Category Archives: Blogging

Case Study: Graeme Macrae Burnet

Some pages into Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel I decided to look up the term Case Study, and this is what I found: “a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context.” Keeping that definition at the back on my mind, I understood the aptness of the title.

The story is told by GMB, a writer who is fascinated by the work of Collins Braithwaite the “enfant terrible of the so-called anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s.” GMB stumbled across Braithwaite’s book, Untherapy in a used bookshop, and he finds the book, a collection of case studies to be “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling.” When GMB attempts to research Braithwaite’s work, he finds “scant information” on the internet and disappointingly, the Braithwaite archive at the university of Durham contains just a “couple of cardboard boxes” of manuscripts some newspaper clippings and a few letters. But then GMB receives an email in response to a blog post about Braithwaite. The email is from a man who calls himself Mr. Grey, admits that this is not his real name, and that he has in his possession notebooks written by his cousin. Grey states that the notebooks “contain certain allegations about Braithwaite.” So Mr Grey, refusing to meet GMB, posts the notebooks. GMB reads them and the content of these notebooks constitute a large portion of the novel.

So now to the notebooks: a young woman named Veronica visited Braithwaite a number of times. She later committed suicide and Braithwaite’s notes pertaining to Veronica appear in his book, Untherapy, but he cloaks her identity by calling her Dorothy. Dorothy’s sister blames Braithwaite for her sister’s suicide, so she too begins visiting Braithwaite assuming the name Rebecca Smythe. And Rebecca is not a happy camper:

In this spirit, I shall begin by stating the facts. The danger to which I have alluded comes in the person of Collins Braithwaite. You will have heard him described in the press as ‘Britain’s most dangerous man’, this on account of his ideas about psychiatry. It is my belief, however, that it is not merely his ideas that are dangerous. I am convinced, you see, that Dr. Braithwaite killed my sister, Veronica. I do not mean that he murdered her in the normal sense of the word, but that he is nonetheless, as responsible for her death as if he had strangled her with his bare hands.

Rebecca, since she is seeking sessions with Braithwaite, decides to appear as a disturbed young woman. But a few pages into her journal, and it’s clear that Rebecca is disturbed. Intriguingly, while ‘Rebecca’ adds a few trivial touches to her pretense of being disturbed (holes in her stockings) in reality it becomes clear the Rebecca has many issues and had a troubled relationship with her now deceased sister. Rebecca finds that her newly created persona offers her a freedom from her usual/daily self. (Here I thought of Belle de Jour–a bit of an extreme example but in essence the same thing.)

The novel explores therapy and the dangers of an unhinged therapist. We all know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ doctors, and we know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ therapists. Damaged people seeking therapy from an egomaniac of a therapist who seems more interested in flouting the established schools of psychotherapy than actually helping patients is a formula for trouble. Braithwaite is, in many respects, an appalling human being: his treatment of the women in his life for example. Yet he had some interesting ideas:

To embrace the idea that a person is not a single self, but a bundle of personae, all of which should be valued equally.

The novel is set in London in the 1960s and splits between sections of Braithwaite’s bio and Rebecca. The book’s preface and postscript introduce and extend the novel’s amalgam of fact and fiction. The author goes into the term Case Study on his website. Th

Reading this was like watching a prolonged loop of that famous scene from The Lady from Shanghai. –disorienting but you can’t turn your eyes away.

The Gerts’ review.

Review copy

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Miss Hargreaves: Frank Baker

Some readers may remember the 1985 film Weird Science and its premise that two high school nerds create the ‘perfect woman.’ Weird Science was a hit at the time of its release and is now considered a cult classic. And why not–the film reflects Hollywood’s obsession with high school (high school sexuality) and it’s also a buddy film. And that brings me to Frank Baker’s 1939 novel, Miss Hargreaves. In Weird Science, the two high school teens created, using a computer programme, a sexy, scantily dressed woman. In Miss Hargreaves, Norman Huntley and his friend, Henry create an ancient, indominable, eccentric elderly lady using just their imagination.

It happens like this: Norman and Henry go on holiday to Lusk, a small village in Ireland. They had a “grand month” in spite of the rain, mostly in the countryside around Lusk. One day they decide to visit Lusk church and Norman feels a reluctance to go inside. Unfortunately, the sexton, a man with a squint and a “grave-digging manner” lets them inside the locked church. As the sexton shows Norman and Henry around the church, both young men experience a sort of dread, and as a way of alleviating the mood, they start making up a story about a fictitious woman named Miss Hargreaves. A lively repartee is exchanged between Norman and Henry as they add colourful details about the eccentric Miss Hargreaves whose hobbies include writing poetry and painting watercolours. The merriment continues even after they leave the church and soon the two young men have created a vivid portrait of Miss Hargreaves, along with her pet parrot named Dr. Pepusch and a Bedlington terrier called Sarah. At the apex of the gush of creative joking, Norman dashes off a letter to the fictitious Miss Hargreaves and invites her to stay at his family home in the town of Cornford. And this is when the trouble begins. …

Norman returns home to his family. Oddly, very oddly as it turns out, Norman’s father, an eccentric bookshop owner, finds a book of poems for sale in his shop, and to Norman’s horror, the poems are the work of Miss Hargreaves. The appearance of the book of poems should be a warning of things to come. Imagine his astonishment when Miss Hargreaves arrives–along with her cockatoo and her Bedlington terrier. She is everything that Norman imagined. On one hand, he’s amazed and proud of his creation, but on the other hand, she’s so demanding that she causes a great deal of trouble in Norman’s life.

A shrill, imperious voice had cried, “Porter! Porter! Porter!” Simultaneously the cockatoo, with a sepulchral growl on a low D, stopped singing. By now everybody else had got out. A porter sprang to a first-class carriage and opened the door. With his assistance, slowly, fussily, there emerged an old lady. She was carrying two stick, an umbrella and a large leather handbag. Following her was a fat waddling Belington terrier, attached to a fanciful purple cord.

With no small difficulty, Norman persuades Miss Hargreaves to take a room at the local inn instead of following him home. At the inn, Miss Hargreaves wreaks havoc, demanding food that is not on the menu and buying up vases she thinks are so ugly, they must be destroyed. Norman tries to tell a few people that he ‘made up’ Miss Hargreaves but no one, apart from his completely dotty father, believes him. Henry leaves Norman in the lurch at crucial moments and Norman’s young lady becomes extremely jealous of Miss Hargreaves. Norman finds that he must be very careful what he says about Miss Hargreaves as the slightest thing he adds to her imaginary bio comes true. Sections of the story have a certain frantic energy, but this is in contrast to other sections which are overly wordy. Ultimately this is a romp which explores the power and danger of imagination.

“Calm,” I said, “be calm, Norman. You’ll have her in a straight jacket in no time if you play your cards properly.”

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The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

It sounded like flattery. I never liked or trusted that.”

In Geoff Nicholson’s novel, The Miranda, Joe, a divorced psychologist whose work in cognitive behavior therapy led to employment with a government agency, buys a house solely for its 100 yard circular pathway. He intends to “act out a script that in some form or other, I’d had in my head for my entire life.[…] I would walk around the world, and I would do it without ever leaving my own yard.” He appears to be removing himself from society, but all of his neighbours begin to pester him in various ways.

Joe is no longer employed but in the not-so-distant past, he started treating torture survivors for PTSD and then that gradually morphed into becoming a torturer who prepped “volunteers” for torture. No pictures, diagrams or slideshows: Joe actually did the torturing.

I won’t go into the precise details of what I did. For one thing, I’m not allowed to, but the fact is, I don’t believe I did anything to the volunteers that would surprise you. I was going to say I did everything you can imagine, but that couldn’t possibly be true. Any of us, even the most innocent and vanilla, can easily imagine forms of torture that are far, far beyond anything that I did, that I was allowed to do, to the volunteers. I stayed within limits. I was constrained by laws and decency, and to an extent by my own inherent squeamishness.

A point came when Joe, after ‘breaking’ volunteer after volunteer “couldn’t stand it any longer,” and he walked away from the job, but it’s the sort of job that gets under the skin. At first he lives in a flophouse motel, but then crawling back from that low point, he decides to buy a house, and that decision grows into a project:

If your garden, by some chance, happened to contain a circular path that was exactly 100 yards long, you would need to walk around it 440,000 times in order to cover a distance equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator. To put it another way, you would need to make 17.6 circuits of your garden path in order to cover a mile. Repeat that 25,000 times and the job would be done. And that was exactly what I intended to do. That was my plan, my grand project.

Joe decides to set a goal of 25 miles for 1000 days, stating that “in other words, my entire journey [around the world] would take just 95 days less than three years.” It is his “grand obsession.” And while Joe spends his days walking, seeking solitude, various annoying neighbors and even the postman find creative ways to pester Joe. Soon he’s employed an eager woman whose bartending ambitions include creating a timeless drink called “The Miranda.” Trouble looms in the form of violent neighbours who move in the rental behind Joe.

In fact, over the next few days, evidence appeared that the new guys were practitioners of various marital arts. An old-school, leather punching bag appeared, hanging from a tree branch, and they set up one of those rubberized torsos on a spring-loaded base that you can kick and punch to your heart’s content and it always bounces back for more, and (probably more important) it never retaliates. There was much shadow boxing and sparring and the whiling of nunchucks. The boy’s training regime seemed undisciplined, though highly enthusiastic, and it required a lot of shouting.

Before long I also noticed that these new inhabitants had spray-painted the abandoned cars in the driveway with various tags, patterns and symbols, and again from what I could see, it appeared the work was more enthusiastic than skilled, though this was by no means my area of expertise. The boys played their music loud, and they owned a number of big, energetic, brutal dogs; about half a dozen of them, somewhere between mutts and monsters.

These new obnoxious neighbours begin a process of intimidation, but they have no idea what they are dealing with.

In general, I’m not one of those people who worries too much about things that haven’t happened yet. Worrying about what might happen strikes me as a waste of time, because absolutely anything might happen and absolutely anything might not. You can’t be prepared for an infinite number of events and outcomes. The skill, as I see it, is not trying to foresee every possible situation in advance, because that’s impossible, but rather be confident that you can handle any situation as and when–and if–it arises.

I laughed and marveled at the way Joe handles his neighbours, the nosy ones and the violent ones. He is, after all, a therapist specializing in cognitive behaviour therapy. Underneath Joe’s grand walking project there’s the idea that this scheme, while admirable, is just a way to pass the time. Joe is waiting for his past to catch up with him. …

In The Miranda, we find the classic elements of Nicholson’s novels: mania, obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. The novel explores the theme of walking (one of Nicholson’s personal hobbies/obsessions), specifically “walkers who turned their geographical constraints into virtual projects.” Joe describes how Albert Speer “paced out a walking path” at Spandau Prison where he walked seven kilometers a day “virtually” from Berlin to Heidelberg. Later, Speer’s virtual walking goals expanded but he “fretted that any route he chose [to Asia] would involve walking through some dreaded communist countries. He couldn’t face that. Not even in his imagination.”

Joe discusses some famous walkers, walking as therapy, walking as meditation and even compares walking to sex.

Sex and walking are things that some people like to do alone, that some people like to do with just one other person, and that some people like to do in groups of all sizes. Some prefer the company of men while doing it, some prefer the company of women, some are prepared to do it with either. Some will only do it if certain very specific conditions are met. A few require special clothing and equipment. Others are eager to to do it anywhere, any time, in any conditions, at the drop of a hat. A certain number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, really don’t like to do it at all.

Joe’s ex wife and his neighbours find Joe’s project troubling, unsettling and even looney. This witty, entertaining novel mines the idea of neighbours as a special kind of hell. We can’t choose who we live next to, unfortunately, and occasionally neighbours give us insight into our patience (or lack thereof) and what we appreciate and accept as ok behavior. simply to get peace. There’s irony here as Joe knows the intricacies of torture and understands the significance of intimidation and now himself becomes the target of bullying. He craves privacy yet interest in his solo walking in his own back garden makes people curious.

There are several virtual walking sights on the internet. Some cost, some are free, some require membership. Anyway, thanks to The Miranda which will make my best-of-year-list, I have started walking circuits in my back garden.

Virtual walking

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Please Join Us: Catherine Mckenzie

Catherine Mckenzie’s suspense novel Please Join Us takes the reader into the life of lawyer Nicole Muller. At 39, she has sacrificed a great deal for her career, but after losing a major client, one of the firm’s senior partners delivers a warning that her billing hours must soar or she’s out the door. With depressing speed, the news ricochets around the office. Minor law firms suddenly know that Nicole is on her way down and send recruitment emails. But right at the same time, she receives a cryptic invitation also via email inviting her to join an exclusive club, Panthera Leo for women. Dan, Nicole’s husband advises against the trip and, evoking the example of NXIVM suggests that Panthera Leo may be a cult.

Nicole, thinking that there’s nothing to lose, takes the bait, and then she’s off to attend a Panthera Leo retreat in Colorado. Always with these sorts of scenarios there’s a slippery slope. Is it when Nicole signs over 5K to attend the retreat? Is it when she’s told to hand over her cell phone for 5 days? Or is it when the two female leaders: Karma and Michelle, chant phrases that must be chanted back, over an open campfire?

Nicole identifies with the Pathera Leo spiel and list of grievances:

Putting men charge of women’s companies is one of our specialties. Diversity this and diversity that and sensitivity training and you know what’s changed? Exactly nothing, that’s what. If you have a vagina then you’re handicapped. God forbid if you have a kid or show an emotion at work.

Post retreat, everything in Nicole’s life goes swimmingly …. until it doesn’t. I had never heard of NXIVM and so dug up that name. Even watched a documentary about it. After that, I found the plot much easier to accept. Not that this book is about NXIVM.

I have read Catherine Mckenzie before and while this is not my favourite book of hers to date, I enjoyed parts of it. Initially I had problems accepting that Nicole, who seems hard boiled, would succumb to the Panthera Leo pitch, but she does. I couldn’t quite align Nicole’s narrative voice with the character. Plus Nicole is not an appealing character, and that goes for most of the characters in the book. I was interested in Nicole’s initial plight but after she drank the Kool-Aid, well… not as much.

Review copy

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Touch: Olaf Olafsson

In Olaf Olafsson’s Touch, during COVID, Reykjavik restaurateur 74 year-old Kristófer must close his popular and once successful business. He tried to adapt with delivery and takeaway services, but his attempts have failed and the twenty-year-old restaurant is no longer viable. The novel opens with Kristófer finalizing financial matters for the restaurant, paying bills, paying staff. He checks Facebook and there finds a friend request, which he accepts, from Miko Takahashi, a woman he knew, loved and lost more than 40 years before. …

Perhaps thinking he has nothing to lose, and perhaps because he wants to find out why Miko disappeared from his life, Kristófer decides to fly to Japan to see her. She has COVID, was hospitalized but is now home, and Kristófer books his flight without telling his hostile brother Mundi or his prickly stepdaughter Sonja. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that these are both problematic relationships.

Kristófer has a stop in London, and uses the time to visit the scene of the crime–the place where he met Miko, whose father owned a small but successful Japanese restaurant. Part of the novel is a trip down memory lane–an easy to understand action–so Kristófer stands outside of what was once the restaurant and finds instead a tattoo parlour. Talk about getting a sense of one’s own mortality. All this brings back memories for Kristófer. As a student studying Economics he was infected with the 60s bug, and aware of his own lack of interest inn his studies and haunted by the spectre of mediocrity, he dropped out of university and in a moment of sheer bravado decide to enter the restaurant business.

Touch is the examination of a depressing life filled with regretted decisions. There’s Kristófer’s spur-of-the moment decision to begin a restaurant career, his tepid marriage to his now dead wife, Inga, and his dis-spiriting intellectually intimidating relationship with fellow student Jói. The passage of time hammers a bitter reality into these decisions–simultaneously magnifying and diminishing their importance. But the central mystery here is why Miko disappeared.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. I closed my restaurant and traveled halfway across the world. What for? To get back what never existed? To make myself feel better–to search for something that will justify my life?

For this reader, the most interesting sections of the novel explored Kristófer’s flawed personal relationships. He somehow managed to bypass understanding his now-dead wife’s inner life, which goes a long way to explaining his annoying stepdaughter’s alienation. He managed to miss his faithful long-term employee’s dream. Kristófer’s renewed contact with Miko was the least interesting part of the novel, which is unfortunate as it is central. This may be due to my failing/quirk as a human being who fails to see/questions the advisability of picking up a social media friend request from someone who dumped you 40 years before. But perhaps that’s just me. …I’m more of a ‘let sleeping dogs lie,’ ‘the past is a foreign country,’ you made your bed...’ kind of person. Call that living in the moment.

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The Complicities: Stacey d’Erasmo

Stacey d’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities looks at the fallout of financial fraud through the lives of a handful of characters. When the novel opens, Suzanne is beginning a new life following the imprisonment of her white collar criminal husband Alan for fraud. She moves to Chesham, a Massachusetts beach town, changes her name and tries to find a way to support herself. Suzanne’s new life isn’t easy, plus “her entire life vanished” when her husband was arrested and subsequently imprisoned. The money, the status, the mansion–all gone.

People have lots of opinions, and they say you destroyed their family’s future, but did anyone care about our family and what was happening to us? Why were we suddenly the bad guys?’

Suzanne, while professing not to ‘understand’ money matters, asks herself “how big was his [Alan’s] crime?” Suzanne doesn’t think about Alan’s victims yet she expects people to think about her position:

I’m not saying he didn’t commit a crime; he did things with people’s money that you aren’t really supposed to do, he’d been doing it a long time, and he got caught.

With a “little money” and two suitcases, she trades in her expensive, flashy car for an old Honda which “provided great cover.” She uses her maiden name, rents a dump, prints out a fake certificate from the internet and starts a massage business.

I mean, look: sure, you can call me complicit, but there’s complicit and complicit, isn’t there? It isn’t only one label than explains everything in every situation. There isn’t complicity but complicities, errors of different sizes, plus there are other factors, choices that in hindsight maybe weren’t right, but in the moment it seemed different. Other people have done a lot worse things. Pol Pot. Drug cartels. Sex traffickers.

Hmmm… Suzanne comparing herself favorably to Pol Pot. …

Part of the novel is Suzanne’s new life, her rejection of collect calls from Alan, and her son’s rejection of her. Her life is a slow hard climb just to pay the bills and keep the lights on. As time passes, Suzanne, as narrator, adds Lydia to the tale, the woman Alan meets when he is released from prison. Just as Suzanne skirts the details of her knowledge and involvement in Alan’s crimes, Alan has a constructed a narrative, for Lydia, for what went wrong:

That was when he crossed some lines, but basically, it was all a slow-motion cry for help. He’d had a lot of time in prison to think and read the great philosophers again (again?), and he could see that now. He had always spent so much time taking case of other people, trying to fulfill their expectations even to the point of going to prison himself for it. His need to please, to be the hero, had cost him everything.

Boo hoo. Alan knows how to pick ’em. Later in the novel, the story moves to include Alan’s mother and her role, or complicity, in her son’s approach to life. Ultimately, tangled associations stain and mold our lives and decisions. I enjoyed the novel for its complex approach to moral responsibility, and how love, trust and loyalty are elastically stretched until complicity takes over. I love to read books about how characters deal with money–not just how they spend it, but how the promise of money, the thought of money, lots of it, influences actions and makes people run off the rails.

review copy.

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The Chill: Ross Macdonald (1964)

People who don’t believe in divorce sometimes believe in murder.”

In Ross MacDonald’s The Chill, PI Lew Archer is hired by newlywed, Alex to find his missing bride. Alex and Dolly were on their honeymoon at the Surf House when she was visited by an older, bearded man. After that meeting Dolly disappeared. Archer takes the case and begins digging into the identity of the mystery visitor and Dolly’s past.

According to Alex, Dolly had no family, but Archer discovers that that isn’t true; Dolly’s mother was murdered and her father went to prison for the crime. It doesn’t take much digging for Archer to find Dolly’s mystery visitor: Dolly’s father, fresh out of prison for killing Dolly’s mother. It’s not too surprising that Dolly’s father sought his daughter as it was Dolly’s testimony, as a child, that put him behind bars. Why did she disappear? Is she frightened of her father?

While Archer may have found Dolly’s father, he has yet to find Dolly. His search takes him to the college campus where Dolly enrolled as a student. Vampish Professor Helen Haggerty, Dolly’s academic counselor, invites Archer home for a drink and then begs him to protect her from the mysterious threats she has received. …

The Chill takes Archer back over 20 years and several murders which seem to be inexplicably linked. As the body count rises, Archer runs into an interesting cast of characters: the ex-detective twisted by grief and guilt, the rigid society widow who is happy to bury the truth, and the college dean who doesn’t take a step without mummy’s approval. While I did not guess the solution, when it arrived, it was implausible. Interesting but still implausible. Macdonald’s novels twist on the sordid complications of broken family, and that is true here. When Archer closes his cases, he probably swears he will remain single. Not the best in the series; this is number 11.

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O Caledonia: Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s novel O Caledonia is set in post WWII Scotland, but the dense gothic atmosphere breathes a sense of timelessness into this amazingly visual tale. The book opens with the death of its protagonist, Janet:

Halfway up the great stone staircase which rises from the dim and vaulting hall of Auchnasaugh, there is a tall stained-glass window. In the height of its Gothic arch is sheltered a circular panel, where a white cockatoo, his breast transfixed by an arrow, is swooning in death. Around the circumference, threaded through sharp green leaves and twisted branches, runs the legend “Moriens sed Invictus,” dying but unconquered. By day little light penetrates this window, but in early winter evenings, when the sun emerges from the backs of the looming hills, only to set immediately in the dying distance far down the glen, it sheds an unearthly glory; shafting drifts of crimson, green and blue, alive with whirling atoms of dust, spill translucent petals of colour down the cold grey steps. At night, when the moon is high it beams through the dying cockatoo and casts his blood drops in a chain of rubies on to the flagstones of the hall. Here it was that Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother’s black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody murderous death.

So the questions which remain are why was Janet murdered? Who is the murderer? I’ll add here that this is not a crime novel, but a Gothic novel, and Gothic novels are wrapped in mystery, secrets and … yes crime.

From this astonishing beginning, the book then goes back in time to Janet’s birth. Born in Edinburgh during the war, she is the first child in the family and others follow quickly. Janet’s father, Hector, inherits a remote castle from an uncle with the agreement that Hector’s Aunt Lila continues to live there. Auchnasaugh, as the place is called, was once the residence of Scottish kings. Surrounded by moors and a forest, Janet believes it “held all the enchantment she had ever yearned for.”

Janet is the ugly duckling–the unattractive one. Hers is a lonely, isolated childhood but she fills the spaces with this wild place and her imagination.

She nurtured a shameful, secret desire for popularity, or at least for acceptance, neither of which came her way.

There are very few people in Janet’s social circle: her disinterested parents, Jim the gardener who sadistically murders any animals he finds, Miss Wales “the choleric cook” and potty Aunt Lila. Lila, a Russian exile, spends her days reading, drinking and painting in the company of her ancient “balding” decrepit cat, Mouflon, who was responsible for the premature death of Lila’s husband. In this household, Janet connects to Lila–perhaps because Lila is also a misfit but has grown old enough not to care.

Throughout the story there are acts of hideous cruelty–towards people and animals. This is so finely woven into the tale that the casual cruelty is seamlessly embedded into life. Janet fills this world with finer, better things:

Only the red earth of the hill tracks retained its colours; the puddles looked like pools of blood. Of all the seasons this was the one Janet loved most. In the afternoons she would ride up through the forest onto the lonely moors; she felt then, looking into the unending distance of hills ranged beyond hills that if only she had the courage to go on, like True Thomas, might reach a fairyland, another element, the place of the ballads, of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” But as the light ebbed away to a pang of sullen gold on the horizon she would turn back.

We see into Janet’s creative mind as she salves her emotional wounds with books and trudges across the moors with her beloved pet jackdaw. Janet is eventually shipped off to boarding school and while for many children, that is an institution that strips away all individuality and produces young adults with uniform thinking, for Janet it is a “two-dimensional existence.” Life is only real at Auchnasaugh. While Janet may seem like an uninteresting lump to her parents, to this reader I wished she would make her way to adulthood where perhaps she could define life on her own terms. Thanks to Jacqui for pointing me towards this book. I loved it.

Review copy

The Gammell family crest is a pelican pierced with an arrow–same motto.

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Missing Presumed: Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner’s Missing Presumed is the first Manon Bradshaw novel (1 of 3) and since the author died this year at age 51 from brain cancer, there will be no more.

The crime under investigation is the disappearance of Emily Hind, a 24-year-old post graduate student from a privileged background, who vanished from her home. Emily lived with her good-looking boyfriend, Will, and he returned to their home to find her gone, some blood on the floor and two used wineglasses. Since Emily is missing, we get various views of what sort of person she was, and the views offer a range of opinions about Emily. There’s Helena, aka the limpet, Emily’s friend, a slightly sleazy older male fellow student who has a sour view of Emily’s privileged social posturing, and Emily’s ‘perfect’ and perfectly boring boyfriend, Will Carter. As time passes with no news of Emily, details about Emily’s private life float to the surface. Emily is the daughter of Sir Ian Hind (Dr to the stars royals) and his wife, Miriam. Her father resents the media coverage of Emily’s relationships and uses his connections to try to control the narrative about his daughter’s life.

As always with police procedurals we see the lives of the detectives handling the case. DS Manon Bradshaw is working the case along with several other officers. There’s Davy, always upbeat who has an unpleasant girlfriend and also a strong interest in foster kids. DI Harriet Harper, in charge of the case, must juggle the intricacies of the investigation against keeping her superiors happy.

Police Procedurals are my least favourite type of crime novel but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Police work is presented as a hard, unglamorous slog with not enough sleep for those on the case and not enough time to have much of a private life. The main player here is Manon, who at age 39, throws herself into internet dating with depressingly similar results. She has a best friend who is married with kids and Manon feels that life has passed her by. While Manon is devoted to her career, she “remained a DS because if you were smart, you realised things didn’t get better when you climbed the ranks.” Most of the officers we see have failed at relationships (even the ones who are supposedly happily married) and so they plough into the one thing they are fairly good at: police work.

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My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s novel, My Phantoms, is a detailed painful look at divorced parents through the eyes of Bridget, one of two daughters. I came to this novel with no expectations, and found bitter observations and a blistering analysis of two flawed people who met and unfortunately had 2 daughters. While childhood and child-parent relationships are fraught with emotional issues, the author uses the precision skill of a practiced, emotionally detached surgeon to dissect these relationships. The father-child interactions here are toxic, but the decades longer mother-daughter relationship is even more so.

Bridget’s parents divorced when she and her sister, Michelle, were very young. So when Bridget begins her analysis of her parents, it’s post divorce and we are in the long bitter period of visitation. Bridget’s father, Lee, is a horrible man–no he doesn’t molest her or whack her; he harasses her and perhaps I’ll ‘generously’ say attempts to engage her by belittlement. He seems to be threatened by Bridget’s intelligence and education. “His company was something to be weathered.”

Bridget’s almost reptilian nature coldly records her father’s petty, predictable behaviour. He nurses an image of himself as authentic, a “swashbuckling bandit.” He brags about not paying maintenance to his X, and “could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him.” Yes a real winner.

Later, when I applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.

It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding.

After hearing about Bridget’s awful father, we learn about Bridget’s mother, Helen. ‘Hen,’ is also a difficult person. Post divorce Hen begins a “programme of renewal” in Liverpool which involves chaotically throwing herself into hobbies, outings, and events which hold little or no interest. Bridget notes that her mother “was never not out, it seemed. She was never not busy.” Yet “the fabled friends never materialized.” The one person who remains in Hen’s life is a gay man, Griff:

They were a sort of old-style double act, with him the tyrantacolyte and her in a state of perpetual effort.

The novel is almost in 2 parts: Bridget’s childhood and then Bridget as an adult. While reading Bridget’s childhood memories I hoped things would improve with time, but adulthood doesn’t seem much better. However, it must be admitted that Bridget’s adulthood is seen only as it pertains to her mother Hen. In childhood Bridget was subject to her parents’ whims and fancies, and in adulthood tensions remain and games–oldies but goodies–are played.

Bridget’s mother lives in Liverpool and later in Manchester so their meetings are, mercifully few, but nonetheless the annual birthday date is an arena for challenges, snide observations, and sly criticisms. The book is beautifully written, and I felt as though I knew Bridget’s parents. I had tremendous sympathy for Bridget the child–many of us must endure parents who appear to have no genetic connection to us, but by the time Bridget the adult appeared, I wanted her to lighten up. Bridget’s mother is a flawed sometimes frustrating human being but honestly… is she that bad? OK so you have little in common with your mother, but is that her problem or your problem?

She painted a beguiling picture, if you were susceptible to that kind of thing: lonely only child; breathless little girl who had to do this and had to do that. I was not susceptible, but then nor did I ever quite feel that I was the intended audience when she took on like this. There was some other figure she’d conceived and was playing to. That’s how it felt. Somebody beyond our life.

Slowly we see the lines of Bridget and Hen’s carefully crafted relationship–adversarial, toxic, petty. Why isn’t Hen allowed to meet Bridget’s long-time companion, John? Why isn’t Hen allowed into Bridget’s home? Who has the problem here?

This is the sort of book that can get under your skin and one which will generate a range of opinions. One of the most fascinating things here (and I’ll admit I was fascinated by several–it’s like watching a slow poisoning) is the underlying idea of the narratives we give our lives and the lives of others. The novel was, for this reader, a intriguing read. It raises some great questions about the cross generational transference of toxic behaviour. Bridget initially is the recipient/observer of her parents’ behaviors and games, but then when she is an adult, she’s into the games too. I cringed at several points when she lodged a pointless barb like a poison arrow at her mother.

The brilliancy here is embedded in Bridget’s description of her mother’s life narrative. Most people tend to have a narrative of their lives–some are spot-on and some are wildly inaccurate. In this novel, Bridget has a narrative of her mother’s life–Hen’s life is one of disappointment and exclusion. Hen has tried throwing herself into a social whirl but somehow never is included, and her life long friendship remains with Griff who seems alternately tickled and frustrated with Hen. Bridget seems to take a perverse delight in poking her mother for reactions that will then slot into that grim narrative. Additionally Bridget contributes to that narrative by excluding her mother from her life, refusing to let her visit her home to meet her long-time boyfriend, and keeping contact to a superficial minimum. My Phantoms is an excellent–albeit depressing read.

review copy

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