Titan Books, 25 January 2022
Available as: PB, 368pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me an advance copy of All the White Spaces to consider for review.
In 1920, Jonathan Morgan and his family mourn the loss of his two brothers in the Great War. Jonathon was devoted to Francis and Rufus although - as we learn from his memories throughout the book - they didn't really see him as equal to them.
Unable to bear the life his parents will force him to lead, against all his sense of who he is, Jonathan persuades family friend Harry to accompany and help him, runs away, and hides aboard Fortitude, the ship of Antarctic explorer James "Australis" Randall. Jonathan is seeking the company of men - heroes - who will accept him, and among whom he may, perhaps, achieve some desperate glory comparable to that of Francis and Rufus.
It's a different world that Ally Wilkes takes us to in All the White Spaces. Not only is the fell, merciless territory of Coats Land itself a strange, haunting place - a place unwelcoming of humanity - but the psychological landscape, the attitude of those on the expedition, feels so remote in its almost inhuman fixation on painting in those white spaces. Oddly, in some respects, at least outward ones, it reminded me most of a series of children's books - Arthur Ransom's Swallows and Amazons stories - in its portrayal of an obsession with, a worship of, the last great generation of explorers, a meticulous attention to their journeys, their survival and their endurance.
It is, though - to be absolutely clear - not a book off children's adventure, even if Jonathan starts by seeing the world in that way. This is not the high Edwardian nursery but the fallen, post-war world. The members of the expedition have all brought their own baggage to Coats Land. Randall, too, is mourning a loss. One man was a conscientious objector, and is therefore hated and mistrusted by his fellows. Others are scarred by what they saw in France. The expedition is pinched, operating on a shoestring, forced to get by with second best, and it soon becomes clear that the whole thing is something of a gamble, an attempt to reclaim lost glories, to succeed where a German rival recently failed. A reflection, perhaps, of the war-weary, fading state of Britain.
Such a comparison could have been made crudely and clumsily, but Wilkes, in her first novel, avoids that danger, drawing a group of men whose strengths and weaknesses, histories and prejudices, are allowed to speak for themselves - but also to evolve, becoming more marked as danger increases and as its nature subtly changes. Physical threats - cold, darkness, shortages of food, failure of equipment - are joined by something stranger, exploiting who the men are and what they've lost. English reserve and the suppression of feelings are fatal then: the only way to survive is to trust, to share, even to love, and this is so out of kilter with the attitude of Imperial disdain that won the war, it's hard to see how anyone will come through.
Jonathan is at the centre of the storm. For the first part of the book, despite his derring-do in joining the expedition (albeit as a stowaway, a 'spare'), he's quite passive, observing from the sidelines and keeping his secrets. That makes sense given who Jonathan is is, but makes the story rather slow, perhaps. All the same, Wilkes uses this space to build up a detailed and sympathetic view of Jonathan as a person and as something of a mystery. A misfit who wants to join in, Jonathan is set on being one of the men, sharing their attitudes - detestation of the Hun, contempt for 'conchie' Tarlington, worship of physical courage and strength - even more so because of the differences that would set him apart if discovered. There's a contradiction to him that splits what one sense are his natural sympathises from what's needed to be part of the expedition. As a result, Jonathan's at the same time likeable and frustrating. I would have liked to have seen more of his earlier life, how he developed, and how he coped with his stuffy parents and his brothers.
Once the Antarctic winter falls and the survivors of the expedition begin to buckle, seeing enemies everywhere - whether those elusive Germans, saboteurs and traitors in their own ranks, or dark things out in the cold - Jonathan has plenty of reason to reflect on those he has loved and, seemingly, lost and on his place in the world. His survival will depend on unpicking that: not only a matter of practicalities, of food, shelter, and light, but of understanding what has drawn him into the worst place in the world and deciding whether it can hold him there. That level of self-knowledge and the bravery to face what he knows sets Jonathan apart, I think, in the end from the tough old Antarctic hands who surround him - creating a paradox that to take his place among them as a survivor, he needs to know how not to be like them. The book is, then, a rich chronicle of self-discovery and self-acceptance - and one I would strongly recommend.
For more information about All the White Spaces, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Insomnia to consider for review.
Sarah Pinborough is my go-to author for stories that bring out the horror inherent in everyday life. I consider myself very lucky to not suffer from insomnia, but I know that for those who do, nights spent fruitlessly trying to sleep - and days after, operating on no rest - are one of those horrors. It's a curse that's being visited on high-flying lawyer Emma at the start of this book, just as her oh-so-perfect family begins to fly apart - and she faces her fortieth birthday.
That birthday is often seen as a watershed, but Emma has a special reason to dread it: at the same age, her mother Patricia had a breakdown and tried to kill Emma's sister Phoebe. Thirty five years later, Emma is experiencing the same symptoms as Patricia - insomnia, blackouts, an obsession with a random string of numbers, and a compulsion to wander the house at night checking that doors and windows are locked. Add to this that Emma's 18 year old daughter Chloe seems to be acting out, her 5 year old boy Will is suddenly afraid of his mother, and that husband Robert is distinctly unsympathetic to Emma's worries, and Insomnia delivers a potent mix of internal and external stresses.
We get to know Emma as she tries to navigate these stresses (as well as learning more about her background and history). She's a person who has made superhuman efforts to erase her distressing past - to the extent of telling her family, friends and employers that her mother died all those years when she didn't - and her first instinct, as things begin to go bad, is to clamp down harder, to try to control everything and everyone, herself included. I'm not going to tell you how that goes, you'll have to read the book, but I will say that Pinborough is just superlative here at exposing how Emma unravels. Insomnia keeps the reader both needing to know what happens next, and dreading to see exactly how much worse Emma will make things for herself. The tension is simply electric, the situation more and more complex and intractable, the stakes higher and higher.
At one level, it's a portrayal of a woman driven by demons from her childhood, trying to work out what went wrong all those years ago so that she can put it right and protect her kids.
At another, we see a deeply paranoid and scared woman doubting herself and her own sanity, lacking any place of safety or support network. Most of her circle are in the same competitive business milieu as her, or excel as near Stepford wives. Emma is already out on a limb.
And at yet another level, there are the pressures of modern life: a husband who's not very supportive (he comes over to me as a bit of a pudding), a boss who sees Emma as arm candy as much as a talented and hardworking individual, kids who are, well, you know, kids.
With so many threats and concerns and these three different sources of stress, clicking round like the wheels on a demon-possessed safe, there must be a risk that suddenly everything will line up, the door swing open, and some very nasty secrets emerge. But what are they, and how can Emma keep them locked away? Should she even try?
As with all Pinborough's writing, the tension simply crackles off the pages of a book you MUST read and one which, once begun, will gnaw at your reading brain till you get to the end. As a central character, Emma is simply magnificent. I didn't actually like her very much to begin with. As a divorce lawyer, she regularly throws other women under the bus to advance her career. (Her clients seem mainly to be middle aged men with an eye for a younger replacement; it's clear Emma is doing what she has to advance in a very patriarchal setting). Her impulsiveness verges on the self-destructive, and her attempts to distance herself from her past - including her mother and her sister - suggest coldness, even selfishness. But as the story developed and Pinborough's nuanced characterisation drew me in, I felt for Emma more and more - including sharing her fear that she might, in one of those moments she can't remember, have done something truly terrible.
This book is BOUND to be one the highlights of the 2022 reading year. Watch out for it.
For more information about Insomnia, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Opal Country to consider for review.
Chris Hammer's new thriller Opal Country sees Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic despatched from the big city to the remote mining town of Finnigans Gap where an opal miner has died in mysterious, not to say gruesome, circumstances. Teaming up with young Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, Lucic finds the investigation derailed almost from the start when his boss, DI Morris Montifore, fails to show up for the flight.
Opal Country is described as "standalone" and features detectives - Lucic and Buchanan - who haven't met before, but readers of Hammer's previous novels, Scrublands, Silver and Trust, will note that Lucic's backstory involves contact with journalist Martin Scarsden who featured in those books. That contact which is partly behind the plight of DI Montifore, currently suffering blowback after revealing high-level corruption with the aid of Scarsden. So we're in the same New South Wales that Hammer has written about before and the atmosphere - the down-at-heel rural town, the heat, the isolation - is also familiar.
Lucic and Buchanan, however, are less so, and I enjoyed how the story, told from both their perspectives, exploited both our unfamiliarity with them, and theirs with each other, to sow doubt about their motivations and behaviour. How much of an issue, for example, is Lucic's gambling problem? We see him slope away several times to the poker machines, and at one stage he's concerned he may have nothing left in his account, but is this something that could make him vulnerable to influence - or which may attract the attention of his colleagues in Professional Standards? Buchanan, too, has secrets, and has made mistakes, which might put her at risk. Starting out hero-worshiping Lucic and seeing him as a means of advancement, she soon revises her opinion but seemingly still finds him hard to place. I enjoyed the depth and complexity in this relationship and how it subtly changed through the book, without ever becoming a huge issue in itself.
The background to the crime is also fascinating. There's a dense web here involving family relationships, guilt, a religious cult, the declining fortunes of the opal-mining industry (basically lone men with power tools digging pits out in the scrub), potential outside investment from billionaires - and, of course, the constant theme of corruption and influence. Montifore trod on important toes and is suffering as a result. Lucic and Buchanan are warned off when they get too close to the mining operations of a wealthy businessman. There is a bit of a sense that - in the most civilised of ways - certain crimes, certain people, are simply off limits, one such having occurred in Finnigans Gap several years before. Could it be related to the death of Jonas McGee? Though nobody will say so outright, it seems as though Lucic's job is as much to establish whether the new case is one of those that needs to be tidie away, as it is to actually find out what happened.
Lucic himself is an intriguing character to have as a point of view. The son of immigrants from Central Europe, he sets himself slightly apart from the "anglo" Australians (there are some amusing scenes as he struggles slightly with the bland diet on offer in Finnigans Gap) adding even more of a detached tone to the outsiderdom inevitable when a detective in a suit flies in from Sydney. Again, though, Hammer makes this a matter of mood and observation, rather than turning it into an us-and-them struggle between locals and offcomers.
The town itself is vividly - almost lovingly - portrayed, from the absence of trees to the graduations between the different cafés and restaurants (avoid the Alpine, if you must go there, have the burgers) to the local worthies and their slightly over-the-top names (Trevor Topsoil supplies mining gear, Humphrey Tuppence is the lawyer, The Irishman buys the miners' opals). As with Hammer's previous novels, the book comes with a generous map of the town and its surroundings which helps the reader to follow all the comings and goings.
Overall, a fun and engaging book in which Hammer changes gear adeptly from murder mystery to conspiracy thriller to action drama, with Lucic's and Buchanan's developing and changing relationship never far in the background. I'd strongly recommend.
For more information about Opal Country, see the publisher's website here.
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of First Born via NetGalley.
In his new standalone thriller, Dean gives us a tense, twisty story focussed on the relationship between twins Molly and Katie ('KT' to her sister) Raven living respectively in London and New York.
As the book makes clear, supposedly identical twins can turn out to be very different. One of the two prefers 'monozygotic'. Identical is 'a blatant lie. A travesty...' We see this in the contrast between staid, nervous Molly, living her restricted life in London and painfully aware of all the threats inherent in everyday life, and Katie, who has spread her wings, won a scholarship and jetted off to the Big Apple to study.
I thought at first that Dean was going to show us a Molly panicking, unable to function, a fish out of water as she's forced to travel abroad when things go wrong, but I should have known that he's a much more subtle writer than that. Molly is perfectly capable of facing her fears, even while regaling the reader with the relative risks of a phone charger or a poorly cooked restaurant meal. While her obsession seems to consume mental energy and throw up obstacles, she's adept at addressing her concerns and planning around them ('This is a classic Molly raven risk-reward situation') which then provides her a margin of safety, a heuristic, when she moves into a dangerous new arena.
Because it seems that there was more going on in Katie's life than her parents and sister thought. When Molly joins Paul and Elizabeth in New York - slumming it in a budget hostel because family fortunes are actually not too good right now - she decides to investigate what has been going on, a course of action that will test her planning and strategising (whether in improvising weapons or passing without being noticed) to the limit.
I really felt that Will Dean was having fun with First Born. While his last thriller The Last Thing to Burn was grimly realist, First Born just lets rip with a sizzling "What if...?" scenario in the pair of twins and with the idea of one investigating what happened to the other. Yet Dean makes its all so plausible, with the cool assessments of risk grounding the story as we move from one challenge to another - even as the tension screws tighter and tighter. It all culminates in a race for survival as New York braces for a hurricane (more disaster planning needed, of course). The sense of a narrator who is, in effect, in enemy territory (there are some real shocks I didn't see coming which underpin that - just what DID Katie do?) nudges things into thriller, rather than simply crime, territory, but take it form me, this is much more complex than your typical psychological thriller.
As things spiral out of control the story becomes more and more of a rollercoaster but Dean keeps events rooted in the relationship between the twins, cleverly articulating both what they share and the deep differences between their characters. We hear from both of them, with their wildly differing perspectives on shared events providing clues to what has gone wrong - but will there be enough clues for even the most rational, the most calculating, student of risk and payoff to plot a way through the maze?
A really entertaining, fast-paced thriller that both contrasts with The Last Thing to Burn and confirms Dean's ability to hold his audience entranced.
For more information about First Born, see the publisher's website here.
Happy New Year and welcome back to Blue Book Balloon!
I hope that the holiday period was all that you would have wished it to be, and that 2022 will be a good year for us all.
I took an (unplanned) break from reviewing and blogging over most of December - not for any particular reason but just general stuff happening. So, no retrospective on 2021, and no looking forward to the coming year, which I'd like to start with something a little different - reviews of three Nightjar Press chapbooks.
I received several of these in December as part of my yearly subscription. This is something I'd strongly recommend for anyone who likes a good supply of well-written short stories in beautifully presented editions (it would also make a great present for a reader, it's not too late for that - liturgically, we are still in the Christmas period until Epiphany on 6 January). You can buy them as one-offs, but as a bonus, the subscription editions are numbered and signed.
I have more Nightjars waiting to be read and reviewed, but to start the year off well, here are my thoughts on English Heritage by M John Harrison, Middleton Sands by Claire Dean and A Visit to the Bonesetter by Christopher Burns.
English Heritage is a story freighted with allusion and mystery. At some point during the Covid epidemic, Amory, Owen and Max visit her aunt's holiday home near Padstow for a few days away. While we're told that the aunt is ninety three years old ('and still going strong') and a barrister, we are told little about Amory, Owen's or Max's lives beyond that. Amory and Owen seem to be together - we are told what happened when they first visited Max in Shropshire, and they (not the three) have arguments. Amory is the most prominent on the three, although that might just be because it's her aunt's house they are in.
The story is fearfully intense, often light on detail except for small incidents - flying a kite, making a visit to a nearby stately home. I came away from it thinking I knew a great deal more than was actually said, especially about Amory, but also considering what wasn't said.
Who the nocturnal and troubling visitor was who opened the garage and used the loo (or didn't). Why Amory thought she lost her car. What was going on between Amory and Max - we get only hints of this but there's a sense of the whole stay being orchestrated around some problem in their relationship with Max there either to witness events or to prevent an explosion. Or just to wake at 3am as he seems to each night.
It's unclear what the 'English Heritage ' of the title refers to. Country houses such as the one the three visits? Their legacy of 'sugar and slavery'? A way of dealing with emotional crises off the page, as it were, as Amory and Owen seem to do here?
All in all, a tantalising story that feels much bigger inside than it looks from without.
|Cover for "Middleton Sands"|
by Claire Dean. A purple lilac
tree in closeup (photo by
If English Heritage has notes of the weird but is placed firmly in our present, Middleton Sands steps a little further away into a near future with some differences. There have clearly been ecological losses to this world in which Ted and his band of enthusiasts set out every Thursday morning onto the sands. Dean is cryptic at first about what they are doing - metal detecting? Digging out lugworms? - and I won't say exactly what it is, but it is linked to that loss. (A clue about what has happened may, or may not, be the terror one of the group feels when the nearby power station sirens sound).
What is clear though is that there have been personal losses, and wider ones, and that the group are trying to recover something. Dean touches on the dynamics of the group and I wondered if that was part of it - one young man assumes he has inherited the 'leadership' of the group from his father, something Ted quietly disagrees with.
I really liked the understand nature of what's happening here, the way that a rather dark reality is hidden by masculine fuss around a hobby and the group and views over what equipment to carry and the best way to proceed, with the presence of a stranger - an unnamed woman - being the catalyst for progress that Ted seems never to have expected. Perhaps.
|Cover for "A Visit to the Bonesetter"|
by Christopher Burns. Two passport
style photographs of a woman with
shoulder length brown hair. Cover by
Nicholas Royle (found photographs).
A Visit to the Bonesetter is also set in an alternate future, or present, albeit one that is perhaps troublingly close. In what begins as a seemingly farcical, not to say Kafkaesque, bit of theatre, Martin's wife Lisa is served with an order (and he with a copy) to 'present yourself' to 'our official bonesetter'. This is an event that everybody dreads, but, like Lisa and Martin, is unclear about the detail of.
At one level it is a highly staged event, the summons deliberately public and delivered by uniformed officials following a standard operating procedure and with a flavour of jobsworthism about it. All meant to support a hierarchy, to reinforce who is on top. At another it is very intimate, very private, something that must not be discussed outside the home, this mystique oddly serving to bolster that public.
It is described as an 'examination', the participant as a 'patient' but when Lisa returns, it's clear that what went on was not medical and not consensual - and that a part of her has been broken and can never be fixed.
The book builds up a creeping tension, based around the contrast between the mundanity of the event, the bureaucracy, its routine nature, and the extreme impact. Also crushing is the sense that all are or were complicit - 'People voted for social control. It was in the manifesto' - even though they may individually resent or object to what is taking place. The story is very clever in the way that it denies its protagonists a way out, even a way to dissent internally. I wondered if their surname - Smith - might be a deliberate nod to Nineteen Eighty Four, or whether the coincidence might simply be what you get when you make your protagonist as representative as can be.
Either way, a simple incident sets up very uneasy resonances, portraying an authoritarian State in its very essence.
For more information about English Heritage, Middleton Sands and A Visit to the Bonesetter and to buy the books or take out a subscription, see the Nightjar Press website at https://nightjarpress.weebly.com