Robyn Reviews: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Book Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who emigrates to America. In the 1950s there were few opportunities for employment in Ireland. Eilis’s three brothers have already moved to England. Her sister, Rose, has kept the family afloat since their father died four years ago. Eilis is content to remain in the small town where she was born and raised but Rose wants more for her sister, recognising her intelligence. She approaches a visiting priest from Brooklyn and he agrees to sponsor Eilis and look out for her as needed.

Thus Eilis leaves her mother and sister in the family home to sail across the Atlantic aboard a crowded liner. She will be employed in a department store, all arranged by the priest. At night she takes classes in accountancy and book keeping – as she did in Ireland – hoping that one day she may work in an office rather than on a shop floor. She lives in a boarding house with six other women, including the strict, Irish landlady.

Although homesick, Eilis recognises that she has no choice for now and must make the most of this new life. When the priest decides to organise weekly dances to raise funds for the church, she goes along to support the venture. Here she is noticed by a young Italian man – finally she has events to look forward to.

The crisis in the tale occurs within Eilis’s family back in Ireland. She returns for a visit that she ends up lengthening. Just as she was sent to America without much discussion, now she finds her life being managed for her once again. She must decide what she actually wants – a choice between two very different but equally appealing futures.

Stories that feature a cast of ordinarily decent, consistently hard-working people are a rarity on my bookshelves. The characters conjured here are far from perfect – there is a degree of bitching at the boarding house and racism is rife, as was typical for the time. Nevertheless, Eilis is well supported in all her trials and endeavours. Even the Catholic Church is depicted positively.

The writing is deft and engaging. Difficulties are presented lightly, Eilis’s character and ambitions driving the narrative. Both small town Ireland and the immigrant communities in Brooklyn are evocatively portrayed. Eilis appears comfortable with the narrowness of her existence, mostly conforming to expectations.

An agreeable read albeit one that offered little memorable tension. Likely to appeal to those who enjoy tales of nice things happening to a nice girl.

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

Book Review: Astragal

Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate), is described as a semi-autobiographical novel written when the author was in prison. This edition opens with an introduction by Patti Smith for whom the story held particular resonance. Patti researched the author, who died in 1967 ‘just shy of her thirtieth birthday’. She also read up on the translator, offering insight into the damaged people who created what is regarded as a ‘lost classic of 60s French literature’.

“My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps.”

I opened these pages with high expectations of a tale that would touch my core and leave me sated. I was disappointed.

The protagonist is a young girl, Anne, who in escaping prison – where she is serving a seven year sentence for armed robbery – breaks her ankle. She is rescued from the roadside – where she crawls – by an ex-con named Julien, who still makes his living by nefarious means. Over many months he hides Anne at various locations without and within Paris, paying well for her board and keep. Anne falls in love with Julien but must live with his peripatetic lifestyle, never knowing when he will show up for his short visits.

For much of the time covered, Anne is crippled by her injury. Frustrated by her reliance on others, she soon grows tired of each hideout Julien arranges. She spends her days smoking and drinking, often having to avoid the sexual advances of those she must share a roof with. When she can finally walk again, she gains a degree of independence by turning to prostitution.

Anne is tiny in stature but feisty, a teenager used to looking out for herself. She has no wish to remain beholden to Julien, but longs for him to choose to be with her above the other women he admits to consorting with. The world they move in is shady, a need to survive overcoming scruples many take for granted. Anne is favoured by the men she encounters. This is disturbing given her childlike demeanour.

The writing is succinct and engaging but I found the characters unappealing. The depiction of their lives was of interest but there seemed little hope or desire for anything more edifying. The love story at its heart appeared naive given the experiences of the subjects and the hustles they accepted. The denouement seemed fitting after the risks taken.

I may have enjoyed the story more had my expectations not been raised by other readers. Perhaps it will appeal to those who itch for vicarious risk, for whom precariousness generates adrenaline rather than anxiety. Anne and Julien were habitual and willing criminals. Reasons for the choices they made were glossed over making it harder to empathise with the lack of care shown for their victims.

A different side of Paris to that normally idealised by artists, especially the literati. Not a book I regret reading but one I am unlikely to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, as part of a giveaway.

Book Review: Brood

Brood, by Jackie Polzin, is a story that blends the joys and challenges of hen keeping with the evolving experiences of a middle aged woman living in Minnesota, USA. It is a bittersweet tale but never cloying in its depiction of life and loss. The writing is honest and to the point, a clear eyed take on the curveballs to be dealt with as time goes by. A hen keeper myself, I found the observations of the feathered ladies delightful. The author has captured the essence of the relationship formed when a small number of birds are kept, ostensibly for eggs, not quite pets but still individually cared for.

The nameless narrator is married to Percy, an academic. They have kept four hens in their back garden for the past four years. When the tale opens, Percy has applied for a job at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. If he is offered the position, the hens will have to be rehomed.

Through the bitter cold of winter, into spring and then the heat of summer, the challenge is to keep the hens alive.

“Life is the ongoing effort to live. Some people make it look easy.”

“The chickens don’t care about my gestures toward life in a traditional sense, but most of the time they don’t die, which is the most primitive form of gratitude.”

As well as caring for her home and hens, the narrator works as a cleaner. Her friend, Helen, is a real estate agent and needs properties polished to a shine to create the best impression for potential buyers. The narrator finds this work soothing, despite the memories it evokes of a terrible event suffered while doing the job several years ago. In certain important aspects, her life has not gone in the direction she desired and envisaged.

Chapters are kept short and direct offering snapshots of the narrator’s day to day life and her thoughts on issues she is faced with. The reader is offered glimpses of friends, neighbours, the narrator’s mother, and Percy. Readers will also get to know the personalities of the four hens.

“While there is no agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

It would be easy to seek out metaphors from the behaviour of the hens in this story but I preferred to read it as a straightforward depiction of the woman’s life and its constraints. She is practical and rarely prone to emotional outbursts. She feels deeply but is accepting of what she cannot change.

There is a recollection in the book that particularly resonated. The narrator views a painting in an art gallery that she had seen several years previously but reacted to quite differently then. It offered a reminder that the lens through which we look at the world will always be coloured by ongoing personal experience, that little of what we do or say can ever be entirely objective.

Although lightly told there is a depth of feeling in the quirky yet accomplished writing that held my attention and made me care. The shadow of sadness in the narrator’s life is just one facet of the many practicalities she must deal with. The strength and calm acceptance she digs down for, to live in the moment as her hens do, is a quality I can admire.

An enjoyable read albeit one tinged by loss and the lasting impact of grief. The hens add heart and humour, as they do in real life.

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

Robyn Reviews: Sistersong

‘Sistersong’ is the story of three siblings – Keyne, Riva, and Sinne – born to the King of Dumnonia in the early 5th century AD. It’s a very classic historical fantasy, creating a wonderful sense of time and place whilst also spinning an engaging tale of magic and identity. It starts slowly, but the second half is a fast-moving adventure that’s difficult to put down.

Dumnonia in 535 AD was an area of South-West Britain covering most of modern Devon and parts of Cornwall and Somerset. The Kingdom was created by the departure of the Romans – but they left a fragmented and divided land. In ‘Sistersong’, King Cador of Dumnonia has turned away from his peoples traditional gods and magics and instead towards Roman Christianity, weakening their natural defences. The result is famine, and growing terror at the threat of the Wessex Saxons on their borders. Amidst this uncertainty, Keyne tries to navigate a world in which he is persistently forced to be a woman, rather than the man he knows he is. Riva, badly burnt and disfigured in a terrible fire, worries that she will never heal. And Sinne, the youngest daughter, yearns for a romantic tale of adventure and love, willing to sacrifice anything for her own desires. As new faces and old friends gather at the Dumnonian stronghold, the siblings clash, grappling with their warring desires – and with the Dumnonian magic, their bloodline and birthright, perhaps the only way they can save their people from Saxon rule.

Keyne is by far the strongest character in the book. His struggles with his identity are powerful to read about, and he’s a determined, feisty character, always fighting against perceived injustice and mistakes. His actions can be selfish, but his intentions are always good, and he deeply cares about his land and his people. His relationship with Myrddhin, his mentor, is absolutely fantastic, and later on he has the sweetest friendship-to-romance arc – lovely to read about, especially for a transgender character in historical fiction.

Riva’s journey also starts strongly. Her place in society, as a woman and the daughter of the king, has always been to marry well and carry children – but thanks to being badly burnt by wildfire, she no longer believes herself desirable enough to do her duty. She’s also a healer, saving many of her people from death – yet she cannot heal herself. Her grapples with identity, whilst very different to Keyne’s, are equally moving. However, her story becomes very predictable, and she has the weakest ending of any of the siblings tales.

Sinne starts off an incredibly difficult character to like. She’s selfish, caring only about herself and her own desirability, and she toys with others and their emotions. She’s mean and catty to her siblings, especially Keyne, and tries to spin every situation to see how she could get more social power from it. However, as the story goes on, she grows greatly. Like her siblings, Sinne possesses powerful magic – but hers is fickle and hard to control, and she starts to grapple with how much she actually knows herself, and how much is her magic leading her astray. She’s also one of the first to accept Keyne as he is, and she develops a beautiful and powerful friendship with a man called Os, a mysterious mute who most people hate or fear for his outsider status. Sinne is a woman covered in thorns, but beneath them there’s a good heart buried deep.

The plot is uncomplicated – there are a few surprises, but the overall arcs and biggest twists are relatively predictable. However, the exploration of a period of British history less commonly seen in historical fiction is fascinating, and the different pagan magics are beautifully explored. The difficult relationship between the spreading influence of the Roman Catholic church and the traditional worship of gods and the land is also well-written, with some great fantasy twists thrown in.

The ending is clear folktale and will likely be divisive – while the rest of the novel can be read as solid historical fiction with some fantasy elements, there are twists at the end which are pure fantasy. It’s slightly jarring, given the relative realism of everything else, but overall works well. The epilogue, with its ambiguous nature, is a poignant way to end, adding an element of mystery to an otherwise neatly concluded story.

Overall, Sistersong is a strong historical fantasy novel inspired by ancient British folk tales, with its strengths lying in the exploration of identity and pagan magic. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, folklore, and complex family relationships.

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

Published by Pan Macmillan
Hardback: 1st April 2021

Monthly Roundup – March 2021

I am all too aware that this past year of curtailed freedoms has revealed in me a seam of negativity I am not proud of. I am one of the lucky ones, living as I do in the beautiful Wiltshire countryside with my little family around me, in a home that has space for us to mingle or enjoy privacy as desired.

With the welcome arrival of Spring I have been working this month on keeping up spirits. This has been helped by my ability to return to a greater level of outdoor activity as my foot injuries continue to heal. I have cycled hundreds of kilometers around our local network of lanes. I have returned to running regularly albeit slowly and over shorter distances as I rebuild muscle and stamina. I cannot yet walk far and miss my wanders across fields but remain hopeful this will return eventually.

I marked the first anniversary of lockdown by writing about the weekend it all kicked off. My musings on a year of plague were posted as A Year Ago This Weekend. Given that I have taken to using my monthly roundups as a sort of diary update, this post had little new to offer regular readers but it helped me to write about what happened and then put it behind me.

The toll on mental health is now being more widely acknowledged. Dan Coxon, editor at Unsung Stories, provided me with a guest post – Darkness and Lightin which he wrote about a new short story anthology the press will publish later this year in collaboration with the charity, Together for Mental Wellbeing. Funds have been raised via Kickstarter, with stretch targets going towards additional stories from some fine writers. If interested, do check this out.

I reviewed 15 books this month – a good mix of genres and form including a few translated works. Robyn added a further 9 reviews.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

 
Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions, published by Bluemoose Books
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead by Charlie Laidlaw, published by Headline Accent

 
The Beasts They Turned Away by Ryan Dennis, published by époque press
Fox Fires by Wyl Menmuir, published by Salt

 
Whiteout Conditions by Tariq Shah, published by Dead Ink
Shiver by Allie Reynolds, published by Headline


Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguru, published by Tinder Press

Translated Fiction


Butterfly Wings by Rosa Aneiros (translated by Jonathan Dunne), published by Small Stations Press

Interlinked Short Stories


The Last Resort by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday Ireland

Children’s Fiction


The Last Bear by Hannah Gold, published by Harper Collins

Long Form Poetry


Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, published by CBeditions

Translated Poetry


The Silent Letter by Jaume Subriana (translated by Christopher Whyte), published by d’estampa press

Non Fiction


The Future of You by Tracey Follows, published by Elliott & Thompson

Translated Non Fiction

 
Fragments of Infinite Memory by Maël Renouard (translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty), published by New York Review Books
Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux (translated by Tanya Leslie), published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Robyn Reviews

 
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, published by Titan Books
The Viscount who Loved Me by Julia Quinn, published by Piatkus Press

 
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, published by Vintage
Normal People by Sally Rooney, published by Faber & Faber

 
Skyward Inn by Aliya Whitelely, published by Solaris
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, published by Tor

 
The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith, published by Titan Books
The Unbroken by C. L. Clark, published by Orbit


The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox, published by Penguin Random House

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or received quite a number of hard copies this month, including several special editions from her Illumicrate and Goldsboro Books subscriptions.

I had a bumper book post month, including new releases from favourite authors and small presses.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Robyn Reviews: The Absolute Book

‘The Absolute Book’ is a contemporary portal fantasy novel of epic scope, drawing in influences from Norse mythology, the Fae, and tales of forbidden books and burning libraries. However, it’s also very much literary fiction, written in a style reminiscent of Dickens and other classics. The combination will work for some readers, but unfortunately I found the fantasy elements unoriginal and the literary elements tedious, labouring too much on tangents and unnecessary description and never allowing the reader to connect to the characters. I suspect this is a book for literary fiction readers who wish to dabble in fantasy rather than established fans of the fantasy genre.

Seeking revenge for her sister’s death, Taryn Cornick – the spoilt daughter of a well-known actor and pampered wife of a wealthy husband – allows a man called the Muleskinner to murder the supposed killer. Her actions draw the attention of DI Jacob Berger – but they also come to the attention of those far more otherwordly. For her family’s library has been hiding a secret, and those in a realm very far away now see Taryn as key to finding it. Thus begins a quest that will span the breadth of the Earth, and several other words as well, to find the secret – and perhaps save all the realms in the process.

There’s very little to say about either Taryn or Jacob, despite them being the protagonists. Knox doesn’t focus on her characters as more than plot devices. Taryn is a spoilt, wealthy woman who’s experienced a great deal of grief – the loss of her beloved sister, and the subsequent decline and loss of her mother. However, it’s hard to feel sorry for her given how insubstantial and selfish she is. She has no clear motivations or drive, no wishes in life. She publishes a book, and seems to have knowledge and passion on the subject, yet has little to no interest in her own life. It’s possible she’s intended to portray someone with severe depression, but she’s so underdeveloped as a character it becomes almost impossible to tell.

Jacob, a police detective who becomes unhealthily invested in both the case against Taryn and Taryn herself, is equally insubstantial. His life before Taryn is never shown – he simply appears, and his life becomes her bizarre story. Once again, he has no motivations – he claims he wants to solve the case, yet shows little interest in pursuing it once the answers become apparent. Almost nothing about the plot would change if he wasn’t in the book at all, which shows how flimsy he is as a character.

The plot is very standard fantasy quest fare – a missing, very powerful, world-changing object must be found to save the worlds. Similarly,world-hopping, with secret passages to worlds beyond Earth, is well-trodden ground in fantasy because it’s a device with huge creative potential. The world Knox creates is intriguing – the inhabitants have very different morals and politics to humans, with the ethics of how they dip in and out of human lives and history mused on in an engaging way – but overall it’s underutilised. Powers are introduced only to be very mentioned again, and ethical dilemmas discussed only to be summarily brushed over and never dealt with again. There are glimmers of brilliance, but none of them come to fruition.

My biggest issue, however, is with the writing. Knox favours writing filled with lavish descriptions and constant tangents, almost like a stream of consciousness. Passages which start as serious conversations meander off into observations on the weather, characters outfits, memories of the past, random and entirely unrelated facts. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s actually happening as there are constant diversions, most of which are entirely irrelevant. The novel could tell the same story with a fifth of the words, leaving some room for developing characterisation and narrative tension. Some people will likely appreciate the wealth of descriptions, but whilst I enjoy descriptions that create atmosphere, I’m less fond of unneccessarily long novels that lack purpose.

My other issue is the sexual undertones that several passages have. There are frequent references to Taryn’s breasts in strange moments, and several times when it is explicitly mentioned a character is getting an erection in an otherwise non-sexual moment. Each of these moments jarred me, throwing me out of the story. This isn’t a sexual story – it doesn’t even have a romantic sub-plot – and whilst streams of consciousness may, naturally, contain the odd sexual reference, none of these felt like they belonged.

Overall, ‘The Absolute Book’ is definitely a literary fiction novel that happens to contain fantasy elements rather than a typical fantasy novel. For those fond of complex descriptions, unreliable narrators, and books inspired by Norse mythology it may hold some appeal – but for those looking for a character-driven novel, or even a novel primarily driven by plot, this may not be the book for you.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

Published by Penguin Michael Joseph
Hardback: 18th March 2021

Book Review: The Last Resort

During the Lockdown of 2020, Jan Carson was commissioned to write 10 short stories that would be broadcast by BBC Radio 4, one story per week for the first 10 weeks of 2021. I mention this to add context as, when reading this fabulous collection of interlinked short stories, they truly come to life if imagined being read aloud.

All are set in an aging caravan park on the North Antrim Coast during a wet February half-term. Tenants staying in each of the caravans offer their perspective on events as they happen. The narrators include: the elderly, the homeless, the park caretaker, a young family, an aspiring detective who has learned crime solving from reading Agatha Christie. This eclectic band of ‘holidaymakers’ must contend with: their varying forms of grief, a crime wave, the Northern Irish weather.

Carson’s writing stands out for her ability to conjure, with minimal description, fully formed characters who anyone familiar with the province will recognise. Although offering much that is humorous, she does so with a deep sympathy and regard for their foibles – even those one may wish could be changed.

The elderly lady whose married life has revolved around her husband’s staunch religious convictions struggles between her desire to spend time with their new grandson and their daughter’s choice to marry her girlfriend. A case worker for the council masquerades as a more financially successful businessman so as not to disappoint his father. An immigrant struggles with the knowledge that his life may after all have been better had he stayed with his stifling, insular family. The park caretaker has been made an offer by family he cannot refuse, just as he was on the cusp of escape.

“You’ll be surprised to hear I had no great ambition to run a failing caravan park. Six months ago, I was all for leaving. London. Berlin. Amsterdam. I won’t be telling Uncle Jim – he’s big up in the orange himself – but I got the Irish passport and everything. Sure, we’d no notion what Brexit was going to mean. There were mad rumours flying around. You’d need a visa to get down to Dublin. Derry was declaring independence. They were digging a moat around the border. I knew if I didn’t leave soonish, I’d end up staying. Here, you either go when you’re young, or you’re stuck for good.”

The collection opens with a tale about the installation of a memorial bench for the daughter of a long time tenant. She died at the park many years ago while holidaying there with her family (the line introducing her cause of death is a blinder). Pete, the caretaker, is expected to carry the heavy bench to the, perhaps unwise, chosen location as a cortege of the elderly follow to be a part of this event. Armed with flasks of tea, sandwiches and tray bakes, the relentless rain is no deterrent when condolences are to be offered and absence may be noted. Pete, meanwhile, regards moving the bench as a test of his abilities now that he is considering staying.

“There’ll be no leaving now. Seacliff’s got me. There’s something stuck about this place. All the caravans here are statics; nobody’s going anywhere fast. It already feels like the future is dragging me down. In fairness, it’s probably just the bench.”

After meeting the band of oldies, the reader is introduced to a young family who have also been coming to Seacliff for many years – to stay in Granny’s caravan. This time, however, is different. Lois’s husband has recently left them, lured away by a lucrative job in Norway. Their children are now of an age where decent Wi-Fi is more of a draw than tales of sea monsters and a cold, damp beach. When their phones and iPads go missing, Lois cannot help how she reacts to her furious offspring.

“I’m seeing what I want to see, when I should be giving the kids my full attention. The kids I have, not the kids I want them to be.”

The other key players in the unfolding drama are sixteen homeless men, mostly from abroad and unable to communicate fully with each other or those encountered when they sneak outside, against the orders of their benefactor. The men are kipping on the floor of a caravan that can somehow stretch to accommodate them. These touches of magical realism are signature in Carson’s writing and somehow fit perfectly.

With the characters in place, the plot moves forward with tales of further items that go missing. These include: an elderly dog, a valued tool belt, a wife suffering from dementia. The final story pulls everything together beautifully, adding depth to the study of how and why people value possessions, however much they put on the appearance of good citizens.

With the lightest of touches, the author draws the reader in to share the absurdity of day to day decisions made and ripples generated.

With a summer ahead that may preclude foreign travel, I was amused by her dedication in the acknowledgements:

“This one’s for anyone who’s ever spent a wet weekend up the north coast in a caravan.”

I’ve been there, done that, and if I’d had this book to read my stay would have been much improved.

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

Book Review: The Last Bear

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold), is a magical tale about a lonely girl and her unusual friend. Set on Bear Island, an outpost between Norway and Svalbard inhabited only by wildlife and research scientists, it offers a warning about the impact of climate change wrapped around an exhilarating adventure, beautifully told.

The protagonist is April Wood, the eleven year old daughter of an academic still grieving the loss of his beloved wife seven years previously. April is happiest when alone with nature – in her back garden or on visits to her grandmother on the coast. She finds school a trial.

“April didn’t like school, or the girls at school didn’t like her. She didn’t know whether it was because she smelled of fox or the fact she was the smallest girl in her class or even that she cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors. Either way, April didn’t mind too much because she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.”

When April’s father is offered a six month position at a weather station in the Arctic Circle, his daughter is delighted. She imagines the fun they will have spending time together, sledging and exploring. Her father is often so wrapped up in his work he barely seems to notice she exists.

On the journey to Bear Island, April meets Tör, the ship captain’s son, who mentions that there are no longer any bears at her destination. However, three weeks after she arrives at the small cabin she and her father will call home for the arctic summer, she comes face to face with an injured and emaciated polar bear. She calls him Bear and sets about earning his trust.

Contrary to expectations, the important work her father is doing for the Norwegian Government takes up all of his time. April is therefore left to her own devices. She explores the island, slowly forming a bond with Bear. She intuits his backstory from the knowledge she can glean and the affinity she has developed with all wildlife. She determines to help Bear but must work out how.

The author has taken certain liberties with what would be reality to paint the island and April’s adventures there as an enchanting time. Throughout, however, tension builds to the almost unbearable climax. The reader will become invested in Bear’s prospects as April risks everything to try to offer him the chance of a less lonely life.

Such a story couldn’t work without the skill of the author in creating her fully formed characters with the lightest of exposition. April’s attitude, bravery and stoicism will appeal to children and adults alike. The young girl takes her disappointments and turns them into opportunities. Her observations of people and place bring them to life.

The author writes in her note at the end of her passion for the planet.

“how it needs our protection and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can inspire hope and create change”

Although weaving this into her story she succeeds in avoiding polemic. At its heart this is a tale of a lonely girl seeking love, finding it, and choosing to set it free despite the personal cost. It is an adventure crying out to be made into a dialogue free animated film, preferably harnessing the illustrator’s stunning pictures. I adored the story and recommend it to every reader, whatever their age.

The Last Bear is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law