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.
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.
Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath. Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin. All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.
Eighteen-year-old Essie Glass lives in not so distant future, only fifteen years from now, but it is a world transformed by ecological, political and societal breakdown. A couple of years ago her family were killed in a terrorist attack. Essie’s fresh-faced image and her grief were hijacked by right-wing propagandists blaming immigrants and liberals for the atrocity. Two years later, Essie regains control over her beliefs and her direction in life. She joins anti-establishment rebels going by the name Change Here. An environmentally-friendly energy-generating invention falls into their lap. It is an invention that could stall or even reverse the progress of climate change, but forces more powerful and influential than Change Here stand in the way of saving the planet. Short term commercial and political considerations seem to matter more that the survival of humanity. But Essie and her co-conspirators are not easily deterred. Cook has created an assembly of wonderful characters. I loved the way she mapped out Essie’s emotional growth in response to rapid plot developments. I enjoyed Essie’s feistiness and determination, and I rooted for her all the way.
The setting for the story is convincing and disturbingly plausible. Climate change creeps into everyday life and into the landscape. The rise of the authoritarian police state with its corruption, false propaganda and open disregard for basic human rights is shown without exaggeration or hysteria – it is what it is because we have made it possible. But there is also hope and redemption in this story. It is more of a warning than final reckoning.
I had to double-check the date this book was first published. It was in 2017. Already then, the author had the insight of what it may be like when a pandemic strikes: the origins of the virus, the so-called “Bat Fever”, the vaccinations, the quarantine, the panic, the unrest, the control measures, the lies, the whole world falling apart. Tyler’s projections in “Tipping Point” are spot-on! And they will send a cold chill down your spine.
I was swept in the currents of the unfolding catastrophe, following Vicky and Lottie’s escape from the quarantined town of Shipden, their precarious journey to the safe house and Vicky’s desperate search for her partner, Dex. He and other activists belonging to a group called Unicorn have uncovered a sinister plot underpinning the outbreak, thus putting themselves directly in harm’s way.
There are many interlinked threads and subplots in this story with both very personal and intimate themes as well as broader social and political observations. Those are deeply unsettling, firstly because of how probable and imminent they appear to be; and secondly, because of Tyler’s nuanced and realistic characterisation. Every character is astutely observed and so real that I found instant affinity with them. I could easily picture myself in their shoes, experience their fears and think their thoughts.
“Tipping Point” is a crushingly prophetic tale of societal degradation on the one hand and the power of human spirit on the other.
Cassandra Fortune (Cassie) is a civil servant moving in the high echelons of political elites. She carries about the burden of her previous, badly imploded, career and tries to rebuild it in her new role at the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. It is at this point that she uncovers a body of a young Polish man among the remains in one of London’s old “Plague pits”. Another body, this time of a young Spanish man, is found together with Cassie’s pass to the Palace of Westminster. Links begin to form between the deaths, Cassie, the Whitehall and commercial lobbies.
Cassie embarks on an investigation alongside Detective Inspector Andrew Rowland.
Plague is a tight, fast-moving and absorbing crime drama. The theme of the resurging plague is particularly relevant in today’s reality as is the exploration of political power and influence, corruption and dodgy dealings. Cassie’s romantic interest in Andrew Rowland (which doesn’t quite take off) adds that extra human touch to the story, which is both believable and nuanced. The plot picks up pace as it moves towards the dénouement and becomes quite impossible to put down.
This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.
I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.
The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.
As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.
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.