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.

For book lovers, readers who enjoy banter and fun dialogues and who prefer their fantasy set in a quasi-quotidian world.

Love, Lies, and Hocus Pocus: Beginnings (The Lily Singer Adventures, Book 1) - Lydia Sherrer

I’m not sure why, but I don’t usually read a lot of fantasy. I used to, when I was younger, and I enjoy movies and series about it, but these days I don’t seem to have the patience for some of the world building, complicated names, and tonnes and tonnes of characters that seem to be the usual fare in many of these stories. When I saw this book and read what it was about, something made me check the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon, and I enjoyed what I read. And yes, I was right. I did enjoy the book.

Although I love a good story and an ingenious plot, I’m a characters’ reader first and foremost. And that was what attracted me to this book. We have a female character, Lily Singer, a librarian, bookish and studious, shy, socially awkward, conservatively dressed (a pencil skirt, a blouse, and heels are her uniform), and a wizard (yes, not a witch). And a male character, Sebastian Blackwell, a charmer, full of social graces, always looking for a shortcut rather than hard work, casual and untidy, and always able to get on the good side of people. Well, most people. Ah, and a witch (yes, a witch). Although in classical literature men used to represent the intellect while women were nature, the intellectually superior woman paired with a man who is more into faith or instinct rather than brain is not unusual these days (from the X-files to Harry Potter, and even the Simpsons), and here it works well. The two characters like each other (so far not in a romantic way, although all is possible and I haven’t read the rest of the novels in the series), and drive each other insane (opposites attract), but their abilities complement each other and they make a good team. Where Lily studies spells, books, and ancient knowledge, Sebastian can get help from fae and mundane alike (mundane are non-magical beings, although Sebastian has no powers of his own. That’s what distinguishes wizards from witches, who have to channel other beings’ powers). Their interaction is fun, light, and humorous, and their backgrounds are more similar than they realise. They are comfortable with each other but not to the point of revealing all their secrets to the other. And there is plenty of room to further develop their relationship in future books.

The book is divided into a couple of stories or episodes. The first is one is a full case that gives the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what their relationship is like. It’s a ghost story, a case that Sebastian has been booked to solve but he needs Lily’s assistance. This story, although, written in the third person, is told from Lily’s point of view, and it has all the elements ghost story novels would love. A haunted house, the ghost of a man trapped by a scorned woman, spells… There is an interlude, again in the third person, from Sebastian’s point of view, that introduces what will be the next case, which is quite a personal one for Sebastian, as somebody has stolen a family heirloom, a magical object that alters time. Sebastian’s point of view helps us understand the young man better, and gives us insight into some of his actions that Lily lacks. Lily has to come to the rescue once again, in a case that introduces complex elements and concepts, including a time loop, and discusses in more detail elements of world building and the powers peculiar to objects, wizards, and witches in this world.

Both stories are quick paced and interesting, and although the cover (that I think is superb) perhaps seems geared towards a younger audience, the book touches on issues such as drinking, terminal illnesses, and its take on magic is more philosophical and scientific than would be expected in books for a younger audience. There are delightful characters (a fae that loves mouldy pizza, for example), there are things that make one’s mind boggle (the time loop), and the information about this alternative world is interspersed with the story, without slowing down the action or requiring pages and pages of explanation. The glossary at the end (the book ends at around 92% in e-book format, and the rest is the glossary, about the author, and a sample of the next book in the series) clarifies further some of the aspects of the story and some of the terms used, but there is enough explanation in the text itself to understand the plot without needing to go backwards and forwards to check the terms/

A couple of quotes from the text:

Criminals were sadly predictable, especially those with so little self-respect as to wear their pants around their knees.

Though probably only thirty or forty, her wrinkled skin, sunken face, and stringy hair made her look more like fifty. (Sorry, this one I highlighted because I’m 52, so I worried that’s how women in their 20s think of us…)

As I haven’t read Harry Potter, I can’t comment on similarities and differences, but there is a conversation between Sebastian and Lily about the nature of magic (including mention of the books with the boy with the scar) and here is what Lily says:

But unlike in stories, magic is part of nature, it doesn’t defy it. The only reason mundanes call what wizards do “magic” is because it’s science they don’t understand yet.

The book is set in the South of the USA (the library where Lily works is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the location and language add to the charm. I don’t want to enter into a lot of detail to avoid spoilers, but let’s say that I’d love to have access to some of the spells and magical objects Lily uses (oh, book lovers; you have no idea what she can do with books!).

In summary, this is a fun read, two stories in one book, set up in a recognisable world, with some added ‘magic’ and magical creatures, familiar but not quite as we know them, whose main characters become our friends and are people we’d like to spend more time with. Recommended to readers who like fantasy but prefer to engage with the characters rather than to read detailed descriptions and a lot of world-building, and who are looking for fun dialogues and quick-paced stories. Ah, and if you love cats, you’ll adore Sir Edgar Allan Kipling.

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

A solid short-story, scary and chilling, and a great introduction to the author’s writing.

HER: A Horror Short Story - Danielle Rose

It is a bit difficult to write this review without sharing any spoilers, as the story is very short indeed. Blink and you’ve missed it. Despite that, it is atmospheric, intriguing, and fairly dark (although there’s no gore involved at all, so don’t worry if you’re squeamish).

The author uses many of the tropes of horror novels and films (an old gothic-looking property, a ghost story, night, cold, a daring young girl who refuses to show others she is scared) and puts them to good use.

The story is not long enough for us to get a great insight into the characters, although we easily identify with Avlynn, as we see all that happens from her point of view, we hear the screams, we realise our roommate is not there, we wonder which way we should go and we face… (No, I’m not telling you what). The twist at the end is perhaps not totally unexpected but it works very well and makes the story all the more chilling. Yes, we should remember that we ignore some warnings at our peril.

A solid short-story, scary and chilling, and a great introduction to the author’s writing. Recommended to anybody who enjoys ghost stories, especially to those who like short reads and don’t want to get bogged down in too much backstory.

I was given an e-copy of the story as part of a blog tour organised by Lady Amber’s Reviews & PR and I freely chose to review it.

Thanks to Lady Amber and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

Historical fiction for those interested in the history of New York, women’s history during WWII, and followers of Egan’s career.

Manhattan Beach: A Novel - Jennifer Egan

Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book (due for publication in October) that I freely chose to review.

I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a few years back and I was fascinated by its language, the stories, the way the story was told, and its inventiveness. When I saw Egan’s new book on offer at NetGalley I couldn’t resist. I have not read any of Egan’s other novels, but this one is very different from A Visit. For starters, this is a historical fiction novel. Both from the content of the novel and from the author’s acknowledgements at the end, we get a clear sense of how much research has gone into it. The novel covers a period around World War II, in New York and the surrounding area, and focuses on three stories that are interconnected, and are also connected to seafaring, the seafront, New York, and to the war era. The story goes backwards and forwards at times, sometimes through the memories of the characters, and sometimes within the same chapter, we get to see how that particular character got to that point. Although the story is narrated in the third person, we are firmly inside the character’s heads, and we can be at sea one minute, and the next at home remembering one gesture, a smile…

Anna Kerrigan is the strongest character and the one we spend more time with. We follow her story and know of her circumstances: a severely disabled sister, a father who disappears, and a mother who decides to go back to her family. Anna is a young woman, independent and determined to live her own life. She has never made peace with her father’s disappearance and remembers a strange encounter, when she accompanied her father as a child, with a man later revealed to be a gangster. Anna’s story was the one I was most interested in. Partly, because she was the character we got to know in more detail, partly because of her eagerness and determination, as she decides to become a diver and does not give up until she achieves her goal (at a time when being a woman severely limited one’s options, even during the war, when there were a few more openings, as she was already working at the Navy Yard). Her relationship with her sister, her training to become a diver (and you feel as if you were with her inside the incredibly heavy suit), and her obsession with finding out what happened to her father make her somebody to root for, although I found it difficult to engage at an emotional level with the character (it was as if she was contemplating herself at a distance and always analysing what she was doing, except for some brief moments when we get a sense of what she is feeling).

Dexter Styles is a strange character: he married a woman of the upper-class, and he has a good relationship with her father and her family, but by that point he was already involved in some shady deals and the underbelly of New York clubs and gambling joints, and he is smart, elegant, classy, but also ruthless and a gangster. I’ve read in a number of reviews that there are better books about New York gangsters of the period, and although I don’t recall having read any, I suspect that is true. I found the background of the character interesting, and his thoughts about the links between banking, politics, legal business, and illegal enterprises illuminating, but I am not sure I would say I completely got to know the character and did not feel particularly attached to it. (His relationship with Anna is a strange one. Perhaps it feels as if it was fate at work, but although I could understand to a certain extent Anna’s curiosity and attraction, Styles did not appear to be a man who’d risk everything for a fling. And yet…).

Eddie, Anna’s father, makes a surprise appearance later in the book and we get to learn something that by that point we have suspected for a while. From the reviews I’ve read, I’m probably one of the only people who enjoyed Eddie’s story, well, some parts of it. I love Melville (and the book opens with one of his quotes) and when Eddie is at sea, in the Merchant Navy, and his ship sinks, there were moments that I found truly engaging and touching. He is not a sympathetic character overall, as he takes a terribly selfish decision at one point in the book, but seems to redeem himself (or is at least trying) by the end.

This is a long book, but despite that, I felt the end was a bit rushed. We discover things that had been hidden for most of the book, several characters make life-changing decisions in quick succession, and I was not totally convinced that the decisions fitted the psychological makeup of the characters or the rest of the story, although it is a satisfying ending in many ways.

The novel’s rhythm is slow, although as I mentioned above, it seems to speed up at the end. There are jumps forward and backwards in time, that I did not find particularly difficult to follow, but it does require a degree of alertness. There are fascinating secondary characters (Nell, the bosun…), and the writing is beautifully descriptive and can make us share in the experiences of the characters at times, but I also felt it didn’t invite a full emotional engagement with them. I was not a hundred per cent sure that the separate stories interconnected seamlessly enough or fitted in together, and I suspect different readers will like some of the characters more than others, although none are totally blameless or sympathetic. An interesting book for those who love historical fiction of that period, especially those who enjoy women’s history, and I’d also recommend it to those who love seafaring adventures and/or are curious about Egan’s career. 

A powerful, touching, and beautiful book for readers prepared to ask themselves the big questions.

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this novel that I freely chose to review.

When I read in the description of this novel that it was a contemporary version of Antigone, I was intrigued. If all Greek tragedies are powerful stories, I’ve always been inclined towards those that figure female characters at their centre, and by the moral questions they pose. The author explains, in a note at the end, that the project had started as a suggestion to write a modern adaption of the play for the stage but it had ended up as a novel. Her choices on adapting the original material make it, in my opinion, very apt to the current times, whilst at the same time preserving the eternal nature of its moral and ethical questions.

I don’t think I can improve on the description of the novel that I’ve shared above, but I thought I’d offer a few more details. The story, told in the third person, is divided into five parts, each one narrated by one of the main characters of the story. First, we have Isma Pasha, the oldest sister of a Pakistani-British family. When her mother died, she sacrificed herself for her twin sibling and left her studies to support them until they were old enough to choose their own paths. She is serious, studious, hard-working, and remembers a bit more than her siblings do what it was like when her father, a Jihadist who was never home, died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. The questions, the surveillance, the suspicions, the need to be ‘beyond reproof’… When her sister Aneeka, is about to start university, and her brother, Parvaiz, is pursuing a career in sound and media studies, she accepts an offer by one of her old professors to continue her studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She enjoys her quiet life there and meets a young man, Eamonn, whom she recognises as the son of an important UK politician, and one that had had some dealings with her family in the past. Although from very different social classes they share some things in common (they are both from London and they have Pakistani family, although Eamonn knows very little about that side of things). Their friendship never develops into anything deeper, but it brings hope and possibility to Isma’s life.

The next part is told by Eamonn, who intrigued by a photo he’d seen of Isma’ sister, tracks her down, and despite the secrecy surrounding their relationship, falls for her.

Parvaiz’s story is that of a young man brought up among women, who is very close to his twin-sister, Aneeka, but annoyed because the women in his life make decisions without him and he has no male role-model to guide him. A chance meeting with a man who tells him he knew his father ends up in his indoctrination and eventual joining of the Caliphate.

Aneeka’s chapters talk about her grief and her determination to do what she thinks is right, no matter the price or the consequences, both to herself and to those around her. When is love too much and how far would you go for your family?

Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, has the two final chapters. He is of Pakistani origin but has abandoned much of his culture and identity (including his religion and his way of life) and advocates assimilation and harsh punishment for those who don’t. Like for Aneeka, for him, there can be no compromise. He repeatedly chooses politics and his official life over his family and that has terrible consequences.

Shamsie has created multi-faceted characters, all distinctive and different in the way they feel, they see the world, and they relate to others. I found Parvaiz’s story particularly effective and touching, particularly as his decision might be the most difficult to understand for many readers. He loves sounds and the way he describes everything he hears is fascinating. The story of his indoctrination and the way he ends up trapped in a situation with no way out is hard to read but totally understandable. They choose him because he is a young man, vulnerable, looking for a father figure, and easy to manipulate. He makes a terrible mistake, but like the rest of the characters, he is neither totally good nor bad. They all keep secrets, in some cases to avoid others getting hurt, in others to try and save somebody or something. At times questions are not asked so as not to shatter an illusion, and at others, even the characters themselves no longer know what the truth is. The structure of the novel allows us to see the characters from their own perspective but they also appear in the stories of the others, and that gives us a better understanding of who they really are, how they appear to the rest of the people, and of the lies they tell themselves and others.

The novel deals with a number of relevant subjects, like terrorism and counter-terrorist measures, religion, ethnic and religious profiling, social media, surveillance and state-control, popular opinion and its manipulation by the media, politics, identity, family, love (many different kinds of love), ethics and morality. Although many of these topics are always at the centre of scholarly and popular debates, now they are more pressing than ever.

This is a beautiful book, lyrical at times, full of warmth and love (family love, romantic love, love for knowledge and tradition…), but also of fear and hatred. It is passionate and raw. We might not agree with the actions and opinions of some (or even all) the characters, but at a certain level, we get to understand them. We have fathers (and most of the men, although not Eamonn) prepared to sacrifice their families and their feelings for what they think is a higher and mightier good (country, religion, politics…). We have women trying to maintain the family ties and do what is right beyond creed, country lines, written laws, and paperwork. And a clash of two versions of family, identity, and survival condemned to never reaching an agreement.

I highlighted many lines of the text (and although always in the third person, the language and the expressions of the characters are very different in each segment), and some are very long (another writer not concerned about run-on sentences at times, although they serve very clear purposes), but I decided to share just a few examples:

Always these other Londons in London.

He was nearing a mosque and crossed the street to avoid it, then crossed back so as not to be seen as trying to avoid a mosque. (This is Eamonn walking around London).

She was the portrait to his father’s Dorian Gray —all the anxiety you’d expect him to feel was manifest in her. (Eamonn thinking about his mother).

Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them. (Aneeka thinking about her brother and about grief).

This was not grief. It was rage. It was his rage, the boy who allowed himself every emotion but rage, so it was the unfamiliar part of him, that was all he was allowing her now, it was all she had left of him. She held it to her breast, she fed it, she stroked its mane, she whispered love to it under the starless sky, and sharpened her teeth on its gleaming claws.

The human-rights campaign group Liberty issued a statement to say: ‘Removing the right to have rights is a new low. Washing our hands of potential terrorists is dangerously short-sighted and statelessness is a tool of despots, not of democrats.’

He looked like opportunity tasted like hope felt like love (Anika about Eamonn).

Working class or Millionaire, Muslim or Ex-Muslim, Proud-Son-of-Migrants or anti-Migrant, Moderniser or Traditionalist? Will the real Karamat Lone please stand up? (The newspapers talking about Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary).

Who would keep vigil over his dead body, who would hold his hand in his final moments? (Karamat thinking about his mother’s death and then his own).

This is a powerful book and a novel that made me see things from a different perspective. What happens to those left behind? We are used to hearing about the families of young men and women who leave them and their country of birth to join terrorist groups. We hear of their surprise at what has happened, they seem unable to react or understand how their son, daughter, sister, brother… has become somebody they no longer understand or know. But, what must life be like for them afterwards?

There are elements that might stretch the imagination but for me, they fit within the scope of the story (it is supposed to be a tragedy, after all) and the novel treads carefully between realism and dramatic effect.

A great novel that brings to life many issues that are sometimes ignored in the political and media discourses but that are fundamental if we want to reach a better understanding of the situation. A book for people who are looking for something more than a good story and a bit of entertainment, and are prepared to ask themselves some questions. Another author I had not read yet but whom I will eagerly follow from now on.

A post-apocalyptic story of a Britain that is so familiar it is truly scary.

Tipping Point (Project Renova Book 1) - Terry Tyler

This book is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the near future (2024 to be precise) in the UK. Although some of the specific locations are fictional, the author explains in a note at the end where the original inspiration for some of them came from, and indeed, some are real. The setting is one of the great achievements of the novel. For those of us who live in the UK, it is all too real and familiar (with the shops, facilities, political and social organisation, TV programmes, food, language, and even typical behaviours of the population) and that makes it, in many ways, scarier than novels that are set either in imaginary locations, or in vague settings, that in their attempt at representing everywhere sometimes become too unfamiliar and alienating. Another one of the things that differentiate this novel from others in the genre (and I’m aware that the author writes in many different genres and is mostly interested in the stories rather than the labels attached to them) is its attention to characters. Whilst many post-apocalyptic novels spend a lot of the time, either on the cause and the development of the said apocalypse or on descriptions of the new world and post-apocalyptic society, sometimes the characters are little more than superheroes that had not discovered yet they had special survival skills, and spend most of the novel demonstrating us their awesomeness. Although I am not an expert in post-apocalyptic novels, I have read some (the one I best remember in recent times is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and I’d dare to say that some readers who might not usually read novels in this genre would enjoy this one.

The time frame of the story is somewhat fragmented. The novel starts plunging us in the middle of the action, as the two main characters, Vicky and her teenage daughter Lottie, are escaping from their town and the enforced isolation and transportation its inhabitants face due to the epidemic. The novel (mostly narrated in the first person by Vicky) then goes back to explain how the situation reached the ‘tipping point’ of the title. The first person narration makes us experience the story close and personal, whilst at the same time limiting the amount of information we get to what Vicky can get hold of. Although her partner, Dex, was well-informed and had been warning her about the world governments attempts at gathering information about the population through social media with shady intent, she always dismissed his concerns and now realises he might have been right all along. (As I have included the description of the novel and want to avoid spoilers, I won’t discuss the whole plot in detail, but let’s say population control is taken to the extreme).

 As I have commented more than once regarding first-person narrations, there are readers who like them more than others, and often it depends on how we feel about the narrator. I must confess that on many occasions I found Vicky very annoying, especially at the beginning of the story. She refuses to believe anything that falls outside of her comfort zone, as if she was wearing blinkers; she is uncritical of official versions of the truth, despite her partner’s attempts at enlightening her. She has little confidence in herself (even when she acknowledges that she has brought up her daughter alone and has achieved much despite her difficult circumstances), and places a lot of responsibility and trust in Dex (although she does not share his ideas or even listen to him at times), her partner for the last six years. He is a fair bit older than her, savvier, and seems to be the one who has to make the decisions and who is expected to come up with answers and solutions to all the problems. (I thought the fact that when they moved they only kept a car, and now he’s the only one to drive and she has lost confidence in her driving seems to encapsulate their relationship). Of course, we do not know him directly, as we only have Vicky’s memories of him, and we learn later those might have been rose-tinted. From the little snippets we get, I found their relationship a bit difficult to understand, as they don’t seem to have much in common (as some of the other characters note, including her daughter) and we learn that she was quite naïve about him.  But she grows and matures through the novel, and although, thankfully, she does not become Wonder Woman, she proves herself resourceful and capable, she dares to try new things and does whatever is necessary to ensure her survival and that of her daughter. I am curious to see how the character will develop in the coming books and also to find out what role she will ultimately end up playing (as the narration seems to be addressed at the readers at times, rather than just being something she is writing exclusively for herself).

I really liked Lottie. She is a credible teenager, determined where her mother is hesitant, flexible and adaptable while remaining a teenager, naïve at times, eager to discover who she is and what she likes, and to fight for her individuality and independence. She brings much of the humour to the story and the relationship mother-daughter is a joy to read (apocalypse or not).

There are some chapters told in the third-person by an omniscient narrator who gets into the head of different characters, some that will evidently play a part in future instalments of the series, and others that provide a clearer background and explanation of how and why everything developed.

The writing is fluid and flows well. The first-person narration is convincing and the reported speech patterns of the different characters are distinctive and help create a clear picture in the reader’s mind. The pacing is steady, at times faster (especially when there is an acute threat to deal with) but at others it slows down to allow for some moments of contemplation and reflection.

Although I said before that the story is not focused on the science behind the illness or on a blow-by-blow account of the spread of the epidemic, that does not mean we do not gain insight into the destruction the virus causes or how it results in a collapse of the usual niceties of civilisation, but rather that we see these on a small scale and from a human-sized perspective, that, if anything, makes it scarier, as it is easier to visualise how this could happen around us. And, as quite a few readers have commented, one feels very tempted to withdraw completely from social media after reading this book, so convincing its plot is.

This first novel in the Renova trilogy sets up the characters and the background situation for the rest of the series. I am intrigued by the number of diverse characters who are set to come together at Lindisfarne. Holy Island, a place I have visited, is fascinating, but not very large for such a crew of people, and it is not somewhere where one can easily hide or even escape from. The confluence of so many people with such different expectations and agendas is bound to be explosive, and I can’t wait for the next book, that luckily should be out in September 2017.

I recommend this novel not only to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, but also to those who enjoy stories that question our beliefs, our society, our values, and that are interested in people, their relationships, and the way they see themselves and others.  I am sure this series will go from strength to strength and I look forward to the next two books.

 

Thanks to the author who kindly offered me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Heroines that must honoured

Women in the Great War - Tanya Wynn, Stephen Wynn

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

I’m not sure why but as I read this book I realised I had read much more about World War II than about the Great War, and having a degree in American Studies, I had read a fair bit about American women’s war efforts (during WWII) but knew very little about what women had done during WWI, other than through some war novels where they would appear as nurses, but little else. That was one of the reasons why I was interested in this book from the Pen & Sword’s catalogue. At a time when women didn’t have the vote but were fighting for it, the war and the changes it brought had an enormous impact on the lives of British women (and women in general).

The book is divided into a number of chapters that after setting up the scene (Chapter 1. Women in General), discuss the different organisations and roles women took up during the war. We have chapters dedicated to women who became munition workers (yes, it was not only Rosie the Riveter who took up that task, and it’s amazing to think that women whose roles were so restricted at the time took to heavy factory work with such enthusiasm, despite the risks involved, although there was fun to be had too, like the women’s football teams organised at some of the factories), the Voluntary Air Detachments (Agatha Christie was employed by the VAD as a nurse and dispenser, and it seems her knowledge of medications and substances was to prove very handy in her writing career), The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, to reflect Queen Mary’s patronage), Women’s Legion and Other Women’s Organisations (including some like the Women’s Land Army, Women Police Volunteer, The Women’s Forage Corps [that required a great deal of physical strength]).

The chapter entitled Individual Women of the Great War includes fascinating stories, most of them worthy of a whole book, like those of Dorothy Lawrence, who dressed as a man and became a soldier although never actually fought, several spies, among them one of the best known and remembered Edith Louisa Cavell, a nurse, and perhaps my favourite, Flora Sanders, who was born in Yorkshire and actually fought in the war and became a Captain in the Serbian Army (and yes, in this case they knew she was a woman but did not seem to mind very much). Another favourite of mine has to be Violet Constance Jessop ‘the unsinkable’ who worked as a stewardess in a number of liners and survived the thinking of three big ships, including the Titanic’s. That never put her off and she worked at sea her whole career and died of old age.

There is a chapter dedicated to those who lost their lives during the war (and were not included in one of the previous chapters). The authors have checked a number of archives and list as many details as are available for these 241 women. For some, there’s only a name, date, and age (and where they were serving), for others there is more information. Reading through the list, that I am sure will be of great help to researchers looking for information on the subject, I was surprised by how many nurses died of what now would be considered pretty trivial illnesses (influenza, many of pneumonia, some of the nurses in far away locations died of dysentery, some of undiagnosed illnesses, or appendicitis) making evident not only how much medical science has advanced but also the precarious and exhausting conditions under which they worked, putting their duty before their own health. Quite a number went down with ships that had either been bombed or had hit mines, and some were unfortunate enough to be killed during raids when they were back home on a permit. In some cases, families lost several members to the war and one can only imagine the effects that must have had on their surviving relatives.

The last chapter mentions Queen Mary and Princess Mary’s war efforts, which had a great impact on monetary donations and on enlistment of both men and women. The conclusion reminds us that women had a great role to play during the Great War, both at home and indeed close to the action.

The book is well researched and combines specific data with personal stories, making it of interest to both researchers and readers who want to know more about that historical period, in particular about women’s history. Some chapters, like the one dedicated to individual women, are a good starting point to encourage further reading and engage the curiosity of those not so familiar with the topic.

A fitting homage to those women, who, as the authors write in the conclusion, should also be honoured on Remembrance Day.

A novel not for everybody that perhaps everybody should read

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

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

This is another one of the books longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize (now I only have one left of the ones I discovered sitting on my list. I might even finish reading it before the short-list is announced, I believe on the 13th of September). In this case, like in a few of the previous ones, although the author, Mohsin Hamid, is fairly well-known, this is the first of his books I read. Some of the reviews compare it to his previous books, especially to The Reluctant Fundamentalist (I don’t know about the book, but I love the title, for sure), but I can’t comment on that. I can tell you that having read this book, I am curious to read more of his works.

This is another fairly peculiar book. Let me tell you beforehand that I really enjoyed it. Like many of the other books selected, the author seems to go out of his way to ignore most of the rules that those of us who read articles and books on writing are so familiar with. He tells a fair bit more than he shows (although there are some bits of showing that make up for it), he uses run-on sentences and paragraphs that sometimes go on and on (if you read it as an e-book, full pages). The punctuation of the said paragraphs is ‘alternative’ at best (quite a few reviewers have taken issue with the use of commas). And the genre is not well-defined.

The novel seemingly starts as a love story between two young characters, Nadia and Saeed, who live in an undetermined Middle-Eastern country. He is shyer, more serious, and has certain religious beliefs (although he is not obsessed or particularly orthodox). She wears a long, black robe, possibly as a protection (although her explanation of it varies throughout the story) but never prays. He comes from a happy and learned family; hers was well-off but not particularly supportive. They meet at a time when the political situation of their country is getting complicated, they almost lose each other and eventually, due to a tragedy, end up together, but never formally so. At some point, life becomes so precarious and dangerous that they decide they must leave.

The story, told in the third-person, that most of the time shares the point of view of one of the two protagonists (and briefly that of Saeed’s father), at times becomes omniscient, interspersing short interludes, which sometimes are full stories and sometimes merely vignettes, of characters that appear extraneous to the story. (And they are, although perhaps not).

The story up to that point, apart from these strange interludes, appears fairly realistic, if somewhat general (no specifics are shared about the country, and the narration is mostly circumscribed to the everyday experiences of the characters). Then, the characters start to hear rumours about some ‘doors’ that allow those who cross them to arrive at a different country. There is no explanation for this. It simply is. Is this fantasy, science-fiction (but as I said, there is no scientific explanation or otherwise, although the setting appears to be an alternative future, but very similar to our present. Extremely similar), or perhaps, in my opinion, a touch of magic realism?

People start migrating en masse, using the doors, most to remove themselves from dangerous situations, and despite attempts from the richest nations to control it, more and more doors are appearing and more and more people are going through them, and that changes everything. Many of the western nations end up full of people from other places, squatting in empty houses (like the protagonists do in London, Chelsea and Kensington to be precise), setting up camps, and the political situation worsens, with confrontations between the natives and the new arrivals, before a sort of equilibrium is reached. The two main characters move several times, and their relationship develops and changes too. (I am not sure I could share true spoilers, but I’d leave it to you to decide if you want to read it or not, rather than tell you the whole story).  

The book deals with a subject that is very relevant, although it has been criticised for using the allegory of the doors to avoid discussing and describing one of the most harrowing (sometimes lethal) aspects of the experience of illegal immigrants, the passage. Nonetheless, this novel sets up a fascinating hypothetical situation, where there are no true barriers to the movement of people between countries and where all frontiers have effectively disappeared. What would actually happen if people were not waiting outside to come in, waiting for governments to decide what to do with them, but suddenly found a back door, and were here, there, and everywhere? What if they refused to leave? What would happen then?

I enjoyed some of the interspersed stories, some magical, some of discovering amazing possibilities, some nostalgic. I also loved the language and some of the more generalised reflections about life, people, and identity (like the different groups of people who claimed to being ‘native’ in the USA, for example). We observe the characters from a certain distance at times, but we are also allowed to peek into their inner thoughts and experiences at other times. Although we might not have much in common with either of them, we can easily relate to them and put ourselves in their shoes. We don’t get to know much about some of the other characters, but there is enough for the readers to imagine the rest and fill in the gaps.

The book meanders and at times seems to stay still, just observing the new normality, as if it was trying to tell us that life, even in the most extreme circumstances, is made of the small everyday things. A few quotations from the book:

Nadia had taken one look at Saeed’s father and felt him like a father, for he was so gentle, and evoked in her a protective caring, as if for one’s own child, or for a puppy, or for a beautiful memory one knows has already commenced to fade.

Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.

…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.

…the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

 

This is a book that questions notions of identity, beliefs, nationhood, family, community, race… It is dark at times, full of light at others, sad sometimes, and sometimes funny, and it is hopeful and perhaps even utopic (not something very common these days). I am not sure everybody would define the ending as happy (definitely is not the HEA romance novels have us accustomed to) but perhaps we need to challenge our imagination a bit more than traditional storytelling allows.

 This is another novel that is not for everybody but perhaps everybody should read. If you are prepared to cross the door of possibility you might be amazed by what you find on the other side.

A good psychological portrayal of a young man suffering from schizophrenia and a mystery that is not all in his mind.

The Unraveling of Brendan Meeks - Brian Cohn

I’m writing this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. If you are an author and are looking for reviews, I recommend you check here, as she manages a great group of reviewers and if they like your book, you’ve made it!

Having read and enjoyed Brian Cohn’s previous novel The Last Detective  (you can check my review here), I was very intrigued by his new novel. Although it also promised a mystery/thriller of sorts, this one was set firmly in the present, well, as firmly as anything can be when told by a character suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who rarely takes his medication. As I am a psychiatrist, and I read many thrillers, the book had a double interest for me.

As the description says, the story is told is narrated, in the first person, by the main character, the Brendan Meeks of the title. Although he is from a good family and had an affluent (if not the happiest) childhood, his mental illness disrupted his education (he was studying a masters in computer sciences at the time), and his life. He now lives in a rundown apartment in St. Louis, surrounded by other marginal characters (a war veteran suffering from PTSD who never leaves the house, a drug-addict girl whose dealer has become something more personal, an understanding Bosnian landlord…). His main support is his sister Wendy. When she dies, he decides to investigate her death, and things get even more complicated, as his brain starts making connections and seeing coincidences that might or might not be really there.

Brendan is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator. His mental illness makes him misinterpret things, give ominous meanings to random events, and believe that everything that happens relates to him and “the code”. Brendan hears voices, abusive voices, mostly in the second person, that give him orders, insult him, tell him to harm himself and others… He has a complex system of paranoid delusions, all related to a “code” he believes was implanted in his brain, and he is convinced that there is a conspiracy of various agencies (mostly men dressed in dark suits driving black SUVs) that will stop at nothing to try and recover that information. Thanks to his parents’ money (as this is the USA, his access to care would be limited otherwise) he sees a psychiatrist once a week, but he rarely takes medication, as he is convinced that if he does, he won’t be able to escape these agents that are after him. Yes, the medication helps with the voices, but it does not seem to touch his delusions (if it is all a delusion). There are several points in the novel when Brendan ends up in hospital and is given medication, and then he seems to hold it together for a while, enough to go after some clues and make some enquiries, but the longer he goes without medication, the more we doubt anything we read and wonder if any of the connections his brain makes are real or just a part of his illness.

I thought the depiction of Brendan’s mental illness and symptoms was very well done. It brought to my mind conversations with many of my patients, including his use of loud music or the radio to drown the voices, his feelings about the medication, his self-doubt, the attitude of others towards him (most of the characters are very understanding and friendly towards Brendan, although he faces doubt and disbelief a few times, not surprisingly, especially in his dealings with the police and the authorities), and his thought processes. He is a likeable and relatable character, faced with an incredibly difficult situation, but determined to keep going no matter what. His sister’s death motivates him to focus and concentrate on something other than himself and his own worries, and that, ultimately, is what helps him move on and accept the possibility of a more positive future. He also shows at times, flashes of the humour that was in evidence in the author’s previous novel, although here less dark and less often (as it again fluctuates according to the character’s experiences).

The narration is fluid and fast, the pace changing in keeping with the point of view and the mental state of the protagonist. There are clues to the later discoveries from early on (and I did guess a few of the plot points) although the narrator’s mental state creates a good deal of confusion and doubt. The rest of the characters are less well-drawn than Brendan, although that also fits in with the narration style (we only learn as much as he tell us or thinks about them at the time, including his doubts and suspicions when he is not well), and the same goes for his altered perceptions of places and events (sometimes offering plenty of detail about unimportant things, and others paying hardly any attention at all).

Where the book did not work that well for me was when it came to the mystery/thriller part of it. There are inconsistencies and plot holes that I don’t think can be put down to the mental state or the altered perception of the character. There is an important plot point that did not fit in for me and tested my suspension of disbelief (in fact made me wonder if the level of unreliability extended beyond what the novel seemed to suggest up to that point and I became even more suspicious of everything), and I suspect readers who love police procedural stories will also wonder about a few of the things that happen and how they all fit together, but, otherwise, there are plenty of twists, and as I said, the build-up of the character and the depiction of his world and perspective is well achieved. Although the subject matter includes drugs, overdoses, corruption, child neglect, difficult family situations, abuse, adultery, and murder, there is no excessive or graphic use of violence or gore, and everything is filtered through Brendan’s point of view, and he is (despite whatever the voices might say) kind and warm-hearted.

I recommend it to readers interested in unreliable narrators, who love mysteries (but perhaps not sticklers for details or looking for realistic and detailed investigations), and are keen on sympathetic psychological portrayals of the everyday life of a young man suffering from schizophrenia.

A kaleidoscopic novel about India, gender, politics, class, society, and humanity, demanding of its readers but rewarding in the same measure

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A novel - Arundhati Roy

Thanks to NetGalley and Hamish Hamilton (and imprint of Penguin Random House, UK) for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This is not an easy novel to review. So far I’ve found that with all the novels longlisted for the Man Booker Prize that I’ve read so far. They all seem to defy easy categorisation.

I know the author’s first novel has many admirers and I always felt curious when I saw it (be it at the bookshop or the library) but as it was also a long novel I kept leaving it until I had more time. That was one of the reasons why I picked up this novel when I saw it on NetGalley. I thought it would be a good chance to read one of the author’s works (and I know she’s published more non-fiction than fiction), and I must admit I loved the title and the cover too.

As a starting point, I thought I’d share some of the fragments I highlighted as I read. Some because of the ideas expressed (that made me pause and think), some because of the author’s powers of description, some because they were funny, some beautiful…

I’m not Anjum, I’m Anjuman. I’m a mehfil, I’m a gathering. Of everybody and nobody, of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everybody is invited. (This one I added at the end, when I reread the first chapter, that had intrigued me but at the time wasn’t sure exactly of who was narrating the story, or even if it was a who, a what, a ghost, a tree…)

And she learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.

Then came Partition. God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred.

Saddam had a quick smile and eyelashes that looked as though they had worked out in a gym.

He spoke like a marionette. Only his lower jaw moved. Nothing else did. His bushy white eyebrows looked as though they were attached to his spectacles and not his face.

…a mustache as broad as the wingspan of a baby albatross…

When the sun grew hot, they returned indoors where they continued to float through their lives like a pair of astronauts, defying gravity, limited only by the outer walls of their fuchsia spaceship with its pale pistachio door.

Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.

She walked through miles of city waste, a bright landfill of compacted plastic bags with an army of ragged children picking through it. The sky was a dark swirl of ravens and kites competing with the children, pigs and packs of dogs for the spoils.

These days in Kashmir, you can be killed for surviving.

In Kashmir when we wake up and say ‘Good Morning’ what we really mean is ‘Good Mourning’.

I think the first quotation (and one I mention later on), in some way, sum up the method of the novel. Yes, it is the story of Anjum, a transgender (well, actually intersex) Muslim woman from India who, from a very young age, decides to live her life her own way. She joins a group of transgender women (who’ve come from different places, some who’ve undergone operations and some not, some Christian, some Hindus, some Muslim, some young and some old…) but at some point life there becomes impossible for her and she takes her things and ends up living in a cemetery. Although she starts by sleeping between the tombs, eventually, with a little help from her friends, ends up building up a semblance of a house (that incorporates a grave or two in each room), where she offers room and boarding to people who also feel they don’t belong anywhere else. Her business expands to include offering burials to people rejected by the official church. But the story (yes, I know it sounds weird enough with what I’ve said) is not only Anjum’s story, the story of her childhood, her struggles, her desire to be a mother at any price, but also the story of many others. People from different casts, religions, regions, with different political alliances, professions, interests, beliefs… The story, told in the third person, also incorporates poems, articles, entries from a peculiar dictionary, songs, slogans, pamphlets, in English, Urdu, Kashmiri… The telling of the story is fragmented and to add to the confusion of characters, whose connection to the story is not clear at first, some of them take on different identities and are called by different names (and many difficult to differentiate if one is not conversant with the names typical of the different regions of India and Pakistan). Although most of the entries in other languages are translated into English, not all of them are (I must clarify I read an ARC copy, so it is possible that there have been some minor changes in the definite version, although from the reviews I’ve read they do not seem to be major if any at all), and I clearly understand why some people would find the reading experience frustrating. All of the fragments of stories were interesting in their own right, although at times I felt as if the novel was a patchwork quilt whose design hid a secret message I was missing because I did not have the necessary key to interpret the patterns.

The settings are brought to life by a mixture of lyricism, precise description, and an eye and an ear for the rhythms and the ebbs and flows of the seasons, the towns, and the populations; the characters are believable in their uniqueness, and also representative of all humanity, observed in minute detail, and somewhat easy to relate to, even though many of them might have very little to do with us and our everyday lives. But their love of taking action and of telling stories is universal.

There is a lot of content that is highly political about the situation in Kashmir, religious confrontations in India, conflicts in different regions, violence, corruption, class and caste issues, gender issues, much of it that seem to  present the same arguments from different angles (all of the people who end up sharing Anjum’s peculiar abode are victims of the situation, be it due to their gender, their caste, their religion, their political opinions, and sometimes because of a combination of several of them) and I read quite a few reviews that suggested the novel  would benefit from tougher editing. I am sure the novel would be much easier to read if it was thinned down, although I suspect that’s not what the author had in mind when she wrote it.

This is a challenging and ambitious novel that creates a kaleidoscopic image of India, an India made up of marginal characters, but perhaps truer than the “edited” versions we see in mass media.  I have no expertise in the history or politics of the region so I cannot comment on how accurate it is, but the superficially chaotic feeling of the novel brings to mind the massive contrasts between rich and poor in the country and the pure mass of people that make up such a complex region. Although stylistically it is reminiscent of postmodern texts (made up of fragments of other things), rather than creating a surface devoid of meaning to challenge meaning’s own existence, if anything, this novel’s contents and its meaning exceed its bounds. The method of the novel is, perhaps, encapsulated in this sentence, towards the end of the book, supposedly a poem written by one of the characters: How to tell a shattered story? By slowing becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.

As I’ve written many times in my reviews, this is another book that I would not recommend to everybody. Yes, there are plenty of stories, some that even have an end, but it is not a book easy to classify, nor a genre book. There is romance, there are plenty of stories, there is poetry, there is politics, history, war, violence, prejudice, friendship, family relationships, but those are only aspects of the total. And, beautiful as the book is, it is not an easy read, with different languages, complex names, unfamiliar words, different styles and a fragmented structure. As I have not read Roy’s previous novel, I don’t dare to recommend it to readers who enjoyed her first novel, The God of Small Things. From the reviews I’ve read, some people who liked the first one have also enjoyed this one, but many readers have been very disappointed and have given up without reading the whole book. I’d say this is a book for people who like a challenge, who are interested in India from an insider’s perspective, don’t mind large doses of politics in their novels, and have the patience to read novels that are not page-turners full of twist and turns only intent on grabbing the readers’ attention at whatever cost. Check the book sample, read other reviews too and see if you’re up to the challenge. I know this is a novel that will stay with me for a very long time.

 

The Black Death, midwifery and it was hard to be a woman in XIV century France. Highly recommended

Blood Rose Angel (The Bone Angel Series Book 3) - Liza Perrat

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.

This is the third novel I have read in the series The Bone Angel and the fourth novel by Liza Perrat. (You can check my reviews of Spirit of Lost Angel here, Wolfsangel here and The Silent Kookaburra here.) You might have guessed by now that I enjoy her books. Having read The Silent Kookaburra first, for quite a while I thought that was my favourite of the author’s novels (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the others) but now, I’m not so sure.

We are in Lucie-sur-Vionne, France, 1348. The whole series is set in the same location and follows the characters of the female line of a family who are linked by their midwifery skills (or wish to care for others) and by the passing of a talisman, the bone angel of the title. All the women of the series feel a strange connection to this angel (whose story/legend we hear, first- hand, in this book) and to each other, although this novel is, so far, the one set further back in the past, and at a very momentous time (like all the others). The Black Death decimated a large part of the world population and this novel offers us the perspective of the people who lived through it and survived to tell the tale.

The story is narrated, mostly in the first person, by midwife Héloïse, whose birth was problematic (her mother, Ava, a midwife herself, died before she was born and her aunt, Isa, extracted her from the womb) and due to the superstitions of the time, she was shunned and taunted as a child (she was not only a bastard, as her father was unknown, but she was also ‘unborn’). She always felt guilty for her mother’s death and resisted becoming a midwife due to that. But, eventually, she heeded her calling, learned from her aunt, and has become loved and appreciated by most people (apart from a few villagers who blame her for unlucky events). Unfortunately, as human nature dictates, when the epidemic reaches the village (at the same time as her husband, a stonemason who had been working in Florence) and people start dying, everybody looks for someone to blame, be it cats, the Jews, the lepers, or… There are a few chapters told from other characters’ point of view, only to complete the picture when Heloise is otherwise engaged (I’m trying not to give any spoilers here).

Héloïse is a strong-willed woman, who struggles between trying to fulfill her vocation (what she sees as her mission no matter how little recompense he gets for it) and being a dutiful wife who puts her husband and family above everything else. She is a compelling character and one that rings true and whose situation is ever relevant, especially to women who always have to try and find a balance between career and family life. She is a worthy heroine, who cares for people, who tries to do the right thing, even if it might cost her, who perseveres and remains faithful to her ideas, who doubts and questions acknowledged ‘truths’, and who is a natural leader. The rest of the characters, both, villagers and nobles, good and nasty, are all well-defined and recognisable, although perhaps the female characters are drawn in more detail than the males (although midwifery and birthing was women’s business at the time, so it is understandable), and I must say I felt like a member of her extended family by the end of the book.

The novel’s plot is fascinating and as good as any historical fiction I have read. History and fiction blend seamlessly to create a story that is gripping, emotionally satisfying, and informative. Even when we might guess some of the twists and turns, they are well-resolved, and the ending is satisfying. (I have read some reviews that mention it is a bit rushed. It is true that it all comes together at a faster pace than the rest of the novel, but my suspicion is that readers didn’t want the story to end. I know that was my case).  The life of the villagers is well observed, as is the relationship between the different classes, the politics of the era, the role of religion, the power held by nobles and the church, the hypocrisy, superstition, and prejudice, and the social mores and roles of the different genders. The descriptions of the houses, clothing, medical and midwifery procedures, and the everyday life are detailed enough to make us feel immersed in the era without slowing down the plot, that is a page turner in its own right. I particularly enjoyed the sense of community (strongly dominated by women) and the optimism that permeates the novel, showing the strength of the human spirit even in the hardest of circumstances. The author includes a glossary at the end that explains the words no longer in use that appear in the novel and also provides background information on the Black Death and the historical figures that grace its pages. Although it is evident that the book involved a great deal of research, this is flawlessly weaved into the story and add to the feeling of authenticity.

This novel, like the rest of the series, can be read as a stand-alone, although I doubt that anybody reading it will not want to read the rest.

Another great novel by Liza Perrat and one of my favourites. I will not forget it in a hurry and I hope to keep reading more novels by the author. I recommend it to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in the era, the Black Death, and medical techniques of the time, readers of women’s fiction, and anybody looking for great characters and a writer to follow.

 

 

Recomendada a los lectores fascinados por los entresijos de la mente humana y por la maldad

El poder de la Sombra: Trilogía del Mal. Libro 2: La Huella (Spanish Edition) - María José Moreno

Recibí una copia de este libro de regalo de la autora, y decidí reseñarlo libremente.

Me cuesta un poco reseñar esta novela porque no llego a ella como la mayoría de los lectores. Hace unos años (unos tres, más o menos), la autora me preguntó si querría ser lectora cero de la segunda novela de su serie. Yo la conocía de los medios sociales porque las dos escribimos y como además las dos somos psiquiatras (aunque yo siempre ejercí en Inglaterra) sentía mucha curiosidad. Le dije que no había leído la primera novela en la serie y le pregunté si eso no resultaría un impedimento, pero me dijo que eso le sería de ayuda para saber si la novela se entendía bien y se podía leer por sí sola. Por aquel entonces me leí una versión sin acabar de editar de la novela. Así que ahora no llego a ella de nuevas, pero ha pasado tanto tiempo que es casi como si no la hubiera leído, aunque tengo que reconocer que conforme leía, fui recordando la trama.

El libro se puede leer independientemente, pero como me suele pasar cuando leo aleatoriamente una novela de una serie sin leerlas todas, me quedé con la impresión de que se me escapaban cosas del personaje principal. Aunque las historias en sí sean independientes (y el caso central, de los asesinatos, sí que se puede seguir sin ninguna dificultad, aunque no se conozca ni a Mercedes, la psicóloga, ni a Miguel, el psiquiatra), el personaje o los personajes principales suelen evolucionar a lo largo de la serie y detalles que nos pueden chocar si leemos una novela sola tienen sentido si leemos la serie consecutivamente. La narración, en primera persona, casi toda desde el punto de vista de Mercedes, hace que los lectores tengamos la ventaja de saber lo que piensa, pero también implica que lo vemos todo a través de sus ojos. Está claro que Mercedes aún se está recuperando de su experiencia con un caso previo, que mencionan tanto ella como otros personajes varias veces durante la novela, y que supone una amenaza para ella que no se resuelve aquí, sino que sigue presente y angustiante al final de la novela. Parece que también se está recuperando de una relación que se quedó en nada por falta de compromiso de Miguel. Él vuelve en esta novela, y aunque Mercedes parece muy afectada y enfadada al verle, el romance enseguida vuelve a encauzarse. (A mí la parte romántica no me acabó de convencer, aunque quizás sea por no conocer los detalles de la relación anterior. Mercedes ha tenido malas experiencias en su infancia, aunque tampoco llegamos a conocer todos los detalles en esta novela, y quizás esa necesidad de amor se manifiesta en su perdonar a Miguel con tanta facilidad. O quizás sea que yo soy una rencorosa, pero vamos…). Personalmente, aunque sé que hay muchos lectores a los que les gusta la mezcla de géneros, por regla general prefiero thrillers sin romance (a menos que sea parte de la historia) y cuanto más negros mejor. Y este, en cuanto al grado de oscuridad, no desmerece.

La parte histopatológica y el caso en sí son interesantes, aunque como psiquiatra, y  habiendo trabajado de psiquiatra forense, sé que conseguir que el trastorno disociativo de la  personalidad sea aceptado como defensa en un juicio es muy difícil, y que no hay acuerdo en la profesión sobre su existencia o no (y aún si existiera, tampoco está claro que lo aceptaran como una defensa adecuada). En mi caso, las explicaciones de la enfermedad y de los síntomas me parecieron claras y convincentes, no porque yo sea psiquiatra, ya que parece que la mayoría de los lectores pensaron lo mismo, sino porque la autora consigue ese raro equilibrio entre no complicar excesivamente sus descripciones pero sin pasar a simplificarlo todo en demasía. Yo creo que a los lectores a los que les interese el tema, les encantará.

La novela es dinámica, está escrita de forma fluida, y aunque la acción transcurra en pocos días, las pistas y las sorpresas son paulatinas y nos permiten crear nuestras propias hipótesis. La historia es enrevesada y tiene de todo: asesinatos, envidia, celos, adulterio, abusos, amnesia, locura, amor… El final… Bueno, quizás hay dos finales: uno el del caso que tratamos (que sí, tiene final de verdad, no nos quedamos en ascuas) y otro es el principio de otro caso, el juego del gato y el ratón con Mercedes, que nos deja con ganas de más.

Una novela que recomiendo a las personas a las que les gusten las novelas psicológicas y a las que intriguen los entresijos de la mente humana. También hay romance e incluso algo de sexo (muy poco explícito), y violencia y maldad, mucha maldad. Eso sí, personalmente, si les gusta profundizar en los personajes y sus motivos, les recomendaría que se las lean todas en orden.

A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing.

Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.  

Gothic psychological horror, with haunted house and ghosts for art and lovers of antiques.

PAINTED: A Horror Novel - Kirsten McKenzie

Thanks to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team, check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and to the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel, that I freely chose to review.

When I read the description of Painted I knew I had to read it, as it was a horror novel (and despite how much I like the genre, I don’t seem to read many of them), and it had to do with art. When I read that the author had worked in the antiques family business; that sealed the deal for me.  I had not read any work by this author before (and I understand this is the first time she writes horror) but I am pleased to have discovered her.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but let’s say we have a dead painter who left very specific instructions in his will as to how to deal with the artwork he left behind. Unfortunately, there had been changes at his lawyer’s and his instructions were ignored. And we all know what happens when we ignore warnings, don’t we?

There are authors who are better at building characters than at creating a plot, and there are also authors who excel at describing places and objects but are not so good at providing psychological insights. McKenzie manages to create a great gothic atmosphere (some reviewers have said that the novel is more gothic than pure horror, but both things do not exclude each other), with a fantastically eerie and creepy house, full of even creepier portraits, and a variety of objects, furniture, and even plants that all combine to create a fabulous setting for the novel. In fact, the house becomes another character, one that hides many secrets, and of course, many ghosts.

But the author also creates fully-fledged characters, with their passions, foibles, secrets (some darker than others), and stories. Even when we do not get to share much time with them, we get flashes of their personality (be it because of their fastidiousness about their personal appearance, or because of the way they hang on to mementos from the past, or the way they present a false and harmless persona to the world when they are anything but). She manages to do this by using a variety of techniques, especially by her particular use of point of view. The story is written in the third person, but it shares the points of views of different characters. There is a certain degree of head-hopping, although I did not find it confusing and it is very smoothly done. We do see things from the perspective of all the characters. We mostly follow Anita, the young woman sent by the auctioneer’s to catalogue the paintings, because she is the first one to arrive and she spends the most time at the house, but we even get an insight into the thoughts of the lawyer’s secretary and of the farmer’s dog. And of course, the baddies (although it is not easy to decide who is good and bad in the story). There are also moments when we are told something that none of the characters could know (a great way of creating suspense and forecasting future events), like references to shadows, sounds nobody has heard yet, and things that happen behind character’s back or when they are asleep.

The character easiest to empathise and later sympathise with is Anita. It is clear from the beginning that she is battling with something that happened to her in the past and is bravely trying to get on with her life (despite still experiencing symptoms of PTSD). Her story is terrible in its own right, and it makes her reactions to what happens more justified. Some characters are nasty and difficult to like (like the lawyer), but most of them are given interesting backgrounds and scenes that make them memorable, and some are much more twisted than we realise.

I loved the details of the process of cataloguing the house contents (as I love antiques and TV programmes about antiques. Yes, I could watch The Antiques Roadshow forever and never get bored), the descriptions of the painting process, and the pace of the novel. The atmosphere is created slowly and we follow the characters’ commonsensical approach to the events to begin with and share with them their descent into paranoia and utter horror. The step-by-step reveal, the twists and turns, and the ghosts (it reminded me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James) are also masterly rendered. And the ending… No, I did not see it coming, and as a fan of unhappy endings in horror books, this manages to satisfy, to surprise and to leave us wondering.

This is psychological horror, with ghosts and haunted house, at its best, and it does not contain gore or extreme violence (there is more menace and imagining than there is anything explicit), so I would recommend it to lovers of the genre, and to those who love atmospheric readings and don’t mind a scare or two. I cannot comment on the author’s previous writing, but she definitely has a talent for this genre, and based on the quality of her writing, I’m sure we’ll hear more from her.

A great novel about grief, revenge, and discovering that we are all more alike than we realise.

Girl on Point - Cheryl Guerriero

I thank the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This is a Young Adult novel for all ages, as is the case with the best in the genre. It is the story of a girl, Alex, a great basketball player and fairly popular, whose younger sister, Jenny, gets killed during an armed robbery at a convenience store. The girls were playing basketball with school in a bad neighbourhood, and she had sent her sister to get her a drink from the store while she finished getting dressed. Her sister seemed to get caught in the crossfire of the robbers, who also killed the owner of the store, and died in Alex’s arm. She had carried her guilt and her grief with her, and despite therapy and medication, she could not go back to her old life. The police suspected that a gang of young girls were responsible for the robbery and the murders, but were unable to prove it. Feeling depressed, suicidal, and not caring about the consequences, Alex decides to go undercover and to try and infiltrate the gang to discover the truth and to obtain evidence to convict the killers (or perhaps get her own revenge). As you can imagine, things are far from straightforward, and Alex discovers a truth or two more than she had bargained for.

The story is told in the first person from Alex’s point of view. The author is good at reflecting the girl’s emotions, her grief, her rage, her hate, her desperation, and her fear and paranoia. Although I know some readers shy away from first person narrators, Alex is so focused on her plans and on getting justice (or revenge) for her sister’s death that she hardly ever strays too far from her feelings towards her sister and family, the situation at hand, and her plans. She does not spend pages talking about her looks, or about those of others. She is not self-obsessed. She is obsessed with her sister’s death and by the killers. She has fears, regrets, and at times is worried that she will not be able to accomplish what she set to do. She gets sick, she makes the wrong decisions, she hesitates, she lies, pretends, abuses the trust of those who love her, but she is easy to empathise with, due to the rawness of her emotions and the depth of her grief. We might not like what she does, and we might not know enough of her before this to truly get a sense of how the experience has changed her, but there are enough glimpses of her previous life to know that she was never perfect (she confesses to stealing things from shops when she was younger) but she loved her family and adored her sister.

The story show us the contrast between Alex’s normal life (she lives in a nice house, has her own car, can go to basketball camp and college without worrying about money, and she comes from a good upper middle-class family. It is true that her mother has not coped well with her grief and blames her for her sister’s death and is drinking too much, but her father continues to support her, and her seemed to be a happy family before the tragedy struck), and the lives of the girls of the Black Diamond gang. We get to know them individually, especially Natice, the girl she works with at the pizza place, and we discover that even the most violent and aggressive of them are human beings, who have grown up in difficult situations, without access to any of the privileges Alex grew-up with, and some have had to endure terrible abuse. If at first, she is somebody who had no empathy or understanding for the experiences of the people who live on the other side of the tracks, she gets many of her prejudices challenged and she learns to see the person behind the label.

Alex’s task, though, is not a sociological experiment. She ‘goes native’ with all the risks it entails. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, she risks losing herself in the process. To be convincing enough to be let into their secrets, she has to become one of the girls, and that means doing morally questionable things and committing crimes. Although she might not like what she does, and at times is horrified by her behaviour and that of the other girls, she is honest enough to herself to admit that she enjoys some aspects of the process. She becomes really close to some of the girls but the circumstances conspire to remind her of why she is really there.

This is a novel that explores many types of grief and shows us that not everybody reacts the same way to the loss of a loved one. It also shows us that revenge and justice are not always as simple, pure, and blind as we might think. After all, we are not heroes in a comic, and playing vigilante is far from easy or glamorous. Very few things in life are black or white, and it is easier to hate something or somebody unknown than an individual we have come to care about.

I particularly liked the realistic psychological portrayals of the characters and the way all the girls are shown as both good and bad. Yes, Alex manages to get away with many things that seem very difficult at her age, especially when she had led a reasonably sheltered life, but this is a standard trope of the genre and she is shown as a resourceful young woman who takes all difficulties in her stride.

The book is well-written, with enough descriptions to make us feel as if we were there, but without excessive details. There is action, and the pace is quick. As we share the main character’s point of view, we suffer with her, worry for her safety, and are swept by the maelstrom and chaos of the gang life. The ending is realistic and I think most readers will find it satisfying. (And no, I won’t say anything else).

In sum, this is a novel of psychological depth and good emotional insight that looks closely at family relationships, friendships, grief, revenge, and gang culture. It does not shy from the ugliness and violence of that world and it constructs believable characters, some that we like and some that we dislike. It is not an easy book to read (as mentioned, there is violence, drug taking, and criminal behaviour) but it is one that grabs the reader at an emotional level and does not let go. It combines good action with strong characters and I recommend it to lovers of the genre and, in general, to those who enjoy well-written novels, dealing with complex matters and populated by diverse characters.

For discerning readers who enjoy books about the human condition

A Horse Walks into a Bar: A novel - David Grossman, Jessica Cohen

Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by David Grossman. I hope it won’t be the last.

The description probably gives a fair idea of the plot. Yes, we are in Netanya, Israel, and we are spectators of the act of a stand-up comedian, Dovelah Greenstein (or Dov G.). He is 57 years old (as he repeatedly reminds us through the evening), skinny (almost emaciated), and seems to become increasingly desperate as the night goes. He tells jokes, anecdotes, makes comments about the city, the spectators, Jews (yes, the self-deprecation readers of Philip Roth, for example, will be familiar with), says some politically incorrect things, tells a number of jokes (some really funny, some odd, some quite old), and insists on telling us a story about his childhood, despite the audience’s resistance to listening to it.

The beauty (or one of them) of the novel, is the narrator. Yes, I’m back to my obsession with narrators. The story is told in the first-person by Avishai Lazar, a judge who was unceremoniously removed from his post when he started becoming a bit too vocal and opinionated in his verdicts. The two characters were friends as children, and Dov calls Avishai asking him to attend his performance. His request does not only come completely out of the blue (they hadn’t seen each other since they were in their teens), but it is also quite weird. He does not want a chat, or to catch up on old times. He wants the judge to tell him what he sees when he looks at him. He wants him to tell him what other people see, what essence they perceive when they watch him. Avishai, who is a widower and still grieving, is put-off by this and reacts quite rudely, but eventually, agrees.

Although the novel is about Dov’s performance and his story (his need to let it all hang out, to explain his abuse but also his feeling of guilt about a personal tragedy), that is at times light and funny, but mostly sad and even tragic, he is not the character who changes and grows the most during the performance (his is an act of exorcism, a way of getting rid of his demons). For me, the story, sad and depressing as it can be at times (this is not a book for everybody, and I suspect many readers will empathise with quite a few of the spectators who leave the performance before it ends), is ultimately about redemption. Many narrators have told us in the past (The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness) that in telling somebody else’s story, they are also telling their own. This is indeed the case here. The judge (at first we don’t know who is narrating the story, but we get more and more details as the performance advances) is very hostile at first and keeps wondering why he is there, and wanting to leave. But at some point, the rawness, the determination, and the sheer courage of the comedian, who keeps going no matter how difficult it gets, break through his protective shell and he starts to question his own actions and his life. If this might be Dev’s last performance, in a way it is a beginning of sorts, especially for the judge.

Readers become the ersatz club audience, and it is very difficult to stop watching something that is so extreme and desperate, but it is also difficult to keep watching (or reading) as it becomes more and more painful. It is as if we were spectators in a therapy session where somebody is baring his soul. We feel as if we are intruding on an intimate moment, but also that perhaps we are providing him with some comfort and support to help him go through the process. Although other than the two main characters we do not get to know the rest in detail, there are familiar types we might recognise, and there is also a woman who knew the comedian when he was a child and, perhaps, plays the part of the therapist (a straight faced one, but the one he needs).

The book is beautifully written and observed. Grossman shows a great understanding of psychology and also of group interactions. Although I am not an expert on stand-up comedy, the dynamics of the performance rang true to me. I cannot compare it to the original, but the translation is impressive (I find it difficult to imagine anybody could do a better job, and if the original is even better, well…).

As I said before, this is not a book for everybody. Although it is quite short, it is also slow and intense (its rhythm is that of the performance, which ebbs and flows). None of the characters (except, perhaps, the woman) are immediately sympathetic, and they are flawed, not confident enough or too confident and dismissive, over-emotional or frozen and unable to feel, and they might not seem to have much in common with the reader, at first sight. This is not a genre book (literary fiction would be the right label, if we had to try and give it one), there is no romance (or not conventional romance), no action, no heroes or heroines, and not much happens (a whole life happens, but not in the usual sense). If you are interested in characters that are real in their humanity (for better and for worse), don’t mind a challenge, and want to explore something beyond the usual, I recommend you this book.

Oh, I like to be beside the seaside. And I love this book!

The British Seaside (Images Of The Past) - Luci Gosling

My thanks to Pen & Sword for offering me a copy of this book that I freely (and gladly) chose to review.

I discovered Pen & Sword thanks to a writer I had met through blogging and I am regularly kept informed of their new books through their catalogues. Although I don’t have the time to read as many of them as I would like, when I saw this one, I could not resist.

I am not British but I have lived in the UK for almost twenty-five years now. As luck would have it, my first job in the UK was in Eastbourne, and I spent quite a few years in that part of the UK (working in Eastbourne, Hastings, and later studying at Sussex University and living in Brighton for a while). Although my experiences of the British seaside are fairly recent in comparison to the pictures in this book, I am fascinated by the peculiarities of the British seaside. And, over the years, I have listened to many conversations and stories of childhood holidays and memories of happy times spent at a seaside resort or other.  When I saw this book I thought it would be fun, and a perfect way to put images to the stories I had heard and to learn new ones.

Lucinda Gosling, the author, works for the Mary Evans Picture Library (check their website here) and she has done a fantastic job of curating a great variety of images, ranging from personal photographs to postcards and advertisements, from the very late XIX century to the 1960s and 70s. They are mostly in black and white (although there are the odd colour picture and some old hand-coloured ones, some in wonderful sepia, and some colour illustrations) and they go from the funny amateur pic  taken at an amusement fair to some truly beautiful professional pictures (like some by Roger Mayne or Shirley Baker).

There is little text, other than an introduction to each part of the book, which is divided thematically into six chapters, and brief notes to identify the pictures (and on some occasions, to add a bit of background).  Although concise, the writing is excellent, as it manages to be informative, entertaining, and at times truly humorous. There is a great picture of a man (probably in his early forties, in my opinion pretty formally dressed, although he’s not wearing a jacket, so it’s probably rather informal for the period, as it is dated 1911). The description of the picture is as follows:

A relaxed looking chap sitting outside a tent at the Lucas Holiday Camp in Norbreck, Blackpool, 1911. The camp was a ‘summer holiday camp for young men’ and the location of the holidays taken by the wholesome-sounding ‘Health and Strength League’. It was described as ‘a camp for young men of good moral character who are willing to observe a few simple rules necessary for good order’. (p. 102) Your guess is as good as mine. ;)

The chapters cover: the beach (the increase in popularity of first, sea water, later swimming, and even later, sunbathing and tanning), entertainment (once you had all these people there, you had to keep them entertained, and although some of those complexes have disappeared, we still have Blackpool!), crowds and solitude (the touristic and less touristic places), travel and accommodation (once the railway made travelling easier, people flocked to the coast, but there had always been ways to get there, and people who saw an opportunity to set up bed and breakfast, and, of course, the wonderful Victorian hotels that grace many seaside towns), piers & promenades (I love piers and it was sad to read about how many have disappeared, but a joy to recover pictures of some of  them and learn more about their architects), and water (with its fascinating images of the Victorian bathing machines, and the fabulous changes in swimwear).

I am not sure what I could highlight, as I adored (adore, and I’m keeping it for life if I can) this book from beginning to end. I love the pictures of the early seaside tourists, dressed to the nines because it was a day out and you were supposed to wear your best clothes. There is a fabulous pic of a lady riding a tricycle from 1886 (I think it’s the oldest picture in the book), I love the pics of young children, especially those wearing knitted swimming suits. There is also a very touching picture of two young girls holding hands and looking towards the beach, blocked by barb wire during World War II. There are some fabulous images of incredible rides (I’m sure Health and Safety would have a fit), some fascinating pics of beauty contests (oh, how much those vintage swimming suits would fetch today), and much to make think those interested in social history.

I’ve been carrying the book with me and pestering everybody I’ve met, showing them some of my favourite pictures. I even talked about it on the radio programme I host (I know, I know, pictures on the radio…) at a local radio station. Who would I recommend it to? Everybody! For some, it will bring memories, either of things they’ve experienced, or of things they’ve been told, and will help them tell their stories. For others, it will be a compelling slice of social history. If you like the seaside, you must check it out. If you’re interested in social history, you must check it out. If you love pictures and postcards, check it out. If you are intrigued by changes in fashion, transport, entertainment… check it out. If you love donkeys, check it out. Last but not least, if you want me to shut up about it, check it out.

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