Asylum by Marcus Low

Asylum: “the most credible – and therefore the most disturbing – dystopian novel I [have] ever read”- SUNDAY TIMES is a fascinating read. It is set in a place called the Pearson Quarantine facility, where patients have been forcibly detained because they are suffering from a terminal disease called ‘pulmonary nodulosis.’ This condition is so rampant that it has reached the level of a plague. There is no cure for the condition and sufferers gradually die as their lungs get increasingly scarred. [Note – This story was actually based on the real life enforced hospitalisation of patients with drug resistant tuberculosis in 2008 in South Africa].

The book follows the narrative of patient Barry James who keeps a diary of his experiences at Pearson. There are short introductions to his diary entries written after the fact, that sometimes factually refute what you are about to read. This is an interesting idea as you then read the entry in a more objective way.

Some of Barry’s experiences are dream type scenarios. Low successfully captures the strange dreaminess of what it is like when one is fevered and ill and have limited ability to tell fiction from reality. You begin to wonder how much of the visions that Barry experiences are induced by the symptoms of the illness or the drugs that he is given. Barry sees characters who keep appearing and disappearing which add an element of creepiness to the story.

You learn quite early on that the protagonist may not be a reliable narrator and this device is used to full effect during his counselling sessions when he reveals something that happened from his past. This incident makes you temporarily lose sympathy for the character until you read on and realise that it may never have actually happened. (My lips are sealed so you need to read the book to find out what I’m referring to here!). Overall, you do have sympathy towards the character who is stuck in this enforced limbo and is a young victim of a dreadful disease.

Asylum reminds me of one of my favourite books, The Outsider by Albert Camus. Though there are differences in the settings of both books, there is a similarity in the observant nature of the protagonists. Low writes Barry as projecting a feeling of not being connected to events in some way, producing a distancing effect which is very hard to successfully achieve in writing, but which Low creates with aplomb.

This is a fascinating story that has a dark, dreamlike quality. It has already been shortlisted for at least one prize and I can easily see it being listed and winning many book awards in the future. I can also see it being adapted for a film. So, go ahead and read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

When I first heard that Gods of Jade and Shadow: A wildly imaginative historical fantasy was coming out, I was excited to read it. I love learning about ancient Mayan culture perhaps because it is such a fascinating, rich well of culture to learn about. I was lucky enough to catch an excellent exhibition on the Mayan civilisation in Liverpool a few years ago. Read my review of this in the link below: http://culturallifeconnection.org/culture/665/

Gods of Jade and Shadow is a book set in 1920s Mexico that is interwoven with ancient Mayan myths and legends and features the gods from this canon. It is accurately described as being a feminist fairytale and tells the story of an eighteen year old girl called Casiopea who is stuck in a Cinderella type scenario. She is a skivvy to her family and is treated poorly, especially by the male members of her household. She detests her grandfather and cousin Martín in particular. She craves a life of freedom and longs to venture further than her small village of Uukumil. The nearby city of Mérida, in particular, is a place that she is keen to explore.

One day when her family are out and she is cleaning in the house alone, she opens up the trunk that her grandfather has expressly forbid her to go near. This trunk contains the bones of an Ancient Mayan god called Hun-Kamé. Her actions awaken Hun-Kamé and they are bound to each other both figuratively and literally, as a piece of his bone becomes stuck under her skin. She and Hun-Kamé embark on an adventure, this is the adventure that she yearned for but did not expect and is one full of ancient Mayan gods and demons! She becomes ever confident and brave and really evolves as a character as a result of this adventure. I can’t say anymore for want of spoiling the story, but there is danger aplenty in this world and you have to read it to find out what happens!

I love the way that the author Silvia Moreno-Garcia has woven the ancient legends throughout the story and teamed them with a woman finding her way in 1920s Mexico. The 1920s was an interesting choice of decade too. We associate this time with the act of equal suffrage in 1928 and the age of the flapper, when dresses became less restrictive and shorter and where women were breaking free from the constraints of the previous Edwardian and Victorian era. The 1920s were also a time of discovery with Ancient Egypt in particular and the archaeological finds from there which influenced the fashion and culture of the decade to a great degree. The Ancient Mayan association with this time reminded me of the parallel Egyptian association of the 1920s. Indeed, the 1920s were a time of discovery, freedom and innovation and a time when women were starting to branch out, which is an apt setting for Casiopea’s journey.

If you are a fan of magical realism, fairytales, Mayan civilisation and history in general then you will enjoy the Gods of Jade and Shadow, so make sure that you read it.

The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns

The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns is a beautifully written book based on a real life story. It is set in both 1957 and the present day. 

In 1957 we meet Naoko Nakamura, a seventeen year old girl in Japan who is deeply in love with ‘Hajime’ (Jimmy) an American Sailor. They both want to marry but Naoko finds this difficult as her family who are middle class but have fallen on hard times since the end of the war, would be disgusted with her marrying a man who in their eyes is still very much the enemy. Instead, they want her to marry Satoshi, an heir to the Toshiba clan who will solidify their middle class aspirations and help them to get their business running successfully again.

In the present day we follow the story of Tori Kovac and her father who is dying from cancer. Tori remembers her father’s stories from when she was younger. These stories were about his travels in Japan and were interwoven with Japanese myth and legends. She discovers a letter that reveals that her father’s stories may well have been more than mere fiction and travels to Japan to find out more about his time there and unlock the mysteries of his past.

The book is stunningly written and it is a very emotional read. The settings are very well evoked, you feel as if you are there with the characters in Japan and the author certainly knows her way around the country or else is an excellently talented writer! The characters are strong and parts of Naoko’s story and that of her friends’ in the maternity home scenes are heartbreaking. It is even more astonishing to read the real life stories of what went on at the end of the book. It certainly brought to my attention a fragment of history that should be more well known, especially as it has current resonance around the world with women’s reproductive rights being curtailed. For this point alone, this book should be read as it was very revelatory and educational and once again, Legend Press should be congratulated for highlighting important issues such as these. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but think it deserves saying again!  

If you are a fan of Japan, historical fiction or just wonderfully written stories that have a deep emotional connection, then I highly recommend that you read this book.

Sea of Bones by Deborah O’ Donoghue

Sea of Bones is a complex psychological thriller that goes much deeper than the standard trope we’re used to in this genre. In this story, Juliet the protagonist, is a career woman who heads the PR department of the Progressive Alliance (PA) party. The PA is a party that puts women’s rights front and centre. Her niece Beth dies suddenly in Moray, Scotland in a suspected suicide but Juliet believes that there is something more sinister behind her death and doesn’t feel that Beth would have killed herself. Her investigation becomes increasingly more mysterious and dark as the story develops. Juliet discovers that Beth had become unwittingly entangled in a dangerous game with men in positions of power who have disturbing desires and who are keen on exploiting the most vulnerable in society. Juliet finds herself and her loved ones in danger. She begins to get closer to finding out just how Beth died and why.

The characterisation by O’Donoghue is excellent. Juliet is a strong, determined character who is conflicted at times with her work life balance but her love for her niece drive her forward into making the right decisions. Declan, her photographer partner is an interesting character who decides to be gung-ho and brave at times but is also perhaps a bit foolhardy. Authority figures are suspect through this novel. Members of parliament, businessmen and the media are all examined and put under scrutiny here.

The scenes in the book are very evocative. You feel that you are actually there with the characters on the remote Scottish beach. The set piece in the ‘Eden,’ nightclub in Manchester is realistically portrayed, as you feel the heat and the pulsating beat of the music, but you also feel the anxiety from Declan and the danger that he is in.

O’Donoghue touches on some extremely important issues in the book. Largely, immigration and welfare of recent migrants, especially those who are unaccompanied minors and are vulnerable to exploitation. It is said in the book, that unaccompanied minors come to the UK from many different countries across the world such as Syria, Albania, Vietnam, etc. These minors are put into hostels and are largely unsupervised, free to come and go as they please but this leaves them open to exploitation from criminal gangs.

The book reminded me at times of recent media scandals such as child exploitation and grooming and also has echoes of the Jimmy Saville case too. It does make you wonder if incidents such as O’Donoghue describes in this fictional tale are happening in real life and if so, will this be the next scandal uncovered? I hope not, for the welfare of those involved, but also realise that it is entirely possible that due to circumstance and perhaps lack of funding, these people may well slip through the net of security that every human being has a right to and should expect.

Sea of Bones is definitely a book that I would recommend as it is a thriller in one sense of the word but is what I would describe as being a ‘social justice’ thriller as it brings attention to important social issues and makes readers aware of the more vulnerable in society and the conditions that they are living in. So make sure you pick up a copy and read this intelligent thriller, pack it in your suitcase for your holiday!

The Mummy Bloggers by Holly Wainwright

The Mummy Bloggers is a fun read that brilliantly portrays the competitive world of parenting blogging through three different characters. These characters are all up for the Blog-ahhs award for best blog for which the winner receives a $500,000 dollar prize and could launch them into the blogging stratosphere.

The first character we come across is Elle – The Stylish Mumma, has an enviously immaculate house, two seemingly perfect children and a pristine, gym honed appearance clothed in expensive attire. She is married to Adrian, an older man who was once married to second blogger Abi. Abi goes by the name ‘The Green Diva,’ online and is vastly different to Elle. She is an advocate of attachment parenting, lives in a farmhouse with her partner Grace and lets her children run around freely. She is also an advocate of anything green and eco-friendly and this is reflected in her lifestyle and family’s diet. Abi is known for her shocking controversial statements to increase followers to her blog. Abi’s partner Grace is the sister of third blogger, Leisel, who’s blog, ‘The Working Mum,’ praises parents who are just trying to do the best they can, whilst juggling a busy career. She is the least extreme of the three bloggers and the most universally relatable.

The book takes you into these character’s lives in the run up to the awards ceremony. It is in turns both hilarious and shocking as to the lengths that some of the characters go in order to be in with a chance of winning the award! Nothing it seems is out of bounds, as they furiously approach the deadline for the ceremony. You get to learn about the characters’ back story, so you understand perhaps their reasons though one of them is inexcusable really! (You’ll have to read it to find out what I’m referring to).

Overall, The Mummy Bloggers is an entertaining read that is scarily true to real life you follow parenting blogs, or to be honest ever browse through Instagram, you’ll recognise some of these characters for sure! Luckily there are as many Leisel’s out there as there are Elle’s and Abi’s which is a relief. Social comparison doesn’t help either parents or social media users in general when they try to compare what they think is a perfect or ideal way to live. It is much more refreshing when people can see examples of parents who do a good enough job and show that life is far from perfect rather than trying to perpetuate an interior designed idyll that is far from real. The Mummy Bloggers highlights this and is a refreshing read which will be perfect for a Summer break!

We Can See You by Simon Kernick

We Can See You by Simon Kernick is a thrilling read. Brook Connor is a successful self-help author who finds her life turned upside down one day when her daughter is kidnapped for a ransom of $250,000 dollars.

Things start to get very complicated indeed once her husband Logan Harris becomes involved in the negotiations. She starts to become suspicious of him, once she discovers he has been having extra-marital affairs, one of which is has been with a very dangerous woman.

Brook then finds herself being framed for a murder and the kidnap of her own daughter. This forces her to go renegade and try to find her daughter without the police’s help as she realises that they suspect her and would hinder rather than help her investigation.

There are so many twists and turns in the story that were completely unexpected. It really keeps you on the edge of your seat as you race through the book to find if Paige is recovered safe from harm as you start to see just how ruthless and amoral the people are who were involved in the crime.

This is the first Simon Kernick book that I’ve read and will certainly not be the last. With a quote on the front from Peter James, describing Kernick as ‘…the master of the adrenaline-fuelled ride,’ I knew that the book would be good from the start. It is lovely to discover an author and find that they have a great back catalogue of reads so that you can peruse these too! I would definitely recommend that you read this, especially if you are a fan of grip-lit, psychological thrillers or crime. Especially if you enjoy books resourceful and strong female characters as that is certainly what you find here in the personification of Brook Connor. A great read.