Review of Sea Wife, by Amity Gaige

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This kind of book is a rarity for me: a book I didn’t like till I found nearing the end that I did – very much. Reading a newspaper review persuaded me that the author probably didn’t know enough about sailing or sailors, especially offshore sailing, to write a believable sea story, and my suspicious were aggravated by the husband’s being a Trumpian. (Michael’s inchoate – so seldom get a chance to use that word – political opinions seem a mixture of libertarianism and Nietzscheism.} Wife Juliet is that very familiar figure, the doctoral student who can’t finish her dissertation (on Anne Sexton) turned stay-at-home mom. They have two young children, seven year-old Sibyl and Georgie “Doodle,” three. Most annoyingly, Michael gives them all pseudo-nautical designations of rank. Juliet is “First Mate,” Sibyl in “Bosun” (it’s actually spelled “boatswain”), and “Doodle” is “Deckhand” – of course real ocean sailors don’t indulge in such silliness – only dentists “driving” power cruisers on Long Island Sound. Michael’s mid-life crisis takes of the form of imagining the family going round the world at sea, though fortunately since Juliet has never been on a boat and Michael’s previous experience was day sailing on Lake Eire, they begin with coastal passages in the Caribbean. The tale is narrated to two voices, Juliet speaking in first person after her return to Connecticut and Michael’s very verbose entries in the yacht’s log. The boat is an CSY 44 Walkover (the latter term referring to the cabin  layout below deck, not to the boat’s competitive abilities), renamed the Juliet. Definitely too much boat for a couple, especially when one of them doesn’t know how to sail.

 

For a reader who knows something about sailing boats, the narrative is often disconcerting, especially as the reader for Juliet couldn’t pronounce mainsail, leeward, or Caribbean, and kept referring to the masthead windspeed indicator as the flywheel. Besides his crude political views, Michael’s vocabulary is too often that of a middle-school boy. He refers to being self-absorbed as “being wrapped in my own shit” and small talk as “shooting the shit” (gross!).

 

The descriptions of sailing and handling the boat were also unconvincing, especially when they run into heavy weather and Juliet is supposed to be reefing the mainsail and helming the boat by herself. But I felt the author made a serious effort to research her subject and introduce realistic detail even if she doesn’t always get their names quite right. But though we know from almost the beginning that the trip will not end entirely well, readers should remain rivetted to discovering the outcome. And I found it surprisingly stirring.

 

There is an easy test to find out if you have the mentality of offshore sailing in the deep ocean. Download the movie Adrift and watch it at home. That is what Michael should have done. After you’ve watched it, ask yourself if you knew that your passage might turn out like that, would you go?  Then, ask yourself, if you can foresee that it definitely will turn out like that, then would you still go? The voyage of the Juliet is not quite so eventful, but at the end I was persuaded the Juliet had underwent a sea change into a real sailor.

Review of Invisible Girl, by Lisa Jewell

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Lisa Jewell’s novels follow the property developer’s mantra – Location, Location, Location. For Invisible Girl it is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London, Hampstead, near Belsize Park, where some three decades ago I had the good fortune to be spending spring break visiting a friend. Most appropriately, she was sharing a flat with a psychoanalyst. Alternating sections are told by Cate, mother of two teenagers and wife of Roan Fours, a 50ish child psychologist; Owen Pick, a 30 something college lecturer who has never had a date, who lives opposite the Fours family; and Saffyre Maddox, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old who had been treated by Roan for self-harm. The first two characters’ stories are told in free indirect third person; Saffyre speaks in first person. The differing POVs confuse the reader because Saffyre is on a different timeline, with about a six-week lag.

Saffyfre seems fixated on her former therapist and shadows (stalks would be to strong) Roan, convinced he is having an affair with one of his colleagues, a younger woman named Alicia. Saffyre has taken to sleeping rough in the derelict garden outside the house where Owen lives. She befriends Josh Fours, as well as an urban fox. And on Valentine’s night, she is reported missing and the principal suspect is Owen Pick. He has just been sacked from the college for getting drunk at an end of term disco where he is supposed to have: ‘Splattered the girls with the sweat from [his] forehead. They all attest that it was a deliberate action and that you did it more than once when asked by the girls to stop.’ (We are not told how Owen was supposed to have done it – I can’t imagine.)

Worse, Owen found his way to an ‘Incel’ site online. This group actually exists and has been responsible for multiple murders. The term is supposed to mean ‘involuntarily celibate’ (they mean ‘abstinent’ but few people these days know that ‘celibate’ means ‘unmarried’ – Latin coelbs is a bachelor). In the old days I couldn’t imagine men who would advertise their lack of amatory success online, much less want to murder women they blame for this condition. Why don’t they seek professional assistance instead? Not only does Owen post some ‘rants’ online; he meets a shifty character named Bryn who gives him ‘roofies’ which Owen hides in the usual place, the back of the sock drawer. When Saffyre is reported missing and what is supposed to be blood found on the outer wall of the house Owen lives in, along with her mobile phone cover in the garden. Owen is arrested and charged with abducting Saffyre.

Whilst Owen is in jail being interrogated relentlessly by detectives, Saffyre (on an earlier timeline) befriends Roan’s son Josh and enlists him in a quest to find an attempted rapist who seems to be preying on girls in the area, and whom she thinks may be the same person who molested her sexually when she was ten. Meanwhile Cate vacillates between suspecting Roan and apparently being convinced her suspicions are unfounded. So, we have three questions Lisa Jewell has posed for us. Who is the mysterious person attacking women? What is going on with Cate and Roan’s marriage? And what happened to Saffyre and is Owen responsible?

As we expect of Lisa Jewell, the denouement answers all these questions neatly, tying the different plot lines into a tidy package containing a satisfying conclusion. But I must confess a major reservation. Most of us keen readers, and sometimes writers ourselves, of crime fiction think we are criminal law experts. I am very often appalled in novels at how often characters are arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, and such is the case with Own’s being arrested and charged with abducting (and presumably murdering) Saffyre. Though she’s missing from her uncle’s home, the police have no evidence of a crime. Though they tell Own it was her blood on the wall, we are told nothing about DNA evidence and as I believe results in Britain can take weeks, what grounds did they have for arresting Owen? His solicitor very remiss on that, as well as with other ‘evidence’ that proves nothing. I began to wonder if the police are reading my reviews. With Then She Was Gone I criticised the cops for being extraordinarily lax in their search for Ellie; they seem to have learned their lesson and this time they descend on Owen like the chorus of Furies in Aeschylus.

But despite some scepticism with the police procedures, I found Invisible Girl a most engaging combination of setting, characterisation, and plot that readers of Lisa Jewell will enjoy.

Review of This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden

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This was the perfect read for self-isolating, a story of women monastics. I felt so deeply immersed in Benedictine spirituality that when I looked out my front window I almost expected to see a cloister. If prayer were an Olympic event, the nuns at Brede would be gold medalists. Seven times a day, from Vigils at 4 am to Comline at 8.30 pm they chant the daily office in Latin, praying for their community, for the world, and for people outside who have asked their intercessions. Though they would appear cut off from the world, they are continually involved. The monetary is a kind of spiritual power station, generating praise, thanksgiving, and intercessions for those in need.

The story begins in the mid 1950s and the main character is Philippa Talbot, a forty year old senior civil servant, apparently in something like the Treasury. Her husband died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and we discover much later that she is also a bereaved mother. At mid life she discovers a vocation to join a cloistered order of nuns. In the book we follow her career from postulant to taking her final vows, which bestows on her the title of Dame Philippa. The standard of obedience and humility, as well as the primitive washing facilities, would frighten most contemporary readers away. As the Abbess reminds them, they endeavour to live like the poor, and fifty percent of English families then didn’t have bathrooms.

The nuns regard themselves as ‘Brides of Christ’ and the ceremony of being accepted by the order, called ‘Clothing’ involves an actual wedding ceremony with a bridal gown, much to the chagrin of the rejected fiancé and the mother of one of the characters. As C. S.Lewis remarked of Spenser’s allegory, it wasn’t that Spenser was Catholic, it’s that the Catholic Church is allegorical. Some of the trapping, like the grills that separate the nuns from visitors, do rouse in me some Protestant misgivings. Yet I admired them greatly.

Still, after I finished I felt some artistic flaws. It seemed a little too convenient that Philippa had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, and we’re not told when or how she got there . And the gripping story of the death of her young son, which she finally tells the Abbess, surely would not have been concealed so long. It would have formed a major element of the process of discerning her vocation. An episode containing a crush between two members of the order was handled well, and generally Abbess Catherine was a wonderful portrait of a spiritually and practically wise woman.

Now, some seventy years later, this species of spirituality is yet rarer. I notice that the monastery that served as the model for Brede is now a luxury hotel and a venue for wedding parties – how ironic. And as an Anglican, I thought that the Abbess ought to be ordained and preside at the eucharist. They certainly were expert liturgists and Dom Gervase, their chaplain, rather a wimp. Vatican II is a crucial event in the book for the nuns, but when this book was published in 1969 I doubt many of us realised this form of spirituality would be almost extinct in half a century. But it always will be an ideal and a model for all of us who are following a spiritual path, whether in a cloister or out in the open world. Everybody works, everybody studies, everybody prays whether indoors or out.

Review of The Split, by Sharon Bolton

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Sharon Bolton ranks with Elizabeth Haynes and Tana French as the best current writer of serious crime novels and The Split comes up to the mark. Here the author surpasses even her previous novel Little Black Lies for remote locations, setting parts at an Antarctic research station and abandoned whaling station on South Georgia Island. (Some of us will recall it from the Falklands War.) The other setting was more familiar, Cambridge at the very town centre opposite King’s College. Our principal character is a young glaciologist, Felicity Lloyd, who has been experiencing blackouts and bizarre episodes, and must consult Dr. Joe Grant, a psychiatrist, to be checked out and cleared to returned for two years of south polar research. Felicity reminded me of another of Sharon Bolton’s most attractive characters (with the same initials though in reverse order), DC Lacey Flint. Like Lacey, Felicity’s past is haunted by experiences of abuse and homelessness, and paranoid fear accompanying a personal collection of private demons, especially someone called Freddy. There is also killer in Cambridge preying on the homeless.

Like previous novels, here Sharon Bolton excels with vividly described settings (I felt I was back in Cambridge) and distinctively imagined characters, though I must confess Dr. Joe’s police officer mother struck me as a trifle OTT. I was surprised by the absence of Bolton’s characteristically fiendish plot twists. Of course there are red herrings and innocent characters who look as if they might be guilty, but before half-way it was obvious what was going on with Felicity. Normally I think it’s a flaw in a book if I suss it out too soon, but here I liked it that the author is playing fair with the reader, rather than having a minor character jump out of the wings to reveal a secret (as in Daisy in Chains).

The Split is a very quick read; I scarcely put it down. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as Sharon Bolton’s very best, Now You See Me. Found it more on the level with Dead Woman Walking. I fear as well that it will not repay perusing again. As I tried to get to sleep last night after finishing it, new questions kept bothering me. With her deprived background, just how did Felicity manage to graduate Cambridge with an advanced degree and become a scientist? How was she unaware of the details of her childhood trauma, which was a local sensation still recalled a quarter of a century later? And how did one of the characters have the physical fitness and skills (as well as lacking essential equipment, like even an ice axe) to tackle the glaciers of South Georgia? But ignoring the implausible, a very engaging read.

Though I’d award only 4 stars for execution and believability, setting and characters deserve 5.

Review of No Number Nine, by F. J. Campbell

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Most North American call this game ‘field hockey’ and think hockey means ice hockey. Many have the equally provincial notion that it a ‘girl’s game’. But it is a game favouring team work and quick and accurate passing over running the pitch, and assists as much as shots on goal. And one reason I also prefer the women’s game is that they are better than men at relationships, with teams displaying a sense of sisterhood. But the exigencies of plot in No Number Nine require a focus on men’s hockey, specifically the German and Australian national teams at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

Philippa ‘Pip’ Mitchell is an eighteen-year old English girl who becomes an au pair looking after Max and Ferdi, the ten and eight year-old sons of a wealthy German family, the von Feldsteins. She is possessed of fluent German (and French – I was amused to discover that se taper has the same connotations as our word bang). Pip also possesses some heavy emotional baggage. Two years before, her sister Holly, a hockey player on the GBNWT, was killed by being struck on the head by a ball. (A hockey ball weighs about the same as a cricket ball or baseball – a goalkeeper kitted out in protective gear could easily be mistaken for a demolitions expert on a roadside in Iraq.) This loss has not on left Pip with a super case of PTSD, she also had sex with her sister’s widower husband, Troy Costa, a Kookaburra, the Australian MNT. (The women’s team are the Hockeyroos.) Pip hides her relationship (although she plans to fly out to Sydney for the Olympics at her own expense) and affects to despise the game of hockey, although she had been a very capable U-16 player. Which turns out to be a huge complication, because the von Feldsteins not only own a hockey club, but that Max and Ferdi have two twenty something elder brothers who are keen hockey players aspiring to playing in the Olympics on the German national men’s team. If you’ve watched a German national team play, the elder brother Leo will be no surprise – totally disciplined and keen on angles and sports psychology. His brother Billy lives and plays more like an Argentinian, all flair and gusto. (When Pip first discovers him, he’s in bed with Leo’s then girlfriend.)

I loved this book. It’s excellent  and very erotic, including what I call the ‘erotics of competition’ – the thrill of playing a sport to the very maximum. Which another marvellous facet of hockey – sheer athleticism – the players run virtually nonstop whilst on the pitch. The clock only stops for penalty corners. I was disappointed with some of Campbell’s descriptions of play as perfunctory. ‘Australia scored an unstoppable field goal from a volley after twenty-two minutes, to which Germany responded with a goal from a penalty corner five minutes later.’ That’s an opportunity for exciting sports writing too good to miss. A penalty corner is about the only time the clock stops for the kind of set play you find in American football, with lots of opportunity for deception and usually a fearless first flyer defender rushing from the cage to prevent the offence getting a shot off. But I liked this score with Pip watching on television: ‘Billy dived in front of the goal. Pip’s heart hammering, he slid along the AstroTurf, Pip’s eyes glued to the screen, he stretched out his stick, Pip’s mouth opening in a scream, he gave the ball the lightest of touches to send it into the back of the goal.’ Last year in the FIH Pro League I watched the New Zealand striker Olivia Merry execute the same shot against USA. Brilliant.

The characters lacked some believability for me too. I could not understand why Pip would want to follow Troy out to Australia only to break up with him, except the plot required it. He has other plans, and his inept proposal scene is the funniest thing outside of a Jane Austen novel. And it takes Campbell forever finally to resolve the relationship between Leo and Pip. As a crazy romantic, I would have set on it a boat in Sydney harbour during a fireworks display to mark the close of the games.

I so hope F. J. Campbell will write some more hockey fiction. I’d love a slightly older protagonist, perhaps one who had played for an American uni (there were several on last year’s England U-21 team), who’s now graduated and playing for a club like Surbiton. And with both an American and British boyfriend, perhaps. You can see the possibilities.

Review of The Furies, by Katie Lowe

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I chose this book because the plot and situation are similar to one of my very favorites: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. In both there is a school or college setting in which an outsider is drawn into a select society of friends led by a charismatic teacher.  In both they fall under the influence of the Greek tragedian Euripides: the Bacchae in Tartt, Medea here. And in both to cover up the crimes they commit under the influence of dark divinities, they have to commit murder to keep their secrets. The school here is Elm-Grove Academy. Our narrator Violet is a new girl who is taking under the wing of her new friend Robin and meets her friends, Nicky, Alex and Grace. She is initiated into their secret society led by Anabel, one of the teachers. The society has been in existence since the seventeenth-century, with membership handed down from mother to daughter, employing occult means to punish men for their crimes against women. As it turns out, the girls themselves become some of the victims.

 

I knew something had gone wrong when I reached the third page and read: “Their lives ended and mom’s life stopped.” Wait a moment! Do English girls usually refer to their female parent as “mom”? Fortunately my copy of the English edition reached me a couple of days later so I could check the original and sure enough, someone had systematically, if carelessly, Americanized the text, turning “mum” into “mom” as well as “petrol” into “gasoline”; but these changes are not only unsystematic because sometimes the original contains Americanisms( “elevator” and “lift” both occur). One attempt by a cack-handed revisor I found hilarious. The girls have killed the Dean of the school (he’s no loss—refers to graduates of a girls’ school as “alumni”):

English edition: “I saw my chance. ‘I think I saw a petrol can in the garage.’

“’No way,’ Alex said. ‘If they find petrol on anything, it won’t look like an accident …’”

American version: “I saw my chance. ‘I think I saw a petrol can in the garage.’

“‘No way,’ Alex said, ‘If they find gasoline on anything, it won’t look like an accident …’”

No indeed, the police will know an American killed the Dean, and our girls will be in the clear.

We also get “vacationing” for “holidaying,” “cotton candy” for “candy-floss,” and “sneakers” for “trainers.” The problem isn’t just that the American expressions look uncouth in situ, but that they completely violate the first rule of realistic fiction: that characters remain believable and in character. It also shows the author believes that her readers across the pond are provincial boors.

Unlike The Secret History, where I thought I had a good idea of the author’s meaning, I cannot decide here what my take should be. Perhaps as a male reader, I’m not allowed an opinion. From the plot, I gather a tragic version of the sorcerer’s apprentice story, which also fits very well with Euripides’ Medea, as well is both pagan and Christian moral principles. Anger or Ira is one of the seven deadly sins, and when unleashed ultimately destroys the innocent, such as Medea’s children. (I had some real doubts about the author’s knowledge of the Classics when I read: “She [Medea] was the only survivor, walking from Athens wearing the blood of her children.” No, she killed the children at Corinth and she didn’t walk, she flew, in a chariot drawn by dragons to Athens.) But given the feminist beliefs that underlie this story, I suspect we’re supposed to sympathize with Violet at the end. Fortunately we are dealing with a character in a  story-book.

Fortunately, American readers who want to read the authentic version don’t have to buy the dumb-downed US version. Given the difference in prices and exchange rates, you can buy the correct English version from Amazon.co.uk and pay the postage and still save on the American hardback, and have an English narrator speaking real English.

 

Review of A Barrow Boy’s Cadenza (Kind Hearts and Martinets 3), by Pete Adams

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Not far into A Barrow Boy’s Cadenza: Kind Heart and Martinets, I knew that I should never had offered to review it. Its attraction was the setting, Portsmouth (colloquially known as Pompey), hallowed home of the Royal Navy, where HMS Victory (along with HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose (referred to by the boorish principal character as “Henry the Eighth’s Hairy Nose”), along with HMS Warrior preserve England’s naval glory, and whose harbour brings back many fond memory of my sailing days. Here the harbour’s main purpose is to act as a repository for dead dogs, as well as at least one murdered banker. Our principal character is DCI Jack Austin, referred to as Jane, a fifty something detective. Lately British crime fiction has suffered a plague of senior officers based on Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, the latest popular knockoff being Mick Herron’s Jonathan Lamb. This officer can be identified by his gross manners, overweight figure, potty-mouthed vocabulary, and appetites for food (seafood in Jane’s case) and sex, here with Superintendent Amanda Bruce, known as Mandy who finds him irresistible. Almost everybody in the book has a nickname invented by Jack, DI Josephine Wild is Jo Jums, which even the author doesn’t make much effort to keep straight. Like Ant and Dec, many are drawn for out of date British popular culture, such as Ant an Dec, as well as Morecambe and Wise, who inspire Jack’s wardrobe. (See illustration below.)

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The basic plot involves an undercover MI5 operation disguised as routine (‘woodentop’, from the Bobbies’ characteristic helmit) community policing that is actually engaged in trying to thwart a coup to take over the British government engineered by a cabal of senior retired military officers (hence the martinets) and bankers. (Jack’s notion of the proper role of the financial sector makes Yanis Varoufakis look like Antonio Salazar by comparison.) Unfortunately, the plot isn’t sufficiently compelling to keep the story going, though it’s helped out by a very nasty dogfighting subplot where an attractive young woman officer gets half her face torn off—turns out she’s actually Jack’s daughter. Supposedly, revenues from betting on the dog fights are needed for buying arms for the coup. At times there is a surprising amount of heavy weaponry engaged—including Jack’s totally inept but successful attempt to shoot down a helicopter by blowing up a sports pavilion with a portable anti-aircraft rocket.

Most of the humour, though, involves the loo. It is supposed to be hilarious that Jack finds himself at 10 Downing Street and later at Buckingham Palace badly in need ‘to poo’; there’s also a scene where Jack treats the treacherous senior officers to several pantomime re-enactments of excreting and wiping himself. As a former student of eighteenth-century satire specialising in Swift and Pope, I shouldn’t be put off by ‘scatological’ humour, but the trick, as reader’s of Pope’s Dunciad know, is that the nastiest descriptions should be delivered in the most elevated and chaste diction. Jack has the vocabulary of a nine-year-old. He may be suffering from PTSD – a result of being shot and thrown into the harbour whilst wearing a tutu – or simply dementia, but the reason for Jack’s unfunny malaprops doesn’t matter; they are tediously obvious. The ‘Gnome Office’ is wearily repeated for ‘Home Office’ till the reader is ready to scream. And Jack is a member of the ‘Church of Egypt’ because he is ‘in denial’ (get it?)

The strangest feature of this book for me was the time frame. It was obvious that the setting was the period of the Tory-Liberal Coalition Government of Cameron and Clegg, though they are not named. The leading Labour politicians David and Ed Miliband are given childishly mangled names. There are also references to the Big Society. Any relevance the story might have had is now wholly out of date in this era of Brexit. Apparently, this is a second edition of a book first published in 2015, as a protest against what was termed ‘Austerity’ and I cannot see any reason to reissue it, other than the author’s needing the money. Readers who might want to test their knowledge of British popular culture trivia and rhyming slang (‘brown bread’ = ‘dead’) might want to attempt it. Reading Jack’s diatribes on economics and banking, one also suspects the ideal reader should suffer from a terminal case of class envy. Detective story readers who want to read police procedurals should go elsewhere.

I received a gratis copy for favour of an impartial review.