Book Review: Every Seventh Wave

every seventh wave

“To live on the edge of things, he thought. To meeting of two worlds, a liminal frontier, from known to unknown”

Every Seventh Wave, by Tom Vowler, tells the story of Hallam, a middle-aged man recently released from prison. He is living in the crumbling remains of his old family home on a sea-facing cliff in the far south-west of England. The tale opens with him watching a woman enter the water at dusk and disappear below the surface. He rushes to her aid, thereby setting off a series of events that will change the trajectory of his reclusive existence.

The woman, Anca, is a teenager from Romania. She claims to have no family or friends for Hallam to contact and appears in no hurry to leave the shelter he reluctantly offers her. Hallam’s life has been shadowed by loss, everyone he ever cared for leaving him. As the days pass he finds it hard not to daydream of a future that includes Anca as his willing companion.

Hallam’s backstory is revealed slowly, in snippets and then detail. His family moved to the house on the cliff when he was an adolescent, running it as a guest house. Hallam and his older brother, Blue, struggled to fit in with the local teenagers. Blue was always seeking adventure, unafraid to take risks and encouraging Hallam to follow him. Their parents’ marriage was not a happy one and the boys sought escape from the atmosphere this generated.

Another thread in the story is the horror of human trafficking. The reader will learn of the trade in people and how victims are coerced and kept compliant. The gangs running such operations understand how to remain beyond the powers of law enforcement. Amongst themselves disputes are resolved with pitiless violence.

The starkness and venerable power of the setting are evoked with skill and depth. Complexities of character are recognised, with the reader trusted to see beyond what is narrated. The writing is spare yet lyrical despite the harrowing subjects dealt with. The tension built into the denouement had me gasping for air.

It was this that made me appreciate more deeply the scenes where Anca faces the prospect of drowning. Each of the characters is, in a way, caught in the riptide of the life they have ended up with. The author is uncompromising in his portrayal of the consequences of choices made; the waves keep coming whatever breakers are built.

A disturbing yet satisfying tale that both appals with its harsh truths and engages the reader. An impressive and affecting story that I recommend.

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

Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in Japan in the years just after the Second World War – which ended with the country’s surrender. It is narrated by Masuji Ono, a widower with two grown up daughters. His only son died in the hostilities. Resulting changes in the country are a challenge for the older generation as they watch their offspring embrace more western ideals.

Ono is a retired artist who trained with traditional painters – producing works featuring geishas and hostesses visited in the pleasure district. He and his fellow students indulged in the drink, drugs and sex on offer. He came to prominence, however, when he changed his style to support the rise of militarism. He wished to highlight the injustices wreaked by wealthy businessmen and their puppet politicians.

“In the Asian hemisphere, Japan stands like a giant amidst cripples and dwarfs. And yet we allow our people to grow more and more desperate, our little children to die of malnutrition. Meanwhile the businessmen get richer and the politicians forever make excuses and chatter. Can you imagine any of the Western powers allowing such a situation?”

Ono subsequently enjoyed influence and respect, particularly from his own students. He advised those now in power – regarded as loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. This went against the views of many of his peers who believed art should focus on beauty – not be political. Ono wished to make a difference through his work,.

“a patriotic spirit began somewhere further back, in the routine of our daily lives, in such things as where we drank and who we mixed with”

Under the new regime, traditional pleasure seeking came to be frowned upon. Changes were enforced and Ono approved.

“the new spirit of Japan was not incompatible with enjoying oneself: that is to say, there was no reason why pleasure-seeking had to go hand in hand with decadence.”

Following the war what had seemed to him a step forward for his country is viewed, particularly by the younger generation, as traitorous. The previously respected elders are blamed for sending young men to their deaths needlessly. Ono is trying to arrange a marriage for his younger daughter. He comes to believe that his prior actions could scupper her chances.

The bones of the story are Ono’s interactions with his daughters as the marriage negotiations proceed. His elder daughter is already married with a young son, her husband changed by his own war experience. Both daughters now treat their father with thinly veiled disdain. As Ono considers their interactions he thinks back on key moments in his past, his life story revealing the changes Japan has gone through over just a few decades. He went against the wishes of his parents in pursuing his career as an artist. Now his daughters are behaving in ways that do not respect him.

The rigid manners considered polite in Japanese society colour all conversations. On the surface are the endless self-effacing compliments and apologies, false laughter a device to mask criticism. Ono tries to unpick meaning from his recollections. He is an old man assessing the worth of his life’s work, ascribing value that others may not now agree with.

The author captures Japanese society in both style and substance. The tale is written to portray the nuances of interactions, the grudges held and pride felt that cannot be displayed. The changes in the pleasure district over the years reflect the changes Ono must deal with personally. Although very much a story of Japan, it is also a story of the decline of influence that comes with age.

The story is delicately wrought, fine brush strokes revealing surprising depth. There is much to think on – of societal change and aging. Although offering much to commend, the ponderous pace detracted somewhat from fully enjoying the read.

An Artist of the Floating World is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Brood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Last Resort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Common Ground

“That was the thing about other people. You owed them a particular version of yourself. You had to make them laugh, or feel safe, or whatever else they expected of you. You had to seem like you had the whole thing under control.”

Common Ground, By Naomi Ishiguro, is a story of tribes and the difficulties in forging friendships that cross cultural divides. It focuses on two young men who first meet when they are teenagers. Stan is thirteen and is being bullied by peers at the posh new school where he is a scholarship pupil, standing out in his ill-fitting secondhand uniform. He is socially awkward and still grieving for his father who died a protracted death that still shadows Helen, Stan’s mother, creating distance between them. When Stan meets Charlie, a slightly older boy from a local community of Travellers, he finally finds a friend he can admire and connect with. Charlie has also lost his dad, although in less tragic circumstances. The absence of these adults has unmoored their offspring.

Stan and Charlie hang out on the local common, riding their bikes and shooting the breeze. When Charlie invites Stan back to his home for a traditional celebration it becomes clear that non-travelling folk – Gorjers – are unwelcome there. Stan would like to get to know Charlie’s cousin, Cindy, better but is warned away. The suspicion and discrimination between those who choose to live differently exists in both directions.

Charlie is particularly ill at ease around his uncle, Martin, the de facto leader of his community. Away from him, the boy has swagger and bravado, coming out with rebellious phrases Stan admires. All the same, Stan keeps his friendship with Charlie a secret from Helen who regards Travellers as troublesome, best avoided. The antics the boys get up to only prove to confirm her prejudices.

The second section of the book is set in London eight years later. Charlie is now married, as was expected and required by his people. Stan works as a journalist while studying for his Masters at UCL. An unlikely coincidence brings them together.

While much of what happened previously is told from Stan’s perspective, the remainder of the story mostly plays out from inside Charlie’s head. He comes across as trying to escape himself, to find a way to deny reality. With each unwise choice he makes there is a building of tension, the approach of impending crisis. Charlie harbours big thoughts as he considers his future, stymied by how unfairly he and his people are treated. His ill considered reactions and inability to articulate what is happening do nothing to change how Travellers are perceived by wider society.

Stan, who has plenty of words and ways to convey them, wants to help his friend. His efforts drive them apart again.

The final section opens up the differences between Travellers and Gorjers to include other tribal divisions. These are skilfully woven in. The author shows how people are drawn to tacitly accept an us/them mentality, be the divisions: intellectual achievement, religion, nationality, small community, or even football teams. The desire to belong, to be accepted and feel wanted, enables leaders to gain followers who rarely question too deeply the consequences of what they are supporting. There is power in a catchy chant, a soundbite, a suggestion that something valued requires defending.

The writing style is less quirky than the author’s short story collection, Escape Routes. This is a straightforwardly told story whose easy reading belies the depth of the subject matter. There is no attempt to sugar coat the depictions of Travellers and those who wish they did not exist. This adds strength to a narrative that may otherwise have come across as lightweight – as a perfectly acceptable 400 pages of fiction but nothing special. By dealing head on with the lasting damage of prejudice while acknowledging the reasons for its prevalence, the bar is raised.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read that opens a window on a community that more usually gains negative comment. No easy answers are suggested, other than the need for both sides to listen and consider the consequences of imposing cultural divisions. I would be interested in hearing a Traveller’s perspective on this tale.

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

Book Review: Shiver

Shiver, by Allie Reynolds, is a thriller based around the competitive world of snowboarding – a sport the author trained for at the highest levels. Set high up in the avalanche prone French Alps, it focuses on a group of elite athletes who get together for a weekend reunion a decade after events that changed the course of their careers. The timeline moves between then and now, offering the reader insights into the complex relationships that form when friends and lovers are also rivals professionally. The killer instinct required to succeed can be harnessed literally.

The narrator is Milla, a young women driven to prove herself but never quite able to be as good as she needs to be to attract the kudos and sponsorship that would enable her to fully fund her obsession. In the early timeline she travels to Le Rocher to spend the Alpine winter training for the British championships in the freestyle halfpipe event – still a relatively new Olympic sport at the time. Here she meets the woman she needs to beat – Saskia Sparkes – who proves as icy and dangerous as the slopes on which they compete.

Saskia’s older brother, Curtis, is an established champion snowboarder. His friend and nearest rival is Brent, who has a history with Saskia. Also at the reunion are Dale and Heather – now married. All harbour secrets linked to Saskia’s disappearance. She has recently been pronounced dead in absentia having not been seen since the day of the competition.

The reunion quickly turns out to be a complex ruse but none of the attendees will admit to having organised it – nor know anything of the way they are being played. Trust between the group is in short supply, with everyone blaming the others when events turn threatening. Phones disappear preventing communication with staff who could operate the cable lift that brought them there, and will be needed if they are to leave safely. Trapped in a building high up near a glacier where deadly crevices can send the unwary plummeting to their death, tension mounts as accusations fly.

I found the earlier timeline – the story of the group when they were training for the championship – more interesting than the reunion. Although there is an obvious attempt to build on the claustrophobia of the situation, the constant and recurring unknowns became irritating – a device rather than a tightly woven tale. Expectation was overblown leaving truths, when finally revealed, deflating what should have come across as horrific.

The portrayal of athletes at the top of their game was shocking to consider, although sadly believable. Drive and ambition can create men and women who focus on their own needs above anything else. These young people put their lives on the line to win, seemingly unaware of how shallow and transitory their achievements appear to those outside the bubble of their chosen specialism. The highs described brought to mind drug addiction – the desire to succeed the pitiless means employed to acquire the hit.

I was bemused by the presumption that talented sportsmen will be good in bed – they may have confidence but such success goes hand in hand with a degree of selfishness. Competitiveness in all manner of interactions was far from friendly, leaving me questioning if professional athletes are really so mean minded. What it takes for them to win – determination and ruthlessness, to self as well as others – made me ponder if they ever look ahead, to what follows their peak. With decades still to live do they condemn themselves to disappointment when they cannot relive the success they strove so hard to achieve? The cost is not just theirs to bear.

It is not necessary to like characters to enjoy a story, and readers interested in snowboarding may well find this worth reading for the details on tricks and spins, functional aids and equipment. Relationships between the characters were well evoked in the earlier timeline. It was events of a decade later that too quickly became tedious. There are only so many locked doors and power cuts that can be employed as tension builders before they become repetitive.

A thriller that I did not find thrilling, although I chose to read to the end to find out what had happened. The denouement offered a reasonably well structured finale but one that then took a turn that did not fit with how the character got there. Perhaps this is a story better suited to those who understand the need to take risks in order to feel alive. A much hyped book that was not for me.

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

Book Review: Whiteout Conditions

“I think about all that I have expected that turned out to be wrong, in the dark before sleep, remind myself the joy and love and success found by all regular people I know are not meant for me, and when I remind myself of this, I can picture the look on my face, and would prefer no one sees it.”

Whiteout Conditions, by Tariq Shah, is set over a two day road trip that old friends, Ant and Vince, take to attend the funeral of Vince’s young cousin, Ray. The narrator is Ant, who flies into his old home town, from where Vince will drive them to the wake. Ant left many years ago, something Vince appears to resent. Vince is now married with kids. Ant has no living relatives left. He has not been good at keeping in touch. He doesn’t know if he will be welcome but is drawn to funerals, claiming to find them ‘kind of fun’. Ray died in horrific circumstances – a teenager whose family have been left devastated.

Around these bones of a plot the author constructs a story of everyday violence, grief and the costs of living in its aftermath. The car journey is fraught, shadowed by sniping conversation as Ant and Vince try to process their shared backstory and the lasting hurt this has created.

“What we say never changes. How we say it reveals our age, a history invisible to the stranger’s eye, one that is never really addressed by those familiar with it.”

The writing is taut and direct with much conveyed through dialogue and memories of shared conflict. The ancient car they travel in has footwells filled with trash from takeaways. The weather travelled through is filthy – roads clogged with slush and angry traffic. All this adds to the untidy atmosphere of provocation as Vince tries to gain a handle on why Ant left, what he has been doing, and why he has returned. There is no welcome for an old friend in these pages, rather they spill over with bitterness at the hand dealt and how it has been played.

And yet the reader will be drawn in, made to feel. In gaining an understanding of Ant’s life there is growing empathy. His coping mechanisms for losses suffered can at first appear insensitive but he has always had to harden his veneer to survive. Vince has his own demons, leaving little energy for a man he feels rejected by. There may be little to admire in either of their behaviour. This does not detract from what is a compellingly told tale.

I was almost afraid to read the final few sections such was the tension built and my fear of what images would be put into my head. The denouement fits with what went before adding a forward trajectory to a disturbing act of vengeance.

A dark yet somehow moving account of lives stymied by circumstances as much as choices made. A pithy yet potent read for those undaunted by brutal reality.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Fox Fires

Fox Fires, by Wyl Menmuir, is both moving and, in places, chilling. It explores family and loneliness in its depiction of a mother and daughter relationship. A key character is the setting, and the author conjures it skilfully. The importance of belonging, of being wanted and accepted, includes choosing for oneself a harbour in which to exist.

The story unfolds in a coastal city-state – O – that has only recently been reopened to visitors. A curfew remains in place. The locals are wary of divulging information to strangers. They know the authorities remain watchful; spies are everywhere. The city was built as a labyrinth to confuse invaders, although it has suffered many wars from without and within. It has its own language and distinctive physiognomy.

The protagonist of the story is Wren Lithgow, the nineteen year old daughter of Cleo, a renowned concert pianist. They live a peripatetic lifestyle, spending time in the major European cities where Cleo performs. Wren was raised in apartments that held the family furniture and other belongings, transported and arranged to conjure a feeling of home wherever they may be. As a child she was left alone, or cared for backstage by anyone available. Now she has become part of the team that keeps her volatile mother grounded and capable of playing.

Wren knows only the barest bones of detail about her father. Cleo let slip several years previously that her daughter was conceived in O. Wren found a photograph of her mother with a man, taken in the city. She possesses a mechanical doll from the place. When her mother agrees to perform in O – the money offered being too generous to turn down given their current circumstances – Wren determines to search for her father, or at least find out what became of him. Cleo continues to refuse to answer questions, dismissing her daughter’s curiosity with contempt.

Having spent her life moving from place to place, Wren is capable of picking up new languages quickly. She also discovers that she looks like O’s native people. Cleo demands, in her usual imperious manner, that Wren remain in their apartment, carrying out tasks that will be specified via her pager. If she is to find her father, Wren knows she must do so independently. It will be the first time she has left the often toxic cocoon of her mother’s attempts at care.

Setting out alone to discover the city, Wren finds a library she hopes will aid her research. She also encounters an English speaker, and risks getting to know him better. From here her quest appears more attainable, although what she discovers about O and its culture suggests her search must be carried out under the radar. Trusting anyone in a place subdued by constant surveillance proves difficult.

The authorities in O wish to encourage tourism – to project an image – but are also wary of tolerating change in locals’ freedoms. Cleo understands the inherent dangers, and tries to reel her daughter in.

The author builds elegant if dark layers within the story that enable the reader to delve in deep, although it may also be read straight. Wren is a determined young woman, she is a will-o’-the-wisp, she is an embodiment of the city.

Much as I enjoyed the author’s debut, Booker longlisted The Many, this tale has a more fluid and accomplished feel. There are similarities in the shadowy undercurrents, and the skill with which threads are woven together. Menmuir has spun a fascinating web that captured this reader’s attention fully. I was left sated while still thinking through issues raised.

A piercing, thought-provoking and highly recommended read.

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

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.