Posted in Book Reviews

Wonder Valley – Book Oxygen Review

Wonder Valley

Ivy Pochoda

Published by The Indigo Press 20 September 2018

282pp, paperback, £12.99,

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

There is a dream-like quality to Wonder Valley, Ivy Pochoda’s third novel. Sometimes it is beatific, sometimes surreal, and sometimes the stuff of nightmares. Set in modern-day California but not in the affluent areas often portrayed in films and television programmes, this work is located in the grimy, smelly underbelly of the sunshine state and the city of angels. It opens with a traffic jam on an LA freeway, people sweating in their cars as they try to get to work. Suddenly a naked man appears, running between the cars at a steady pace. Tony, hemmed in by his boring job and inflexible wife, is overcome by the sense of freedom that the naked man inspires and he abandons his car and runs after him. The incident is all over the news channels and the internet. While Tony is stopped, the naked runner goes on.

Six disparate characters are revealed in a series of vignettes set in 2006 and 2010, the year of the naked runner. There is Britt, a young woman trying to escape her former life. She turns up at a chicken ranch in the desert where interns work in return for bed, board, and spiritual healing from the charismatic Patrick. Patrick has twin sons, Owen and James, who hate being on the chicken farm as much as their mother. Previously inseparable, they are suddenly split apart by a single act of rebellion. Britt joins in one of the most disturbing episodes in the novel, when two hundred chickens are individually beheaded and plucked, ready for sale.

Not far away in the desert, Blake and Sam are holed up in a shack hoping that Sam’s bad leg break might heal. They are a curious pair, petty criminals who have stuck together for years, surviving rather than living, and always one step in front of the law. Sam, short for Samoan, tells Blake about the myths and legends of his people and Blake steals medications to help his friend cope with the pain of his rotting leg. When another person joins them in their shack, the bonds of their friendship become strained.

The most heart-rending story is that of Ren, a young man who has just been released from juvenile detention on the East Coast. He hasn’t seen his mother for years but decides to travel to the West Coast to find her. What he finds is a shell of the woman she used to be, camping out on the pavements of Skid Row, who has no interest in Ren’s idea of home.

Slowly, and with skill, Pochoda brings these characters together in a melancholy tale of people who have been bruised and abused by life and spent their time running away from rather than running towards something. Pochoda gifts each of her characters with a rounded backstory and a sense of dignity that their circumstances have denied them. Despite the endless sunshine there is a dark side to SoCal, a whole society of people living on the fringes, hanging on by their fingertips, and occasionally glimpsing the clean, bright, safe world just out of their reach.

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Posted in Book Reviews

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – Herald Review

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Ambrose Parry

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

The name Ambrose Parry may sound like that of an obscure Victorian novelist; a contemporary of Charles Dickens, perhaps. It is in fact the pen name of best-selling crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his anaesthetist wife, Marisa Haetzman, writing their first novel together. The idea grew from Haetzman’s research for a Master’s Degree in the History of Medicine, and her dissertation on the use of anaesthesia in Edinburgh Royal Maternity hospital in the 1840s. This is the first in a proposed series of novels set in Victorian Edinburgh.

It is 1847, and Will Raven is studying medicine in Edinburgh, a renowned centre of medical innovation. Financially, he struggles but things improve when he is taken on as an apprentice to Dr James Simpson, a famously brilliant obstetrician, who is searching for a more reliable and effective form of anaesthesia than ether. Raven moves into Simpson’s New Town residence and accompanies the doctor on his house calls at all hours of the night and day. Simpson treats anyone who needs his services, whether rich or poor, and runs clinics from his impressive home. Whilst the rich are conveyed upstairs, Raven sees the poor at the downstairs clinic which is organised by Sarah, the housemaid. From their first meeting, Sarah takes a dislike to Raven, not least because he is benefitting from the kind of education she longs for. She also reckons that for all his pretences, Raven isn’t on the same social level as Dr Simpson, his thin and mended clothes indicating a man of very modest means. He also has ‘a glimmer of the dark,’ which disturbs Raven as much as it does Sarah. When a number of young women are found dead around the city, their bodies agonisingly twisted, Sarah and Raven put aside their differences and set out to discover how and why these women have died.

Victorian Edinburgh is vividly depicted, from the dark, dank slums of the Old Town, to the rarefied air and elegance of the New Town. The dual nature of the city is subtly shown, Edinburgh being a great seat of learning and culture, while also being riddled with crime, hunger, and disease. There is a definite change in the city’s atmosphere when day turns to night, with danger lurking around every murky corner. The introduction of real life figures such as Dr Simpson, the legendary Edinburgh detective McLevy, and the photographic pioneers Hill and Adamson, lends the story an air of authenticity and the authors seamlessly stitch the fictional characters into this narrative frame. Duality is also present in the lives of Sarah and Mina, Dr Simpson’s unmarried sister-in-law. As an orphan from the lower classes, Sarah’s options are limited to finding a respectable job or resorting to prostitution. She has a bright, enquiring mind. When she suggests that she might become an assistant at the local pharmacy, she is told, ‘our assistants must inspire confidence in our customers. For that, only a man will do.’ Mina, meanwhile, longs for marriage and children which will give her a recognised position in society and control over her own home. As the years pass, Mina becomes increasingly despondent and wonders if her fate is to become a spinster aunt, relying on her sister and brother-in-law for everything. Both women struggle against the different limitations that society places on them.

Brookmyre’s influence can be detected in the pacing and effective characterisation, while Haetzman’s can be found in the ghastly medical scenes, from difficult, bloody births to the gory removal of a man’s putrefied arm without anaesthetic. These scenes, rooted in grim reality, illustrate why the quest to find a safe anaesthetic was so pressing. The power of the medical establishment is amply demonstrated by the unquestioning awe they inspire in their patients, even as they suffer.

This is a hefty tome of some four hundred pages but the authors sustain interest on every page and tension in every chapter. Raven and Sarah are intriguing characters. They are very different personalities but together they make a formidable team, much like the authors Brookmyre and Haetzman whose first collaboration in fiction is a resounding success.

Posted in Book Reviews

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories by Helen Dunmore – Herald Review

Girl Balancing

Girl Balancing

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories

Helen Dunmore

Hutchinson, £20

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, leaving behind an illustrious literary legacy of award-winning novels, short stories, children’s novels, and poetry. Some months after her death, her family, agent, and publisher, came together to plan a posthumous collection of short stories, fulfilling one of her last wishes. The result is thirty-three stories, arranged in three sections; the Nina stories, the present, and the past.

Dunmore had a keen eye for the telling detail that illuminates her characters and their worlds. This is apparent in the four Nina stories, following her from childhood to young womanhood. In Cradling, little Nina has an earache and is being comforted by her father. She curls up in his arms, ‘like a snail inside its shell’, and hears ‘the little pock sound of someone lighting a cigarette’. In The Towel, Nina is living on her own for the first time in a bedsit. She struggles with the bathroom geyser and ends up taking a cold bath, too unsure of herself to ask for help. As the bath water drains it sounds like, ‘an old person clearing catarrh in the morning’. In the title story, Girl, Balancing, Nina finds herself unexpectedly alone at Christmas in a large, empty house by the sea. She decides to go roller-skating, using her old, adjustable skates, along the deserted promenade. She is reliving her childhood by performing turns, jumps, and arabesques on one leg, and finding a sense of balance in her life.

Dunmore had a forensic ability to find the cracks and crevices where people hide their most embarrassing or humiliating moments. She was never cruel in her observations, but always true to her tale. Her characters may not always be likeable but their authenticity makes them compelling. Many are outsiders, people who are looking in on other peoples’ lives while forgetting to live their own. Some have hidden depths, like Binnie, in Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons. Binnie is something of a family oddity, never marrying and dressing like an explosion in a charity shop. But Binnie is loving and generous and finds her own way of expressing herself. Stories are never tied up with a neat bow. Like real life, they are often messy and confused but frequently have a kernel of hope for the future. There is a precision and lyricism to Dunmore’s writing that makes it such a pleasure to read. A ‘warm wriggle of oil’ drips into a child’s ear; a baby’s elbow is ‘so soft and dimpled that it fits into your mouth like a plum’; sweat trickles down a forehead ‘tickling like an insect’; and someone is old enough to remember ‘what it was like to fossick about with Tipp-Ex’.

In About the First World War, Mrs Jackson is having tea to celebrate her hundredth birthday. A young man is there, someone she doesn’t know, and he keeps taking photographs of her. She knows he is going to ask her about the First World War, as young people always do. ‘I’ve seen the whole world die in my time’, thinks Mrs Jackson. Dunmore skilfully slips between Mrs Jackson’s past and present, subtly showing that her memories of the past burn brighter than those of the present.

In the Past section, Dunmore gives voice to Grace Poole, the servant who looked after the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Grace’s eyes, Jane Eyre is a sly, conniving creature, while Mrs Rochester is just a troubled soul who is being unfairly treated by her husband. It is fascinating to read part of the classic tale from a different viewpoint, with Jane being the villain of the piece. Grace says of Jane, ‘you could put your hand through Miss Eyre and never grasp her’.

Posted in Book Reviews

Mr Peacock’s Possessions – Book Oxygen Review

Mr Peacock’s Possessions

Lydia Syson

Published by Zaffre 18 May 2018

406pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

 

Lydia Syson has written three historical novels for young adults and a biography of eighteenth-century fertility specialist James Graham, entitled Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed. Mr Peacock’s Possessions, her adult fiction debut, is inspired by Tom Bell, her husband’s ancestor who went to live on an uninhabited Pacific island in the nineteenth century.

In 1879, Mr Peacock is running a hotel and bar in Samoa, the latest stop on his itinerant family’s journey around Oceania, but it is not the life he has envisaged for himself. When he is offered the chance to sell up his business and buy a small, uninhabited island, he takes it, transplanting his family to Monday Island where they will work long and hard to make it a home. The children, Lizzie, Ada, Queenie, Billy, and Albert, labour as hard as their parents. Their mother is also looking after baby Gussie, and expecting another child. After two years of this struggle, a ship stops at the island and six Pacific Islanders join the Peacocks on Monday Island to help them work the land.

The story is narrated by Lizzie Peacock and Kalala, one of the Pacific Islanders. Lizzie, a strong character, believes her father’s every word, never imagining that he might make a mistake. And indeed, Mr Peacock is a clever man but also selfish and self-absorbed. Convinced he is destined for better things, he is happy to leave his Samoan business behind no matter what privations his family might suffer on the island. He is very hard on Albert, a sensitive, sickly boy who does his best to please his father but rarely succeeds. Ada tries to protect her brother but Lizzie thinks he deserves what he gets. Albert always seems to have something wrong with his health but only Ada and his mother show any sympathy to the very lonely and frightened little boy.

Kalala and his brother Solomona, two of the work team, who were taught to speak English at a missionary school, are amazed to discover that the Peacock children can neither read nor write. Kalala constantly tries to put into practise the lessons he learned from Mr and Mrs Reverend but sometimes it is not possible. He is fascinated by the Peacock family and keenly observant of their daily interactions. Syson has given Kalala a formal, slightly stilted form of speech that works well with his character, showing that he has been schooled by a nineteenth-century preacher and his wife.

Then a child mysteriously goes missing and everything changes. Syson uses the search for the child to describe the island in detail, from the beach to the hills, and it is easy to picture the flora, fauna and pitfalls of their little island.

The possessions of Mr Peacock are both physical and psychological. He imposes his will on his family so much that Lizzie and the others cannot imagine he might be wrong. This well-researched study of a family explores what home means to each of them. The Peacocks of Monday Island are vividly depicted and their story is a powerful examination of love and loyalty that lingers long after the last page has been turned.

Posted in Book Reviews

Last Letter Home – Book Oxygen Review

Last Letter Home

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster 22 March 2018

560pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

 

Rachel Hore’s ninth novel is an unashamedly romantic tale, spanning some seventy years. Briony Wood, a historian, is on holiday with friends in Italy. She is fascinated by a derelict villa set in the hills behind Naples that was used as a base by British soldiers during World War II. Briony’s grandfather had been in the area in 1943 and she wonders whether he had visited it. A local woman gives her a sheaf of letters written by a woman called Sarah Bailey, from Norfolk, to a soldier named Paul that were found in the villa.  Briony finds herself driven to discover more about Sarah and Paul, and her late grandfather, Harry Andrews.

The action switches to 1938, and Sarah Bailey has returned to England, following the death of her father. With her mother and sister, she sets up home in the Norfolk village of Westbury, not far from a lovely old manor house. Ivor, a distant relation who lives in the manor house, takes an instant liking to Sarah and she is flattered by his attentions. Paul, a young German man, lives in the area with his mother who is English. They escaped Germany when Paul’s father was killed. As the winds of war blow stronger, Paul finds that not everyone is happy to have a German living nearby. Sarah and Paul find they have a common interest in gardening and despite Ivor’s efforts to belittle Paul, they become firm friends.

Initially, Rachel Hore’s writing is overly stuffed with adjectives that overwhelm the story. However, once the settings and main characters are introduced, her writing settles down into a smooth rhythm and the pages turn with ease. The settings are well researched and both the 1940s and modern day Italy are richly atmospheric. Wartime Norfolk is full of small but telling details and although there are some stock characters – the posh manor family, the ex-soldier estate manager – they do not detract from the enjoyment of the tale. Sarah is the most developed character and it is easy to sympathize with her. In Ivor, Hore indicates a cruel streak from the outset, while Paul seems a little passive at first. Briony’s need to find out about her grandfather’s life is well drawn, and the letters by Sarah are touching and full of character.

As the war gathers pace, life changes for everyone, with even Ivor’s family finding their luxurious life slipping away. Sarah works hard gardening under the watchful eye of the government inspectors who want every patch of earth to produce food for the country. Hore echoes the burgeoning relationship between Sarah and Paul in the modern day sections with Briony and the man she falls in love with. It adds interest to both relationships, showing that while the world may have changed, the complications of love relationships span the decades. This is an engaging read – with a well disguised twist – and the mix of history and romance is handled with great skill. A fabulous book to take on holiday.

Posted in Book Reviews

Burnout by Claire MacLeary – Sunday Herald

CROSS Purpose, Claire MacLeary’s striking debut novel, introduced Harcus & Laird, an odd couple of middle-aged Aberdonian quines turned private investigators. It was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. In Burnout, Maggie Laird and Big Wilma Harcus return, rebuilding the private investigations company that Maggie’s late husband ran after his dishonourable dismissal from the police force. Maggie hasn’t given up hope of clearing her husband’s name but in the meantime she has to work as a private investigator to pay the bills that her part-time job at a local school doesn’t cover.

She meets with Sheena Struthers, a well-to-do woman from an affluent area of Aberdeen, who thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Maggie is surprised but sympathetic, seeing a little of herself in Sheena. Wilma, on the other hand, is furious that she has accepted Sheena as a client, the pair having agreed to stay away from domestic cases. ‘Ah’m only tryin to protect you, ya feal quine,’ says Wilma. The most serious disagreement of their fledging partnership threatens both their personal and professional relationships. By showing their differing reactions to Sheena’s problem, Maggie compassionate and Wilma doubting, MacLeary has added depth to both characters. Maggie is also trying to support Ros, a young teacher, whom she befriends during breaks at school. Ros is suffocating in a marriage where her narcissistic husband calls all the shots but she is trying to make it work for the sake of their baby son.

Wilma juggles Harcus & Laird cases with a job as a cleaner at a local hospital. She relishes getting out and about, following up on insurance claims to establish whether they are genuine or fraudulent. This means that Wilma is rarely at home and Ian, her usually easy-going husband, is far from happy. With the growing distance between herself and Maggie, Wilma struggles to cope.

After several meetings during which Sheena provides little evidence for her husband’s alleged murderous tendencies, Maggie tries to point her client towards a doctor. When Sheena is later found unconscious in her own home, Maggie wonders if she has missed a vital clue. She is interviewed by DI Chisolm, formerly a colleague of her late husband, who is investigating Sheena’s case, and also calls on DS Burnett, who has long carried a torch for her, to help with a personal matter.

The Aberdeen setting provides an interestingly tough background and MacLeary doesn’t shy away from using strong language appropriate for her characters. She touches on current social issues, such as violence against women and the discrimination they face, particularly when dealing with public bodies such as the police. Working-class Wilma’s surprising lack of confidence allows MacLeary to explore class, an issue that continues to haunt British society. But she also leavens the tale with some welcome humour, Wilma seeing the funny side of even the most troubling circumstances. Harcus & Laird’s second outing is as absorbing as their first. This is a thoroughly entertaining series that could run and run.

Burnout by Claire MacLeary is published by Contraband, priced £8.99

Posted in Book Reviews

Hotel Silence – Book Oxygen Review

Hotel Silence

Auour Ava Olafsdottir

Published by Pushkin Press 22 February 2018

224pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

Jonas is a middle-aged man in crisis; getting tattooed is just one sign of his malaise. The anchors of his life have come loose and he is not sure there is a reason to go on. His wife has divorced him, but not before telling him that his twenty-something daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his biological child. His mother has dementia and is sliding into another world. Her lucid moments are becoming more and more rare, and Jonas misses the woman she was. He decides to end it all and calmly contemplates his options. He feels he can’t subject Gudrun Waterlily to the horror of finding his body and decides to disappear, choosing to travel to Hotel Silence, in an unidentified war-torn country, currently experiencing a lull in hostilities. He takes a toolbox and drill with him in case he decides to hang himself and needs to put up a hook.

Icelandic author Olafsdottir’s prose is pleasingly, engagingly spare as she allows things to be left unsaid between the various characters and in the narrative as a whole, leaving gaps that readers must fill in for themselves. Considering the initial subject matter – suicide – this novel is by no means a glum or depressing read. The author has gifted Jonas with a dry wit and an often funny, matter-of-fact attitude to ending his life.

Unexpectedly, Jonas finds life amongst people who have suffered great losses and hardship gives him a new perspective. Hotel Silence, run by brother and sister, Fifi and May, is rundown and in need of many small repairs. Toolbox in hand, Jonas starts to enjoy the feeling of being needed again as he fixes problems around the hotel. He befriends May, who has a young son, Adam, and feels he has a place in the world again. The locals, many of whom are physically and mentally scarred, make Jonas re-assess his life and his decision to end it. Whilst he feels cast adrift, these people have faced the ghastliness of war and yet they do not talk about the past, only their plans to rebuild their shattered lives. He also reads his student notebooks and rediscovers himself as a young man.

Hotel Silence (winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize) could easily become a run-of-the-mill story of one man’s search for redemption but Olafsdottir makes sure that there are no simplistic, happy endings for everyone. Jonas’s spiritual journey from depression to a kind of normality is echoed by the attempts of the locals living around Hotel Silence to return to their pre-war lives. A sense of hope for the future is present in the latter part of the novel, in contrast to the opening chapters. In Jonas, Olafsdottir has created a rounded, humorous character and it is a pleasure to spend some time in his company.

 

 
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