What to Do about the Solomons by Bethany Ball

what to do about the solomons bethany ballWhat to Do about the Solomons is about a family of Israelis. They are people who have come from somewhere and are going somewhere and are never still. We learn about the patriarch, Yakov, born on a kibbutz to Bulgarian Jews, brought up with the strong communist beliefs of the kibbutzim. His future wife, Vivienne, is one of the wave of North African Jews who come after World War Two, who is beautiful and proud and refuses to bend to the ways of the kibbutz women.

Yakov is a charismatic, powerful man who makes money for the kibbutz, and, as they liberalise, for himself. His children move away from their upbringing and work all over the world, and each, in their own way, challenges Yakov’s worldview and his ability to control their future.

What to Do about the Solomons has multiple points of view and shifting chronology. Sometimes it starts a scene, leaves it, and then comes back several pages later. There is no clear narrative arc or overarching theme. Lots of stuff happens to lots of people is about as structured as it gets.

This kind of thing normally bugs me. If the author hasn’t worked out the structure, then I feel they don’t really know what they’re trying to say. However, I reserve the right to contradict myself and in this book, I think it works. It is like eavesdropping on the stories people tell at family parties, talking over and contradicting one another, fuzzy on the chronology or even the protagonists, but each insisting that their version captures the essential truth.

What to Do about the Solomons offers an interesting perspective on Israeli life, and on the changing culture as experienced by three generations of one family. It is irreverent, pacy and very sharp.

I received a copy of What to Do about the Solomons from the publisher via Netgalley.
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I Still Dream by James Smythe

i still dream james smytheIn 1997, between homework and phoning her friends and making mix tapes, seventeen-year-old Laura is still struggling to come to terms with the disappearance of her father several years earlier. Her mother took her to therapy but Laura thinks she can do better.

Building on the code her father, a computer programmer, left behind, she teaches herself to write a piece of artificial intelligence (AI) software called Organon (from the Kate Bush song Cloudbusting which Laura and her father both love). She tells Organon everything, and hopes that as Organon learns from her, it can respond to her needs. As Organon grows it begins to help her in ways she hadn’t anticipated.

The novel revisits Laura and Organon every decade, sometimes from Laura’s perspective, sometimes from the point of view of people close to her. We see how the world changes, how technology develops, the decisions made by corporations that control rival technologies.

I’ve read a couple of books recently which feature AI but this is very different. Usually the focus is on what humanity has created and what it reveals about who ‘we’ are, but this book looks at who is doing the creating and what drives them. Laura’s Organon is different from the alternatives, but why? The story has a lot to say both about the process of creating AI and the values underpinning it, and the questions those creators ask (or fail to ask) themselves.

The ten-year intervals between chapters mean much of what has happened, to both Laura and to society, is not explained. You are given tantalising glimpses, and the opportunity to question, imagine, infer.

Through it all, runs the story of Laura, her humour, her original perspective, her values. She both changes and retains her sense of self as Organon evolves with her. She is a remarkable character and I found the end of the book very poignant.

I finished this book a few days before I wrote this review and I found that my thoughts kept coming back to it. I Still Dream asks questions about consciousness, memory and identity, what we value, how we deal with loss. The more you ask of it, the more you learn.

I received a copy of I Still Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
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The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

the trauma cleaner by sarah krasnosteinThe Trauma Cleaner is a subtly layered narrative which asks questions about identity, memory and the way the people and things around us give us our sense of who we are. It is the biography of Sandra Pankhurst, the trauma cleaner of the title, and the story of how her work in an apparently difficult and unappealing area allows both her healing and her clients’. There is also a quietly building sense that the author’s preoccupation with Sandra’s story relates to her own past.

Sandra Pankhurst has lived not one but a number of extraordinary lives: boy, husband, sex worker, gender reassignment patient, wife and successful business woman. She has also been the victim of a number of horrific crimes, and the book highlights the prejudice and legal discrimination faced by sex workers, the gay and transgender communities and during her lifetime.

The chapters alternate between Sandra’s past and her present. Each of the present chapters tells the story of one of her house-cleaning assignments. She is called in to deal with the aftermath of crime, decomposing corpses, hoarding and infestation .

The author shows the strength and compassion Sandra brings to her clients as well as the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the work and the demands it places on her staff. Some of these chapters work better than others. While we can learn something about people by excavating (in some cases literally) their homes, searching for the meaning in possessions has its limits. A teetering pile of old, rotting newspapers is ultimately just that. The chapters where the homeowner is present and shares something of their story are more interesting.

Sandra’s memories are fragmented and contradictory. There are significant periods where she says she can remember nothing at all and the author has relied on other sources. Perhaps because of the trauma she has experienced, there are a number of points in her life where she cuts herself off completely and starts afresh, meaning there is no friend or family member who has known her throughout her life, who can confirm or contradict her perceptions of herself. She has also hurt many of the people she has left behind.

The gaps and inconsistencies somehow add to the authenticity. Memories are always incomplete and unreliable, and the family myth or the well worn anecdote are just as likely to be flawed, reshaped by each telling, moulded by the expectations of the group.

In trying to build rebuild Sandra’s life piece by piece from archive sources and the people who knew her, the author allows the reader space to imagine and create thir own version of her story. And just like the author, the image we have of Sandra, and the way we relate to her, reflects something back about our needs, experiences and sense of self.

I was left with a vivid impression of a complex, courageous character and an awe of the capacity of humanity both to harm and to heal.

I received a copy of The Trauma Cleaner from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson


Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

places in the darkness chris brookmyreI wrote last year about belatedly discovering Chris Brookmyre and since then I’ve read quite a few of his books. Places in the Darkness is interesting because it brings together two genres – mystery and science fiction.

CdC (Ciudad de Cielo) is a space station where people are doing pioneering work building a colony ship that will take future generations to the stars. It has become a beacon of hope to the people on Earth, and it has the proud claim that there has never been a murder there. When a mutilated body is found, the investigation falls to two people with conflicting agendas. Alice Blake, newly arrived representative of the governments of Earth, wants to do everything by the book, while jaded cop Nicola Freeman (known to everyone as Nikki Fixx) is wary of outside political interference.

As this book spans two genres it is front-loaded with two sets of obligatory scenes. We have the finding of the body, and the arrival of Alice, but we also have some explanation of how CdC works and the means of travel to and from Earth. I’m not a massive science-fiction fan and when I do read it I tend to be more interested in the political and cultural aspects than the technology. I’m happy to accept that it all works without a detailed explanation of the ‘science’. Fortunately, there isn’t too much exposition here (though I did skim a bit).

Once you’re over that bump the world is not unfamiliar to noir fans. Alongside the scientists and engineers who may have higher motives, CdC attracts a host of people who have reasons to leave earth – criminality, broken hearts, a desire to make money fast. It is home to dive bars, corruption and people either trying to forget, or to grab power for themselves. Overarching this are the political and corporate interests eager to exploit a captive workforce and the pressure to cover up criminality.

At the beginning of the novel Alice attends a talk by an eminent neuroscientist and the themes raised in the talk are threaded throughout the narrative, in particular the relationship between free will, society and technology. Many inhabitants of CdC have voluntarily had a mesh implanted in their brains to enhance their cognitive abilities, but it raises questions of how else it might change them.

You don’t have to be science-fiction fan to enjoy Places in the Darkness. It’s an atmospheric, fast-paced mystery in a gritty downtown setting, with some lightly drawn but thought-provoking ideas about individual choice and political and corporate responsibility. It just happens to be set in space.

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Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of science-fiction podcast LifeAfter

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBrideThis is the first Stuart MacBride novel that I’ve read, which is something I now regret. I think perhaps I’ve been put off by looking at a couple of disturbing opening chapters and wrongly coming to the conclusion that these are production-line serial-killer thrillers. However I now see that I’ve missed the point. A Dark So Deadly does open with a victim confronting horrific circumstances but it is about so much more.

DC Callum MacGregor has been assigned to the ‘Misfit Mob’, a group of detectives who have for various reasons been sent into internal exile in Police Scotland. When mummifed remains start turning up on his patch, he is assigned the mundane task of phoning round museums to find where they might have come from. That’s when he’s not being beaten up by a minor local villain (and local minors) and receiving scant sympathy from his own team. The case takes on a new urgency when it emerges that the mummies are not ancient artefacts but the bodies of recently murdered victims.

Running alongside this is the story of Callum’s personal life and his troubled past. Callum is a fascinating character, both put-upon and determined. He can be heroic in his resilience but can also make you want to shake him. And each time you think things can’t get any worse for him, they do.

What I loved about this book was the way MacBride manages to balance very dark and serious storylines with broad comedy, a rich vein of observational humour (he really doesn’t like hipsters!) and moments of sublime absurdity. He does this without trivialising the horror of the murders and other dark events in the book. In fact, I felt the comedic voice of one victim in particular made the tragedy more poignant.

The team that Callum works with is brilliantly balanced – each with their own tragic flaw. There is even an aspiring author among them, willing to offer editorial comment on the progression of the narrative.

The marketing copy says this is a standalone novel. In a way that’s a shame because  I would love to read more about the Misfit Mob. On the other hand the book is so much about Callum’s story that it makes sense to end it here. What’s certain is I will now be reading more by Stuart MacBride.

I received a copy of A Dark So Deadly from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? For another take on the misfit cop, take a look at The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox


The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

the smiling man joseph knoxJust when you thought the trope of the world-weary cop with the messed-up life was getting tired, along comes the disturbing and original vision of Joseph Knox.

In The Smiling Man, DC Aidan Waits is exiled to the night shift, paired with an unappealing and idle DI, the unfortunately named Peter Sutcliffe (who understandably prefers to be known as Sutty). He is condemned to rounding up drunks and mundane tasks, like investigating a series of fires in rubbish bins.

Then Aidan is first on the scene of a bizarre death in a closed-down hotel. His superiors want him off the case but he can’t seem to leave it alone. Meanwhile, his troubled past is catching up with him. His present isn’t looking too good either.

In the best noir tradition, Aidan has a complex moral code. Acts of quiet heroism are interspersed with blatant law-breaking and reckless self-sabotage. He operates in a world of corruption and political manoeuvring where everyone has an angle and power is there to be abused.

This is fantastic northern noir, relentlessly downbeat, darkly funny, with flashes of startling imagery. Knox has created a world that is both unmistakably Manchester and uniquely his own.

I received a copy of The Smiling Man from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of London Rules by Mick Herron

West Cork by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde

west cork by sam bungey and jennifer fordeAlthough West Cork is a true story, and there has been recent media coverage, I’m going to keep this review spoiler-free. Like many people, I came to it knowing nothing and was able to appreciate the unfolding of the story.  

West Cork is a true-crime audiobook/podcast about an unsolved murder which took place in the remote Irish village of Schull in 1996.

In the 1970s Schull began to attract ‘blow-ins’ from the rest of Ireland, Britain and beyond. Some were people looking for an alternative lifestyle, others were perhaps trying to escape trouble at home. Later, the artistic community they had created attracted more well-heeled people looking for holiday homes.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was a French documentary maker married to a high-profile film producer, who enjoyed the tranquillity and anonymity of her cottage in Schull. She was staying there alone when she was brutally murdered just before Christmas in the lane outside her home.

The documentary borrows many of the techniques of crime fiction to keep the listener hooked. Bungey and Forde begin by telling you the crime is unsolved, but one man is widely suspected and has brought legal action as a result. They then present the voices of a number of people from the community before revealing who the suspect is. This is clever because it makes you question your own perceptions. Up until then those voices had all seemed equally reliable and credible, now what you have heard so far is undermined. Who is lying and who is to be believed?

People describe how the community’s sense of itself was fractured. Before the murder they believed their remoteness offered protection from the ills of society, afterwards it meant vulnerability. The romantic ideal of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone has its downside – what if you genuinely believe the neighbour you have to see every day has got away with murder? What if you are the one accused?

The structure also has echoes of a courtroom drama, even though there has never been a murder trial. When the main suspect is named, the story focuses on all the reasons why the police believe he did it and the evidence that supports their supposition. The case is quite persuasive for the listener. But then later episodes go through all the flaws in the police’s investigation and methodology, and question the reliability of one witness in particular. It is then quite possible to see that, while the main suspect has many unappealing qualities, that does not necessarily make them a murderer.

The Gardai, the Irish police, are also on trial here, for the many failures in procedure as well as some poor luck, which meant that no forensic evidence was gathered. (The only specialist scene of crime team was based in Dublin, over two hundred miles away, and it took them twelve hours to reach the village.) There are also recordings which show, in that age-old tradition, that the Gardai were convinced they knew who was responsible, and looked for evidence to confirm it, rather than following up all leads, which meant a number of opportunities to gain reliable and timely evidence were missed.

Of course, this is not fiction so there is no neat conclusion, but the series neatly doubles back to Sophie’s family and how they have dealt with the aftermath of the crime, reminding us that there are real victims, and that they are still living with the consequences of this crime.

View West Cork on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of another Audible Original, The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson