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.

Advertisements

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: Chicken Unga Fever

There have been a plethora of books written in recent years by doctors and other health professionals about the cases they treat and how they cope with the challenges of a job involving potentially life and death decisions. Chicken Unga Fever, by Dr Phil Whitaker, provides a series of snapshots of the working life of a GP. It is a collection of the author’s ‘Health Matters’ columns from the New Statesman magazine, where they have appeared fortnightly for the past five years. Each entry is short – typically a couple of pages in length – and the book is best dipped into rather than read in a sitting. What emerges is a gentle and humane view of the nation’s health from the perspective of a front line doctor who is expected to recognise every ill within a ten minute consultation and offer effective treatment.

Doctors are human and will sometimes make mistakes – an increasingly litigious culture can thus detrimentally affect outcomes as they strive to protect themselves professionally. When rare disorders are encountered they may take some time to diagnose – no doctor can remember every possible symptom and illness. In Britain they work within a system that demands ever more time and cost savings, encountering patients who will already have consulted Dr Google without understanding background and context. With the recent marked increase in obesity, patients are not always able or willing to help themselves.

Some of the cases included are heartbreaking to read – not so much in the experiences of the dying but rather their treatment of those who love and support them when confronted by their imminent mortality. There are interesting musings on medical myths – how science may not always provide the sought after cure. I found it surprising that a doctor would have faith in chiropractors or acupuncture but psychosomatic illnesses are becoming more widespread so perhaps such treatments can prove beneficial for those who believe in them. It was no surprise to learn that a balanced diet, adequate rest and regular exercise can be effective as longer term solutions for many ills.

“If someone is in poor health then there are likely to be myriad contributors. Some, like genes or age, we can do little about. But what we eat, how much rest and recreation we grant ourselves, what exercise we take, our sense of security and autonomy, and our levels of deprivation, are all important determinants that can be addressed – some at a personal level, others socio-politically. The success of scientific medicine has led to the belief that there’s a pill to solve every ill. Our medical forebears would be astounded by the efficacy of our drugs, but equally bemused by our inability to take care of ourselves.”

There is discussion of many issues – from well meaning but ultimately nagging government health promotions that put patients off consulting doctors, to unnecessary testing as a means of reassuring the patient that all possible avenues are being explored but which can lead to false positives that end up doing more harm than good. These false positives also occur when private companies become involved in screening programmes – the more tests they do the more money they make. Modern tests such as MRI and CT scans can spot potentially scary lumps and bumps that the body may successfully cope with given time. Not all precancerous cells become malignant, or develop quickly. Interventions are not always in the patient’s best interests.

The details of the various consultations are presented in calm and measured language. Patients are treated with compassion and respect. Doctors may be best placed to know how to most effectively allocate scarce resources but patients will not always appreciate decisions made that do not provide them with the care they seek. The over prescribing of antibiotics is a case in point, and one that will likely cause future problems for the patient.

The author talks of his more personal experiences as a doctor – such as when called to treat a patient on a holiday flight, or at a child’s school event. He also comments on the equipment and therefore treatments offered in other countries, comparing Zambia and then the USA with Britain’s facilities.

“I want our health service to be as good as it can be, but the juxtaposition with what I was witnessing in Zambia felt raw. UK medical students undertake electives abroad to gain valuable perspectives on healthcare elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it’s time our politicians did likewise.”

Although garnering the occasional mention this is not a political book. The short entries offer an overview of the day to day life of a GP in today’s NHS – the importance of trust and teamwork. It makes for sobering but also comforting reading. The media may love to paint a bleak picture of current UK healthcare, mostly still available to all despite the current government’s endeavours. With continual medical advances I would posit that this is one area that few would wish to revert to ‘the good old days’.

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

Book Review: Sunny and the Ghosts

Sunny and the Ghosts, by Alison Moore, is quirky and captivating. It is the author’s first book for children (there is wise advice for aspiring young writers on her linked website). The tale is enhanced by appealing pencil illustrations by Ross Collins. It is the first book in a proposed series.

The protagonist is eight year old Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. When not at school Sunny helps out with tidying, polishing and arranging the stock. His dad mends any items that are broken. Sunny’s mum then describes them as ‘good as new’, a phrase that Sunny and his dad find curious. They like old things and Sunny feels regret when favoured items from the shop are sold.

The story opens with the arrival of a Victorian piano and a blanket box. Inside the box Sunny finds a ghost. His parent’s accept this disclosure calmly even though they cannot see the apparition. Sunny isn’t sure if they believe him.

A regular visitor to the shop is Mr Ramsbottom. He browses until well after closing time and sells more things than he buys. Often he then changes his mind and wants the items back, paying no heed to the fact they may now be mended.

Over the course of days and weeks more stock is brought into the shop and Sunny finds more ghosts. They play the piano at night, read books plucked from shelves and move things around leaving the shop untidy. Sunny’s parents ask if he is responsible. Even the ghosts deny culpability. Sunny discovers that, just like living people, not all ghosts are well behaved.

Sunny takes the ghosts along on a trip to the seaside. He teaches one of them to read. He comes to realise that it doesn’t really matter what others believe so long as they remain open to possibilities.

The writing is clear and well structured, avoiding over simplification. Interest and momentum are maintained. There is humour and kindness alongside the mischief and mystery. A delightful and satisfying read for any age.

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

Book Review: Best British Short Stories 2018

Edited by Nicholas Royle, this 2018 collection of twenty short stories is the eighth in an annual series published by Salt. It provides eclectic and engaging reading with stories selected from a range of authors, although as the title suggests to qualify for inclusion all contributors must be British. The stories have previously appeared in a wide variety of print and online magazines and anthologies.

The collection opens with Payman’s Trio, written by the late Colette De Curzon, and one of several chilling tales. Set in last century’s post war London the voice is appropriately evocative of the time period, somehow deferential when compared to contemporary writing. The story begins with the purchase of a second hand book that places an uncanny musical score into the hands of a musician. When he and his friends perform the piece they realise the folly of their curiosity.

Although written by British authors quite a number of the stories are set abroad. A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica, by Adam O’Riordan, tells of a faltering long distance relationship that culminates in the titular event. It is the characters’ thoughts, behaviour and observations more than a plot that provide interest.

Trio for Four Voices, by Jane McLaughlin, is another character driven tale located abroad. Tension is maintained as the narrator is drawn into the scheming of a family staying in the same hotel. Like the previous offering, the temporary nature of the setting adds an element of dislocation.

In contrast, How to be an Alcoholic, by William Thirsk-Gaskill, features a narrator very much stuck at home, although whose actions are inexorably leading to a crisis that may cast him adrift. It is a story of self-inflicted breakdown that he observes whilst lacking the will to change.

We Are Methodists, by Alison MacLeod, introduces a plumber with a terrible history who decides to share his dark background with his client, a stranger recently moved into her new home. Unburdening to loved ones risks their judgement and a change of perception. A stranger’s reaction can be more straightforward to deal with.

Life Grabs, by Adrian Slatcher, is a disturbing tale of a man whose young son disappeared many years ago. Desperate to know what became of the boy he resorts to desperate measures.

Dog People, by M John Harrison, is taken from a collection by the author I reviewed last year – You Should Come With Me Now

Skin, by Jo Mazelis, is set in New York and details the swan song of a relationship. Told from the woman’s point of view there is a refreshing lack of blame when she recognises her boyfriend’s true nature.

Cwtch, by Conrad Williams, is a dark tale of the effects on a family of a tragedy that continues to haunt a surviving twin. The denouement may have been telegraphed but was still chilling.

And Three Things Bumped, by Kelly Creighton, exposes how memories are twisted in the telling. A taxi driver chats about his life unaware that his client has heard previous versions.

In Dark Places, by Wyl Menmuir, is set underground in an area long popular with cavers. A honeymooning couple have booked a guided tour beyond the popular caverns. Tourists display interest in macabre history from their sanitised safety. Written by the author of The Many, it is narrated by those who have inhabited the caves for centuries.

The War, by Owen Booth, is a thoughtful if somewhat depressing take on the many causes and effects of conflict – of man’s self-indulgence and damaging self-pity.

And What If All Your Blood Ran Cold, by Tania Hershman, is set in a hospital where medics are experimenting with raising the dead. I wonder if this was inspired by actual medical research.

The Homing Instinct, by Mike Fox, features the homeless and their precarious survival. It highlights how those offering help are doing so on their own terms.

“a more formal prayer followed by a short homily from the verger was over. This they tolerated: food mostly came with God attached.”

Mask, by Brian Howell, is set in Japan where a man is attracted to a dental nurse. Sexual predilections can be weird.

Sister, by CD Rose, is another story of twins, one of whom goes missing. Even loving and supportive families cannot always offer the help needed.

Waiting For The Runners, by Chloe Turner, is a tale of family betrayal in a small community. A mother must decide how to behave when her lonely son finds a new friend.

Swatch, by Eley Williams, is taken from the previously reviewed Attrib. (and other stories), published by Influx and winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

The Last Dare, by Lisa Tuttle, is set in Texas where a grandmother returns to visit her family. It involves a spooky house and missing children, a memory from childhood brought back around Halloween.

Dazzle, by Iain Robinson, involves an adulterer whose wish for absolution manifests itself. Comeuppance is rarely this direct.

For those wishing to dip their toes into short stories currently available in a variety of mediums this collection offers an excellent primer. As a fan of the literary format I found it a well curated and enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: Gamble

Gamble, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, is a darkly compelling tale of an ordinary family unravelling. The narrative centres around the preoccupations of Greg Gamble, a middle aged husband, father and teacher. Greg no longer finds his wife, Carolyn, attractive but stays with her to avoid his daughter, Isabelle, becoming ‘one of those sorts of children’. He had no wish to become a father but has accepted the role, trying over the years to tamp down the resentments that occasionally bubble to the surface when he interacts with the girl. He has developed habits that he knows irritate, using them at times to satisfy his urge to needle.

When the story opens Greg is staring out his living room window (not lounge as his wife calls it) watching a young woman unload boxes from a van. Mesmerised by thoughts of the woman his cup of tea has gone cold. He sets it on the arm of a chair when he leaves for work knowing that his wife will be annoyed by such behaviour. Greg is aware of his body, the increasing aches and pains, the slight nausea he often now feels. He does not wish to be seen as aging but knows he is.

On arriving at the school where he teaches Greg feels unwell and is advised to go home. Stopping on the way for wine and cigarettes he spots the van with the young woman in the passenger seat. On a whim he drives away from his home, feeling reckless, thinking about the woman and the man she was with, he in derogatory terms.

Greg casts himself in many roles, preoccupied with what he has become. He thinks of the poetry he has written, of the young women he has encountered, of how he appears to himself and them. Given that he has stayed with his wife, despite what she has become to him, he believes he deserves the vices he chooses to indulge.

Lurking within the undertow of his thoughts lies the canal near his home, black and oily, reflecting its surrounds, bordered by mud, hiding its depths. It is a recurring and effective metaphor. The canal also reminds Greg of a pivotal event, one he cannot bring himself to regret despite its outcome.

Carolyn and Isabelle appear as irritants in Greg’s increasingly self-centred imaginings and dissipation. Their actions jar against his wish to retreat from their expectations of him as husband and father. The reader can sense an approaching crisis but when it comes it still shocks. They too will have been lulled into the blinkered landscape of Greg’s self-absorption.

The writing is nuanced, layered and unsettling. The tense of the narrative, the repetition of ‘He’ll say’ as events are recounted, suggests that Greg is to be called to account.

A quietly chilling depiction of what lies just below the surface of an outwardly ordinary and respectable family. A desolate yet riveting read.

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

Book Review: Missing

Missing, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Jessie Noon, a middle aged women living in a Scottish border town who works from home as a literary translator. Jessie has been married twice and has a grown up son. She now lives alone with her cat and dog. She believes her house harbours a ghost. She tries to keep her thoughts and feelings in order by following daily and weekly routines.

Much of the action involves the ordinary: Jessie attends a professional conference, shops for groceries, walks her dog, enters into a new relationship. Throughout there exists an undercurrent of darkness, gaps in the narrative. The sense of unease is palpable.

Interspersed with the contemporary tale are chapters set in 1985 when Jessie was eighteen. Her big sister, Gail, would call on her sibling to mind her five year old daughter, Eleanor. Although sometimes resentful of the expectation that she would help, Jessie was fond of the little girl. She did not always treat her as Gail requested, giving Eleanor cola to drink and making promises she couldn’t keep. Jessie’s relationship with her family is now strained.

At the heart of the tale are the words people use, so often misconstrued causing pain. Jessie struggles to maintain relationships despite her desires and good intentions. She understands how people regard her but cannot change what has been done or said. Others choose to leave or cut contact. Jessie may have moved location but must still find ways to live with herself.

There is a tension in the writing, a disconnect between the personal world Jessie inhabits, the expectations of those she encounters, and her desire to somehow fit in. When a postcard arrives telling her ‘I’m on my way home’ it is unclear who is sending or where home may be. The reader is offered glimpses but the portrayal of Jessie remains elusive. Subliminally she may believe her treatment by others is deserved.

This is a glorious evocation of alienation and misunderstanding. Jessie could be deemed tragic but she is also a survivor. The author has created a masterpiece. A haunting tale of devastating insight and depth.

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