Posted in Book Reviews

A Skinful of Shadows – Book Oxygen

A Skinful of Shadows

Frances Hardinge

Published by Pan Macmillan 21 September 2017

415pp, hardback, £12.99



Frances Hardinge has written several young adult novels since her award-winning debut Fly By Night was published in 2005. Her last, The Lie Tree, won the 2015 Costa Book of the Year, the first YA novel to win since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass in 2001.

Set at the beginning of the English Civil War, Hardinge’s new novel follows the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl called Makepeace, who lives in Poplar, then a small village outside London. Makepeace and her mother, Margaret, are reliant on the charity of relatives to put a roof over their head and food (however meagre) on their plates. Hardinge paints a grim picture of Makepeace’s life in a village that is Puritan in all but name. The outlandish names of its inhabitants – Fight-the-Good-Fight, Spit-in-the-Eye-of-the-Devil, Sorry-for-Sin, Miserable-Sinners-Are-We-All – offer an insight into the kind of society in which Makepeace lives.

Makepeace senses that she and her mother are different from the other people of Poplar, and just as keenly senses that she must hide any differences lest they be cast out of the village. Secretly, Margaret begins to teach Makepeace how to resist the ghosts of the recently dead who are desperate to find a body to contain them once more. Makepeace is special in that she has spaces in her mind where the dead might hide. If she is taken over by an evil spirit, or too many spirits, Makepeace will cease to exist. She will become a vessel that the spirits will control. Once a month Margaret forces Makepeace to spend the night in a graveyard so that she will learn to resist the marauding ghosts. Makepeace learns her lessons well but just once she lets her guard down and a spirit enters her. This spirit will help and hinder Makepeace as she tries to discover more about her origins.

Hardinge introduces some complex ideas about the nature of death and what might lie beyond which in other hands might bamboozle a young reader. However, she explains the crux of her plot well, making sure there are many opportunities for Makepeace to find herself in jeopardy, whether physical or spiritual.

With her mother’s death, Makepeace is packed off to her father’s family. Never having known her father, the rich, noble Fellmottes are a mystery to her. She soon discovers a number of strange relatives who frighten her with their dark, searching eyes. She tries to keep herself out of sight, working hard in the kitchen to earn her keep. But things are going on behind the respectable façade of the Fellmottes that spell danger for Makepeace and even her spirit lodger cannot help her. Again and again, she tries to escape the gloomy Fellmottes and then the outbreak of the Civil War suddenly presents her with new opportunities for flight.

Although aimed towards the young adult market, this is a well written novel with some extraordinary ideas that may be enjoyed by readers of any age. Hardinge employs enough cliff-hangers to keep the pages turning and her insights into the day-to-day privations in a country at war with itself are fascinating. She has a smooth style and the pages slip by with ease, making this absorbing, substantial novel feel much shorter than it is.

Posted in Book Reviews

A Column of Fire by Ken Follet

Book review: Ken Follett plots a masterly tale of Tudor intrigue in A Column of Fire

Mary Queen of Scots features in A Column of Fire, the third instalment of Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series

Mary Queen of Scots features in A Column of Fire, the third instalment of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series

IN 1989, The Pillars of the Earth, the first novel in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series, was a world-wide publishing sensation, selling some 26 million copies. World Without End, the sequel, was also a major best-seller. Twenty-eight years after the Kingsbridge story began, Follett has written the epic, third instalment, set during the Tudor era. Opening at Christmas 1558, A Column of Fire covers some fifty years of tumultuous history that changed the face of Europe. It includes crucial events, such as the accession of Elizabeth Tudor, the Spanish Armada, the St. Bartholomew Massacre, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In particular, Follett examines the rise of Protestantism and the reaction of the dominant Roman Catholic church, determined not to lose its previously undisputed power over kings and commoners.

At the heart of Follett’s tale is a love story. Young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge eager to see Margery Fitzgerald, the woman he loves. He finds his home town much changed and Margery under pressure from her family to marry their choice of husband, the boorish Lord Shiring. The Willard family are suspected to have Protestant leanings and the Fitzgerald family will not allow Margery to imperil her soul by marrying Ned. The two families are also business rivals, with Sir Reginald Fitzgerald being more devious than the straight-talking Alice Willard, Ned’s mother, who runs the family business. Follett’s research into day-to-day life in Tudor times is extensive but the facts never overwhelm the fiction. Kingsbridge is vividly brought to life, its inhabitants torn apart by ruthless religious disputes, with terrible violence inflicted by both sides. The novel features two excellent baddies, Rollo, brother to Margery, who is a religious fanatic and eager to root out what he sees as the cancer of Protestantism. In France, the lowly-born social climber Pierre Aumande, becomes a spy for the legendary commander, the Duke de Guise, uncle to Mary, Queen of Scots. Aumande callously capitalises on the love of an innocent woman to discover the names of Parisian Protestants.

When the Willard family fortune is lost due the French reclaiming Calais, the Willards’ main trading port, and Sir Reginald Fitzgerald’s refusal to repay a business loan, Ned finds employment with William Cecil, advisor to the young Princess Elizabeth, half-sister to Queen Mary. Cecil runs a network of spies throughout Europe, gathering intelligence about those who support Elizabeth’s claim to the English throne and those that oppose her. As Queen Mary’s health falters, various plots swirl around Elizabeth, with many fearing that she will bring Protestantism back to England if she accedes. Mary, Queen of Scots, living at the French court and about to marry the Dauphin, is the choice of the powerful Catholic faction at court, and she haunts Elizabeth’s nightmares. Follett’s depiction of Elizabeth Tudor shows a young woman who has lived in the shadow of the executioner for most of her life. She is a talented linguist with a sharp political mind, and relies on Cecil and her inner coterie to keep her safe. By placing Ned Willard in Elizabeth’s service, Follett takes his tale out of Kingsbridge and into the political hotspots of Europe, with countries lining up behind the Catholic and Protestant causes.

Sustaining a novel of 746 pages is no mean feat and one that Follett carries off with aplomb. There are no saggy, padded-out chapters as each one is filled with action that drives the plot forward. Follett is painting on a much bigger canvas than before and managing a huge cast of characters, but he never loses control of his material. His main characters are well-defined and become more interesting as they age. If there is a fault, it is that Follett’s dialogue is jarringly modern at times. Would Caterina de’ Medici, Queen of France, really use crude and profane language? Did 16th Century people use “sexy”, or “cute”? Fortunately, the characters are strong enough to withstand these occasional slips but it is odd that these quirks survived the editing process.

This is an epic novel in every sense, not least the sheer size and weight of the book. Follett has painted a picture of the second half of the 16th century that captivates from beginning to end. It demands a considerable investment of time but offers rich rewards. The characters, both fictional and real, are fascinating, and the Tudor period setting holds its own special allure. This is a novel that fans of historical fiction will savour and cherish.

Posted in Book Reviews

Insidious Intent Review


Book review: Val McDermid shows no sign of a lost touch in Insidious Intent

Insidious Intent is the 10th novel in Val McDermid’s  Dr Toby Hill  and DCI Carol Jordan series

Insidious Intent is the 10th novel in Val McDermid’s Dr Toby Hill and DCI Carol Jordan series

IN the 30 years since her first novel was published, Val McDermid has written 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction. She shows no sign of slowing down, with her 10th novel featuring Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan hitting the shelves this week with their most bewildering case yet.

A car is on fire on a remote road. Inside is the body of a woman. The Regional Murder Investigation Team, a newly created unit headed by Jordan, is called in to solve the mystery. Unfortunately, the fire brigade reached the car first and washed away potential evidence while putting the blaze out.

Then another woman is found in similar circumstances. Forensically aware, the killer leaves no clues to his identity or his reasons for killing two very different women. With the press on their heels, and a disgruntled senior police officer willing her to fail, Jordan and her team are under pressure to solve the case.

The National:

Jordan has never been more fragile as she finally accepts she is an alcoholic. She fights the urge to drink minute by minute, throwing herself into work as a distraction. McDermid offers an authentic picture of a woman struggling with addiction, “eating away at the slender rope of her well-being and self-confidence”. Hill stays as close to Jordan as she will allow, and tries to stop her blaming herself for everything that goes wrong in her life and those of her family and friends. But guilt is a heavy burden and Jordan still holds herself ultimately responsible for the murder of her brother and his partner.

Hill, a far more complex and interesting character than his television incarnation, has his own troubles to deal with. His deep affection for Jordan is marred by his impotence and the reverberations from his dysfunctional relationship with his mentally ill mother. He tries to support Jordan professionally and personally, risking their friendship in order to help her stop drinking. As Jordan becomes more and more desperate, Hill calmly works out a way to save her from herself.

McDermid employs some pleasingly visual descriptions of minor characters, thumbnail portraits that bring them vividly to life. There is an old man whose face was “wrinkled with a scatter of age spots like a Golden Delicious left too long in the fruit bowl” and a taciturn taxi driver whose “fat descended from his shoulders in waves … he resembled a bull seal who’d been washed up by the tide”.

McDermid also delves further into the lives of Jordan’s team. Paula McIntyre, Jordan’s loyal sergeant, has a happy home life with her partner, Elinor, which is unusual in a crime story featuring obsessive police officers. However, they are looking after Torin, a teenager who has suffered great trauma and who suddenly becomes moody and silent.

Through Torin, McDermid shows how easy it is for even the smartest people to become embroiled in the darker side of social media. The fastidious Stacey Chen, usually wedded to her computers, steps out into real life to help right a wrong, and uses less than legal methods to take revenge for her former boyfriend’s betrayal.

McDermid ratchets up the tension as the investigation hits one dead end after another. The team are pursuing a new kind of criminal, one who is only too aware of police procedures and forensics. They have discovered that he chooses his victims carefully, picking on emotionally vulnerable women at wedding receptions. Posing as the perfect man – kind, polite, gentle, a good listener – he draws women in before disposing of them in a burning car in a remote location. There is a chilling logic to his actions which McDermid emphasises by outlining them in a cool, efficient manner. It is this twisted logic, combined with an extraordinary ability to deceive, that makes this murderer so menacing.

The denouement of this novel is so shocking and unexpected that McDermid has taken the unusual step of including a letter asking readers not to give away the ending. No doubt some will reveal the finale but given the loyalty of McDermid’s huge fan base, it is likely most will accede to her request. This is McDermid’s most expressive and emotional novel to date, giving readers more than just a clever criminal to get their teeth into. It is particularly good to learn more about Hill and Jordan’s supporting cast but the duo remain the passionate heart of the story.

Insidious Intent by Val McDermid is published by Little Brown, priced £18.99

Posted in Book Reviews

Protest: Stories of Resistance – Book Oxygen Review

Protest: Stories of Resistance

Edited by Ra Page

Published by Comma Press 6 July 2017

464pp, hardback, £14.99

This is a fascinating book, full of facts and figures about British protest movements from the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 to the anti-Iraq war demonstration of 2003. It also gives voice to some of the lesser known protests over the centuries.

Each author was asked which protest movement they would like to write about in order to be paired with an expert, to learn all the salient facts. The authors then wrote a short story, bringing the history to life not with usual famous people from their era, but with ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary times. Each short story also has an accompanying essay by the expert, to put the events in context and explain the wider ramifications. As a structure it works well, lending breadth and depth to the fictionalized version of the protest and illuminating the reasons for the events.

There is a distinguished roster of authors, including Kit de Waal, Alexei Sayle, Kate Clanchy, and Frank Cotterell-Boyce, and the time frame is chronological. While this is an easy book to dip in and out of, reading it from page one onwards rewards the reader with an overview of the history of British protests, and a sinking feeling as the same issues come up again and again. The poor and dispossessed often protest to their lords and masters about their harsh living conditions; kings and the nobility burden their serfs with extortionate taxes; a legal system is skewed towards the rich and powerful; and men and boys are forced to go to wars they did not start or understand.

Highlights include Sara Maitland’s ‘The Pardon List’, about Wat Tyler and the Great Rising of 1381. A woman defends her looting and destruction at the Savoy Palace, insisting she has done nothing wrong and has no need to beg for pardon. Professor Jane Whittle’s essay explains the background to the rising, and the fact that a lot of the rebels were reasonably well off craftsmen and town dwellers and not a horde of ignorant peasants.

Laura Hird writes one of the longer pieces in the book, the excellent ‘Spun’, about the Scottish Insurrection of 1820. Sixteen-year-old Andrew White, a real person, gets caught up in the excitement of protest, only to be brought down to earth as the movement is outflanked by the military and the protestors are soon on their way to prison in Stirling Castle. Dr Gordon Pentland of Edinburgh University writes about the reasons for the insurrection which burned bright and fast.

There are so many good short stories and accompanying essays here, it is difficult to leave any unmentioned.  Tales by Frank Cotterll-Boyce on Venner’s Rising, Maggie Gee on the Night Cleaners’ strike, Martyn Bedford on the Battle of Orgreave, and Joanna Quinn on Greenham Common are all thoroughly absorbing and enlightening. Protest is an important collection highlighting the history of dissenting voices in the UK. It teaches rather than preaches and should be required reading for many of our current politicians.

Posted in Book Reviews

A Message from the Other Side Review

Books: Moira Forsyth’s A Message From the Other Side explores the dynamics of modern relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

MOIRA Forsyth’s fifth novel begins with the extraordinary statement, “The dead are everywhere”. Catherine sees them in crowds, in coffee shops, the friends and family she has loved and lost. It doesn’t disturb her, even when she realises she is mistaken. She is comforted by the thought that her loved ones are not far away.

Forsyth delves into the secrets and lies of one extended family, tracking their lives and loves from 1994 to 2014, showing how lying by omission can be as damaging as a bare-faced lie. Relationships ebb and flow, and consequences have to be faced sooner or later.

Catherine and her sister, Helen, married young but neither relationship lasted. Catherine decides to make a fresh start and takes a job in Inverness, moving there with her young daughter, Flora. Hugh, Helen’s ex-husband, lives locally and he becomes a lifeline for Catherine, showing her around the area and introducing her to his friends. The friendship between Catherine and Hugh is beautifully handled, the initial awkwardness of their former connection soon transforms into a close friendship. Hugh is a gentle, rather diffident character, wounded by the failure of his marriage. Catherine is charmed by Hugh’s friend Gil, a shambolic, charismatic man who ekes out a living with The Factory, his second-hand furniture business, housed in a former corset factory. Catherine finds The Factory magical, and in Forsyth’s descriptions of the building it is easy to see why. When seven-year-old Flora reluctantly joins her mother in the Highlands, it is through Gil and The Factory that mother and daughter start to connect again.

Helen has remained in London and is mystified by Catherine’s move to the Highlands. Although they speak often by phone, their former intimacy is lost and it becomes easy to keep secrets. This suits Helen when she begins a relationship with Joe. He is handsome and attentive, offering Helen a financially and materially comfortable life. How he earns money is a mystery, one that Helen, overwhelmed by Joe’s charm, is willing to overlook. “Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies”, he says. A Glaswegian, he also has some old-fashioned views on the roles of men and women within a family, something that Catherine finds astounding but Helen pretends not to notice. Joe is an amorphous character who Forsyth never quite pins down. He is like a ghost in Helen’s life, coming and going when he pleases and never explaining his income or his absences. Hugh introduces Catherine to Gil’s brother, Kenneth, and there is an immediate attraction between them. Kenneth seems to go out of his way to antagonise Catherine, but eventually they begin a relationship which results in a second marriage for both. Kenneth seems to hate Gil, seeing him as a failure who scrounges money from his family rather than sorting his life out. It is a constant bone of contention between the couple, made more so by Flora’s love for Gil and enmity towards the strict Kenneth. If there is one jarring note, it is why Catherine falls for the dour and argumentative Kenneth. The couple spend so much time disagreeing with each other that it seems unlikely that even their undoubted physical attraction can paper over the cracks. Forsyth tells her story in six sections, covering a twenty-year period but not every year is included in her narrative. Instead, she lets the natural flow of the story and the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. It is refreshing to have an author trust her readers to follow the tale without being spoon-fed and makes for a much more satisfying read. The sense of the lead characters waiting for a sign to start a new phase in their lives is well communicated.

This is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships. The imagined or actual slights that exist in most families lends authenticity to the sisters’ extended family. Forsyth examines the everyday niggles of marriages as well as the complex reasons why they break down. Secrets are finally revealed and ghosts laid to rest, and families go on whatever happens. Forsyth’s prose is as smooth as silk, letting her substantial novel of over four hundred pages slip by with surprising speed and no little pleasure.

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