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.

Review of After the Party, by Cressida Connolly

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Sometime in the mid ‘60s, I watched an interview with Diana Mosley on television and found her disarmingly gracious and charming. At that time Britain was not part of the European Economic Community (as it then was), but I was struck by her remarking that her husband Sir Oswald had been ahead of his time in advocating European unity. Makes one reflect, as now much political commentary would associate Mosley’s followers with the Brexiteers, not with the Remainers. In After the Party, Cressida Connolly offers us what might be labelled the softer face of the British Union Party. (Fascist had been dropped from the name, though hardly from the programme.) We see them from the point of view of three sisters, Phyllis, Nina, and Patricia. One thinks of the Mitford sisters, of course, but these women aren’t aristocrats, though fairly well off, their father a gentleman with a country estate where he lives with their mother, now a dementia patient from a riding mishap. Phyllis’ husband Hugh is a retired RN officer some twenty years older than her; they’ve recently returned to England from South America, where he has been employed by a rubber company. They have three children, Julia, Frances, and the youngest, Edwin. The reader senses that Phyllis was drawn to the party by a mixture of family pressure—Nina is much more active in the movement—a sincere desire for peace, and not having enough to do in a neighbourhood, the Sussex coast, where they have few connexions. We know from the very beginning—some of the story is told in first person by Phyllis in 1979—that Phyllis and Hugh will be imprisoned and interned when war breaks out. The second half of the book, which gives the title of the book a double meaning, describes her experiences in Holloway prison and the Isle of Man.

As I was simultaneously listening to Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück on Audible, I could not help but be struck by the difference between the way that Nazi Germany treated her political prisoners, and Great Britain hers. It’s like the difference between hell on earth and a really bad holiday camp. One might add the American (and Canadian) internment of the Japanese during the Second World War. And this novel gives us only the pleasant face of the movement. There is little anti-Semitism and only the most passing allusions to London East End brawls. Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding-Heart Square should be added to the reading list for balance. All in all, though, readers should find Phyllis an attractive and sympathetic character, though naïve and for half the book, very sheltered.

I expect this novel will be my best historical read of the year. I noticed only one anachronism: no English speaker in 1940 would have referred to someone’s being ‘brainwashed’. (We owe that one to the Chinese Communists, about 1950.) There are also some appalling typos: when I first saw “Basham” I thought my memory had gone. And some errors that I can only account for as the creations of an optical scanner, unlikely as that seems. (See my highlights on Goodreads.) Fortunately, Kindle is good about giving us corrected versions. This book deserves to become a classic.

Review of Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver

At her scariest, Michelle Paver is about the most frightening contemporary English ghost story writer out there. Dark Matter presents the ultimate horror of being alone in the long frozen polar night. Thin Air, set in the Himalayas, didn’t quite work for me, but I may return it. With Wakenhyrst, Paver reverts to a more domestic setting, East Anglia, shortly before the Great War. Owing especially to M. R. James and more recent contributions by Susan Hill, the fen country is probably the spookiest region of England, though Dartmoor and Northumbria are keen competitors. A lonely manor on the Broads is home to the fourteen-year old Maud Sterne. Her father Edmund Sterne is a figure straight out of James, though his sensual appetites would not have featured in the stories of the original master. A keen amateur antiquary, he died in a lunatic asylum. He had devoted his scholarship to editing the story of a late Mediaeval mystic, Alice Pyett. (She’s loosely based on Margery Kempe, though postponed to the next century.) Edmund is a tyrant, who uses his daughter as an amanuensis, and has a guilty secret from his own childhood. He also has a horror of eels, who figure prominently in the story.

Most enthusiasts for supernatural fiction should love Wakenhyrst. The pudding may be over-egged, but it is certainly nourishing. I’d feared I’d find the serpentine characteristics of eels off-putting, but I found their expressions quizzically endearing. But as they are an endangered species, I’ll not be venturing into the fens with a glave. Paver subtly depicts class differences and conflicts, especially between Maud and the servant girl Ivy (who is also Edmund’s mistress), Jubal the fen dwelling outcast, and Clem the strapping young servant boy who kindles both Ivy’s and Maud’s passions. The antiquarian and religious background details, like the Life of Saint Guthlac and the ‘Doom’) wouldn’t quite survive scrutiny by a real mediaevalist such as James (or even a fake one like me) but they were close enough. (I loved Edmund’s summarising his amatory adventures in Latin phrases.)

 

 

After finishing, I’m still not persuaded that the traditional English ghost story can work at the length of a full-scale novel. The other James’s The Turn of the Screw seems maximum before the reader’s credulity stretches too far. Artistically, Wakenhyrst is a little too derivative a blend of different traditional elements of gothic and horror fiction to succeed as a five-star original. But as a sequence of courses it will definitely satisfy the connoisseur’s taste, especially for eel pie.

Review of The Auguries, by F. G. Cottam

 

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Since the publication of The House of Lost Souls in 2008, F. G. Cottam has established a place in the front rank of writers of English supernatural fiction. But though the mayhem is on a hyperbolic scale, I believe The Auguries to be the first to feature what is essentially a comic plot. Imagine a mixture of Good Omens,The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Frankenstein. In the sixteenth century, a cabal of adepts led by a German alchemist Gunter Keller, were brought to London to compile an epitome of magic revealingly entitled the Almanac of Forbidden Wisdom, a project initiated by a nobleman, Edmund Fleury. Actually this was a plot to eliminate diabolical magic and magicians, the creators were tracked down and met suitably grisly fates at the hands of witch finders and inquisitors.

The book survived, to be found in France during the Second World War by a British commando, where it falls three generations later into the hands of his great grand daughter Dawn Jackson. She is a slightly autistic fourteen-year-old with a talent for languages and code breaking, and soon signs of the End Times – plagues, fires, floods, turn London into a cataclysmic nightmare. Dawn is fascinated as well by the ultimate object of occult science, to bring the dead to life, beginning with her pet terrapin Freddy (functioning without a head), her brother Peter the altar boy, and her grandfather, who develops an insatiable appetite for neighbourhood cats. There is a lot of gross humour on the cannibalistic proclivities of the revived dead.

Besides the sixteenth-century characters, and the mischief-making Dawn, we have Juliet Harrington, an academic historian, who is empowered by a delegation of the Great and the Good (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Home Secretary, and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) to find and neutralise the almanac. (I very much doubt that Cottam intended the total chaos engulfing Britain as a satirical allegory on contemporary politics, but I indeed found easy parallels.) Juliet requires the assistance of a linguist and paleographer who turns out to have both the appropriate special forces background and chemistry (as opposed to alchemy, surely!) I’ll not reveal whether they succeed in averting the ultimate apocalypse.

My scholarly conscience obliges me to reveal that the flavour of the sixteenth-century documents struck me as off, even if we grant that they are supposed to be translations from Latin into modern colloquial English. And the English of the period wasn’t “Middle English” – it was Early Modern. (I just returned from West Virginia, where folks still talk like that.) It is true, as Cottam has his characters notice, that our distinction between “magic” and “science” did not exist in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that what we call “science” was just one form of magic, one that actually turned out to work.

Though not perfectly executed to scholarly standards, The Auguries is a splendid romp with buckets of ghoulish fun. I’d be delighted if Dawn returned in a sequel. That girl has possibilities. 

Review of Between the Lies, by Michelle Adams

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Between the Lies belongs to a familiar category of psychological suspense. A young woman, finds herself isolated and totally dependent upon someone, usually male, whom she cannot trust. Sometimes, as in S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, amnesia plays an additional role. Here Chloe finds herself on a country estate near Brighton, being cared for by her father, a psychiatrist, along with her mother, a younger sister, and a gardener. She is told that she was in a car smash where her young son Joshua was killed along with her husband. But Chloe soon begins to suspect that her parents are lying to her, and when the police interview her, that the physical evidence at the scene of the wreck fails to match the story that Chloe had been run off the road by a dangerous driver. The accused maintains that his car was stolen and he wasn’t at the scene. Even stranger – the police inform her that her spouse Andrew is very much alive. Gradually her father reveals that he has not been entirely truthful with her, claiming that the husband was an alcoholic whom Chloe had left, and that he had been deceiving her for her own good. He says he has been treating her with something called ‘reconsolidation therapy’ and giving her ‘propranodol’. I have taken propranolol for hypertension (till I found that abstaining from alcohol and losing weight works even better) but what he is doing struck me as unethical as all get-out. Surprisingly, according to Doctor Google, ’reconsolidation therapy’ is an accepted treatment for PTSD.  Hard to imagine that forgetting – as opposed to facing up to and conquering – fearful events is an effective therapy, but even if it is, lying and deception surely isn’t. (There are rare cases when lying to a patient is the right thing to do – demential patients are unable to enter our world, so if we want to befriend them, we have to go into theirs.)

By midpoint in this genre, the main character starts to recover her freedom and to investigate what is really going on, often with the aid of another male character such as a detective or a physician, as I Before I Go to Sleep or Rosamund Lupton’s Sister. in this case it’s a younger colleague of Chloe’s father named Guy. Then we begin to wonder if this character is going to prove a white knight, or a villain in disguise.

I’d rank Between the Lies as a solid four star. The situation held me from the beginning. I truly hated Chloe’s father long before we find out whether he is a bad hat or just a manipulative weakling. Some of Chloe’s choices, both after the accident and in the revealed backstory were stupid (having an affair with someone who will try to kill you is always a sign of poor judgement) but in her circumstances she deserves forgiveness. I have a low tolerance for this species of fiction – seeing women abused either physically or psychologically repels me (I cannot reread Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner, though it is a great story), but Between the Lies falls into the safe zone. Readers of psychological thrillers should enjoy it.

I am grateful to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a gratis review advance e-copy.

Review of The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts

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If you like delicious meals made from off-the-shelf ingredients, you should enjoy Alice Clark-Platts’ The Flower Girls. What happens after underage murderers are released has been the basis of numerous thrillers: my favourites of all are Alex Marwood’sThe Wicked Girlsand Elizabeth Little’sDear Daughter. Here two decades ago two sisters, Laurel and Primrose (hence the title), aged 10 and 6, were charged with the torture killing of the little 2-year-old Kirstie. Laurel was tried and convicted, and at age 18 moved to an adult women’s prison, where she is still incarcerated. Primrose was too young to be held legally responsible. (That too was the basis of Andrew Taylor’s absolutely brilliant The Office of the Dead.) Primrose now has a new identity as Hazel, but whilst staying at a seaside hotel in Dorset with her fiancé and his daughter Evie, a little girl goes missing. Of course, we are not surprised at who becomes the number one suspect when Hazel’s real identity is found out by the police and the press.

Clark-Platts succeeds in giving a new twist to a familiar cast of characters: a police detective who most reluctantly becomes sympathetic to Hazel, a hack writer who sees in Hazel a bestseller, sister Laurel, embittered and still seeking parole from prison, represented by a broken-down solicitor who is her uncle, Kristie’s aunt, an avenging fury who wants to keep Laurel in prison for life (there is a similar blogger in Dear Daughter), and Hazel herself, grappling with the suppressed memories of what actually happened and her stormy relationship with her sister. (There is also a marvellously bitchy literary agent who all of us self-published authors will love to hate.)

Artistically it is not a perfect book. The present story of the missing child and the backstory run awkwardly and the twist that combines them will at least be speculatively foreseen by the experienced mystery story buff though hidden by a couple of really smelly red herrings. (Another Madeleine McCann knock-off, but an important clue will spring off the page in the reader’s face.) But the vividness of the principal characters will make this story impossible to put down. As Alice Clark-Platts is herself a human-rights lawyer, questions of justice, responsibility, and forgiveness arise, without any easy or obvious answers. (Personally, I think life without possibility of parole is worse than a death sentence, but given a criminal justice system where virtually all prosecutions are malicious, capital punishment is unconscionable as well. Yet the murder of a child is scarcely material for restorative justice.) Like The Wicked Girls, The Flower Girlsfeatures an example (two really) of generous self-sacrifice, but here the final twist indicates the beneficiaries scarcely deserved it. So I award four stars for literary quality, but five for moral and spiritual value. For those of us fascinated by conflicts between moral and legal responsibility, this is a splendid read.