27 June 2024

#Review - The Days of Our Birth by Charlie Laidlaw

The Days of Our Birth
Charlie Laidlaw
Rampart Books, 27 June 2024
Available as: e   
Source: Advance copy

I'm grateful to the author for sending me a copy of The Days of Our Birth to consider for review.

The Days of Our Birth follows the lives of Sarah and Peter, born on the same day and who live next door to one another as kids in the coastal town of North Berwick, a few miles from Edinburgh. Birthdays are key moments in this book as the two move towards adulthood, growing into a joint tradition for the two, into joint celebrations.

Until they're not...

We meet Sarah first, 20 years on, working in an office job in London - and separate from Pete. We then gradually learn the how and the why of that separation, returning to their sixth birthday where the story proper begins then moving forward as the two kids grow up. It's in many ways an ordinary story, leading us through school, family tensions, adolescence and loss. But in many ways it's not "ordinary" at all - what does that even mean when we are all so different? - and Laidlaw captures well, I think, that awkward fence-sitting we all do as we process where we - and our friends - fit in. 

Or don't. 

This is encapsulated by the difference between Peter and Sarah, and the nature of Sarah herself. She doesn't fit in easily with other kids - 'psycho Sarah' they call her at school. Nor is she comfortable in her office job, or perhaps, no, she is comfortable but others aren't comfortable with her. It takes her deliberate effort to understand what others pick up unconsciously. Sarah tends to take things literally. She is, people increasingly decide, on a spectrum, of some kind. Yet to Pete, Sarah is just, well, Sarah.

As the parent of two children diagnosed with special needs, I felt that Laidlaw's portrayal of Sarah was sensitive, nuanced and, above all, rounded. That's partly achieved by the way this book is constructed - showing both kids developing, but doing it from different perspectives, both Peter's and Sarah's, sometimes exploring the same incident immediately from both points of view, sometimes allowing one or the other to comment on it later in light of experience, of adulthood, and of their later understanding. The book takes time to explore the messy reality of human beings, showing what led to the two being the people they are and sometimes, using that adult perspective, what was going that we weren't told about first time round. Thus it can catch the reader out in making assumptions which are later corrected.

This is, indeed, a book that challenges assumptions and shows that, regardless of what boxes we're told we tick, each and every one of us is a unique, complex individual. Peter and Sarah make many mistakes in the course of their fascinating relationship - as do those around them - but it's only when losing sight of this truth that things really go wrong for either of them. Lose sight of it they do from time to time, though, and it's a mark I think of how real Laidlaw has made these characters that when we see that happening it actually hurts, these are people you want to prosper emotionally - but in a harsh world with lots of other noise and so much to learn, is it realistic to believe that may ever be possible?

A super, stunning book from Charlie Laidlaw.

For more information about The Days of Our Birth, see the author's website here and the publisher here. You can purchase it from Amazon here.

25 June 2024

#Review - Ashram Assassin by Andrew Cartmel

Ashram Assassin (Paperback Sleuth 2) 
Andrew Cartmel
Titan Books, 25 June 2024
Available as: PB, 320pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803367927

I'm grateful to Titan for giving me access to an advance e-copy of Ashram Assassin to consider for review.

The Paperback Sleuth is back!

Yes, Cordelia Stanmer, brother of the execrable Stinky, the Vinyl Detective's nemesis, is in print again. Not to mention, in deadly danger.

Of course Cordelia's much nicer than her brother (though I wouldn't let her into my library and turn my back) and three hundred pages spent in her company was just what I needed among the current gloom (and manky weather). In this story, she's managed to weasel her way back into the yoga ashram from which she was earlier banned for dealing weed - but only if she can track down a cache of rare books that were stolen from the Silverlight Yoga Centre. (No, Cordelia didn't nick them herself). There's a substantial amount of money on offer too, so she sets about the task eagerly - but soon the bodies begin to pile up, and close to home.

Like the Vinyl Detective stories, Cartmel gives us a great sense of place in this story as Cordelia ranges through Putney and Barnes dodging various perils and meeting up with a number of curious characters (there is a little crossover with the other series, notably in an episode that involves Agatha and Nevada). Apart from the detecting, there's plenty of book-hunting in charity shops, sales and also a focus on food with poor Cordelia constantly baulked in her quest for the fine product from the kitchen of Carrie Quinn, the Curry Queen.

Carmel also has a good eye for character, and from the yummy mummies who seem to represent the modern clientele of the ashram to a medley of more raffish characters who have hung on from its past. he's good at exposing the contradictions and pretensions of modern life (sorry, yes that sentence is my entry for Pseud's Corner, but at the same time, it's true) especially in this perplexing semidetached part of London where buying a shed in the 70s makes you a millionaire in the 20s. I don't think there';s meant to be any moral in all that, but at the same time, the complexity of life and the murkiness of motivation behind the most seemingly noble actions is laid bare.

In Ashram Assassin, at any rate, this complexity also masks the truth about the theft. Red herrings abound and the Sleuth needs all her wits about her, because the disappearance of the books is entwined with an unlikely history that is rooted in the ashram's past, and which threatens its future - as well as hers.

With sharp characterisation, witty dialogue and abundant surprises, Ashram Assassin is compulsively readable, perhaps (slightly) even more so than Death in Fine Condition, but, above all, simply fun. 

Strongly recommended.

For more information about Ashram Assassin, see the publisher's website here.

20 June 2024

#Review - A Novel Love Story by Ashley Poston

A Novel Love Story
Ashley Poston
HQ (Harpercollins), 25 June 2024 
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9780593640999

I'm grateful to the publisher for  giving me access to an advance e-copy of A Novel Love Story  to consider for review.

"There was only one road in, and one road out of Eloraton, New York, and most people never took it.'

I've been enjoying Poston's novels - The Dead Romantics, The Seven Year Slip - which take modern women in a romantic dilemma and put them in a setting with just a touch of magic or fantasy. Often set in the literary or publishing worlds they both fulfil and reference the romance genre, though also creating a background to that which allows things to be seen from quite a different perspective.

And they're all compelling, deeply readable and funny.

In A Novel Love Story, Eileen (don't, please, mention That Song to her) finds herself on a road trip to the remote (it's a 2 day drive!) New York State cabin where she will meet with her book group for a week's escape from a life with which it's clear she feels increasingly frustrated. Professionally she's stuck, romantically, she was dumped by her fiancé on the eve of their wedding. Book group has helped her get over that, up to a point, but as becomes clear, only up to a point.

So when Eileen gets lost in a rainstorm and drives into Eloraton she's perhaps more than ready - though she doesn't know it - for a slightly out of this world romantic adventure. Eloraton really is the perfect town, with sweet little shops, cosy cafes, a bookshop, a square and clocktower, and friendly residents. In Eloraton, it always rains in the afternoon, and the burgers in the Grumpy Possum Cafe are always overcooked (but redeemed by the town's famed hot sauce). 

Best of all, Eileen knows Eloraton, and she knows the townsfolk, because it is the setting for her favourite series of romances, sadly uncompleted since the author, Rachel Flowers, passed away. Perhaps while she's staying, Eileen can discover what Rachel intended for the last book of the series, which she never finished? Or perhaps she can lend a little help to the characters from the earlier books, who seem, well, a little... stuck... since their creator passed on?

What she's NOT going to do, of course, is get involved with Anders, the man she nearly ran down when she arrived. The grumpy man who runs the town bookshop but who never appeared in any of the stories. No, Eileen has no interest in Anders AT ALL.

What follows is fun and funny and meta (Eileen knows the rules of these stories, the Happy-for-Nows, the happy-ever-Afters). She also knows much more about the background of everyone she meets than she dares let on, she's read the books, after all). There's a mystery to the Brigadoon-like Eloraton, a mystery which seems to be bound up with Anders. Who can Rachel have intended him to fall in love with, and how can Eileen make sure she doesn't interrupt that?

Because, once Eileen arrives things do begin to change...

I really, really loved this story. Eileen is a great character to spend time with. An academic, she's feeling stalled at work - she always get assigned to teach the 8am class - and is pleased to throw herself into sorting out the good poeople of Eloraton, who she thinks she understands so well. But knowledge is not wisdom and Eileen can be, perhaps, rather over direct in her ways as she tries to set people on their right path. Eileen is great to spend time with but also, perhaps, annoying at times. So it's not surprising when sparks fly between  her and Anders. Poston sets about this central relationship with glee. Of course there are conventions to be met here but also, conventions to be subverted. Both Anders and Eileen are well aware of these, making their relationship even more spiky and even more funny (at times).

A satisfying book to read, pretty hard to put down and one where the keen eyed reader will spot some links to other parts of the Poston-verse.

I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about A Novel Love Story, see the publisher's website here.

18 June 2024

#Review - Cuckoo by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Gretchen Felker-Martin
Titan Books, 11 June 2024
Available as: PB, 342pp,  e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803367569

I'm grateful to Titan Books for sending me a copy of Cuckoo  to consider for review.

Cuckoo is a novel of two parts - and I need to be careful what I say about the second for fear of spoiling the first. 

In that first part, set in the 90s USA, we see a number of queer kids consigned to a brutal camp by their parents in order to make them "normal". The detail of this is enraging in the extreme, the children are in effect kidnapped by hired thugs and trafficked to a remote desert site where they are to be worked till they drop, physically punished, and indoctrinated. The details are harrowing.

The book is about more than. suffering, though. Felker-Martin takes time to ensure we come to know each of the kids - some of whom are gay, some lesbian, some trans. Some of them, of course, just aren't sure and had been trying to explore their identities, or grow into them, until discovered by parents, schoolmates or other adults. Of course the world often isn't a clearcut place and so we also hear tales of eating disorders, abuse and loss - and of love and infatuation.  A significant theme is the variance in the behaviour of the kids, reflecting their developing understanding of themselves and the relationships that develop. As you'd expect, some of them are brave (and suffer for it), others try to keep their heads down  ("do your time") while others cooperate with the new regime. 

All, though, begin to sense there is more to this than appears. Behind the straightforward prejudice and abuse, there is clearly something else going on - as we already know form the short prologue. The bigotry and hate that occasions the place is real enough but it it also enables something that is, if anything, even worse. The book's blurb gives pointers to a number of alien abduction/ replacement themes here so I will cite those, but I'm not going to say any more about exactly what is happening - I will let you unpick the horrifying details for yourself! The only thing I will add is that, in a cruel twist for all involved, Felker-Martin deftly inverts the trope of parents feeling their kids have been "replaced", that they aren't theirs any more, to consider families which, in fact, desire that, want to remake their children into something they're not - and of what the results might be. Themes of identity, honesty and truth are never far from the surface, with the abductees needing to discover very fast who they really are and what they really want, if they're to survive.

Of course, doing that has its costs and we see some of that in the shorter second part, where the survivors of the camp come together again. Felker-Martin shows us that mere survival didn't guarantee a happy-ever-after, the now adults have been through too much and are not each others' best friends, but they need to be together again and to face an awful truth. The conclusion is perhaps inevitable but nonetheless is filled with tension, it will have the reader totally hooked, desperate to see how things turn out and what the cost might be.

The only negative for me - and very much a personal matter of taste - was that at times, Felker-Martin uses a stream-of-consiousness technique to convey the emotional state and intensity of experiences. This creates long passages which, for me, were almost unreadable; after three or four lines, the sense of the writing just seems to get lost. Some readers will love these, I know. They are not though so frequent as to distract greatly from the narrative.

Overall, a tense and compulsive novel albeit one I had to set aside at time when it became almost too tense. 

For more information about Cuckoo, see the publisher's website here.

13 June 2024

#Review - The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

The Butcher of the Forest
Premee Mohamed
Titan Books, 27 February 2024
Available as: HB, 144pp, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781803368726

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Butcher of the Forest  to consider for review.

The Butcher of the Forest is a small, but perfectly formed, classically structured fairytale. Veris's world is ruled by a tyrant, a pitiless if mysterious figure who has massacred men, women and children in conquering the valley where she lives. It is hinted that he is only the latest conqueror and, by implication, that his reign will not last - but for now, he commands all.

All, expect for the North Woods, a place of otherworldly danger into which his children have been lured. Veris is the only person known to have visited the North Woods and retrieved lost kids, so she's summoned, threatened, and sent to rescue them. If she doesn't succeed, her family and village will be slaughtered.

The main part of the story is taken up by Veris's quest, with its necessary compromises, with the skill and cunning that a woman must use to survive in a hostile country, and with her moral wrangling against herself. These children are innocent, aren't they? Why shouldn't they have a chance at a life, and a chance to be better than their father? But - won't they inevitably turn into the next Tyrants?

What is Veris to do?

Does she really have a choice?

I loved the way that the story is constructed both as a classic fairytale - into the woods, indeed! - but also has this real moral edge. Abstracted into a dreamland that has its own rules, Veris still knows that there are consequences from what she does, in the waking world. And even in the Woods, there are consequences, bargains to be made, and a price to be borne. Navigating both in parallel, as it were, seems an impossible task.

The writing in Premee Mohamed's story is focused and clear, apparently simple yet with layers of meaning. A quest seems the most basic of structures yet in these hands - as well as being an entertaining tale - it becomes a lyrical commentary on the value and purpose of life, and on the need not to duck hard choices.

A brilliant story, really, and short enough to devour in one sitting, so actually the best kind of story!

For more information about The Butcher of the Forest, see the publisher's website here.

11 June 2024

#Review - The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird by Louisa Morgan

The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird
Louisa Morgan
Orbit, 21 November 2023
Available as: PB, 371pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9780356516837

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird to consider for review.

I have enjoyed all of Morgan's "witch" novels and I enjoyed Beatrice Bird too. While it's a bit of an outlier in not making overt use of the same witchy mythos, with the supernatural here being less clearly delineated and understood, the theme and tone in very similar and Bird succeeds in giving us both a slightly creepy tale and the account of a woman suffering from controlling, collusive patriarchy. (As to the latter, the position of the women here is in many respects even more constrained than in the earlier, historically based novels where they at least had some freedom of action within an understood domain of their own).

Beatrice is a successful doctor, a therapist practicing in San Francisco among the happenings of the late 60s (there are some drug-related themes) and the downer years of the early 70s. The novel's "present" is 1977, but there are many flashbacks, both to Beatrice's earlier life (as a child, and then to her practice and patients) and to that of Anne Iredale, of whom more in a moment. 

Beatrice has a special skill/ talent/ sense in that she can perceive "ghosts", as she calls them. These aren't chain clanking, sheet-waving spectres, rather they are "hauntings" that express truths about people, emotions such as their sorrow or anger. This talent developed early - Morgan shows us its beginnings in Beatrice's rural childhood - and one would imagine that it would be useful to her in her practice, but in truth she has become more sensitive to these "ghosts" than she can bear, seeing them tag along not only with her patients but in every street and shop too. As the story opens, has retreated to a small island off the US West Coast where there are few people and so, few ghosts. Beatrice does though have her two cows, and is trying to live a peaceful life, supplying milk to the island convent whose sisters, happily, leave her mostly alone.

It's to this island that Anne comes, fleeing domestic abuse. Of course that means she brings with her fear, guilt, and regret, things that Beatrice would rather not have to cope with, especially not personified as her "ghosts", - but also something even nastier, something with a real sense of horror to it. Is it an actual thing, or has Beatrice tipped over and begun losing her mind?

How these two women come to know and trust one another, and build on that trust to address (rather than running away from) their problems is the heart of this book. But first we have to learn what both, especially Anne, have been through, in scenes that some readers may find distressing. These show how Anne falls into the control of a manipulative bully of a man, how she blames herself, and what she is up against more widely - her abuser is a judge, a Big Man in the small world he inhabits and his word dictates her future (she has no friends, having been cut off by her abuser from any support network).

Such behaviour and its indulgence hasn't of course gone away in the 21st century, but by locating her story in the 70s I think Morgan makes the stakes very high, with little public or official awareness of the issue and no support for its victims. Anne gets some help from the Roman Catholic nuns - in passing I have always enjoyed how Morgan's novels, even with their witchy heroines, refuse to subscribe to a binary world where organised religion is simply demonised - but it's only once Anne and Beatrice are able to understand one another that they can both begin to heal and to address the formidable difficulties - no, dangers - that threaten. The supernatural twist to the story means that Beatrice has unusual resources to draw on here, but it doesn't magically resolve everything, that takes human courage, solidarity and not a little cleverness.

Another great, and rather different, book from an author I rely on to give me a fresh view on life.

For more information about The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird, see the publisher's website here.

6 June 2024

#Review - The Chamber by Will Dean

The Chamber
Will Dean
Hodder, 6 June 2024
Available as: HB, 400pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781399734127

I'm grateful to the publisher for giving me access to an advance e-copy of The Chamber to consider for review.

'Never get ahead of your hat'.

The first thing to say is that Will Dean's new thriller The Chamber deserves an award for 'most high pressure novel of the year'. Literally, because the events of the story take place in a diving capsule that's been pressurised to deep sea conditions. Our protagonists are therefore breathing 'helox', a mixture of helium and oxygen - and, as main character Ellen points out, they all speak with squeaky voices which have to be decoded electronically for those outside.

An amusing thought, or it would be, if the events that befall Ellen and her five companions weren't so grim.

The Chamber does a fine job, I think, of portraying the strenuous conditions under which the divers survive. They're meant to be in the pressurised chamber for a month, attending to repairs on North Sea oil equipment on daily shifts without the need for further compression and decompression. Saturation diving like this - 'Sat' - isn't for the fainthearted, it's only for the best of the best. Everyone in the chamber has proved their ability through years of hard work and rigorous (and expensive) training. Ellen is one of the few women working at the top - or perhaps I should say at the bottom - of this industry and the role has cost her, as we find out. As it's cost her companions. They are all risking health effects from the saturation conditions and from the accidents caused by stress on the equipment (there are constant references to rust). The month away from home wrecks family and home life for men and women, though Ellen is subject to judgments which aren't made of her male colleagues. She is seen as sacrificing her family life, they aren't. 

There are also the peculiar economic conditions of the role - everyone is a self-employed contractor - which breed grudges and quarrels in what is a small world of jobs and workers. The nature of the work, providing, as it does, basic accommodation and meals - 'three hots and a cot' - fosters institutionalisation (there are comparisons both with the Armed Forces and with prisons) encouraging the divers back out, away from the perplexities and decisions of ordinary life.

So when things begin to go wrong, with Ellen and her mates imprisoned until a 5-day descompression can be undertaken, the fingers of blame point in all direction.

Dean is excellent at conveying all this through snatches of Ellen's life, chat between the divers, anecdotes about friends a rivals. But beyond that, this is an incredibly tense book. Literally a locked-room mystery, the divers are thrown on their own resources both to investigate what's happening and to protect themselves from further harm. The conditions they're in tend to paranoia even when things are going well, with phantasms and imagination a risk of long, lonely hours, isolation, and pressure. But in a macho world - even for women! - certain subjects are avoided, or at least, kept to be discussed on shore. 

With its lapses in the narration, its room for speculation about what is going on outside the chamber and its sense there are things we're not being told, the story develops an almost eerie mood which Dean contributes to by dropping references to the Scottish Play through the narrative, fitting given the location of the North East coast of Scotland (one of the main characters, it soon emerges, lives in Cawdor). See how many you can get - there is a Malcolm here, I also spotted Dunsinane, a MacDuff, numerous quotes and of course, in the chamber infection control is key so there's plenty of hand washing...

That play, I'd remind you, deals not only with a power struggle but with temptation, with an outside direction to do evil. It's a direction that one may or may not resist. There may be a connection in The Chamber: what is going on outside, and what evils, what temptations, have our characters brought in with them?

The story gets even more tense as we near the conclusion. This one kept me up past bedtime as I had to finish it. A superb piece of writing that I'd recommend strongly.

For more information about The Chamber, see the publisher's website here.