Posted in Book Reviews

The Tyrant’s Shadow – Herald Review

The Tyrant’s Shadow

Antonia Senior

Corvus, £17.99

ANTONIA Senior’s third novel is set during the Interregnum, the 11 years between the execution of King Charles I, and the restoration of his son, Charles II to the throne. With various factions struggling to gain power, it is left to Oliver Cromwell to impose a measure of order. With the horrors of the English civil wars behind them, it was a time to remake society along more God-fearing lines.

Patience Johnson is thrilled by the possibilities for change and when she meets charismatic preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she feels it is her destiny to marry him and assist his vocation. Patience is a naïve character, annoyingly so at times, but she is a young woman of her time, and Senior has been careful not to impose modern ideas of women’s lives on her female characters. Sidrach Simmonds is a Fifth Monarchist, a sect which believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and he must prepare the way for the Lord. His public charm is contrasted with his private cruelty, and it is Patience who suffers most.

Patience’s widowed brother, Will, is a lawyer in the employ of Oliver Cromwell. Will’s observations of Cromwell form a far more nuanced view of the man than is often the case. As Cromwell tries to negotiate with the various squabbling cliques, Senior subtly shows him being presented with many of the same problems that led to the downfall of Charles I. Cromwell lives a humble life but slowly the trappings of power seduce and when he becomes Lord Protector, king in all but name, Will is confused and wonders if he was wrong to hold Cromwell in such high regard.

Sam Challoner, brother to Will’s late wife, is a royalist, and follows first Prince Rupert and then Charles II into exile in Europe. He tires of the aimless life at the shadow court and decides to return to England. When he turns up at Will’s door, penniless, Will finds his loyalties divided. Patience is struck by Sam’s cheerful disposition even as he finds himself in such penury. The contrast between her husband’s way of life and Sam’s means that Patience’s loyalties are also divided.

At times Senior’s characterisations verge on cliché. Sidrach Simmonds is an archetypal baddie, devious and cruel under his charming façade. Sam Challoner is a typical Cavalier, merrily enjoying life and having a far more relaxed view of religion than the Puritans. Patience, the heart of the novel, is innocent and wildly idealistic. Her brother Will is the least developed character, grieving for his wife, but he is an important observer of the political upheavals of the time.

Senior’s title is ambiguous and could refer to several men; the executed king, Cromwell, or Sidrach Simmonds. As a picture of a family trying to survive in unsettling times the tale lacks emotional depth. However, as a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times, it never fails to engage.

Posted in Book Reviews

Want You Gone – Herald Review

Want You Gone

Chris Brookmyre

Little, Brown £18.99

ONE of the defining characteristics of Chris Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels is the development of his protagonist. While other crime luminaries rest comfortably in stasis, Parlabane, like a great white shark, keeps moving. This makes him one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction, stumbling into one bad situation after another, but finding a way through thanks to his own particular sense of morality.

In this tale, Parlabane is called on to repay a favour and is plunged into the cyber world of hackers. He is in London to attend an interview with Broadwave, an achingly hip online news outlet. His disreputable past is proving a sticking point but the young editor is a fan and Parlabane soon finds himself in gainful employment. He is living in the flat of a friend who is abroad and his life is settling down. When the Royal Scottish Great Northern bank is hacked, Parlabane decides to get in touch with ace hacker, Buzzkill, who has both helped and hindered him in the past. He is hoping Buzzkill will give him inside information, so that he can start his Broadwave career with an exclusive story.

Meanwhile, Sam Morpeth is living in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Her mother is in prison, and Sam has to look after her younger sister, Lilly, who has Down’s syndrome. Giving up her dream of going to university, Sam leaves school and takes a job in a sandwich shop. In order to work full-time, she tries to access benefits to pay for an after-school club for Lilly. However, she must already be working full-time in order to qualify, the benefits officer with a face “like a recently slammed door” tells her. Brookmyre is no stranger to including social comment in his novels and here he takes aim at the benefits system. He piles misery upon misery on 19-year-old Sam, pushing her to the extreme. Sam’s online life keeps her sane but when a stranger calling himself Zodiac, threatens to expose every facet of her life, she is blackmailed into committing crime. Turning to Parlabane for help, she in turn threatens to expose his more illegal actions to ensure his cooperation. Together they devise the crime, all the while looking for a way to outwit Zodiac. Sam has to think of Lilly’s welfare while Parlabane is trying to keep his new job.

Brookmyre’s black humour is evident throughout the novel. Parlabane comes across a receptionist, “wearing roughly as much foundation as Joan of Arc would need for an open-casket funeral”. When he attends a Broadwave party, “everything is so on-trend that the leftovers are likely binned in a few hours for being out of fashion”.

The online duel between Sam and Zodiac could make for very dull reading. However, Brookmyre injects plenty of jeopardy to ratchet up the tension. Sam explains her plan to Parlabane who knows a little about computers but is lost when she starts planting Trojan Horses and finding back doors. He is more at home when he has to charm vital information from unwitting employees. Although a lot of the action takes place in cyber space, it doesn’t stop Parlabane from breaking and entering premises and almost freezing to death while stealing a prototype from a sub-zero lab. Much of the time he and Sam seem to be one step ahead of the police but one step behind the mysterious Zodiac.

This is an older, somewhat wiser Parlabane, who is trying to get his life on an even keel. He develops an unexpectedly paternal relationship with Sam, which means he takes the kind of risks he had promised himself were in the past. It is curious to see him in this role. Disarmed by Sam’s courage and determination to look after Lilly, he seems bewildered by his feelings.

Brookmyre’s plot is full of surprising twists and turns that make it pleasingly difficult to guess the ending, while Parlabane’s evolution forms the emotional heart of the novel. It is an engrossing read, combining appealing characters with a contemporary scenario drawn from the murkier corners of modern life.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth – Book Oxygen Review

The Daughter of Lady Macbeth

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 16 February 2017

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Mothers and daughters have long provided inspiration for writers. Their complex, multifaceted relationships are like no others. Lilias, a jobbing actress, is the Lady Macbeth of the title in Ajay Close’s fifth novel. Now in her later years, Lilias was a reluctant mother to Freya, who spent her childhood being dumped on friends while Lilias was working, or helping out the landladies in countless theatrical digs. Freya has never known who her father is as Lilias refuses point blank to reveal his identity. It is hard not to be amused by Lilias even as she displays her innate selfishness. She is a narcissist and has a casual relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to her career. The world revolves around Lilias, or it should, and Freya is a bit-player in her mother’s life.

Now in her early forties, Freya and her husband, Frankie, are trying to have a baby and are going down the IVF route. It is costly but Frankie is a television sports reporter and Freya is a senior civil servant working for the Scottish government so they have the funds. They sign up with a private clinic out in the glorious Perthshire countryside and Freya is told she must live locally in order to visit the clinic daily. This, she is told, is the secret of their success. Freya sees the photos of dozens of cherubic babies pinned to the walls of the clinic and grudgingly agrees. There is a business-like brutality to the clinic. Vast sums of money are demanded and couples are put on a production line, desperately hoping there is a baby when they reach the end of it.

Freya is a fascinating character, seemingly well-adjusted in spite of her peripatetic childhood and hoping to give a child a very different upbringing to her own. She is often the adult in her exchanges with her mother but Lilias can still cut her to the quick with the sharp side of her tongue. Working to create a family gives Freya the impetus to find out more about her own.  She decides to look for her father which enrages her mother but Lilias has one more great dramatic role to perform. The past echoes in the present as Freya, unwittingly, seems to be reliving her mother’s life during Lilias’s pregnancy, which is told in vivid flashbacks.

Frankie has adored Freya since they were children but the IVF process takes its toll on their marriage. Freya displays some ambivalence about their relationship and her impulsive actions put it at risk. Frankie is also having a mid-life crisis as a younger colleague at work threatens his position, which only adds to the strain on their marriage.

Close is exploring important matters; nature and artifice, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, loyalty and betrayal. Her prose, as usual, is beautifully polished but this is her most emotional novel to date and is partly inspired by her own experiences. As a picture of a marriage crumbling under pressure it is melancholy and all too genuine. However, it is the rounded and byzantine relationship between Freya and Lilias that lingers long in the mind.

Posted in Book Reviews

Here Comes the Sun, Book Oxygen Review

Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Published by Oneworld 16 March 2017

346pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Nicole Dennis-Benn goes behind the bright sunshine, golden sands and blue seas of Jamaica that visitors see to explore the lives of four very different women. Beyond the tourist traps, many Jamaicans are struggling to survive as new developments threaten their already impoverished lives. Those who can leave, those who can’t wait and worry.

Margot lives in a shack in River Bank, with her mother Dolores, younger sister Thandi, and her silent grandmother Merle. Margot works at a tourist hotel, supplementing her salary by providing ‘personal services’ to the rich men who book in. Dolores sells souvenirs and trinkets to the visitors who arrive on cruise ships, but business isn’t good. Both women work to send fifteen-year-old Thandi to an expensive school, vowing that she will have a better life than either of them have known. Thandi, who has to deal with her mother and sister’s expectations that she will become a doctor and leave River Bank far behind, wants to be an artist. She also fall in love with a local boy of whom Dolores disapproves.

Margot may prostitute herself with guests and her boss, but it is Verdene, the village outcast, who holds her heart. Verdene lives alone in a pink house, shunned because she was caught with another girl at college and sent abroad in disgrace. Verdene came home when her mother died but she is still considered a witch by all save Margot. Their love puts them both in serious danger. The girl that Verdene was with at college was raped and murdered when she went back to her home town. Verdene worries that Margot may be subject to the same fate, so their affair is conducted under the cover of darkness.

Dennis-Benn excels in laying bare the love/hate nature of the relationships between the women. Margot and Dolores are constantly sniping at each other, trying to score points and have the last word. There is an unspoken anger hanging in the air between them that is almost tangible. Dolores feels that life has dealt her a bad hand and can’t understand why her daughters aren’t more grateful to her. Margot feel she owes Dolores nothing, having sacrificed her young body to earn the money that will be her passport out of River Bank and away from Dolores. Both women adore Thandi but the daily pressure they put upon her to do well at school is taking its toll.

Dennis-Benn roots the story firmly in Jamaica by using local patois in speech which has a musicality and poetry all of its own. Through Thandi she shows the discrimination against girls with dark skins and the lengths some will go to in order to have the light brown skin that is considered beautiful. It is another desperately sad example of healthy young women being told they are not enough in themselves.

Here Comes the Sun is a wonderful exploration of the very particular world in which these four women find themselves. All of them are looking for a better life away from the poverty of River Bank, all of them wanting to share in the seemingly perfect lives of the rich tourists. It is a very different view of Jamaica, but it feels more honest and authentic than the glossy travel brochures.

Posted in Book Reviews

Cross Purpose and Ed’s Dead Reviews, Herald

Review: Cross Purpose, by Claire MacLeary, Contraband, and Ed’s Dead, by Russel D McLean, Contraband

on June 1, 2016 in Aberdeen, Scotland.

on June 1, 2016 in Aberdeen, Scotland.

 

Cross Purpose

Claire MacLeary

Contraband, £8.99

Ed’s Dead

Russel D McLean

Contraband, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

TWO middle-aged women may not seem the ideal protagonists for a crime novel but in Claire MacLeary’s debut they offer a refreshingly different approach to the private investigator genre. The setting is respectable suburban Aberdeen and the city’s dank housing estates with their drug dealers and feral children. MacLeary’s double act are not exactly Cagney and Lacey but that is what makes them so interesting. Maggie Laird is the prim widow of a disgraced police officer who eked out a living as a private investigator when he was flung out of the police for corruption. Her next door neighbour, Wilma, is brash and gaudy but she has the street smarts that Maggie lacks. When Maggie discovers she has been left with debts that her part-time job will not cover, Wilma encourages her to take over her late husband’s clients. Maggie agrees but with two conditions. Firstly, Wilma becomes her partner, and secondly that they set out to clear her husband’s name. This odd couple rub along, knocking the edges off each other and discovering as much about themselves as each other. Maggie begins to let her guard down while Wilma shows that she is far more capable than either of them could have imagined. Murder, drug dealing, vicious gangs and dodgy policemen: the women take them all on in their own fashion. MacLeary has created a fast-paced tale with enough sub-plots to sustain the reader’s interest from first to last. Maggie, with her skelly eye, and Wilma with her spray painted leggings, make a formidable duo and there is plenty of scope for MacLeary to continue the adventures of the Aberdonian quines.

Russel D McLean’s seventh novel is set in Glasgow and features Jen Carter, a failed writer who has become a bookseller. McLean knows plenty about Jen’s job, being a former bookseller himself before turning to writing full time. Ed, Jen’s boyfriend, is not the reliable type and has some dubious connections with Glasgow ‘businessmen’. One night Jen accidentally kills Ed and instead of calling the police and explaining, she decides to dispose of Ed’s body. She calls Dave, Ed’s stoner flatmate, and they get rid of the body. They split Ed’s loot; Jen takes his stash of cash while Dave takes custody of the drugs. At first it seems as if they have managed to get away with it but the money and the drugs didn’t actually belong to Ed and their rightful owner wants them back. Jen finds herself being chased by a hitman, gangsters, journalists, and crooked policemen. As the bodies pile up the tabloid press name her The Most Dangerous Woman in Scotland.

There is a lot of violence in this novel, and some of it is brutal, but McLean provides enough characterisation and pitch black humour to stop it sliding into a kill-fest. Solomon Buchan, who rules the city by instilling fear in his employees and victims alike, promises bloody vengeance on anyone who crosses him. Michael, a corrupt cop, is living too close to the edge and making too many mistakes for Buchan’s liking. Dave, Ed’s supposed friend, shows an unlikely entrepreneurial streak that only serves to plunge him further into trouble. The most intriguing character is Jen Carter, who starts off living a normal, anodyne life with a charming but dodgy boyfriend, her dreams being pushed on to the back burner as she sells books instead of writing them. Her instinct to call Dave rather than the police when she kills Ed seems odd, as is her agreement to go along with his rather gory plan. She lies and cheats like a pro and stands up to Buchan when no one else will. Death follows her around like a bad smell but she never seems broken by her losses. Is she really an innocent caught up in other people’s deadly games or does she have hidden depths? It is this dichotomy that makes her so fascinating. McLean has left the door open for Jen to return for another duel with the bad guys.

Contraband, an imprint of Saraband Books dedicated to crime and thriller novels, has already had major success with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. These novels will enhance their reputation for publishing gripping Scottish crime novels.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Good People Review

BURIAL Rites, Hannah Kent’s much-lauded debut novel, left the Australian author with the unenviable task of trying to match its critical success with her next novel. As with her debut, The Good People is based on a true story but this time Kent’s gaze has travelled from Iceland to 1820s Ireland and another isolated community. Its inhabitants scratch a wretched living from the land, kept alive by eating a relentless diet of potatoes. They live in fear of the ironically named Good People, the fairies who take vicious revenge on any humans who slight them.

Nora Leahy’s husband dies suddenly leaving her to care for Micheal, their disabled, four-year-old grandson. Since their daughter’s recent death, the boy has lived with his grandparents, but after an uneventful infancy Micheal has regressed and can no longer speak or walk. Nora tries to hide him away from prying eyes and gossip and hires a girl, Mary, to help her look after him. In desperation Nora appeals to a doctor and then to the Church to help Micheal. Cruelly rebuffed by both, she turns to Nance Roche, an old woman who dispenses herbal remedies and is said to communicate with the fairies. When hens stop laying and cows run dry of milk, a rumour spreads around the valley that Micheal is a changeling who has brought bad luck to all. Nora, Mary, and Nance try to protect the child and using the old ways, bring him back to himself.

The atmosphere Kent creates is claustrophobic and fearful. The dirt floor houses are poorly lit and full of smoke from the turf fires. Rain is ever-present, casting a gloomy pall over the valley, and clothes never dry. It is a dank and miserable existence with only ‘poitin’, local moonshine alcohol, for comfort. The old-fashioned rhythms of speech and scattering of Irish Gaelic words help to root the story in a specific time and place. The Good People are portrayed as an everyday fact of life and Kent carefully passes no modern-day judgements on the widespread belief in the fairies in the community.

Nora is a sympathetic character, as she copes with losing her daughter and husband within months of each other and being left with a ‘cratur’ that at times frightens her. Nevertheless, her valiant attempts to protect Micheal show her courage and compassion. Mary, the bright teenage girl whom Nora hires, also tries to shield Micheal from the growing gossip. Nance, however, is the most interesting character, an old woman who has known great hardship, and has had to create a life for herself with her herbal remedies and knowledge of the Good People. The brash new priest, Father Healy, sets out to discredit Nance and preaches against her and the old ways. With the advancing authority of the church, she knows her influence is waning.

Kent has a wonderful talent for taking fragments of historical facts and breathing life into them through her fiction. She has matched her debut with another disturbing and haunting novel.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter – Herald Review

The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
John Pipkin
Bloomsbury, £18.99

AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.

Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.

For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.

Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.

Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.

The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.

Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.

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