Book Review: The Source

The Source, by Sarah Sultoon, tells a hard hitting tale of the sexual exploitation of children. At its core is a paedophile ring run by an army unit working on high level intelligence. Although certain key figures in this setup are eventually brought to justice – if that is ever possible for such crimes – there remain rumours of perpetrators who have proved untouchable due to the nature of their work and security clearance.

The tale is told across two timelines. In 2006, a young journalist named Marie is investigating human trafficking with her colleagues from a national news channel. Just as their story is coming together, it is announced that a police investigation into child sex abuse within the army, uncovered a decade earlier, is to be reopened. Marie and her colleagues are required to make this development their priority. The human trafficking story is to be shelved.

The earlier timeline opens in 1996. Thirteen year old Carly is barely coping with the life she has been dealt. Carly’s alcoholic mother is incapable of looking after her toddler daughter, Kayleigh, so Carly must try to keep her little sister clean and fed while still attending school – necessary to ward off social services. The girls’ elder brother, Jason, is a soldier at the local army base – following in his dead father’s footsteps. When he cannot deliver food and other supplies to the family home, the sisters go hungry. Carly’s best friend, Rachel, suggests they both attend parties they have been invited to at the army base. This offers the chance for some fun along with welcome rare attention. However, these outings quickly turn into something more sinister and damaging.

I struggled with this tale for a number of reasons. The opening chapters detailing the human trafficking investigation were written as a fast moving, dangerous assignment that Marie appeared badly suited to deal with. At key moments she would lose concentration. Her stress reaction throughout the story is to puke or faint. I lost track of the number of times she was: distracted and didn’t hear what could be important information, fumbled equipment, swallowed down bile. This is hardly the cool, clear head needed when trying to appear in control of a situation involving dangerous criminals – potentially putting her colleagues at risk. As the tale moved forwards I wondered how the human trafficking investigation would be woven into the army base story. I was left disappointed.

Carly’s experiences were more strongly written. Sadly, the supporting cast on this earlier timeline appeared two-dimensional. Many people are mentioned but not developed. It is never explained why Jason acted as he did – was he simply a horrible person or perhaps being bribed or blackmailed? It is a challenge to comprehend the choices he made, why he stayed. As the two timelines come together, such questions about character behaviour – the whys and wherefores – are too often left hanging.

The author is a former CNN news executive so will likely be much more familiar with the realities of characters such as these than I can be. Nevertheless, reading the book I was struck by the sickening horror of what was going on but not sufficiently drawn into the various predicaments. There are attempts to build tension through set piece scenes – an underground room containing a shadowed man, clandestine meetings requiring code words and pseudonyms, a broken down train in which other passengers appear inexplicably deaf to pleas for assistance. Actions described in these, including physical violence, are rarely developed further or even referenced.

Marie is obviously a badly damaged individual, doing her best to cope with personal demons but struggling. It is explained why she wanted to be a journalist, and how she landed the role, but this explanation made me question how she had been allowed to survive. I wanted to be rooting for her – of course I did – but cold-blooded criminals, particularly those holding high office, find ways to quietly dispatch inconvenient witnesses or those they believe have reneged on agreements.

The denouement suggests a degree of closure but I was left with too many unanswered questions. It is depressing to consider how the Carlys and Kayleighs of this world find ways to cope with day to day living after what wicked men and their accomplices have done to them. It may be true that Carly is not entirely innocent – as treatment of Rachel’s character serves to demonstrate. Nevertheless, their experiences deserve to be heard as the author has attempted here.

That I did not derive satisfaction from the tale may be down to the fact that I have read other books exploring similar subject matter that I have gained greater satisfaction from – that expanded my awareness of the logistics of child abuse and slavery beyond the evil perpetrated. This was not a book I enjoyed due to the style of the writing and lack of wider character development. Other readers have looked on it favourably as a thriller but, sadly, it wasn’t for me.

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

Book Review: The Groundsmen

The Groundsmen, by Lynn Buckle, is a brutal and disturbing story about an Irish family caught up in a generational cycle of abuse. It is told from five points of view. The protagonists are all victims of a community unwilling to confront the actions of those living within their midst. Dark secrets fester but are kept.

Louis is a successful IT manager who moved his wife, Cally, and their daughters, Andi and Cassie, to the newly built suburbs of Dublin before the Celtic Tiger economy collapsed. Now Cally spends much of her day in bed. Teenaged Andi resents that she is left to look out for her little sister. Five year old Cassie copes with the familial disharmony by pretending to be a dog, burying objects that represent hurtful behaviours in the garden. Louis’s brother, Toby, is a regular visitor. Louis and Toby have always been close but the truth of their relationship is toxic.

The story opens on a typical weekend. Louis and Toby are getting drunk watching football on TV, internally fantasising about what they would do to women they know. The violent degradation inherent in their thoughts is sickening to consider.

Cassie is in the garden burying the remote control. Andi is checking the personal treasures she hides in her wardrobe.

Cally has escaped upstairs and is thinking with disgust of what her husband has become – the rank smell and diseased skin that he regularly forces on her.

When Cassie becomes too lively inside the house she is punished. She copes with the pain by going elsewhere in her mind, thinking of all the items on her childish want list. Her family cannot understand that much of her behaviour is a cry for love, regarding her as weird and a nuisance.

Andi seeks love on line, posting photographs of herself at the behest of a boy. Toby has noticed how his niece’s body is developing.

The following Monday Louis oversleeps making him late into work. On arrival he discovers that Toby has been sacked. Inappropriate images were observed on his computer. There is to be an investigation. Louis struggles to make sense of what he is being told. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand that these adults operate in a state of denial about consequences. Damaging behaviours have led to a spiral of sordid desires which they refuse to acknowledge.

Louis regards women as objects available for his pleasure, resenting any agency they acquire. Cally recognises that she should act to protect her children but, inured to a life of submission, is overwhelmed. Louis will do whatever it takes to hold onto what he believes is his by right. Toby has his own agenda.

The subject matter and detail made this a challenging story to read. The author remains resolute in portraying the extent of the degeneracy and wider culpability. This is savage social realism, the twitching net curtain torn asunder. It is searing in its plausibility.

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

Guest Post by Lyn Farrell, author of ‘The Wacky Man’

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When Lucy at Legend Press invited me to take part in the blog tour for ‘The Wacky Man’ I had not yet read the book. I was told that it was “very hard hitting, fiction but part of it autobiographically inspired.” I was intrigued but also a little nervous given the subject matter (child abuse). The author told me that some agents had rejected it because of the brutality, but that she needed to give a voice to the voiceless, the child/teenager at its heart.

When I finished the book I immediately emailed Lyn to say “Wow!” Yes, it is hard hitting but what a fantastic read (my review is here). I am today delighted to have the opportunity to share with you this guest post which gives some insight into why the author wrote as she did.  

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Books saved me. They got me through a traumatic childhood and ever since have been my anchor and joy in life. It’s no wonder then that fiction holds a special place in my soul. I think the seeds of wanting to write could well have been planted the minute I learned to read the Mr Men books, particularly my favourite, Mr Dizzy. I can still feel the delight I got from entering his world only to shed tears when poor Mr Dizzy was bullied and then, finally, to laugh again when he triumphed. I wanted to create more worlds like this to escape into.

I’ve carried ‘The Wacky Man’ around with me for about thirty years. I ignored it through self-doubt for about twenty then finally gave it a shot and took another ten years to write it. On reflection most of that final decade was spent learning how to write – vast amounts of prose that never made it to the book – so that I could, at long last, transfer what I held in thought onto the written page. I know it’s a brutal read. There was no way around that without changing the essential essence of the book.

The world in this particular novel had to be bleak so that readers get a sense of what it is like to be a battered child. It wasn’t an easy novel to write either. It is inspired by real events, real horror, real violence. Many times I’d be overcome with sadness or anger and have to stop working and there is one section of it that I still can’t read without crying. It needed to be written, not only for me, but for all children who live through the nightmare of violence at home. I’m proud that I managed it. And I’m absolutely proud of my sisters and brothers who have encouraged me since I finally admitted I was writing it (I kept my writing a secret from everyone except my mentor until it was almost finished).

Writing the novel was also difficult in the technical sense. I’ve had sleepless nights and fruitless days where words disobeyed and refused to line up in the right order and when events got muddled up time wise and I had to rework whole chapters to sort it out. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion at times, fuelled by too much sugar and not enough vitamins and I’ve sat for weeks on end without adequate exercise just because I couldn’t leave a chapter alone until it was ‘better’. However, I’ve also been extremely fortunate that the amazing Clio Gray, herself an award winning author, was my novel mentor. We met online by chance and she supported me for the last 2 years of writing the book. She taught me so much about how to hone my writing and when I lost faith she demanded that I kept going. Without her, I wouldn’t have finished it and I certainly wouldn’t have known about the Luke Bitmead Bursary Award.

From winning the award onwards it’s been a wonderfully exciting, and at times surreal, journey to publication. And though I thought I’d only write one novel, I’m currently addicted to writing. The novel I’m working on at the moment is about the healing power of unusual friendship. I hope it turns out as well as The Wacky Man but I also hope it doesn’t take as long. I don’t think Legend Press could wait that long.

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The Wacky Man Blog Tour

‘The Wacky Man’ is published by Legend Press and is available to buy now.

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