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Book Review: Baxter’s Requiem by Matthew Crow

Baxter’s Requiem piqued my interest with its cross-generational friendship and an elderly hero unwilling to give up on life just yet. I’m quite partial to both of these in fiction as much as in real life.

Mr Baxter is ninety-four years old when he falls down his staircase and grudgingly finds himself resident at Melrose Gardens Retirement Home.

Baxter is many things – raconteur, retired music teacher, rabble-rouser, bon viveur – but ‘good patient’ he is not. He had every intention of living his twilight years with wine, music and revelry; not tea, telly and Tramadol. Indeed, Melrose Gardens is his worst nightmare – until he meets Gregory.

At only nineteen years of age, Greg has suffered a loss so heavy that he is in danger of giving up on life before he even gets going. Determined to save the boy, Baxter decides to enlist his help on a mission to pay tribute to his long-lost love.

I have to admit that it took me a little while to warm to Baxter, simply because while he is chafing away at being in the home, he is loud and rambunctious. I liked him a whole lot better, as I learned more of his backstory, which I found incredibly touching. I admired his attitude towards life and that he wanted to use what was left of his to help others. He is a remarkable character.

Greg is much easier to empathise with from the outset. He’s starting a new job, has a difficult home life with little hope of support or even sympathy there, and no friends to speak of since having left school. He’s withdrawn from the world but despite this, he’s funny, observant, resourceful, and clearly not stupid.

Among the supporting characters, special mentions go to Winnifred who is a wild and wonderful woman, especially on her mobility scooter; the home receptionist Ramila who chivvies Greg into a friendship before he realises it; and Susanne, the manager of the home, who has a bark worse than her bite but still sees her charges and staff as people first. She’s surprisingly good at reading people and allowing them the space or time they need. Even Teddy, Greg’s dad, has a late rally and leaves room for hope that there’s a more positive future in store for father and son. Read more

Book Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon #TheIncendiaries #blogtour

R. O. Kwon’s stunning debut The Incendiaries is a compact and tightly-written campus novel of obsessive love and religious extremism. And I’m excited to tell you about it as part of the blog tour with it being out in the UK today.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group–a secretive extremist cult–founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

At the beginning of The Incendiaries, Will Kendall not only tells us that there’s a bombing but also who he considers responsible for it. And just as scenes of crime officers will collect forensic evidence and try to piece together what happened, when, and who might be responsible for the bombing, here Will attempts to reconstruct his and Phoebe Lin’s story to help him understand why they splinter from each other.

Will’s task makes the text fragmentary at times, and understandably so, especially when telling the story from Phoebe Lin or John Leal’s perspective: memories recalled resemble the shards of debris recovered from a blast site. It’s often difficult to work out their significance at the time and some may never be recovered.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating take on the unreliable narrator with the novel appearing to be told from three different perspectives. Initially unclear and helpfully blurred over by the absence of speech marks, two perspectives are related to us in reported speech. Some scenes are imagined, rather than reported faithfully from testimony or witness statement, and variations occur when people recount their own history. Phoebe is reluctant to reveal hers except to select friends or in Jejah (the group) confession; it’s unclear whether John Leal’s is real, based on some truth but embellished or a total construct. Read more

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