Thursday, 31 October 2019

The Lost Ones - Anita Frank

Welcome to the Lost Ones Halloween Takeover 

Ghost story. Big house story. Love story. War story. Family story. His tory. Her story. Mystery story. Spiritual story. Pick a genre. any genre. Think this book ticks them all. Spooky story? Spooks are spies. Annie and Stella, spooks. Lucien spooky. Mrs. Henge, Mrs Danvers? Because the love did not dare to speak its name. Oh what a tangled web she wove. I can’t tell you any more because I mustn’t do spoilers. I may have said too much already? But you want to know more? Okay, I get it.

It’s England in 1917. World War I. Stella Marcham, devastated by the loss of her fiancé and in need of diversion, travels to the country house, Greyswick where her pregnant sister, Madeleine, resides whilst her husband attends to war work in London. On arrival she finds Madeleine a mess and the house a creaking cornucopia of unexplained occurrences. The house holds some secrets, pretty dark ones at that. It has a gothic, supernatural flavour with some tension and nail biting moments. I don’t normally ‘do’ scary. Reader, I’m a sensitive soul and these things play on my mind. So I only read this during the daytime. Had I risked an after dark read I may well have caused some neighbourhood consternation with my screams for there are some creepy bits in here!

It’s a protracted piece of good, old fashioned story telling, descriptive and convincing on several levels. You don’t think, almost, to consider the historical research that’s been undertaken because it’s all so seamless within the body of the narrative. Everything fits. There are relationship dynamics on several levels too with the diverse characters well defined and believable. The great class divide is explored subtly as sub text rather than any kind of issue or with points to make. I found a couple of  observations that resonated with me, one regarding the nature of Greyswick as a grand house and the other a contemplation on sliding doors and wars……

‘The calculated effort put into its grandeur had reduced it to a caricature of the very thing that it aspired to be.’

‘What would his life be now if an Austrian duke hadn’t been shot and an antiquated arrangement alliances hadn’t dragged us all into years of mindless bloodshed?

The denouement and conclusion is suitably explosive and dramatic but with that satisfying ‘all ends tied up’ finish that leaves a reader comfortably satisfied despite having the crap scared out of them by the ‘reading ride’ they’ve been on. ;-) 

What an excellent idea to publish on Halloween. Go get yourself a copy and scare yourself silly. 

Great big thanks to Joe Thomas at HQ, Harper Collins for a delicious copy of this book.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Unfollow - Megan Phelps-Roper UPDATE

I don't normally do this with my reviews. Once they're written, once they're posted, that's it. Apart from maybe a correction for a typo or grammar error. But I feel I just have to add something to this post. Why? Well, I had the incredible good fortune to be in the audience for the conversation between Louis Theroux and Megan Phelps Roper last night at St. James Church in Piccadilly, a Waterstones event. There was a whole synchronicity that led to that moment. I received a copy of the book from Quercus Books. I read it and was blown away. I wrote my review. Fast forward. I was on the train with a friend up to a concert in London. And I was talking about the book for the whole journey, it seemed. We were going to see Gary Numan at the Roundhouse. One of his numbers, I can't even remember which one now, had some images projected at the back of the stage. Some of them depicted the Westboro Baptist Church picketing. I couldn't believe my eyes and I nudged my friend and pointed because it seemed so weird that we'd been discussing the book and the images popped up that same evening. The following weekend my sister came down and I was telling her all about it and I also mentioned how gutted I was that the London event was sold out. Fast forward to last Friday. I was working at my computer when a text message from my sister popped up telling me that the event was no longer sold out giving me a link to click on to get a ticket which I did. Simultaneously I received an email from Quercus Books telling me I had won two tickets in their recent competition! It was SO meant to be.

When the audience cheers seemed louder for Louis Theroux than they did for Megan Phelps Roper my heart sank for her. I worried that many were there to hear Louis not Megan. Even if that were the case Megan's generous heart was untroubled and I have little doubt that by the end of the evening everyone would've left feeling, realising and understanding that they had been in the presence of somebody very special. Megan Phelps Roper is such a very articulate, honest and humble person. We all use words like love and hatred too much sometimes for we don't always consider what those words actually mean. To listen to somebody describe how they've successfully navigated that tightrope from hatred to love was moving and edifying and made me think about those words and how I use them. She fused objectivity and subjectivity so perfectly I defy anyone not to have gone away last night thinking about what they've just heard long into the night. She answered audience members questions so fully, so thoroughly and so refreshingly. Very often people manipulate their answers so they don't always bear much resemblance to the question, and then they ask, "Does that answer your question?" Megan never needed to ask that for she answered everybody's question with candour. She seem to radiate positivity and optimism and hope. I could've listened to her for hours. She has such an easy, gentle style of talking even though what she's saying is potent and serious. I was also delighted because the final extract that she read from the book was the very part I quoted in my review because I thought was pivotal to the whole book. I hope that someone may have recorded the event for a podcast or something? Because so much of what she was saying is important and people should hear it. I want to hear it again!  Everybody that attended the event was given a signed copy of the book! That was that I thought. But no, Megan stayed behind afterwards to personally dedicate a copy of the book for anybody who wanted it. I was really pleased because the copy I read didn't have a signature and because it was the copy I read it seemed somehow fitting it that should be my signed copy and it meant that I got to chat with Megan which was very, very special. I told her that I considered coming to the event with a placard that said God Loves Megan on it, which made her smile and she said she liked the sentiment even if I didn't get around to doing it. She seemed amazed that I had read the book. I told her I found the book profoundly moving and I thought she was a very courageous woman and I loved her honesty. And I don't normally do this but I was so thrilled to have my photo taken with her that I'm going to break my rule and post a picture of myself on this blog. Be warned.

It’s difficult to know how best to approach a review of a book such as this. For me it is not so much how it’s written, structured etc. it’s what is written and the intent within the writing. And I’m not sure a review can adequately express that. But, reader, I will try!

I have to admit that I had always avoided anything to do with the Westboro Baptist Church. What little I knew was abhorrent to me and I was not interested in giving these people any more attention than they were already getting. So I didn’t watch any of Louis Theroux’s programmes. But the buzz about this book intrigued me. And the implications of what was contained between its covers wouldn’t leave me.  I had it on my ‘Books To Look Out For’ radar. So I was thrilled when Ana McLaughlin of riverrun books asked me if I’d like a copy.

I didn’t know what to expect. But I wasn’t prepared for such a profoundly moving, intelligent, honest and brave book by a strong and courageous woman. I read a couple of chapters and then I stopped and watched the first two of the Louis Theroux documentaries because initially I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Such venomous hatred and callous behaviour chilled me to the bone. It’s often occurred to me that the God of the Old Testament comes across as an angry, vengeful God but the God of the New Testament presents as more loving and forgiving. It’s almost as if someone said, tone it down a bit, we’re frightening people! Westboro Baptist Church are firmly Old Testamenteers. Megan seems more New Testament. 

As someone who has a largely open and liberal mind, I hope, I have sometimes been envious of those in possession of a certainty of belief. No room for doubt or indecision. And that’s fine if the beliefs are positive and pure. But what if they’re not? I do not envy a single member of the Westboro Baptist Church. How could such ‘intelligent’, educated people, they’re lawyers for goodness sake, be in possession of such flawed thoughts, such hatred? How can people possess such inflexibility? I returned to Megan’s book hoping perhaps to find some answers.

Fundamentally it seems to boil down to how the Bible is interpreted. The Westboro Baptists interpretation of relevant texts seem to dictate their behaviour. That’s a vast over simplification I know! Unfollow is liberally endowed with many, many Bible quotations to illustrate the standpoint of Westboro but also to show Megan’s questioning and possibly to encourage an alternate interpretation? 

The honesty of this story is astounding. The writer does not attempt to sugar coat anything yet the love she holds for her family whilst acknowledging that their homophobia and anti-Semitism is wrong tells me that she is a special person. I think her account demonstrates that just because people have questionable beliefs it does not make them bad people or people incapable of compassion. For myself I found this the hardest to concept to catch hold of and hang on to. It is such a profound paradox. 

I think one of the main thrusts of the book is examining how conditioning and indoctrination can be overcome. But the journey to do that and come out the other side unscathed is a long and emotional process. Firstly you have to reach the realisation of what has happened to you. And how devastating must it be to question the people you love and who love you ? But more than that to see that the only real way to leave it all behind means leaving your family behind. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about. 

There is one very astute, revealing paragraph in the book that I think it’s worth quoting in full as it sums up the ethos of the whole cult thing. 

‘Westboro is not unique.
The church’s garish signs lend themselves to this view of its members as crazed doomsayers, cartoonish villains who celebrate the calamities of others with fiendish glee. But the truth is that the church’s radical, recalcitrant position is the result of very common, very human forces— everything from fear, family, guilt, and shame, to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. These are forces whose power affects us all, consciously and subconsciously, to one degree or another at every stage of our lives. When these forces are coupled with group dynamics and a belief system that caters to so many of our most basic needs as human beings— a sense of meaning, identity, purpose, of reward, of goodness, of community— they provide group members with an astonishing level of motivation to cohere and conform, no matter the cost.’

Finally I watched the final and most recent Theroux documentary and wept with Megan. That’s after I shed many tears reading the book. This book is written by someone who I’d like to call a true Christian, a very special person. This book is a torch of hope in the often bleak times we live in. It suggests that no matter what, if you have strength and determination, there is an optimism to turn things around for the better. 

This book will stay with me for a long time. It’s so moving. 

Monday, 28 October 2019

Shamus Dust - Janet Roger

Some bloggers dislike accepting authors’ offers of sending them a book to review. I have no problem with it. Sometimes I’ll politely refuse. And sometimes I won’t. My criteria is to go with my gut instinct. I did. And I’m glad. No, I’m downright delighted. For this debut novel has cut out the ‘debut novel exuberance syndrome’ middleman and presents as a mature, experienced, intelligent, compelling piece of writing. It was a Forrest Gump book, initially. I didn’t know what I was gonna get! But, boy, I got a lot!

So you thought Raymond Chandler was dead, did you? Think again. Do you believe in reincarnation? Easier if you do. Cause I think he’s been reincarnated. He’s back with us, only now we call her Janet Roger. Think Sam Spade. Think Philip Marlowe. Think film noir. B Movie. American voiceover from old black and white crime cinema. Read this book in black and white. Don’t think colour unless it’s blood. Newman’s your man, scurrying along the fog ridden, snowy streets of London and the murky dives of dubious decency, lighting his cigarettes with careless panache. Shamus Dust. Racketeers and renegades, no dungeons and dragons. When I read the title I thought it might be a magical realism tale, a futuristic magic journey, a fantasy private eye. It isn’t. It doesn’t go there. Nor should it. It’s classic. It’s sophisticated. It’s something of an homage to gumshoes and Chandlers. It’s only the eggs that are hardboiled. It’s atmospheric. It’s descriptive. it’s relevant. Perceptive. No Gay Liberation. Potential police corruption. And it moves with a narrative so smooth and seamless, but such intricate plotting.  It’s a beautifully structured story. Straightforward, story telling. Nuanced. No need for clever devices, the storyline carries the whole book along. But read it carefully. All is significant. No wasted words or characterisations. Be a literary gumshoe, note everyone, their names and relationships, where they were, who they are and why. You’ll struggle to unravel it all. But leave it to Newman. He’s your man. Too many bodies? It's the risk you take. But I'll not risk any more spoilers.

The snow, a wonderful leitmotiv throughout the book. And the thaw only comes towards the conclusion. So clever. The research is impeccable and painstaking and accurate. How would I know? I’ll tell you. My Mum lived in that area of London until the Blitz bombed her out of the city. And we’re never far from the Blitz in Shamus Dust. I’ve walked down Gresham Street. I read the old news articles about the Roman Temple. In 1954 35,000 visited, 5,000 were turned away in one day and the queues snaked around those London streets including the one where my Mum lived.  The Professor knew it was a biggie. Who’s the Professor? Read the book. 

So, the one thing that confounds me - how the hell is this a debut novel?! Where has this author been hiding? Shamus Dust is as accomplished a piece of writing as you’re likely to find. It ticks all the boxes. It’s rare to find a crime novel, an historical crime novel that boasts such elegant prose. No disrespect intended to the numerous crime writers out there whose work I have read and enjoyed but it is unusual for the writing of this genre to present with such a 'literary' feel. But if you want some objectivity, some kind of critical observation? I’ll grudgingly hand it to you - maybe the book was too long? But only maybe, mind.  Only maybe. And I want more Janet Roger books. Please. 

Here’s looking at you.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Leaves - John Simmons BLOG TOUR

My turn aboard the Blog Tour for John Simmons’ Leaves!

 Originally published in 2015 but conceived much earlier in the 1970’s where it is set this is a closely observed tale of a community, through four seasons, living in Ophelia Street.  I see Ophelia and I think Shakespeare. I think of Hamlet. I think of something tragic. And there is nuanced tragedy in this story.

It’s slow moving, like the passage of time it describes. It’s a slice of life. It’s a cross section of a community of people who are real, flawed, some at odds with themselves, others at odds with the world, all trying to make their way in this confusing world we live in which was probably just as confusing in the 1970’s as it is now. 

All is observed by a conservatively ambitious journalist who sees his neighbours, warts and all, and delivers columns of copy detailing thinly disguised anecdotes that he perceives from the window of his flat. 

There are parallels to be drawn with the life we lead now which I found interesting, as if nothing about people really changes inherently, prejudices, morality, cruelty, love. Yet the book also shows how thinking has evolved and altered with the passage of the decades. Interesting though to note the reactions of readers born after 1970? I was a young person in the 1970’s and I can appreciate the attention to detail Simmons has paid. I could recognise artefacts and routines that are not about today. 

Simmons creates subtle moods of unease and tension within the relationships of his characters. It seem to me to be very much an observational piece of writing with some sustaining prose, an attempt to create a piece of literature. 

I enjoyed the structure of the novel; the seasons which were metaphor for the seasons of the lives of the residents and the life of Ophelia Street itself offered a subtle inevitability. The writing style is clear and focused, tending towards the lyrical on occasions.

What I didn’t enjoy was the graphic animal cruelty. I understand it was required to show aspects of character but it left me distressed. Bu I did enjoy the function of the frequent animal references in the book. I thought they were clever metaphors.

Leaves is not an uplifting book nor is it intended to be. It is a curiously disturbing book almost as if you have just read a book about yourself. But what you have read is a book about life. It’s a book we all feature in. 

Please check out what other bloggers think of this thought provoking book. 

My thanks to Kelly at LoveBooksTours and Urbane Publications for a copy of this book.


Wednesday, 16 October 2019

A Drop of Patience - William Melvin Kelley

I was blown away by the publication last year of the 'lost' masterpiece, 'A Different Drummer' so I was excited beyond words to read another of Kelley's novels. The guy is surely one of the most important voices in black American literature. And if '....Drummer' whetted my appetite for Kelley's words then '....Patience' has rendered me impatient to read more.

What better way to explore racism than through the eyes of a blind man. And what better way to expose the blindness in us all as we read the account of Ludlow Washington's life. Against a backdrop of the US jazz scene the syncopation and improvisation of the music serves as metaphor for the life of a blind, black man abandoned to a children's home by his parents in a manner that will squeeze your heart.

'A Drop of Patience is the story of a gifted and damaged man set apart - by blindness, by race, by talent - who must wrestle with adversity and ambition to generate the acceptance and self worth that have always eluded him.'

No spoiler, for you can read the above on the back cover and it serves as a perfect summary of this captivating and compelling novel. Whilst the plot is clearly of an America several decades ago there are some contemporary considerations that endure, that of disability and racism, of growing up and falling in love. Kelley deals with it all so sensitively and without sensationalising anything which makes it all the more potent. Ludlow is such a special character, so innocent yet with an inner wisdom that seems to defy the circumstances of his upbringing. Largely unloved for his early years it seems to be the grail he is seeking but his race, disability and musical gift thwart any dreams he may have of true happiness. He searches for true love and a love of the truth. For who will tell it like it really is?

Kelley's style is that of the true story teller. A narrative that flows easily with characters that step off the page and, often, into your heart you're instantly immersed into the tale desperate to know how things turn out for Ludlow but equally, not wanting the story to end. Structurally straightforward a story told chronologically with the various parts of the book prefaced by extracts from an older Ludlow's interview, which is effective since it offers the reader his 'take' after the event so to speak. 

Put Thelonious Monk on the player and let that great man play a soundtrack to your reading. The jazz writing is some of the best I've read. I used to think Jack Kerouac couldn't be surpassed, this comes close. And whilst jazz is never 'just' music, it's a discipline, this book conveys that most succinctly. It's superb.

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin for a copy of this wonderful book. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

Archimimus - Clio Gray BLOG TOUR

My delight in kicking off the blog tour for this latest novel of Clio Gray's is hampered somewhat by the fact that, unfortunately, the book only arrived a day or two ago due to some kind of glitch that caused the poor tour organiser some headaches. Whilst I AM a voracious reader I do prefer a little longer, especially for a blog tour, to read, collect my thoughts and pen a review. However in my 'show must go on mode' I've done my best. Yet, mine is but the first stop on this tour, Please check out my colleagues opinions too. 

Here's what I think...........

After cursorily reading the blurb I was prepared to deride the comparison with Patrick Susskind but I get it totally. Ultimately Archimimus is one of those genre fusion books that dares you to neatly compartmentalise it. Which suits me just fine! What I must be cautious about is giving anything away for the conclusion is explosive and, for me anyway, unexpected. 

So let’s begin with all things blurbish - 

Lukitt Bachmann is waiting in his Lanterne de Mortes, a Tower of the Dead, in the middle of a cemetery.
He's had a complicated life: son of a Herrnhuter Brother thrown out of his sect; help-meet to a pastor; sailor; fisherman; boar-hunter; and student and lecturer, exploring the varied histories of the Knights Teutonic and the bone-chapels their descendants left behind them.
He has become an assassin and a murderer, learned the terrible highs and lows of friendships made and lost, and is awaiting now his last remaining friend to set him free so he can put right past wrongs.
As Lukitt is let loose on a world gone mad, can this avenging angel finally find solace for his soul?

Clio Gray's stunning novel is ideal for readers of Mervyn   Peake, Erin Morgenstern and Patrick Süskind.’

Yep, that just about sums it up. Or does it? Yes, that is what actually happens but the novel is much deeper and richer than a précis might suggest.

Lukitt is a deep and complex character, a paradox, and potentially symbolic of the eternal right/wrong demons that can reside within us all. A skilful characterisation has us warming to him, rooting for him and feeling his pain and dilemmas. But it also asks us to question his morality. Is he merely a survivor? Doing whatever he needs to survive regardless of what that might entail? Can he be deemed guilty of making wrong decisions, because that's what we all do sometimes  Or is he lacking sufficient courage to stand up to bullies and blackmail? Or have the events of his life shaped him into the Lukitt he becomes? I think it's up to the reader to decide. His close friendships with, firstly Pregel, and then Alameth prepares the reader for a wider consideration of friendship and what constitutes a good friend. 

The novel is also a rich historic tapestry. Curiously I had no real sense of any historic period to begin with, I felt a greater sense of magical realism in the opening chapters. It was only as the story developed and the book progressed and dates were offered here and there that a sense of time and place became apparent and allowed me to slot everything into place. The research is impressive because it is seamless within the narrative. It rests alongside the story so that the reader is not unaware of it but accepts it as a plot function. 

And the title? Archimimus? I looked it up before I was halfway through the book. This is what the world dictionary has to say - 

archimimus is an Latin word started with a. Here is the definition of archimimus in English
  • archimimusmasculine noun
    chief mimic actor, chief of troop of mimics/actors; leading actor/player, lead
  • archimimus archimimus, archimimi
    masculine noun chief mimic actor, chief of troop of mimics/actors; leading actor/player, lead;

However if I had been patient enough to wait until I read the author's note, her explanation enriches that definition most significantly.

I feel quite ashamed given the author's impressive catalogue, that this is the first Clio Gray I have read. I feel fairly sure it won't be my last. A gutsy, historical thriller with some subliminal semantics and metaphysics that are there for the taking but won't mar a readers enjoyment if they simply want a good old yarn. 

I didn't like the ending! My heart hurt! But it was real. And clever. And unexpected. 

My thanks to the LoveBooksGroup and Urbane Publications for a copy of this book.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

The Seagull’s Laughter - Holly Bidgood BLOG TOUR

I’ve never heard a seagull laugh. Living by the sea I’ve heard them cry and scream and vent their landlocked frustration on the world around them when the weather closes in. But I’ve never heard them laugh. Or maybe in a perversion of reversion that IS their laugh. But the sound somehow seems fitting for this story of Malik, with mismatched eyes and fractured identity. Accompanied by Eqingaleq, a guiding spirit from Greenland legend, (reminded me of Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon)  he searches for answers and meanings.

A multi narrated story the first part deals with Malik’s  and that of his late father Rasmus an arctic obsessed explorer. The two histories work in tandem to offer the reader a complete a picture as possible of the two characters. But through the skilful story telling most of our sympathies remain with Malik. Further on in the second and third parts of the novel we learn of Martha, her story and her challenges. On the run with a friend, Martha and Malik’s paths cross and they briefly seek sanctuary in the Shetland Islands but Malik has questions he wishes to have answered and he continues his search.

Yet with every passing second I feel myself drifting further and further away from this fleeting moment of connection, until I realise that we are each adrift in our own ocean and the two do not share their waters.’

Thus surmises Martha after a moment of connection with Malik and a sense that they are both searching for something and it seems a fitting way to sum up their situation.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved Malik, his sensitivity and desire to please, the confusion of his origins and his place in the world and where other people might fit in. There was a deep sense of him being a very proper person in the sense that he possessed an intuitive understanding of the decent and human way to behave. He seems righteous, guileless and open. The sense of spiritualism running through the story, too, was fascinating. How Eqingaleq’s presence gave us such clues as to Malik’s state of mind and conscience. 

The narrative flowed easily and informatively with some palpable descriptions of the diverse landscapes within the book. The hostile landscapes of Greenland to the more suburban, secular  environment of Judith’s home. (Who’s Judith? Read the book! ;-))I felt a comparison between Greenland and Shetland, something to do with how remote both locations feel so they offer a paradox of being both distant yet offering a sanctuary of kinds. Is Malik swapping ‘Green’  for ’Shet.? There was a mystery, too, off sorts with the continued reappearance of ‘Birdie’. Is he the laughing seagull? An unusual book in some respects which is always a good thing for me! Thr nuances don’t allow the reader to sit back and relax, the reader has to sit back and READ! 

Thank you Wild Pressed Books and LoveBooks Tours for this captivating tale. 

Thursday, 3 October 2019

The Choke - Sophie Laguna

Aptly titled book for it choked me up and that’s for sure. An Australian novel that has already won an award and appeared on short and long lists of others this is the tale of the endearing Justine born into a world of poverty and neglect blaming herself for being a breech birth and finding a back to front world. If you’re a breech baby, like myself, this will touch you to the core. But alongside poverty Justine experiences violence and oppression that sees her catapulted into an untenable situation that will squeeze your heart.

Beautifully written this writer has burrowed into the very soul of a young girl trying to make sense of the world around her and the people in it, her family, her friends, her teachers, her enemies. The characterisation is so thoroughly convincing you almost feel you want to put the book down to find Justine and help her. She shows remarkable determination and resilience reluctant to lose belief in those adults she feels she should trust. And she is full of love.

Many of the adult characters in the book, especially the males, have issues a plenty which you see Justine struggling to understand. In their own way I guess they try, especially Pop. But it is the younger characters that really resonate.This author seems to have a particular gift for understanding children with, challenges, for want of a better word and without wishing to give anything away. I wanted to hug Michael. 

For those of us far from the antipodean shores and never having visited even this is a palpable portrait of life in the outback. The natural world a supporting player if you will. I felt the heat, the dryness the very ‘Australianess’ of the landscape through the descriptive passages. 

There is a redemption of sorts at the end of the book which I think was most necessary to preserve the wellbeing of the reader! A different outcome would have had me bereft for weeks! There is so much in the book that gets you thinking and worrying about anyone who might be experiencing similar. It’s harrowing in many respects and quite disturbing and whilst showing how accepting children can be of their circumstances when they know no different it does also show the resilience of the human spirit. It is not a feelgood book but it is a book that stays with you and asks you to think. 

Thank you Gallic Press for the opportunity to read this.