Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

distant ridgeline

“Although truth is something that we can experience, it is never possible to express it properly in language because there is always some part that will resist the expression – that will stay unsaid.”

On a Distant Ridgeline, by Sam Reese, is a collection of twelve short stories set around the world. The scope and breadth of the settings are matched by the subjects explored within these pages. That said there are recurring themes: man’s affinity with water; the beauty to be found in creativity; etymology and Greek myths. The tales are tinged with a melancholy born of thoughts of what might have been had other choices been made. Characters are searching for home, to be found in people rather than place.

The author employs each of the senses to create evocative imagery. Food has colour, texture and aroma as well as taste. Music draws out aspects of characters, previously unseen. The way individuals view greens and blues highlight the variations in how surrounds are experienced and remembered, even by those there together. Memory is fragmented, offering comfort as well as regret.

In a note at the end of the book Reese writes of the short story form:

“because they are so short, they must work by implication, giving us the precise words that will make us see a room, a dawn, the start of love, a death. A short story takes a person’s life, perhaps a single day, and shows us the world.”

In leaving much to implication, the reader is trusted to understand both the dissonance and connections in each relationship, how it is only possible to know a fraction about how another person parses their world.

I am unfamiliar with the many locations in which these stories are set but most of the characters are recognisable travellers across time as well as space. Placing characters away from where they grew up enables their sense of belonging and displacement to be explored. Decisions taken haunt with what might have been.

“Did you know that’s what I have admired about you from the start – not your hand per se, but the way you stretch it out and grasp. You want to know more, to begin to glimpse the way that things relate to one another, brush aside the veil, see the place where they connect. It is different to me, the way that you find connections. You are not an archivist, shoring bits of knowledge up against a future loss; you’re an architect, someone who can see the underlying pattern”

A life is described as ‘a whittling, a loss’, in the way fragments of wood get discarded to enable a craftsman to create a desired shape. Others live through gathering, collecting what may appear disparate clutter but has potential to come together as a thing of beauty.

The stories are of: family and friendships, finding love and suffering loss, regret and redemption. Characters include fathers, brothers, lovers, colleagues, young and old friends. Such universal motifs are wrapped within prose that absorbs and transports the reader. There is darkness and yearning but also radiance.

A finely varied collection that is rich and rewarding to read. These are stories to be savoured.

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

Book Review: Stories We Tell Our Children

stories tell children

“There is much conjecture as to how much degeneration occurred from the oral tradition, once it was set down on the page and ramrodded into the literary canon. But nothing compared to the twenty and twenty-first century mutation of the morals such tales were supposed to inculcate. Besides, contemporary children’s imaginations are scarce populated with denizens from the faerie realm. Magic and transformation these days takes place courtesy of fibre optics, usually through a gunsight and lots of pixelated cruor.”

Stories We Tell Our Children, by Marc Nash, is a collection of short stories that explore how children are shaped by the words they hear spoken by the adults charged with raising them. Although dark in places the writing style is playful. It brings to the fore how some of the best intentioned actions and interventions, when observed objectively, make little sense. It is not just parents who are put under the microscope of the author’s perceptive and piercing gaze. Many of the stories included follow the children as they grow and develop. The impact of their upbringing is often not what the parents intended or could have foreseen.

The collection opens with a mother teaching colours to her young offspring. It highlights how parents simplify facts and work to keep children engaged in such supposedly fine educational forays, while drifting off at tangents themselves. This is followed by a tale of a boy caught in the crossfire of warring parents, fearing that their battles will escalate, resulting in a murder. Children do not, after all, see the world through adult eyes. The third story looks at the tooth fairy myth, begging the question why such lies are propagated when children are routinely castigated for fibbing. The children in many of these stories are the ones offering the voice of reason.

Several of the tales are imbued by classic stories, pointing out that many of these have recently been sanitised with dubious rationale. Others deal with the lasting damage that closely involved parenting can wreak. It was interesting to consider that a degree of parental neglect can encourage a burgeoning imagination – required to overcome boredom. Many of the parents trying to raise future successes are shown to be attempting to fulfil their own dreams vicariously.

Rescinderella is a clever inversion of the Cinderella story – one I particularly enjoyed, if that is a suitable word for what is a tragedy. Certain of these tales include disturbing incidents – this is not a collection demanding a happy ever after. And it is not just the troubled who have issues. The gifted and talented also end up with crosses to bear.

The impact of books and reading are recurring themes. The author explores the fictions characters devour alongside those they create to make their lives appear more acceptable and interesting, especially to themselves. When stripped back to what is basic existence, where time passes however filled, there is a shadow of nihilism.

Yet this is an entertaining, not depressing, collection. While some of the stories resonated more than others, there is much to glean from each entry. As well as parenting habits, the author pokes fun at the conceits of creatives – with wit rather than callousness. If readers find mirrors within these words it is with a droll recognition.

The writing style employs much play on available language. The author does not employ simple language when more interesting forms of expression may be utilised. That said, there is nothing difficult in the reading.

The overarching theme may be the stories we tell our children and how these impact their development, but the tales also bring to light the stories we tell ourselves.

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

Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law

Book Review: An Island

an island

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An Island tells the story of Samuel, who is seventy years old when the tale opens. For the previous twenty-three years he has tended a lighthouse on a rocky islet, where he cultivates vegetables and keeps chickens. Requested supplies are delivered by boat each fortnight. Other than these brief visits, he lives alone.

Occasional bodies are washed up on his shores, refugees who have perished and who he buries. The authorities have no interest in those whose skin colour and facial features mark them as foreign.

The book is structured across four days that unfold in short segments with many flashbacks. On the first day Samuel finds the body of a man who turns out not to be as dead as he first appears. Although unwelcome, Samuel cannot bring himself to leave the incomer to perish. With some difficulty he moves the inert form to his cottage. When the man recovers consciousness they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. Samuel grows paranoid about the stranger’s intentions, especially when he starts to make himself too much at home.

Samuel’s backstory is gradually revealed when incidents remind him of events from his past. As a boy he and his family were driven from their rural valley smallholding by colonisers – the end of his peaceful and happy time. Those who survived the clearance fled to the city where they joined the ranks of beggars making trinkets to sell. At best this provided a subsistence living.

The unnamed African country goes through further periods of turmoil. The colonisers are replaced by a dictator who makes promises of improvement but feathers only the nests of himself and his supporters. Any who are caught speaking out against him are punished severely.

As a young man Samuel wanted to find a tribe he could belong to, latching on to a group of petty criminals and then a gathering of rebels. Neither, however, truly welcomed him. Given his circumstances and behaviour, it was no surprise to learn he ended up in prison for a time. Samuel had aspirations but little opportunity. However much he may have longed for acclaim, to make a difference amidst the poverty and turbulence, if he was to survive he could not be a hero.

“The films showed lovers, dance clubs, drugs and traffickers, as though that was all of it, everything. As though there were no history, and all the past was something that happened elsewhere, to be remembered by others.”

The brush strokes of Samuel’s past life help explain why he sought a solitary existence and struggled with trust. After his many challenging experiences, the island became his hard won refuge. When the stranger is thrust upon him he shows a degree of mercy but cannot set aside his ingrained fears, exacerbated by how hard he has worked to create a home. As the story is told only from Samuel’s point of view, the stranger remains an enigma. This works well in making him any man from elsewhere.

The author has crafted a subtle yet piercing portrayal of the costs of human subjugation and repeated rejection. Fear of the other has been inculcated, encouraged by those wielding authority. The writing is spare and evocative, the reader trusted to understand the whys and wherefores. Samuel’s island existence is rendered skillfully, his fears understood however abject.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement with which engagement is effortless. A thoughtful and lingering story that deserves its Booker Prize longlisting.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Dreamtime

dreamtime

“The details of that day continue to shimmer and twist, overlaid by layers of stories. What is memory, what dream, what haunting?”

Dreamtime, by Venetia Welby, opens in September 2035. Sol, an American woman approaching her thirtieth birthday, is nearing the end of her stay in a rehab facility that has weaned her from a drug habit. Sol spent her childhood in a controlling desert commune in Arizona before being taken into care, where she was regarded as troublesome and moved around frequently. Her best friend from her early years, Kit, may be the only person in her life who has not used and abused her. She gravitates towards older men, father figures, hankering after the man who left before she could know him. Her mother has always refused to talk of Sol’s father other than to berate his desertion. When she finally gives up his name and occupation, Sol determines to track him down.

Since leaving the commune, Kit has had a more stable upbringing. He remains damaged by his early experiences, grounding himself by always being there for Sol. When he learns of her plan to travel halfway round the world in order to meet the father she believes she has found via the internet, Kit agrees to accompany her. He is in love with Sol but harbours an unspoken fear that they may share paternity.

“The ever-present suspicion that what he wanted most might never happen was a tinnitus of the soul.”

The near future setting is key. Climate change and man-made pollution have rendered parts of the world all but uninhabitable. Sea levels have risen and ‘natural’ disasters increased in frequency and severity. Commercial flights are to be banned imminently giving Sol and Kit’s journey a time-critical element.

The pair fly to Japan where they discover the virtual world conjured via the internet does not reflect reality. Floods and earthquakes have unleashed pollutants and viruses. Wars and colonisers have all but wiped out indigenous cultures. Americans, who maintain a large military presence in the region, have caused much of the damage yet they mostly remain immune from justice. Those living back in their homeland hear nothing about the desecration wreaked.

“If you can’t trust what you see in the news, isn’t your only choice to live? Seize every experience by the balls. If you thought about the long-term consequence of every action you’d never do anything at all, would you? Terrified into inertia.”

Following the few leads they have, Kit and Sol travel from Tokyo to Okinawa, an island shadowed by dozens of US bases, there under the pretext of offering protection from China. As Sol descends once again into self-destructive behaviour, Kit finds himself struggling to protect her. Both are discovering that the Ryukyu archipelago harbours many ghosts of its past.

“Children don’t really need it explaining, though, that there’s another world that’s just as real as this one we call reality. I’ve always felt it. It’s just that it can’t be pinned down to any point on our spectrums of time or space. An in-between place.”

The author captures evocatively the hallucinatory nature of existence when in a strange place and under the influence of narcotics. She introduces many elements of local folklore alongside the impact of fear – real and from dreams. Kit may be more stable than Sol in his chosen behaviour but they both carry the scars of their shared history.

The intensity of the tale ratchets up when Sol and Kit are separated. The islands are hit by a typhoon and then an earthquake. Rumours of where her father could be lead Sol on an ever more risky trajectory. Kit must decide if the cost of trying to rescue her yet again is worth paying.

Welby’s writing style is original and uncompromising – as she proved in her debut, Mother of Darkness. Dreamtime is a step up but not away from this ability to conjure empathy for those whose behaviour is rebarbative. The sense of place – and how out of place incomers can be with their self-entitled behaviour – adds strength to a captivating tale tinged with regret. Man’s destructive behaviour continues despite the clear warnings of where it will lead. This is a disturbing journey exploring many varieties of abuse – of people and place – and the ripples triggered.

A story laced with shadows and beauty that reminds the reader how much we look away when to see becomes challenging. An arresting window into a future that is worryingly believable.

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

Book Review: The Angels of L19

angels of L19

The Angels of L19, by Jonathan Walker, tells the story of a group of Liverpool teenagers who attend a Christian church. In many ways they are typical of their age group, harbouring interests in popular music and the uniforms worn by youth subcultures they aspire to join. What sets them apart is the faith they have in a deity – and the questions this raises. If the bible recounts events that actually happened, why do modern day Christians not experience anything similar?

Two key characters are Robert and Tracey, who live in adjacent houses. Robert’s home life is grey and stifling. He is cared for by his aunt and uncle but their strict rules offer little in the way of love. He met Tracey, aged seven, when his mother was still alive – as a family they would visit. The youngsters grew closer when Robert moved in permanently, and now Tracey’s mother is dead too.

Tracey has always been a part of their evangelical church, her father being a founding member. She tries to live by its tenets but still finds questions arise around the detail. She attends bible study groups where debates about doubts and the devil provide few concrete answers. Robert is a ‘born again’ Christian, coming to the faith during a church camp the previous summer. His peers struggle to understand his strange behaviour and why Tracey remains so supportive.

When Robert becomes aware of a presence, he ponders if it could be an angel. In biblical times the faithful were visited by such beings who relayed messages from God. Nevertheless, he is wary of sharing what he sees, even with Tracey. His world grows ever more disturbed when the presence is joined by a naked girl that appears and talks only to him – and starts making demands.

The unfolding tale has the backdrop of Thatcher and Hatton – their clashes over funding for the city. The young people, while aware of political turmoil, have more insular concerns. Robert suffers disturbing dreams that he struggles to divorce from reality. They feature Tracey – and she is having them too.

The author builds a backstory for Robert that adds an element of ambiguity around whether what is happening to him is real or imagined. What, after all, are the facts of any individual’s reality – faith also requires belief without proof. Captured skilfully is the underlying, if often suppressed, complex dissonance within a church community. This is not confined to its younger congregation.

The plot may push at times into horror fantasy but the pacing and literary quality provide an engaging story that cannot be pigeon holed. The denouement offers a window into Tracey and Robert’s futures. The cyclical final chapter, however, left me with more questions than answers.

A beautifully produced book from a new press that aims to publish ‘core literary fiction’ because ‘books which are merely excellent can find themselves homeless.’ The Angels of L19 is certainly remarkable, and I mean that as praise.

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

Robyn Reviews: Velvet Was The Night

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a historical noir novel set in 1970s Mexico, a place of student protests and massive political unrest. It provides an intriguing insight into a piece of history rarely portrayed in fiction, and like all Silvia Moreno-Garcia novels is sharply written. Noir isn’t a genre I read particularly often, but for fans or those looking for a taut piece of historical fiction this is a solid read.

Mexico City, sometime in the 1970s. The government is cracking down on student protests, often forcefully, with shadowy gangs enlisted to do the dirty work. Elvis – a pseudonym only – has found himself part of one of these gangs, roughing up reporters and stealing information for his boss. It’s not the life he dreamed of, but it got him out of his dead-end hometown and he’s determined to never go back. At first glance, Elvis has little in common with Maite – a secretary who lives for vinyl records and the comic series ‘Secret Romance’. However, the disappearance of a student protestor named Leonora sets both of them on a path to find her. Against a backdrop of violence, hitmen, and simmering secrets, their lives draw inexorably closer – and Elvis finds himself captivated by a woman who shares both his love of rock and roll and the loneliness in his heart.

‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a brutal story. Elvis is the ultimate anti-hero – a gangster beating up journalists and students just on his boss’s say-so. Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job getting the reader to sympathise with him despite his violent actions. Elvis is obsessed with rock and roll and the West – idolising Elvis Presley- and dreams of success in a childlike, abstract way. He uses music to escape from the harsh reality of his life. Elvis is young and naive, and while he’s not always a nice character he’s one it’s easy to feel sorry for and root for.

Maite, on the other hand, is a self-deprecating woman to the extent it occasionally gets on the reader’s nerves. Just turning thirty, Maite adores romance – she troves through romantic comics, especially ‘Secret Romance’, and despairs of the fact that she still hasn’t found someone to share her life with. She has an independent streak, but – possibly due to the opinions of her family and society at large – hates herself for what she perceives as her inadequacies. She’s not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough at conversation. Maite is a perfectly average young woman and that drives her to despair. Like Elvis, it’s easy to feel sorry for Maite – but she’s harder to root for, especially as she inevitably makes terrible choices.

The best part of this book is the setting. Moreno-Garcia paints an incredible picture of 1970s Mexico, transporting the reader to a slice of history where danger lurks around every corner yet the mundanity of everyday life trundles on. There’s the constant fear of riots and the police, but also ordinary struggles like paying the mechanic and dealing with nagging parents. The dichotomy works beautifully, and whilst this is exaggerated pulp fiction its based on fact and those influences are fascinating.

The plot is entertaining. Most of the twists are easily guessable, but there are a few surprises, and this is intrinsically designed to be an easy-read book rather than one with too much hidden below the surface. It’s the perfect read after a long day when you want to switch off and not think too much. There are lots of references to the rock and roll scene – not something I’m familiar with, but fans will likely appreciate them.

The main weakness is a certain degree of separation between the reader and the characters. Maite and Elvis always feel like characters rather than fully rounded people. They’re a little too caricaturic – especially Maite. It’s still enjoyable, and it’s definitely a noir rather than a character study – but it would be nice if Maite was taken a little outside her romance-loving secretary stereotype.

Overall, ‘Velvet Was The Night’ is a solid noir novel with an intriguing historical basis and lots of references to the rock and roll music scene. It highlights once again Moreno-Garcia’s sheer versatility as a novelist, and provides a peek at a slice of history rarely referenced in modern media. Recommended for fans of noir and thriller novels along with those looking for a readable piece of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley and Jo Fletcher Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of this review

More Silvia Moreno-Garcia reviews can be found here: Mexican Gothic, The Beautiful Ones

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 17th August 2021

Book Review: The Echo Chamber

echo chamber

John Boyne is a prolific writer having had more than twenty books published since his first novel came out in 2000. I have read three of his previous works – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – and enjoyed them all. I have also met the author when he appeared at The Marlborough Literature Festival in 2017. He came across as warm and personable as well as being highly entertaining. All of this is to say that, as much as it is possible to like someone you don’t really know, I liked him.

In 2019 Boyne published a novel for younger readers, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I was dismayed to see the reaction to this book on social media. As I have not read it I cannot comment on the story, but the abuse Boyne received on Twitter demonstrated how toxic the platform can be when offense is taken. Perhaps it was this episode that inspired The Echo Chamber – a satire on how reputations can be trashed by those determined to ‘cancel’ any who do not agree with their opinion and support their cause.

The tale is told from the points of view of the Cleverley family, who enjoy a life of comfort, wealth and privilege. Sixty year old George works as a popular presenter at the BBC – where he has spent his entire adult life – conducting interviews with the great and the good, some of whom he now talks of as friends. His wife, Beverley, is an author of escapist fiction. Her books may not be regarded as highbrow but have sold in their millions around the world. Nelson, their eldest child, is a teacher with serious social issues. He longs for a girlfriend but struggles to converse in any acceptable way with women. His sister, Elizabeth, aspires to be an influencer, living for the likes and shares of her social media posts as she works to increase her follower count by whatever means. The youngest child, Achilles, is still at school but has found a way to earn money from his good looks, amassing thousands of pounds that he keeps hidden in his wardrobe. The story opens with a brief summary of his birth, an event that coincided with the creation of ‘The Facebook’.

George has always aimed to be open and liberal in his views. However, the contemporary world proves a minefield with its ever-changing vocabulary that must not be misused. When he tweets in support of a young trans woman, but uses the wrong pronoun, a can of worms is opened. With every attempt he makes to explain himself, he makes matters worse.

“‘I admit, I got that very wrong,’ said George, looking genuinely remorseful. ‘And I feel terrible about it. But the terms keep changing and it gets increasingly difficult to keep up. I would never intentionally say something racist, because I’m not racist. Nor, for that matter, would I deliberately insult a transgender person, because I’m not transphobic. But people don’t want to believe that because if they can put these labels on me, then they have a living, breathing human being upon whom they can take out their anger about inequality and injustice.”

One of the angry people seeking out well known names to castigate is Elizabeth. Calling out potentially controversial opinions is a means to garner attention on social media. She uses two Twitter handles, the one that keeps her identity hidden being particularly vitriolic with tweets that sometimes go viral.

Beverley, meanwhile, is working on her latest book while missing her handsome young Ukrainian lover and attempting to look after his tortoise. Absorbed as she is in her own dramas, she assumes her grown children – still living in the parental home and enjoying generous monthly allowances – are getting by fine. With each member of the family making use of the many apps on their smartphones, there is only limited in-person interaction.

The story being told starts well, slows down a little but then picks up and maintains a good pace. Given Boyne’s difficulties with his previous book, I at first questioned the risk he was taking introducing a trans woman as the subject of his first troublesome tweet. It then became clear that what is being explored is the challenge of mentioning any potentially controversial subject publicly. I am told that in real life there actually exist people who spend their time scrolling social media feeds to find someone well known to be outraged at. I had no idea shitstorms were so orchestrated.

Side threads in the unfolding plot bring to the fore how certain subjects can be poked for fun – perhaps in bad taste but generally ignored – while others carry a real risk of attack from the ‘Permanently Outraged of Twitter’ who are portrayed as living for the orgasmic power surge of having their victim ‘cancelled’. By creating protagonists who are in many ways flawed, Boyne demonstrates that it isn’t so much behaviour that is being policed but rather the use of a well known name that can be milked to promote a cause. Truth is unimportant when attention can be caught.

As the story approaches its denouement, the many ill thought out antics of each member of the Cleverley family are brought home to roost. The varied threads start to make sense as the gilded discover they too must face consequences. What had seemed all important is revealed as vacuous, although with money no problem their reckoning could be much worse.

I enjoyed this tale for the witty exchanges and the forthright unmasking of the bullying nature of cancel culture. Boyne may have been driven to leave social media by the furore created around his supposed views, but if staying on message is the only acceptable conversation, critical thinking and listening will become lost skills, to the detriment of all.

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

Book Review: Source

Source

“the book was musty, as if all the old words had gone off a bit, unused and trapped inside. Let us out! they might whisper. And the words in it might well be the key to unlocking the past. But the odour the trapped words gave off seemed to hold within it an accusation that it was the past itself that was tainted, no matter which words were chosen to describe it.”

Source, by Rosemary Johnston, is a short and beautifully written novella about a woman returning to her childhood home on the west coast of Ireland, to clear it out after the deaths of her parents. She is accompanied by her daughter who knows little about the toxic atmosphere that drove her mother to escape as soon as she felt able. In spare and evocative prose the author explores how our past haunts and shapes us, and how the words we use to communicate have a power of their own.

The woman, Kate, intends to throw away the contents of the old family farmhouse, wanting no reminder of the mother she grew to resent after her father left them. She values only a couple of books that had belonged to the father, who she remembers fondly. These fostered in her a lifelong love of language. Kate’s daughter, Lavinia, is both fascinated and appalled by the state of the house and its surrounds, struggling to imagine her London based mother living in rural Connemara. As the days pass Kate finds herself drawn back to childhood memories, and the repercussions of events she worked hard to put behind her.

The sense of place is skilfully rendered, as are the shadows cast by parents when they turn on offspring. It is shown that leaving home is only possible physically. Just as words carry their etymologies, so people cannot free themselves from their roots and memories, experience moulding but from a set base.

“[words] contain our histories. They tell our stories, our stories are written in them. Like genes, words give instructions. They can send the right or wrong message. Like genes, words mutate.”

What is a simple and engaging tale of family history rises above the ordinary with its brevity and depth. There are moments of tension but also redemption. A fine example of original storytelling that I wholeheartedly recommend.

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

Robyn Reviews: The Goblin Emperor

‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet fantasy novel with real emotion and heart. It avoids the battle scenes and epic magical powers usually associated with the fantasy genre, instead focusing entirely on court politics and one man trying to figure out how to rule a country without mortally offending – or being deposed by – all his subjects. There are moments of despair, of anger, of pain – but ultimately this is a hopeful story, an ideal balm for a tough day.

Maia, the emperor’s youngest son, has lived most of his life in exile. An unwanted reminder of the emperor’s fourth wife – and a stain on the Elvish line for his half-Goblin heritage – he’s never been educated on the ways of the Imperial Court, or ever expected to set foot in it. However, when an accident wipes out his father and his three elder brothers, Maia finds himself in the strange position of suddenly being crowned Emperor. He has no friends, no advisors, and no knowledge of court politics. Even worse, the accident might not have been so accidental – and the assassins could come back for Maia at any moment. Surrounded by scheming politicians and gossips, Maia can trust nobody. He must adjust to his new life as emperor and try to get to grips with the intricacies of court life before someone sees fit to depose him – or worse.

Maia is one of the sweetest fantasy protagonists of all time. He cares about everyone and just wants everyone to be happy – an impossible task when running an entire empire. He’s intelligent but quiet, and his lack of poise and tendency to get overwhelmed and flustered mean most others see him as an idiot. More than anything, Maia is lonely. Since his mother died when he was eight he hasn’t had a true friend – his guardian after her death was abusive, leaving him mentally and physically scarred, and as the emperor he can’t be seen to favour anyone. Maia is constantly making mistakes, but he tries his hardest to do the right thing despite his lack of education and understanding. His growth throughout the novel is wonderful to see, and every time he stands up for himself it makes you want to applaud.

While Maia is the only point-of-view character, there are several major supporting characters. Maia can’t be too friendly with any of them, so their depths aren’t fully explored, but all of them still feel well-rounded. There’s Cala and Beshelar, his sworn bodyguards – Cala overly relaxed and informal, Beshelar the complete opposite and a stickler for formality and protocol. There’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary who ensures he isn’t completely clueless what’s going on and essentially runs the empire while he figures out the basics. On the flipside, there’s the Lord Chancellor, a man who starts the novel by trying to delay Maia’s coronation and the rest making his job as emperor as difficult as possible – despite being outwardly helpful. There’s also his late father’s fifth wife, now a widow, who despises him for keeping her own children off the throne. There are hundreds more named characters – which can be overwhelming, and the novel likely doesn’t need so many, but it gives a good impression of how busy court life is and how many people an emperor has to remember.

Aside from Maia, it’s the worldbuilding that makes this novel great. The Elflands in ‘The Goblin Emperor’ have their own patterns of speech – with several different grades of formality depending on who is being addressed – distinct titles, a complex government and political hierarchy, and of course tangled relationships between the prominent families within the Elflands and the other lands on their borders – including the Goblin homeland. The detail is staggering, and Addison weaves it all in with great skill, dripfeeding information to both Maia and the reader gradually so its never overwhelming. The speech patterns in particular take a while to get used to – as do the various titles for people (denoting gender, marital status, and importance, among other things) – but after a while things start to make sense, and it makes the experience in a different culture more immersive.

The plot takes a backseat – this is more a study of a fictional culture, and to a lesser extent a character study of Maia. Events do happen – slowly, with no real overlying arc beyond the development of Maia’s character and the discovery of what caused his father and brothers to die – but there’s more focus on the minutiae of running a country, something which is glossed over in most books. There’s a great deal of attention paid to how it feels to be emperor – the lack of privacy, the inability to truly confide in anyone, the knowledge that everyone is using you for some sort of political gain. There are also smaller threads – Elfland society is patriarchal, and women’s rights are a recurring theme. The issue of having Goblin blood in an Elf-run society is raised less than the blurb would suggest – it seems to be regarded as more of an issue by Maia himself than anyone else, an interesting exploration of internalised racism. Moral dilemmas are regularly posed for both Maia and the reader to consider. Some passages can grow a little tedious – court life is repetitive – but the overall effect is immersive and intriguing.

There are minor issues. Some of the naming customs, combined with the sheer number of characters, mean that certain characters can become very difficult to tell apart and its not always clear why the reader should care. There’s a helpful glossary provided, but having to flick to and from a glossary on a regular basis affects the flow. The book is also probably a shade long – at 450ish pages its average or even short for epic fantasy, but certain sections do start to stray too much into banality and could be trimmed down without affecting the books overall feel. In general, however, its a very strong book, one that takes a very different angle to most fantasy novels and carries it off remarkably.

In summary, ‘The Goblin Emperor’ is a quiet and intimate fantasy novel that acts as a study of court politics and a character study of a young emperor rather than telling a complete story. For those interested in political machinations and what happens in fantasy kingdoms after all the fighting, or just looking for a heartwarming and hopeful read, this is the book for you.

A sequel set in the same world but focusing on a different character, ‘The Witness for the Dead’, was published by Solaris on 22nd July 2021.

Published by Solaris
Paperback: 21st March 2019