Book Review: The Book of Alexander

The Book of Alexander, by Mark Carew, is a slow burn that is well worth persevering with. What may in the first half feel protracted is shown to be necessary to reel the reader in. Once the pace picks up sinister elements add to the tension. The trope of unreliable narrator is harnessed masterfully.

The story opens with a personal investigator being contracted to observe and write a report on a young arts student by the father of his girlfriend. Having ascertained where the young man lives the PI gains permission from a business opposite the house to use a disused showroom as his observation base. He watches. He follows. He makes notes on what he sees. As the days pass the reader will become aware of a growing number of inconsistencies in the narrative. Although somewhat discombobulating this will likely be accepted until understood for what it is.

The student, Alexander, socialises with beautiful women. They visit his house and the PI grows intrigued by what is happening inside each room. Eventually he gains entry and the reader learns of Alexander’s art project. Aspects of the backstory that have already started to shift become ever more unstable.

“The happy couple, and they did look happy, passed at a good distance from where I stood, partially hidden as I was behind a lamppost in the side street. I could see their faces, Melanie still wearing her trademark blue beret. I gave them a one-minute head start, enough time for them to cross the river and reach the other side, and then I climbed out of the car and followed them.”

Who is the PI? Who is Alexander? Who has asked for the report being written?

As the answers to these questions are revealed more complex mysteries bubble to the surface. Alexander wishes to reveal to his subjects how other’s see them. He asks that they observe themselves as a third party would. He is most interested in understanding himself in this way. He acts out roles to observe their effect.

His art is at times destructive. There are also suggestions of a more sinister history. Human skulls are mentioned as is an acquaintance who survived a fall from a great height. Parental support may be welcome but is not always benign.

From a gentle, at times sluggish beginning this tale develops into a disturbing, self-reflective chiller. The shifting perspectives demonstrate how filtered any observation of people will be. Alexander seeks subjects for his art. Readers may find themselves captured by his gaze.

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

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Book Review: Quartier Perdu

Quartier Perdu, by Sean O’Brien, is a collection of eighteen short stories. Many play on the suppressed fears of academics and writers – their desire for acclaim and to build a creative legacy. From within the rich, dark undercurrents much humour percolates. The author touches lightly on jealousies and ego yet gets to the heart of a quiet desperation. Those who regard themselves as successful bask in the company of:

“others wearing a thin blanket of carefully nursed resentment at their unsuccess”

The themes are vivid, often surreal. There is violence in association.

The collection opens with a story about an unbalanced relationship. Set in London during the Second World War, two young women employed by the BBC are vying for the attention of a colleague. In an attempt to gain the upper hand Vicky declares she has had enough and is going home, expecting Ray to accompany her. She ends up leaving alone. Unsure of her bearings she gets caught up in an air raid. Escaping underground she meets a ferryman. Their journey is cathartic.

The Sea-God is set in a remote, Greek bay at the end of the holiday season. A creative writing tutor has completed his contractual obligations and is enjoying a few days holiday. He is aware that, after close to twenty years, his star is on the wane.

“he and the public had begun to grow bored with his work, but readers of thrillers were a loyal bunch and would not wholly desert him for a while yet. After all, they had worked their way into their fifties with his books reliably to hand every summer. Why change now?”

Finding a journal in a drawer by his bedside he starts to translate the German text. His dreams become more vivid; his hosts pay him more attention. When a storm blows in he finds himself trapped in what many would regard as an idyll. He struggles to understand if what is happening to him can be real.

Several of the stories rely on drug taking to blur the edges between fear and reality. These drugs may be recreational, sinister, or administered by medical practitioners. There are those claiming to want to help. The protagonists struggle to retain control of their own minds and to convince others of their right to agency despite observed behaviour.

The legacy of dead writers is shown to be deeply personal and affecting. Quartier Perdu sees a young academic drawn into the dark world of the writer she has chosen to study for her PhD. Revenant explores the impact on a writer who believes he was the subject of another’s famous work.

Libraries feature in several of the stories. In The Good Stuff an academic is tasked with going through the meticulously maintained back catalogue of a recently deceased, prolific and popular author – one he does not regard as of much literary merit – to judge what should be bid for by his university. He discovers a sinister deal, one that could have ongoing consequences which would be hard to explain.

Ex Libris is a delicious dig at critics. A wealthy author takes exception to published views on his work and seeks vengeance.

Keeping Count is another tale of revenge. A self satisfied, aging poet agrees to be Master of Ceremonies at the interment of a supposed friend’s ashes.

“Of course, there was really nobody else to fill the role. He had gravitas, and he could still speak in sentences.”

As he muses on his plan to bed the widow he comes to realise that she has her own agenda.

A Green Shade is a wonderful satire on the modernisation of institutions of tertiary education. A new Head of Department, Todd, is using concerns over Health and Safety to cancel the long-standing tradition of an annual play. A retiring professor – whose Chair in Renaissance Studies will not be replaced – plans a swansong with the help of other discarded staff members who understand the true value of education.

“Todd’s Mission Vision, or whatever he was calling it, was of a merger with Media and Communications. ‘Let’s make English useful again!’ was his motto.”

An ancient play is resurrected and performed literally.

The final story, The Aspen Grove, introduces a writer in retirement who has settled in a quiet English backwater where he is trying to write a novel no one is pushing him for.

“People knew he wrote. He was said to have been working on a book for some years. Faced with his impermeable politeness on the topic, people had given up telling him that if they too had time on their hands like him they would also write books.”

Observing the habits of the locals living around him he misunderstands what actions are acceptable and suffers the consequences.

The writing in this collection is witty and at times piercing but always compelling. By blurring the edges of what may be defined as an individual’s reality, many ideas and their impact are touched upon. Carefully crafted to tell a story with penetrating understatement, this was an entertaining if occasionally sardonic read.

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

Book Review: A Small Dark Quiet

A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold, is a tale of people damaged by war and grief, who leave a legacy of suffering in the families they raise. The dislocation of the characters and their resolute but often failed attempts to integrate in a structured society make this a challenging read.

The story opens in London, 1945, just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War. Sylvie has given birth to twin boys – Harry and Arthur – but only one has lived. The body of little Arthur was removed, disposed of before his mother could even hold him. In a country where many mothers will never again see their beloved children, where a city and its people have suffered so much loss and destruction, Sylvie is admonished – told she should be feeling grateful for her surviving child.

Sylvie had little time to get to know her husband, Gerald, before he went off to fight in the war. She had travelled to London for work and a new life, and been swept away by his courtship. With only brief periods of leave during the war years, Sylvie’s mother-in-law made pointed allusions to the legitimacy of the babies during her pregnancy.

Gerald’s father returned from his earlier war a broken man and eventually could no longer be cared for at home so was taken to live in an institution – an abiding source of shame for his son. Sylvie is warned by his wife to get over her grief and be sure to welcome Gerald back home with calm and open arms.

Gerald eventually returns, affected by the war but determined to hold his nerve and still his shaking hands. He is dismayed that his smiling wife has also changed. To cure Sylvie’s enduring grief at the loss of their baby he suggests they adopt one of the orphaned children from abroad being offered by the government as part of their post-war negotiations. The couple take in a boy who is the same age as Harry and rename him Arthur.

Sylvie is kind to this second Arthur who harbours buried memories of the violent deaths he witnessed in his first few years of life. She tells him stories of her little Arthur that affect him deeply. Gerald struggles to contain his impatience with this small, frightened boy who is so different from his brother. In fits of suppressed rage Gerald pours forth words that shape Arthur’s sense of worth and self.

The tale moves forward along several time frames in parallel. These include memories of the boys’ childhood and Sylvie’s gradual disintegration. Gerald tries to turn his sons into little soldiers whilst denying their Jewish heritage – he saw too plainly what can happen to practising Jews in times of conflict. As a teenager Arthur secretly explores the world of the synagogue. I was unsure what to make of this religious segment which felt unnecessarily prolonged given its importance in the wider plot progression.

Of more interest in these childhood chapters was how the boys were treated by Sylvie before she gave herself up to her enduring grief, and how Gerald struggled to cope with a family that did not match the standard he himself was working so hard to attain. These complex threads eventually coalesce to offer an empathetic portrayal of PTSD.

The later time frame details Arthur’s attempts to break away from the effects of Gerald’s bullying and make an independent life for himself. Arthur is thwarted by his inability to sustain the strength to apply himself to endeavours: college, a job, a relationship. He ends up being used by a young woman, Lydia, who is herself damaged. His acceptance of her behaviour was frustrating to read.

Arthur is shown kindness by his landlord and another tenant – a Polish survivor of the German camps. This latter thread was not developed as I expected.

The fragmented timeline is presented piecemeal. At times it was disorientating but mostly held together. The cast are presented as they appeared to Arthur rather than with much depth in themselves.

The writing is strong if somewhat distressing in places – the author does not baulk from her subject matter. There is little to like about many of the characters but they are shown to be victims of circumstance and upbringing. Not everyone will find the strength to rise above the trials they face. As such there is little uplifting amidst a series of devastating experiences for the reader to consider.

Those who prefer a tale to be completed with all threads tied and a denouement reached may finish this book and feel dissatisfied. The interweaving of numerous messy lives is portrayed with the inherited damage caused and there is no neat ending. Although dark the final take from the tale is empathetic. It is a powerful if somewhat fractured read.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.

Book Review: Liminal

“The rhythm of the glen, the rhythm of new life in the language of the old ones.”

Liminal, by Bee Lewis, takes a series of typically modern day problems and plays them out within the backdrop of a timeless and somewhat threatening wilderness. There are surreal elements and sections where the language and imagery are rich to the point of over indulgence. Dream sequences are necessarily mystical and somewhat disturbing. Their intensity requires interpretation that I’m not convinced I achieved.

The day to day sections are written as more standard domestic thriller with just a suggestion of the supernatural. The protagonists are struggling with a frustrating inability to communicate.

The story is told over the course of a week leading up to Easter. Esther and her husband, Dan, have uprooted their comfortable lives in the centre of vibrant Bristol to move to a remote glen in the Highlands of Scotland. They have purchased a long disused railway station which they intend to renovate and turn into a writers’ centre. Cut off from mobile phone signals and internet access, the radical change they have chosen is yet another challenging shift in lives already derailed.

Esther is newly pregnant and determined to make her faltering marriage work for the sake of their child. Her own childhood was difficult, although she now plans to try to build bridges. She regards the move as a fresh start and a way to remove Dan from the influence of his overbearingly religious father. Esther is still grieving two recent and significant losses. Dan is struggling to cope with his enforced change of career. Neither is able to talk to the other about their true feelings. Both are keeping secrets while blaming the other for not sharing.

Arriving at their new home they discover the fridge and cupboards unexpectedly stocked with food. A neighbour, Mike, pops by to introduce himself and explain that this is by way of welcome. When a thick fog settles over the land overnight it becomes too risky to leave the glen. Esther is suffering intense dreams where she is being hunted in the neighbouring forests. As an amputee her mobility is impaired.

The trees and the various creatures observe the new arrivals. Each day is a struggle to contain festering resentments. Esther is aware of her marital issues but tries to suppress their importance. These play out in her dreams which appear to offer both threat and potential for freedom. At times she feels inexplicably attuned to her surroundings but cannot understand what they are trying to tell her. Dan is concerned she is suffering some sort of breakdown.

Over the course of the coming days Mike is a regular visitor. He and Dan are at ease with each other – Esther has never previously seen her husband relax in this way. She is also drawn to Mike but unsure how to behave with him. Esther is unsettled, unable to quash her suspicion that Dan is once again hiding important facts from her. The fog renders them prisoners in a building that harbours its own secrets.

The failing marriage, the cut off setting and the enigmatic stranger are well portrayed. The dream sequences and anthropomorphised nature add to the spooky tension. The plot progression felt somewhat slow at times until the denouement. The reveal had been foreshadowed, but required a sudden character shift.

There were aspects of the story that I wanted to work – interesting ideas and suggestions. The writing conjured the requisite disturbance but ultimately lacked coherence. I wish it were otherwise but this affected my enjoyment. It was not a tale that worked for me.

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

Book Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, is a collection of nine short stories, some of which are standalone and others interlinked. It opens with a triptych involving the writer of a highly successful fantasy series and her one time boyfriend who became a moderately successful poet. The jealousies and elitism of the literary world feature. There is desire for recognition and esteem but also commercial success.

Throughout the collection the protagonists are mostly elderly, looking back over their lives with a degree of regret. It is refreshing to have older people portrayed fully rounded – as more than a stereotype or the first impression they give.

The first story is Alphinland in which Constance is mourning the recent death of her husband, Ewan. An ice storm is blowing in and, for the first time, she must deal with the practicalities of the event herself. She still hears Ewan talk to her, offering advice that is prescient. Constance welcomes this interaction. When alive Ewan had been supportive if somewhat condescending of her achievements. She is a prolific author whose books have been developed on multiple media including a popular on line game. Despite its success, her work has long been derided by the literary establishment. Ewan struggled to take what she did seriously. Constance used it as a means of escape and a way to punish those who hurt her, including the woman she blames for the break up of her first serious relationship with a poet who regarded his own work as far superior.

The second story, Revenant, introduces the reader to Gavin and his much younger third wife, Reynolds. Gavin is bored and frustrated by the way she now treats him – like ‘a dysfunctional pet’. He believes women should ‘labour to be beautiful’, and hankers back to the years when they did so and then fell for his charms, accepting the inevitability of his advances even when forced. He is also frustrated that the poems he now writes are past their best. When a young student arranges to interview him he behaves badly – mainly because it is not his work that is the focus of her research.

The final story in the triptych is Dark Lady in which Jorrie indulges her fixation with other people’s deaths. She lives with her twin brother, Tin, who does his best to steer her wilder impulses away from appearing foolish to a casually critical public audience. When Jorrie spots that an old boyfriend, Gavin Putnam, has died she wishes to attend the funeral. Tin reluctantly agrees to accompany her. It proves an enlightening experience as adversaries come together and long held misconceptions are aired.

Lusus Naturae tells the tale of a child who contracts an illness that turns her into a monster. Aware that having such a being in the family will adversely affect her sister’s future prospects the family fake the monster child’s death. She must then live her life out of sight, something she is content to do. Over time, however, this proves a lonely existence. A quest for a mate puts her in deadly danger.

The Freeze Dried Groom offers up another man who feels frustrated that he cannot indulge his desires for the personal attention of beautiful and compliant women. Sam owns an antique shop, buying the contents of storage units as a means of sourcing stock. He also has a sideline. On the day his wife asks him to leave he finds more than he bargained for inside a newly purchased unit. The prospect of risk with potential reward proves hard to resist.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from the author’s novel The Robber Bride. Elderly friends are concerned when an old flame makes a move on the gullible Charis, worrying that he has his eye on her recent inheritance. They had persuaded her to get a dog in the hope it would offer protection. They come to believe that the dog may be more wily than expected.

The Dead Hand Loves You is another tale of a successful writer affected throughout his long life by actions during his college years. Jack Dace is still best known for his first work, a horror story that was subsequently adapted for film. He has never felt quite comfortable with the literary worth of the novel that has provided his wealth, and how he is therefore perceived by those he wishes to impress. He is also resentful that the housemates he had while writing the book have benefited from his material success. He sets out to avenge what he regards as their unfair exploitation.

Stone Mattress is the tale of a serial killer – a woman who has made her fortune by seeking out wealthy but unwell husbands and then bringing about their deaths. Set on an arctic expedition, it was written when the author was on such an adventure as a way of entertaining fellow passengers with a story of how to murder one of their number without getting caught. It is a tale of revenge.

The collection is rounded off with Torching the Dusties, a troubling exploration of what could happen if young people grew so angry with the wealthy elderly, who they blame for making their world so bleak, that they decide to forcibly end their lives. Set in an upmarket care home, the secluded environment is put under siege when protesters cut off supplies and remove staff. The residents rally, but outside the protest is gaining support and momentum.

As may be expected from Margaret Atwood, these stories are skilfully written with many touching but also piercing asides. There is humour and wit, especially around the frustrated entitlement felt by certain men, and the literati. Although I prefer the development and depth of her longer works there is much here that can be dipped into and enjoyed. A well polished, engaging and worthwhile read.

Stone Mattress is published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: The Little Snake

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Little Snake is written in the style of a fairy tale, although it contains no fairies. It is a story about people and the effects of the choices they make – especially on themselves. Certain place names are used but the settings are universal. Man made borders are troublesome. All cities contain those who hoard and then worry about holding on to money and possessions they will never truly need.

The tale opens in the garden of a small dwelling where a young girl, Mary, lives with her parents.

“Standing in her garden – which was on a rooftop and a bit bigger than a big tablecloth – she could look one way and see the very many sad, tiny houses of the squashed-in people. If she looked the other way, she could see the tall, sparkling buildings full of crocodiles and meadows.”

Mary is engrossed in a game when she encounters a beautiful snake. She decides to call him Lanmo. He understands how unusually clever she is and they become the best of friends. Lanmo spends time with Mary, accompanying her to school where the foolishness of the modern education system helps him understand why some people end up behaving so stupidly.

“’No’, said the teacher. “We should be proving that we are clever so that the National Test Assessors can assess us, and when we have been assessed we can move on to our next assessment.’”

Mary learns little of value at school. At playtime she is either ignored or rebuffed by the groups of “Very Attractive Friends”. When Lanmo sees how she is treated by her peers he is angered. Emotions are new to him, and challenging to deal with. He discovers that love causes pain. He starts to see people through new eyes and changes the way he behaves with some of them.

Mary reads books and then dreams of the adventures she will have when old enough to go exploring in jungles, oceans, glaciers and deserts. Lanmo’s job takes him all over the world and he cautions her about the dangers she may face. He talks of lions and bears. What will hurt her though are the actions of men.

Lanmo encounters many causes of such wickedness: the greed and thoughtless cruelty that grows alongside increases in wealth; the violence people in power invoke to maintain their positions; family members impatient for their inheritance. None of this makes a difference where Lanmo is concerned. Until he met Mary he had not cared how those he was required to visit had lived.

Lanmo returns to Mary on several occasions as she grows into a young woman. He observes how her home city becomes increasingly battle scarred and dangerous. He cannot protect her from damage and loss caused by other people’s choices which remain freely made. What he offers are continuing good dreams amidst the difficulties she must deal with.

Any Cop?: The story is deceptive in its simplicity, almost childlike yet keenly perceptive. Its message is not new but is beautifully rendered. There remains hope because each of us may choose to be kind, even if this means not adhering to the prescribed culture we live in. It is a tale for our times.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Longbourn Letters

The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence Between Mr Collins and Mr Bennet, by Rose Servitova, is an epistolary novel that imagines how these two men’s friendship may have developed and continued after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice drew to its happy conclusion. The preface summarises the original story and explains why the author chose to write the book. There then follows a prologue offering an explanation of how such letters may have come to light. I am a tad wary of authors taking a much loved story and writing beyond it but this section, the prologue, was the only part of the novel that I found unconvincing – and unnecessary. The heart is the letters and they provide entertaining and worthwhile reading.

Presented in date order and divided into the seven years during which the two men correspond, the first two years include the timeframe in which Pride and Prejudice is set. Mr Collins writes to Mr Bennet offering an ‘olive branch’ in his desire to end a family breach and visit with his cousin. Subsequent letters offer a commentary on events from each of the men’s perspectives. There are references to Mr Collins’ matrimonial rejection by Elizabeth Bennet and subsequent engagement to Charlotte Lucas. The author perfectly captures the voices of the men – Mr Collins’ pomposity and the delight Mr Bennet takes in mocking this without the other realising.

At times Mr Collins’ well intentioned advice stings to the extent that Mr Bennet responds with less candour. A further breach of friendship occurs as a result but this is eventually healed.

The impression is given that the women in the tale exchange letters regularly, thereby sharing the minutae of their lives which they pass on in subsequent conversations. The two men write a mere handful of letters each year, usually to acknowledge significant events or arrange to meet. Thus the content is on point – marriages and births along with asides on reading recommendations and mildly competitive updates on hobbies such as gardening. Mr Collins is by far the greater gossip, especially as regards his standing at Rosings and news of his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr Bennett obviously delights in such updates and encourages his friend to reveal all the juicy details.

Although at times there are little barbs and asides, the relationship between the men is one of warmth and increasing affection. Their characters remain true to Jane Austen’s creations. It is interesting to read of how the Bennet girls’ lives develop but the story’s strength is that it focuses on the men who love and support them.

It is also interesting to consider the lives of the independently wealthy in Georgian times. The intrigues, gossip, frustrations and highlights are well portrayed. This though is a tale of a friendship, one that ebbs and flows but ultimately enriches. Recommended to all who enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, it is a warm, humorous and engaging read.

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