Book Review: The Things We Learn When We’re Dead

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, by Charlie Laidlaw, tells the story of a young women named Lorna Love. She has just completed her final year studying law at Edinburgh University and been offered a training job at one of the city’s top corporate law firms. On the evening of 7 July 2005, having attended a difficult dinner party at the house of her future boss, she steps in front of a car outside her flat. Dimly aware of the arrival of paramedics – who cannot find a pulse – she wakes up in a bland, white room that looks nothing like the hospital expected. She is told that she has been assigned to Irene, a chain smoking, Kate Winslet lookalike. It is Irene’s job to tell Lorna that she is dead and that God has chosen her to live eternally in heaven. There is more to be explained but this must wait until Lorna’s memories have returned. With the trauma of regeneration, this could take some time. Time, it turns out, is the one thing residents of heaven have rather too much of. God tries hard to provide novel forms of entertainment but all become wearisome after many centuries with the prospect of an endless future.

Lorna’s memories start to filter through and form the bones of the story. She was born and raised in Berwick where she lived in a flat with her brother and parents. At school she met Suzie who remained her best friend – they shared the rented flat in Edinburgh. Money was tight for the Loves whereas Suzie’s parents were wealthy, her lawyer father driving a Porsche that Lorna greatly admired. The girls shared all their secrets – including the details of sexual encounters. Suzie was not the most discrete confidante.

The reader learns early that, at the time of her accident, Lorna was unhappy and on medication. There is mention of an ex-boyfriend who she regrets sleeping with after their breakup.

Memories from childhood reveal a valued family holiday on the Norfolk Broads where Lorna watched Star Wars – her favourite movie since. Flashbacks suggest there are shadows flickering behind some of her happier recollections – the most difficult of these taking longer to coalesce.

Alongside dealing with what was her life, Lorna must learn to adapt to heaven. Trinity, the helpful on board computer, creates simulations that she hopes will make heaven’s residents days more pleasant. There are shops where they may help themselves to the most expensive designer clothes and accessories. There are beaches where they may swim and indulge in delicious refreshments. All of these turn out to be a reflection of Lorna’s life experiences. There is a subtle undercurrent of unreliability.

God made man in his own image, and heaven’s residents change the way they look regularly – many adopting the bodies of celebrities. Irene is bossy and suggests Lorna too may wish to change – she remains unconvinced. Suzie was widely regarded as a beauty but Lorna seemed to cope with being her sidekick. There is an admirable strength to her work ethic and determination.

I enjoyed the way the author portrayed heaven – the world building woven in to Lorna’s unfolding life story and the concerns this brings. There are subtle glitches that caused me to flick back to check previous reveals. Continuity is handled skilfully.

Memories are known to be fluid, transient and unreliable. The questions the reader will ask do not affect flow or engagement. I couldn’t warm to Irene’s arrogance, her constant smoking an irritation. I wondered if Lorna could recognise their likenesses. I pondered how Suzie could eat so many buttered bread rolls and still find work as a model. This may be jealousy on my part (the bread rolls, not the modelling).

This is a fun to read story despite several tragedies along the way. Its handling of the famous – those who contributed particularly to human understanding thereby aiding progress – was inventive. The denouement was perhaps just a little drawn out but still clever. An enjoyable and original read.

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

Book Review: Bury Them Deep

I started reading this crime thriller on a recent stormy weekend when I wished to curl up with a book I could immerse myself in. A few hours later I commented on Twitter: “Plucked some crime fiction from my TBR pile and am reminded once again why this genre, when well written, is so popular with readers”. I was looking forward to getting back to the story the following day.

Unfortunately, by then, I was around 200 pages into what is, in proof form at least, a 450 page tome. The pace from here became glacial. Dinner parties were being detailed along with a trip to an art exhibition. Whilst I enjoyed the take-downs of pseudo-intellectuals trying too hard to impress, I was trying to work out why these scenes were needed. I feared they were there as filler. Twitter confirmed that certain genre writers are contracted by the big publishers to submit manuscripts containing a prescribed number of words.

Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy crime fiction. Sarah Hilary, for example, may structure her books using a recognisable formula but her writing and plot development contain enough depth and interest to take a reader’s mind off this. I’m certainly not going to criticise the quality of James Oswald’s writing. It is polished and, as I mentioned, contains injections of humour. My problem with Bury Them Deep was that it felt bloated. Eventually, with 50 pages to go, I just wanted it to end.

The story is set in and around Edinburgh, a place I love to visit. It opens with a local legend – the tale of Sawney Bean who, for 25 years in the 16th century, headed a clan of incestuous cannibals, before they were captured and executed without trial. Following this is a chapter introducing an unnamed woman as she heads out for a Friday night of sex with strangers. Her story is subsequently interspersed with that of the various police investigations the protagonist, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean, is required to lead.

This is the 10th novel featuring Inspector McLean and the first I have read. There are references throughout to what I assume are his previous cases which are intriguing. The plot of Bury Them Deep does, however, hold up when read standalone.

In this tale, DCI McLean’s team is a small part of Operation Caterwaul, a high security, global investigation into unnamed, high profile, powerful individuals. Details are shared on a strictly need to know basis. When one of Tony McLean’s team goes missing – a long serving admin assistance named Anya Renfrew – there is consternation amongst his superiors who fear they will be blamed for what could be a catastrophic security breach. Tony is more concerned about Anya’s safety.

It is agreed that locating Anya is a high priority task, even if for differing reasons. Tony allocates resources to interviewing those who knew her and working out where she could have been since last seen. He discovers that the quietly competent admin assistant had unimagined secrets. He ignores the paperwork his rank is supposed to deal with and heads out into the field.

Into the mix are added a couple of young teenagers, one of whom enjoys setting fire to things. There is also an inmate of a secure psychiatric unit with whom Tony has history. Emma, Tony’s wife, is demanding that he pay her more attention. Through Emma, Tony is reintroduced to a Forensic Anthropologist he knew as a teenager.

All of these characters play their roles. Ancient, and not so ancient, bones are uncovered. Trails that may lead to Anya are followed. A retired detective takes an active interest in the direction the investigation is taking. The unnamed woman is being put through hell.

There are more references to the relentless hot weather than I found necessary although it is significant. Perhaps my problem with plot development was that everything seemed obvious from early on so I was waiting for the story to catch up and fill in the details. This took more words than I felt were required, certainly more than held my interest.

I rather liked the ending although, as with much of the way Tony worked, it appeared highly unprofessional. There were several threads that, having finished the book, made me wonder why they were included. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the story more had I read previous installments in the series.

Other reviewers have described this as a page-turner. I would be interested to know if crime fiction fans want their books to be the length the big publishers provide. Personally I prefer my fiction to be taut and compelling, or offering prose so exquisite it is simply a joy to savour. Bury Them Deep was not a book for me.

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

Book Review: In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye, by Ali Bacon, is set in 19th century Edinburgh. A breakaway group of 400 ministers have left the established Kirk to form a free church. David Octavius Hill, a respected and lauded artist in the city, offers to paint a portrait of these men of faith. His commission is to commemorate what is being referred to as the Great Disruption. It becomes the bane of his career.

Capturing likenesses in sketches would be a time consuming process for all so Hill accepts the help of a man newly arrived in Edinburgh. Robert Adamson uses his camera to capture images quickly on specially treated paper. The skills required to produce these calotypes fascinate Hill who recognises the potential for artistry. The two men become friends as well as colleagues and their work is soon sought after by many of Edinburgh’s high society.

The story told covers the period from just before the Disruption, in 1843, to the first public display of the painting 23 years later. Although many details of lives and interactions are imagined by the author, they are based around known facts about Hill and those in his circle. Only two of the large cast of characters are entirely fictitious. All the paintings and calotypes referred to exist.

Adamson was born and raised in St Andrews, suffering regular bouts of ill health. His family are concerned when he moves to Edinburgh – Auld Reekie for the sake of his career. His part in the tale provides a fascinating insight into early photographic techniques and its growth in popularity – calotypes purchased become valued family mementos.

Hill is a widower with a young child, Charlotte. He is portrayed as a charismatic man, a favourite with the ladies. These ladies include a family friend who is curious about how things work and assists Adamson, an aspiring artist who takes up sculpture, and an art critic who divides her time between Edinburgh and London. At a time when women were expected to marry, these characters live remarkably independently. They are potential love interests but also rounded people.

Also referenced in the story is George Meikle Kemp, the architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument which was under construction at the time of the Disruption.

The structure of the story allows the reader to drop in on the lives of key characters and watch how they develop over two decades. Friendships wax and wane. There are marriages and deaths. Art in its many forms is a key influence but rarely provides the desired fulfilment. Love in its many forms is underrated until a loved one departs.

The story brought to life many landmarks in the city as well as the lives of the historic residents featured. I was saddened to read that one grand house mentioned, Rockville, was demolished in 1966.

While cities evolve, certain attitudes remain. The views of the privileged towards those living in the overcrowded old town tenements, especially when compared to the fishwives of Leith, offer a picture of moral concern with little understanding. This felt timely given the many homeless in the city today.

The writing is adroit and taut, the storytelling subtle and affecting. The reader will become invested in Hill’s predicaments as he ages. Characters who appear briefly add to the depth and interest, there is much in their inclusion that will linger. This is a tale that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab, is the first in a new fantasy fiction series aimed at middle grade readers. For those in the UK this is the younger end of YA fiction – not that I like to pigeon hole any book for particular readers. As an adult I enjoyed the story for what it is –  a tale of ghosts and eerie happenings set in a city alive with atmospheric history. Edinburgh is the perfect setting for the tale of a young girl who can step between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The protagonist is twelve year old Cassidy Blake who suffered a near death experience when she fell into a frozen river a year before the story begins. Somehow she was rescued by Jacob, a ghost who subsequently becomes her best friend. Since that fateful day, Cass has been able to travel beyond what she has named the Veil and observe other ghosts in the space they inhabited at the moment of their death. She attempts to photograph them on her vintage camera but remains unobserved by all other than Jacob.

When Cass’s parents, who write books about ghosts and paranormal happenings, are offered a TV show, the family travel to Edinburgh to shoot the first episode. Here Cass meets a girl who can also step through the Veil – she describes herself as an in-betweener. Intrigued that there are other people like her, Cass is dismayed to learn that they have a mission. Before she can process what this means she must face a dangerous ghost who wishes to harvest power from the living as well as the dead.

I picked up this book after reading The Near Witch by V.E. Schwab – the first published work from this author, written while she was still at university. Although not entirely impressed I recognised potential. City of Ghosts justified my decision to read more of Schwab’s books. It is much more tightly plotted with well balanced tension and a smattering of humour alongside the spooky adventure.

The differences in American and British expectations and experiences is just one facet that adds interest, viewing an accepted culture through fresh eyes. Being familiar with the key locations in Edinburgh added to my enjoyment. Mostly though this is a story of a young girl who does not feel she fits in amongst her peers and whose parents support but do not understand. It is a universal theme granted a satisfying twist involving peril and bravery. A story in which Cass has power but is still learning how this should be used.

An action adventure involving the lingering dead who, like the living, may be benign, hostile or seriously dangerous. For those who enjoy fantasy fiction, such as the Harry Potter books, this is a recommended read.

City of Ghosts is published by Scholastic. 

Book Review: The Squeeze

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

I have long been a fan of Lesley Glaister’s work. Her stories are perceptive, engaging and memorable with just the right degree of humour and originality to lift the difficult subjects she explores. Thus I eagerly awaited this, her latest publication. It is perhaps unwise to approach a book with such high expectations.

The Squeeze revolves around two characters who must each find a way to survive the choices they have made. Neither can become the person they long to be and, whatever befalls, life will only ever move forwards.

Marta grew up in Romania under Ceaușescu. Her father had high hopes for his daughter but was killed just before the regime was overthrown. Instead of preparing for university, Marta works in a chemical factory and helps to care for her little sister. When a well groomed stranger starts to woo the tired and yearning teenager, she ignores the warnings and accepts his attentions. Within weeks Marta has been abducted, trafficked, and forced into prostitution in the UK.

Mats is a businessman in Oslo with a pragmatic wife, Nina, who refuses to have the child he so desires. Mats is offered a transfer to Edinburgh and Nina tells him to accept, but that she will stay where she is. Mats considers himself steady and loyal, always eager to do what is right. If those he loves do not respond in kind he feels let down.

On a drunken night out with a work colleague in Edinburgh, Marta and Mats have sex. To Marta he is just another punter but Mats is wracked by guilt. When their paths cross again Mats is seeking absolution. It will cost him dear.

From this point on I found the development of the story somewhat preposterous. The day to day life and future prospects of the sex workers are achingly evoked but Mats’ reaction to his indiscretion seemed overblown.

Although wishing to be generous and giving, Mats is weak and needy. The women in his life, drawn by his looks and gentle demeanour, become frustrated by his lack of empathy, his expectation of gratitude for unasked for efforts. He wants his new wife to fit an image he has created, becoming disappointed when she strays from this construct. He thinks longingly of Nina, unaware of how she regards him.

The reader views Mats through his wife’s eyes as she records her thoughts – therapy for post-natal depression. There is little communication in their relationship.

Marta’s friendships with the other sex workers are touched on but never fully developed. The woman she travels with, Alis, is given a voice in the narrative but remains elusive. Despite living in the brothel for years little interaction is detailed.

The denouement may be regarded as auspicious, or perhaps just another chance for Mats to set himself up for further disappointment. He appears to have learned little over the years.

A great many social attitudes and issues are packed into this story, all insightfully portrayed yet somehow lacking coherence. It is written as a novel but at times reads as a series of vignettes. Each is effectively crafted and interlinked yet missing a degree of fluidity.

Any Cop?: The tale is easy enough to read and offers layers to unpick but is not as strong as I had expected. The characters are well drawn in their aloneness but action too often felt cumbersome. I am left dissatisfied.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

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

A City Break in Edinburgh

My elder son is currently a student at Edinburgh University. We drove him and the essential equipment that all students seem to need to his halls in September, staying a couple of nights in a hotel to make the long journey from Wiltshire more worthwhile. There was so much to see we determined to return and enjoy it fully as tourists. Thus, on Friday of last week, we boarded an early morning flight which took us north of the wall.

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Starting our break with an airport breakfast

The hotel we selected, Ten Hill Place, is owned by the Royal College of Surgeons and uses profits to train surgeons worldwide. It is situated close to many of the university buildings and within easy walking distance of the Royal Mile. It proved an excellent choice.

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A comfortable base

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Tasty food in the No. Ten Restaurant

I was delighted to find a lovely bookshop just around the corner. Blackwell Edinburgh is well worth a visit.

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With window displays such as this how could any book lover resist?

The weather started off cold and clear so we climbed both Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the views. The former is an easy ascent and provides a number of interesting constructions to admire. The latter proved more challenging. We tackled it on a frosty morning and the stone pathways were very slippery underfoot. I was grateful for my husband’s assistance in reaching the summit and then making our way back down.

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Calton Hill

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Arthur’s Seat 

The weather then turned dull and bitterly cold so we enjoyed some of the many indoor attractions offered around the Royal Mile. Having toured the wonderful castle on our previous visit we opted for Holyrood Palace this time around. The castle was better value, although we did enjoy our stroll through the palace gardens. For the cost of entrance there just weren’t enough rooms open inside, and all seemed too structured, impersonal and lacking in atmosphere. I suspect my lack of interest in the royal family, other than as historical figures, may be a factor in this assessment. I could not relate to the unctious tone of the guide.

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The ruined abbey and gardens were of more interest than the house

There are a large number of places to visit in the city centre, many of which are free of charge. We enjoy museums and chose to explore the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Edinburgh and The Writers’ Museum. These were of interest as much for the old town houses in which they are located as for the displays.

We also spent several hours exploring the National Museum of Scotland. There were many interesting galleries in this impressive building although their arrangement appeared somewhat eclectic which added to our entertainment as we pondered why.

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Writers’ Museum and National Museum of Scotland

We particularly enjoyed the Museum on the Mound which offers a history of money as well as a chance to crack a safe. We failed.

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Who would you like to see on a £20 note?

The most interesting place visited on this trip, and one which we regret not giving more than two hours, were the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, also owned by the Royal College of Surgeons. Avoid the pathology displays if you are inclined to hypochondria, but we found it fascinating.

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In the evenings, as well as eating in the restaurant at our hotel, we enjoyed delicious meals at Howies and Apiary. Each day we walked for miles around the city’s cobbled streets and hidden alleyways, admiring the impressive local architecture and grand buildings.

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Old College, one of the many university buildings 

The new Scottish Parliament Building with its bizarre modern architecture and eye wateringly expensive construction cost is closed to visitors on a Sunday, the day we had allocated for a tour. We had also been advised to visit The Real Mary King’s Close but ran out of time.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city and we feel fortunate that we had only the cold to contend with rather than the wet and windy weather that arrived as we left. There is still much to see and we hope to return.