will start chopping off the children’s body parts.

Scott feels that he has no choice but to comply. He also understands that he is only useful to these criminals if he can retain his position. Thus begins an intricate web of deception during which he must convince his colleagues that he is fit for his role whilst obeying the diktats being sent to him. Always he is trying to work out who is behind this nightmare scenario, and how to reach an end game that will see his kids returned to him unscathed.

The pressure Scott is under throughout is well evoked. He scrutinises everyone he knows in a desperate attempt to uncover how the kidnappers acquired access to his family along with a wealth of private information. His marriage is put under strain as he and Alison each suspect the other of indiscretions. At work his unusual behaviour must be convincingly explained.

The reader is offered snippets of what is happening to the twins but the mystery is what final outcome the kidnappers desire and why. Seen through Scott’s eyes, trusting anyone becomes a challenge. The pace of this unusual crime thriller gradually increases towards a shocking denouement.

Although there are cliches within the story – a picture perfect wider family, male ‘banter’, a beautiful wife, a professionally successful man who still finds time for his young children – the strength of the writing took me beyond these and wound me in. This was an engaging and pacy thriller. A fine UK debut for an author I would happily read again.

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

Book Review: Predator’s Gold

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Predator’s Gold, by Philip Reeve, is the second instalment in the author’s quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. Aimed at young adults, the story is set in a post apocalyptic Earth, ravaged by a Sixty-Minute War which caused massive geological upheaval. I review the first in the series, Mortal Engines, here.

Two years after their escape from the Medusa disaster, Tom and Hester are travelling the Bird Roads in their airship, the Jenny Haniver, ferrying cargo between remote cities. Whilst on a stop at an airborne trading post they are offered a substantial fee for transporting a passenger, a task they would not normally undertake. The journey turns troubling when they are pursued by a recently formed band of radical Anti-Tractionists, the Green Storm, who wish to reclaim the Jenny Haniver. It had belonged to one of their most revered members who is now dead.

The subsequent dogfight damages the airship forcing our trio to put down on Anchorage, a peaceful traction city that has been ravaged by plague. Its ruling Magravine, a teenager named Freya, is still finding her way as leader following the deaths of her parents. Bound by tradition she is reluctant to mix with the visiting ‘tramp avaiators’, but when she discovers that their passenger is the renowned author and historian, Professor Nimrod Pennyroyal, she grants them an audience.

Freya is immediately drawn to the handsome Tom. When he mentions that he trained as an historian on his home city of London she offers him a job at her personal museum. Tom is tempted, and Hester is incensed. Her disfigurment has sapped her self-confidence, but she will not give up her beloved without attempting to reclaim his affections.

Unbeknownst to all aboard, Anchorage is playing host to other visitors. Hidden within the bowels of the city are a team of Lost Boys, and their spy cameras enable them to watch everyone.

In the world of Municiple Darwinism, where resources are uncreasingly scarce, loyalty is a luxury few possess. Anchorage is at risk from bigger cities who covet its innovative propulsion system. The Green Storm are intent on acquiring the Jenny Haniver. And for reasons few comprehend, a price has been put on Hester and Tom’s heads. When Hester’s jealousy mars her judgement, and the truth about Pennyroyal is revealed, personal interests clash leading to powerful forces being unleashed.

This is an action adventure story set in a wondrously imaginative world. The author pokes fun at contempoary elements and our attitude to history whilst offering battles reminiscent of Robot Wars but on a huge scale. Characters are believably fallible with their ingrained prejudices and blinkered fight for self-preservation. The damage and death count may be high, but this remains a rollicking read.