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Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer

The day Isaac and the Egg popped up on my twitter feed I knew straightaway that I had to take a closer look at the pair of them. The premise of the book was intriguingly bizarre and that meant that it had the potential to join the pantheon of my favourite if rather surreal books of last year, which included Piranesi and The Porpoise. I am delighted to say that Isaac and the Egg have lived up to their potential.
The story starts with almost an ending as Isaac Addy hovers over the parapet of a bridge, readying himself to jump to his death. He gives one last, gut-wrenching and harrowing cry of pain – and is answered by one of equal, gut-wrenching and harrowing quality. And so Isaac and Egg find each other, or rather Isaac finds the egg.
This is a surreal tale, just about tittering on the edge of reality, but that does not detract from its raw emotional authenticity. Both Isaac and Egg are lost and confused, frightened and grieving the loss of what each used to consider their whole world. Their friendship is built on their mutual need for each other and their joint discovery of what lies beyond bereavement, because there is always something out there to live for.
I don’t know what tragedies life has thrown at the young author to drive him to write this book, but, by golly, he knows what he’s talking about. Isaac is palpably throbbing with emotions and Egg is like a big, fluffy plaster to cover the open wounds and make their ragged edges come together in the end.
But what a crazy journey it is before that ending arrives! I wept, I gasped, I sniffled, and I laughed, too. Yes, you will laugh too because as much as this book is poignant and vivid in its description of loneliness and pain, it is also incredibly funny. The gentle humour makes it all so much better for the reader, for trust me, you as a reader will need your heart rescuing by the book’s subtle comedic quality.

Fatal Witness by Robert Bryndza

Fatal Witness was my first encounter with Robert Bryndza and his lead character, Erika. Although this book is the eighth in this crime series, I did not feel in any way disadvantaged by not reading the previous instalments. Bryndza afforded me enough glimpses into Erika’s background and some of her tragic past experiences to form a clear picture of who she was, what made her tick and how she left. I really understood and liked her. Her work taking precedence over such trivial matters as buying a bed for her new house and having to sleep on the floor with a stray cat made perfect sense in the context of her deliciously fleshed out personality.
Bryndza hit the bull’s eye with the pace and tension of this story. There were twists galore with the case of mistaken identity of the victim at the start of the book carrying a huge amount of emotional ordeal for the victim’s sister. Each chapter led into the next and I felt riveted to story, unable to find the right place to take a break.
Fatal Witness is sort of a dual crime case: firstly, the victim Vicky was hot on the heels of a serial rapist before she was killed; then Erika stepped in to pursue not only Vicky’s murderer but probably also the rapist who had so far eluded justice.
I don’t think this will be my last book by Robert Bryndza. A riveting read.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

It’s eight hundred years since the collapse of the world as we know. Our civilisation has done a full 360-degree loop and gone back to the basics. No planes, no cars, no IT technology and very few relics of what we have created. After a few hundred years of “dark ages” comes an era similar to medieval times with religion ruling supreme and man living in isolated, cohesive communities.
Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, arrives to such a small village to bury Father Lacey, a parish priest who fell to his death in a secluded area called the Devil’s Chair. Christopher discovers heretical writings of an antiquarian society pertaining to professor Morgensten who anticipated the end of our world hundreds of years earlier. It is a heresy to investigate such writings, but Christopher can’t help himself. With the help of lady Durston and Captain Hancock he embarks on a very dangerous quest – a quest for knowledge.
The Second Sleep is an absorbing fantasy tale about the downfall of man as well as man’s drive to discover the truth and to reinvent himself.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris was first published in 1961. It is older than most of its readers, but the story has not aged in the least. It is perhaps because it doesn’t rely on trickery, gadgets and mimicry. Its concept is utterly original and reaches beyond the confines of its sci-fi genre.
A psychologist, Kris Kelvin arrives at the space station on the planet of Solaris shortly after one of the scientists based there takes his own life. Immediately upon his arrival, strange things begin to happen. He sees a naked, athletic black woman who cannot possibly be there. Soon, Rheya, his long gone lover, makes an appearance, and will not leave his side. She too cannot be real but all his senses, and his memories, tell him that she is. Two other resident-scientists experience similar … hallucinations? encounters? relationships? It’s difficult to define.
This “resurrection” of the long-dead lovers can only be attributed to the planet of Solaris, and more specifically to the ocean that inhabits it. The ocean covers the entire surface of the planet. It appears to be a living, organic form which has evolved to such an extent that it is capable of thinking, creating, understanding and probably penetrating into man’s mind to retrieve his memories and to use them to recreate people from his past. This doesn’t seem entirely innocent – it may be that those “visitors” are spies or even assassins, although they claim to be benign and act innocently enough. They cannot be killed or sent away – they keep coming back. And more importantly their personalities evolve and they are able to form genuine relationships with “their” humans.
“Solaris” explores not only the depths of the universe and the diversity of matter/creation, but even more intriguingly the depths of human mind, its secrets, memories and its self-awareness. The book is about the new and unexplored frontiers, our soul being the most remote and the hardest to comprehend.
Brilliant, intelligent book!

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Perhaps because my expectations of The Midnight Library were sky-high, I was slightly underwhelmed by it.
It is a sweet, inspiring, life-affirming book, but it isn’t quite a cracking story.
The main character, Nora Seed, commits suicide and is given a chance to live many of her alternative lives. The conclusion is predictable, of course, and I won’t go into that.
For me, the problem lay with Nora skimming through her different lives’ options, not quite living them, not quite engaging with them, not even knowing what to say and do as she seems to parachute into this life and that without any prior briefing. So, it is all very superficial and intermittent. The other characters can’t come into their own because there simply isn’t enough time for them to grow. And as I said, there is no overarching story (other than Nora’s returns to the library to grab a ticket to another life).
There were a few fun moments, the polar bear being my favourite, but even they were heavily saturated with poignant messages and didactic wisdoms.
I am sure (and I’m not surprised) that other readers love this book as it is so reassuring, but for me it was more of a mindfulness expose than a tale of amazing fiction. Three stars, it is.
I loved Humans and other stories by Matt Haig. This was just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Facade by Helen Matthews

Following the death of her husband abroad, Imogen returns to England. She is impoverished and bitter. By contrast, her sister Rachel appears to be a successful business woman, happily married and a mother. She has all that Imogen doesn’t, and more.
While Imogen has to rely on pity and handouts, Rachel is supporting their parents in the upkeep of their beautiful home called the Old Rectory. The title of the book, Facade, aptly represents that old family home but it also has another deeper and more sinister meaning – it’s about all the secrets and sins that are hidden behind the facade.
Twenty years earlier, Rachel’s baby brother drowned. An air of mystery and unspoken secrets lie behind that death. With Imogen’s return and her embarking on a vicious campaign of revenge, the silence will have to be broken and the secrets will drift to the surface.
Facade is a complex, gripping and unputdownable psychological thriller. With every new page and every new revelation you will be drawn deeper into it, and you won’t be able to take a break until the very last page when everything is finally revealed.
Matthews has achieved huge depth in her portrayal of her protagonists, Imogen and Rachel, who narrate this twisty tale. Their perspectives are diametrically different to begin with, but then as you go on, you begin to discover disturbing overlaps and similarities.
This book is really well written and the storyline structured to perfection. Highly recommended.
The author has recently released another thriller, The Girl in the Van. It promises to be as good as Facade. It’s already on my list.

Being Alert by Charlie Laidlaw

Charlie Laidlaw has smashed it with Being Alert! I read it in a couple of seatings, chortling and snorting with amusement right through it.

Being Alert is political satire at its best, in the same league as Yes, Prime Minister and In the Thick of It. The author has a sharp eye for the outrageous and the absurd. He captures with flair and unforgiving astuteness the nonsensical antics of the ruling elites occupying the corridors of power in today’s Britain.

The main players are only thinly disguised under their new aliases: Winston Spragg (the PM), Derek Goings (his right-hand man), Kevin Kock (Health Secretary), Mick Gore, Vijay Patel (Chancellor), Timothy Raambo (the Foreign Secretary) and so on, and so on . . . ignorant advisers, slap-dash dilettante decision-makers, fantasists, sycophants and downright idiots ramble, strut and swagger through the pages of this brilliant book in a show of their abject and irredeemable incompetence.

The story is set during the turbulent time of the pandemic and while it is a satire and the author’s dry humour will have you in stitches, it is also a damning account of how badly the British government handled the crisis. There are sections in italics where Laidlaw reports the actual events and shocking statistics that require no commentary. In that respect, Being Alert is a tragicomedy – it is incredibly funny but is is also terribly poignant. Laidlaw holds Tory political elites to account, and he is merciless.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Running away from trouble in the UK, Jess arrives in Paris to hole up for a while with her brother Ben, who has half-heartedly invited her (or rather acceded to her inviting herself). But when she gets to his flat in an upmarket apartment block, Ben is nowhere to be found and a patch of bleached floor testifies to something sinister. Jess has nowhere else to go. She stays and tries to understand what happened.
The neighbours aren’t friendly or forthcoming with any information about Ben. It seems like they close ranks or simply don’t know; or perhaps it is their famous French discretion. Each of them harbours their own version of Ben and what their relationships with him were like. None of them were straightforward. Their memories are coloured with emotions, frayed, and there are huge gaps as information is withdrawn from the reader until the very end. None of the characters are likeable or trustworthy and that includes Ben as seen through their eyes. You can’t tell whether he was a victim or a perpetrator. The suspense is maintained right to the final chapters.
There are hard-hitting themes in this tense psychological thriller: alcoholism, sexual exploitation, modern slavery, drugs, societal inequalities, police corruption and the corruptive effect of wealth on morality and family dynamics etc etc etc.
Although the ending was inevitable and therefore expected, the nuance of it and the few final twists make it worth reading to the last page while remembering to breathe.
My only tiny issue was with the slowness of retrospection when each character speaks for themselves – there is a lot of internal monologue, telling rather than showing, and repeated explanations. That adds up to the over 400 pages of this book, which if some of that was left to the reader to work out for themselves would make this book much tighter and faster-paced.

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol McGrath

Accessible, bristling with vivid details, unflinching, warts-and-all account of how the Tudors practised love, sex and romance: Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol Mcgrath

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England is an exploration of morality and the mores in one of the most popular and widely fictionalised period of British history. In this brilliant expose, Carol Mcgrath, historian and an acclaimed historical fiction author, dives under the bedsheets of Tudor lovers, joins in rowdy festivities, visits brothels, peeks into Henry VIII’s marital and extra-marital beds, learns about inventive if not quite effective contraception methods, dances, flirts and recites romantic poetry. She takes us from the highest echelons of Tudor society to the lowest, talking about the love life of Henry VIII and his highborn mistresses, his daughter, the virgin queen Elizabeth I, but also prostitutes, witches and wenches. McGrath presents a full and comprehensive picture of Tudor sexuality, matrimony, childbirth, fashion, beliefs and rituals. She puts it into the context of religion, customs, philosophy and arts. She makes interesting links to the medieval, catholic era that preceded the Tudors, and contrasts it with the Protestantism and puritanism of the sixteenth century. She embeds the Tudors in the wider European context of the flourishing renaissance awakening. She makes reference to what came next. Sex and Sexuality is written in easy flowing, accessible language. It is vivid, full of fascinating details and quotes, thoroughly researched and bristling with tasteful, dry humour. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All For You by Louise Jensen

This book is like one of those fireworks displays. You start reading it and you know you are in for something spectacular that will be blow your brains. But there is a bit of a wait – the slow burner of anticipation in the first two-thirds of the book. That’s where Jensen develops her characters and builds the suspense. From page 1 you are told that Connor is going to be taken. In a way he expects it himself. He’s carrying a guilty secret and is overwhelmed by grief over a tragedy that has befallen his girlfriend. His mother Lucy is totally absorbed by his brother’s illness. Kieron has a degenerative liver condition and may soon need a liver transplant if he is to live. His father, Aiden, is entangled in an affair he doesn’t know how to end and fears that if he does end it, the consequences may be dire for him and his family. 
Days are counted to the moment of Connor’s disappearance, and when it finally happens you will be tempted to conclude that maybe, on some level, you could have predicted it. That moment is the first firework going off, but it certainly isn’t the last. More and more revelations and twists blow up in your face, a whole barrage of even bolder, brighter and more explosive illuminations. In the last third of the book Jenson puts on the real fireworks extravaganza. You will be kept on your toes to the very end, and then you will be exhausted.