To the Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce – a book, a mysterious author and dangerous surprises in this fast paced historical novel.

To The Fair Land by Lucienne Boyce

A historical novel that shows the excitement of selling a book that everyone wants a copy of in the late 1700s was always going to grab my attention, and this book certainly did right from the beginning. There are various reasons that people are desperate to get their hands on this book, the fantastic illustrations, the poetic writing, the mysterious author that no one can identify, but mainly because it describes a magical country of people so very different from the British, with fantastic natural resources. This is an age of European countries trying to grab new space, new colonies, and the promise of a spacious previously undiscovered island and potentially more at the edge of the world cannot be ignored. Ben Dearlove is a struggling writer given an opportunity to make his fortune in London, who soon realizes that this book could change his life, if he can only find the author and obtain the publishing of a second volume for his friend Mr Dowling. While he feels that he may have a few extra clues to help in his search, he has no idea that tracking down the truth will be fraught with so many dangers and challenges.

This is a well-paced novel which has some marvelous set pieces, as not only Ben’s quest is recalled but also stories of families and voyages that shock and surprise. Boyce brings in some fascinating characters that reveal their stories in great detail, against a background of secrecy and danger. The research is so impressive in the details as well as the narrative as a whole, but it never slows the action down. This is a well written book which I greatly enjoyed, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The book actually opens with a performance representing “ The Life and Death of Captain Cook”. While Ben and the rest of the audience finds it fascinating, his neighbour, a young woman, keeps muttering about it in a negative way, calling Captain Cook’s discoveries “A fool’s discoveries”. The rest of the audience, much affected by the play and the tragic death of the hero, attack the strange woman. Ben saves her and sees her home, only to spot one or two interesting aspects of her life. When Dowling is overwhelmed by demand for “An Account of a Voyage to the Fair Land” “Who would have thought that book lovers could be so warlike?”, Ben realizes that there may be clues as to the much sought after author’s identity, and determines to track them down, despite his friend Campbell’s doubts. When this seems to involve journeys and real risk, even Ben begins to wonder why he is being followed by two men, and how it will affect those around him.

This is a novel that manages to maintain suspense to the end, as well as surprising the reader with some unexpected twists. For a relatively short novel it includes many twists and turns that took me by surprise, as well as some lyrical passages of descriptions of a different way of life. The author conveys the harsh realities of life on board ship, as well as the political interest in a different land. I would thoroughly recommend this book as being full of historical mysteries, fascinating characters and peril. It is not a long read, but packs in so much as Ben tries to establish the reality behind a popular book at the risk of so much.   

The Heretic’s Mark by S.W.Perry – Elizabethan London and escape to Europe

The Heretic’s Mark by S.W. Perry

On one level this is an adventure in Elizabethan London which extends to a trip across Europe as the protagonists try to find safety. On another level it is about the danger faced by those to seek knowledge, to try to find out more than expected. This is the fourth “Jackdaw” novel, featuring Nicolas Shelby and Bianca, and the memorable Rose with her admirer Ned. As has been the case before in this brilliant series, shifting political allegiances and religious differences means that simply living can be dangerous, especially for unorthodox physicians and healers. This novel could well be read without reading the previous three, as each of the characters are cleverly introduced and sufficiently hints of their backstories are given. The colours, smells and sights of the time are brilliantly evoked as always, as Nicholas and Bianca leave Britain for various European centres via an arduous, dangerous route with a young woman who challenges them both in different ways. Rose and Ned are left in more familiar surroundings, but that does not mean that they feel safer. As always the plot is complicated as the influence of Robert Cecil extends over their lives, but in this novel even his power is set against forces that occupy minds in places where even Queen Elizabeth’s writ does not run.

 The level of research in this book is deeply impressive, yet it never gets in the way of the narrative as it draws the reader in. The dialogue is life like for twenty first century readers, especially between a married couple where there are still tricky areas to negotiate. As with the previous novels in this series I found it nearly impossible to put down once the adventures truly get underway, and there are passages which made me chuckle even when though the danger to the characters is no less grippingly portrayed. I really enjoyed this book, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review another novel in the Jackdaw Mysteries.  

The novel begins with a somewhat difficult Prologue as an elderly physician is executed for political reasons, and the book follows with a first section “Falling from Heaven” as Nicholas is taken up by mysterious officials with a similar agenda in the summer of 1594. Bianca Merton meanwhile is busily making up one of her remedies for a local woman, one of her potions that help to maintain her legend as the mysterious healer from a foreign place, with a quiet Catholic faith that is definitely unfashionable if not dangerous in Elizabeth’s London. When Rose witnesses Nicholas’ progress with those who accompany him, she knows that he needs help. An escape from London does not mean a peaceful journey for  Nicholas and Bianca, as they fear that agents of the Crown are in pursuit, and that murder seems to dog their progress. A devout young woman is anything but quiet in any company, and visions of a terrifying future haunt the atmosphere of even familiar places.

This book is a vivid adventure that moves along with dangerous mysteries at its centre, and the very human reactions to the stress surrounding so many characters. Despite that there is humour and love, loyalty and initiative, strength and courage. Each character is forced to consider just how far they will go for another person, yet there is also a background of places and people that ground the decisions in real life. It is essentially entertaining, memorable and a brilliant example of lively historical fiction.     

The Absent Prince by Una Suseli O’Connell – a family memoir of missing men

The Absent Prince by Una Suseli O’Connell

A family memoir is often deeply revealing of characters who may or may not have affected the person writing the book, and in this well written book the effect on Una is strong as it mainly features her parents, the somewhat elusive Peter O’Connell and the difficult Lea Kummer. The book sets out to look at the effects of parents on the psychological situations of the child that in turn affects their relationships and perhaps most crucially their self-image.  Being the daughter of a nearly compulsive teacher obviously affected her view of her educational achievements, but did her paternal grandfather’s emotional reaction to serving in war affect Peter’s view of life, or his desire to travel and find new opportunities. Lea suffered from a painful and difficult illness, but also a relationship with a man who abandoned her to marry the boss’ daughter which certainly had an effect on her views on marriage.

 As Una combs through her parents’ letters, sent and received, and their diaries which she admits to having considered destroying, she discovers family secrets that have much to say about not only their own lives, but also the countries that they spent so much time in and the institutions that shaped their lives. It also provided the impetus to visit places that her father was connected with, where her mother could not travel and also to reflect on her own upbringing in a very different educational establishment. It looks at the secrets of generations, as both grandfathers diverted from the obvious course. It glimpses the differences of a country that maintained its secrecy concerning the treatment of children taken up for different lives in relatively recent times. Covering the period between the years 1933 and 1997, this book provides pictures of lives lived in a tumultuous century, when travel opened up and letters kept all sorts of relationships alive. This is a book which perhaps rushes around as much as its central characters, but in its pages reveals much about people who lived in different times with different agendas, determined to make their mark. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this remarkable book.

Much of Lia, Una’s mother’s life, was spent in the country of Switzerland. Although managing to survive as largely neutral in the Second World War, it also manifested a practice known as “verdingen” or indentured servitude, where children were removed from their families and put to work on farms. Although such children were seen as disadvantaged before they were taken away, possibly through family deaths, and some were treated with kindness, the possibilities of abuse were no doubt present. While Lea was not one of those children, and had parents who made sacrifices for her and her brother, there were members of her family who were taken away. She suffers from ill health for much of her life, including the TB which would later prevent her from entering the USA. Peter’s father Harry was a victim of family religious differences as well as serving in war, and although Peter and Harry were reconciled, it made for a complicated home life. Peter spent several years as a teacher in private schools in America, which obviously had a strong effect on his later ambitions to teach and the principles of his own educational efforts.

As this book is threaded through with two plays, “Hamlet” and “Our Town”, there are many quotations from a variety of sources as well as the letters and diaries never meant for publication. Una states that she goes “to the theatre not to be distracted or entertained, but to witness stories that deal with family trauma”, and it is into family trauma that much of this book delves, not just of her own extended family but also of friends and acquaintances. This book is a fluent look at remarkable individuals in complex families that could find echoes in many experiences in the twentieth century, and as such is a fascinating piece of social history as well as individual memories.   

Lost Property by Helen Paris – a young woman wants to organise loss in a sophisticated and enjoyable contemporary tale

Lost Property by Helen Paris

Dot Watson is a very particular person. Her work in the Lost Property office in London means that she accepts all the items that people have left behind,  disregarded, or simply lost on various forms of transport across London. Labelling such objects correctly and placing them in the well ordered stacks is very satisfying; returning the correct item to someone pleases her even more, like a miniature mystery solved. She is always methodical in her life, wearing a uniform of her own devising, carefully avoiding social events and trying to reduce what could be chaos into a manageable lifestyle. As this young woman narrates her own story, events begin to create more challenges that cannot be controlled, and her sense of loss begins to overwhelm her.

 This novel of contemporary life looks at family, secrets and lies, how women in particular make choices that define their own and others’ lives, and how loss of special relationships can affect everything. While not the first novel of a lonely young woman whose life is restricted by the past, this is a sophisticated and unmelodramatic book that brings out so much about every character, even the minor contributors, and the importance of objects. Paris is so skilled in capturing how objects can evoke a person, a memory, an emotion. As she tells the story of Dot, her memories and her relationship with her parents and sister, the freedom of a past life, this very human story endues objects with a life that is more than the debris of the unwanted, instead making even mundane items take on importance. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

The novel opens with a prologue, describing how a thoughtful Dot is sometimes to be found paying “attention to details”, and “staring at the rows and rows of loss”. She had once wanted to be a librarian, keeping tickets safe, ordering books, obeying rules. She has made looking after lost property a vocation, in contrast with her colleagues, who temporarily mislay things, mess up the system, are not interested in the imperative to keep things safe. As the novel progresses we are told of Dot’s mother, forgetting reality and the daughters who make decisions for her. Philippa is her older sister, with her wealthy husband and perfect children. She too has a passion for order, for cleanliness, for sorting out people. Despairing of Dot, eager to deal with her mother on her own terms, Philippa is the would be matchmaker who is keen to organize people rather than objects.  Dot treasures memories of her father, the two of them having imaginary adventures, solving memories in the way of earlier residents of Baker Street. A traumatic memory, a secret life and the determination to reunite a person with their treasured objects causes Dot to swerve from her course and discover more.

This is a carefully written book which brings the character of Dot as she narrates her experiences alive. Paris has succeeded in explaining an arcane system  which mainly predates computers through the eyes of someone who understands the importance of order. She is so good at describing the layers of objects, the small details that makes the difference between apparently similar umbrellas, bags and the everyday things that tell stories in a detective like manner. It is a touching picture of a mother who has become confused, lost and distant from those who remember and love her. I particularly enjoyed Paris’ description of a silent London hinting at the past, of how “the city reveals the layers of its history”, of the people who walked there over the century. This is a very readable book which offers real insights into a woman’s life and has hints of realistic humour in its relaxed style.       

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard – a reissued witty wartime mystery from British Library Crime Classics

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard

A light hearted Second World War mystery sounds like a contradiction in terms, especially one set in London. This book is actually set in “the early days of the war, when air-raid wardens were thought funny” and published in 1943, when the outcome of the conflict was still uncertain. The author’s name is a pseudonym for a married couple, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart, who wrote a portrait, thought to be at least slightly autobiographical, of a young married pair, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof. The discovery of a body in a badly constructed shelter sets off a series of events that has the couple racing around London and Warwickshire among other places to discover someone who has committed murder and is conducting a revolting campaign against an elderly neighbour. With an underground fascist group, a perceived danger from fire, gas and other challenges coming to London and a writer of girls’ school stories on the loose, Agnes has to deal with bad sherry and actual danger in finding the culprit.

Martin Edwards points out in his excellent Introduction to the recent British Library Crime Classics reissue of this rare novel that it is likely that Pamela wrote this book with her then husband providing the plot. Certainly the tone is light, with dialogue which is of its time and frequently funny. The relationship between the main couple is realistic and apparently unscathed by Andrew’s absences as a Captain in the army; there is a sense in which the worst of the war is not yet present, that military service is not yet dangerous, and “the phoney war” is a time of waiting for what may well never happen. It is intended to be entertainment for adults with elaborate practical jokes alongside a practice for dockside bombing  where Agnes insists on a particular spot in which to lie “injured”. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent “enjoyable, unserious book”.

The book opens with an air raid warden deciding to slip into an air raid shelter, described as too small to admit a larger person, adjacent to a block of flats one evening. Noting that the sand bags are already showing signs of having been there too long and emitting a nasty smell, he is surprised to discover a young woman sitting in the shelter, having locked herself out of one of the flats. After enjoying a companionable cigarette, the pair investigate a loose sandbag only to discover the decomposing face of a corpse. Referring to a previous mystery which was the subject of an earlier novel, the brave Agnes decides to seek a police officer, only to run into her husband, returning on an indefinite leave. After an elderly female neighbour has hysterics when a pig’s head appears at her window, Agnes and Andrew become drawn into a mystery which they are eager to solve, especially when it appears possible that the culprit for what becomes a series of pig related incidents is one of the few residents left in the block of flats.

This lively and entertaining novel is a real discovery in this series of books reissued over the last few years, combining a genuine mystery with the excitement of a couple discovering details that may reveal all. It is set in a fascinating period, when another war has begun but seems a distant concern rather than a present danger, and the author represents this with the rather lazy preparations for air raids. It has all the lightness of an adventure or puzzle, but with hints of far more important themes underlying it. The female characters are a mixed bunch, and Agnes is a really determined heroine, who regularly does damage to her clothes and safety in order to pursue the truth. I really recommend this novel as a witty social history observation of another time, of people dealing with an uncertain time.

The Knight’s Runaway Maiden by Nicole Locke – an historical novel of power and romance

The Knight’s Runaway Maiden by Nicole Locke

Severine is on the run with her two sons in France, 1297. A young woman, she is terrified of her husband catching up with her; Ian Warstone is from a notorious wealthy and powerful family. Both of his parents have schemed, terrorized and tortured their four sons, aiming to make them largely fearless and devoted to the cause of the family’s political and territorial advancement. Added to that is Ian’s own temperament, which at the time when Severine last saw him six years previously seemed to be getting dangerously unbalanced. Now Ian’s youngest brother, Balthus, has discovered where she is hiding with Clovis and Pepin, but he has a very different agenda from most of his family, and has been seeking the young woman for reasons of his own. As both Severine and Balthus battle their own demons and fears for the boys, can their difficult relationship ever reflect their true feelings, born in a silent glance so many years before?

This book appears in a series which concerns the Warstone family, of which I have read a previous story. I believe that this historical romance works as a standalone book, as the depth of the characters is so well developed and explained. This is a book which is powerful written with an eye to the lifestyle and setting of the time, but requiring little or no knowledge of political events or the general history of the time. This is a time of hand worked tapestries, swords and brute force, and healers such as Severine using natural remedies for even traumatic injuries. The previous loss of a hand means that Balthus is far more vulnerable than his physical appearance and lifelong training would suggest; the power to hurt and heal is equally divided between the two main characters. The boys are still young enough to be told that they must run, hide and be brave, regarding their lives as one of permanent hide and seek as they go from village to village. Severine worries that their natural curiosity is being overtaken by their Warstone blood, that the games they play are for adults with secret and brutal agendas. Balthus does not tell them that he is their uncle, and indeed keeps several secrets, partly to extend the time he can spend with the little family, especially the woman he has loved and finds increasingly attractive.

This is a novel that I enjoyed for its insights into difficult lives, as Severine faces the fear and despair over her husband that is sadly not confined to history. No one in this book is wholly good or bad, but the unseen Warstone parents do seem to exert a dominant hold over not only their own sons, but also potentially their grandsons if they are discovered. Each character as revealed in their thoughts and actions is nuanced, aware of the bigger picture as well as their own emotions. I also enjoyed the servants who appear on the edge of the two characters’ main drama, especially Henry, butcher and irrepressible companion who is largely unimpressed by Balthus’ status. The romance element is subtle, as both characters struggle to restrain their mutual attraction for their own reasons and assumptions. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and recommend it as a well written novel of romantic historical fiction.  

The Maltese Herring by L.C. Tyler – Ethelred and Elsie try to solve mysteries surrounding a golden statue

The Maltese Herring by L.C. Tyler

When Ethelred Tressider gets involved with academics, history and most importantly some extremely valuable pre reformation artifacts, things are bound to go wrong. This is the eighth  book of Ethelred’s adventures with his agent Elsie Thirkettle, when life gets confusing and there is chocolate to be eaten. Like other amateur detectives he seems to fall in with odd people who have nefarious plans in mind, and this book is no exception. It works well as a standalone novel, as the somewhat hapless writer seems to learn little from his past experiences, not even to keep chocolate biscuits away from Elsie, who has a touching belief in her ability to solve any mystery while trying to make sure that Ethelred actually writes a book under at least one of his pen names. The dialogue between Elsie and Ethelred is as always very funny, and Elsie’s effect on those around her is always interesting, if only because of her dubious fashion sense.

In this book Ethelred encounters a disappointed academic determined to make his next project the discovery of a priceless statue; unfortunately he is not alone in believing that the Maltese Madonna is in one of two religious sites laid waste in the Reformation close to Ethelred’s home. Other academics are more than interested, while some collectors take an interest in the financial implications of a genuinely unique object. An impoverished owner of a large house and gardens is also naturally interested, especially in the light of her difficult family history. When a body is discovered, no stone or garden, site or well is safe from disturbance, and Ethelred and Elsie have to take action to find out what is really going on.

This is a witty book which revels in strange characters and mysteries that simply defy the sort of logical deduction so admired by slightly more established investigators. As a crime writer with one historical series set in the late fourteenth century and another series featuring and exacting contemporary investigator, Ethelred should be able to cope with mysteries rooted in historical legend, but he is not dealing with logical or reasonable people, as well as the unpredictable Elsie. Dr Hilary Joyner invites himself over to Ethelred’s house for the weekend and demands to explore a jealously guarded archaeological site and someone’s garden, but unwittingly ends up in deep trouble. As Ethelred struggles to deal with the inquisitive Tertius Sly and vital supplies, Iris and gardening advice, unwelcome and demanding visitors as well as Elsie’s unsubtle advice, mysteries come and go as well as attractive academics and poorly treated interns. As always the narration is sometimes highjacked by Elsie and her robust views on publishing, Ethelred and life generally. In this book the internet is not such a mystery as it has sometimes been for the bewildered pair, and so international discoveries are within their grasp.

This is a delightful, slightly silly and always entertaining mystery with some memorable characters, funny situations and “mild peril”. The racing through dubious historical sources is a joy, as well as the more traditional elements of whodunnits involving a well and mysterious motives. This is an enjoyable and non -serious, non – blood murder mystery which I recommend as being simply a good read.

Coastal Cahoots Club by Victoria Johns – or how Tessa found a new life in Cornwall with Winnie’s gang!

Coastal Cahoots Club by Victoria Johns

It can be quite a discovery that older people do not always behave well, with gentle decorum and wistful memories. In this jolly yet also moving book Tessa discovers that a group of older women, led by the redoubtable Winnie, can behave badly to get what they want, especially in great causes. In this memorable novel, tired, self conscious Tessa arrives in St Ives, Cornwall in order to escape her family and discovers a whole new community and the possibility of a new life. Fed up of family lunches, “the dinner of doom” where she is continually criticized for her weight and social awkwardness, and unfavourably compared with her siblings, Tessa decides to create a fictional hen weekend that will take her as far as possible from her Manchester home. Winnie is an older lady who greets her and invities her into her life, and the adventures of the “CCC – the Coastal Cahoots Club”, a group of women whose meetings are notorious for their textile products and bad behaviour at the heart of a close community. There are younger locals who also seem friendly, and it is these good people that suggest to Tessa that other opinions on her eating, appearance and choices are valid.

This is a book about how families, especially parents, can make mistakes even with adult children, labelling them and assuming that they are less worthy than others. It deals with body image issues in a very practical way, as Tessa is suffering from the vicious circle of being made depressed by others’ comments so comfort eats. While romance is an important strand in this novel, it sits alongside the way that a friendly and very different community can make all the difference. This is a book with comedy, love and the possibilities of beautiful Cornwall, and also makes some subtle points about assumptions about people and family dynamics. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining novel.

Tessa is a woman who works from home, which is, as she recalls in her lively and realistic narrative voice, unfortunate as it does nothing to help her social awkwardness. Her family contains a sister who is continually praised by her mother as a wonderful nurse, a successful brother, and another pretty sister who believes her good looks should ensure her famous and wealthy attachments. Her mother tries to overfeed Tessa, seeing it as successful communication, and is not interested in her as a person. In contrast, when Tessa meets Winnie and her grandson Ben, she is soon surprised at the different way she is viewed. Winnie’s gang includes the aggressive Mavis, and also the very different Cerys, whose gentle acceptance makes all the difference. Not that everything is straightforward; a temporary new life involves decisions and risks that Tessa is nervous of, and her family’s influence on her self image is strong.

I really enjoy this book, with its sometimes suggestive humour and positive picture of old age. The feel of a community is well managed, and I enjoyed the way that Tessa was accepted and made to feel valued. The family dynamics are well drawn, and I felt for the way Tessa is treated. The element of romance is well handled, and all those involved are positive characters. I recommend this book as excellent escapist reading with some deeper and valid points well made as part of a very enjoyable story.      

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea – a tale of Orkney in wartime, superstitions and the power of the sea

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea

This is a novel full of the power of the sea, memory and love to transform lives. Set in Orkney in the early 1940s, it tells the story of twin girls, Constance and Dorothy, orphaned by the power of the sea, scarred by events and challenged by their need to live apart, away from the community of Kirkwall. It tells the story of Italian prisoners of war, brought to the island to build something that will prevent another attack, another tragedy. This is a book of historical fiction which slides the dates and events to suit the myth of a chapel that gave new hope to men brutalized by war, women with a shaky hold on reality. Intense and powerful, this is a terrific read of how people react to fear and the setting of islands surrounded by a sea that has such an impact of life. The characters – the girls, Con and Dot, the prisoners, the islanders, all deal with the superstitions and stories that are as old as time, and the interruption of war, with its stretched loyalties and discoveries of love.

The story of the girls, as they deal with their memories of lost parents, the suspicions of the local community and the physical problems of living on an otherwise uninhabited island come into conflict with the situations of the prisoners and those charged with their activities on the island is complex. The addition of a whole pageant of folklore and long held beliefs adds another layer, as does the treacherous weather of stillness and storm, fog and powerful waves. This is such a well written story that I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special novel.

The book begins with a Prologue set in November 1942, as “We” deal with a body. In setting the scene, it admits “Even before the war arrived here – before the guns and the guards and the iron huts full of foreign prisoners – Orkney hadn’t been a safe place. People have their own beliefs this far north.” The narrative then reverts to October 1941, when an audacious attack proves that a safe harbour is not to be trusted, and that death can be complicated. The islanders are angry, at their exposure to war when some of their young men have already gone, the taking of their precious resources to the south, and then the arrival of prisoners who they see as a threat in so many ways. The two women want to stay on the island, as Con’s fears threaten to overwhelm them. The prisoners, as they are arrive, are men with pasts, with their reasons for leaving their families, with memories of fighting, dealing with the vulnerability of being prisoners in a far of land of cold winds and brutal treatment. As hope begins, even love, there are still forces that conspire against the beauty and peace that individuals may be able to find.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this book, with its setting in a special place, commemorating those who came as prisoners but who built landmarks that are still present on the islands, especially the “Italian Chapel” with its deceptive and clever beauty. There are so many layers to this story, beyond that of those who lived there, who came for a short time, and those who remember. The element of myth, the acceptance of the dangers of the restless sea or the stillness of mist, the starkness of island life combine to make this an irresistible read with so much depth and life force.   

Lanny by Max Porter – the story of a boy, a village and an eternal presence

Lanny by Max Porter

Lanny is an unusual reading experience. Part novel, part poetry, part collection of thoughts on life in a village, this is a novel that relentlessly records phrases while gently asserting the power of nature. There are realistic characters, Pete, an artist, Robert, a self satisfied commuter, Jolie, mother, actress and writer, and Lanny himself, ethereal boy, eccentric and unusual, the unwitting focus of people’s thoughts. There is a character who runs throughout, a presence that never fully identifies himself, ever present and eternal, manifesting himself only in the hints of nature that live at the edges of the village. Dead Papa Toothwort is a tradition, a presence to frighten children, the repository of dreams and terrors, collective memories and individual fears. The other villagers are a chorus of opinions, hints of how life could be, judgements on the aspects of life that they believe that they understand. This is a little book in some ways, but what it contains is far heavier, the weight of a boy, and the nature which appreciates and interacts with in a unique way. Written with an almost unconscious humour, Lanny is, as one character describes him “a proper human child” yet beyond definition and at the centre of a book which also defies genre boundaries, yet is burdened by a story at the heart. It is an unusual book that I was fascinated to read.

The form of the book is unusual, opening with a description of the force that is Dead Papa Toothwort, moving around the edge of the village, encountering the natural elements that remain. He is big, he is tiny, and yet he is present. He is interrupted by the words, tiny phrases of the people of the village, planting, arguing, judging and so much else. Pete is an artist, self absorbed, with a mind full of past work, expressions and reactions. He is asked to teach, draw with a strange little boy with a different range of views of life and the world around him, strangely able in ways that defy description. His mother adores him, but cannot follow him, struggles to understand him, and is continually baffled by his statements. His father is also confused by him, but is not really sufficiently interested in him to even try to follow his paths of thought, or indeed the village he gladly commutes from, shutting off every day. As a mystery creeps in, the variety of reaction reveals so much, of people’s thoughts, attitudes and disbelief in anything.

This is such an unique novel that while I can definitely say that I enjoyed it, found much to fascinate and think about, it is difficult to categorise. The writing is flowing, the impetus to read on is overwhelming, the emotions it captures are deep. This is a book that cannot be rushed, yet is a glimpse of a village and the people in it, the forces that shape it, rather than a linear narration of events. I recommend it as something different, providing an insight into the speech, sounds and near dreamlike quality of a place, a boy and the eternity of experience.