Posted in Book Reviews

Book Oxygen Review

What We Did in the Dark

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 13 February 2020

322pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Catherine Carswell was born in Glasgow, in 1879, and became an author, journalist and biographer. She wrote a frank, controversial biography of Robert Burns that resulted in her being rebuked from the pulpit by Burns traditionalists. She was also sent a bullet with a note asking her to ‘make the world a cleaner place’. Carswell wrote two novels, Open the Door and The Camomile. Neither were autobiographical but both drew on experiences from her own life. She always glossed over her first marriage to Herbert Jackson, an artist and soldier, whom she married within a month of meeting him. Award-winning writer Ajay Close takes the bare bones of information about this marriage and fleshes out the relationship between Catherine and Herbert in a perceptive novel that has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

The year is 1904 and 25-year-old Cathie has been studying English Literature at Glasgow University. However, although an impressive student, she cannot be awarded a degree because she is a woman. Restless and longing for excitement, Cathie meets Herbert Jackson, a Boer War veteran and artist, and agrees to marry him within a few weeks.

The Jackson family seem more relieved than happy that Herbert is marrying, and the couple takes off for an extended honeymoon in Europe. Herbert seems agitated on the journey and explains that he is being watched by persons unknown. At first Cathie is sceptical but wants to believe her new husband. Soon it becomes clear that Herbert is paranoid, and Cathie feels caught in a trap of her own making. A nightmarish journey through Italy commences, with Herbert becoming more and more unhinged. When she tells him she is pregnant, Herbert says she has been sleeping with the Prince of Wales and tries to kill her. He watches her every move and accuses her of being unfaithful with any man who comes near. Most of the story is told in the second person with Cathie addressing Herbert. This transports the reader into Cathie’s mind as she struggles to work out whether it is Herbert or herself that is losing grip, adding to the claustrophobia of the relationship.

It would be easy to portray Herbert as the villain of the piece, but the inclusion of several letters to his brother during his service in the Boer War show a different side to the man. He is wholly unsuited to army life and the atrocities that the British inflict on their Boer prisoners – many of them women and children – affect him deeply. He fails to command the respect of his men and becomes convinced that they are deliberately trying to humiliate him. His army service ends in disappointment.

Fictionalizing the lives of real people is a task full of potential pitfalls but Close’s extensive research and compassion for her characters helps her avoid them. Cathie displays hints of the courageous, modern woman she would become, one who made legal history when she decided to divorce Herbert on account of his mental health disorder and won. This is a beautifully crafted novel about a gruelling period in Carswell’s life, and it is a fitting tribute to a writer who was almost lost to obscurity.

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.

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.

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The Insect Rosary – Book Oxygen Review

The Insect Rosary

Sarah Armstrong

Published by Sandstone Press 18 June 2015

280pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

The tangled relationships of sisters has long proved a fruitful area for writers to explore. Sarah Armstrong’s tale of two sisters is set in Northern Ireland both in the present day and during The Troubles. The sisters narrate the story, Nancy in the present day, and Bernadette in the flashbacks to 1982. This works well as each point of view, and the differing conclusions each draws, is clearly delineated.

Nancy and Bernadette spend their summers at their mother’s childhood home, a remote farm where their Uncle Donn and Aunt Agatha live. Their English father only arrives for the final week of the holidays and until he does the girls are mostly left to their own devices. They explore the farm buildings even though they have been told not to, with twelve-year-old Nancy daring her ten-year-old sister to open forbidden doors or climb into rickety old barns. Their Aunt Agatha, known to the girls as Sister Agatha as she almost became a nun, tries to instil discipline and respect but her efforts usually elicit a fit of the giggles. As a last resort she gives Nancy and Bernadette a black rosary each which they promptly mislay. There are various comings and goings at the farm, family and other neighbours arrive at odd times and the girls are shooed away to their bedroom. They sneak back to the stairs and try to listen to the adults’ conversations, hearing things that leave them curious and a little frightened. Everyone, it seems, is touched in some way by The Troubles.

In the present day the sisters, long estranged, return to the farm for a holiday with their families. Nancy and her annoying American husband, Elian, and troubled son Hurley; Bernadette with her husband Adrian and bratty daughters Erin and Maeve. Uncle Donn is going to sell the farm and Aunt Agatha is going to a nunnery so it is a last chance for them all to spend time there. For Bernadette it is a chance to go back to her childhood and finally understand why she had a breakdown. Nancy doesn’t want to remember, she only wants to make her mother happy by attempting a reconciliation with Bernadette.

Armstrong skilfully plants clues as to the reason for Bernadette’s breakdown, slowly revealing what happened that last summer at the farm. The flashback scenes are well written as the loyalty of the sisters is tested. Bernadette’s ten-year-old voice is particularly strong as she struggles to understand what the grown-ups are trying to hide. She is brave and her squabbles with Nancy feel authentically child-like. Nancy’s adult voice exposes her guilt and confusion over the events of that summer as she tries to deny Bernadette’s accusations of betrayal. Nancy’s husband is a useful foil to show just how insular and isolated the farm is and his blundering attempts to strike up conversations with the family and locals are wonderfully cringe-making. Although partly set during The Troubles, this is a story of how sisterly disloyalty can ripple through lives causing years of heartache and misery. Betrayal, whether real or imagined, is very hard to put right.

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Through Every Human Heart – Book Oxygen Review

Through Every Human Heart

Janice Brown

Published by Sandstone Press

226pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Feliks Berisovic reluctantly leaves his sequestered life in unnamed East European state to travel to Scotland on unofficial government business. Boris, Feliks’ influential and possibly criminal father, has ordered his estranged son to bring home Irina Arbinisi, the grand-daughter of the last Archduke, who is living and working in Glasgow. Newly released from its Russian yoke, his country is looking to the past to re-establish its identity. So begins Janice Brown’s second adult novel which is fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunications, leaving Feliks with increasingly farcical complications to what should be a simple mission.

Irina Arbinisi, a well-heeled exile from her East European homeland, runs a successful design company in the West End of Glasgow. One day she sends Dina, her assistant, to her well-appointed home to pick up a disc she needs for a client. Dina walks in on two men who claim to be plumbers fixing a problem which she finds strange but takes at face value. When she finds Irina’s beloved cat dead her scream rouses Feliks and another man, who are waiting outside for Irina, to burst in to save her. The four men fight and one plumber is stabbed while the other is knocked out. Dina is then bustled into a car by Feliks all the while insisting she is not Irina Arbinisi. Eventually Feliks believes her but cannot let her go until he has made contact with Irina. What follows is a madcap chase around Scotland involving Feliks and Dina, Irina and a professional criminal, the police, and a secret service agent.

Brown has created some interesting characters. Feliks, with his badly scarred face, is as damaged on the inside as he is outside giving him a sinister aura. He is against everything his father stands for but in the brave new world of independence are their aims as similar as their methods are different? Dina, originally from the Scottish islands, initially comes across as a bit of an airhead but as the pursuit becomes more dangerous she shows her mettle. Irina, on the other hand, is revealed as a vain woman with little regard for anyone but herself. The professional criminal, a man with many names, is pleasingly slippery, able to come up with a host of inventive lies in order to keep Irina on his side. The secret service agent seems to be helpful but just whose country is he serving?

Brown treads a fine line in mixing crime and comedy but her careful plotting means that one never overshadows the other. She also trusts her readers by introducing new characters with the merest of background information, only slowly filling in their backstory as the plot progresses. At times the novel feels a bit undercooked, as if could benefit from being opened out on a larger canvas with more room to develop the characters even further. Overall it is a pacey read with some amusing elements of comedy in amongst the drama and a hint of a happy ending for the troubled Feliks.

Posted in Book Reviews

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed – review

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed
Bradley Greenburg

Published by Sandstone Press 19 June 2014

342pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

With its title taken from a Walt Whitman poem, Bradley Greenburg’s debut is a rich exploration of the relationships between fathers and sons set in an America where some people, no matter what President Lincoln might say, will never get used to the idea that humans cannot be owned, sold or traded.

With the Civil War finally over, many black Americans find that freedom from slavery doesn’t always make for a better life. In an attempt to break free of the past, young Clayton McGhee and his family leave the South behind and move to Indiana, buying a farm and using their skills as master carpenters to renovate it. It is a hard but good life and the McGhee family thrive, careful to keep to themselves as much as possible. However some white people just can’t bear to see a black family doing well and trouble is never far away. When it finally arrives, young Clayton finds himself at the centre of the action. The choice he makes on that fateful day will come back to haunt him as an adult with a family of his own to care for.

Greenburg’s evocation of life just after the Civil War is fascinating, with some black people, like the McGhee family, embracing their new-found freedom while others struggle to cope without the certainties of slavery. For them, it really is ‘better the devil you know’. The story is told through young Clayton’s eyes. The pride that his father James and grandfather Amos take in their woodworking skill is well drawn as they teach Clayton to follow in their footsteps, although the projects are described in exhaustive detail which becomes a little overwhelming and stalls the action somewhat. However the metaphor of the men crafting a fine new life out of rough wood is successful. The male characters are more rounded than the female characters, such as Clayton’s mother and grandmother, but there is enough meat on their bones to make them interesting.

The second part of the novel features the adult Clayton but there is so much ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ that he becomes more distant and unknowable. There is also a lack of dialogue throughout which is often no bad thing but in this case a little more dialogue would add a stronger flavour of Clayton’s character and background.

This is an ambitious debut but Greenburg handles his material well, not letting his research overwhelm the drama. In the young Clayton in particular he has fashioned a sympathetic character who carries the first part of the novel well. It is a period of history that deserves to be better known, and no doubt there is much more to be written about it, but Greenburg’s tale of the McGhee family is an appealing read.

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