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.

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.

The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill by C S Robertson

The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill: The must-read, incredible voice-driven mystery thriller by [J. Craig  Robertson]

This is one of those unorthodox books that defeat the star-rating system. I couldn’t say, hand on heart, that I loved it and thus give it five stars. The story was gruesome and the protagonist unlikeable (never mind loveable). Grace has some character traces of Eleonor Oliphant (withdrawn from society at large, odd, damaged, lonely) but she isn’t sweet or vulnerable. She is hard as nails, her job isn’t for the faint-hearted and although she cares deeply, she shows it in most unpredictable ways.
But although The Undiscovered Death of Grace McGill isn’t loveable, it is a brilliant book. I simply cannot give it less than 5 stars. Its brilliance comes from the original concept, nuanced characterisation, moral and societal commentary that doesn’t amount to preaching, and the shocking twists that turn the whole storyline on its head.
If you’re squeamish, you may find some passages difficult to read, especially those describing Grace’s task of cleaning houses after the bodies of their occupants lay there undiscovered for months. Similarly, Grace’s interactions with her alcoholic, abusive father are unpleasant and upsetting – you may well want to step in and smash the man’s head in.
If you can deal with those explicit passages, Grace McGill will take you to some very dark places as she searches for the truth about the disappearance of a young woman fifty years ago. Chilling read!

Fortune’s Hand, the triumph and tragedy of Walter Raleigh by R.N. Morris

Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by [R.N.  Morris]

Fortune’s Hand, the Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh isn’t a biography in the conventional sense of the word. It is all together something different and much, much more exciting.

It is, of course, about the meteoric rise and an equally spectacular fall of the Elizabethan adventurer, privateer, courtier and solider, Walter Raleigh. But you will find that R.N. Morris isn’t just writing about the man – in the course of the book, he becomes the man. I was astounded, as I tread deeper into his story, by how comprehensively the author managed to get inside Raleigh’s head. Or perhaps it was the other way around – perhaps it was Raleigh who possessed the writer’s mind? However it happened, the personality acquisition was complete, seemingly on a molecular level.

The fact that the book is written in the first person abets this author-to-protagonist metamorphosis. Norris is intimate with Raleigh’s innermost thoughts, his desires, his ambitions and calculations. As a reader, I trusted Norris’s interpretation of Raleigh as a rogue and chancer but also Her Majesty’s most loyal servant, brutal executioner but also a foster carer of his enemy’s disabled son, reckless hell-raiser but also a cunning political strategist.

Other characters are portrayed with similarly keen insight into both their psyche and physicality: the Queen (her manner, her scent, the sounds and vibes surrounding her), the obnoxious Lord Oxford, dr John Dee, the hostile new king, James I – a whole plethora of Elizabethan players brought to life.

Events aren’t described linearly, but in carefully selected sections that are put under a magnifying glass and dissected before the reader’s eye. Some of them are drawn in such intense and lyrical prose that you will feel as if you are swept into it and drown in it, only to be catapulted to the surface. The language is raw in places, and thus authentic without being pretentious.

Fortune’s Hand By R.N Morris has been quite a discovery for me, prompted by a friend’s recommendation for which I cannot be grateful enough. If you enjoy all-encompassing historical tour de force this book is for you.

Not My Brother’s Keeper by Colette McCormick

Reading Not My Brother’s Keeper I was reminded of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers at odds with each other because of the catastrophically bad choice made by Cain. Living with the consequences of that choice was damning.
In Not My Brother’s Keeper, the older brother Robert is a bit like Cain: he makes the wrong – even immoral – choice and takes the wrong turn in life, a decision that will haunt him for years. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and leaves town, asking his brother Tom to watch out for her.
Tom is to some extent the equivalent of Abel – the good brother who stays behind, picks up the loose ends, keeps the family together and ultimately is rewarded with love and happiness with Michelle. Until, that is, Robert decides to come back and open old wounds.
Not My Brother’s Keeper is a thought-provoking tale about family, morality, decency and second chances. The story will stay with you long after you read the last sentence. Highly recommended.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

A Fatal Crossing by [Tom Hindle]

A transatlantic ship with over two-thousand passengers onboard carries the secret of an old gentleman’s death from Southampton to New York. At first, his death is dismissed by the captain as an accident, but James Temple, a persistent Scotland Yard detective, is permitted to investigate – as long as he is accompanied everywhere by the ship’s officer, Mr Birch. A thorough inquiry follows, witnesses are pursued and interviewed, and slowly a picture of art theft and high-society indiscretions begins to be painted.

Tom Hindle’s writing has been compared to Agatha Christie and indeed it has the elements of classic detective narrative and plotting. The partnership between James Temple and Timothy Birch is particularly vibrant and really benefits the story. Both characters are complex, each man harbouring his own secrets. The underlying tragedy of Birch’s missing daughter adds extra emotional depth to Birch’s narrative (the story is told from his point of view).

More deaths and further complications abound but the investigation ploughs on to the final unmasking of the killer. However it isn’t the identity of the killer that provides the ultimate, most unexpected twist to this tale. It is something entirely different. I did not see it coming and I must admit that it was quite a shock. I shouldn’t even intimate at what it is as that would spoil your pleasure of reading this book and getting to that earth-shattering denouement in your own time.