Book Review: The Liar’s Dictionary

“To name a thing is to know a thing. There’s power there.”

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams, is framed around two timelines. It is a love story of sorts alongside a modern day mystery, set in the headquarters of a London based publishing company. The writing is razor sharp and flashing with humour. The plays on words and their ever changing meanings add zest to the wry depiction of characters’ foibles and failings.

The contemporary timeline focuses on a young intern named Mallory. She is the only employee at what remains of Swansby’s Publishing – besides the owner and editor, David Swansby. Mallory’s job includes answering the telephone – fielding daily calls from a person threatening to blow up the building, a person who claims to want her dead.

After a few weeks at Swansby’s, Mallory is given a task in addition to her work looking over David’s efforts at digitising the contents of Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. She is to seek out mountweasels – fake entries sometimes inserted in text to protect copyright. David has come to fear that, for unknown reasons, his dictionary may contain an unusually large number of these inventions. He wishes Mallory to delve into the archives in hope of discovering a link between them, or even a list, that the made-up words may be removed from the online edition.

The earlier timeline is set in Swansby’s Publishing’s heyday, at the end of the nineteenth century. It opens with Peter Winceworth – a lexicographer currently working on words beginning with the letter S – attending his company mandated elocution lesson. Peter has a lisp – except he doesn’t really. For no good reason that he can explain, he manufactured this fake speech impediment in childhood. His penultimate elocution lesson is taking place in the shadow of a raging hangover. Peter will go on to have a particularly strange day.

Mallory lives with Pip – a lover she describes as her flatmate when Pip meets David during a bomb scare. Peter is also in the throes of a romantic entanglement. He met Sophia at the previous night’s party and, unusually, found he could talk and she would listen. These two couples and their relationships weave through the story of Swansby’s dictionary. The absurdities of working life, and limitations people accept, are excavated to fine effect.

Scattered throughout the text are passing references to animal cruelty that I found disturbing. Mostly though this is an erudite and humorous tale that both mocks and celebrates language. Usage may be deemed correct (or not) but all words are invented and, over time, meanings change. The way words are used can define how a person is perceived and treated.

I found the contemporary tale more engaging but recognise how deft the narrative is across both timelines. There were many words being checked by staff for Swansby’s dictionary that were new to me. I hope that at least some of these turn out to be mountweasels.

A cleverly constructed and amusing read. Recommended in particular to those who enjoy wordplay.

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


Book Review: The Shore

The Shore, by Sara Taylor, is a set of stories about a place and the people who live there. The location is ‘a collection of islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean’. The residents who populate the tales have lived on these islands for generations, with many struggling against poverty and addiction. Each of the thirteen interconnected chapters tells of a significant moment in the characters’ lives, between 1885 and 2143. These snapshots enable the reader to better understand the consequences of actions and decisions on those who were there, and on their descendants. Inheritance is shown to be more than genes and material possessions.

The story opens in 1995. Two little girls, Chloe and Renee, are finding ways to survive the neglect of their drug addicted, violent father. His is not the only abuse they have suffered. They have witnessed a murder and will have their futures forever changed by another. Their travels and travails offer cultural and geographic insight into the land that forms the backbone of the subsequent stories.

The second chapter is set in 1933. Mark is rolling in the hay with Letty, his true love, who married another. Their liaisons will lead to public recriminations and estrangements. Their love child will not love the life they give her. Parenting styles may have an impact but are no guarantee of an offspring’s behaviour.

As each set of characters was introduced I referred back to the useful family tree provided at the beginning of the book. This is a necessary addition as background is touched on lightly. The reader is trusted to remember what has already been revealed.

In 1992 Sally is remembering the first storm she conjured and how her grandfather warned her of the dangers of controlling weather. Now Grandpa Tom lives in a Rest Home, paid for by the remaining cousins in their sprawling family. Sally recalls the wider family history. It is filled with runaways, broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies and unhappy children. Grandpa Tom’s grandmother, Medora, provided the inheritance that bought the land and built the still enduring family home. Medora’s story is further explored in the following chapter.

As well as the ties of family and place there is an inherent sadness linking the characters introduced. Despite this and the recurring violence – psychological as well as physical – the writing is evocative and lyrical. The Shore is presented as a challenging place but one that exerts a hold on those raised in its environs.

A later chapter jumps into the future when the human race is threatened by a sexually transmitted virus. A survivor, Tamara, has hidden herself from society in the house where Chloe and Renee once lived. Tamara is desperate for a baby but is a carrier for the disease, something she refuses to believe. She seeks out a mate, an apocalypse disciple who can’t believe his good fortune at her willingness to have sex. The consequences for all are devastating.

The final chapter is set further into the future when the diminished population has stabilised and a new societal structure developed. Some of the babies born have grown into ‘halfmen’ who get by on subsistence living. One of these narrates the story of how he won himself a woman. The circle of life turns.

At the heart of these tales is a desire for autonomy in a world where race, gender, age, ability and wealth dictate accepted freedoms. Although each character has struck out to gain what they desire the cost has been great, the reverberations unanticipated. Ever after is shown to be a delusion with the inevitable clouds intercepting any sunbeams of hard won happiness.

A beautifully written if somewhat doleful saga populated by the flawed, wicked and foolish as well as those whose motives are more supportive. I could happily have read more about any of the varied characters featured. By keeping it concise the author never for a moment lost this reader’s engagement.

Book Review: Earthly Remains

Earthly Remains, by Donna Leon, is the twenty-sixth instalment in the author’s Brunetti series of crime fiction novels. It is the first that I have read and can easily be enjoyed standalone. Set in and around the Venetian Lagoon, the islands and waterways play an important role. Refreshingly for crime fiction the protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is happily married with children and an apparently stable past. He drinks but not to excess, confides in his wife, and is pragmatic in his approach to people and work.

The story opens with a police interview during which Brunetti takes drastic measures to prevent a junior colleague risking his career when goaded by the arrogance of the wealthy lawyer they are questioning. As a result of his actions Brunetti is signed off work sick and decides he would benefit from some time away from home. Thanks to his wife’s family connections he secures a stay at a villa on one of the more rural local islands where he can spend time rowing, an activity he enjoyed as a boy. The property is cared for by Davide Casati who Brunetti discovers was a friend of his father, a connection that breaks down the barriers of formality between strangers.

The two men spend their days out on the water taking Casati’s puparin between small islands where he keeps beehives. They find that, in some of the hives, the bees are dying. Casati gathers samples to be tested in an attempt to discover why. He is greatly upset by what is happening, more than Brunetti would have expected. Casati mutters darkly about being to blame for this and his wife’s death. She died from cancer four years previously and he has never recovered from his loss.

Brunetti pays little heed to these outbursts until one weekend, after a storm, Casati fails to return to the home he shares with his daughter. Naturally she is concerned voicing a fear that her father, a competent boatman, may have succumbed to his continuing grief and chosen to join his wife in death. With time on his hands and unease about his new found friend, Brunetti decides to investigate.

There is an almost languorous feel to the prose yet somehow this seems apt given the setting. Brunetti shows awareness and appreciation of his surroundings alongside skill in reading and manipulating the people he meets. He notes the irony of the gratitude he feels when offered small services by strangers, tasks he takes for granted when performed quietly by his wife. He recognises the foolishness of his desire to appear ‘manly’ and the concessions he allows women over men.

A rich tapestry of a novel that explores many facets of wrong-doing and the reasons they are too often overlooked. The sense of place evoked is inspiring, even if locals do regard tourists as an infestation. This is an enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: The Readymade Thief

The Readymade Thief, by Augustus Rose, is a fast moving thriller involving a teenage protagonist and a shadowy, ruthless organisation. It takes the works of artist Marcel Duchamp and imbues them with meaning. The puzzle to be solved involves artefacts, experimental drugs, and the nefarious profits to be made from hedonism.

Lee considers herself to be invisible. Her dad walked out on his wife and daughter when Lee was seven years old and she reacted by starting to shoplift. This activity developes into a lucrative sideline and gains her the attention of Edie, one of the cool kids in her class at high school. Their friendship makes Lee feel that she belongs.

The girls dream of college but Lee’s stepfather points out the costs, unaware that Lee could now fund herself. Her ill-gained money comes to light when she is unfairly blamed for drug dealing. With her future in tatters she eventually ends up on the streets where she encounters The Station Master. His operations are a part of something bigger and Lee determines to help those whose well-being he sacrifices, for motives she cannot yet fathom.

There is a link with a rave scene that girls like Edie regard as the epitome of cool. As Lee delves deeper she is discomfited to discover that she has been watched for many years. She has something that the organisation wants, and it is more than her latest light fingered acquisition.

Contemporary resources are used to good effect with hackers, the dark web and mass surveillance enabling both sides to hide and search. It was refreshing to have a young female lead able to think and act for herself.

The taut and slick writing encourages the reader to keep turning the pages but my interest in the plot waned when I began to understand what the organisation was seeking – it has been done so many times before. There were false flags that fell by the wayside, threads left to dangle. I wonder if this is to be the start of a series.

Although easy to read I felt dissatisfaction with the tale. It started well, but I struggled to maintain interest in yet another secret society operating from within hidden rooms, beyond the law, for age old ends.

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