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Tuesday 20 July 2021

Widowland - Book review

C.J. Carey’s debut novel Widowland joins the lengthy ranks of alternate history books, in this case re-imagining where Britain signed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1940. The story takes place in 1953, in the weeks running up to the coronation of Edward VIII and his queen Wallis. Since the Alliance, in effect all power actually resides in Alfred Rosenberg, Britain’s Protector.

In this new world, women are allocated specific castes. ‘When all the boxes were ticked, the women were assigned the classification… This label would determine every aspect of their life, from where they should live, to what clothes they would wear, what entertainment they could enjoy and how many calories they could consume.’ (p20)

The elite women were popularly called Gelis; Klaras were fertile women who had produced four or more children; Lenis were professional women, such as office workers. Paulas were carers, teachers and nurses; Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees, while Gretls did domestic work. Tight at the bottom came Friedas – essentially cemetery women – ‘widows and spinsters over fifty who had no children,  no reproductive purpose and who did not serve a man.’ (p20)

Rose Ransom is among the elite, a Geli, working at the Ministry of Culture, rewriting classics of English literature to correct the views expressed in these old novels. ‘They had an office for everything and there was no reason why literature should no be processed and cultivated and bureaucratized as much as steel or cardboard or coal.’ (p141)

Inevitably, reading the forbidden texts in order to prune them has its effect: ‘she found she could not get the writers’ voices out of her head.’ (p206) – which is why despots always desire to control writing in their world.

As she’s an expert in these old tomes, she is called upon to investigate outbreaks of insurgency: graffiti has been daubed on public buildings in the form of extracts from forbidden works, notably words by female novelists. Suspicion has fallen on Widowland, the run-down slum in Oxford where childless women over fifty have been banished. Rose is tasked with rooting out the source of this rebellion before the Leader, Hitler, arrives in England for the Coronation.

Some quotations are from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, others from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even Jane Austen.

Carey has captured the flavour of the early 1950s as well as the machinations of the Third Reich with many telling details. She also imbues the story with wit and humour as well as menace and suspense. She has an easy but often haunting style, too: ‘A hawthorn in full bloom had scattered its blossom like blown snow across her path and its musty odour evoked a sudden evanescent transport of memory…’ (p158)

‘Short of being German, Helena had been gifted with all the blessings the gods could bestow, chief among them a sense of the ridiculous – a vital attribute in Government service.’ (p16)

‘Alfred Rosenberg was sixty, but looked a decade more. With his sickly complexion, perpetual scowl and deep-set dark eyes, the Protector was more mortician than politician.’ (p34)

Hymns were still sung in community centres, though the words had been changed: ‘The Magda in her kitchen/ The Gretl at the grate/The Leader made them lowly/And ordered their estate.’ (p154)

A German policeman Bruno Schumacher is wonderfully described: ‘… he had a five o’clock shadow that looked like it had no regard for punctuality.’ (p171)

To compound Rose’s situation, she is conducting an illicit affair with Martin, a powerful Nazi commander, which adds suspense to the brew.

In many ways this novel offers a few chilling insights into the ongoing culture wars and the cancellation mentality, among them digs at the purveyors of the Woke religion: ‘Don’t presume to speculate on other cultures. “Cultural Misappropriation” it was called…’ (p195)  In addition it seems likely that the repercussions of Covid-19 and subsequent Lockdowns and Government rulings inspired aspects of the novel: ‘Self-censorship was always more effective than any other kind. Why police people when you can scare them into policing themselves?’ (p315)

The subjugation of women depicted here has faint echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Attwood, 1985), but without the religious overtones. Some other alternate history books are Bring the Jubilee (Moore, 1955), The Man in the High Castle (Dick, 1962), Pavane (Roberts, 1968), Dominion (Sansom, 2012), A Piece of Resistance (Egleton, 1970), Collaborator (Davies, 2003), Fatherland (Harris, 1992), When the Kissing had to Stop (Fitzgibbon, 1960), SSGB (Deighton, 1978), The Leader (Walters, 2003) and Romanitas (McDougall, 2005). Widowland is a welcome addition to an impressive list.

C.J. Carey is the pen-name of novelist Jane Thynne; she is the widow of author Philip Kerr. This is her first novel using this pseudonym.


Editorial comment:

I thought the cover was garish; however, the author liked it immensely, so who am I to judge?

‘If that’s not nerve-wracking enough’. (p17) Wrack is seaweed. It should be ‘nerve-racking’. Nerves on the rack, in effect.

Friday 9 July 2021

The Alienist - book review

Caleb Carr’s debut thriller The Alienist was published in 1994; it has only recently been released as a series on Netflix.

The title derives from the fact that before 1900 people suffering from mental illness were believed to be ‘alienated’ from society and even their true nature. Experts who studied these individuals were known as alienists.

The tale takes place in 1896 in New York. John Schuyler Moore is the narrator. He’s a journalist. He’s also a good friend of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, an eminent physician and alienist. One night they are both called out by the Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt: there has been a gruesome murder of a boy prostitute, which is not the first, apparently. As Roosevelt is at his wits’ end he reluctantly calls upon Kreizler and Moore to undertake a private investigation. They recruit the formidable Sara, Roosevelt’s secretary, to assist.

At over 500 pages, this is not a page-turning thriller. But it is nevertheless engrossing, not least because Carr has inhabited not only the persona of Moore and the time-period but also the great city itself. To reinforce credibility, he has populated the story with real people as well as fictional. Religious, political and criminal characters leap from the page – and can be found in the prizewinning tome Gotham – A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace (pub.1999).

As they attempt to formulate the psychological profile of the serial killer who persists in murdering boy’s and depriving their corpses of their eyes, the investigative team are repeatedly baulked by criminal elements and even the city’s Protestant and Catholic archbishops.

The gradual unravelling of the culprit’s past is compelling and fascinating.

As the brief outline above attests, the book is not for the squeamish. Sadly, whatever atrocity a fiction writer might write about, in the annals of crime the truth is often by far worse.

An accomplished first novel. Others have followed.

Thursday 8 July 2021

A Foreign Country - Book review

Charles Cumming’s sixth espionage novel A Foreign Country was published in 2012. It’s the first of his I’ve read but it probably won’t be the last. Apparently he had a brief career in MI6 in the mid-1990s. It shows.

The story begins in Tunisia in 1978. Amelia Weldon had been hired to look after Jean-Marc Daumal’s children. She was also having a clandestine affair with him, under the nose of his wife Celine. And then one day she simply vanished.

That was the past.

(The book’s title is taken from L.P. Hartley’s first lines of The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s such a great observation, and has been utilised by many authors over the years. As an aside, it’s a pity that those today who wish to rewrite or expunge history don’t understand what Hartley meant.)

Then we come to the present. An elderly French couple are the victims of a brutal robbery and murder at Sharm-el-Sheikh. Seemingly unconnected, elsewhere, a kidnapping occurs. Oblivious to these happenings, Thomas Kell is at a loose end. He was a British agent who’d been ‘let go’ as a result of a failed mission. Yet he is now in demand again; he is asked to locate the prospective new head of MI6, Amelia Weldon who has inexplicably gone missing.

Jaded but competent, Kell sets about trying to track her down; no easy task. Here, now, we learn some of the tricks of the trade, and meet several duplicitous individuals who will help or hinder him. It is a tense, page-turning ride, with a few twists and turns to keep the interest heightened. The past tends have a tendency to bite back, and this narrative is no exception.

The final pages are a fitting book-end for the tale.

A Foreign Country was the winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of the year. 

Wednesday 7 July 2021

More Than Human - book review


Theodore Sturgeon’s classic science fiction novel More Than Human was published in 1953 and won the International Fantasy and Science Fiction Award (1954). It comprises three connected stories – ‘The Fabulous Idiot’, ‘Baby is Three’ and ‘Morality’; the middle story was previously published as a standalone in Galaxy magazine in 1952; the book-end tales were written for the so-called fix-up novel.

The book concerns five beings – two little black girls with a speech impediment yet with the ability to teleport, an introspective girl whose mother was of easy virtue, one seemingly mentally impaired baby who can absorb and transmit thoughts, and a so-called idiot who is anything but and adopts the name Lone.

With intense psychological understanding, Sturgeon weaves the lives of these apparent ‘freaks’ and shows how over time they evolve into a single entity, a gestalt. The new human, perhaps? And he poses the question: would they be feared or embraced. We know the answer, of course. So this gestalt is secret, hidden from ordinary humans.

I don’t know but I can imagine Stephen King, among others, read this book and was influenced by its concepts and characters. There are definite similarities: the telepathic child, the dysfunctional characters, the underlying mystery and threat. And there are inchoate elements of the X-Men here too.

Sturgeon’s writing is colourful, imaginative and mindful of the human condition, and at times can pack a powerful punch.

More Than Human is still thought-provoking, even after all these years.