Killing the Dream…

13th December 2020 (13:18)

I was drawn to this book due in part to the setting (Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’), with which I’m quite familiar and the ambition implied by using as the main backdrop to the novel, 21st July 1972 – ‘Bloody Friday’. For those unfamiliar, this was the name given to a series of bombings in Belfast perpetrated by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. At least twenty bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes, culminating in 9 deaths and 130 casualties (the even more notorious ‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred in January of the same year). Yet, within this real-life sectarian horror, David Hough has founded an intriguing story replete with love, guilt, violent anger, regret and potential redemption.

Sorcha Mulveny is imprisoned in Armagh gaol for murders committed during that turbulent period, but the narrator of the book is an anonymous journalist seeking to piece together the sequence of events leading up to her original trial. The intervening eight years might offer the benefit of hindsight, but as he discovers the legacy of physical and mental scarring is long-lived and remains all too real. Everyone it seems is carrying baggage.

The journalistic endeavour, which will inform a non-fiction book, takes place over months and is a useful device with which to synthesize the multiple perspectives reflecting on that fateful day. The terrorists, the terrorized and the police, seeking to marshal the factions and uphold a common law, are represented through serial interviews with Sorcha, her protestant boyfriend (Martin) and a former detective sergeant (Will Evans). Their respective recollections are painstakingly pieced together, enabling a satisfying overview that the reader can stand back and admire. In a sense, the author methodically assembles the pieces of a complex jigsaw and fits them together for a fascinating slow reveal. Each of the key characters explain, through their disparate experiences, how they were personally affected, but inevitably it is where their networks overlap and spheres of influence collide that the drama arises.

This novel offers a sobering, fictional commentary on the catastrophe of communities at war and the many victims of the attendant crossfire. On a more philosophical note the author also calls into question the price of ‘belonging’ and the irrational choices sometimes made in the name of ‘loyalty’. A cleverly constructed moral maze, which challenges the reader, but also suggests the possibility of a different, better outcome, this book is well worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

 

Fate or Coincidence – a COVID Read

7:21 PM 12 APRIL 2020

Cometh the hour, cometh the book! Just when we had lapsed into the nightmarish ‘social isolation’ that has attended the COVID-19 pandemic, I happened upon this novel through the vagaries of Twitter and the #WritingCommunity. Perhaps, in keeping with the book, it might almost have been fated to rescue me from a state of pervasive gloom and offer a literary balm to a bruised psyche. Indeed, Kevin Ansbro’s tale of love and devotion, in a variety of forms, is teeming with the ‘feel good factor’, but also succeeds in realizing the author’s self-confessed penchant for “handcuffing humour and tragedy to the same radiator”. It is hard to pidgeon-hole this book neatly into a single genre. Thrilling – certainly, philosophical at times, but it is also brimming with pathos, humour, suspense and love rather than romance, juxtaposed with far darker strands of human life and even the hereafter.

To revel in what man (and woman) is capable of, is to wonder at a fathomless capacity for altruistic good and yet also recognize a breathtaking instinct for selfishness and even unalloyed evil. In “The Fish that Climbed a Tree” the author deftly traverses that continuum in a cleverly conceived plot that draws upon the experience of an impressive range of characters, whose respective journeys are influenced by an active (or in some cases very redundant) moral compass.

The heroically named Ulysses Drummond, vicar of St Cuthbert’s, Hackney, and Iraq war veteran, was of a good family and with his diminutive wife Florence had made a very positive contribution to their community. They were also proud parents of Henry, aged 10, when the couple were brutally murdered in front of their young boy. By contrast, the murderers – Ukranian gangster, Yuri Voloshyn and Rwandan war criminal, Pascall Makuza, are on a very different trajectory towards judgement day. Still, whether by fate, or a series of coincidences, the Drummonds will be dogged by that fateful day, as Henry passes into adulthood and a date with destiny foretold in the book’s prologue.

Along the way, through boarding school and into his life in London, Henry’s timid, shy naivety ensures he is bullied and beaten, nurtured and comforted, encouraged and feted, but it is the relationships that he forms and the decisions he must live by, which intrigue the reader. That and the heady blend of supporting characters, so well drawn, as to remind me of Dickens, long before the author’s nod to “A Christmas Carol” in the final chapter.

While I accept that, at times, Ansbro’s extravagant use of language, with a liberal sprinkling of adjectives, similes and metaphors may not be to every taste, for me such flourishes added to the charm of this book. The underground train’s “doors closed with a matron’s shush…”, simply an example of well-crafted writing. Indeed, the style (except for the repeated use of “Omigod”) felt part of some glorious former era, which of course may say as much about my reading preferences.

However, in a happy coincidence, my review also now chimes with #IndieApril and pays tribute to an often neglected well of writing talent. Moreover, I am grateful to Kevin Ansbro for a tremendous diversion in these troubled times and do not hesitate in loading this novel onto my ‘favourites’ shelf. I hope that when I return to it in future, I shall recall the contrasting real-life circumstances surrounding this first reading.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Busman’s Holiday

12:07 PM 26 AUGUST 2018

My 100th review and I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks. I’m an admirer of indy author, Jane Davis’ work, so much so that I bought my Kindle copy in advance and looked forward to the launch. The author’s customary style is again deployed to good effect and the narrative is engaging and draws the reader into the respective experiences and feelings of the characters, but I think herein lies my difficulty and I stress it is my problem.


The story-lines centre on the aftermath of a major incident at a London underground station (St. Boltoph and Old Billingsgate), in which fifty nine people lost their lives. “For over thirteen years the search for truth – for the undoing of injustice – has eaten up everything. Marriage, friendships, family, health, career, finances.” Such a devastating, albeit fictional, loss of life is clearly fertile territory to examine the sense of loss, anger and despair of those bereaved family and friends left to mourn and the aching instinct for answers (‘why’?), accountability and the public vilifying of the blameworthy.

Unfortunately, this fictional account of a disaster, in which so many perished, has coincided with such an array of actual disasters, still etched in the public consciousness and pored over in the media that we are, sadly perhaps, all too familiar with the post disaster landscape (Grenfell fire; Manchester bombing; Hillsborough; 7/7; 9/11). I’m not suggesting that a novel is an inappropriate platform for exploring the human response to sudden catastrophic loss and the enduring impact that ripples outward. It just seems to me to be an emotional devastation, which may lack appeal if the reader is seeking ‘entertainment’, or an escape from ‘reality’. Though here I should probably record a ‘conflict of interests’, in that having trained as a crisis support worker for such eventualities, it is difficult not to read this book through a professional lens.


In any event, this ambitious book is very well written and the respective discoveries and cathartic journeys of the key bereaved characters are also cleverly offset by the experience of Eric, a law student who comes without the emotional baggage of those directly affected, but nonetheless is grounded in his own life’s challenges. Naturally the experiences of surviving partners, parents, siblings, and friends will be different and Davis handles this diversity well via the delicate parallel plotlines. In some senses the one ‘unknown victim’ is the saddest of all. However, while the toing and froing, pre and post- incident and across the multiple perspectives does confer a certain fragmentation within the storytelling, the narrative is successfully woven to a satisfactory conclusion.


On balance, I think Jane Davis pitches the tone about right. Not so bleak as to trigger compassion fatigue, but not so sanitized as to run the risk of appearing implausible. Fortunately perhaps, most of us can overlook the licence granted to the fiction writer, to fashion an interesting account and Davis has certainly made good on a tricky theme. For me, it’s proved a bit too much like a busman’s holiday, but I acknowledge I don’t have a neutral perspective and shall ponder other reviews to get a more balanced view. That the author should tread here at all does her much credit.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Life, Death, Love and Trust…

1:41 AM 25 AUGUST 2018

This is the fourth book by Ian McEwan that I’ve reviewed and is the furthest back in his catalogue (1997). Still, the latest read has reaffirmed my belief that McEwan is extraordinarily gifted and a colossus among contemporary British writers. In particular, he has a knack for unpacking a short period, even a moment, in such exquisitely interesting detail that for the reader it can be like savouring a fine wine, with all the complex flavours and tannins schmoozing the palate.


It is not only the description of the situation (beguiling enough), or the intricate meshing of fascinating characters drawn together around a “pinprick on the time map”, but the delicate craftsmanship of the storytelling, the wondrous use of language and turns of phrase, which at times appear almost poetic.


“A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows.” Certainly, in ‘Enduring Love’ the start-point was crucial, an immediate, dramatic incident involving an out-of-control hot air balloon and the individuals arbitrarily drawn together in the aftermath. Indeed, rather like completing a jigsaw, having first assembled the fragments of this centrepiece, the author carefully positions the subsequent pieces, until finally the reader can stand back and view the whole picture. And what a delightful puzzle it was.


Part psychological thriller, the tension was masterfully managed and yet at times the moving descriptions of loss (an attendant theme) were poignant and the realization of life’s susceptibility to the vagaries of random events gave the book a philosophical undertone.


Key couple, Joe and Clarissa, are intelligent but different and their relationship built up over seven years is tested in the present, along with the foundations laid in the past. Can the bond linking them together survive the strain placed on each partner and the doubts buffeting their belief and trust in each other?


“Now it came out in a torrent, a post-mortem, a re-living, a de-briefing, the rehearsal of grief, and the exorcism of terror.”


The third character in an unusual love triangle is Jed Parry. Compulsive and unpredictably obsessive, he is also a victim of circumstance, but with an unnerving capacity to wreak emotional havoc, including with the reader!


Again this book is quite short, but don’t let that fool you, the journey is intense and breathless and my overall impression was of a nugget of a novel, which will nestle comfortably on my shelf of favourites. A cleverly titled, thoroughly absorbing read.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Echoes of Holmes and Watson

1:03 PM 20 MAY 2017

6/13 in the series of crime mysteries involving Chief Inspector Morse and as seems to be Dexter’s habit, this book is split into separate parts (‘miles’ in this case) and though not described as such, Chapter 1 provides a prologue set in El Alamein, 1942. In particular, the narrative introduces the three Gilbert brothers – Alfred and Albert (twins) and their younger sibling, John and a young field officer in the Royal Wiltshires, Lieutenant Browne-Smith. Fast forward to the University of Oxford and Dr Browne-Smith is on a panel of examiners considering the submissions of the academic creme de la creme – the ‘greats’, but the echo of that distant past will drive a profound sequence of macabre events, which Morse is called upon to unpick.

‘The Riddle of the Third Mile’ is thirty pages shorter than most of the books in this series, but Morse and his trusty sidekick DS Lewis are on good form and through mention of the ‘greats’, the author gives us some additional insight into the former academic career of the enigmatic Chief Inspector. Morse is now 52, but intriguingly the hallowed halls and the intense love he found there have clearly shaped the man. Indeed, the reader might surmise that lost love and spectre of what might have been perhaps contributed to the gruff shell behind which Morse, in his self-imposed isolation, tends to operate. It is also tempting to speculate on whether Lewis, who endures a torrid relationship with his superior and yet remains endearingly loyal to the ‘great’ man, in some ways occupies an important space in the emotional vacuum of Morse’s life. However, for me, part of the curiosity piqued by Dexter lies in the oblique insights into the unfamiliar elite world of high-end academia. Just as Agatha Christie’s Poirot typically plies his detective skills in the upper echelons of the inter-war British class system, so Morse can help the reader navigate the revered institution of which he was once part. The stark contrasts of the public facade, with the soft underbelly of wider society and the seamless way in which Morse traverses the two lends the series a gritty realism and yet remains equally implausible enough to be obvious fiction. Still, the book is enjoyable for all that.

The discovery of a headless torso (also minus hands and legs) is unusual, but not gratuitously grotesque. Moreover, as Morse seeks to understand the purpose of such deliberate mutilation, it does provide a vehicle for the resumption of barbed banter with the police pathologist (‘Max’), as the body count also mounts further. I think the brilliance of Morse lies in his ability to identify and assemble clues and marshall his thoughts to formulate them into a working hypothesis. The acknowledged value of Lewis lies in  the blunt challenge he poses to his boss’s ideas and the debunking of the fanciful, to keep Morse planted on terra firma. They are, it seems, more than the sum of their respective parts, but In the tradition of Holmes and Watson, they are also a compelling double act and much more than an aside to their investigations.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Spare a thought for poor old Lewis!

4:48 PM 13 MAY 2017

5/13 of the mystery novels by Colin Dexter featuring Chief Inspector Morse and this one, published in 1981, was a worthy winner of the CWA Silver Dagger. The book is split into a prologue, four books and an epilogue, but curiously, Morse doesn’t assume the lead of the investigation into the death of a passing female acquaintance until the start of Book 3 and DS Lewis is also belatedly introduced over halfway in. Of course the benefit for Morse is that unfettered by investigative protocols at the outset, he is able to deploy some unconventional tactics and privately question whether the victim had indeed committed suicide. However, we can also see the stabilizing influence of Lewis, keeping his superior grounded and challenging the more fanciful inventions of Morse’s prodigious imagination.

The crime is set in ‘Jericho’ which is apparently a former industrial area of Oxford alongside the canal and though the lack of a reliable provenance for the name is intriguing, I enjoyed the map, which enabled the reader to follow the street and landmark references. We also learned that Morse is now fifty years old, so three years have seemingly passed since the previous novel.Still, it is the contrasts, wealth and poverty, culture and depravity, learned and illiterate, attractive and ugly, which again permeate the characters and present a sometimes sordid display of human behaviour. Meanwhile, the enigma that is Morse, a flawed genius subject to the vagaries of imperfect instincts, is exposed just a little more and the longsuffering Lewis has to bite his tongue in the face of tetchy, diva-like tantrums from his volatile boss.

The plot is deceptively simple, but the clues are deftly assembled and rearranged as Morse veers off on fruitless tangents, only for his hypotheses to be dismantled and constructed anew in the light of changed evidence. Of course, the quaffing of beer remains central to all the meaningful progress in the case, but it is also in these moments, typically shared by Morse and Lewis, that shine a dull light on the burgeoning intimacy of their relationship, such as when Morse asks his sergeant why he calls him ‘sir’.

It’s interesting that in the TV adaptation, it was hard not to be enthralled by the character played by John Thaw. On the page though, it’s equally hard not to find the brilliant Chief Inspector a rather tragic and dislikeable man. Perhaps, It is the presence of Lewis that deliberately keeps Morse honest and anchored among mere mortals, but it is a pretty thankless task!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sens – ational read

12:54 AM 14 AUGUST 2016

It is an intriguing feature of the writing of Joanne Harris (author of ‘Chocolat’) that she deliberately soothes and entices the reader’s senses with her evocative descriptions of tastes and smells. And yet, her innovative use of a bottle of wine as a narrator, perhaps extending the notion of ‘character’ beloved by gourmets, conferred a tongue-in-cheek, surreal quality to this novel, at times. Certainly the device raised my eyebrows initially, but the masterly story-telling by Harris ensured that this quirky element didn’t detract from a wonderfully atmospheric tale.

The story centres on Jay Mackintosh, one-time acclaimed author, beset by writer’s block and the expectation of a second success, mired in a meaningless relationship. In a spontaneous, but desperate attempt to break free, Jay buys a property in Lansquenet, and drops out of sight.

In a clever weaving of alternate story-lines, Jay reflects on his childhood and the influence of his journey from ‘Pog Hill’, amid the new chapter of his life unfurling in France. The six ‘specials’ (bottles of homemade wine laid down by his childhood mentor, Joe) are a tangible link with the past for Jay and seem to unlock a spiritual/magical connection, enabling the the reappearance of the ethereal Joe and his earthy counsel. 

Meanwhile, in Lansquenet, Jay is drawn to his neighbour (Marise), who is stuck in her own domestic nightmare. Are the echoes of their respective personal histories fated, or can they yet rescue each other?  This is a warm and thought-provoking novel, which invites the reader to evaluate ‘what matters’ in life, but also draws on the metaphor of maturing wine. “Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. (Pope John XXIII).

Rating: 4 out of 5.