Book Review: Castle Shade by Laurie R. King

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Repeat award-winner Laurie R. King delivers another gripping, witty and genuinely creepy instalment in her refreshing Holmes & Russell series.

Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

How do you breathe new life into a character almost as old as the hills? A character in which literary culture is so steeped that it forms part of its very fabric.

That’s never an easy question to answer, but California-based novelist Laurie R. King has gone some way to answering it with her Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell series. A winner of awards and frequent topper of best-seller lists, King’s rejuvenation of one of literature’s most famous characters is crafted out of pure respect and accessible storytelling.

In Castle Shade, the 18th book in the series, Holmes and his wife Russell find themselves transported to Transylvania after hearing of disturbing happenings surrounding Queen Marie’s residence at Castle Bran. With a healthy dose of scepticism intact, our protagonists are plunged into a world of shadows and plots, haunting histories and the disappearance of a young woman.

But what is behind these occurrences? Are they genuinely supernatural weirdnesses? Or is somebody trying to threaten the Queen?

A Refreshing Sherlock Holmes

Gripping detective mysteries need to kick things off with a hefty, engrossing hook. And Castle Shade doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The first sentence is as poetic and vivid as it needs to be to immediately grab one’s attention:

‘I ripped myself from the fever dream somewhere west of Ljubljana’.

The other thing that’s crucial in the reimagining of a classic character is making the depiction refreshing. Throughout the novel, King achieves that with aplomb. Whilst Holmes is still cold and emotionless, there are idiosyncrasies and nuances in his psyche that take on a new light in the context of Romanian – and slightly feminist – society. And Holmes’ relationship with his brother Mycroft is also superbly written.

King also understands that knowing, humorous one-liners are essential to bringing the uninitiated in to Mary Russell’s world, too. Wilful nods to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Countess Bathory are frequently made by the characters, extending the accessibility in a very human sense.

Bringing Transylvania To Life

Where King really excels is in atmospheric scene-setting. Her descriptions of Bran Castle and the surrounding countryside are particularly arresting, and frequently she manages to up the ante for the next chapter in a final sentence:

‘In some fairy tales, happily ever after is where things end. In others, happiness is where the problems begin.’

Similarly, the way she writes about history – particularly WW1 and the Bolshevik revolution – is sensitively handled. Evocative and timely, it all adds to the sense of suspense in this simultaneously vast and claustrophobic landscape.

In the action sequences, the tension veers from quiet and creeping to an all-guns-blazing pace. At the denouement everything comes together in a pleasingly fulsome way, and King even manages to pack one poignant and wonderfully written twist into the final two chapters.

A Charm-soaked Winner

While having read King’s other Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes novels might give you a deeper understanding of their dynamic, it’s not necessary. King leaves no room for miscomprehension – the novel is as charmingly simple as it is wittily open as it is often genuinely creepy. It’s an art that Laurie R. King has perfected, and this is another winner in the catalogue.

If Castle Shade sounds like your bag, then there are a couple of exciting giveaways taking place over at Allison & Busby.

First, a chance to win the entire Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell series alongside a pot of delicious honey.

Secondly, a promo whereby you can buy the book and an exclusive signed bookplate for £15. Snap it up while you have the chance by following here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air

Life Without Air eBook: Lafarge, Daisy: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Daisy Lafarge’s stirringly novel & beautiful debut collection refocuses and reimagines air in all its forms, encouraging exploration both personal and societal

Edition Published by: Granta Books, 2020

Much of the beauty in poetry comes from reimagining things we, as humans, take for granted. It’s one of the reasons why much eco-poetry is so powerful; it forces us to examine our exploitative subconscious.

Daisy Lafarge’s by now revered debut collection, Life Without Air, does the exact same thing with our prime lifeforce. But she goes much further than just to explore the relationship between humanity and naturism. Here, air’s status as an element allows it an entire conscience of its own, a beautiful dose of wilful determination and genuinely novel poetic licence.

In short, Life Without Air is staggeringly wide-ranging in its ability to poke holes in things we think we understand.

Confessional and Society

It’s not an official maxim of course, but it’s roundly known that what you contribute to society depends on your circumstance. If the job of the poet is to make sense of huge ailments both internal and external, then Daisy Lafarge meets that brief with exquisite gumption.

Falsification Air is one prime example, as it casts new eyes on internal imprisonment by almost anthropomorphising air:

‘Consider the sheets of air gridlocked in double-glazing’.

The starkly direct Performing The Border and Gaslit Air later on find the narrator blaming themselves for their insecurities, the implication being that these have been foisted upon them – especially as women – by society. Ghosted is remarkably affecting too, not least due to its penchant for stinging one-liners:

‘Ghosting is not an action performed by ghosts, it breeds them’.

Almost everything can be interpreted is a self-examining and wider light, making Life Without Air naturally accessible.

Catharsis

But whereas many poets don’t look for redemption from societal issues, Lafarge’s righteousness often amounts to a pervasive, life-affirming sense of catharsis. In The Daughter Channel, the ‘prehistoric pain’ of womanhood rises out of itself, and How To Leave a Marriage hands misogyny’s comeuppance to it on a plate.

It’s particularly poignant in stag night in the embassy with Genie. In it, Lafarge turns exploratory injustice outwards, honing-in on sinister men, who are:

‘Contemplating their actions of the night before,
nudging underbaked knobs of almond
croissants with incremental crumbs
of mirth.’

As these men’s world and power collapses around them come the poem’s end, Genie is in total control.

Breathing Space

Lafarge’s use of space and metaphorical silence is also a marvel. Oftentimes, the poems are separated by multiple blank spaces, decorated with non-invasive drops in their unmarked expanse. Almost rune-like in their mysticism, they serve to heighten the sheer size and variation in Lafarge’s canvas.

And when it comes to the poetry itself, Lafarge uses space to both confine and redefine her words. In the titular poem, each section takes up a half page and leaves emptiness in its place, simultaneously breaking the flow and encouraging personal debate.

But she also sometimes deliberately starves her poetry of air. What Genie Got – something of a coming-of-age narrative – is presented in half-formed near-paragraphs, and the sense of restraint young women have imposed on themselves is evident from the first line:

‘She Got in in the chest like the thump from Elijah.’

A Refreshing Poetic Paradox

The titular poem encompasses the collection’s ethos best. In most contexts here, air is as automatic as it is nefarious. As such, life without it is often cleaner, purer and more human. It’s a beautiful poetic paradox, and one which might see Life Without Air be considered a classic in years to come.

You can buy Life Without Air here.

Book Review: The Forward Book Of Poetry 2021

The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 by Various Poets | Waterstones

This year’s edition of the Forward compendium acts, as ever, as a shimmering primer of essential contemporary talent

Edition published by: Bookmark, 2020

Many would take it as given that the most resonant poems have the strongest narrative arcs. For me, that’s not always the case – take the likes of Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things, or much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. But in the case of The Forward Book of Poetry 2021, it’s pretty much always true.

While many of them have clearly defined themes and influences, their pace and connotations often outrun their parameters. For this review, I’ve honed-in on three multi-faceted themes specifically, but that’s just a microcosm of what the collection entails.  

Femininity

Straight away, Caroline Bird’s Dive Bar reflects a sisterhood; there’s a sense of togetherness, a specific experience becoming a ribbon for universal femininity. The really startling words are almost mumbled over; ‘swaying’ and ‘swallowing’ connoting adaptation and imprisonment in pure ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ style.

Vickie Feaver’s timeless 1974 highlights societal pressure on women and the extremities that can drive them too, and how unchanging those schisms are. Sarah Tsiang’s Dick Pics acerbically explores double standards and the removal of innocence. In Ella Frears’ Sestina For Caroline Bergvall, ‘the edge’ and the backs of heads become synonymous with comfort for women, while Rachel Long’s The Omen leaves women’s futures ominously open-ended, especially as mothers.

Perhaps most affecting of all is Regi Claire’s spellbinding (Un)certainties, written in tribute to her sister who died in a boating accident. A constant guessing game, Claire’s poem is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity of trauma and soul-searching, a mirage of idioms and half-truths. But by the end, assertions become more certain and it’s possible to read the options as excuses – excuses as to why society has let women down again. This is brought full-circle beautifully at its close:

‘When I tried to explain, he did not understand.
Could not’.

Claire’s mourning has highlighted just how much distance exists between men and women, especially regarding personal loss.

Form

Form is employed relatively conservatively across the collection, but when it’s not, the pieces shimmer and sting like proper guttural cries.

Nina Mingya Powles’ Conversational Chinese is the most stirring early example. Taken from her Collection Magnolia and described as one of many ‘love letters to Shanghai’ and ‘retracing steps to a language you’ve lost’, the blanks connote holes in personal and historical identity, and there’s a stark see-sawing between aspects she can’t remember and perhaps those she’s wilfully forgotten. The specificity of answering questions in full sentences also speaks volumes about the weighty expectations enacted on migrant communities.

Elsewhere, Carolyn Forche embodies the immensely tough and unyielding imagery in Museum of Stones. Likewise, the brutalist foundations of Francesca Lock’s On insomnia reflect the imprisonment perfectly, and likely resonant to anyone who has ever struggled with sleeplessness. As she says; ‘this is forever’.

In Shane McCrae’s The Hastily Assembled Angel on Care and Vitality, spaces act as cracks, a flickering image where perceptions don’t align until the very end, tangible feeling reserved for the final couplet as well.

Distance

The dichotomy between roots, belonging and identity has unsurprisingly been extensively explored by poets over the last five years – trauma for migrant communities in particular has been inescapable on a global scale. And all the ruminations on that subject here offer some unique angle; Pascale Petit’s luscious Tiger Gran, Chen Chen’s Year’s End and both of Nina Mingya Powles’ poems are exceptional highlights in that regard.

The mercurial Dean Atta tackles plenty with The Making, but there’s a clear sense of what you can learn from further afield, as well as the melding of the human and technology, of the tangible and the distant. In Fucking In Cornwall, Ella Frears finds connection in coldness, while in Maria Ferguson’s My Letters, anxiety and mundanity are far more comfortable than confronting a direct relationship.

The nature of compendiums like this are that certain selections feel slightly at odds without their entire contexts. Whilst beautiful, that’s certainly true of poems from the likes of Natalie Diaz and Martha Sprackland.

But what the Forward Book of Poetry always does best is show the extent to which resonant, powerful poetry is in rude health. The best way to view it is as exactly what it is; a primer for serious, essential talent in contemporary writing.

You can buy The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 here.

Book Review: Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time

Show Them a Good Time: Amazon.co.uk: Flattery, Nicole: 9781526611901: Books

In her debut collection of short prose, Nicole Flattery focuses on womanhood and smashing expectations to assert herself as one of Irelands most astute young writers

Edition published by: Bloomsbury Circus, 2019

If you’ve been paying attention to the short story form, then you’ll know that Irish short prose is in rude health just now. From the mercurially gifted Wendy Erskine to Danielle McLoughlin and Kevin Barry, the palette is as rich as it’s ever been. And refreshingly, all of them are forging ahead and out of the perennial spectres of Joyce and Beckett.

One can most certainly add Nicole Flattery to their company. Show Them a Good Time, her debut collection, is one of those that starts with a big subject – the nefariously multi-faceted perception of women in wider society – but lets that subject form itself out of surrealism and tangibility. It simultaneously achieves an organic sense of worth and pushes worthiness away, in frequently hilarious and headstrong ways.

And its real magic lies in the way it manages to unscrupulously and breathlessly smash expectations; both those of the protagonists and the reader. Flattery’s writing is often tricksy, and yet she holds the rudder straight via instantly realistic truths, fears and injustices.

A Tale of Two Landscapes

As well as thematic femininity, there are specific notions that thread themselves through Show Them A Good Time, a constant reminder of the crushing weight women experience. There’s the persistent cultural battle between the presence of ‘the city’ and rural Ireland – something Flattery, who lives in Galway, might be acutely aware of.

In the likes of the titular story, the notion of making a life for oneself is synonymous with big metropolitan breaks, and anyone who never gets there is left behind. But in this instance that city existence forces our protagonist back to where she grew up, judged and ashamed by her existence there in the pornographic industry. The city offers no sense of completion; when Kevin asks her why she got into that business, she replies:

‘Well, I’d gone all that way. I had to do something’.

In Flattery’s world, living rurally is just as ghostly, particularly when lurched over by the shadows of parents & familial expectations – another curse that lingers throughout the collection.

At its most direct, the notion of being outcast by all your surroundings is hammered home in juicily stark ways, whether that be via internet dating in Not The End Yet or multitudinous variations on motherhood (or the lack thereof) in Track and Parrot. In the former, for example, potential distance between mother and son – emphasised by the vacuity of fame – is laid bare when the protagonist writes a scathing review of her comedian boyfriend on a forum under his mother’s name.

Abortion: A Love Story

Very much the collection’s centrepiece and longest story, Abortion: A Love Story pulls absolutely no punches in its meandering arc. It maintains Flattery’s ability to be utterly absurdist while construing real soul, and is without doubt the most on-the-nose accounting of a patriarchal society that I’ve read for some time.

It follows two students at an unnamed college – Natasha and Lucy – both of whom have experienced enormous personal loss. Those losses are amplified by societal expectations, from both men and women, and both secularism and religion; as well as all the other societal ruminations Flattery’s covered previously.

As the two protagonists piece together a brilliantly funny, poignant play, their lives become about subverting those expectations and reclamation; and that’s where Flattery’s real structural mastery comes into play.

If instances in the story are confusing, then that seems deliberate. Not unlike Micaela Cole’s extraordinary I May Destroy You, there are plenty of ruminations on the general emotional and cognitive confusion caused by trauma; in Natasha’s case the inability to finish sentences or forgetting what she’s studying. Initially she feels threatened by Lucy, but it’s through their shared trauma – Lucy has cut herself off from her past completely, including her ‘country’ parents – that they begin to make sense of each other.

And actually, it’s amidst that confusion that the protagonists give us the most biting glimpses of their strength of character. Natasha says that she ‘doesn’t like anyone my own age’, whereas Lucy bats everything away with a rickety but hilarious sense of self:

Lucy: ‘Jesus Christ let me out of here’.
Professor: ‘Who said that Lucy?’
Lucy: ‘Beckett’.

If the derision of Beckett is a plucky comment on the way in which Irish character is canonised, then Flattery flips it on its head and makes it even more pertinent and humanly powerful later on. After admitting to having self-destructive impulses, Lucy asks her:

‘Would you say you’re a typical Irish girl?’

Eventually, the whole notion of their play becomes about not giving people what they want; allowing these women to behave how they want to societally – a place of ‘no laws’. But as the play convulses around itself and becomes a compendium of otherworldly pain and savage socio-political commentary, Flattery doesn’t just trick her invented audience, but us, the actual reader, too. It’s an exceptional, riveting double-bluff. And even if the impact of Lucy & Natasha’s efforts is left fairly open-ended, the sense of achievement and subversion takes on a life of its own.

Wit and Wisdom

A lot of Show Them A Good Time struts the line between personalisation and looking in from the outside impressively. Flattery doesn’t make every line hefty with portent, which means that when that heft is delivered – either humorously or otherwise – it rings harsher.

In her hands, dark humour becomes pretty much her most malleable ingredient. In the titular story, she manages to condense total anxiety into nifty one-liners:

‘In my entire life, not a single good thing had come from standing in a circle’.

Or marks the way sex deceives the reality of relationships with men with a giddy sense of pathos:

‘I loved being picked up. Things were much clearer from that height’.

Or in Sweet Talk, where she manages to make the Exorcist seem like a fair walk in the park from the perspective of a teenage Irish girl:

‘It was dark, but it was just priests really. Priests in unusual circumstances.’

In Hump she expertly traverses masculine sensitivity and the bleakest crags for jokes in probably the whole collection. Upon relaying that her father had only spoken for 30% of his life, our protagonist says:

‘It was a dismal percentage, and I was familiar with what dismal percentages could do to a person’.

That the protagonist is a 17-year-old shows just how much agency women have from a young age; the sneering idea that young people aren’t capable of understanding what the world holds for them is felled in one brilliant swoop here. And then mere moments later, she allows us to glimpse into body dissatisfaction with sardonic bluntness:

‘I was surprised when I caught site of my concentration camp legs. How did they support me?’

At no point does any of Show Them a Good Time feel incongruous. Flattery never leaves the real world; reality is pretty much the most intrinsic part of this collection. But she forces us to look at reality in revitalising ways. Her characters do and say the opposite of what they’re expected to, and her prose is soaked in turns of phrase that come out of nowhere. It’s a collection establishes her as one of Ireland’s most astute young writers.  

Book Review: Emily Brand’s The Fall of The House of Byron

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England:  Amazon.co.uk: Brand, Emily: 9781473664302: Books

Emily Brand’s latest about the ancestors of the infamous Romantic poet is wonderfully researched and sometimes riveting, if not always totally engaging.

Edition Published By: John Murray Press, 2020

Probably nobody reading this blog will need an introduction to George, 6th Lord Byron. Like many of the Romantic poets, he’s a ‘love him or loathe him’ character whose resonance on the page might well be overshadowed by his infamy in life.

In The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, historian Emily Brand maps the origins of his contrary condition, by examining his ancestors throughout the 1700s. As it turns out, the malaise and melodrama his poetry is renowned for was pretty much heredity.

After 3 years and a frankly astonishing amount of research – and this book really is fabulously thorough – the tome lands on our laps. But is it as scandalous and deliciously riveting as its title suggests? For me, the answer is sometimes.

How Dramatic Is Georgian High Society?

Beginning with an introduction to Newstead Abbey – which became arguably the greatest, saddest metaphor for the whole Byron dynasty – Brand writes with real vigour. She rolls through a cast of indulgent characters, all with something to lose or gain from the estate and its happenings.

She creates here something which permeates periodically throughout the book; a sense of doomed murkiness and foreboding shadows, itchy paranoia and whispers of violence. All those senses are certainly relevant at various points throughout the Byron story.

Newstead Abbey – aka the Byron estate – today. Image Credit: alan feebery Flickr.

For all her nuance, she can mediate the most outrageous moments with her own kind of tickling coarseness. When writing about Lord Byron in the chapter Folly Castle, she notes:

‘He receives word that a scornful former lover has decided not just to kiss and tell, but to f**k and publish’.

But often, the scandal and downfall promised in the title feel as though they’re a long time coming. Brand often spends a long time focussing on the characters’ esteemed military careers, or fairly innocuous everyday observations.

She sometimes writes those occurrences with gripping drama, especially in the chapter about John Byron, or ‘Foul Weather Jack’. But essentially, there’s a lot of padding around the dramatic moments, so how gripping you find large parts of the book will depend on your appetite for Georgian high society.

Amplifying Women’s Voices

In much of her work, Brand’s emphasis is on relaying women’s perceptions and perspectives in an era of strict misogyny.

While there’s not much here that suggests anything other than the typical patriarchal cruelty of wider society, Brand expertly accounts for the female members of the Byron household, either through her own characterful descriptions:

‘She indulges her melancholy ideas and inevitable tears, knowing they go unobserved in the dim light’.

Or through diary cuttings from both the protagonists and the circles they moved in.

She devotes plenty of time to Isabella Byron, identifying her place and presence in that world resplendently. As the book goes on, Isabella essentially becomes the dynasty’s great tragic figure, her eventually morose life the product of some terrible decisions but also of the ‘wolves at the door’; the mob mentally of the sneering Georgian upper classes and their insatiable appetite for gossip. Indeed, when she died in 1795:

‘Her demise elicited no fanfare, going unreported for two weeks…’

Emily Brand delivers a snapshot of Isabella Byron’s personality and life.

Brand does relay strength, both emotional and intellectual, in pretty much all of the Byron women too. It’d be nigh-on-impossible not to have sympathy for the canny Catherine Gordon, who fights on amidst the poisonous pull of the detestable ‘mad’ Jack Byron.

But any major confrontations by Brand towards women in society and sexism at the time come fairly few and far between.

It’s Not All About Him

Anyone coming to this book thinking it mostly about Lord Byron the 6th himself might be disappointed; it’s not really about him. But it is, in part, about how much he embraced his family’s ruin, in both his work and life.

If you’re as interested in Georgian England as Brand is, then you’re likely to love this. But the stories don’t feel vastly different from those you might find elsewhere, other than in the Byronic element.

You can buy The Fall Of The House Of Byron here.

Book Review: Sarah Hawkswood’s Blood Runs Thicker

Blood Runs Thicker by Sarah Hawkswood

The latest novel in Sarah Hawkswood’s Hugh Bradecote series, Blood Runs Thicker, is a gritty, page-turning medieval whodunnit packed with reach realism and beautifully realised modernity.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

The historical thriller genre has always been a fan favourite. Thanks to writers like C. J. Samson, Ellis Peters and Ariana Franklin, it has enjoyed years in the sun recently. And Sarah Hawkswood is well in the fray as well, which is where we find her new Bradecote novel Blood Runs Thicker.

Set in Worcestershire in the mid-12th century, the De Lench family is sent spiralling into crisis when Osbern, the lord of the manor, is found dead. Called to try and put the pieces of a murderous, complex puzzle together, Hugh Bradecote, his assistants Serjeant Catchpoll and Walkelin get drawn into a murky world of treachery, layers of intrigue and questionable morality.

With a vast number of suspects, finding out the truth behind Osbern’s death is as brain-bending for them as it is riveting for us.

The ‘Classic Thriller’ and Authenticity

Hawkswood’s novel has several classic elements of whodunnit storytelling. There are multiple motives and murky disingenuous characters. There’s familial disenfranchisement, dark pasts a-plenty and simmering feuds. She even has her own Poirot in the shape of Bradecote, a methodical, moral and timely detective who sees through cracks in society to its often-rotten core.

The intricacies and twists are readable and clever without ever being pretentious or having the visible urge to prove itself so.

But there’s also real authenticity here. The scene setting is often beautifully evocative:

‘The church was silent except for the sound of a lone voice chanting in Latin, which faltered as they opened the door’.

And it’s in those moments that you feel like you’re part of the novel itself, sucked in and second-guessing suspects as much as you’re trying to stay one step ahead.

Adding to that flavour is the exuberant dialogue and the cloying sense of claustrophobia in the setting of rural, feudal Worcestershire. Everything feels closer and more inescapable, and when the accusations fly it can get suitably chaotic.

Timeless Modernity

Despite taking place in 1144, central to Hawkswood’s prose is a deep and refreshingly modern lens. There’s a lot about strength in femininity, toxic masculinity and the destruction it causes, and a flipping of gender roles between men and women.

The female characters are given strident voices whilst also being conduits for ethics, personal strength and integrity. Bradecote’s acknowledgement of the cards life often deals women is established in previous novels, but even though it comes from personal loss, it still feels refreshingly modern. And as such, that modernism is always handled with total care and never feels out of place.

There are also, in the book’s more poignant moments, ruminations on the way very little changes, and in particular the lack of accountability for many men. That this is addressed makes a very welcome change.

A Gritty, Engaging Read

Blood Runs Thicker knows it audience, knows it art form and appeases both magnificently. It’s in the dynamics between characters and Hawkswood’s simple but soul-seeing writing that one becomes attached. And while the left-hooks lead to a direct conclusion, it never loses its grittiness or engagement throughout.

You can purchase Blood Runs Thicker from Allison & Busby now.

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BOOK REVIEW: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry

Soumen Daschoudhury's review of A Star Called Henry

Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth

Edition published: Vintage, 2000

Acclaim is a strange thing. And as much as people like to state that they don’t care about/pay attention to critical acclaim, it almost always leaves a resonant taste in the mouth.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in his The Last Roundup series, is certainly critically acclaimed. There are many who consider Doyle one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, if not *the* greatest. It’s narrated, in coarse and strikingly frank style, by the teenage protagonist Henry Smart, from his earliest years in poverty in Dublin through his ascension in the IRA and his involvement in both the Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence.

Sympathy with the Devil

From the off, Henry Smart is a deeply dislikeable voice, but Doyle measures that with his own sense of flare. His prose, whilst poetically loose, is accessibly lyrical. He presents a massive, glitzy Dublin alongside the seedy underbelly which is his emphasis with conviction.

His depictions of violence and the factional nature of the IRA, the paranoia and distrust are vivid and authentic. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the first third of the book; certain deaths and predicaments are shocking, some realisations evergreen and pertinent.

‘1916 is about contested memory and history’. A BBC Newsnight commemoration of the Easter Rising, 100 years on.

But rather quickly, as Henry becomes more involved with atrocities and delivers mean-spirited assertions, the question becomes as to how much sympathy one has with the protagonist. Essentially, how much do you care about their fate?

And by about halfway through, I didn’t care. And there’s a massive, ugly elephant in the room that seems to have been almost routinely ignored.

Gender Roles from the Middle Ages

That aforementioned elephant is that the sex/gender politics in A Star Called Henry are staggeringly misguided, even by the standards of 1999.

Firstly, the way Doyle writes sex is entirely devoid of romance – though one would expect that from the perspective of a 14-year-old. Its voyeuristic cringe-worthiness is just about manageable until incidents of statutory rape – involving Henry and one of his former teachers – become frequent.

Henry loses his virginity to that teacher, who is twice his age, at 14, and continues to have sexual relations with another older woman. He eventually marries the teacher, Miss O’Shea, at the age of 17 (he fakes his birth certificate to say that he’s 22) – she is 32. At no point is there any sense of impropriety at these happenings, neither in the novel nor in critical reception.

But just as offensive is that every woman in the novel exists entirely as a sex object for Henry. Miss O’Shea is given 1.1-dimensional portrayal via her willingness to partake in revolutionary violence, but that lasts for about two pages.

About 2/3 through, we meet a woman who is just as coarse and brutal as Henry. *Finally*, I sighed. A female character who might amount to more than a twisted take on desire. But no – Doyle writes her out as quickly as she appeared by saying that she wants to ‘rape’ Henry. I wish I was making that up.

Authenticity Vs. Distastefulness

It seems, from his own acknowledgements, Doyle did a fair amount of research into the era he focussed on. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. His gross approach to femininity and women on the page would be pig-headed in any decade.

To still have the same acclaim behind his writing, one assumes that Roddy Doyle has become better at writing women since A Star Called Henry. I’m not sure I’ll trouble myself to find out, though.  

An old, fractured image of Michael Collins, one of Irish Independence’s loudest voices. Image Credit: National Library of Ireland Flickr.

You can buy A Star Called Henry here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.