This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.
The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.
“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.
Eight-year-old Chrissie is a child-killer. She is pleased with her effort – it gives that fizzy, sherbet-like feeling in the depths of her stomach. She can hardly contain herself from telling others that it was her, but, being a neglected and unloved little girl and the poorest from an already very poor housing estate, she has a strong sense of self-preservation, so she keeps her secret to herself. Not to mention that she doesn’t really understand death – her da had been declared “dead” by her ma on a few occasions but always managed to come back. But Steven, the toddler Chrissie throttled, seems unable to rise from the dead and his death endures to Chrissie’s bemusement. Twenty years later, Chrissie has a new identity as Julie and a daughter of her own. She believes that she is undeserving of motherhood, and fears that her child will be taken away from her. Julie picks up where Chrissie has left off and embarks on a journey of re-discovery and cautious redemption. The narrative oscillates between Chrissie’s and Julie’s stories which complement each other perfectly.
This is a harrowing read, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, whatever your reading preferences. It has a lasting resonance, a heart and a soul, and most of all – conscience. Chrissie’s voice is captured brilliantly. The little girl’s loneliness, despair, her everyday struggle for survival and love are heart-wrenching. Her anger is palpable. Each of her life’s raw disappointments hit me hard as an adult and member of the society that has made this child into what she is. Despite the bleak and gory subject there is a message of hope in this book: people aren’t born evil and they certainly don’t have to remain so. All it takes is for someone to care.
Other characters are also wonderfully observed and drawn: Chrissie’s inept mother, Chrissie’s best friend, the sister of the boy Chrissie’s has killed, Chrissie’s absentee-father… The commentary on our society is damning, but not the commentary on our humanity.
Freddie, a fifteen-year-old youngster, returns home after a night out to announce to his parents that he has killed someone. That is the dramatic opening of “The Lies We Tell”. What follows is a background story of Freddie’s parents, Sarah and Tom, told in the first-person narrative, starting from the moment they met. Slowly and reluctantly Sarah and Tom reveal their own dark secrets to each other which ultimately destabilises their already shaky marriage filled with doubts, incompatibility and mistrust. Following this long and detailed introduction spanning the first twenty years of their marriage, the story picks up again at the point of Freddie’s revelation. Drastic parental actions are taken (I won’t reveal what they are), but ultimately there comes the day of reckoning with a final twist, which isn’t as much shocking as it is unpredictable due to the introduction of a couple of new characters.
I enjoy book by Jane Corry, but this one is slightly different in that it isn’t a tight and fast-paced thriller, but rather a family drama. The long section that takes us linearly through the history of Sarah and Tom’s marriage does not conform to the definition of the genre.
Although it isn’t “thrilling” the book is certainly thought provoking and emotionally charged. I didn’t find Sarah’s character believable, but her dilemma and her reactions made me reflect on what I would do in her place.
The End of Men was already on my kindle (courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley) when I heard an interview with the author on Radio 4. In that interview Christina Sweeney-Baird mentioned that she had made references to The Power when submitting her manuscript. I was disappointed. I didn’t want another book about the male-female reversal of fortunes and about power corrupting women in the same way as it would men. I didn’t want another book where the pronoun he/him would be replaced with she/her. I almost didn’t read The End of Men.
I am so glad that I put aside my reservations and dug into it! Apart from the common denominator of men becoming vulnerable and women holding the balance of survival (and ensuing power) in their hands, The End of Men is nothing like Power. It is incomparably better, in my opinion.
There is subtlety and many different layers of emotions here as Sweeny-Baird explores a world where the male population becomes decimated (literally to the tenth of its original number) and women have to take over the reins. No cheap gloating, primitive vengeance or abuse of power ever enters the page. When the virus attacks their men, women go through what any human being of any gender would: initial disbelief transforms into an instinct of preservation and protectiveness, loss brings on immeasurable grief, the disintegration of the world inspires action, resourcefulness, survival and regeneration. Many women (and one man) narrate/are the protagonists in this book and each of them tells her (or his) own unique story of metamorphosis. The story of Amanda (the doctor who first discovered the virus and identified Patient Zero) and Catherine (the anthropologist who after an unsuccessful attempt at escaping and saving her loved ones, begins to research and record the events and their impact on individual lives) are the two leading threads. But there are many more characters, each with their own reactions to the challenge of the pandemic. There are personal, deeply intimate stories, but also wider events on a larger, geo-political scale tacked in this book. The book reads in places like a factual account – a dramatized real -life occurrence.
The End of Men rings true. Although it is a work of fiction, it touches on the subject of pandemic that changes the world and the traditional male-female roles beyond recognition. As we have all just gone through a life- and society-transforming pandemic, it is easy to believe in this tale and the possibilities it contemplates. But it isn’t just about the pandemic. After WWII in which many men died, women had to take charge of their families, communities, and the future of the world. Women took on new “masculine” careers. This sort of a challenge to the established traditional values of our society is not new. Sweeney-Baird treats it with great sensitivity and insight.
This story is told by Ellen. It begins with her death in a car accident, but it isn’t a story of what happens to her after death. It is about the people who keep her rooted on earth: her daughter Naomi (who survives the accident to Ellen’s unmitigated relief), her bereaved and desperately lost husband Marc who is trying to pull together the loose ends of their family life, and her difficult mother with her own life falling apart.
McCormick spins a moving tale of life interrupted, the unfinished business of love for one’s family, regrets and consuming yearning. Ultimately, it is a life-affirming tale of surviving a personal catastrophe and moving on.
There are many heart-rending moments. I must confess that I welled up a few times. But there is also plenty of humour and hope. George, the apprentice angel, provides some loud-out-lough comic relief and I chuckled a lot at some domestic situations which were both realistic and hilarious. McCormick has a good eye for details and situational comedy.
Overall, The Things I Should’ve Said and Done is a poignant story, told beautifully and with great assurance. Despite its paranormal theme, it is credible and true-to-life.
The Bellhop Only Stalks Once is a cracking crime mystery set in an exotic location, featuring a cast of colourful and diverse characters and presenting the reader with a puzzling case to solve.
Chloe is an American lass on a solo holiday in Costa Rica. Things start going terribly wrong with firstly just one overzealous bellboy from Chloe’s hotel going missing, soon followed by another two. Chloe is the only person to have witnessed his bizarre disappearance. One minute he was there waving to her, the next he sauntered into the jungle. He had made a nuisance of himself prior to his vanishing act, and consequently suspicion falls on Chloe. You feel for her. She is in a foreign country and quite out of her comfort zone. But she is one feisty gal, determined and smart, and she has some allies, such as Juan as well as the charming Mateo, until he too is gone, that is.
Apart from the relatable and likeable characters, the setting also plays its part in the story. The deep and dangerous Costa Rican jungle, the heat and the beautiful but precarious crossings create a thrilling ambience. Amulets and accessories featuring mysterious local deities add more mystery. Little hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you dive into that world with Chloe.
Although there is humour and adventure, there is also an element of grim, brutal reality and pure unrepentant evil. You certainly wouldn’t want to send your child on a holiday where they could end up just like those missing bellboys.
Penny slams on the accelerator from the start. You are introduced to ordinary people going about their ordinary lives: Tim, Aisla and their friends travelling to a farm for the weekend, Linda dropping Bob at work on her way to her next parcel delivery, Charlie fussing about grumpily at the police station, Frankie engrossed in domesticity.
In and out of that everyday bustle, a van comes off the road. It is driven by Linda. She only tries to avoid a rabbit. A parcel breaks open and white powder spills out. Passing motorists call 999, and yet nobody seems to come to Linda and Bob’s rescue.
People go on with their lives. Tim & Co arrive on the farm and have a mighty good time. Then again, a girl runs away. She is scared. She too calls 999, and vanishes.
Hunter is the title character, the detective inspector who has to piece everything together. He is wonderfully fleshed out as a character. Empathetic, patient and caring about his aunt Sandra. I instantly warmed up to him.
Penny has written a fast-paced, gripping mystery, full of twist and meanders. I devoured it within 2 days.
With her mousy brown hair and chubby cheeks, Susan is the rant of the litter. Her two older sisters are tall and pretty blondes. Their lives seem to dutifully follow the well-trodden tracks of respectability. And respectability is key to the girls’ mother, Jean. She is about maintaining appearances to the extent that she is unable to show love or tenderness to her children. Intimacy is a cross to bear, in her view. Jean doesn’t do touchy-feely. She does however mean well in her own special way and doesn’t wish for Susan to make the same mistakes she made (or what she perceives as mistakes). She has the path of good education mapped out for Susan whom she doesn’t suspect of being able to attract “trouble”. And yet, trouble is exactly what befalls Susan when she finds herself pregnant by an undesirable young man, and absolutely determined to have her baby.
Ribbons in Her Hair is a powerful read. It raises lots of crucial issues, such as mother-daughter relationships, respect and morality, motherhood, or the oppressive effect of our societal rules of conduct. McCormick tackles these issues with great sensitivity and authenticity. Her prose is simple and convincing. The themes hit a nerve. She is able to write with equal ease from the point of view of both Susan and Jean.
This is a thought-provoking and inspiring story that lends itself to debate about so many issues that it would make a fantastic book-club read. Highly recommended.
The Summer of Taking Chances by Lynne Shelby has it all: a picturesque and tranquil seaside village of South Quay, the height of hot summer, a handsome heart-throb and an emotionally intelligent heroine, Emma, who relays to us this romantic tale.
It is a tale of two people, Emma and Jake, who were once intimately close and now have a second chance to fall in love. They have plenty in common. Acting is one thing that binds them. Emma plays the part of Juliette in an amateur production of Romeo and Juliette. Jake is a fully-fledged film star. She is single. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend. He doesn’t seem heartbroken or on the rebound. Old school friends, the two of them are relaxed and at ease with each other. Particularly charming are their exchanges where they aptly use Shakespearean quotations to quibble with each other and laugh at their very own, inside jokes. All other young and eligible ladies in South Quay are swooning over Jake, but he seems to only have eyes for Emma.
Yet, not everything is as it seems. While we take a stroll on the beach with Emma and Jake or join them at a party, watching them grow closer and closer, we also learn about their common past. Shelby reveals small bits of their history, one at a time, through Emma’s eyes. We discover height of emotion and depths of pain, and we wonder: will that past be an obstacle to their future?
The Summer of Taking Chances is beautifully written and absorbing. It has depth and many three-dimensional characters not limited to Emma and Jake. It is a poignant and absorbing read. Highly recommended.
A while back, I read an earlier edition of Jenny Kane’s A Cornish Escape, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I discovered the book’s idyllic new cover, I just had to read it again. What a treat in the time of pandemic! Chicken soup for the soul!
A Cornish Escape isn’t just about romance. It is also about loss, recovery, starting over, and many acts of basic human kindness. It doesn’t feature only the young and the beautiful. There is a wide spectrum of characters, including the elderly who are portrayed with great sensitivity. Stan is my absolute hero, and he is no spring chicken!
If you’re feeling slightly under the weather and a little bit stuck in emotional lockdown, warm your heart up with that lovely story. It is well written with beautiful descriptions of Cornwall which are vivid enough to make you feel, just for that one fleeting moment, that you are actually there.