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

Book Review: None of This Is Serious

none of this serious

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut has been likened to the published works of Sally Rooney. Although equally compelling, it is harder hitting and more authentic. The reader is placed inside the head of a modern day twenty-one year old named Sophie. It proves a troubling place to be.

Sophie lives with her parents in Dublin and has recently finished college where she studied politics. She has a close network of friends but feels more comfortable interacting via the internet. She is aware that her thoughts and views are coloured by what she compulsively reads there.

“I absorb it all like a sponge, trying to give my own thoughts substance. I hope for clarity, but instead my head is regurgitating content I’ve read on a loop. I don’t have anything to add.”

Sophie regards her generation as facing particular difficulties those older than her cannot comprehend. She is obsessed with house prices, unable to see how she will ever be able to climb onto the property ladder without the parental help many in her network benefit from. She has yet to find a job and has little enthusiasm for those she applies for. She despairs of the economic and political choices made by those in power, naively believing older generations do not understand their effects.

“The one advantage of the shift in political discourse to the online sphere is that no one over the age of forty understands what they’ve unleashed upon the world.”

Sophie over thinks everything, particularly her interactions with other people. She may struggle to articulate an original thought but can quote at length from online articles read. She hopes to come across as informed. This is not always the impression that lingers in social situations.

“I wish this whole exchange had been a message, so I could contemplate each individual word”

Social media is portrayed as both a minefield and an addiction. The story captures with honesty the disconnection between knowing posts are carefully constructed and curated, and being unable to disbelieve other people do not live and think as depicted.

“The flat holds a certain amount of mystery for me, the way physical spaces do. I’ve only ever seen pictures of it on Instagram or in the background of selfies”

The story being told is set during the summer following the completion of university degrees. Alongside the drunken nights out are milestone events: results come in; job offers are accepted; Sophie’s twin sister, Hannah, returns to the parental home from Glasgow; they celebrate their birthday; Sophie spends a weekend at a coastal summer house owned by her best friend Grace’s parents. What sets the unfolding tale apart is the spiralling voice of the narrator. Following Sophie’s life feels like watching a slow motion car crash.

In amongst her friends are some Sophie is closer to and can talk with more easily. When she becomes involved with potential boyfriends she turns to Grace for advice, sharing details of texts received before responding. She uploads certain information to group chats, and then wonders what is being discussed about her. She puts on a front of compliance when home with her family, knowing that her parents have no idea that she is always on edge around Hannah who has bullied her for many years. Sophie uses food as a coping mechanism and hates the way her body looks, especially when compared to that of her twin.

Alongside what is going on in the lives under scrutiny, a crack has appeared in the sky.

”Where there was only light pollution, how there’s a hairline fracture spanning as far as I can see in either direction. It’s lit from within by a violet glow that seeps across the night sky.”

Experts cannot explain how it was caused or if it is having any effect on the earth and its inhabitants. This dominates news coverage initially but, as with every major event, interest soon wanes when nothing new about it can be revealed.

“if the crack is merely an illusion, then parts of the world not bathed in its glow should be the last bastions of normalcy … Instead, there’s nothing about it. This could be evidence of a grand conspiracy, or simply because we’re not used to sending reporters to those places unless there’s been some kind of disaster, especially if we can catalogue the damage in dead white people. We aren’t used to looking at these places and thinking normal, so they don’t exist.”

It is left to the reader to deduce what metaphor the author intends by running with this strange occurrence. When the crack briefly does more than simply exist, this corresponds to a serious implosion in Sophie’s lived experience.

Although not a slow start, the story builds momentum that inexorably draws the reader further in. When Sophie’s choices cause a serious unravelling, her friends are initially supportive but quickly turn from this to cast judgement. What is so disturbing to consider is how familiar all these behaviours are, and the known effects on the victim. Existing online offers little scope for privacy, and supporting a person under fire can lead to personally damaging associations.

Throughout, Sophie actively seeks a path that will enable her to move forward from the stalemate in which she finds herself on leaving university. She views her parents’ lives as no longer attainable. Her feminist leanings dislike the pervading thought that a wealthy partner could make her life so much easier.

Any Cop?: This is a remarkable work of fiction that portrays the contemporary lifestyle of young people who benefit from numerous privileges but remain shadowed by pressures caused by the all pervading internet. It is the Black Mirror of Instagram perfection.

Jackie Law

Book Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance

when i sing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I used to tell them they should come swim in the river, and there’s no war in the mountains, that wars end but the mountains never do, that the mountains are older than war, and wiser than war, and once you’re dead they can’t kill you again”

When I Sing, Mountains Dance tells the story of a mountain in the Pyrenees close to the border with France. It is told from a variety of points of view, many of these unexpected. The people who inhabit the area have mostly done so for generations. They will one day die, as do all living entities. Life cycles may end naturally or be abruptly curtailed, but death is, at some point, inevitable. This is not portrayed as tragic, although individuals may be grieved for a time by those who cared for them. The mountain, with its forests, rivers and multiple life forms, has seen many come and go throughout its existence.

“Most men are liars. The men who invent stories and those who tell them. The ones who cut us out, who collect us and force us inside words, so we are the story they want to tell, with the moral they want to explain. Cut out and shrunk down to fit into their tiny heads. Tiny and dumb, but not any less evil.”

The opening chapter is narrated by a storm that blows in one evening. It finds a young man, Domènec, outside picking mushrooms. A lightning bolt strikes and kills him, an event witnessed by four dead women who stayed on in the region after they were murdered – their story is told next. Domènec leaves behind a wife, an elderly father, and two young children. These siblings, Mia and Hilari, are central to the tale.

“Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost”

Their mother grew up in the city and found mountain life more challenging than she expected. She takes out the resentment she feels, particularly after her husband’s death, on her children. Nevertheless, they are able to run free, seeking out water sprites and other creatures from stories they are familiar with. They befriend a giant’s son, who brings a burgeoning happiness and then personal tragedy.

Key events are narrated through the eyes of witnesses, not just people. This adds power and depth. It is hard to feel sympathy when a man dies while trying to kill an innocent roe deer. The deer’s descriptions of men and their habits provide revealing perspectives – known but perhaps not often enough considered.

There are stories within stories, including local legends and myths. Men tell of the mountains being formed over the bodies of lovers. Of course, the mountain knows it was pushed up due to plate tectonics. People will believe what suits them; dismissing children’s words while holding close what has been inculcated.

Much of the writing is elemental but also playful. Sexual activity between a couple, narrated by a pet dog, was amusingly clever. A hiker from the city, enthusing about the bucolic beauty of the region, grows annoyed when he cannot purchase sustenance due to businesses closing for a funeral. He believes it is he who has been badly treated.

The ghosts in the forest appear happier than the living, content to exist among the creatures that surround them and enjoy all the mountain offers. Those still alive remain blinkered by their everyday concerns.

“The movement will have begun again. The disaster. The next beginning. The nth end. And you will all die. Because nothing lasts long. And no one remembers the names of your children.”

Within these tales are reminders that not everyone sees or senses the same things. Some know when snow is coming. Some know when the dead are near. It is posited that the dead no longer care for the living. They are now beyond their petty worries.

Although centring on a small, rural community across half a century – those whose lives are subtly changed by Mia and Hilari – this is a story of a place and all that exists there, coloured by history. The sweeping narrative makes clear how fleeting any life is. Death is the shedding of another leaf, a season turning.

Despite death being a recurring theme – a fact of life, and man no more important than any other creature – this is a story that proves remarkably uplifting. The writing is both lyrical and pithy with many amusing observations. It is evocative and skilfully rendered, lightly told but offering rare insight.

Any Cop?: An exceptional story that is impressively atmospheric but never heavy. Beautifully put together, it will affect and linger.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Still Life

still life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The scale of man – spatially – is about midway between the atom and the star”

I didn’t seek out Still Life when it was released in hardback. Although I have enjoyed all Sarah Winman’s previous novels, Tin Man was such a tour de force – and achieved in less than two hundred pages – that the prospect of a longer read didn’t, at the time, appeal. I am, however, glad I gave into temptation – curiosity – when the beautifully bound paperback was offered. This novel is magnificent, and I don’t use that descriptor lightly.

The story being told encompasses art and life and love – a sweeping saga that explores the many lenses through which these subjects may be viewed when minds are open to new experiences. It engenders an appreciation of the moments that matter, lighting up the mundane and offering a deeply felt sense of optimism – a willingness to embrace change for what it may bring. Above all it is a story of friendships that enrich and nurture – a reminder that families exist beyond the bounds of blood relations.

Opening in the Tuscan hills towards the end of the Second World War, a chance encounter brings Evelyn Skinner and Ulysses Temper together. Evelyn is a sexagenarian art historian, in Italy to seek out important artworks moved to hidden spaces due to the conflict. Ulysses is a young British soldier who, having survived thus far has hopes of returning to his wife, Peg, in London. Over bottles of plundered fine wine, Evelyn and Ulysses talk of their lives as reflected in the paintings recovered from a cellar. By the time they part from their brief acquaintance, each has had an effect on the other that they will carry through the following decades.

The setting moves to East London where the remaining key players are introduced.  Col – rough around the edges – runs his pub and worries about his daughter, ‘a woman in body and child in mind.’ Peggy Temper works for Col and is watched over by Cress, an ex-dockworker possessing uncanny foresight. Pete is a skilled pianist, always on the cusp of musical success. Finally there is Claude, an inspired if somewhat bizarre addition. Around this group revolve further colourful characters – the shady, the generous and the critical. Each adds depth to the development of the unfolding tale.

The war ends and Ulysses returns to London where he lives and works at Col’s pub. There are births and deaths, marriages and divorces, fights and fortunes that prove life-changing. The setting moves mostly to Florence, a city portrayed as almost mystically magical in its affect on those willing to embrace its ways. Around the edges of everything is how art in its many forms can change a person’s outlook – art that is valued for how it makes one feel.

Evelyn’s story is told separately to that of Ulysses. She comes from wealth and has used her bohemian privilege to enjoy a lifestyle she has chosen for herself. In beautiful prose the author presents an understanding of artists through the ages. Evelyn’s coterie of the famous shines brightly but, for me, lacked the depth of the relocated cockneys. Evelyn’s life is one of ease through which she moves effortlessly, enchanting those encountered with her knowledge and repartee.

Although Ulysses and his friends have known hardship, they become beneficiaries of luck and coincidence. Some of this may appear farcical but is made acceptable through skilful rendition. I found this the more interesting storyline and it is rightly the focus of attention. Sections follow the group through the decades of the fifties, sixties and seventies as they build their lives on opportunities offered and worked with.

In 1966 a devastating flood destroyed lives, homes and businesses in Florence. The devastation caused is vividly depicted – a deeply moving account of loss and resilience. This is just one event in which the group of immigrants prove it is possible to live and be accepted abroad if willing to assimilate. Their experiences are in contrast to many visitors, those who seek out food familiar to them and complain of locals’ behaviour.

“The usual movement of English tourists, oblivious to life around them, looking for answers in their guidebooks.”

The tale being told is one that sparks many emotions with its richly mixed palette of joy, hope and humour, alongside grief and forbearance. The characters may benefit from financial good fortune but at the core of their being is the unconditional love and care they offer each other and those who befriend them.

Any Cop?: A story of generosity of spirit that truly enriches – a movingly memorable but ultimately joyous read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Glide

glide

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I rarely read psychological thrillers these days as I found plots were merging, making individual storylines forgettable. Many were of a similar length with a predictable structure that made them appear formulaic and, at times, padded. I picked up Glide only because I enjoyed the author’s previous work (plus page count is slightly shorter than is typical). I’m glad I did.

Narrated by Leo Coffin, a photographer who teaches at a nearby college, the story is told in short and gripping chapters. Leo has been with his Norwegian wife, Liv, for around five years. When the tale opens he is making her a birthday cake, wanting it to be ready and waiting when he picks her up from the airport later. She has been on a regular trip to her homeland, to visit family and order new stock for her business.

The couple live in Massachusetts and the tale is set over the weeks leading up to Christmas. On that first day, Leo hears footsteps by the back door and opens it to find a stranger lighting candles on a store bought cake. The man is looking for Liv and explains he is her half brother. Leo is unsure how to react as such a relation has never been mentioned. Ingrained good manners compel Leo to allow the stranger to enter his home.

This supposed half brother, Morten, is tall and sporty, handsome and highly personable. Leo finds himself wanting to impress, enjoying the man’s company but remaining wary given Liv has never mentioned him. A sense of foreboding builds as the stranger installs himself in Leo’s space, awaiting Liv’s arrival. This increases when Liv is delayed without offering any explanation.

Morten’s charisma contrasts with Leo’s reticence. Wherever the former leads the latter finds himself following. Leo is kind and polite but he too has secrets. When he shares a nugget with Morten that he has not told Liv, alarm bells ring.

The bones of the story are about secrets partners keep – of their past and how this affects reasoning behind current decisions. Leo would like to have children with Liv but she does not want them. He feels he could better accept her stance if he understood why. Liv has never explained and they have argued over the issue. Despite such previous upsets, Leo still wishes to delve deeper.

What comes to the fore in this tense and engaging tale is how fragile a marriage can be. Love is so often based on a mirage constructed from perception, built on sands that can shift due to unexpected revelations. Secrets can come to seem toxic if held close for too many years. There is fear of reaction, of breaking a trust needed to anchor the relationship.

Breadcrumbs are scattered throughout the tale but these are well managed to ensure the reader is kept guessing. More importantly, the writing remains taut without resorting to sudden changes in character traits in order to get to the next reveal. Certain threads could have been embellished to add further dimensions but key plotlines are developed with dexterity and depth.

The denouement strikes a fine balance between tying up threads and leaving some questions hanging. I particularly liked what the author did with Morten.

The pleasure to be gleaned from reading a psychological thriller is often in the guesses a reader makes when led through the twists and turns of plot and character. As this is a book worth reading I do not wish to spoil it by going into greater detail. Suffice to say even when I guessed correctly the story still held my attention for where it would go next.

I must also mention the illustrations that accompany the text. The shadowy images perfectly complement the unfolding narrative. Given that Leo is a photographer, they are an inspired inclusion.

I would not say this is a perfect story in terms of every word and thread counting but it is certainly an engaging tale – most unusually for me I read it cover to cover in a day. That it held my attention during these distracting times is a credit to the skill of the author in constructing a captivating thriller.

Any Cop?: A highly charged and ultimately satisfying read.

Jackie Law.

Book Review: Learwife

learwife

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Shakespeare’s King Lear was based on Leir of Briton, a legendary king whose tale was recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. The Bard modified the ending of the story, turning it into the famous tragedy. In both versions there exist the machinations of an aging king and his three daughters. The girls’ mother, the queen, is assumed dead but barely warrants a mention. JR Thorp has taken this lacuna and filled it with a fascinating character – an astute and cunning wife banished overnight to a convent following the birth of yet another daughter when a son was desired.

Learwife opens with a messenger arriving at a northern abbey bearing news of the death of Lear and his daughters. The late king’s resident wife, fifty-five years old, the past fifteen spent in rooms from which she appears only when fully veiled, enters a period of mourning for the family she loved but who turned her away. No reason for this punishment was ever given. She was permitted to take with her just one young maidservant who has remained loyal.

The queen has befriended the Abbess but otherwise kept herself apart from other residents of the abbey in which she remains incarcerated. Now, assuming herself freed from obligation, she allows herself to be seen. She plans to leave and pay her respects at whatever graves Lear and their daughters may have ended up in.

Plans are made and thwarted, the queen discovering that Lear had never countenanced recalling her as she had always expected. Still, she continues to plot her departure until a deadly sickness strikes and the abbey is placed in quarantine. The balance of power within its walls shifts and the queen, newly emerged and taking an interest, finds she has become legend. She draws the nuns to her as she once did courtiers, recounting nuggets of her history and finding these women know more of certain gaps than she does.

The story is told from the queen’s point of view and permeated by her memories. The reader learns that she spent a portion of her childhood in another convent, confined until she was old enough to marry the boy she was promised to. She was there to be trained in obedience. It was not a happy upbringing. The hunger instilled could never be sated. She learned young how families regarded their surplus girl children.

“Overflow daughters, pious children of overstuffed houses, or the poor ones: to send a girl for a nun because a dowry was too dear is old practice.”

Once married she gradually acquired the skills required to manipulate to her advantage, taking advice from Kent who became a trusted friend. Her first marriage was unhappy but in Lear she found a husband who valued her council. She encouraged him to be ruthless when needed, a trait that may have worked against her when she could not birth a live boy child.

“Who ever thought that gentleness is the nature of women! When it is such violence – that we come from, that we live within.”

Lear loved his daughters but regarded them as a useless legacy – another powerful man demanding a son that his wife, once beloved, could not provide. The queen wished to be valued by her daughters, to offer them the mothering she was denied. That she punished misdemeanours as she felt was needed, and would countenance no other woman influencing them, led to tensions whose cost she did not foresee despite her astuteness.

“Is there any pain like a child who does not want you anymore”

The denouement sees quarantine lifted at the abbey and the queen changed. She has made friends but also enemies, understandable given her behaviour. Within the cloistered walls there exists a microcosm of a kingdom.

This is a clever idea for a tale providing interesting historical fiction with breadth and depth. The language employed is not Shakespearian but fits well in the period and setting – both skilfully rendered. The restrictions within which a high born woman of the time must live – how she may use cunning to gain power but this may at times misfire – are only one element of what is a character driven narrative.

The telling, however, is slow paced. The reveal of the queen’s history is too often circuitous with gaps filled gradually and, by then, mostly predictable. The plot is impressive, as is the writing, but a tauter delivery would have been more engaging. That said, it is a book I am glad to have read.

Any Cop?: A beguiling new perspective on why Lear’s daughters behaved as they did.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Narrow Door

narrow door

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I follow Joanne Harris on Twitter and had been looking forward to reading A Narrow Door since she mentioned some time ago that her work in progress was a return to St Oswald’s school in Malbry. Whilst not a particular fan of Dark Academia as a genre, I very much enjoyed two of the previous books in this series – Gentlemen and Players and Different Class. The books are described as psychological thrillers and I was expecting the tense and taut pacing of the earlier works. Sadly, I struggled to engage this time round.

The story is told from two points of view and across two main timelines. Roy Straitley, the elderly Classics teacher now with worrying health issues, makes a return although he mostly serves as a listening ear, only occasionally adding a noteworthy opinion. The protagonist is Rebecca Buckfast, the new headteacher. It is made clear that appointing a woman to this role is quite shocking in such a traditional setting. She has taken the reins in the year that the Boys Grammar School merges with its sister school, Mulberry House, thereby admitting girls to the hallowed halls. In an attempt to create a fresh start after two difficult years, St Oswald’s has been rebranded an Academy.

The opening draws the reader in immediately. There are introductions to other members of the teaching staff, alongside key pupils, bringing readers who are new to the series up to speed on internal loyalties and enmities. References are made to events that damaged the school’s reputation and therefore finances – these were the plotlines of the earlier books in the series. Aspects mentioned would be better understood if the stories were read in order.

Rebecca Buckfast has a high opinion of herself and is proud of her appointment, believing she has worked harder for it than a man would have to. She also admits in the first chapter that she has committed two murders. The rest of the book contains her life story, as she tells it to Roy. She is his boss yet reveals intimate details, including aspects of her sex life. To this reader such divulgences felt inappropriate. The author worked as a teacher so maybe such behaviour happens. Fiction, of course, is often not realistic. Nevertheless, the way this book is structured too often jarred.

The plot revolves around the fallout from a pivotal event that occurred when Rebecca was five years old. At the end of the school year her teenage brother, Conrad, disappeared from his school – the neighbouring King Henry’s Grammar – never to be seen again. All but his parents believe he is dead. The parents’ lives paused on the day Conrad went missing. This has shadowed Rebecca’s life. She believes her parents remained sad that the wrong child stayed with them.

Rebecca struggled as a single, teenage mother yet managed to qualify as a teacher. She met her partner, Dominic, when they both worked at the local comprehensive. He was unhappy when she accepted a role at St Henry’s. Roy grows more interested in the history she is telling him when he realises her time there coincided with that of his long time friend, Eric, whose reputation couldn’t survive damaging allegations that previously shocked Roy to the core.

As is to be expected in a thriller: breadcrumbs are dropped before reveals are made; certain characters turn out to be not quite what they seemed; memory skews what later pulls threads together; and our main narrator proves she is not averse to underhand measures to get her way. There are hat tips to contemporary issues such as the treatment of gay and transgender pupils. There is an excellent ‘prank’ by Roy’s favoured Brodie Boys.

I enjoyed the ending, and not just because I could now stop reading a story that seemed at times to move along glacially. This is not a bad book but is not as good as I have come to expect from the author. Despite all the revelations, too many characters lacked sufficient depth, their role coming across as inauthentic. My main gripe remains that I wasn’t captivated as previously in the series.

Any Cop?: A thriller that failed to thrill this reader.

Jackie Law