Three Sisters by Helen Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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The short story Three Sisters was offered as a free download by its author, Helen Smith, to attendees of the BritCrime Ball earlier in December. I subscribe to the BritCrime newsletter as it is a great resource for keeping up to date with the latest in UK crime and mystery writing.
Three Sisters is a modern mystery story set in Brixton, an area of London that I have visited a few times so was able to easily picture, especially with the help of Smith's fabulous descriptions. She really does have a talent for amusing metaphor. Our heroine, Emily, is upset at the recent death of her beloved dog so chooses an apparently atypical action for her - attending an performance art party in an abandoned building at the end of her street. I loved the sound of this party with its circus acts and bizarre characters. Emily soon spots, however, that all is not as it should be and sets herself to exploring behind the curtains.
This is a short story so there isn't space for extensive character development, but, for once, that didn't really matter to me as I was swept up in Smith's beautifully described visuals. The is-it-or-isn't-it crime is neatly plotted and satisfying. I have already downloaded another of Smith's stories and look forward to reading it.
The Glasshouse by Allan Campbell McLean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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I downloaded a copy of The Glasshouse when I saw it advertised in an Endeavour Press newsletter. I chose it primarily for its Scottish connections because I am not a great fan of military fiction, however The Glasshouse turned out to be a gripping and thought-provoking read. I would love to have read a round dozen of Scottish books by the end of the year, but so far this is only my eleventh book for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015.
The Glasshouse is set towards the end of the Second World War. Peace has already been declared in Europe and the Americans have just dropped their first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. World-changing events are kept from the prisoners in the Glasshouse though. This British military prison for British soldiers is completely isolated from the outside world, both by high walls and by the insane mania of its guards. Author Allan Campbell Mclean was himself incarcerated in one of these bizarre institutions during the time period of which he writes so, although his novel is fictitious, it is strongly rooted in remembered fact and this makes reading the book a horrifying experience. Prisoners are treated as less than human by guards who are drunk on power, or just plain drunk, and viciously sadistic, egged on by a mentally disturbed commandant who, to my way of thinking anyway, should not even be allowed command of himself! One particular scene - prisoners building a pyramid from huge timber planks only to have to tear it down and start again when it was complete - reminded me of the forced labour in Martin Sherman's play Bent, where concentration camp prisoners undertook similarly pointless forced labour.
What was most shocking for me were the violently bigoted attitudes displayed by so many characters. Mclean's writing made every one of these men believably real and I do hope that our armed forces no longer display such outrageous racism, xenophobia and misogyny. The Glasshouse is a brilliant piece of writing that perfectly captures a certain place and time. I can't actually say that I enjoyed reading the book - its subject matter doesn't really lend itself to the word, but I am certainly glad to have read it.
Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Buy the paperback from Waterstones
I received a copy of Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock from its publishers, Amazon imprint 47North, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.
Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind caught my attention for its wonderful title which I learned is from a Laura Cereta quote. In the book, Charnock tells three stories side-by-side, each tenuously linked by the art of fifteenth century painter Paolo Uccelli and his daughter, thirteen year old Antonia. Antonia's is one of our three protagonists. Living as she really did in fifteenth century Italy, her short life -she died aged thirty-five - was spent primarily within the walls of a convent. Charnock imagines this as the only way her father could ensure her freedom to paint professionally. A husband of the time would surely not have allowed a career for his wife. This rang very true for me having not so long ago read Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel, a biography of a comparable woman's life.
Charnock's second thread is Toni, a teenager in 2015 who has travelled to China with with her art copyist father. He too encourages his daughter's artistic talents, but in this time period there isn't a question of art or marriage. Indeed, for Toni such decisions for her future aren't even on the cards yet even though she is the same age as our historical Antonia.
In the year 2113, Toniah is a single woman in her twenties living with her sister and niece in a wholly female household. Due to technological advances, husbands and fathers are no longer necessary for human reproduction and Charnock presents a vision of a Britain where male-excluded households are becoming commonplace and Toniah's work as an art historian is reinstating women who were 'inadvertently overlooked' by traditional patriarchal history.
I enjoyed reading all three stories, especially the historical one, and liked how Charnock asks questions about gender and the importance of balance. Her protagonists' lives have factors in common as well as divergence and I was interested in her portrayal of the differences in female freedom as well as what I thought was a 'is this too far?' question in her futuristic scenario. Some of the dialogue doesn't quite sit right for its character, but overall I found the characters themselves to be well thought through and believable. What I didn't like about the book though, and what really ruined it for me, was the abruptness of the ending. It just stops with Antonia/Toni/Toniah each poised on the threshold of their futures and no sense of closure. I have since read elsewhere that this deliberate device on Charnock's part was inspired by other works she had read, leaving the story open to the reader's imagination, but I was left feeling rather that at least a quarter of the novel was simply missing.
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