Book Review: Malarkoi

malarkoi

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is a sign of a progressive society that dissent is allowable – anything else is a form of homogeneity such as the inferior herd-minded and cattle-headed peoples are likely to accept”

Malarkoi is the second instalment in a proposed fantasy trilogy that began with Mordew. Although complex and detailed, the world Pheby built in the earlier book was presented at a surface level, the characters and their relationships to each other key. Now the author takes the reader deeper into the workings of the cities focusing on the powerful and what they hope to gain from manipulating underlings and the places they traverse.

Many characters return. The Master remains at Mordew, necessary as his power is largely derived from God’s corpse, which is still stored in the catacombs beneath the city. The Mistress is more fluid. Nathan’s mother plays a role of greater significance than before, although in offering further explanation as to how the world operates the reader will come to understand why she raised her son in the slums – and why her husband contracted lung worm. Nathan’s gang friends and those who pull their strings divide into groups, each granted their own quest.

The plot of Malarkoi brought to mind The Lord of the Rings. There is much journeying in which travellers face perils amidst beautiful surroundings that have been despoiled as those wielding power attempt to gain the upper hand. The death count is high. Few of the characters prove likable, other than the dogs.

“Loneliness is like a vacuum – it is an absence that draws anything and everything into it”

There are huge swathes of exposition as the author attempts to make clear the workings of the weft and those who manipulate it. The writing is more existential than previously, understandable for those familiar with Pheby’s body of work but not, perhaps, always so noticeable in fantasy. While I never felt lectured at, there was a definite message being conveyed.

The weft is centre stage and an interesting concept. Time is meaningless here. It passes, as time must, but it is possible for those with the power to move around in time and space, although this comes at a cost.

Events from Mordew are expanded and explained, given back story and then progressed. The reader is learning more details about this world and those who reside therein.

Then there is death. It happens, regularly, but what comes next may be better given the lives so many have no choice but to live. This message – obvious propaganda – enables the powerful to obtain willing sacrifices, necessary for their magic.

“Recognition is only the beginning of knowledge and is no substitute for comprehension”

How the Master controls his realm is also complex. Details provided are lengthy and still not entirely clear on first reading. Having said that, the story is meticulously plotted. Character development takes more of a back stage. The reader comes to understand why they act as they do but it is more challenging to empathise given choices made.

The details and intrigues make for somewhat slow reading in places as each thread is progressed separately. As is so often the case in fantasy, a being in possession of magical power is depicted as awe inspiring, able to overcome all obstacles, only for something to happen that appears to defeat or negate abilities.

Within these pages there are: mystical creatures, murder, resurrection, joyful interludes, unexpected dangers, friendship, and treachery.

Pheby depicts power in a depressingly realistic way. It may be used to hurt enemies. When enemies also have power the fallout on lesser beings is devoid of compassion, regarded as collateral damage. Bellow’s brother, Adam, tells a bedtime story that gets to the heart of this – how the general population can be lead so easily.

The dogs make a welcome return and play key roles. The epilogue on Sirius was more moving than what had gone before, and why this should be is explored. Appendices offer further detail on episodes gone before, intriguingly on an Assembly, mentioned briefly and perhaps a subject of the next instalment.

Mordew introduced Nathan Treeves, a boy with power the unleashing of which caused mighty change, not least to himself. Malarkoi makes Mordew look parochial in the wider world, although still relevant due to its storage of God’s corpse. The ‘religions’ described see heavens turn into hells. We learn why the Master and Mistress wish to defeat each other and how they plan to do so. There are several gods but it is the weftlings who take centre stage here.

“the past is always gone, and one must find happiness where one may”

With one more instalment still to go, not all questions are answered. It is clear that there will be outside forces to contend with, but the roles given to the weft population – few of whom seem to entirely disappear even when killed – will be of interest.

Any Cop?: This sort of deep diving fantasy fiction offers more on each perusal, drawing in readers eager to discuss the layers and conspiracies. I suspect that in future years, when Cities of the Weft has become the classic it deserves to be, there will be plenty of aficionados with views and theories the author himself may not have considered apposite.

Jackie Law

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Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Book of Phobias and Manias

Phobias and Manias

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“If a phobia is a compulsion to avoid something, a mania is usually a compulsion to do something.”

With my abiding interest in neuroscience, psychology and sociology, The Book of Phobias and Manias sounded right up my street. It turned out not to be quite what I expected. There is more repetition than depth.

It does what it says on the cover, providing an A-Z of ’99 Obsessions’, some well known and others strangely niche. The length of each entry varies. If only a few lines are offered then little more than a brief description of the problematic behaviour is provided. Those entries spread across several pages also include case studies, with possible treatments and their effectiveness.

Occasionally the author will point towards the lack of ethics in the methods employed by certain scientists when dealing with patients. For example, behavioural psychologists wishing to establish that a phobia could be induced experimented on the nine month old baby of a fellow employee. They proved that a fear response could be conditioned. Soon afterwards the baby’s mother left her job at their hospital, the child taking with him a lifelong dislike of animals.

Exposure based treatments have been shown to be curative in many cases, although the way offered varies. A twelve year old child was treated by psychiatrists who strapped the object of her fear to her back until her screams and cries abated and the girl claimed she was no longer afraid. The author ponders if a new fear, of therapists perhaps, may have replaced the original. Such quips, although rare, help lighten the tone of what can be a troubling read.

There is much discussion of how and why phobias develop. In amongst the theories I couldn’t help but question why Freud was ever taken seriously. He appears to describe every problem encountered as representations of sexual desire. What seems more apparent is that phobias and manias are manifestations of wider social and familial anxieties.

Alongside the serious and life limiting effects sufferers live with, are occasional nuggets to add more light-hearted interest – such as why hanging a sieve above a door deters witches.

Much of what is elucidated may be negative but some can also have meaningful aspects. It is suggested that hoarding (Syllogomania) may be regarded as a way of storing memories. The hoarder’s unwillingness to lose any of these is likened to a biographer who must tell a life story from a wealth of research material, most of which cannot be included in the final edit.

“The story she would tell would be more elegant, more pleasing, and less true.”

Objects, even those seemingly worthless, become a part of the hoarder’s psyche.

Scattered throughout the book are pen drawings that could be potentially triggering to those suffering what is being described. These, along with the imagery evoked by the narrative, can make this an uncomfortable book to chew over and digest. While few may suffer a full blown phobia or mania, the fear or disgust at the core of each diagnosis is mostly grounded in what all feel to some degree. As the author explains, not fearing anything can, in itself, be life threatening.

Not all the phobias and manias included are psychiatric diagnoses. Some mock fads or fashions. A few are jokes, such as aibohphobia: a fear of palindromes.

It is pointed out that fears may be passed on across generations, as much by example as by genes. Phobias and manias are cultural creations, giving a name to a tormenting condition. While some people may regard them as nonsensical, to sufferers they are often severely life limiting.

Women are, apparently, disproportionally phobic. The author posits this could be:

“because the social environment is more hostile to them – they have more reasons to be afraid – or because their fears are more often dismissed as irrational.”

The writing throughout is mostly factual and, in many ways, repetitive. There is much of interest within these pages but the entries tend to merge after a time rather than provide memorable differentiation.

A section listing the author’s sources is included for those wishing to dig deeper.

Any Cop?: Perhaps the best use for this book is as a taster, a reference to dip into for those interested.

Jackie Law

Book Review: My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is

my mind to me

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Everywhere, echoes”

On 3 May 2015, Paul Stanbridge’s older brother, Mark, died by suicide. Nine days earlier he had entered an area of woodland near Stoke by Clare on the Suffolk/Essex border. His body was discovered a day after the pivotal event, hanging from a tree, by two local men walking a dog.

Such are the bald facts of a close family death. They are teased out over the course of this narrative – a memoir in which we are told memory cannot be trusted. Timelines remain fluid. What happened is known by the author through hearsay as he cannot yet bring himself to read his copy of the coroner’s report. His grief manifests in wandering considerations of seemingly random interests that then serve as metaphors for aspects of the brothers’ relationship.

“Many of the things I remember are impossibilities, and yet for me they happened.”

For over a year the author’s life stalled as he struggled to process his loss. He would sit at home in the dark, sometimes aware of the presence of someone outside on a rocking chair, smoking. His insomnia was interspersed with underwater dreams.

The book opens with his thoughts on Doggerland, the toponymy of the North Sea and the naming of its regions. There are: maps, history, those who wrote of the place. It becomes an obsession during a time when his mind lacked more regular focus, when he did not wish to think of his new reality. In navigating this labyrinth of grief the past is rewritten each time elements are remembered.

Included herein are stories of strange happenings: a child born with a twin sibling growing inside him, unknown until it eventually kills him; trees that consume articles left beside them – fences and bicycles becoming strange appendages. There are musings on how relics of Christ were valued and dispersed in abundance, far more than could be possible, due to the belief in the power of a lingering presence after death. It is clear that the author’s brother still exerts influence.

Historic interests and researches are interspersed with memories of Mark, coming together to read like a fever dream. There are occasional lucid moments but much of the discourse is oblique. Mark was obviously a disturbed individual, behaving, in his brother’s words, badly in a wide variety of ways.

“If I had to describe him in a single phrase, it would be: wilfully uncooperative.”

In amongst the memories of a troubled relationship, one that led to estrangement and death threats – although there was reconciliation in the months before Mark’s death – there are happier recollections. The author writes of a bike ride they undertook in the Pennines, a moment of joy glimpsed on a person whose chosen way of living was challenging to be a part of, hard to comprehend.

More than a year after Mark’s death, friends of the author asked him to house sit their cottage in Wiltshire while they travelled abroad for several weeks. It was here that a healing of sorts began, to the backdrop of an unexpected interest in horses – creatures never before esteemed. Books on the subject were read avidly, bike rides undertaken to investigate. Insomnia and the underwater dreams faded away.

The interests documented in this memoir – water, horses, trees, memorials – link to Mark in myriad ways. Although distractions at the time to aid coping, there are obvious links in how they are written of here.

The lingering pain of grief comes across clearly. What is set out here does not always make for easy reading.

I struggled to retain engagement through the many digressions. When Mark was referenced directly my attention was awakened but wandering through the reflective researching of the author at this difficult time did not always pique my interest. The obvious poignancy garners sympathy but the narrative style, with its many historic anecdotes, required investment. Perhaps prior knowledge of subjects would have helped.

There were nuggets that kept me reading – mostly when I shared the author’s fascination with a topic, when that prior knowledge existed. I could appreciate how each element was pulled together to make a coherent story in which the shadow of Mark pervaded. I admire what has been written but, in the main, did not enjoy reading it.

Any Cop?: I wrote of the author’s previous publication, Forbidden Line (a retelling of Don Quixote): ‘Perhaps I would have enjoyed some of the seemingly abstruse sections more had I been familiar with the original.’ Once again, I feel a ‘better read’ reader may gain more from this book. It is clever and of interest, but was not for me.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Hysterical

Hysterical

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“When a person has to repeatedly adjust their emotions to accommodate outside expectations, it leads to emotional exhaustion”

Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions does exactly what the strap line claims. Written by a behavioural scientist, it offers a methodical and detailed exploration of why the myth of gendered emotions was established – and continues to be perpetuated. It looks at the language of emotion across different cultures, although points out that most scientific research has been carried out in Europe or America. Much of this was flawed, in ways that are explained, with the science also suffering from selection bias and prejudice.

There are many references to historical texts which reinforce the belief that men are naturally superior to women. In men, emotional expression is assumed situational; in women it is assumed to be innate and irrational.

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.”

There is much psychology and anthropology in the research cited and discussed. Although written in accessible language, prior interest in the subject will likely increase reader enjoyment. The gendered imbalances and assumptions can be rage inducing, especially as this reaction would likely be regarded as proof of my weak little female emotional incontinence.

“The beliefs that some groups were more or less emotional started many centuries ago, and since then we have seen what was thought of as a ‘civilising’ process, a linear progression from emotion to reason, with education being used to teach people how to control their ‘primitive’ faculties”

The author comes at her subject from a great many angles, looking at how and why women were regarded as prone to hysteria. From ancient times to modern, they have had to adapt behaviour to survive. The societal pressure to conform comes at a mighty cost. Swallowing down an emotional response in order to act as society demands and expects has been shown over time to manifest as ailment – mental and physical.

“emotional expression plays an important role in social organisation, especially in maintaining social positions”

Anger is a tool for claiming agency, and agency in women is rarely well received – ‘considered aberrational’. Attention is focused on calming her down, not to addressing whatever it was that made her angry. In men anger would more often be regarded as justified – as a righteous reaction to whatever riled him.

“Interpretations of behaviours and emotional expressions are largely determined by the stereotypes that we already hold … These stereotypes have persisted through history, and the gender roles and hierarchies have remained stable over time.”

The hierarchies discussed are certainly gendered but also affected by race and class. Societal expectations differ if a woman is pale skinned or dark. Likewise, a man’s anger may be more acceptable if he is white rather than black. From birth, children are taught to conform and absorb what pleases their caregivers, peers, and those wielding power over them.

It is not that the male and female brains are different – modern neuroscience studies have established this is a fallacy. However, brain ‘wiring’ is changed over time as behaviours are learned. There is also great difficulty persuading against entrenched perceptions. This is made even more difficult when media jumps on the slightest suggestion of gendered difference – reporting it for click bait.

“there are very few studies with large samples that show any sex differences, but they receive more attention than the many studies that do not show any sex differences in the brain”

The final chapter explores the effects of pornography and sexbots – the harnessing of artificial intelligence and robotic technology to provide men (it is mostly men) with their ‘ideal’ companion. Although marketed as a remedy for loneliness, the customised ‘dolls’ on the market have been developed with a focus on sexualised features that perpetuate the worst gendered stereotypes.

“The dream he describes is to create a perfect companion: one who is docile, comforting, submissive and always sexually available”

With young boys accessing pornography, there is the very real risk they will prove unable to view girls as equals with agency whose focus is not them and their needs.

“boys thinking that girls are only there to serve them, and girls thinking that their role is to be sexy or invisible”

The role of parents is discussed but does little to raise hope of changing such attitudes, gendered upbringing being subtly ingrained across generations. Time and again studies have shown that daughters are treated differently to sons. However well intentioned there remain differences in the way behaviours are encouraged or dismissed – and this can have a lasting impact.

Any Cop?: A great deal is covered in this wide ranging and fascinating exploration although much of it is a damning indictment of supposedly enlightened human behaviour. An important read, then, in raising awareness of bias and prejudice. A clarion call for base level change.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Isaac and the Egg

isaac and the egg

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Isaac and the Egg has been much hyped by its publisher, crossing my radar months before publication. While this would normally make me somewhat wary, the synopsis proved too intriguing to resist (well done, publicists).

It tells the story of the titular Isaac, a man broken by grief. In the depths of a cold winter he drives himself to a lonely wood where he unexpectedly finds an unusual creature. Fearing for its wellbeing, he decides to take it home. The tale is mostly told from Isaac’s point of view but there are occasional sections where the creature gets to share its thoughts and insights. These offer a fresh perspective on this strange human who is obviously hurting so badly. One of the strengths of the story is the creature’s back-story, although this takes some time to reveal.

The book opens with Isaac standing on a bridge, ‘unsure whether to jump or not’. He cannot remember driving there. He has been drinking heavily and regularly but this is not the only cause of the blanks in time he has been suffering. Struggling to cope with the unrelenting pain of loss, he screams into the void – and something screams back. It is enough to distract him from whatever else he might have done next.

Isaac’s life is a mess. He is neither eating nor sleeping properly. He neglects basic self care. He has shut out the many people who wish to try to help him. At first it seems that the creature he brings home is only adding to the many problems he is failing to deal with. Gradually, there is a shift as looking after and hiding this strange new companion serves as a diversion from the damaging fallout resulting from Isaac’s raw grief. As time passes the reader may ask if Isaac is caring for the creature or is it caring for him.

I found this a slow burn of a story, the first third providing necessary background but lacking sufficient tautness to keep me fully engaged. Clever use of foreshadowing encourages the reader to judge certain of Isaac’s actions, and why he is assiduously avoiding particular places. The creature remains something of an enigma until close to the end.

Although a story exploring loss and guilt, there is also humour. The creature’s actions, attributes and attitude mock many human traits. However badly Isaac is behaving, the sense of overwhelming grief is well conveyed. He is bereft and adrift but not as alone as he wishes to be – something he will eventually come to appreciate.

Having early on questioned why I had fallen for the hype, by halfway through I was drawn into and enjoying the tale. What lifts it is how the creature came to be Isaac’s sidekick. To go into further detail would risk detracting from future readers’ right to experience spoiler free developments. I may have been put off initially by certain elements that seemed implausible, but by simply going along with what was apparently being suggested, it all came to make satisfying sense.

The denouement offers hope for when grief becomes overwhelming. If this sounds heavy then rest assured, while the topic certainly is, how it is handled here makes it accessible. Although poignant, the story remains entertaining.

Any Cop?: An impressive debut in which a highly unusual character is used convincingly to effect. A moving but never cloying read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Never Mind, Comrade

never mind comrade

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I don’t understand how all this works, how some things are possible in this country, where it’s only about praise and punishment, miracles and catastrophes, but nothing in between.”

Claudia Bierschenk was born near East Berlin and grew up in Thuringia, a village in the GDR. It was surrounded by hills, valleys and thick forests through which the Iron Curtain ran like a scar. The Fence, as it is referred to, was mostly avoided. Locals surreptitiously watched the illegal West German TV channels. They were subjected to regular surveillance and a lack of basic supplies. Queues outside shops quickly formed when rumours of stock arriving trickled down.

Never Mind, Comrade is a memoir of the author’s childhood. It captures the innocence of a youngster who may question why she is required to live as she does but mostly accepts what is imposed – as children must. She comes to realise that joining ‘voluntary’ youth organisations is the only viable way forward. She dreams of travel to the exotic places she reads of but cannot imagine it ever being allowed.

Many of the author’s wider family fled to the West before the newly erected border was closed. They sent regular ‘care parcels’ filled with goods unavailable in Thuringia. Claudia’s clothes were mostly their hand-me-downs. The parcels contained luxury items such as coffee, fruit and fruit juice – if not taken by border guards.

“The whole world talks about the Berlin Wall, and about Berlin, the divided city. And I don’t know what the fuss is about … In East Berlin, the shop shelves are fully stocked, I saw it myself when we went there for a visit. They have more than two flavours of yogurt. In East Berlin they have bananas and cornflakes, and nothing is rationed.”

The book opens on Claudia’s first day at school, a place she comes to dislike despite her obvious intelligence. Under communist rule pupils were expected to be practical and sporty rather than curious and book loving. She is scared by the anger of the teachers and struggles with rules, questioning their logic. Pupils are taught that those in the West aren’t as lucky as them, that America is a warmonger eager to bring forward the Third World War. The children practice throwing disarmed hand grenades in preparation for this coming conflict.

“There are no Nazis in East Germany, only in West Germany”

“murder is something exclusively reserved for capitalist countries”

What comes across is the family life enjoyed despite deprivations and oppressive undercurrents. Claudia’s parents long to leave the GDR but this cannot be openly acknowledged. When the borders are eventually unbarred, despite her parents’ joy, Claudia is fearful of the changes given the propaganda she has been taught.

Structured in short chapters – mostly less than a page in length – episodes from the author’s early life are recounted with a simplicity that belies their depth. Her grandparents, who live in rooms above the family home, tell stories from the war. Claudia observes Russian soldiers on a visit to her other grandmother, fascinated by the strange language she cannot understand. Holidays are taken in ‘brother’ countries, those also under communist rule, although only when permits are granted and checkpoints allow. Family from the West may occasionally visit, bringing with them an aura of wealth known only from TV shows. Neighbours watch all these comings and goings that must be explained and reported.

There are many injections of humour in observations made, and in the author’s childish reactions. Claudia must keep secrets and behave as expected for the safety of all.

The writing is spare yet evocative, offering a snapshot of day to day life in the GDR. Seen through the eyes of a child it is not an overtly political memoir. Claudia longs for the material goods she believes make Western teenagers confident and cool. And yet she cannot entirely set aside fears instilled that capitalists harbour a desire to kill.

Although a memoir of growing up in a closed country, there are many universal themes and truths. We in the West were taught how awful life under communism was, and while there is obviously some truth to this, what Claudia was taught about the West we see now was not entirely inaccurate either.

Any Cop?: This is a pithy and witty account of a childhood coloured by political dogma. A skilfully rendered memoir of living within a country that is now gone.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Operation Moonlight

operation moonlight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Reading the synopsis of Operation Moonlight I was reminded of the Sebastian Faulks novel, Charlotte Gray. This latter work would not be amongst my favourite of the author’s somewhat patchy oeuvre but the events on which it is based – a young woman parachuted into France during the Second World War to complete a mission for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) – remained of interest. I hoped that a female author could do a better job of portraying such a protagonist.

As with so many contemporary novels, the story is told across two timelines. It opens in early 2018 at the home of soon to be centenarian, Betty Shepherd. Betty still lives in a house in Guildford that she once shared with her mother and then her husband. She has a live-in carer, Tali, who left Mauritius to escape a family situation. Betty has recently received word that her son, Leo, is returning to England from Australia. His mother suspects his intentions will not be in her best interests.

The second timeline starts in early 1944. Elisabeth Ridley is travelling to London for an intriguing meeting. Here she is offered training with the SEO and the chance to help the war effort. It is made clear how dangerous this could be, that an agent’s chances of survival may be as low as fifty per cent. Nevertheless, Elisabeth accepts.

What we then get are two separate stories, both nicely told. Betty is clearly Elisabeth so we know she survives. Her somewhat rushed SEO training, the people she meets there, and then her dangerous mission, evoke well the horror and deprivation of life at the time – especially in occupied France. It becomes understandable why so many were willing to risk their lives for differing shades of freedom.

The story in the later timeline focuses on the realty of living into old age. The challenges are almost too much at times, even when well cared for.

“Her knees and shoulders ache. Everything aches. Old age is like a prison.”

Personally I found this more compelling than the wartime story, perhaps because so many novels are set around the war years. Tali is also well developed – the loneliness of life away from all she had previously known, especially in the cold of an English winter.

There is a love story within each of the tales. Elisabeth’s made her appear foolish and naive, this in comparison to the determination she musters to survive under extreme duress. Considering the bravery she showed elsewhere, by ignoring key elements of her training – the advice clearly given – she risked her entire mission and the lives of those who helped her.

For readers who like this sort of thing, there are descriptions of sex acts that I chose to skim read. From the safety of my sofa I was growing irritated as it was clear what would happen next. There is a later element to this episode that offered welcome additional context and depth.

The love story in Betty’s timeline is more nuanced. Again there are sexual descriptions I could have done without – that some readers will likely enjoy – but the characters remained focused, in line with their development.

The cover of the book has a pull quote describing the novel as ‘charming’ which, along with the cover art, would normally put me off such a book. I was therefore pleased to find enough sagacity within these pages to surmount the ‘heart-warming’ elements. I learned more about SEO operations, and the sexism inherent in the system. The depiction of the elderly was excellent.

Certain threads and characters were introduced then not taken forward. They enabled a ratcheting of tension and reminded the reader – as was demonstrated during more recent events – how neighbours can turn on each other when behaviour is deemed renegade. I was not entirely convinced that this purpose warranted their inclusion but then I do admire brevity in written works.

Another minor quibble would be Leo’s fate. I can see why the author did this but would have favoured something more complex to chew over afterwards.

I preferred Operation Moonlight to the Faulks novel. It is an easy read – which takes skill to write – but is never simplistic. It shed new light on a time and place – occupied Rouen. There is humour in the contemporary timeline but the elderly characters and their carers are drawn with respect and sensitivity.

Any Cop?: A fine tale of wartime heroism, alongside the courage and resilience needed to face being aged. Add to this the diverse and well drawn secondary characters and we have an enjoyable story offering thoughtful escapism.

Jackie Law

Book Review: This World Does Not Belong to Us

this world does not

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The mind of a child doesn’t solve problems, doesn’t contemplate overcoming obstacles; it simply thinks what it would be like to win.”

This World Does Not Belong to Us tells the story of Lucas Torrente de Valses, the son of a wealthy landowner who ends up being sold into slavery. Told from his perspective, much must be inferred. Lucas was too young when certain pivotal events occurred to fully comprehend cause and effect. He observed but could not change what was happening, any attempt being regarded as unruly behaviour. By the time he returns to the family mansion as a man, having escaped the master he was forced to serve, it has been taken over by two men who befriended his father. Lucas seeks revenge but has learned to act with patience and deference when required.

From a young age Lucas developed a fascination with the world of insects – of botany and biology – encouraged by his mother and then tutor. Lucas’s father was angered by this interest, demanding that his son focus on something more useful.

“I understand now that all fathers have a god inside them and look down upon their sons like clay figurines, always incomplete, wanting to create them over and over in their own image and likeness.”

Lucas was raised by nursemaids while his mother tended her garden. All of their lives started to unravel when the father allowed two strangers to move in with them – a supposedly temporary arrangement to assist in the running of his various enterprises. Lucas instantly despised these interlopers – their dirty beards and unsavoury habits of which they never appeared ashamed.

A chain of events are set in motion when cows the men have recently milked stray into the beautifully kept manor house garden. Lucas’s mother’s reaction to the destruction thereby wreaked draws the attention of a local priest and townswomen. She is given medication to calm her down and openly prayed for. Her subsequent treatment is sadly typical of well to do husbands of the time whose wives behaviour embarrassed them.

“This is what was said in the market lanes by respectable-looking ladies – which is to say, ladies who were horrid but well dressed.”

The timeline jumps between when Lucas was a boy and his return to the home from which he was ejected. We are aware from the start that both his parents are now dead and the great house where they all lived is falling into disrepair. The invasion by nature and its creatures feels apt to Lucas given what precipitated the family downfall. He addresses himself to his late father as the catalyst and facilitator.

“There’s nothing left of us, Father, except for these tiny animals attracted by the warmth surrounding death. More alive than the living who walk and talk.”

To gain his revenge Lucas must once again join the household. He offers himself as a labourer and is housed by the animals kept. His only friend is a poisonous spider but this suits his purpose. The nursemaids, who remained in the house as servants, fear for his safety but Lucas’s plans matter more to him.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Lucas sees through a glass darkly, his childish senses unable to comprehend his father’s intentions. The reader must decide on the reliability of Lucas’s narration. Are dubious actions caused by the two strangers or had Lucas some hand in what later occurred? He grew to hate his father alongside the men allowed to infiltrate their lives. They and the church were complicit in how his mother was treated, her eventual death regarded as a release.

The writing is vividly sensuous, feasting on the rot at the heart of man’s selfish behaviour. The state of Lucas’s mind may be pondered, but it remains understandable why he regards the order and useful industry of insects as more worthy of respect.

“The resurrection of our flesh is a miracle. There is no spirit that ascends, only a body that breaks down and descends in spirals through the earth, forming a more perfect and symmetrical existence.”

This is a tale to challenge assumptions of what may be recoiled from as dirty or creepy. Is it the hard working crawling and flying insects or the men who abuse for their own ends? Nature may be temporarily tamed but, given opportunity, will return with a vengeance. We have here an unflinching yet somehow lyrical account of one man harnessing such knowledge to overcome pests.

Any Cop?: Some readers may quail at the imagery. Here it is convincingly depicted as more beneficial and admirable than human behaviour.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Trespasses

Trespasses

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

There have been a growing number of fine books published recently where the story unfolds amidst a backdrop of Belfast’s Troubles. Adding to these, Trespasses stands out for its powerful and forensic dissection of just how pervasive the sides taken during this time were in ordinary residents’ everyday choices and experiences.

It focuses on Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four year old primary school teacher who embarks on an affair with Michael, an older, married man who knew her late father. Michael is a barrister, a Protestant whose wealthy peers accept his philandering.

The bones of the tale, then, are commonplace in fiction – unwise sexual liaisons that lead to difficulties and recriminations. Let me assure you, however, this is not a story akin to others read. The threads woven are tangled up with how the Belfast community in the 1970s was so bitterly divided. Church and state propounded hatred and condoned the violent treatment meted out as maybe illegal but likely deserved. Fear and guilt were sown at every turn to ensure compliance.

Other than a brief prologue and epilogue, the action takes place in 1975. Cushla, a Catholic, enters her family’s bar on Ash Wednesday with the ‘papish warpaint’ of the day visible on her forehead. Her brother, Eamonn, demands she remove it lest their customers are affronted. The bar may be Catholic owned but it serves many Protestants, including army personnel from a nearby barracks. Being located just outside the city, it has thus far avoided much of the violence inherent therein.

The bar has a television set and the author uses news broadcasts as a means of conveying how normalised daily beatings, murders and bombings were. At her school, Cushla is required to start the day by asking the children she teaches to share a recent news item, the headmaster claiming they should be aware of the world around them.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

Cushla lives with her alcoholic mother, Gina, and is tasked with caring for her through Gina’s increasingly regular benders. When she is invited into Michael’s world it is an escape. Here she can discuss music, art and literature. His friends’ political views may be at odds with hers but Michael himself is more tolerant and sympathetic.

“Everyone else takes a position. Like ‘those towers are full of Provos and they deserve all they get’. Or ‘they’re lucky to be getting a place to live for nothing’. You don’t do that.
It’s depressing that you find that remarkable, he said.”

When Cushla tries to help the family of one of her pupils, Davy, whose father has suffered a life changing beating, it draws the attention of her employer and the hate filled priest who has unfettered access to the school and its pupils – who Cushla struggles to protect. Davy’s Catholic family have been housed in a Protestant estate where they are subjected to daily abuse, and worse. The sectarian divides in housing, education and available labour offer reminders of how the Troubles were perpetuated.

Residents of the city were subjected to constant surveillance with police and army using their powers to attack and intimidate. There were tit for tat murders carried out by both sides’ sectarian organisations. The story brings to the fore how it wasn’t just the horrific violence that became commonplace but also the hatred and bigotry casually spouted by otherwise ‘reasonable’, educated people. Cushla’s kind acts are regarded as insolence, deserving of punishment for not toeing the line expected. Eamonn is furious at the risk she thereby poses, not just to herself but the wider family.

This depiction of the mess that was Belfast during the Troubles serves as the base on which the various strands of the story are built. The author skilfully weaves Cushla and Michael’s affair through the loom of how insular the community they lived within remained. Locals watch and condemn. Much is not spoken of in the hope it will be suppressed or cease if not acknowledged. Children are groomed to take sides and then action, by puppet masters guarding their power bases.

Any Cop?: For those of us who grew up in Belfast during this time period it is a reminder of how much twisted behaviour was passively accepted. The story is of the people depicted and how their lives were affected. A poignant and, at times, rage inducing love story written with mastery and depth.

Jackie Law