Just Olga and her books

I've loved books since I learned to read and now I love to read and writer books, to read about books, and although most of all I love fiction, I write other books that might tickle my fancy. I'm originally from Barcelona and I also read in Spanish and Catalan. I love movies and theatre so these are things I also love to read about.

A solid and entertaining cozy mystery set in the world of the circus, and a must for those who love big cats

A Spark of Justice - J.D. Hawkins

I was sent an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book is classed as a cozy mystery and is set in the world of the circus, probably in the recent past, although this is not specified and the novel has a somewhat timeless feel.  There are mobile phones (but hardly ever used, and most people rely on land lines as nobody is located unless they are at home or at work), computers (but only an old-fashioned one is ever mentioned or seen and reports are paper based) but most people do not seem to use any modern commodities, although the mauling of Rolo, the lion tamer and the victim whose murder/accidental death is the mystery at the centre of the novel, is available on YouTube. And of course, the circus where the story is set still has performing animal, including big felines (lions, leopards, tigers, and panthers). In the US there is no federal ban as such yet (although they are banned in many countries) but most of the big circuses have stopped showing those numbers (and indeed Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance in May this year) and there are many local bans, so that adds to the feeling of a somewhat idealised and old-fashioned world.

The story is told in the third person but from the point of view of John (Juan) Nieves, an insurance investigator of Puerto Rican origin, born in New York, who left his studies as a vet to join the police, and after working for the police for a time, moved to the Mid-West and changed his job to try and save his marriage. Unfortunately, it did not work, but he loves his son, thinks about him often and lives for his visits.  His lifestyle is itinerant and he feels no strong attachment to his current job or to his apartment. For some reason, he feels irresistibly attracted to the world of the circus from the moment he sets foot in it. Although he does not like clowns and he is less than welcome by the circus artists initially, he cannot stop going back, even when he does not have a very good reason to. At first, it seems it is due to his attachment to detective work and to his wish to solve the mystery, but later we realise there is something else at play.

As happens in all good detective or mystery novels, the story is not only about the mystery but also about the investigator. In this case, John’s motives and sense of self and identity are put into question from the very beginning, and eventually, the process of self-discovery becomes more interesting than the case itself. If circuses have traditionally been places where people could run away from their circumstances and become a new person, this novel shows them as a big family happy to accommodate those who might not fit into normal society and others who want to become who they feel they really are, no matter how alternative. It is perhaps significant that Rolo did not spend all year with the circus but lived at times with his outside family, and was not as fully invested as the rest of the artists and did not truly belong.

The mystery is pretty intriguing too, don’t get me wrong. A death by a deadly tiger attack is not everyday news, and the fact that the tiger had been spooked by an electrical spark from a damaged cable makes it even less common. There are a suitably large number of suspects (both from within the circus —as Rolo was not very well liked, for reasons we discover later—, and from his personal life, including a wife, a lover, and a brother), a complex web of deceit and betrayal; there are threats and warnings to John to keep out of circus’s business, and there are wonderful descriptions of the world of circus, wild cats, clowns, and behind the curtains insights that will delight anybody who has ever felt curious about this world.

Although there are anxiety provoking and scary moments (near- miss accidents, close calls with a knife thrower, eerie moments with a lion and a panther, and also more run of the mill human violence), there is no actual gore and the investigation itself is not precise and full of detail (in fact, once some of the suspects are removed from the scene they practically disappear from the story).

I liked John (Juan) Nieves, the main character. He is not the usual noir detective, full of clever repartees and sarcastic comments. He thinks before he acts (mostly); he is not unduly violent and uses no foul language; he thinks of his son often and is kind towards animals and kids, and he acknowledges his weaknesses, his doubts, and his mistakes. He is happy to let certain things drop and to hide others that have no real bearing on the matter and will not affect his employer. He is not a rigid believer in the value of finding the truth and revealing it at all costs and is more interested in human beings (and big cats) than he is in some perfect vision of duty.  The author, who describes a personal background in carnival attractions, creates some interesting secondary characters, particularly the circus’s performers, although due to how different clowns look with and without makeup, it is quite easy to get confused as to who is who, but this does not prevent us from following the plot and enjoying the story.

I have read some comments that describe the ending as a let-down and this is true if we think of the novel as being only about the investigation of Rolo’s death. On the other hand, if we see it as a process of investigating and revealing who the real John (Juan) Nieves is, there is no disappointment at all.

Recommended to lovers of cozy mysteries set in original settings, to those who like big cats (or cats of any size), and to readers who appreciate a good background and an inside knowledge of the world of circus, especially those who feel nostalgic about a world that seems to be on the verge of disappearance. A solid and entertaining read.

Multi-award winner historical fiction in pre-revolution New York with a fabulous narrator and an intriguing main character

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York - Francis Spufford

Thanks to Net Galley and to Faber & Faber for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had an interesting experience with this novel. In the last few weeks, every time I reviewed a novel that was nominated for an award and checked out what novel had won it, it was Golden Hill (among them, the Costa First Novel Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017…) and I thought I had to read it and find out what the fuss what about.

It is not difficult to see why people are fascinated by this novel. It is a historical fiction novel by an author who has written non-fiction extensively and has chosen a very interesting narrative style. (I must confess to being very intrigued by his book called The Child that Books Built. A Life in Reading, especially in view of a recent discussion we had on my blog about books on reading). The story is set in the New York of the late 1740s and is narrated by an anonymous narrator (or so it seems as we read) who tells the story of a man, Richard Smith, who arrives in the New World with a money order for 1000 pounds and acts quite mysteriously. The story is told in the third person, but the narrator breaks the third wall barrier often, at times to despair at being unable to describe a card game, or a fight, at others to decide where we can or cannot enter. Although the book’s language and style are word-perfect (and will enchant those who love accuracy), it appears more sensitive to certain aspects of the society of the time than perhaps a novel of the period would have been (slavery, gender, and race issues…) but the narrating style reminds us of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in a nod to metafiction, in the book itself there are discussions of novels that include Joseph Andrews or David Simple. I have talked often about my fascination for narrators and this is one of those novels that will keep it alive for a long time.

The book transports the reader to the New York of 1747, a provincial and small place, with only a few streets and a mixture of inhabitants mostly from Dutch and English origins, with a jumble of different coins and bank notes in circulation, what appear to be the equivalent of small-town politics and an interesting judicial system, and dependent on ships from London for news and entertainment. Although I have read historical tracts and fiction from the era, I don’t think any of them managed to give me as good an understanding and a feel for what colonial New York was like.

The story itself is built around the mystery of Smith’s character. Who is he? Is the money order real, or is he a con-man? Is he a magician, an actor, a seducer, a trouble-maker, all of the above? Everybody wants him, or better, his money, for their own goals (political, financial…) and he allows himself to be courted by all, although he is only really interested in the daughter of one of the Dutch businessmen who is holding his money order until they receive confirmation of its true value, Tabitha. Tabitha is my favourite character, a shrew, sharp and witty, and somebody I wouldn’t mind learning much more about.

Smith is a good stand-in for the reader because although he is from the era, he is naïve as to the colonies and the different social mores, politics, and customs there, and keeps getting into trouble. Although his adventures are interesting, and the mystery that surrounds him seemingly propels the story (although half-way through the novel we get a clue as to what might be behind the intrigue), I found it difficult to fully empathise with him, perhaps because of the style of narration (although the story is told by a narrator, and in the third person, at times we get a clear look at what Smith is thinking, but, for me, the hidden information somehow hindered my full investment in the character). There are many other interesting characters, although we do not get to know any of them in a lot of detail. For a great insight into the book and all that it contains, I recommend you read the About the author note I have included above. The man can write, for sure.

The ending… Well, there is an ending to the story and then there is a final twist. If you picked up the clues, the ending will not be such a big surprise. The twist… Yes, it makes one look at the book in a completely different way, although it makes perfect sense.

I highlighted many fragments that I particularly liked, but on checking them again I was worried they might, either give too much away or confuse somebody who is not following the story. So I’d advise you to check the book sample available on your favourite online bookstore and see if you enjoy the style. If you do, it only gets better.

I recommend this book to anybody curious about its reputation, to lovers of historical fiction, in particular, those set up in the colonies prior to the revolution, and to readers and writers who enjoy narrators and look for something a bit different.

A symbiosis of the genres of the noir detective novel and science-fiction with a hero with a dark-sense of humour and a heart

The Last Detective - Brian Cohn

Thanks to Rosie Amber for organising Rosie’s Book Review Team and for providing this great opportunity for reviewers and authors to meet. If you’re an author, check here how to submit your books to the team.

I don’t read many purely science-fiction books (I’m not a big fan of lengthy descriptions, and world-building can take a fair amount of space while I generally care more for characters) but I’ve read a few recently that I’ve enjoyed, enough to make me pay more attention to sci-fi offerings. Some novels combine sci-fi with other genres and that usually brings them onto more familiar territories. This novel is one of those cases. It is a fairly classical (in style) noir detective novel:  you have the disenchanted detective who has left the police disappointed with the way things are done now (in his case, though, there was an alien invasion on Earth that all but destroyed Humanity’s achievements and progress over centuries [no electricity, limited access to fuel, no telephones, no TV, no democracy]… Humans have become prisoners, rationing of food has come back, and aliens control access to the few resources left, and they send humans to ‘labor camps’ somewhere outside of Earth with some cooperation from the human ‘authorities’) and who is called back because he’s the only one who can solve a murder. Now that the police have become no more than puppets of the aliens (also called ‘slicks’, because of the peculiar aspect of their skin), there is nobody else who still remembers how things were done. This is a DIY police procedural novel (no computers, no DNA analysis or blood tests, only very basic gathering of evidence and use of deductive powers, almost back to Conan Doyle or Christie) with a main characters, Adrian Grace (a very apt name, as we discover), who has probably lost everything and who describes himself as being ‘addicted’ to detective work. There might be other reasons (read excuses) why he chooses to accept the case of the murder of a Slick (they have somewhat of a herd mentality and do not hurt each other but it seems unthinkable that a human would dare to try and kill one of them) but the main one is because he misses being a detective.

The story is told in the first person, present tense, from Grace’s point of view, and it follows the chronological order, with the main action taking place over only a few days. Although he has fallen quite low, he hasn’t reached the level of others, and he is smart, witty, and has a rather black sense of humour that is what keeps him going.  Although he does not dwell for too long on his circumstances, or those of humanity (the novel starts with a brief chapter that takes place right at the moment when the aliens arrive, that allows us a glimpse into Grace’s work before normal life came to an end, and we get to meet his partner, Yuri, who is missing by the time the main action of the novel starts), he is harder in appearance than in reality. He trusts his instincts; he suspects everybody but is also quick to believe in first impressions and happily accepts as a partner a young female detective, whom he trusts from very early on (because he needs somebody to trust). Grace reminded me of many of the hard-boiled detectives of old, but he is not violent by nature and avoids guns if he can help it, and in contrast to more modern models, he is witty but not foul-mouthed. He drip-feeds us details about his life (he was brought up a Catholic, he was married with kids, he talks about his mother’s death when he explains his lack of faith…) and he still looks after his father. His relation with his father is heart-warming, despite the terrible situation, and it only reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a human being and not a collection of clichés. Although I’m very partial to unreliable narrators, Grace is not one of them, at least not by design. This being a mystery, we are not always given always given all the information, but if we are misguided, it is because Grace is mistaken or wrong-footed (by others or himself).

The book is not heavy on descriptions and the world the book describes is like a ghost of our world, like those empty and abandoned towns we sometimes see on TV that have fallen prey to disasters (economic, natural, or man-made). We have human beings that have lost their purpose, groups of religious extremists (the Abandoned, who sustain God has abandoned Humanity), resistance groups, and the aliens can also function as stand-ins for many dictatorial regimes bent on the destruction of all opposition (Nazi Germany comes to mind, but many other, recent and distant, would also fit the bill). Some of the humans are complicit with the regime whilst others are not what they seem to be. The book allows for reflections on the nature of society, politics, religion (there is a priest that plays an important part), family, betrayal, guilt, and ultimately hope. Grace is not always right, but he has not lost his humanity, and he is a realistic character we would all like to befriend.

This is a tremendous book, where the science-fiction and the detective genre work in symbiosis and create a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. Recommended to fans of both genres, especially those who don’t mind experimentation within the genre, and in general to people who enjoy fiction that pushes them to think whilst keeping them turning the pages.

Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era

Genteel Secrets - S.R. Mallery

I have read, enjoyed and reviewed several of S.R. Mallery’s novels and short story collections (most recently The Dolan Girls, check the review here) and she has a knack for combining historical fact and characters with gripping stories that grab the readers, transporting them into another world, sometimes closer and sometimes  far back in the past.

In this novella, the author takes us back to the period of the early American Civil War, and our guides are two characters, James, a medical student from New York (an Irish immigrant who moved with his parents when he was a child and suffered tragedy and deprivation from an early age) and Hannah, a Southern girl, the daughter of slave owners, although not a typical Southern belle, as she enjoys books more than balls and feels closer to some slaves (including her childhood friend, Noah) than to her own cousin, the manipulating Lavinia.

The story is told in the third person from both characters’ point of view. They meet in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the novel, realise they have plenty in common (their love of books and their political sympathies among other things) and fall in love (more at at-first-meeting than at-first-sight) as they should in these kinds of stories. There are many things that separate them (I’m not sure I’d call them star-crossed lovers, but there is a bit of that), and matters get even more complicated when James decides to join the Pinkerton Detective Agency and ends up chasing Confederate Spies. At the same time, Hannah is forced to spy for the South, much against her will, and… Well, as the author quotes at the start of one of the chapters (thanks, Shakespeare) ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. I won’t give you full details but let me tell you there are secret codes, interesting hiding places, blackmail, occult passages, and betrayals galore. The underground railway is put into action, Frederick Douglass (one of my favourite historical figures of the period, and I’ll recommend again his  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave here in Project Gutenberg) makes a guest appearance, and famous spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow plays an important part. (I must confess I hadn’t heard of her before but the author’s decision of using her as one of her background characters is a great success).

The story flows easily and although there are no lengthy descriptions that deflect from the action, we get a clear sense of the locations and of the atmosphere of the period, including the abuse slaves were subject to, and the social morasses of the time, particularly the different treatment of women and the expectations of the genders and races. I was fascinated by the Washington of the period, the political machinations, and the fantastic description of the Battle of Manassas from the point of view of the spectators (as it seems that the well-off people decided it was a good occasion for a picnic and they ate and observed the fighting from the hilltop). The two main characters and Noah are likeable and sympathetic, although this is a fairly short story and there is no time for an intense exploration of psychological depths (their consciences struggle between complying with their duties and following their feelings but their conflict does not last too long). There is no time to get bored, and the ending will please fans of romantic historical fiction (although some might find it a bit rushed).

My only complaint is that the story is too short and more traditionally romantic than I expected (pushing the suspension of disbelief a bit). I would have liked to learn more about the Pinkerton’s role chasing spies during the war (one of the author’s characters in the Dolan Girls was also a Pinkerton detective), and I hope there might be a more detailed exploration of the underground railway in future stories (although the role of quilts to signal secret messages is discussed in one of the stories of Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads).

Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era. Another great story from S.R. Mallery.

 

For lovers of historical fiction (late XIX-early XX c), particularly British (Manchester) and those looking for novel explorations of issues of gender identity.

The Night Brother - Rosie Garland

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins UK for providing me with an ARC of this book that I voluntarily chose to review.

Gender and gender identity are complex subjects and have always been, even at times when this was not openly acknowledged. Characters who change gender are not new (although not very common either): Virginia Wolf’s Orlando is perhaps one of the best known, and his/her fictional biography offers the reader a chance to observe historical events from the point of view of a character that is an outsider in more ways than one. Maria Aurèlia Capmany’s Quim/Quima uses another character that goes from male to female as a way to revisit the story of Catalonia, in an open homage to Woolf whom she addresses in a letter that serves as a prologue to her novel. Much more recently, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize (and that I recommend wholeheartedly as I do the other two, although I don’t think Quim/Quima is easy to find other than in the original in Catalan), uses a similar plot device, although this time clearly addressing intersex and focusing more on the difficulties and struggles of living outside the gender norm (a subject the other two novels I mention don’t focus on).

What marks the difference between those books and The Night Brother is that rather than the main character living a part of his/her life as pertaining to a gender and, at some point, switching (similar to what happens in Kafka’s Metamorphosis although not quite as surreal), in this novel, the main character is both, male and female, and daily morphs from the one gender into the other, at least for a time. Edie is a woman (a girl when we meet her) who lives with her mother and grandmother in a pub in Manchester at the end of the XIX century, during the day, and at night she transforms into Herbert (or Gnome, as he prefers to be called), as if she were a shapeshifter creature of sorts, or a being from some paranormal genre (but that is not at all the feel of the novel). At the beginning of the novel Edie thinks of Gnome as her brother, always by her side, a wild creature who shares adventures with her (although we soon realise there is something peculiar about their relationship, as they seem to know what each other thinks without talking). Edie’s mother insists she is making Gnome up and is imagining things and although the girl tries hard to ignore it, unexplained things keep happening. At some point, she realises what the truth is (at least in part, as secrets are a big subject in this story) and discovers a way to keep her ‘brother’ at bay, although this comes at a heavy prize and it is difficult to maintain. Edie tries to live a discreet life and not get too close to people to avoid the risk of revealing her secret and that results in a sad and sombre life. When she becomes friendly with a gay co-worker and later becomes a suffragette, things get complicated and Gnome won’t stay put. I won’t discuss the plot in more detail to avoid giving any spoilers away.

The story is told in the first person from the points of view of Edie and Gnome (although Edie’s narration has more weight for reasons that soon become evident to readers) and a final chapter from the point of view of Abigail, one of the suffragettes. This style of narrative gives the reader a good sense of how different the perceptions of the two characters are, their behaviour, expressions, and what reactions they elicit from others. The novel excels at depicting the Manchester of the turn of the century, its buildings, its neighbourhoods, its businesses, the savoury and unsavoury areas, the social mores of the era, the secret places where those whose tastes did not fit in with society at large met, and the atmosphere of the city and the times. We have ladies from good families, blue collar characters, prostitutes, ruffians, street urchins, policemen, publicans and everything in between, all beautifully observed. For me, this is one of the strongest points of the novel, and although I only know the Manchester of modern times, I felt as if I was wandering its streets with the characters at the turn of the century. The Suffragist rallies and their repression are also shared in great detail, to the point where we are one of the fallen bodies about to be trampled over, in a scene difficult to forget.

As the novel is told in the first person from those two character’s perspectives, it is important that they come across as fully realised individuals. For me, Edie is the more convincing of the two. This is perhaps in part due to her having more space (and also probably because I am a woman and find it easier to get into her shoes) and that allows us to understand better what goes through her head. I don’t mean she is a particularly likeable character (she refuses to listen to reason, she is hard and tries to close her heart to others and she does bad things too), but she is easier to understand and she grows and evolves through the novel, becoming… Well, I’ll keep my peace. However, Gnome remains impulsive, childish at times, and seems not to have a thought beyond getting his revenge and satisfying his needs. He is not a well-rounded character, and as a depiction of masculinity I found it very limited —although it makes sense if we view the novel as an allegory that turns on its head the old view of the genders, with women being close to nature, earth, the moon, natural beings, slaves to their hormones and anatomy, and men who were the intellectual beings, rational, controlled, dominant, the sun, head over feelings— but he is a force of nature, although not very likeable either. Edie’s mother and grandmother are intriguing characters, with her mother being a great example of bad motherhood (not only for what she does and the way she treats Edie but for what she tries to do to sort her problems, an extreme but not false ‘treatment’ on offer at the time), while her grandmother is the voice of reason, and we eventually get to understand her circumstances well. Although the ending is perhaps a bit rushed, it is satisfying and its message of tolerance and acceptance of difference is a very welcome one.

I’ve seen this book described as magical realism and as an allegory and both concepts are fitting to a certain extent, although I suspect this is a book that will mean different things to different readers and its interpretations will probably tell us as much about the reader as about the writer (as should be the case). I recommend it to readers interested in historical fiction (particularly within a British setting) of the late XIX c /beginning of the XX c, those interested in novels that explore gender and gender identity issues in new ways and who don’t mind a touch of the unexpected, and to anybody intrigued to try a fairly original take on the subject. A word of warning: there is some sexual content (only one scene and not the most graphic I’ve read, but it is there) and there is violence, particularly in the scene of the repression of the Suffragist event. 

 

A great book for researchers of the topic and anybody curious about the history of psychiatry and psychiatric treatment in the UK in the XIXc

Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland - John R F Burt, Kathryn Burtinshaw

Thanks to Pen & Sword for gifting me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed several books by Pen & Sword and have commented on their great catalogue before. As you know, I’m a psychiatrist and could not resist it when I saw this book.

The authors, who are well-known for writing about genealogy, note in their introduction that when people try to trace their ancestors and find that some of them seem to have disappeared from records or be lost, a possibility worth considering is that they might have had a history of mental health problems or epilepsy. If that is the case, checking the records of lunatic asylums, workhouses and the poor law records might provide plenty of information not available elsewhere. Their book focuses on mental health care during the XIX c. although there is a chapter about the pre-nineteenth century situation (that chapter, in particular, is very hard, and the way patients were cared for at the time until new reformers came along, is scary to read).

The book is divided into chapters that revise the laws in different areas of the United Kingdom, the asylums that were built, who run them, how they worked, and always offers some case studies, that share the stories of some of those patients, for the most part, voiceless and lost to history.

Later chapters look at the life in asylums (that as a psychiatrist, I found fascinating), the staff and their work, and then at different types of patients (the criminal lunatic, imbeciles and idiots, epilepsy, general paralysis of the insane, puerperal insanity, suicide). The chapters on diagnostic and causes, and treatments were particularly illuminating for me (even though I had read of some of them, the case studies and the details brought it to life).

I started working in psychiatry in the UK in 1993 and by then many of the asylums had disappeared, but, although I’ve only ever talked to people who had worked in them in the late XX century, I’ve had a chance to visit some of those fascinating buildings (some are listed buildings now and have been transformed into apartments and offices) and some are still dedicated to caring for people with mental health disorders, although, evidently in a very different form. With the changes to the philosophy and theory of caring for people with mental health problems, the discovery of new medications and a more enlightened attitude towards learning difficulties, it is important to record and revise how much the situation has changed, and not lose sight of the history of those places and particularly of the people (reformers and especially patients). In my professional capacity I’ve heard many discussions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the different models of care, and after reading this book I have gained perspective and feel much better informed.

As I read, I highlighted many points and quotes I wanted to share, but some are so extreme (when talking about ‘care’ pre-asylums) that they put horror movies and books to shame. I did not want to sensationalise a book that is, above all, a chronicle and a study that reflects changed social attitudes and laws, and that is invaluable to anybody who wants to have a good overview of mental health care in the UK in the XIX c.  and part of the XX (a recent book about R.D. Laing reminded me that even with the discovery of new medications, some things had changed little regarding the care of the mentally ill until the later part of the XX century).

This is a good compendium of the care of people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities and epilepsy in the XIX century, and it encompasses laws, reformers, workers, buildings, and more importantly, patients. It is a great resource for researchers looking to gain a general view of the subject and offers biographies of the main players, a glossary and bibliography. The paperback copy also has great drawings and also pictures of ledgers, buildings, patients. I recommend it to anybody looking for information on the subject, to genealogists interested in researching in depth some of the lesser known records and to anybody interested in the history of psychiatry and psychiatric care, in particular in the UK.

A well-paced mystery that takes us back to a fascinating and tragic historical era

The Lover's Portrait: An Art Mystery - Jennifer S. Alderson

Thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team and to the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily chose to review. (If you are a writer and are interested in getting first-class reviews do check here).

I love art but cannot claim to be a connoisseur and I’ve never been to Amsterdam (well, I stopped at the airport to change planes once but that was that) but I can reassure you neither of those things prevented me from enjoying this solid mystery set within the world of big art museums and exhibitions, with a background story that would comfortably fit into the genre of historical fiction.

The story is written in the third person but from several characters’ point of view, although it is easy to follow and there is no head-hopping as each chapter, some longer and some shorter, is told from only one character’s point of view. There are two time frames. Some chapters are set in 1942 and tell the story of an art dealer from Amsterdam who is being blackmailed by one of the Nazi occupiers due to his homosexuality. In 2015, Zelda, the intrepid protagonist, is trying very hard to get into a Master’s Programme that will qualify her to work in museums and agrees to help with some very basic editing tasks for an exhibition of art objects confiscated by the Nazis that has been organised in an attempt at locating the rightful owners of the paintings. Readers get also a good insight into the thoughts and motivations of other characters (the evil nephew of the original Nazi blackmailer, Rita, the owner of one of the portraits in the exhibition, Huub, the curator of the exhibition…), although we mostly follow Zelda and her adventures. Although this is book 2 in the series, I have not read the first one and had no problem getting into the story. Zelda at times reflects upon how she got here and we learn that she moved from working with computers to a stay in Nepal teaching English and finally Amsterdam. In effect, I felt the novel was better at offering factual information about her than developing her character psychologically. I was not sure of her age but at times she seemed very naïve for somebody who has travelled extensively and has held important jobs, not only with the mystery side of things but also with her personal life, but she has the heart in the right place, and I appreciated the lack of romance in the story.

The different points of view and time changes help keep the suspense going, as we have access to more information than Zelda, but this can sometimes make matters more confusing (as we are not privy to everybody’s thoughts and there are a few red herrings thrown in for good measure). The author is also good at keeping us guessing and suspecting all kinds of double-crossings (perhaps I have been reading too many mystery books and thrillers but I didn’t trust anyone and was on the lookout for more twists than there were).

The setting of Amsterdam, both in the present and in the 1940s is very well depicted and, at least for me, the wish to go there increased as I read. I really enjoyed the description of the process of documentation and how to search for the provenance of artworks (the author explains her own background and its relevance to the subject [very] in an endnote that also offers ample bibliography)  that is sufficiently detailed without getting boring, and the background theme of the fate of art and the persecution of Jews, homosexuals and other minorities in occupied Europe is brought to life in the memories described by several of the characters and also the fictionalised entries of the art merchant. It is not difficult to see how a book about the research of actual works of art could be gripping too, and the fictionalisation and the mystery elements make it attractive to even more readers.

This is a gentle mystery, with no excessive or graphic violence, with an amateur sleuth who sometimes is far too daring and impulsive (although otherwise there would not be much of a story), with a great background and sufficient red herrings and clues to keep the suspense going. I suspect most readers will guess some aspects of the solution, but perhaps not the full details, and even if they do, the rest of the elements of the story make the reading worthwhile.

A good and solid book, an interesting intrigue that combines present and past, set in a wonderful Amsterdam and the art world, with likeable and intriguing characters,  but not heavy on the psychological aspects or too demanding.

 

A gentle read for those who love books set in Britain, short-stories and Blithe Spirit

The Keeper of Lost Things: A Novel - Cecily Ruth Hogan

Thanks to NetGalley and Two Roads for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although I am not sure this is ‘the feel-good novel of the year’ I’d have to agree it is a feel-good novel, although perhaps not for everybody.

The novel tells many stories, although it tells two in more detail, those of Anthony and Laura (later of Laura and her new family) and Eunice and Bomber. Although those stories are separated by forty years, they are parallel in many ways: an older man who puts an advertisement for an assistant, a younger woman —very young in Eunice’s case— who ends up becoming a personal friend of the man and whose life ends up enmeshed and entangled with that of her employer, both men’s work relates to literature (Anthony is a fairly successful writer of short stories and Bomber is a publisher), both males die leaving some sort of legacy to these women (and also asking them to fulfil their final wishes). As we read on, we might suspect that the relationship between these two stories runs deeper than at first appears, but it is not confirmed until very close to the end.

There are other important elements in the novel, which functions also as a collection of short stories, as Anthony, after experiencing a terrible loss, started to collect lost things, cataloguing them and using his study for safe keeping, in an attempt at recovering something he had lost himself. Throughout the novel, there are stories about those objects (written in italics so it is easy to differentiate them to the rest) interspersed with the two main stories. We are told, later in the book, that Anthony used those objects as inspiration for several collections of short stories, but the novel allows for several possible interpretations of what these stories really are. Are they imaginary stories? Are they the real stories behind the objects? If they are imaginary short-stories who has written them? Anthony? Somebody else? Each reader can choose whatever explanation s/he prefers and I’m sure there are more possibilities.

I mentioned the two main stories that frame the novel and the short stories within. Each chapter is told (in the third person) from one of the characters’ point of view (mostly Laura or Eunice) and this is is clearly indicated, as it is the year, because Eunice and Bomber’s story develops from the 1970s up to the current days. We get to know his family and follow his father’s illness (Alzheimer’s) that unfortunately later also afflicts Bomber himself. There are comments on movies of the period; there is the wonderful relationship with Bomber’s parents, the two dogs that share his life and an unrequited and impossible love story. Ah, and Bomber’s sister, Portia, her awful behaviour and her even worse attempts at getting her brother to publish one of her rip-offs of well-known and loved classics, that make for hilarious reading, especially for authors and book lovers. I must confess that, perhaps because their story develops over time and it has none of the paranormal elements added to the other, I particularly warmed to it. I found the depiction of the dementia sufferers (both father and son) touching, humorous and bittersweet, and although we don’t get to know Eunice well (other than through her devotion to Bomber and his life-work), she is a character easy to like and some of her actions make us cheer her on.

Laura’s story is that of somebody lost, perfectly in keeping with Anthony’s life mission. She made some questionable decisions when she was younger, married too young and her knight in shining armour turned up to be anything but. She is very insecure and full of self-doubt and that makes her a less likeable character as she pushes people away rather than risk being rejected, but she is also the one who has to change more and work harder to get out of her shell. Sunshine, a young neighbour, Down’s syndrome, also shares her point of view with the reader at times and becomes a member of the family, although she has her own too. She is less hindered by concern about what others’ might think, or what is right and wrong, and she has a special connection (not sure ‘power’ is the right word) with the objects and with the paranormal elements that later appear in the novel. Fred, the gardener, is the love interest, handsome and kind, but he seems to be there to provide the romance and second chance more than anything else, and he is not very well developed.

I’ve mentioned the paranormal elements. There is a ghost in the house and that takes up a fair amount of the book as Laura keeps trying to work out how to make things right. I am not sure this added much to the story but references to Blithe Spirit (that is being performed by an amateur theatrical group in the neighbourhood) put an emphasis on the effect the writer might have been aiming for (each reader can decide how well it works for them).

This is a well-written novel, with effective descriptions of objects, locations and people. There are elements of chick-lit (the descriptions of Laura’s disastrous date, her chats with her friend…), romantic touches, some elements of mystery, plenty of loss, death and second chances, a fair bit about literature… The whole feeling of the story is somewhat old-fashioned (and very British. I’ve lost count of how many ‘lovely cups of tea’ are prepared and drunk during the novel, and although that is partly in jest, yes, there is a fair amount of repetition, foreshadowing and signposting, perhaps unnecessary in this kind of story). Some of the references, including songs and films, will be lost on the younger generations. Everything is fairly gentle; even the bad characters (Portia) are only moderately nasty and they are the object of fun rather than being truly evil. There are gossip and misunderstandings but nothing really awful happens. No gore details, no huge surprises, no hot sex (I think you’ll have to buy Portia’s stories of Hotter Potter for that), and even technology only appears by the backdoor (people send text messages and a laptop and a website  appear towards the end, but this is not a book where characters follow mother trends).

Funnily enough, a publisher (rival of Anthony) sums up what the books he publishes should be like, thus:

I know what normal, decent people like, and that’s good, straightforward stories with a happy ending where the baddies get their comeuppance, the guy gets the girl and the sex isn’t too outré.

The structure of the novel and some of the short-stories are not at all like that, but the spirit behind it perhaps it and its charm might be lost on some readers who prefer more action and adventures and a more modern style of writing.

In summary, a gentle read, bittersweet, with plenty of stories for those who love short stories, of particular interest to lovers of books and movies set in Britain, stories about writers, the publishing world and women’s stories. It has sad moments and funny ones but it is unlikely to rock your world.

A bizarre true story brought to life in a novel that moves across genres.

Devil in the Countryside - Cory Barclay

I write this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. Thanks to Rosie Amber and to the author for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is a book based on a real case (although so many years later and with the few documents and written clues available it is difficult to know what might have been ‘real’ and ‘true’ at the time) that has all the elements to be a fabulous novel, or a TV investigative documentary, or a movie. You can check the Werewolf of Bedburg and you’ll find a lot of information (or rather, a bit of information elaborated upon and repeated everywhere, but not many different sources). It’s easy to understand why the author would become fascinated with the subject and I also see how a writer would feel that the bare bones of the case that can be found through research would make a great starting point to write a fully-fledged and fleshed-out story. And that is what the author decided to do. In such a case, decisions have to be made as to how close to keep to the facts (such as they are) and how many fictional elements should be introduced. With this particular story, there were also many possibilities with regards to genre. Should it be a historical novel, researching the place and times and fitting in the specifics of the story around the findings? Should it be a mystery/thriller, chasing and investigating an early example of a serial killer? Should it be a horror novel? Personally, I’m not sure what I would have done, but as a reader, this novel was not what I expected. This has probably more to do with me than with the book itself but, in my opinion, it tries to be too many things.

The novel has elements of historical fiction. The author explains, in an end note, who were the real characters, and who the ones he created, and also briefly exposes some of the liberties he took. The historical background and facts are fairly accurate (although if you research the story, it seems that the fate of the daughter was very different to the one in the book, that seems an attempt at introducing a romance and a happy ending of sorts, that, in my opinion, does not befit the subject), and one of the things that the author does very well is to reflect the conflict between Catholics and Protestants at the time, the atmosphere of deep suspicion and hostility, and the paranoia that permeated all levels of society, whereby nobody was safe and anybody could be betrayed and accused of being a follower of the wrong faith. The author uses modern language, a perfectly good choice to ensure more readers access the text, but there are anachronisms and expressions that felt out of place (and perhaps using a more neutral, rather than a very casual language would have been less jarring, as some expressions sounded particularly weird in such setting. We have references to teenager, an expression only in use in the XXc. , characters drink coffee whilst it was never introduced to Germany until the late part of the XVII century…). I also wondered about some of the characters’ actions. Sybil, a young girl who lost her mother and looks after her father and younger brother, challenges her father’s authority with no consequences, goes out by herself and does things I would have thought would be out of character (but I will try and not offer too many spoilers). Dieter is a young and pious priest that seems to change his faith and his mind practically overnight (no matter what he thought about the bishop, the religion he’d dedicated years to, one would expect it would mean more to him than that) as a result of falling in love at first sight (as there is nothing in common between him and the girl) and in general I felt most of the characters were not psychologically consistent. I am not an authority on that historical period, although I have read other books about that era that created a clearer picture in my mind, about the historical period and also about the society of the time.

Whilst the novel opens as if it was going to be a straight investigation into bizarre murders, with a suggestion of the paranormal, there are some elements of investigation (following people, plenty of intrigues, researching paperwork), but a lot of the novel is taken up by telling (more than showing) us about the religious situation, the machinations of the powerful of the time (particularly Bishop Solomon, not a real character who is truly despicable and has no redeeming features at all) and it stirs the book towards the territory of the intrigue/conspiracy-theory novel  (it appears likely that those aspects played a big part during the trial of the man who was found guilty of being the werewolf).

Although at the beginning there is the suggestion that there might be elements of horror in the novel that is not the case. Or rather, the real horror is the way the truth is sacrificed to political and religious interests and how no side is above using any means to win (the Catholics come out of it slightly worse off, but nobody is truly blameless).  There is action, violence (some for comic relief, but some extreme and graphic, including torture scenes and gross deaths), and war, so this is not a gentle novel for people intent on learning a bit about the historical era, but it is not scary in sense horror lovers would expect.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of different characters, and each chapter starts with the name of the character whose point of view we share, although at times we get reflections and comments from an omniscient point of view (comments about character’s feelings or motivations that do not seem to come from them). Heinrich, the investigator, is an enigmatic character we never get to know well, as although we see things from his point of view, we aren’t privy to his full motivations (and that is aided by the third person narration). He is at times presented as weak and ineffective (a bit like Johnny Depp’s depiction of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow) and at others, he is clever and manipulative (and the ending is quite eerie, but no, I won’t say anything else). He seems determined to carry on with his investigation and get to the truth one minute, and then he settles for what he knows is a lie, behaving as a corrupt cog-in-the-machine.

I suspect it was partly because of the point of view changes but I found it difficult to connect with the characters (my favourite was Georg, a conflicted character whose motivations are easier to understand and who was, despite his flaws, a good man.  I felt sorry for Sybil but her character didn’t quite gel for me) although it is impossible not to be horrified at what went on and I didn’t manage to get the timing of the events straight in my mind.

Some of the comments expressed unhappiness with the ending, but for me, that is well resolved (perhaps apart from the happy ending part of it, but then that is a matter of genre) and I did not find its openness a problem but rather a plus.

Most of my difficulties with the book stem from my own expectations about what the story was going to be about and how it was going to be told. I’ve read many positive reviews about the book, and as I said, it does create a sense of dread, paranoia, and suspicion that can help us imagine what living in that historical period, so uncertain, must have been like.  And it has a chilling and eerie ending. So, if you are intrigued by the history behind it, don’t take my word for it and check a sample of the book. And do a bit of research. It will prove, once more, that reality can be stranger than fiction.

A solid thriller, with an intriguing dynamic between the lead investigator and the killer. Beware of evil hiding under the appearance of normality.

The Fourth Monkey - A.J. Barker

Thanks to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel ticks many of the boxes of successful thrillers: interesting and gruesome crimes (and a pretty bizarre serial killer), police procedural elements (and an investigating team easy to connect with and amusing at times), tension ticking (a girl has been taken by the 4MK [Four Monkey Killer] and she must be found before she dies), twists and turns (I suspect most avid readers of thrillers will guess some, at least, of them), red herrings… It is fairly long, although it keeps a good pace. If I missed anything, it was perhaps more psychological insight. And if we stop to think about it, the police force seems pretty ineffective but…

The story is told in chapters written in the third person from different points of view, mostly Porter’s (the lead investigator in the case although not fully back to work after some time off. We learn the reason later in the book) and Emory’s (the young victim), although there is the odd chapter from one of the other detective’s points of view, Clair. Interspersed with this we have fragments of the killer’s diary, which is found in the pocket of a man killed by a bus at the beginning of the book. The diary, that starts out pretty harmless, as the account of what seems to be a pretty normal childhood, gets creepier and creepier as it goes along and it provides an understanding (or justification of sorts) for the killer’s later behaviour (blood is thicker and all that, but there are also lies, secrets and betrayals. That is, if we are to believe the diary).  That and other aspects of the book (and I don’t want to say much to avoid spoilers) including the cat-and-mouse chase, provide us with some interesting insights into the mind of the killer and emphasise the fact that appearances can be very deceptive. A seemingly normal middle-class family can hide all kinds of dirty secrets. And upper-class families can too, as becomes evident through the book. The revenge/avenging aspect of the murders (the sins of the fathers are visited…) is not new, although it makes the murderer more intriguing.

The other parts of the book help move the story forward and the events are set chronologically, from the moment Porter is awakened by a phone call that brings him back to the police, as he’s been chasing the 4MK Killer for over five years. Although Porter’s point of view dominates the novel, I did not feel we got to know him all that well. Yes, something has happened to him (I guessed what it was early on) and he is suffering and unwilling to openly acknowledge that or discuss it; he is not keen on gadgets and seems utterly out of touch with new technologies and social media, and he is determined and driven, putting himself at risk repeatedly for the good of others. But, although I liked the fact that the team of detectives investigating the case were pretty normal individuals (not corrupt, not twisted and bitter, even when it would be more than justified, not morally ambiguous psychopaths), I still missed having more of a sense of who Porter really is. Clair has little page space and I got no sense of her own personality, other than knowing that she cares for Porter and her colleagues and she has an amusing love/dislike relationship with Nash (who is the character that provides the light relief throughout the book). In the case of Emory, who finds herself in a terrifying situation, we get to share her experiences with her, and it is one of the most effective portions of the book, adding to the tension and the need to keep turning the pages.

The style of writing is direct, with only the necessary descriptions to allow us to follow the investigation (including descriptions of clues and places. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the tunnels from bootlegging times that help bring the setting’s history into the novel). The chronological storyline and the signposting of the different points of view, make it a story dynamic and easy to read, and although it is perhaps longer than the norm in the genre it is a fairly quick read.

As I said, there are plenty of twists and turns, enough to keep one’s mind busy, although I suspect avid readers of the genre will guess a few of them, if not all. I have read some of the comments disparaging the fact that the police seem to be pretty ineffective and they only get to rescue the victim thanks to the clues left by the killer. Indeed, that is so (in fairness, Porter, who seems the most clued-on of the team and the expert on this case, is battling personal issues of his own and not at his best) but, if anything, that further emphasises the relationship between Porter and the killer. What attracts the killer to Porter? The ending (oh, yes, very satisfying, although, of course, it creates intrigue for the next book in the series) highlights that issue even more. I get the feeling that this series will improve as it goes along but only time will tell.

In summary, a story of evil hiding in unexpected places, of secrets and lies that are covered by a thin veneer of normality, and a solid police procedural thriller, with a main character and a killer whose relationship holds the key to more mysteries to come.  Ah, a word of warning. If you don’t like graphic violence and torture, you might want to give it a miss.

For readers with a good attention span who enjoy Hitchcockian suspense set within the world of science and books about writers

The Planck Factor - Debbi Mack

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber and the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

This thriller (technothriller according to Amazon) tells a complex story, or rather, tells several not so complex stories in a format that can make readers’ minds spin. A thriller about a student who decides, on a dare, to write a genre book (a thriller) and whose life becomes itself another thriller, one that seems to mix spies, conspiracies, terrorism, the possibility of the end of the world, and it all relates to quantum physics. (Or, as she describes it in the book: “…a suspense story with a hint of science fiction and a touch of espionage at its heart.”) The parallelisms between the story of Jessica Evans (the protagonist) and that of her fictional character, Alexis, become more convoluted and puzzling as the book progresses and the astounding coincidences will ring some alarm bells until we get to the end and… It is a bit difficult to talk about the book in depth without giving away any spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest.

This book will be particularly interesting for writers, not only because of its storytelling technique (talk about metafiction) but also because of the way the main protagonist (a concept difficult to define but Jessica is the one who occupies the most pages in the book and her story is told in the first person) keeps talking (and typing) about books and writing. No matter how difficult and tough things get, she has to keep writing, as it helps her think and it also seems to have a therapeutic effect on her. It is full of insider jokes and comments familiar to all of us who write and read about writing, as it mentions and pokes fun at rules (“Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will… And adverbs. Never use an adverb.”) and also follows and at the same time subverts genre rules (we have a reluctant heroine, well, two, varied MacGuffins and red herrings, mysteries, secrets, traitors and unexpected villains… and, oh yes, that final twist).

Each one of the chapters starts with the name of the person whose point of view that chapter is told about —apart from Alexis’s story, told in the third person, written in different typography, and usually clearly introduced, there are chapters from the point of view of two men who follow Jessica, so we know more than her, another rule to maintain suspense, and also from the point of view of somebody called Kevin, who sounds pretty suspicious— and apart from Jessica’s, all the rest are in the third person, so although the structure is somewhat complex and the stories have similarities and a certain degree of crossover, there is signposting, although one needs to pay attention. Overall, the book’s structure brought to my mind Heart of Darkness (where several frames envelop the main story) or the Cabinet of Dr Caligary (although it is less dark than either of those).

As you read the story, you’ll probably wonder about things that might not fit in, plot holes, or events that will make you wonder (the usual trope of the amateur who finds information much easier than several highly specialised government agencies is taken to its extremes, and some of the characteristics of the writing can be amusing or annoying at times, although, whose story are we reading?) but the ending will make you reconsider the whole thing. (I noticed how the characters never walked, they: “slid out”, “shimmied out”, “pounded”, “bounded down the steps”, “clamored down”…) As for the final twist, I suspected it, but I had read several reviews by other members of the team and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. I don’t think it will be evident to anybody reading the story totally afresh.

The novel is too short for us to get more than a passing understanding and connection with the main character, especially as a big part of it is devoted to her fictional novel, (although the first person helps) and there are so many twists, secrets and agents and double-agents that we do not truly know any of the secondary characters well enough to care. Action takes precedence over psychological depth and although we might wonder about alliances, betrayals and truths and lies, there are no complex motivations or traumas at play.

Due to the nature of the mystery, the novel will also be of interest to those who enjoy stories with a scientific background, particularly Physics (although I don’t know enough about quantum physics to comment on its accuracy). A detailed knowledge of the subject is not necessary to follow the book but I suspect it will be particularly amusing to those who have a better understanding of the theory behind it. (The author does not claim expertise and thanks those who helped her with the research in her acknowledgements). The book also touches on serious subjects, including moral and ethical issues behind scientific research and the responsibility of individuals versus that of the state regarding public safety. But do not let that put you off. The book is a short, fast and action-driven story that requires a good attention span and will be particularly enjoyed by writers and readers who enjoy complex, puzzle-like mysteries, or more accurately, those who like stories that are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.

I enjoyed this book that is clever and knowing, and I’d recommend in particular to readers who are also writers or enjoy books about writers, to those who like conspiracies, spies and mysteries, especially those with a backstory of science and physics, and to people who prefer plot-driven books and who love Hitchcock, Highsmith and Murder She Wrote.

 

A difficult book to define that touches on interesting topics

The Transition - Luke Kennard

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK, 4th Estate for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely decided to review.

Just as a matter of curiosity and before I wrote this review, I checked if this novel had made it into the shortlist of the Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction (a prize for what they call ‘future literary luminaries’) but it hasn’t. I have one of the three books that have made it in my pile of books to read so I’ll try and catch up and keep you posted. But now, the review.

I must confess that sometimes my list of books to read gets so long that when I try to catch-up I realise a long time has passed between my acquiring a copy of the book and the time I get to read it. Although in some cases it’s fairly evident, in others I’m no longer sure why I chose a particular book and can’t remember anything about it, so I plunge into it with few expectations. This novel is one of those. The cover is fairly non-descript and the title at best could be described as intriguing (but abstract. In fact, being Spanish, the Transition makes me think of the process of political change from Franco’s dictatorship into a democracy) but it doesn’t give much of the game away. The novel is a bit like that too. I suspect whatever I think of it right now, I’ll be mulling over it for a long while.

Karl, the protagonist, is a young man with a good English degree that he uses to try and make a living on-line, writing fake reviews and term papers for students. His wife, Genevieve, is a primary school teacher. They live well beyond their means (in what appears to be, as the book progresses, a general state of affair for young couples of their generation and that is uncomfortably close to reality) and, eventually, he ends up accused of fraud. (He is not wrongly accused, although the circumstances are easy to understand). Instead of prison, he is offered a way out; he can join a scheme that promises a step up the property ladder, help to start some sort of business, and a six month’s stay, rent-free with mentors who will help in the process of rehabilitation. Although his wife has committed no crime, she also becomes a part of the project. The details are somewhat fuzzy and we soon realise they don’t add up(Karl is told that the Transition is a new pilot programme but he later discovers it has been going on for well over ten years, who is behind it remains unclear, he starts hearing rumours about possible books that explain the philosophy of the programme, and the mentors they are staying with, Jana and Stu, seem to have more than a few cards up their sleeves) and what seems at first helpful and benign, soon morphs into something mysterious, seemingly conspiratorial and with a sinister ring, at least inside of Karl’s head. He pushes the boundaries, gets into more and more trouble and things take a turn for the worse. Has Karl been right in his suspicions all along?

The novel is narrated in the third person restricted to Karl’s point of view. As a writer (even if his content would not win the Pulitzer Prize), he is articulate and we get information about the variety of online writing projects he engages in. He might write an essay about fairy tales one day, several five-star reviews about a chair and then another essay about ellipses in Henry James. (He moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, the same as the novel does, but eventually, it isn’t clear if there is any substantial difference between the two). His sense of morals seems restricted to loving his wife and trying to ensure she is well, as she has mental health problems and he protects her and looks after her, even when she does not want him to. Karl is clearly besotted with his wife, despite the difficulties in their relationship, and his was love at first sight. Although we only have his point of view as a guide, judging by other characters’ reaction to her, Genevieve is an attractive and engaging woman whom everybody feels drawn to and Karl is convinced he is extremely lucky (and perhaps unworthy) to be with her. Other than that relationship, Karl does not seem to have any meaningful ones. He mentions his father but not with particular affection and his relationship with his friend, the accountant who suggested he joins the scheme, seems based more on past shared experiences than on a real bond (as becomes evident later in the novel). There are instances of Karl not being truthful (he keeps information hidden from Genevieve, some we are aware of but some we aren’t) and he does not fit in most readers’ idea of a hero. He has devious morals, he sabotages himself, he is self-interested, and yes, he is flawed, but not ‘deeply’ flawed. Personally, I could not find much to like or truly dislike in him. He has moments of insight and shares some interesting reflections about life, but like with the novel, there is some unfinished quality about him. He will only go so far and no farther and he can act rashly one minute and be truly passive or passive-aggressive the next.

The action seems to take place in a future not far from our present. There is no world building and the social situation seems pretty similar to that of the UK today. Computer technology has not advanced in any noticeable way and the problem with affordable housing seems to be only marginally worse than the present one, although self-driven cars abound. There are descriptions of paintings, some buildings, clothes, interior design, and some characters but dependent on what might catch Karl’s attention. I have seen the book described as a dystopia, but it is not clear to me that the whole world order is affected by the Transition (perhaps they have some designs towards world domination, but it isn’t that clear), and it does not fit neatly into the category of science-fiction either. Karl acts as an amateur detective at times, and the novel has touches of the conspiracy theory behind it, but they don’t seem fully formed. I have also read some reviews saying it is humorous, and there are funny moments, especially if one considers the contrast between the worst of our suspicions and what actually happens, but it is not a comedy in the traditional sense; even calling it a dark comedy would be a bit of a stretch.  As a psychiatrist, I was particularly interested in the mental health angle and although it is not fully developed, it highlights some of the ongoing issues with such diagnoses, and it rings more true to me that some other angles of the story.

The author is better known as a poet, and the book is well-written although I wouldn’t say the language is particularly poetic or compelling. Like a post-modern puzzle, the book includes bits of the mentor’s book, diary extracts, documents, messages…  Ultimately, it does not leave everything to the reader’s imagination and struggles to impose a meaning that does not sit comfortably with it.

I have read some of the reviews and I agree that the book’s beginning is very promising but it does not deliver fully. In my opinion, it might be a matter of genre and also tone of voice (the light and comedic touches didn’t always seem congruous with the background atmosphere, although that could be read as a reflection of the narrator’s state of mind). The characters are not that easy to engage with (I found Karl understandable but not always emotionally relatable) either and the action and the story are not fully realised. The novel is ambitious and tries to do many things, some which seem to be in contradiction to each other, and that creates a tension that makes it crack at the seams.

On the other hand, the ideas behind the novel are interesting, the book is easy to read and the reflections and social comments are spot on, even if they are not resolved. I can’t see this book causing extreme reactions on its readers, but it would be a source of lively discussion in a book club. And I’m intrigued to see what the author will write about next.

 

 

A great revenge story, with a fabulous paranormal presence and the start of series that promises many more adventures and frights

Revengers - David Valdes Greenwood

Thanks to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team) and to the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Revengers is the first in the YA Revengers Series, and it is the first work by the author, David Valdes Greenwood, better known for his non-fiction books and his plays, I have read. This is a revenge story with a supernatural twist. If that is not unusual (we all know revenge stories orchestrated by evil or sometimes simply very angry spirits), both the details and the characters are.

Those who love mythology, in particular, Greek (and Roman) mythology, will probably appreciate the thematic link to the Furies, ancient vengeful deities whose roles and interpretation changed over time. Because, the book tells the story of three adolescents who’ve experienced terrible losses at different ages (Marc, a Harvard dropout, only a year ago, whilst Justin and Ama were much younger) and who, for different reasons, have had to grieve alone. They’ve been experiencing terrifying nightmares since the events, that they witnessed, and suddenly, these nightmares become more real than before. A strange and scary female figure tells them to go to Salem and leaves them a journal. They feel compelled to obey Rebecca, the fury/spirit behind their nightmares whose story we learn later (and who had good reasons to seek revenge).

The story is told in the third person, mostly alternating the points of view of the three main characters (although also briefly from the victims and other characters with small parts in the story, including the Rebecca herself), who, although don’t know each other at the beginning, end up becoming an ersatz family. They are as diverse as they could be (ethnically: African-American and Dominican blood, Chinese, old Massachusetts stock, sexually: Marc is gay and Ama and Justin haven’t had much time to think about such things so far; they also have different interests, studies and their economic and family circumstances are miles apart) but have to form a team to be able to fulfil the rules and get rid of their nightmares forever. Although killing somebody is not an easy task, they don’t realise how complicated things can get until later, when secrets and half-told truths come to light. The rules they are given, that seem to be clear-cut and not leave any room for ambiguity, aren’t so clear when one scratches beyond the surface, and there is no such a thing as getting off scotch-free.

The Salem of the story (I cannot comment on how much it resembles the real location, although for me it is more of a paranormal backdrop to the story than a real place, and it reminded me a bit of Demon Road where an alternative order and lifestyle existed side by side with normal life, without anybody other than those involved being aware of it) is full of secrets, tragedy, lessons not learned and people trying to maintain the status quo while pretending everything is fine. Although it might appear like business to Halloween Tourists, to those in the know, witches are the least of their problems.

The three main characters have distinctive personalities and are realistically portrayed (Ama is quite suspicious, Justin can be quick to act, Marc is a bit of a softy) and they are all flawed, and not all that likeable at the beginning of the story but make a good team and learn to appreciate and accept their differences and skills. For me, one of the most appealing aspects of the book (apart from the suspense and the mystery) is the strong bond that develops between the three adolescents who at that point didn’t have a close connection or intimate friends who knew their secrets, shared their concerns and cared for them. I particularly liked Ama, who although is tough and determined, is also the character who often hesitates and questions the morality of their actions and who will go to any extent to try and keep everybody safe. And that is why in the end… (Don’t worry, no spoilers).

The book is compellingly written, with enough imagery and description to feel the changes in weather and scenery (that are all in tune with their experiences and the action providing visual and sensory emphasis to the events), without becoming cumbersome. The interactions between the adolescents and with other characters ring true and help build their characters more convincingly. There is plenty of action, it has many scary moments and the suspense builds up from the start (as we have a time-frame and the clock is ticking continuously, with the tension increasing towards the end of the story).  The inclusion of the point of view of some of the victims makes the story more morally ambiguous and complex. This is not just a revenge story with a few paranormal scary touches. It will make readers (and who hasn’t thought about getting revenge on somebody at some point) think twice about justice and revenge. Although the ending (no, no spoilers) opens up the series to the next book, do not worry about unfinished businesses or annoying cliff-hangers. This is not a story divided into several books where you never get any resolution. So you won’t feel disappointed because of a lack of ending (you might have preferred a different ending, but that’s a completely different matter).

I recommend this novel to readers of YA stories who love suspense, paranormal subjects, mythology and strong and diverse protagonists. Especially those looking for a new series with a kick-ass female protagonist. The author has promised to keep me informed when he publishes the next books in the series, so I’ll keep you posted.

A must read for doctors, care professionals and health and social care institutions. And anybody else

Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity - Ronald Epstein

Thanks to Net Galley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

If they asked me to provide a single word review of this book, I would write AMEN.

Ronald Epstein, the author and practising doctor with his own clinic, after years of studying a variety of disciplines (including music, meditation, Philosophy, Zen, Medicine…) and of trying to find the best way to maintain a practice sensitive to the needs of patients, compassionate, focused on well-being and avoiding suffering, rather than on billing, money and the business-side of things, published an article called ‘Mindful Practice’ in 1999. The article was very well received and resulted in the author becoming a speaker and offering training to other health professionals, emphasising the important of being mindful of one’s practice. In this book, the author shares his insight and knowledge to help other physicians avoid errors, burnout, and remember what Medicine should really be about. He offers plenty of background research and information (with abundant notes that take up more than a third of the book and a useful bibliography for those who want to check the original sources) interspersed with case stories that illustrate the topics. These include cases Dr Epstein had personal experience of (both as a physician and as a patient) and others that he’s accumulated over years of educating other professionals and talking to friends and colleagues. These cases not only reinforce the theoretical points but also add a practical and personal touch that can be lost in purely theoretical texts.

The book is written in a fluid and clear style, accessible and interesting also to those who might not work in healthcare, although it is particularly geared towards health professionals.  Due to the themes and subjects touched upon, this book would be useful to individuals and institutions heavily invested in helping people and dealing with the public, in particular, those offering care. Although many of the reflections are particularly pertinent to individuals, the emphasis on education and the fact that many of the qualities discussed, like compassion and resilience can be taught, are particularly important for organisations and institutions that manage human resources. As Dr Epstein explains, they would go a long way to help avoid professional burnout.

Although Attending mentions Zen, neurocognitive studies, philosophers’ books, mindfulness and meditation, the overall message does not require an in-depth knowledge of any of those subjects and I cannot imagine anybody who would not find something useful in this volume.

As a doctor and one who left the job a few years back less than enamoured with the way health care is organised, I kept nodding all the way through. I highlighted so many sentences and quotes that I cannot share them all, but I will choose a few ones that I felt were particularly pertinent:

Medicine is in crisis. Physicians and patients are disillusioned, frustrated by the fragmentation of the health care system. Patients cannot help but notice that I spend more and more time looking at computer screens and less time face-to-face. They experience the consequences of the commodification of medicine that has forced clinicians’ focus from the healing of patients to the mechanics of health care —productivity pressures, insurance regulations, actuarial tasks, and demoralizing metrics that measure what can be counted and not what really counts, sometimes ironically in the name of evidence-based and patient-centered care.

Maslach found that burnout consisted of three factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (treating people as objects), and a feeling of low personal accomplishment.

But now, in the age of the corporatization and widgetization of medicine, there is a new kind of burnout, a slow, relentless “deterioration of values, dignity, spirit and will” that comes from the structure of health care itself.

The problem is not only overwork; it’s a crisis of meaning, resilience, and community.

As I said, I think this book should be required reading for medical students, qualified doctors and also for other professionals working in healthcare and those who manage staff and organise the educational programmes of institutions, not only those providing healthcare but also any that deal with the public and its problems on a regular basis.

If I were to make a suggestion, it would be that the book could easily be made even more relevant to other disciplines by adding examples pertaining to other professions (not only nurses or paramedics but also social workers, counsellors, teachers…). It is clear from the content that although the principles can be applied individually, organisations would also do well adopting the ideals and attitudes highlighted by the research. Becoming attentive, compassionate, curious and mindful would help patients and staff increase their wellbeing and avoid burnout and complaints.

I recommend this book to all healthcare professionals, and those interested in how to improve healthcare and increase the resilience and wellbeing of staff. I think that anybody could potentially benefit from this book, and I’d recommend checking the sample if you think it might help you. I will definitely recommend it to some of my previous work colleagues.

Recommended to lovers of historical fiction, in particular women’s history and the French Revolution.

Spirit of Lost Angels - Liza Perrat

Thanks to Rosie Amber for organising Rosie’s Book Review Team and to the author for offering me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I had recently read and reviewed Liza Perrat’s fabulous book The Silent Kookaburra (check the review here) and could not pass on the opportunity to read and review another of the author’s books. I had commented on my previous review that the author is well-known for her historical fiction novels and I felt The Silent Kookaburra, although set at a much closer point in time (the 1970s in Australia) also shared the detailed setting, the atmosphere and the background events that made it worthy of that category, together with a very disturbing and beautifully written story.

Spirit of Lost Angels falls neatly into the category of historical fiction. Set in France, a few years before the French revolution, it follows the life of Victoire Charpentier, a young girl born on a farm in a small village, whose mother is a wise woman, midwife and healer to all, and who experiences death and tragedy from a very early age. She is a direct victim of the unfairness of the society of the time (a nobleman’s coach runs her father over and doesn’t even stop) and it is not surprising she wants revenge. Tragedy and disaster pile up in her life and brief moments of happiness are cut short when something else happens. Her story fits also into the category of melodrama, as she always finds herself at the centre of everything, and survives against incredible odds. Her life demonstrates that a woman’s lot is (and was even more so at the time) hard. Losing your husband, children, being raped, accused of being a witch, and being denied a voice, are everyday affairs. One thing that helps Victoire above everything is her literacy. Her reading and writing skills help her keep in touch with loved ones, provide her later with a literary career and with the means to raise consciousness as to the plight of women and the poor, and allow her to meet people and make connections. Eventually, it also helps her fulfil her dream and have a happy ending. The focus on women’s issues and the importance of education are one of the strongest points of the novel for me.

The book is beautifully written, narrated in the first person by the protagonist, who presents as very articulate. As we learn later, she becomes very proficient at writing, although early on there are moments when the beauty of her writing jarred me a bit (when she writes a letter to her daughter Ruby, she’s trying to improve her writing, but her letter is not only deeply felt but also lyrically written in spite of that), although later events and the ending facilitate a different reading of the novel. The beautiful language and the detailed and, at times, poetic descriptions help readers feel transported to the France of the period and experience the smells (and stinks), the touch, the sensations of the different settings (including the horrifying experiences at La Salpêtrière). The historical figures and events of the time (Victoire meets Thomas Jefferson, corresponds with Mary Wollstonecraft and becomes friendly with Jeanne de Valois, who plays an important role in her life) add to the texture and background of the book, making the France of the late XVIIIc even more vivid. The author explains in an endnote that her main character is entirely fictional and all her interactions with historical figures are invented too, although inspired by the real characters.

I enjoyed, in particular, the reflections of the character about the role of women in the society of the time, her terrifying but enlightening period at La Salpêtrière, and her enterprising and determination. This is a novel full of action, where events follow each other quickly and the protagonist suffers more than anyone’s fair share of events, to the point where a degree of suspension of disbelief is required. Perhaps because we follow the character through a long period of time, and Victoire is very much a conduit to reflect historical events and the lot of women at that particular historical period, I did not feel her character was as consistent or psychologically well-drawn as was the case for Tanya in The Silent Kookaburra (where although we see the protagonist at two different ages, most of the story is told from the point of view of 11 y.o. Tanya). That notwithstanding, this is a great story, full of twist and turns, that will transport you to an extremely momentous time and place, and although it is the author’s first novel, it already shows her flair for language and for creating gripping stories.

 

A beautifully written historical fiction novel about the Khmer Empire exploring fate, colonialism, spirituality and trauma.

The Last Gods of Indochine - Samuel Ferrer

Thanks to the author and to Rosie from Rosie’s Book Review Team for offering me the opportunity to review this novel.

I do not know much about Indochine or present day Cambodia, where this story is set, other than vague information gathered from movies, mostly about the war. Recently, I have discovered that reading historical fiction is a great way to learn (or at least wet one’s appetite) about places and historical periods one is not familiar with but feels curious about, in an engaging and entertaining way. This novel is a good example of this, even though the author clarifies at the end that he has taken many liberties with the historical figures and also with the period reflected. (I recommend that readers don’t skip the notes as they are helpful in sorting fancy from fact and also offer up-to-date information on current knowledge about the Khmer Empire and the reasons for its demise).

The story is narrated in the third person and, after an introduction describing the last moments of Henry Mouhot, a French explorer known for ‘discovering’ the lost civilisation of Angkor Wat (that was never lost and had already been known to Westerners, but he popularised with his journals), alternates chapters from the point of view of Jacqueline Mouhot, Henry’s granddaughter and Paaku, the Lotus Born. Jacquie is a fictional character and we meet her in 1921, shortly after WWI. She had helped at a field hospital in the Somme and we realise she is severely traumatised by an incident that took place while she was there. She clearly shows signs of PTSD but we get to learn more details of what happened and how it relates to the story later, although we know it was bad enough for her to be removed from her posting.

Her story is interspersed with that of Paaku the Lotus Born, another fictional character, a young man living in XIIIc Khmer Empire, whose identity and story seem to be the stuff of myths and legend. He does not know his true origin, as he is an orphan brought up by a Vishnu monk, and he seems to have been chosen (although by whom and what for is not immediately evident) and might have special healing powers.

At first, I felt it easier to identify with Jacquie’s story, as her point of view as a woman trying to get by in a man’s world at such a time, and her state of mind were more familiar to me (even if she is not always the most sympathetic of characters, complaining about minor things, like the lack of comfort of some parts of the trip, and she appears quite naïve as to what her experience travelling to Asia might mean). But Paaku’s story is so beautifully told and shares such unique world-views and experiences that it’s impossible not to become enchanted at first, and later increasingly worried as to what his fate might be. The more we read, the more we’re struck by the links and connections between the two characters, and a number of possible explanations are offered during the novel as to why this should be so, although the final twist is not easy to guess (I only realised what might be behind the story very close to the ending but I won’t spoil it). The story is complex and the changes in historical period, language style (fragments of Mouhot’s true diaries are included in the novel as his fictional granddaughter reads them) and character’s point of view demand attention and close reading, but the results are very rewarding. At first, the changes in point of view might be somewhat frustrating if the readers identify more with one of the stories than with the other but the reason for the choice of writing form becomes evident and in the end and it suits the subject perfectly.

The language and descriptions of places, historical and social periods and lifestyles of both eras are poetic and evocative, and despite the third person narrative we get inside the characters’ heads and body and, thanks to the vivid writing style, experience their lives fully with our five senses. The novel explores many themes: mysticism, spiritual questions, colonialism, the different roles of men and women, family legacy, PTSD, fate and destiny, romance and there is much to keep us thinking, while our  brains try to connect the stories at the same time as engaging with the language at a sensual level.

It might be something purely personal, but for me, one of the only things I wasn’t truly convinced about was the love story. Other than being there, having similar interests regarding the story of the area, and being a man and a woman, there seems to be little that connects them other than a romantic subplot in the novel, although it works as a way to humanise Jacquie, make her more vulnerable and it also facilitates the ending.

Both of the stories narrated in this novel are stories of discovery of spiritual truths, fate, friendship, love, the price to pay for one’s beliefs, fear and eventual peace. I am not at all surprised by the book’s nomination for the Man Asia Literary Prize. This is a beautifully written book about places and historical periods that captures readers’ imaginations and allow the mind to fly.

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