Thursday, 4 August 2022

Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black – Cookie Mueller

 As I read the first few pieces in this astonishing collection I thought Cookie Mueller must be the love child of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady! So much reminded me of Kerouac’s autobiographical fiction and the frenetic, drug crazed antics reminded me of Cassady. Despite her headstrong lifestyle Mueller comes across as a warm and witty woman. Reading about her zest for life, her devil may care attitude and risk taking adventures gave me the same kind of buzz I got when I first read On the Road over 40 years ago! But there was something incredibly euphoric about recapturing a sensation from a past that I thought was, well, in the past!

Mueller paints a palpable and volatile picture of San Francisco in the 60s and 70s, this is balanced out by her accounts of life in other parts of the world, especially her trip to the Amalfi Coast. I suppose there are some who might take exception to the extent of the recreational drug use but it is part of the overall picture of the life that Mueller is describing and depicting. In fact it can be seen as an important part of social history for that period. 

But the book is not wholly autobiographical. There are some short stories written in the 80s aptly titled Fables. They are thoroughly entertaining and good examples of Mueller’s wit and imagination, not to mention offering some food for thought too.

However the final section of the book which contains the columns she wrote for various publications were almost prophetic. Mueller describes the art scene of the 80s but also offers some social comment, and remember this is before the advent of social media, that I found most relevant to today. She references climate change and pollution, discussing deforestation and the depletion of the ozone layer contributing to the deterioration of the planet and fears that unless Man adapts and evolves his survival may be in the balance.

Tragic that this talented author died aged only 40 but my, what she packed into that life makes our own lives seems so staid and static. Boy, she was a tough cookie! 😉 She seemed so busy living life I’m amazed she found time to write, but she did and we are all the richer for it. She has a very conversational and easily accessible style be it an autobiographical piece, a short story or a magazine article. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I thank Canongate Books for my copy which has swiftly found its way to my ‘read again soon’ pile.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

A Good Day to Die - Amen Alonge

Gut wrenching, pistol packing, hard-hitting, fast acting,

Butt clenching, rifle toting, diamond dangling, crazy driving,

Gangs ganging, money talking, bouncers bouncing, women walking,

 Hearts pumping, legs pounding, heads buzzing, minds fuzzing,

Drug dooming, fear looming, bakers doesn’t, cheesecake slicing,

London’s earning, ears burning, kneecap zapping, cowards flapping, 

Lucas dukas , Yellow bellow, Topper stopper, Sean yawn,

Revenge not sweet,

Pretty Boy no cheat

In the ‘hood and the street,

Is this A Good Day To Die?

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus Books for a copy of this incredible debut novel.

Monday, 25 July 2022

The Richmond Papers - Sam Simpson


I’m not a fan of politics.Most of the problems in the world are caused by politics it seems to me.

Politics in my own country mystifies me so any attempts to understand the system in the USA have been utterly fruitless! My American friends have tried to educate me but I still don’t know one end of Congress from the other. And don’t get me started on what the Senate is. So you might think that I would be put off by Sam Simpson’s Richmond papers because there’s a lot of politics in it.But I wasn’t, not at all, because it was also a work of  historical fiction

With timeframes that predate the American Civil War, through to the present day the book examines the journey of confederate gold and inflammatory documents that would expose the credibility of the USA and its constitution. Location sends our protagonists, Tom and Sally, in an almost Dan Brown frenzy across the USA, England, Scotland and New Zealand before reaching the truth. There’s thrills and spills from sinister factions, official and unofficial, in both timeframes and leave the reader in little doubt that corruption in politics is universal and timeless.

That could make for depressing reading but the book has a liveliness in the narrative that allows the reader to hover over the serious indictments contained within it so it comes across as lighter than it could do potentially. It was an entertaining book and struck a fair balance between fact and fiction.

My thanks to Library thing for a copy.

Thursday, 21 July 2022

The Movement - Ayisha Malik


When I first began this book I was reminded of The Power by Naomi Alderman winner of the women’s prize for fiction a few years ago. However the comparison didn’t endure for long but the power did, the power of the story, that is. It’s pertinent and frighteningly topical. It looks at the lives of three different women, Sara, Grace and Zainab. It succeeds on several different levels; as a feminist fiction, as an observation on social media and global phenomena, and the nature of communication itself. The premise is original, Sara, an author, decides to become silent, properly silent that is. This seemingly simple act sparks a global phenomenon that becomes known as the Silent Movement. And the world becomes divided into people who are Verbals and Non-Verbals. And as we have seen with most events there are supporters and non-supporters and the conflicts that arise from such things are far-reaching and the inevitable protests ensue. It’s an intelligent, clever book that taps into the contemporary attitudes of today. It’s a cleverly constructed work  that uses third person narrative along with TV scripting, online forums, social media exchanges and so on. Allusions to topics such as Brexit and anti-vaxxers places the novel very firmly as a book of Today. Peppered throughout are some astute observations that have credence beyond the fictional world from whence they derive. ‘.. the times we live in, where everyone speaks but no one listens.‘ 
Considerations of race and gender are also never far from the surface.‘…..women like me have always been told our voices don’t matter.Whenever given the same opportunities; we are talked over when we are.’ Observations of the society in which we live,’….one has a debt to the world in which they live, and there comes a time when it must be paid.That was just good manners.’

 It’s a thought provoking book to spark some animated discussions, I would think. I loved it. 

My thanks to Team Bookends for a proof.

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

Shadow - Gurpreet Kaur Sidhu

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book in a Librarything early reviewers’ draw. This was back in March and as the weeks meandered by it seemed that it might be a no-show until a neatly wrapped package arrived from the USA a couple of weeks ago. Inside the book was a signed inscription from the author suggesting I read the first book in the series, Storm, as Shadow would make more sense. I thought it was the least I could do given the cost of shipping the book to the UK. And I’m so glad I did! For not only does reading Storm enhance the understanding of Shadow it’s made me hungry for Book 3 of the series now.

Shadow is a complex thriller, and although the book is ostensibly rooted in a 1930s past and the present day it has elements of the futuristic, the paranormal and the almost dystopian. As I have read the books back to back it’s hard to separate the two in a way. But Shadow cleverly begins by echoing the ending of Storm. Many issues are dealt with concerning greed, power and corruption, companies, family dynamics, past lives – and that’s just for starters!

The difficulty of reviewing books like these is in not giving too much away in terms of the plot. It is a convoluted and complex plot with some family and relationship lineage that demands the reader concentrate. I would guess that more will be revealed in Book 3. I certainly hope so! 

It is both plot and character driven. There is some excellent characterisations making it easy to like some characters and to loathe and fear some of the others. Those of, shall we say, a sinister nature had shivers going down my spine when they popped up in the story. The plot is complicated and my admiration for the authors effort here is boundless. There is a lot of action and the tension is palpable on occasions. There are some upsetting moments that are crucial to the plot. But the twists and secrets, revelations and choices to be made keep all of the characters, and readers too, on their toes the whole time. Relax at your peril! 

To pare the story down it is about a family whose lives are affected by the SEA (Secret Eye Agency). The family lock horns with agents of the SEA and there is an attempt to bring down this insidious organisation by members of the family. That is reducing it to the minimum because so much more goes on.  I was gripped by both books and I’m looking forward to see how the series continues and develops.

If you’re looking for absolute realism then maybe you’d best look away but if you have an expansive imagination open to all the possibilities that fiction can throw at you then you’ll find a lot to entertain you in this series.

My thanks to Librarything for facilitating my copy of this book and to the author herself for my copy and endowing me with a new moniker - Agent 778! 

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Fool’s Paradise - Zoe Brooks

For what is the world

But a string of bloody pearls?

And I lay them on the ground

To play marbles.‘

  I wasn’t sure what to expect from Fool’s Paradise when I was offered a copy for review. Described as a “long form poem“, which has also been performed, piqued my curiosity. But nothing could have prepared me for the depth and insights, along with the rich imagery and metaphor contained within these verses. I just loved it!

The catalyst for the work was apparently the poet’s trip to Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution. Given the situation today in the Ukraine the broad premise seems topical and pertinent.

I read most of the book out loud and it was more enriching than a merely linear read. And in so doing such a wealth of allusions, memories and feelings were aroused in me. 

Three travellers and a Fool meet, The travellers appear to be fleeing some kind of conflict. And the exchanges between the travellers somehow reminded me of Waiting for Godot initially, then of the witches in Macbeth, indeed the language of the opening verses seemed to echo Shakespeare.

Between two rocks at a crossroads,

where the gibbet drips bones

and the sky is grey and heavy

and the curtain is not rent

and the hand of God is indiscernible

and the breath of God is fiery

upon the bare heads of the people

there begins the road.’

But before I could relax fully into Bard mode,  I was reminded of Dante, Heaven and Hell, Milton, Paradise Lost. Then the Fool enters! And whilst Shakespeare is conjured again the fact that the Fool has a dog made me think of Mr Bojangles!! Sublime? Ridiculous? Moi? Echoes of a biblical landscape flickered through my head when Damascus is mentioned and English folklore when the Lyke Wake dirge is sung by the Travellers. (And, yes, I sung it too as I read!) Folklore and traditions were reinforced with references to Punch and Judy and nursery rhymes,

The travellers visit a church and the guardian of the church – Woman in the text – begins quoting Oranges and Lemons.

The language overall is an exciting juxtaposition of modern vernacular and a more stylised poetic language that conjures poets past. References to an “electric razor“ for example. Also the Fool’s first speech that seems so whimsical almost until he speaks of “beating the shit’ out of some stones. But these all nestle so perfectly within the more timeless language.

This I have given you. For it is the truth

That when men see terrible things

They laugh. 

And this is a terrible place.’

Thematically the book pulls a punch too, the nature of refugees, perhaps, travelling through necessity rather than pleasure, a sense of displacement, a descent into hell. The characters don’t need names for they are all of us and they are none of us with the Fool to synthesise between all, perplexing and infuriating in his iteration, yet as he informs us he only ‘says what he’s meant to say“. And that offers a sense of inevitability to proceedings. Structurally the book is divided into four parts with an epilogue that is an emotional and oblique retrospective of the entire work. 

There is a deeply spiritual feel to the poem underpinned quite subtly with a political sense of displacement from a conflict. References to the city of angels suggest a past which was peaceful. The travellers tell of their dreams but for me the verses already had a dreamlike quality. I also felt there was much unsaid in the poem, the onus on the reader to intuit and perceive what happens and why it happens.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It satisfies on so many levels. And the joy of reading these words aloud is sublime. Thanks to Isabelle Kenyon and Zoe Brooks for a copy of the book.

Thursday, 7 July 2022

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way - Rebecca Wait


There’s something almost perversely satisfying about reading stories of dysfunctional families because you end up feeling that perhaps your own family was not, perhaps, as dysfunctional as you thought! Rebecca Wait’s moving account of one dysfunctional family is piercingly perceptive as she demonstrates again, as she did in Our Fathers, that her observation of human behaviour and the human condition is astute and intelligent.

I guess that, as in Our Fathers, I found the theme of nature versus nurture raised; how far do genetics play a part in the people that we are and the people that we become? It’s a conundrum that has consumed me for most of my adult life I think and maybe it’s the same for Rebecca Wait? Although I feel having read this book that she comes down more strongly on the nature side. 

And how perfect to have as the main characters a set of non-identical twins. For that raises another batch of questions in the reader’s head. For these twins do not conform to one’s stereotypical notion of the kinship of twins. At least not on the surface, but let’s allow the blurb to set the scene.

‘ For Alice and Hanna, saint and sinner, growing up is a trial. Their mother takes a divide and conquer approach to child-rearing, and their father, and absent one. There is their older brother Michael, who disapproval is a force to be reckoned with. And there is a catastrophe that is never spoken of, but which has shaped everything.

As adults, Alice and Hanna must negotiate increasingly complicated family tensions, while longing for connection and stability. They must find a way to repair their own fractured relationship, and they must finally choose their own approach to their dominant mother: submit or burn the house down. And they must decide at last whether life is really anything more than a tragedy with a few hilarious moments’

And I guess to an extent that last phrase does sum up the book – ‘…..more than a tragedy with a few hilarious moments.’ There is a great deal of sadness in the book or I certainly found there to be so. My heart just broke for Hanna (and her aunt Katy) and I found some of those sequences in the book quite hard to read for the compassion in me wanted to try and make everything better for them. However that’s not to say that the book is enduringly depressing. The conclusion is redemptive and lifted my heart.

There are dual narratives which allow us to piece these jigsaw puzzle lives together. All of the characters are flawed in some way and some of them appear to be unpleasant or certainly they behave in ways that are questionable but because we know that they all have problems you don’t actually end up disliking them, even poor Celia, the twins’ mother. But it does raise many questions about the nature of abuse and highlights the fact that not all abuse is conscious or intentional. 

It is an extremely well written book. I’ve previously alluded to the author’s perceptions but she has tapped into how painful it is sometimes with family dynamics and relationships as each member of the family strives to understand not just their relatives’ behaviours but their own too. This book looks at extremes I guess of what happens when dysfunctional parents raise dysfunctional children. It’s also a very emotional book. I experienced an incredible sense of being powerless to intervene when I could see that this was a runaway train out of control. It was quite tiring! But in a satisfying way, if that’s not a paradox. Because by the end of the book you felt that there was an element of hope. That people could maybe learn, could maybe find some understanding.

My thanks to the wonderful Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for a gifted proof of this book.