Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Review: ABC (Anything But Covid) (Ugly Bucket)

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HOME, Manchester


In this post, I’m going to be continuing my blog and radio reviews of the Homemakers series of commissions from Home, Manchester, a programme of digitally-accessible creative content that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own home. This post is a review of ABC (Anything But Covid) by Ugly Bucket. The radio version of this review will be going out on next week’s episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…


ABC (Anything But Covid) is a short film by Ugly Bucket, an award-winning physical comedy company based in Liverpool. It’s a very short film – it’s just under nine minutes long – but I have to admit I’ve already watched it a few times, which should serve as a bit of a hint that this is going to be a positive review! Ugly Bucket describe the film as being about ‘the pressures of staying productive in lockdown’. As with A Small Gathering (another Homemakers film I reviewed in a previous post), ABC is a direct response to lockdown, particularly the isolating and disconcerting effects of the ‘stay at home’ message for people living alone.

Directed by Grace Gallagher and Rachael Smart, and featuring Adam Baker, Angelina Cliff, Canice Ward, Mother Crystal, Quinney Barella, Grace Gallagher and Jess Huckerby, ABC is not quite what I was expecting. I knew that Ugly Bucket (who have previously performed at the Greater Manchester Fringe) are clowns, but in a kind of edgy way, and I knew that this film was going to offer a ‘how to’ guide to staying productive during lockdown. But while I knew roughly where the film was going to start – a company of clowns was going to perform physical comedy about keeping busy in lockdown – I wasn’t quite prepared for where it went.

The film begins with a black screen and a vox pops-style voiceover. ‘Lockdown hasn’t actually been that bad for me,’ the voice says, and the black screen slowly fades out to reveal a face, clown make-up smeared, false eyelashes detached, staring directly at the camera (and, of course, at the audience). The face does not look like it belongs to someone who’s having a great lockdown.

The video styles itself as a motivational video to encourage people to pursue productive and creative pass-times at home. To almost maniacally cheerful music, cartoonish performers mime baking, painting, yoga and self-care, while captions – ‘Let’s Bake!’, ‘Let’s Run!’ – appear on the screen in a chirpy font. The voiceovers continue, with people talking about how they’ve discovered skills and talents during lockdown that they didn’t know they had.

The comedy in the first part of the film comes from the gleeful juxtaposition of the upbeat voiceovers and music with the clownish actions of the performers. The baked cake looks revolting; the artwork is clumsy. There’s some gentle mockery of some of the national lockdown pass-times, with a quick shot of something that looks a lot like P.E. With Joe, for instance.

But it’s what happens next that really captured my attention. As the frenetic pace of the ‘productivity’ increases, and the performers begin to look exhausted and overwrought with the efforts, the voiceovers begin to seem more desperate in their insistence on positivity, and there’s a hint that things are going to unravel.


And boy, do they unravel. I’d love to go through the second half of the film in detail, and talk about all the visual imagery, filming techniques and stylistic shifts that occur, but I really do think that would be a spoiler (and I don’t like to give spoilers without warning!).

Suffice to say, the disintegration of the maniacal faux-positivity of the ‘Let’s Go!’ sequences is both arresting and disturbing, and I really wasn’t prepared for just how far the physical performances would mutate, or how they would incorporate elements of horror (including – and this is a warning, not a spoiler – moments that come awfully close to actual body horror). It’s a dazzling escalation, with accomplished performances, but also assured direction and editing bringing the whole piece together so it feels like a coherent piece, rather than a fragmented montage.

ABC – and Ugly Bucket’s work more broadly – is part of the, often dismissed or misunderstood, tradition of clowning. They refer to themselves as being ‘serious about silliness’, but the flip side is that they are also ‘silly about seriousness’. ABC uses the subversive – and often uncomfortable – figure of the clown to unsettle and challenge, while also being a rather daft piece of slapstick that pokes fun at cultural and societal norms. Nevertheless, while Ugly Bucket certainly have their roots in an old tradition, there’s something fresh and new about their work. Their visual style and costuming is one-step removed from the theatrical and circus tradition, with whiteface make-up, curly wigs and sponge noses being replaced by plastic hair pieces, face paint and glitter that look like a sort of cross between a children’s TV character and a SnapChat filter.


While the film definitely lampoons certain pass-times, and comes close to mocking those who engage in them – for instance, the art sequence feels like it’s almost ridiculing those untalented amateurs who believe their lockdown doodles ‘aren’t half bad’ – the comedy here isn’t cruel or derisory. Instead, the film serves as a sort of snapshot of a psyche disturbed by the pressures of staying positive and productive. Whether you choose to see that as an individual or collective psyche is up to you.

In some ways, ABC is a film about boredom. Although the film is (obviously) COVID-inspired, there is little mention of the virus itself, outside of some clips of Boris Johnson announcing the lockdown. The film addresses pandemic-related fears, but it is more fear of boredom than fear of illness and death that is presented here. In fact, the film suggests that it’s not even boredom we need to fear, but the effects of forcing ourselves not to be bored.

As you can tell from this review, I very much enjoyed ABC. It was a surprising – borderline startling, in places – and unsettling take on lockdown concerns, with assured performances and confident direction. It’s a short film, but it packs a real punch, and I’d highly recommend you watch it (and maybe even more than once).

ABC (Anything But Covid) is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information or to book tickets.

Review: A is for… and Accident of Birth (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two more radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: A is for… and Accident of Birth. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on next Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. But here is the blog version…


In a previous post, I gave a bit of introduction to JustOut Stays In, a series of radio plays that have been written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays are currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud. Links are also available on the JustOut Theatre website.

I’ve decided to review the plays in pairs, so today I’m going to be talking about two of the pieces: A is for… by Jilly Sumsion and Accident of Birth by Trevor Suthers. And I’ll start with A is for…


As with Liam Gillies’s Laugh Track, which I reviewed in a previous post, Jilly Sumsion’s A is for… (directed by Ben Wilson) is a very short piece. At just over five and half minutes long, it’s a bit of a microplay. In fact, of the JustOut Stays In plays I’ve listened to so far, this is the one that’s closest to being a monologue. It’s a glimpse into the thoughts of a single character, at a particular moment in time.

That character is Hester, a seamstress (played by Nikki Patel), and the time is 1665. A is for… is set in Eyam, the Derbyshire village that famously quarantined itself to prevent the spread of plague in the seventeenth century. Hester is one of the village residents caught inside this lockdown, and we listen as her thoughts take a dark turn.

But it’s not simply quarantine or plague that is darkening Hester’s world. In the blurb for this play, Sumsion states that it was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, leaving us (I guess) in no doubt as to what A is for. Hester is a woman scorned, and her monologue revels in thoughts of vengeance and retribution, but is also laden with talk of guilt, shame and humiliation. This is compounded by the oppressive religious lessons woven throughout – the only other voice we hear is that of Jude (played by Rob Peters) intoning Christian lessons – which comes to feel rather threatening.

Patel’s Hester is a well-written and well-performed character. The emotional shifts are handled competently, allowing the listener to have sympathy while still feeling discomfort at the story (and the sentiments) that are unfolding. Bitterness is perhaps the emotion that’s most tangible, but this isn’t overstated. There are shades of Browning’s ‘The Laboratory’ throughout – particularly in Hester’s final lines – but Sumsion’s script sidesteps the melodrama and verbosity of Browning’s poem, in favour of drawing out the human emotion behind the drama.

One aspect of A is for… that I particularly enjoyed was the understated way in which parallels were drawn between the quarantine in Eyam, and the current pandemic. This play is far from the only creative response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has sought to make the connection with seventeenth-century Eyam, but Sumsion’s play makes the comparison with a light touch. Lines such as ‘we’d been told to stay indoors’ and ‘soon we may be able to travel’ allow the audience to make a comparison with the 2020 lockdown, but the point isn’t laboured.

The effect of this comparison is to further heighten the situation in which Hester finds herself, and to underline the oppressive nature of the small, closed community (and Hester’s proximity to the source of her bad thoughts). The nods to lockdown guide our understanding and – perhaps – our sympathies.

A is for… is a compelling and well-performed monologue, and I’d definitely recommend you give it a listen.


Now, the second of the pair of plays I’ve chosen for this post is completely different. Trevor Suthers’s Accident of Birth is a two-hander that runs at just over half an hour. The characters are Margaret (played by Barbara Ashworth) and Antony (played by Kieran Kelly), and the play is a conversation between the two.

Margaret and Antony’s relationship is clear from the start. Margaret is Antony’s mother – his birth mother – who gave him up for adoption. Antony, now an adult, is incarcerated in a secure psychiatric unit of some kind (the play’s blurb specifies that it is Broadmoor), for a series of crimes that are never detailed. Antony has a personality disorder (again, the exact nature of this isn’t explained), and he is curious as to whether this is some sort of flaw inherited from his birth parents. It’s also clear that this is the first time Antony has been able to meet Margaret, and so it’s the first time he’s been able to ask the questions that are clearly pressing on his mind.

Accident of Birth is a play about nature vs. nurture, as Antony tries to reconcile the crimes he’s committed, and the personality disorder he’s been diagnosed with, with the happy and loving childhood he experienced with his adoptive parents. More than this though, Suthers’s story explores the very human desire for explanation and meaning – the search for a reason why things (especially bad things) happen. It touches on the fallibility of our memories and the effects of trauma as well.

If all that sounds rather heavy, that’s because it is! There are some big ideas covered in the play. However, a combination of Suthers’s script, which couches the bigger existential questions in anecdotes about bus conductors and wage slips, and Ashworth and Kelly’s performances invites the audience to engage with Margaret and Antony’s meeting on an emotional, rather than simply intellectual, level. Kelly’s Antony is convincingly skittish and demanding – at one point managing to imbue the mundane phrase ‘Fares, please’ with a sense of undefined menace. Ashworth performs Margaret’s lines with a mask of restraint, but there’s a whole world of pain, guilt and fear behind it. While the script focuses on Antony’s story, there are tantalizing hints of Margaret’s own backstory here and there as well.

Credit should also be given to Becky Lennon’s direction and Ben Wilson’s editing here. I’m not sure how – exactly – the recording was done. I know that JustOut Stays In is a lockdown-appropriate, socially-distanced performance, but I was really struck by the sense of proximity that is created here. Whether or not it was recorded this way, I felt as though Margaret and Antony were in the same room, just close enough to touch (though prevented from doing so by the unnamed, silent guard).

Accident of Birth is a narrative about nature, inheritance and the search for answers. Does it provide those answers? Does Antony even ask the right questions? Ah well, you’d have to listen to the play to find that out.

I highly recommend both A is for… and Accident of Birth. The JustOut Stays In plays continue to impress me, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the company have to offer next.

A is for… and Accident of Birth are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Review: Hunting Swans and Laugh Track (JustOut Theatre)

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JustOut Theatre

I’m very pleased to be back to reviewing performances again – despite the fact that live theatre is still on hold due to COVID restrictions. In this post, I’m going to be reviewing two short radio plays by JustOut Theatre Company: Hunting Swans and Laugh Track. I’m going to be broadcasting the radio version of these reviews on Saturday’s edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf, which is back after a not-quite-as-brief-as-I’d-hoped absence on North Manchester FM. But here is the blog version…


JustOut Theatre is a relatively new company, launched just last year in York but currently based in Manchester. The pieces they staged last year were toured around some of the country’s fringe festivals – and regular readers of my reviews will know that I do love fringe theatre.

With social distancing restrictions and the cancellation of all live performance events since March, fringe festivals – including my beloved Greater Manchester Fringe – have been put on hold, so there’s been very limited opportunities to see the work of new and emerging companies like JustOut.

However, JustOut have been working on a lockdown-suitable project to showcase a bit of northern talent, and I’m pleased to say I’m going to be reviewing this project, piece by piece, over the next few weeks.

The project is called JustOut Stays In, and it’s a series of radio plays – or, perhaps more accurately, since they’re not currently being broadcast on the radio, audio dramas – written, directed and produced by northern creatives. The plays vary a bit in length, and vary massively in subject matter and tone – it’s an eclectic assortment – and they’re currently available to listen to, for free, on YouTube and Soundcloud.

I’ve decided to review the plays in pairs, so in this post I’m going to be talking about two of the pieces: Laugh Track by Liam Gillies and Hunting Swans by Ellen J. Baddeley. Both plays are two-handers, but they are really quite different pieces.

First: Hunting Swans


Baddeley’s play is the story of a relationship. And, unusually, it’s a story that begins after the end. Phillip (played by Ewan Mulligan) and India (played by Abi Cameron) have split up before we even meet them. The play begins with India returning to the house they briefly shared for a (possibly) final conversation. From there, we are taken through some short flashbacks, little glimpses into the relationship these two young people once had.

The couple meet by a lake in a swan sanctuary, and (as the title suggests) swans are a recurring motif throughout the play. Swans, we are told a couple of times, mate for life, and so appear to be a romantic emblem of a burgeoning relationship. However, as we know from the opening, this relationship somehow failed, lending the motif a bittersweet tone.

Phillip and India are contrasting characters, in some ways, with Phillip’s rather selfish idealism sometimes clashing with India’s pragmatism. At other points, though, they appear to be very well-matched. There is a sadness is both characters, which comes through subtly in Baddeley’s script with moments of backstory and exposition being brief and quickly laughed off by the two characters. Added to this, despite the tender age of their characters (they are both in their early twenties) Mulligan and Cameron’s performance give them a maturity at times, making each character sometimes seem older than their years. Of course, part of the sadness comes from the fact that these moments of maturity don’t happen in sync, highlighting the fact that Phillip and India are no longer walking in step – or perhaps they never were.

Shannon Raftery’s direction is assured, and the play is well-paced and unhurried. It’s just over twenty-four minutes long, but it feels like it tells a much bigger story than its run-time suggests. And yet, at the same, it’s a very small story (and that’s not a criticism). I don’t want to say too much about the way the story develops, but I was left with the feeling afterwards that this was a moment in Phillip and India’s lives, and that things would soon move on. I guess, if the beginning starts after the end, then the ending is really the beginning.

Hunting Swans is an engaging piece of drama with just the right amount of melancholy wistfulness. It’s testament to the writing, performances and direction that I felt like I knew Phillip and India (and cared about them) in such a short space of time.

Moving on to the second play, and an even shorter running time! Liam Gillies’s Laugh Track is just over seven minutes long, and I was concerned when I saw that that this wouldn’t really qualify as a ‘play’.


I was wrong. Laugh Track is a fully realized piece of drama. Yes – I think it might have potential to be extended, but it actually works very well at the shorter length.

Laugh Track opens with two women (played by Julia Romano and Jessica Porter) chatting about dating and relationship disasters. Their humour is broad and a little bit stereotypically northern, with each line building towards a series of blunt punchlines. And with each punchline comes that old comedy standby: the laugh track. And what an irritating laugh track it is too. I’ll freely admit that on the first blast of it, I was wary about continuing to listen. The sort of comedies that use laugh tracks are generally not the sort of comedies I like.

However. All is not what it seems. And it is very definitely worth enduring the initial distaste at the sound effect for a quite surprising little journey into very strange territory. And the sort of journeys that take you into strange territory are absolutely the sort of journeys I like.

The brevity – or rather, conciseness – of Gillies’s script means that we aren’t given any background or context for what unfolds. The JustOut website suggests that the two women’s performance is part of a ‘television sitcom’, but I was actually imagining a radio broadcast.

Laugh Track is a good example of a radio play, rather than a play that has been adapted for radio format. While it’s possible to imagine Hunting Swans being performed live on a theatre stage, Laugh Track is very much a piece of audio drama. The format is used to good effect, and the story itself relies on the denial of the visual to conjure a world in the listener’s imagination that would, in fact, be weakened by a visual representation. Liam White’s direction and – significantly – Ben Wilson’s editing help to pace and punctuate the performances in a way that unsettles and entertains.

I really don’t want to give too much away about this one! But Laugh Track is a compelling story with an original and surprising idea at its heart. The way the performance unfolds ensures that an entire ‘world’ appears in the listener’s mind, with only a few explicit prompts. It uses the audio-only format to make suggestive comments about the nature of comedy and the deceptive comfort it provides. And it appealed to my own personal tastes as well: I’m generally not a fan of comedy horror, but I do enjoy horror about comedy. There’s something very disturbing about the contrast between the mundane dialogue and asinine laugh track and… well… what comes next.

The fact that I have spent more time thinking about Laugh Track than I did listening to it should be an indication that I strongly recommend this one. It’s definitely a story that lingers with you afterwards. But I also recommend checking out Hunting Swans, and I think it’s to JustOut Theatre’s credit that the series contains two pieces that are so different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the JustOut Stays In series to find out what else it has to offer.

Hunting Swans and Laugh Track are part of the JustOut Stays In series of radio plays. They are available to listen to on the JustOut Theatre YouTube and Soundcloud pages. Please visit the JustOut Theatre website for more information.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Review: A Small Gathering (Ad Infinitum)

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HOME, Manchester

Prior to lockdown, you may remember that I regularly posted theatre reviews on this blog, usually ahead of broadcasting a review of the production on my show, Hannah’s Bookshelf, on North Manchester FM. The last theatre review I published was – as you might imagine – back in February, and Hannah’s Bookshelf has been on an unfortunately prolonged hiatus since January.

So it gives me a lot of pleasure to be back reviewing performance pieces on here, and also to be able to say that a radio version of this review will be broadcast on Saturday, as Hannah’s Bookshelf is returning to the airwaves with a slightly different format (which you can read about here).

If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll perhaps know that I often reviewed theatre and multi-media productions staged at HOME in Manchester. Sadly, like all theatres, HOME has had to close its doors during lockdown – though plans are afoot for its reopening in September, and you should check out their website for information about those plans. However, during lockdown, HOME have been putting out a programme of digitally-accessible content that can be enjoyed from the safety of your own home.

One part of this programme is the Homemakers series. The website describes this series as ‘new commissions inviting artists to create new works at home, for an audience who are also at home’. These funded projects invite artists to make creative use of COVID restrictions to produce art in different media, and that use different strategies to engage their audience. You can book tickets to view or take part in these creative experiences via the HOME website, and most are on a pay-what-you-can basis (though there is a recommended ticket price, which will help HOME to continue to survive and plan for the future).

I’m going to be taking a look at a number of the Homemakers commissions over the next few weeks, and reviewing them on here and on Hannah’s Bookshelf.

So, that’s by way of any introduction to the series, time for my first review in six months… A Small Gathering.


A Small Gathering is a trio of short films, created by Bristol-based theatre company Ad Infinitum, which deal with the fears, obsessions and compulsions of lockdown. I was drawn to this one by Ad Infinitum’s own description of the piece: they describe it as ‘a triptych of shorts served 2m apart’.

The first film of the three – or the first section of the triptych – is ‘Mr Pink’, created by Nir Paldi and George Mann. It’s a stylistic – almost garishly so – performance about the effects of isolation. As with the other two shorts, ‘Mr Pink’ has no dialogue, but makes use of sound effects and music to convey both emotion and context. (Sound design and composition for all three films is by Sam Halmarack.)


‘Mr Pink’ presents us with a man alone in lockdown (performed by Paldi). The film throws a spotlight (quite literally, at times) on the isolating effects of social distancing. The man’s escalating neurosis is performed physically, manifesting in theatrical movements, mime and exaggerated facial expressions, thrown into stark focus through Mann’s direction, and also through unsettling and jarring use of lighting and editing effects.

The man primps and preens himself as though preparing for a gaudy night out, but as he steps out of his front door, warning messages flash on screen and an alarm sounds. It is not safe to go out, and the man maniacally washes his hands as though trying to purge the mistake from his mind.

As Paldi’s man remains indoors, attempting to occupy himself with some sort of isolated entertainment, further fears manifest. The spectre of death is increasingly intrusive, and jittery neurosis dissolves into abject terror as the film progresses. The flashes of government warning messages evoke dystopia, but it’s through the use of lighting and camera angles that the dystopian atmosphere is truly created. The man is, we gather, in a house. But it feels so very small, dark and claustrophobic. There are no home comforts here, just a single featureless sofa and an anxiety-inducing bathroom sink.

‘Mr Pink’ is not a subtle film. Its messages – like the authoritarian slogans – are writ large on the screen. At times, it veers into being rather heavy-handed: a particular sequence involving soap and very suggestive facial expressions and sound effects, for instance, is rather blunt in its commentary on the fetishization of handwashing. Nevertheless, as a comment on the stifling effects of fear – particularly during the early days of the lockdown – it makes its point in a stylish and arresting way.

The second film, ‘Rewilding’, is also stylish and arresting, though in different ways. ‘Rewilding’ is directed and performed by Deb Pugh, and is also a dialogue-free performance that focuses on the manifestation of an individual’s lockdown fears.


In this piece – which, in my opinion, is the strongest of the three – a woman is alone on a houseboat, trying to work up the courage to go out and do some shopping. As in ‘Mr Pink’, there is something stopping her from going outside, but here it is much more clearly a psychological barrier. She checks her shopping list, checks her appearance, but then repetitively makes cups of tea and (of course) washes her hands. The camera offers us repeated close-ups of Pugh’s face, but the exaggerated neurotic expressions of ‘Mr Pink’ are replaced with a lingering and pervasive sense of worry and concern. This is intercut with – again, a little heavy-handed – glimpses of ‘outside’, where fears are manifested in something physical.

I think the reason why ‘Rewilding’ is the strongest of the three shorts is that it offers something a little different – unlike the other two pieces, we are reminded at the end of human connection. The final moments of the film, which I found surprisingly moving, offer a gentle reminder that, isolated as we might feel during lockdown, there are still very important reasons why we might have to do battle with our fears and go outside. Perhaps it’s reflective of my own experiences, but I found the ending ‘Rewilding’ to be something of an antidote to the intensely solipsistic experience of the other two films.

The third film, ‘Cynthia’s Party’, returns us, in some ways, to the concerns of ‘Mr Pink’. Directed and performed by Charlotte Dubery, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ presents us with a person alone in a house, attempting to entertain themselves in the absence of company – or, indeed, the outside world. Again, the psychological manifests as physical, though the focus here is on the dehumanizing effects of extended isolation, rather than the immediate fear of death and disease.


Of the three, ‘Cynthia’s Party’ is the least explicit about its COVID context. There’s no compulsive handwashing here, and no suggestion at all of the possibility of leaving the house. Instead, it’s a portrait of a fractured psyche that ends on a somewhat bleak and hopeless note. Like the other films, it’s both stylish and stylistic, hitting some standard horror notes, while also maintaining a disorienting sense of the surreal. Dubery’s performance jolts between maniacal and terrified, which, along with the unabashed trip to the Uncanny Valley, makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing.

I referred to this piece as a ‘trio’ of films, but I think Ad Infinitum’s own word ‘triptych’ is a very apt description. Each of the three films is a complete piece in its own right, but they should be viewed as ‘hinged together’, not only by their shared context, but their shared themes and the stylistic devices and techniques they use to explore these.

Overall, A Small Gathering offers a creative and artistic response to the psychological effects of lockdown. Neuroses loom large, and the piece is occasionally heavy-handed in its approach, but as a stylistic and creative look at some of the (possibly national) obsessions and fears that have surfaced during lockdown, it works very well. Clever use of lighting, direction and sound design create a powerful atmosphere, but also serve to further ‘hinge’ the pieces together with repeated motifs and effects.

A Small Gathering is a short piece, but one that packs a lot into its running time. I’d recommend you check it out, along with the other Homemakers commissions, on the HOME website.

A Small Gathering is available to view via the HOME website until 31st December 2020. Please visit the HOME website for more information and to book tickets.

My Year in Books 2020: July

Continuing with my monthly round-up of the books I've read for pleasure, and I think I've definitely got out of the slump I've been in. I read more in July than I've been doing, and it's been a bit of a diverse mix as well.

In case you're curious, here are my reviews from the past few months: January, February, March, April, May, June

Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain (2019)


The last book I read in June was Jo Spain’s Six Wicked Reasons, and I decided just to go straight into another of her standalone novels. These posts make it look like there was a gap between me reading these two books, but actually I picked up Dirty Little Secrets immediately after finishing Six Wicked Reasons. The story takes place in a gated community – with the slightly unfortunate name of Withered Vale – where, as you can probably guess, affluent façades hide… well, dirty little secrets. Olive Collins, a middle-aged woman who lived in Withered Vale since before the other houses were even built, is dead. And, possibly worse, no one even noticed. Her body lay undisturbed in her cottage for months before she was found and a police investigation launched. Dirty Little Secrets is told from multiple perspectives, switching between the neighbours (who pretty much all have something to hide), the police officers investigating, and – somewhat unsettlingly – Olive herself, who offers a commentary on her neighbours from beyond the grave. I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Six Wicked Reasons, though the two books have much in common. I’m not sure the minor subplots involving the police officers really added anything either, and I found those chapters to be a bit of a distraction. I struggled to engage with the characters here, except Olive, and I did find it quite hard to believe that everyone in Withered Vale had a devastating secret to hide!

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908)


I fell in love with A Room with a View when I studied it for A-Level. I adored everything about it – and even ended up going for a short holiday to Florence with my mum just after I finished my A-Levels, so that I could visit some of the places in Forster’s novel (with a Baedeker, I’m afraid). I haven’t reread the book for many years, but this month I had an afternoon with some friends where we watched the film adaptation, and afterwards I just had to reread the book. To say that A Room with a View is the story of a young, naïve Englishwoman who is transformed by a trip to Florence (and by an unconventional young man she meets there) is to do the novel a massive disservice. A Room with a View is a book about beauty and the ability to perceive it. One of the things I love is that – ultimately – not very much happens, and nothing very serious occurs, and yet every single incident, every object and place that’s described, feels imbued with an incredible significance and profundity. Buying a set of touristy postcards of famous artworks becomes a transcendent and liberating moment; unfurling a square of waterproof fabric speaks volumes about how we relate to place. Such shallow, mundane things hint at incredible depth and meaning. (I reread my A-Level copy, by the way, so also got to enjoy 16-year-old me’s pencilled notes and remember my first experience of reading Forster’s novel.)

Magpie by Sophie Draper (2019)


The next book I read this month was one I gave my mum for Christmas, and which she lent me after she’d finished it. I read Sophie Draper’s novel Cuckoo at Christmas in 2018 and loved it. Magpie is a slightly different type of story, though it has much in common with Draper’s debut novel. Magpie is the story of Duncan and Claire, an unhappily married couple who have a teenage son called Joe and a dog called Arthur. The story moves back and forth between Duncan and Claire’s perspectives, and also shifts in time, with some chapters marked ‘Before’ and some ‘After’. From the beginning, it seems clear what ‘Before’ and ‘After’ refer to – Duncan and Claire’s marriage is falling apart, and Claire is about to take action to end the relationship – but as the story develops, it seems there is more to it than that. I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Cuckoo. The story’s set in Derbyshire, near a reservoir (that was created by flooding a village) and an abandoned hall and estate. I enjoyed the glimpses of the reservoir and the dilapidated hall, but there just wasn’t the same sense of pervasive atmosphere as in Draper’s first novel. My favourite part of the book was Joe, Duncan and Claire’s son, and the bizarre, understated menace of something he finds while metal-detecting. However, the main story of Duncan and Claire moved slowly, and I was a bit frustrated with it at times.

Phoenix in Obsidian by Michael Moorcock (1970)


And now… a little bit of a change… The next few books on my list are a bit of a mixed-bag – and deliberately so. In May, when I was struggling a bit to enjoy reading during the lockdown, I ordered a book bundle from Lyall’s Bookshop in Todmorden, who were offering to put together genre bundles or selections based on readers’ preferences. I decided I wanted something a bit different, though, so I simply asked them to ‘Surprise me’ – I wanted to pay my money and take my chance. And they did not disappoint! What arrived was a selection of eight wildly different titles (only one of which I’d read before), and I’ve finally had chance to jump in and get started. The first book in the bundle was Phoenix in Obsidian, one of the stories in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series/cycle. I’ve read at least one Moorcock story before (when I was a teenager), but this is the first story I’ve read set in his ‘multiverse’ (and Moorcock was the first author to use that word, by the way). Phoenix in Obsidian is very much early-70s SFF, made all the more disorienting by the fact I’ve not read the preceding book. It’s kinda trippy futuristic stuff with some almost-Arthurian heroics in the mix. I won’t say that it's converted me to the genre, but it was a fun read (if weird) and definitely not the sort of thing I usually choose. All-in-all, a good start to my random reading selection.

Moll Cutpurse: Her True History by Ellen Galford (1984)


This month is obviously a month for rereading books I loved when I was a teenager. The second book from my Lyall’s Bookshop bundle was one that I’d read before, and unbeknownst to Lyall’s (unless they’re doing some black magic over there) was one that swept me up in a wave of nostalgia. Moll Cutpurse – real name Mary Frith – was a seventeenth-century ‘character’. She was undoubtedly a thief and a fence, probably a drunk, possibly a madam, and almost definitely not (no matter what the legend says) a highway robber. She was also a pipe-smoker who was known for dressing in men’s clothing. I had a bit of an obsession with Moll Cutpurse when I was a teenager, and spent a lot of time reading historical records and contemporaneous stories of Moll’s notoriety (she was mentioned by Shakespeare, and was the eponymous character of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl). I was, admittedly, a weird teenager. And of course, I read Galford’s novel about Moll. The book is a romanticized imagining of Moll’s career through the eyes of her (fictional) love Bridget, the apothecary. Galford’s Moll rampages through Elizabethan – and then, later (and less joyously) early Stuart – England, meeting with travelling actors, criminals and Romanies, and exercising her own dubious (but rigid) moral judgement on witch-hunters, plague-profiteers and bad men. I loved this book – and I loved Galford’s version of Moll – when I was younger, and it was an absolute joy to revisit as an adult. I’ve missed Moll Cutpurse.

The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish (2020)


Slight pause on my Lyall’s bundle now. The next book I read this month was by Louise Candlish. I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for a while, and apparently my mum’s friend has also recommended them to her, so we’re accidentally in sync! I got the eBook edition of The Other Passenger, because the blurb looked intriguing. It’s the story of two London couples – Gen X Jamie and Clare, and Millennial Kit and Melia – who become friends when Melia gets a job at the high-end estate agent where Clare works. Really, though, this is Jamie’s story. He and Kit make their daily commute together on the Thames riverbus. One morning, just after Christmas 2019, Jamie is intercepted by the police as he leaves the boat. They want to talk to him about Kit, who’s been missing for several days. The interrogation makes Jamie reflect on his relationship with the younger man, and the story flashes back to the beginning of their friendship. And there are secrets that will unfold… obviously. Candlish has been credited with creating the sub-subgenre of ‘property noir’, and that’s certainly an apt descriptor of The Other Passenger. Property – and jealousy about property – looms large throughout, but the book is also heavy on the noir. For all its modern concerns about property prices, income and the rat race, there’s something quite old-school about Candlish’s tale. Yes, it’s a bit larger-than-life at times, but I guess the best noir always is. I enjoyed this one.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

My Year in Books 2020: June

Fingers crossed, I think I might be out of my slump! Hooray! For the first time since the lockdown started, I feel like I've really been able to get back into reading for pleasure. I've read quite a few novels this month - way more than I've been doing - and I found myself getting lost in the stories much more than I've been doing. I'm very pleased about this, as I was starting to think I was never going to enjoy reading again.

As always, here are my reviews of the books I read earlier this year: January, February, March, April, May

And here are my reviews of the books I read in June:

Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain's Last Urban Wilderness by Gareth E. Rees (2019)


Last month, I saw an intriguing retweet from a Twitter account called Unofficial Britain, which was about a visit to a car park. Linked to the tweet were details of Car Park Life, Gareth E. Rees’s ‘portrait of Britain’s unexplored urban wilderness’. Something about the tweet and the description of the book had me hooked, and I immediately ordered a copy from the publisher. I was not disappointed. Car Park Life is an exploration of a series of British car parks – retail and chain stores only, as outlined in Rees’s manifesto early in the book – that takes in strange decorative features, hints of criminal and sexual misbehaviour, odd reclamations and reimaginings of history (dinosaur footprints at Asda, a steel sculpture of a Bronze Age man at Holiday Inn), trolleys, litter and ashtrays. The book is a sort of psychogeography, but with a darker, more self-reflective tone in places. It reminded me of Jon Bounds and Danny Smith’s Pier Review (which I read last October and loved). Like Pier Review, Car Park Life transforms a rather mundane feature of the British landscape into a ‘heart of darkness’. The book is as much about the power the landscape exerts over the author as it is about the landscape itself. And, like Pier Review, the book imbues its subject with a profundity it can never fully explain. It’s a rare treat to read a book that not only doesn’t give you answers, but leaves you with questions you didn’t know you could have.

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories, edited by Catherine Burns (2014)


Back to my charity shop to-read pile for the next one… I picked this one up in Aberystwyth last year. I hadn’t heard of The Moth, a storytelling event series that began in NYC in the 90s. Participants are invited to tell ‘true’ stories of their own lives and experiences (though with a bit of direction and editorial advice). This book is a collection of fifty stories that have been told at Moth events, arranged thematically. As you might imagine, the stories are relatively short, making this a real pick-and-mix of a collection. There are stories about love (of all kinds) and relationships, life-changing experiences, grief and death. I have to admit it is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are a bit ‘literati’ for my tastes (bull-fighting with Ernest Hemingway was not one of my favourites). Others are quirky little slices of unusual lives (Mike Massimino’s story of fixing the Hubble telescope was pretty memorable). Of them all, it’s Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels’s story absolutely took the prize for me. Painful, moving, funny and ultimately life-affirming, it’s a story that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The beauty of a collection like this is that each reader will find something different to enjoy within the pages, and they’ll have differing appreciations of the various styles, tones and techniques that the storytellers use. I’ll admit it’s not quite as profound as I’d expected, but it’s an enjoyable selection of off-beat and (generally) well-told stories.

After the Accident by Kerry Wilkinson (2020)


As I’ve said a couple of times over the past few months, I’ve been really struggling with reading during the lockdown, and I’ve been struggling to get lost in stories. My mum’s been lending me books she’s enjoyed, and the pile keeps getting bigger. I decided just to jump straight in and read the one on the top. I didn’t read anything about After the Accident (even the blurb) – which makes it sounds like I put incredible trust in my mum’s recommendations! – because I thought it would be cool just to go in without any expectations. And I think I was right to do that, I think it added to my enjoyment. After the Accident is told in an unusual narrative style. It’s a series of snippets from interviews with a family group (and a couple of additional, periphery characters) conducted – surprisingly enough – after an accident. The McGinley family have gone to a Greek island for a holiday, but on the first night one member of the family is found unconscious after falling from a cliff. The style of the book is what really made it for me. It’s to Wilkinson’s credit that so many different voices, appearing in such short snippets without description or action, can come alive as an engaging and vivid cast of characters. As you may know, I’m a fan of unreliable narrators, ambiguous narration and uncertain endings, so I loved the fact that I couldn’t trust a single word any of the characters was saying!

Lies by T.M. Logan (2017)


I decided after I read After the Accident that I probably needed to just go for another thriller to help me get back into reading (and enjoying) novels. This was an impulse e-Book purchase with that specifically in mind. Again, I think this was the right choice. I actually read Lies in a single sitting – something I’ve not done for ages. It’s a well-crafted domestic thriller, with a few twists and turns (though I did see the ending, in part, coming). Joe Lynch is a happily married family man and schoolteacher. One day, after picking his little boy up for school, he spots his wife’s car and decides to say hello to her. That one insignificant decision leads to a discovery that makes Joe question everything he thinks he knows about his life. Or, at least, it makes him begin to question it. Actually, he still takes a few things for granted that perhaps he shouldn’t! I enjoyed this one; it was a fun ride, and Joe is an engaging (if slightly foolish) protagonist. I will admit there were times when I thought the machinations of his conniving nemesis were a little bit OTT – verging on ‘super-villain’ at one point – but the book stayed just on the right side of plausible. I also loved the way technology, specifically social media, was handled with a skilful blend of mundanity and menace. Overall, this was a well-written and fun read that kept me entertained. I think this one was a good choice.

The Other Wife by Claire McGowan (2019)


Next – and I’m not sure this is something I’m proud of – I just let Amazon make the decision for me. I picked the next two books I read this month from the suggestions that followed when I read Lies. That did mean I ended up with a couple of domestic noir thrillers, but that’s the way it goes. I read Claire McGowan’s What You Did a few months ago, and I enjoyed it, so I thought I’d give another of her books a go. I think I probably enjoyed The Other Wife even more than What You Did (probably), but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think I just found one of the characters really engaging. The Other Wife is told from multiple perspectives (of course it is – no thriller worth its salt has just one narrator nowadays!). In the first part, we meet Nora, a widow in her forties who has been forced to sell the family home and move to a rented cottage after her husband’s death. The cottage is next-door to the one occupied by Suzi and her husband Nick. Suzi is pregnant, and feeling guilty about a bad thing she did. The third narrator is Elle, an insecure woman who worries that her husband might be cheating on her. These three stories come together in a not-altogether-surprising way at the end of the first part, but The Other Wife still has a couple of surprises in store – not least an unexpected character arc.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton (2019)


I read Fiona Barton’s The Child back when I started doing these monthly mini-review posts. I think it was one of the first books I reviewed, and I seem to remember enjoying it. The Suspect isn’t quite as intriguing as The Child, but it has its moments. It also has its problems. The story centres around two teenage girls, Alex and Rosie, who go missing in Thailand. Journalist Kate Waters (the protagonist of The Child and The Widow) decides to write something on the case, after being contacted by her old acquaintance D.I. Bob Sparkes. Sparkes thinks the case may be of interest to Waters, as her own son Jake is currently working in Thailand. (Jake’s departure, against his mother’s wishes, was a subplot in The Child). As you can probably imagine, Alex and Rosie’s disappearance turns out to be much more serious than just two teenagers forgetting to phone home – leading both Waters and Sparkes to travel to Thailand to investigate. While the plot does have its charms, it does rest on a rather easy to guess ‘twist’ and a bit of a massive coincidence (and it also contains a massive spoiler for The Widow, if you haven’t read that one). Worse, though, is the portrayal of every Thai character (all minor) as corrupt, lazy and (borderline) criminal and the clichéd depictions of the teen girls. Rosie, in particular, is a broad-brush portrait that really could’ve done with some depth or nuance. Overall, this one was a bit disappointing.

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain (2020)


You might have picked up from previous posts that my mum and I are both big Jo Spain fans. I saw on Twitter that the next book in the Tom Reynolds series is out soon, and when I went to check the publication date, I spotted a standalone novel of hers I hadn’t read. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy The Confession as much as the Tom Reynolds books, so I was a little bit unsure about Six Wicked Reasons. Happy to say though, I really enjoyed this one. I found it utterly engrossing and got completely lost in the story – and I didn’t see the ending coming (though I loved it when it did). This is the story of the Lattimer family, a slightly snobby, kind of wealthy, very middle-class clan. Parents Frazer and Kathleen have six children – James, Ellen, Kate, Adam, Ryan and Clio – who each have their own demons to battle growing up. In 2008 (ten years earlier), Adam Lattimer walks out on his family and isn’t heard from for a decade. Six Wicked Reasons begins with Adam’s surprise return to the family home and a fatal accident that occurs at the reunion party. Spain then takes us back through the lives of the Lattimer children, and their relationships with their parents, as the truth of what happened when Adam unexpectedly returned is pieced together. Some stylish characterization, and a lot of cheekily unreliable narration, make for a compelling tale with just the right amount of melodrama.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

My Year in Books 2020: May

It's another short post from me this month. I'm still really struggling to read for pleasure during the lockdown (and, as you'll have seen, I haven't been able to write any other blog posts either). I started three books in May that I haven't finished yet, but I did manage to read three novels in a single weekend in the middle of the month. This post is just about the novels I actually finished in May (the others will have to wait until another time.

As always, in case you're curious, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March, April

The House of Lyall by Doris Davidson (2000)


I decided to have a weekend of reading books from my ‘random charity shop purchases’ pile. The House of Lyall was the first one I picked up off the pile. I knew nothing about it – and I’d never even heard of the author before – but I bought it at a charity book sale raising money for a local community group. Davidson’s book is a family saga (not normally a genre I read) set around Aberdeen, and it starts with the story of Marion Cheyne, a young girl who runs away from service and her family to begin a new life. Marion arrives in Aberdeen with nothing but the money she’s stolen from her former employer, but she soon falls on her feet and starts to build a new identity for herself. The story starts in 1894, but we follow her (and her family) through to 1955. As I say, this isn’t a genre I’m very familiar with, but I enjoyed the first part of the story. Young Marion isn’t a particularly likable character, but there’s something sympathetic and intriguing about her (and I don’t really need my heroines to be likable to enjoy their stories). As the story progressed, though, I became a bit frustrated with it. The pace was uneven, and it felt like we were rushed through far too much story in the second and third parts of the novel. Perhaps it should have been a trilogy? I struggled to follow/believe character motivations in the later chapters, unfortunately.

The Ambleside Alibi by Rebecca Tope (2013)


The next book on my charity pile was this one, which I bought at a booksale for a local care home. Again, I wasn’t familiar with the author, but I bought it simply because it’s set in Cumbria. What I didn’t know was that this is the second book in Tope’s Lake District crime series. However, that wasn’t too much of a problem, as there are only minor references to the first book in this one (and none of them are spoilers). As I haven’t read the first book, I had to ‘get to know’ the characters here, but that also wasn’t a problem. Weirdly, like The House of Lyall, this was another book that started really well, but disappointed me in the second half. I loved the introduction to what appeared to be an intriguing little mystery – florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown delivers a bunch of flowers to an elderly lady, which claim to be from a granddaughter she didn’t know existed. Shortly afterwards, another elderly lady is found murdered in her home. Are the two incidents connected? And how come Simmy has been dragged into both? I loved the sense of place that Tope evokes here, and the puzzle looked like it would be fascinating. Unfortunately, the book takes an odd turn part way through, and ultimately becomes rather far-fetched and – dare I say it? – silly. The real no-no for me is that no one really solves the mystery – the culprit just dramatically makes themselves known. A bit frustrating.

The Girl in the Painted Caravan: Memories of a Romany Childhood by Eva Petulengro (2011)


This was the last book I read during my charity shop weekend. And it’s the one I enjoyed the most (though not for the reasons I expected). I bought this one in a charity shop in Blackpool, as it seemed appropriate to buy a book by a Petulengro in Blackpool. Turns out Eva Petulengro made her name reading fortunes in Brighton, not Blackpool, but let’s not worry about that. Petulengro’s memoir is ostensibly a story of the lost Romany culture into which the author was born. And there are some charming (and deeply romanticized) details about vardos (caravans), horses and hawking pegs – all viewed through thoroughly rose-tinted glasses. But although that’s the aspect on which the book was marketed – and online reviews show it’s the aspect most people wanted to read about – there’s another story here that I found much more interesting. The book actually begins with a chapter set in 1964, where Eva reads the palms of (two of) The Beatles. It’s the story of how a young Romany girl, born in a traditional caravan to a travelling family, ended up as the clairvoyant darling of the Swinging Sixties. This story reveals much about Eva’s family’s showmanship, and along the way it encompasses Billy Butlin’s Skegness amusement park, some shrewd business decisions, and the constant evolution of working-class leisure activities. It’s not actually the story of the seaside resort of the fairground, but rather a glimpse into one part of the periphery. And what a delightful glimpse it is.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

My Year in Books 2020: April

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read. Like last month, I've really struggled to do much reading for pleasure. I read four novels in April, which was one more than last month, but I'm still definitely reading less than usual. I did have one really nice surprise this month, with a book that I got completely lost in (first time that's happened since the lockdown started).

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March

And here are my reviews of the books I read in April...

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (1998)


I picked up this one at a book sale to raise money for a local community group. I generally like Ruth Rendell’s stuff – though I tend to prefer the books she published as Barbara Vine – but this was one I hadn’t read before. It’s an unusual narrative: three characters are introduced who seem to have no connection at all to one another. We begin with the story of Teddy Grex, or rather we begin with an introduction to the two people who will become the parents of Teddy Grex. They’re a strange and not very likable couple, who produce a strange and not very likable son. Teddy grows up in squalor, but craving beauty, and his parents’ neglect leaves him utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. Alongside Teddy’s story is that of Francine, a young woman who witnessed her mother’s murder as a child. Francine lives under the shadow of her stepmother Julia, who is determined to ‘protect’ her. And then hovering around Teddy and Francine is Harriet, a woman who was once lover to a rockstar. Harriet was immortalized with her former beau in a famous painting, but now lives in a sort of self-obsessed loneliness with a deeply unlikable husband (spoiler alert: almost all the characters are unlikable!). The really satisfying bit of A Sight for Sore Eyes comes when these three disparate stories come together. It’s not quite a collision, more an inexorable convergence. I enjoyed this one, but it’s got a very dark and cynical heart.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)


I genuinely don’t know where I got this book from – which seems almost fitting, given the plot. I was sorting out some boxes of books that I’d stored away in the attic a while ago, and it was just… there. I don’t remember buying it or being given it. Night Film just appeared in my house at some point. But I’m glad it did – I really enjoyed this one. Night Film is a thriller with supernatural undertones (overtones?). Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter (who clearly wants to be the hero in his very own film noir). McGrath had a brush in the past with illusive and enigmatic film director Stanislas Cordova, which left him with his career in tatters and a hefty legal bill. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a run-down warehouse, McGrath thinks this might be his chance to pick up the story again. The trouble is, no one will admit to having ever met Cordova, the reclusive director of a series of controversial films, and few people are interested in helping the disgraced reporter. Two unlikely sidekicks emerge – Hopper, a charismatic but lost young man who McGrath meets at the site of Ashley’s death, and Nora, a coat-check girl who may have been one of the last people to see Ashley alive – and McGrath begins an investigation that will take him to some very weird places. Night Film is gripping, noir-ish fun, and the legends that surround Cordova are surprisingly believable as Hollywood mythology.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly (2017)


Another book that just randomly appeared in my house. I’ve seen mention of He Said/She Said a few times when I’ve been reading domestic noir, as Erin Kelly blurbed a number of the books I read last year. It’s also a title that pops up on lists of ‘mind-blowing twists’ and ‘unreliable narrators’. I didn’t know I actually had a copy until I was sorting out some boxes in the attic. I think I must have got this one at a charity shop at some point. Sadly, not everything out of the attic boxes has impressed as much as Night Film. He Said/She Said was a bit of a disappointment, and it contains no mind-blowing twists and an unsuccessful unreliable narrator. Laura and Kit met at university. Kit is obsessed with solar eclipses. When they’re at a festival in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse, they disturb the rape of a woman called Beth and are later called as witnesses at the trial. Afterwards, Beth appears to go mad, which makes Laura start to doubt her story. There’s no mystery, no surprise, and little doubt as to what happened in Cornwall. But, at the end (and there have been no earlier hints), Kit reveals he’s been lying all along and that he slept with Beth the night before the rape, and then made it look like she was mad by setting fire to their flat while Laura was asleep. And then, I don’t know, he went to see another eclipse.

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (2020)


I bought this one – newly published this year – for the same reasons as a lot of people. The premise is just irresistible. Beth (for reasons that will become clear later on) stops by the house of Lewis and Flora Braid, once her close friends. Beth hasn’t seen the Braids and their children for twelve years (again, that will become clearer later on). Imagine her surprise when she spies Flora getting out of the car with her children… but the children haven’t aged a single day! Thomas and Emily Braid look exactly like they did when Beth last saw them. How could I resist reading this one to find out the explanation? Sophie Hannah is a good writer, and I’ve found her other books readable and enjoyable (though not, admittedly, among my favourites). I also trusted that there wouldn’t be a supernatural ‘twist’ to this one, based on what I’ve read of her work. Sadly, though, Haven’t They Grown is a bit of a let-down. There’s a lot to enjoy – Beth’s relationship with her teen daughter Zannah is really well-done, for instance – but unfortunately I think Hannah wrote herself into a corner with that amazing premise. There really is no possible (sensible) explanation for why Thomas and Emily haven’t aged in twelve years, and so instead we get a rather silly and implausible one. I read it in a single sitting, but was left at the end with a whole host of ‘But hang on! If that’s… then what about…?’ questions.

Monday, 6 April 2020

My Year in Books 2020: March

So... this post is a little late, and a little short. I probably don't need to explain why, do I? Looking at social media, it seems lots of people have been reading loads during the coronavirus lockdown, but I just haven't been able to. A combination of working-from-home stress and a struggle to concentrate has left me finding it very hard to just lose myself in a book. I'm hoping I can get my reading mojo back soon, but for now here are my reviews of the three novels I read in March.

In case you're interested, here's a catch-up on my other posts so far this year: January, February

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne (1931)


As you may remember from previous posts, my mother-in-law has been keeping me well supplied with British Library Crime Classics over the years. I save the Christmas-themed ones for December (naturally), but this month I was in the mood for a couple of the less festive titles. Murder of a Lady is subtitled A Scottish Mystery, as it takes place in a gloomy old castle in the Highlands. Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan Castle, has been found stabbed to death… in a locked room. Inspector Dundas is called in to investigate, and he’s soon joined by Wynne’s amateur detective Eustace Hailey. There’s a pervasive air of menace around Duchlan Castle, as well as references to local superstitions about evil fish creatures. More interestingly (for me, anyway), there are contradictory statements about the character of the deceased. Was Mary Gregor a paragon of selfless virtue who devoted her life to looking after others? Or was she more of a controlling puritan? Wynne’s novel is certainly carefully plotted, but it lacks the deeply immersive sense of place that characterizes many of the BL Crime Classics. There are a lot of comments on the character of ‘the Highlands’, but I didn’t get a really strong sense of Duchlan Castle. I found the character of Mary Gregor quite intriguing though, and I enjoyed the way the family’s past is slowly – and reluctantly – revealed. Fans of Golden Age crime might raise an eyebrow at the final explanation, however… you have been warned!

Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Croft (1938)


Another BL Crime Classic next, but this is quite a different type of novel to Murder of a Lady. As is explained in Martin Edwards’s excellent introduction, Freeman Wills Crofts wrote a number of ‘inverted’ crime novels in the Golden Age, where the focus is on the murderer and his motivations, rather than on the whodunnit puzzle. Antidote to Venom is along these lines. George Surridge, the director of Birmington Zoo, is a man who has rather lost his way in life. He has money worries, and his marriage is starting to fail. (The book’s blurb also states that he is concerned about an outbreak of disease at the zoo, but this is a tiny bit misleading, as it isn’t really a major plot point!) George starts to imagine rather questionable ways of getting out of his predicament, and the reader would be forgiven for thinking that they know the direction the story is going to take. However, Crofts plays a little game of bait-and-switch, and things take a rather different turn. I really enjoyed the unexpected nature of the narrative, and the fact that, despite us feeling like we know exactly what is being planned an executed, there is still a perplexing little puzzle to be solved. George Surridge is an engaging character as well, though he is utterly frustrating at times. I almost found myself shouting ‘Oh George, don’t do that!’ as various points in the book. Slightly unusual, but really compelling – and a definite recommendation from me.

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths (2016)


I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I seem to be determined not to read Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels in any particular order. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for this series though, as each one only contains very minor references to the previous ones, and I’m not sure any of them would count as spoilers. I do keep losing track of where things are up to in the private lives of the detectives, but I can usually work things out based on the ages of the many many children they all keep having (seriously, has any detective team in fiction ever been this fertile?!). The Woman in Blue sees Griffiths’s archaeologist drawn into sinister events around the pilgrimage sites of Walsingham. An old friend – now a priest – gets in touch with Ruth to ask for help with anonymous letters from someone who clearly doesn’t like women priests; Cathbad thinks he had a vision of the Virgin Mary while house-sitting; DCI Nelson and team investigating the murder of a young woman, whose body was found in a graveyard. Are these things connected? When another woman is found murdered – a priest, this time – it seems very much like they are. In terms of the mystery plot, I think this one might be my favourite of the series so far (though I am aware that I’ve said that before). I loved the evocative details about Walsingham, and there were some neat clues too (some I spotted, others I didn’t!).

Monday, 9 March 2020

My Year in Books 2020: February

I'm a little bit late posting this one, as we're coming into the second week in March. Oops. But I'm trying to catch up with stuff as best I can! So, it's finally time for my round-up of the books I read for pleasure last month.

In case you're interested, here are my reviews of the books I read last month: January

And here are my reviews for February...

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins (2019)


The first book I read this month was an impulse buy at the supermarket (which I seem to keep doing). Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. I really struggled with this one. The blurb promised a story about a family that buy a new house, only to discover that there’s a serial killer on the loose in the neighbourhood, and everyone’s got a secret to hide. That isn’t quite how the book pans out, although there is a family (the Lockwoods), who buy a house, and there is a serial killer (the Dollmaker), who operates almost exclusively in the neighbourhood around the new house. The main problem I had with The Neighbour (aside from the utter implausibility of a family deciding to buy a house on a street at the centre of a multiple murder investigation, with the intention of ‘bouncing’ it as quickly as possible) was that I found it really difficult to engage with any of the character. The chapters alternate between a bewildering array of viewpoints (one minute we’re following the family, the next a police officer involved in the investigation, the next a first-person narrator), and it’s not always clear who the narrator is or why we’re following their perspective. The story is really fragmented as a result, and I didn’t feel particularly immersed in it. Weirdly, I also guessed who the murderer was about two thirds of the way, which meant I was just frustrated for the final sections. Not a recommendation, unfortunately.

What You Did by Claire McGowan (2019)


The next book was included with an Amazon Prime membership, and I thought I’d give it a go. The book begins with a group of six university friends meeting up again after twenty years (although they have seen each other in various combinations since they graduated). Ali and her husband Mike are hosting the reunion party at their well-to-do house, and the guests include Karen (Ali’s long-time best friend), Callum and Jodi (who got together at uni) and the somewhat enigmatic Bill. Alongside the grown-ups are Mike and Ali’s kids Cassie and Benji, and Karen’s son Jake. The reunion begins with the expected snobbery and passive aggression – these are a group of social-climbing friends who met at Oxford, after all – but it turns into something much more horrible when Karen stumbles into the kitchen, visibly injured, claiming that Ali’s husband has raped her. The accusation sends shockwaves through the group, and also tears at Ali’s loyalties. It leads to further revelations as well, including some long-buried secrets. What You Did is a readable and engaging thriller. I found it to be a bit of page-turner. All of the characters are a bit unlikeable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve seen some reviews that say Ali’s behaviour is unconvincing, but I think McGowan does a good job of negotiating the character’s competing motivations. I wouldn’t say this is the best book I’ve read this year, but it’s a decent story that kept me entertained. What more can you ask?

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (2012)


I feel like I don’t read many books by men, so I should probably vary things a bit. Six Four is Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, but the first that was translated into English. It’s a police procedural, but one that offers an unconventional perspective on a cold case. The eponymous ‘Six Four’ case is an unsolved kidnapping and murder, which took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, at the end of the Showa period (which lasted until its sixty-fourth year). Yoshinobu Mikami has been transferred to Media Relations, and is tasked with orchestrating press coverage of a visit from the commissioner general. The police’s relationship with the press has broken down, the father of the victim has refused to take part, and Mikami begins to believe the commissioner’s visit might have a hidden agenda. As he starts to ask (mundane, at first) questions, he uncovers things about ‘Six Four’ that unsettle him – things that haven’t been spoken about in fourteen years. Six Four is a slow-burning, brooding book, with a lot of the focus being on Mikami’s response to the secrets he reveals. It also explores the complex machinations of Japanese police politics and the relationship with the press, which can feel rather alien to the non-Japanese reader. However, I didn’t feel lost at any point, as Yokoyama’s writing carries the reader through and keeps us fully engaged with the somewhat troubled protagonist. The plot is labyrinthine, but the denouement is a satisfying one. I enjoyed this one.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman (2002)


Next up, it’s another charity shop find. I picked up this one when we were in Truro before Christmas. The endorsements on the back cover promised something a bit ‘Gothic’, and also a meeting of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both of those assessments are totally fair. We begin the story with Jane Hudson, a Latin teacher at Heart Lake School for Girls. Jane is an ‘old girl’: she was a pupil herself at Heart Lake. When three of Jane’s students (who are known by classical nicknames assigned by their teacher) begin acting strangely, ghosts from the past are conjured up. The second part of the book takes us back to that past – specifically, events that occurred between Jane and her two roommates during her time as a student. History is certainly repeating itself, but does that repetition have a supernatural cause? or is there a more human hand behind it. I liked this one – it’s slow-paced, and I occasionally wanted to give Jane a good shake, but the characters were far more endearing than those in The Secret History. Some of the revelations (including the ‘biggie’) I saw coming, but that’s not a bad thing, as The Lake of Dead Languages is more a character study than a straightforward mystery. The pleasure of this one lies in how immersed you become in Jane’s world, and how much Goodman’s writing leads you to seeing things through Jane’s eyes. I definitely enjoyed this one.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James (2018)


I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while, as my alter ego interviewed the author for Hannah’s Bookshelf back in 2018. It’s a bit of a genre-bending one, and I’m not sure I can explain it in a short review, but here goes… Ezra Maas was the avant-garde darling of the art world, building a legion of devotees and creating a ‘Foundation’ that ruthlessly guards his legacy. He disappeared a number of years ago, prompting all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Now Daniel James – something of an enfant terrible of the journalism world – has been commissioned to write a biography of the enigmatic artist, without the consent of the Ezra Maas Foundation. Or has he? Is that what’s happening here? Who is Ezra Maas? For that matter, who is Daniel James? Stitched together from fragments of partially destroyed manuscripts, interview transcripts and copious footnotes, there are shades of House of Leaves here, but this is blended with plenty of (sometimes heavily lamp-shaded) neo-noir stylings and compelling characterization. I was expecting the book to be cerebral, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how downright gripping it is. As a fan of unreliable narrators (and unreliable narration), I enjoyed the fragmentary and convoluted storytelling, and the meta-fictional quality that permeates throughout. But it has to be said, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a bit of a page-turner too, and I found that I didn’t want it to end. Which is lucky, really, because it doesn’t.