Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Fall of the Empire (The Rise of the Aztecs Book 5) by Zoe Saadia

The Fall of the Empire is the 5th book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and, as with the previous four; Zoe Saadia captivates the reader from the very onset and leaves us craving more. Despite the fact that this book is part of a series, Saadia allows enough back story so that it could easily be enjoyed as a standalone read.

One of the things I like best about Saadia’s novels is that, even though they reflect a very male dominated, patriarchal world, she really makes her female characters count. The Fall of the Empire is no different and introduces us to Tlalli, a market girl with a deep burning secret. It is Tlalli who drives the story on, lending the warriors her geographical knowledge and, in the end performing so bravely that she is the one who dictates the fate of the deposed Tepanec Emperor.

Although Saadia’s novels are sequential in the telling of the ancient America’s history, each one seems to have its own individual focus. The Fall of the Empire presents us with the reality of war. There are two big battles in the novel, as both Azcapotzalco and Coyoacan fall to the Aztecs and their allies, and Saadia captures the atmosphere of chaos perfectly. We are invited to experience the sights, sounds and smells of war in such a way that we are left with no doubt of the ugly reality.

Prior to this novel, Saadia has mainly depicted the life of noble people and warriors; however with The Fall of the Empire, she introduces us to a different stratum of society through the characters of Etl and Tlalli, who are both commoners. In doing this, Saadia is able to illustrate how the perception and experience of war can differ, depending on a person’s position. For warriors such as Tlacaelel and Kuini, war is glorious and thrilling. In fact, when Saadia describes the fights between warriors, her writing becomes almost cinematic in style. However, it is the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of war. They become expendable and dehumanised as their towns are destroyed and countless people are slaughtered whilst the rest are forced to become refugees. It is a testament to Saadia’s writing skills that she is able to effectively highlight this dichotomy of both the historical battles and indeed war in general.

In The Fall of the Empire, Tlacaelel steps into the limelight as Itzcoatl, Coyotl and Kuini rely on his strategic and diplomatic skills to get things done. It becomes clear that growing up in a treacherous environment, where his survival depended upon him not being seen as a threat, his tactical skills have been honed to perfection. Of all the warriors, he is the one with the clearest vision. He is pragmatic when he offers Tlalli the stark choice of being reborn in the new world or going down with the old world.

The notion of a new world order is the central theme of the novel. As Tepanec rule is swept aside, all remnants of their culture is destroyed most notably by burning their temples. Saadia uses the two new characters of Etl and Tlalli to illustrate how historically the people most able to survive are the ones who are willing to adapt. Tlalli is just sixteen with no real ties to the old world so it is probably easier for her to let go of all she has known and move forward into a new life.

I loved the character of Tlalli, who acts not only as the heart of the story but enables Tlacaelel to engage with his feelings rather than being ruled completely by intellect. The two may be a surprising match but they each provide the other with what they need. As the novel ends the reader is left in little doubt that the two of them will enjoy an enduring relationship which will serve them both well.

The Rise of the Aztecs is a series that just seems to get better and better and makes for compelling reading. Saadia’s gift for storytelling and her incredible passion and knowledge of this historical period, combine to ensure that readers are simply able to immerse themselves into the sheer joy of reading these books. Although The Fall of the Empire would work perfectly well as a standalone, I really can’t recommend this series highly enough and I’m so pleased that I started at the beginning. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Married To Maggie (Texas Boys Falling Fast) by Jan Romes

It’s a testament to Jan Romes’ writing that after downloading Married To Maggie, I intended to have a little peek and four hours later I was still reading. Married To Maggie is the best kind of romance, fun, witty and pure escapism.

With a plot that would rival Shakespeare, Married To Maggie hinges on secret schemes, double crosses, an arch-villain and nothing being as it seems. When Maggie Gray loses her job as a nurse, she is tempted into accepting an offer from billionaire oil tycoon Loy Vincent, to marry his grandson Ty. In a quirky twist of fate, Ty also hires Maggie to pose as his wife, in order to get his grandfather off his case. The novel takes place over the seven days from Maggie and Ty’s meeting to their wedding day and what a seven days it is.

The heart of the story is Maggie Gray herself, who is a terrific combination of vulnerability and grit. A dedicated cardiac nurse in her late twenties, she has a full life; helping at shelters for the homeless and dogs as well as belly dancing and socialising with her best friend Nancy. She’s not a woman to be pushed around and has no problem in standing up to the ferocious Loy Vincent and Ty’s snobby friends but at heart she is kind and caring. It doesn’t take long for her to regret becoming embroiled in the madcap scheme as her feelings for Ty are genuine and real.

Ty is also a likeable character, a man trying to live up to the reputation of his imposing lineage whilst making his own mark. There are lots of other engaging characters, most notably Ty’s mother Ellen and my own personal favourite, the paparazzi photographer Chaz Rosston. Romes’ skill as a writer is evident in her ability to bring her characters to life which makes her readers believe in them and care about them.

Married To Maggie makes no pretence to be anything other than what it is, a light hearted rom-com. However, it does touch on serious issues. Romes uses her novel to explore grief and how people deal with it differently. Ty is grieving for his father who died in a car accident and, because he has not really processed what happened, he suffers from debilitating panic attacks. Maggie has lost her own mother and her grief is manifested in a quiet sadness. At the same time we see how families can have a negative impact on each other when relationships become controlling rather than accepting.

Married To Maggie is the first novel in the Texas Boys Falling Fast series and one of the things I enjoyed was looking out for other characters who may be featured in future stories. I’m holding out hope for Sam Bright, the bar owner. All in all, I really enjoyed this novel and if you like a story that puts a smile on your face and a spring in your step then I think this will be a great choice for you. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Burnt Promises by Brenda Perlin

Burnt Promises is the second book in the Brooklyn and Bo Chronicles by Brenda Perlin and like its predecessor, Shattered Reality, is written with a searing honesty. Perlin’s style of faction is almost naked in its rawness; she offers us the bare details and leaves us to make of them what we will.

Where Shattered Reality presents Brooklyn’s life from childhood to her relationship with Bo, Burnt Promises focuses primarily on that relationship. Brooklyn meets Bo while they are both married to other people and the subsequent complications reflect a reality for a lot of people. Bo’s wife sets in motion divorce proceedings that drag them all through the mud and ultimately benefit nobody but the lawyers involved.

Brooklyn was raised in a traditional home, where she was expected to maintain high moral standards. Like many women, she was encouraged to put other people’s needs before her own and became a ‘people pleaser’. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Brooklyn judges herself more harshly than anyone else could. She is the one who labels herself a “home wrecker” and obviously feels a great deal of guilt over her failed marriage.

I think Burnt Promises actually works on two levels. On the one hand, it is an engrossing tale of a woman’s struggle to accept herself and make sense of her relationship but it is also a form of social history. Brooklyn’s story is such that it chronicles what life is like for many women who were born in the 1960s. The specifics may not be identical but there are many issues bubbling beneath the surface that I suspect lots of women will be able to relate to.

In common with many women, Brooklyn suffers from a lack of self-esteem, which leads her to a disastrous long term relationship with serial womaniser, Joey. Her inability to withstand Joey’s excuses exacerbate her feelings of worthlessness and her consequent attachment to Gerard, whom she marries, is primarily born out of the fact that he is nice to her. The marriage is doomed, Gerard is ten years Brooklyn’s senior and resents her free spirit, trying instead to control her. Brooklyn had a complex relationship with her father which has clearly impacted on her dealings with men, as her default setting seems to be to assume a passive role.

Despite marrying Gerard for the wrong reasons, Brooklyn tries to make it work, ignoring her own needs and feelings for fifteen years. When the marriage ends, it seems to Gerard to be out of the blue but that’s only because Brooklyn has never felt able to express her dissatisfaction with the relationship. It would have been easy for Perlin to cast Gerard as the villain of the piece but she goes to great lengths to show how he is damaged from his own parents’ divorce. He also takes good care of Brooklyn when she becomes ill with a neurological disorder but that consideration is not enough to base a marriage on. In fact, Brooklyn’s illness is a massive stress factor in a relationship that was never particularly strong to begin with. Brooklyn’s expectations for herself are so low, she probably would have settled for an unhappy marriage had she not met Bo, who represents a new beginning for her.

An interesting aspect of Burnt Promises is the way it reflects our society’s obsession with appearance and the impact that has on women. Exercise is a massive part of Brooklyn’s life; she was a fitness instructor prior to her illness and continues to spend a good deal of time in the gym after her recovery. There is poignancy in the fact that as she looks forward to a cruise with Bo, the first vacation of her adult life, one of her primary concerns is the potential weight gain she might experience.  There is also a hilarious anecdote where Brooklyn compares her own lady parts to those of Pamela Anderson, whose vagina she has seen on a sex tape. At a time when young people are defining their own sexuality through porn and Brazilian waxes are the new norm, I found this episode incredibly relevant. Tellingly Bo’s ex-wife insults Brooklyn via her looks, which she obviously perceives as being more damaging than any other form of attack.

Perlin’s writing style is such that Brooklyn’s truth becomes the only truth. Even though I was aware that the novel is not necessarily autobiographical and, even if it were there are always many sides to any given story, I constantly found myself immersed in Brooklyn’s version of events. One of the reasons why Brooklyn’s truth is so compelling is the fair handed way in which Perlin delivers it. There are no villains, even Bo’s ex-wife, Ruth, who puts the couple through hell, is more mad than bad. In fact much of the humour in the novel comes from the emails that Ruth sends to Bo.

Burnt Promises is a novel that offers up a woman’s life for inspection and, through our relationship with Brooklyn, I think most readers will be forced to face truths about their own lives. It might not always be pretty but Burnt Promises is a reflection of reality for a lot of women trying to find their place in a so called modern world.  

Sunday, 26 July 2015

After The Sucker Punch by Lorraine Devon Wilke

After The Sucker Punch is an aptly named novel because it packs a mighty punch and raises so many questions, I was left literally reeling by the end of it. Lorraine Devon Wilke commands our attention with a splendidly dramatic opening and never lets us off the hook until the very last page.

The novel is essentially the story of Tessa Curzio, who whilst attending her father’s funeral discovers that he kept diaries for fifty years and has used them to record less than complimentary observations about his family and friends. The trauma of the death of a parent combined with the diary findings serve to cast Tessa into a spiral of self-doubt and destruction. The diaries are described as a Pandora’s Box and indeed, once they’ve been opened, the lives of Tessa and her family will never be the same again. In addition to this, the effects of the Pandora’s Box seem to extend to the reader, leaving behind some very thorny philosophical questions.

LDW shrewdly uses the third person narrative to tell her story, which invites the reader to see the bigger picture. We don’t necessarily always agree with Tessa’s version of events, especially where her siblings are concerned. Tessa has a difficult relationship with her older sister Michaela but LDW offers us a glimpse of a woman trying to juggle her life as a wife, mother and teacher, whilst stepping up to her new role as the family designated carer for her newly widowed mother. Whilst Tessa may have little sympathy for Michaela, LDW ensures that the reader does.

Tessa’s relationship with her siblings is for me the heart and soul of the novel and anybody who has siblings will recognise the petty tensions and jealousies but deep visceral love that defines the bonds they share. Tessa to a large extent has removed herself from her family in order to survive and consequently much of the to-ing and fro-ing between them is via a hilarious series of telephone conversations.

LDW offers us the Curzio family and with it the question of whether parents are responsible for their adult children’s misery. Tessa grew up with an unstable mother who is prone to extreme mood swings and a distant, aloof father, who struggled with intimacy. Despite their chaotic childhood, Tessa and all five of her siblings have grown into accomplished, successful people. Ronnie, her younger brother has lost his way but still has the potential for a good life. However, they are mired in their childhood, looking for reasons as to why their parents are like they are. Tessa’s mother bemoans the fact that she feels like a “dartboard” as her children look to blame her for their difficult childhoods.

Tessa’s family dynamics reflect a period of time that will resonate with lots of us who grew up in the 60s the 70s. Children’s needs were not particularly taken into account and as Tessa points out there was “no concept of child abuse.” Her mother freely hits her children in anger and perhaps worse, they are subjected to the fear and anxiety of her constant mood swings. In some ways the fact that her mother has the capacity for great kindness, as when she reassures Tessa she isn’t sinful, makes her relationship with her children even more complex. In her role as a writer, Tessa covers a feature about fathers and daughters and finds herself comparing her own experiences with other more tangible forms of abuse. She comes to the conclusion that pain is subjective and so can’t be comparative – “it’s as deep as you feel it.”

There’s no denying that her father’s written words have a devastating effect on Tessa and cause her much soul searching. As she rails against his words, there is clearly the kernel of fear within her that they might be true. As she is forced to confront her fears, her life implodes around her. The only constant is her friendship with Kate and Ruby even though LDW allows just enough realism to creep into their relationships. Tessa can’t help but feel reassured by Ruby’s marital problems whilst suffused with jealousy at Kate’s seemingly perfect life.

At the crux of the novel is the idea of whether we should be judged by what we write. Leo Curzio’s diary habit is made more toxic by the fact that he wanted his family to read them. The diaries serve as a metaphorical hand grenade tossed into the bosom of his family with the potential to rip lives apart. Tessa’s aunt, who acts as the conscience of the novel, asserts that maybe we should be judged on our actions rather than by what we may write. To all intents and purposes Leo Curzio was a good man, who did his best to give his children the best start in life but, for some bizarre reason felt the need to vent his bitterness and resentment on paper. Which is the more valid Leo is the puzzle that Tessa is left to figure out.

In the end there are no startling revelations or absolute answers, just a sense of peace and the idea of trying to accept people as they are, warts and all. LDW has captured the spirit of family perfectly in that there is no perfect family. Her novel is funny, warm, tense, angry and ultimately shows us that life is to be lived and there’s no point in dwelling on the past.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Jack Gets His Man by D. E. Haggerty

I have to confess that I am a bit of a novice when it comes to cosy mystery/romance but I was attracted to this novel by the idea of a gay male romance written by a woman.  Jack Gets His Man is the spin off sequel to Murder, Mystery & Dating Mayhem and, although there are lots of references to what’s gone before, it works very well as a standalone.

With Jack Gets His Man, D. E. Haggerty has indeed created a cosy world, where everything is more or less perfect. Jack is best friends with newlyweds Izzy and Noel, who are so supportive that Izzy even comes to collect him in the early hours of the morning after an illicit hook-up with an ex-lover. Jack is constantly popping around to Izzy’s house and not even the fact that he caught her and Noel in flagrante delicto can deter him.

The plot develops as Jack realises that money is being embezzled from his shop – a cross dressing/plus size ladies wear store called ‘Fabulous Darling’. Izzy, Noel and a geriatric knitting club band together in order to investigate who is siphoning off the money. They are eventually joined by Damien, Jack’s recently appointed bookkeeper and love interest.

The key to enjoying this novel is to suspend all reality and just go with the flow. The story is set in a small town in Oklahoma, where it seems anything goes. Criminals aren’t all that dangerous and drop dead gorgeous gay men abound, with barely a whiff of homophobia anywhere. That said there is something delightfully addictive once you allow yourself to get caught up in the mad-cap shenanigans of Jack’s life and, I literally couldn’t put the book down, reading it in one sitting.

Jack is the product of the constraints that the ‘cosy’ style dictates. He is stereotypically camp, playful and of course impossibly good looking. He is shallow to the point that he defines everyone he meets by how attractive they are but he is a devoted friend and takes good care of the knitting club ladies. There are hints of darker tones when Haggerty lets us know that Jack’s family disowned him for being gay and when we see him struggling to come to terms with his upcoming fortieth birthday but, in keeping with the light, frothy style, these issues are never really pursued.

I really like the fact that Haggerty uses her novel to give older people a voice. The knitting club ladies are hilarious - quick witted, saucy and not to be messed with. Despite being a great grandmother, Rose, a former accountant, is able to trace the missing money trail and is pivotal in solving the crime. Izzy is on the wrong side of forty and yet is a vital, fun loving character. Haggerty is able to effectively show how age is irrelevant when it comes to engaging with and enjoying a story.

Jack Gets His Man is the perfect antidote to the stresses of real life, offering an alternate reality in the style of a fun sit-com. It would make the ideal beach read and any reader wishing to while away a couple of hours with a funny, entertaining romp, can’t go wrong with this one. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Currents of War (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 4) by Zoe Saadia

Currents of War is the fourth book in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and probably the most gritty read so far. All of the wonderful qualities of the other novels are still there but Zoe Saadia has injected an underlying tension into her writing that makes Currents of War a thrilling and thought provoking story.

Seven years have passed since the end of the previous tale (The Emperor’s Second Wife) and, although all of our favourite characters are still there, much has changed. Kuini and Dehe have settled into family life with their three young children and a fourth on the way, while Coyotl is readying himself to take back his beloved Texcoco. Iztac is married to the young Emperor and wielding quite a lot of influence, much to the annoyance of Izcoalt, who is now chief advisor. His previous role as warlord has been filled by Tlacealel.

There are two sides to this novel, the continuing development of the characters and their relationships with each other and the politics of the region. Obviously both these aspects are interconnected and their links affect the outcome of events greatly. More than with the other stories, Saadia creates a real sense of danger in this book, racking up the tension to a level that is at times almost unbearable. War is looming all around Tenochtitlan as the Tepanecs are poised to invade. At the same time, war is also raging within as political manoeuvrings and chicanery threaten the lives of several characters.

Saadia demonstrates clearly in her novels how colonisation works and the detrimental effect it has on the people who are stripped of their independence. The Tepanecs are ruthlessly building an empire at the expense of all the surrounding nations. The invaded areas are forced to pay tributes to their occupiers and consequently live in poverty and fear. Saadia also explores how power leads to corruption, showing the life of a leader to be cheap as those around him plot and scheme and coups are put in place.

Saadia’s knowledge and passion for the historical context of her novels is awe-inspiring and promotes a ring of authority and truth. However, for me the heart and soul of her novels are the characters and Currents of War does not disappoint. Kuini has grown up into the kind of man I hoped he would be, independent, wild but loving and loyal. His relationship with his children is very moving and Saadia makes it clear from the reactions of the other characters, that this is unusual for the time. Kuini is not a distant father; he loves his family with all he has.

Kuini’s openness and warmth is in direct contrast to the more strategically minded Tlacaelel and to some extent Coyotl. Although they care greatly for Kuini and in fact Tlecaelel does all he can to help his friend when he gets into difficulties, it is doubtful that they have the same capacity for passion. Deep down this is something that Tlecaelel acknowledges and maybe regrets. There are times that he almost covets what Kuini has whilst recognising that, as a noble man with big plans, he doesn’t have the luxury of letting his heart rule his head.

As with The Emperor’s Second wife, it is the female characters that enthralled me the most. Iztac has grown into an intelligent, perceptive woman but has been hardened by her experiences in the royal palace. She was brought there as a young girl and had to grow up quickly, as she was married off to one Emperor and then became the wife of his son. Saadia introduces the new character of Cuicalt, the third wife of the delightful old Aztec warlord. Cuicalt’s experience mirrors that of Iztac in that she was married off at fifteen to a forty year old man. Now in her forties, perhaps through necessity, she too is a shrewd, perceptive woman and one who you would want on your side.

My favourite character remains Dehe and her storyline in this novel is heartbreaking. She has settled into the role of Kuini’s wife and the mother of his children but is perpetually haunted by the knowledge that she is not his true love. She is fiercely loyal to Kuini and, ever since the first day she met him, would lay down her life for him. Both Tlacaelel and Coyotl are bewitched by her warm, devoted nature but it seems that Kuini might not appreciate what he has in this amazing woman.

Through Kuini and Dehe’s relationship, Saadia questions the very nature of love. Iztac was Kuini’s first love and she remains his ‘princess’ as they still enjoy illicit encounters. There is no doubt that they are soul mates who should be together had fate not intervened. However, in Dehe, Kuini has the steady, sure love of a woman who is devoted to him and his children and it’s clear that he loves Dehe in a quieter but no less genuine way. In Kuini’s case it would seem that it is possible to love two women differently but equally.

The ending of this novel is quite superb even though, by the time I got there I felt as if I had been through an emotional wringer. Anyone who believes in the power of sisterhood and the support that women can enjoy through their relationships with each other will no doubt be weeping with joy by the last page.

I loved this novel and The Rise of the Aztecs’ series is just going from strength to strength. If you haven’t discovered Zoe Saadia’s historical gems then you really are missing out on a treat. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Kill Line by Robert Leigh

Kill Line is a dark comedy that offers a perfect snapshot of modern life. Robert Leigh skilfully taps into the simmering rage that, for most of us, never seems too far away and embodies it in his likeable and, on the surface oh so reasonable, protagonist.

Due to being made redundant, Shaun is a put upon call centre operative who is forced to endure all of the abuse and boredom that goes along with the job. Despite his efficiency, Sean is often subjected to the rage of the callers who, in the safety of their own home and protected by the distance of the phone line, insult and denigrate him. Whilst visiting one such caller in the hope of getting him to see the error of his ways, Shaun accidentally kills him and thus a side career in murder is born.

All of Shaun’s intelligence and energy, which is wasted in the call centre, becomes focussed on planning the murders. Consequently, it’s through his side project that Shaun finds fulfilment and a sense of accomplishment. In fact, Shaun’s particular skill set means that he takes to serial killing like a duck to water. He is precise, well read and thorough in his research. All of the characters that get to know Sean comment on his intelligence and the fact that he’s wasted in a call centre.

Despite the fact that he’s a cold blooded killer, Shaun is a very engaging character with whom it’s easy for the reader to identify. Leigh employs the use of first person narrative and his conversational style means we soon feel as if we know Shaun. In fact, in the beginning there are two Shauns, the Shaun who makes the decision to kill and his horrified conscience. Leigh cleverly shows how the disparity between the two lessens as the novel goes on, however, and by the end the two are of the same mind.

Shaun is a complex, interesting character who has been forced to live a life not of his choosing. Due to the economic recession, he has few employment options and he lives alone in his childhood home. He is still reeling from the death of his parents and, in his low moments, is haunted by their suffering. He hasn’t changed anything in the house, except to add a large “American fridge”, that is at odds with the rest of the house. The fridge is no doubt a metaphor for Shaun’s desire to escape from the limited world he’s forced to inhabit.

What I really like about this book is the way it highlights the shabbiness of modern Britain. Shaun lives in Holtenthorpe which could represent any industrial town or city, defined by the misery of poverty and unemployment once the industry has collapsed. Where once factories might have stood, there are industrial estates with the new versions of factories – call centres. Leigh’s depiction of life inside a call centre is vivid and authentic and anyone who works in a target driven occupation, complete with robot style managers and meaningless business acronyms will identify with Shaun and his co-workers. The grey monotony of life in the call centre is almost unbearable.

Leigh’s novel is an indictment of the kind of politics that view people as a commodity. Labour Right is a government funded agency that forces unemployed people into jobs that aren’t worth having. The complete lack of humanity within these companies, that we all know exist in cities the length and breadth of the UK, see characters such as Marie, a fifty something woman made redundant after twenty three years working in a bank, tossed carelessly aside in favour of the more malleable twenty somethings. Anyone who complains about the working conditions find themselves ‘moved on’.

Although Leigh’s story is told in a way that is both thought provoking and humorous, make no mistake, it is also brutally violent. As Shaun embarks on his killing spree, all of the emasculation he has been made to feel, finds release in pure, unadulterated rage. Leigh’s talent lies in the way he allows us to identify with Shaun in such a way that we feel nothing for his victims. Shaun has devised a set of rules which he uses to decide whether an abusive caller deserves to die or not and, as we become caught up in his world, his reasoning seems quite fair. However, things change when Shaun kills someone who hasn’t broken the rules. We find ourselves pulling away from him and then when he meets suicidal Hazel Downs, we see him for the psychopath that he actually is. By the end, we have no idea what will become of him as he has passed a point of no return.

Kill Line is the perfect combination of playful and deadly serious. It’s probably not a story for anyone easily offended but, if you like a dark, clever and laugh out loud read, then you’ll love it. I know I did! 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Emperor's Second Wife (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 3) by Zoe Saadia

The Emperor’s Second Wife is the third book in The Rise of the Aztecs series and this is a series that goes from strength to strength. Zoe Saadia has created a world of intrigue, excitement and compelling alliances and invites her readers to immerse themselves in her wonderful stories.

All of Saadia’s stories are steeped in the history and culture of the ancient Americas and, as the stories have developed, I have found myself easily identifying regions and tribes that were, in the beginning, just names that washed over me. This in itself is a tribute to Saadia’s historical knowledge and passionate story telling.

In The Emperor’s Second Wife, the setting for the story moves from The Highlands to Tenochtitlan when Kuini, Coyotl and Dehe arrive there in order to forge alliances against the Tepanecs. The trio are reunited with Kuini’s uncle, the impressive former Aztec Warlord. Most importantly though, we also get to reconnect with Coyotl’s sister, Iztac, who we last saw in The Highlander being married off to the Tenochtitlan Emperor.

This story, more than the others, is one of politics and intrigue as characters jockey to find positions of power after the Emperor is murdered by his Tapanec first wife. Iztac was his second wife but it is the first who assumes power, ruling in the name of her young son. The political situation is volatile and treachery lurks, it seems, around every corner.

Much as I loved the first two stories, the beauty of this one is that it is the turn of the female characters to shine. The series, true to its historical context, reflects a world that is male dominated. Regardless of their status, women are simply “merchandise”. Slave girls can be taken and abused by men as and when they wish and high status princesses, such as Iztac, don’t fare much better. Already married off as a political pawn at just fifteen, as a widow, Iztac is once again in the market for being used to assure favours from leaders in other lands.

None the less, Iztac, Dehe and even the villainous Empress become forces to be reckoned with throughout the story. Iztac and Dehe are inevitably on a collision course due to the fact that they both love Kuini but they are more alike than probably either one of them would care to admit. They are both strong, determined and fiercely loyal. As the men wait for opportunities to depose the Empress, it is the women who move the plot forward and rid Tenochtitlan of the tyrant. Predictably, it is the men who benefit from the power vacuum although the reader is left with the sense that Iztac will always be a guiding force from behind the scenes.

In The Highlander, Kuini and Iztac were young lovers, parted by circumstances beyond their control. The prospect of their reunion then is a thrilling one for the reader. It would seem though that this is a couple who are destined to be star crossed lovers. Iztac’s role is to play a part in the new Tenochtitlan regime while Kuini is a warrior, happiest in battle.

My favourite character in Crossing Worlds was Dehe and my heart went out to her as she had to watch Kuini and Iztac reconnect. However, she is a formidable girl in her own right and connects with a renowned Mayan healer called Kaay, who passes on her skills to Dehe. The relationship between Dehe and Kaay is, for me, one of the high points of the novel. Both prickly, independent characters they none the less grow to care deeply for each other with Kaay taking on the guise of a grumpy mother figure.

While the women are the main impetus within the story, Kuini and Coyotl are forging alliances and we are introduced to Tlacaelel, the illegitimate son of the deceased Emperor and the perfect foil for Kuini. The end of the story is somewhat sombre but we are left with the promise of what is to come. I can’t wait to get started on the next story and I’m guessing Tlacaelal will play a prominent role along with the characters we have already grown to know and love. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Ultra Violence by Mark Barry

Ultra Violence, a book ostensibly about football hooliganism, might seem like an incongruous choice for a middle aged woman. However, this is a book that is about so much more than football and it resonated with me on so many levels.

Mark Barry’s book is set, as is his want, in Nottingham and so vivid are his descriptions of the city, it becomes almost a central character within the story. Anyone who grew up in a northern city in the late 70s and 80s will recognise a way of life that is basically defined by drinking and clubbing. Barry gives us a glimpse of the past when city centres were vibrant hives of humanity rather than the sterile city living environments that are more common now.

Barry structures his novel by interspersing chapters that are set during the recession of the 80s with chapters depicting the current recession. The comparison between the two is stark and serves to show how much has changed in the intervening years. Rather unusually, Barry opts to tell his story in the 2nd person and his protagonist remains nameless throughout. Surprisingly this technique creates a style of conversational intimacy and Barry’s main character comes to represent every man, or perhaps every northern working class man, whose community, hopes and dreams were decimated by Thatcher.

Barry’s homage to the traditional working class family is evident in his warm representation of a father working every hour to provide for his family and a mother whose prime function is to keep the home together. Thus is Barry’s story born, as his protagonist at the age of 13 finds himself the victim of a vicious, unrelenting attack at school. Barry’s description of the attack is unflinching and brutal and is a testament to his skill as a writer. Essentially it is an experience that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

Not long after this, whilst at a football match with his dad, he witnesses the violence of football hooliganism for the first time and is so excited by it he gets an erection. His subconscious need to connect with a violence, that is larger than himself, clearly comes from his sense of disempowerment after the attack at school. He has seen firsthand how violence becomes a living entity in its own right and how being part of a mob changes people. After all, even his own dad advises him, “Son, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

As the young man becomes more immersed in football hooliganism, he finds the sense of identity that he’s missing in a world that is rapidly changing. Hoards of young men, let down by a political system that benefits the wealthy while leaving the masses jobless and hopeless, band together to find structure and purpose in the name of football. Barry constantly refers to the hooliganism as war and, like war; it has its own set of rules and rituals.

It’s inevitable that time marches on and our protagonist and his friends leave hooliganism behind, stepping aside for a new generation of warriors. However, a chance meeting with an old pal coincides with the protagonist’s work life and home life teetering on the brink of implosion. As he feels increasingly emasculated and powerless, he becomes drawn once more to the life he thought he’d left behind.

Barry raises the question of whether violence is indeed part of the human condition. He cleverly invites us to become caught up in the adrenaline fuelled action and then occasionally drip feeds us reminders of the human consequences of the violence. The man almost kicked to death, the student who loses an eye and the hapless passersby forced to witness the bloody horror taking place on their streets in broad daylight.

You might expect the characters in Ultra Violence to be unlikeable thugs but Barry injects them with both pathos and humour, which allows us to take them to our hearts. The novel ends as the men, who have all seen better days, gather for one last battle and there is something gloriously moving about it. This is not simply a book about football but rather a book about politics. The politics of governments that disenfranchise people until they have nothing to lose and the personal politics of men who create their own world and live by their own laws of conduct.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Cunning Woman's Cup by Sue Hewitt

The Cunning Woman’s Cup is such a rich and layered read, I hardly know where to start. In any other hands, the complex structure and stories within stories might have lacked cohesion but Sue Hewitt asserts herself from the onset as a writer who is in complete control of her craft. I was in her thrall from the very first page.

The story, on the surface, is a simple one – the tale of two elderly women, Alice and Margaret, who meet by chance and forge an enduring friendship. The story ripples out from the two women, however, and incorporates other stories of people whose lives interconnect with theirs. The story is set mainly in the village of Duddo in Northumberland, where a stone circle overlooks the village, lending a mysterious and spiritual atmosphere. The ‘cup’ of the title is unearthed which leads to the past impinging on the present and setting in motion dramatic changes.

Alice and Margaret are polar opposites. Alice has been widowed after a long and happy marriage and has spent her life caring for others. She is a traditional woman and fears ideas that challenge her Christian way of life. Margaret, by contrast, is an independent, spiky retired professor, who never married, choosing instead to travel extensively. One of the most enjoyable and life affirming aspects of the novel is the fact that Alice is in her late 60s and Margaret in her 80s but they still live full and exciting lives. There is not even a whiff of a stereotypical elderly person in this book, Hewitt’s senior citizens are all full of passion and zest for life.

The novel concerns itself with both spiritual and everyday issues. Alice’s traditional views are shaken by the arrival in the village of Avian, a psychic healer. Many people in Duddo, including Alice’s late husband hold pagan beliefs, celebrating the land and nature as represented by the stone circle. I found Hewitt’s exploration of grief and the afterlife to be particularly poignant.

At the same time, Hewitt highlights many modern dilemmas, not least the way in which elderly people can often be ignored and lonely. She also depicts the differences between rural and city life and how seeming success can bring hollow rewards as people try to buy happiness. We also see how young people can become lost without guidance and purpose. Hewitt touches on several very relevant social issues in a way that is both realistic and moving.

The structure of the novel is very interesting and clearly demonstrates Hewitt’s skill as a writer. Each chapter begins with a first person account from Mordwand, an ancient Celt who is the ‘Cunning Woman’ of the title. She survives being aborted and abandoned before being taken in by the old medicine woman who performed the abortion. Ironically, she then takes over from the woman as an abortionist and healer. Mordwand’s angry spirit lives on amongst the stones with terrible consequences for one family in particular. After the short account from Mordwand, Hewitt switches to 3rd person narrative, which allows her to develop all of the characters in her novel equally. In addition to this, some of the story is also told via letters sent between Alice and Margaret.

I loved this novel and found myself totally immersed in the life of Duddo, so much so I felt almost bereft when I finished it. It is a warm, deceptively cosy read which snakes its way into the reader’s heart, raising some provocative philosophical questions.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Crossing Worlds (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 2) by Zoe Saadia

Crossing Worlds is the second book in The Rise of the Aztecs series and consolidates Zoe Saadia’s skill as the creator of a world that is both thrilling and believable. A world in which readers can fully immerse themselves.  

Crossing Worlds picks up the story of Kuini and Coyotl, two years on from The Highlander. The boys are now seventeen years old and have honed their skills as warriors whilst battling the Tepanecs, who have invaded Coyotl’s homeland and killed his Emperor father. Exiled from the Lowlands, Coyotl is forced to take refuge with Kuini’s estranged family in the Highlands.

Much as I enjoyed The Highlander, I enjoyed Crossing Worlds even more. I suppose this is inevitable as we get to know the characters and their stories more fully. Kuini and Coyotl are as different as can be and should be natural enemies and yet their friendship is deep and enduring. Ironically, both of them seem to have been born into the wrong world as Kuini loves the life of a warrior which is more in keeping with the Lowlands, while Coyotl prefers the gentle pace of life of the Highlands. Unfortunately, neither has the luxury of choosing their own destiny as events conspire to dictate their choices.

Saadia’s love of history is once again clearly demonstrated as she highlights the politics, not only between the different communities but within Kuini’s village, where his war leader father faces attacks on his position from all sides. At the same time, he is trying to encourage a new alliance with their traditional enemy the Lowlanders, in order to stand up to the more aggressive and powerful Tepanecs.

One of the themes I particularly enjoyed is the way Saadia explores the dynamic between father and son. Kuini left his village after discovering his father’s heritage but during the course of the novel he is forced to acknowledge that he misjudged him. Kuini’s father stands by his son in the face of much criticism about his friendship with a Lowlander. He recognises his son’s potential as a warrior and leader and sees a lot of himself in Kuini.

I also liked the way that Saadia develops the representation of women in a very male dominated world. Kuini’s mother is the main priestess and a great healer but she has to publically defer to men, even though in private her husband respects and listens to her opinions. I loved the character of Dehe, a strong independent girl who, shunned by the villagers, lives by herself in the woods. Dehe, like Kuini’s mother is a great healer and Saadia hints at her potential to play an important role in the future stories.

Saadia ends her novel at the point where Kuini, Coyotl and Dehe are about to leave the Highlands and ensures that we are desperate to follow their adventures in the next instalment. Saadia’s prowess as a writer is clear in the way she captures and maintains our interest with the twists and turns of the plot. At the same time, however, she provides a very human face to this period in history ensuring that we engage with the events and the implications they have on many lives.

If you like a series in which you can become fully absorbed then I recommend this one wholeheartedly. Crossing Worlds could be enjoyed as a standalone but nothing beats reading the series in order to fully get to know the characters. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to read The Emperor’s Second Wife, which is the next book in the series. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Shattered Reality by Brenda Perlin

Brenda Perlin opens her novel with the dramatic statement, “I was physically attacked by a woman who didn’t even know me” and from that moment I was hooked. Perlin’s first person, conversational style immediately draws us into her story and lends her voice authenticity.

The story is that of Brooklyn, so named by her mother after a character in a film, although she has no idea which one or why. This immediately creates the sense that Brooklyn is somehow disconnected from herself and the novel is essentially her journey to self-discovery. It’s a journey that takes many twists and turns whilst keeping the reader engaged throughout.

Brooklyn’s reflections are unflinchingly honest as she offers up her life for our scrutiny. Perlin employs an understated, almost naked style, which is a brave choice as it allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. There are times, such as when Brooklyn describes herself as a sneaky child that we want to take her hand and reassure her that all children are sneaky. Conversely, when she is about to marry a man she doesn’t really love, we want to shake her whilst yelling – what are you doing? There is never a time, however, that we do not feel connected to Brooklyn’s story and her self-doubt and willingness to own her mistakes guarantee that we are rooting for her to find happiness.

As Perlin takes us through Brooklyn’s life, there is a lot to identify with, particularly I think for those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s. Brooklyn is a rebellious teen, who becomes part of the LA punk scene and I really enjoyed reading about the details of her life during this stage. Perlin also effectively describes the harrowing pain of losing parents and the subsequent changes that are inevitable in family dynamics. Brooklyn has issues with her body image, no doubt exacerbated by the LA glamour she is surrounded by and her commitment to exercise is the one constant throughout her life.

Although there is much universality in Brooklyn’s tale, there are aspects of her life that are more unique. In her early 40s, she is struck down by a rare neurological condition, which alters the course of her life dramatically and Perlin’s understated style seems to only heighten the horror of what she has to endure.

Health problems aside, Brooklyn’s life is mainly blighted by her relationship with men. She has a difficult relationship with her father until in her 20s when, after her mother’s death, they are able to re-connect and build a positive bond. This early relationship seems to set the pattern of her trying to please others at the expense of her own well being, most disastrously when she marries the controlling Gerard.

Shattered Reality is a life affirming story as we leave Brooklyn at the point in her life when she has finally realised that she can take care of herself and, being in a relationship doesn’t mean subjugating your own needs for those of the other person. In Bo, Brooklyn finds a man who she can be her true self with.

If you like a novel written in the style of true life then I think you’ll love following Brooklyn’s journey. Shattered Reality is an emotional rollercoaster that not only allows us to participate in Brooklyn’s self reflection and subsequent personal growth but also stirs us to examine our own memories and experiences.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Once Upon A Time In The City Of Criminals by Mark Barry

Once Upon A Time In The City Of Criminals is no fairy tale but rather a damning reflection of a modern Britain decimated by poverty and the increasing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Mark Barry sets his novel in Nottingham but it could just as easily be any other British town or city.

The novel tells the story of middle-aged Terry Valentine, self-confessed thug, gambler, drinker and prolific user of drugs, referred to euphemistically in Terry’s world as ‘sweeties’. Adrift and defined by his past, Terry’s life changes when he meets Chloe, a twenty four year old prostitute. As Terry becomes drawn into Chloe’s world of high-end prostitution, his increasingly obsessive feelings for her threaten to destroy, not only his own life but those of everyone around him.

In Terry, Mark Barry skilfully creates a complex and compelling character. Rather cleverly, Barry takes universal feelings such as isolation, insecurity, self-loathing and regret and embodies them in a character who might otherwise command very little sympathy from readers. Instead Barry ensures that we connect with Terry from the onset and consequently come to understand the plight of someone who our society might prefer were invisible to us. He is a man who has no purpose in our ‘modern’ society. His youth was spent following his beloved Notts County football team, actively engaging in the violence that went along with that. Having spent a decade in prison, Terry has returned to a life of few opportunities and none of the adrenaline fuelled highs he enjoyed in his football days. He spends his days looking back and trying to fill the emptiness he feels with ‘sweeties’.

Terry’s obsession with Chloe represents his last hurrah – his last chance of excitement. As Chloe’s counterpart, Barry offers us Marge with whom Terry’s true chance at happiness lies. Marge, like Terry, has been battered by life and exists on the fringes of society. However, she loves Terry and accepts him for who is is, just as he does with her. To Terry though being with Marge feels too much like settling, as he chases the illusive excitement that he feels is his due. Tellingly, when he dreams of a nuclear explosion, it is Marge he sees, standing with his mum and estranged son and who clearly represents for Terry a sense of security and family.

Terry is more than aware of the differences between himself and Chloe, who holds all of the power in their relationship and manipulates him, rendering him into an almost childlike state. It is Chloe who causes him to cry for the first time since he was seven and who elicits feelings that can only be released when he self-harms. Clearly their relationship is not healthy and this is because Chloe is not a real person to Terry but the embodiment of his need to reconnect with the excitement of his youth and his fear that his best years are gone. As his friend Pike points out, for men like him and Terry, life is “a fucking suicide note in weekly parts.”

Once Upon A Time In The City Of Criminals is an extremely thrilling read and Barry effectively uses foreshadowing from the beginning to hint at the violence that is to come. When Chloe offers Terry the job as her driver, he accepts “despite alarm bells ringing in my head like Big Ben.” Throughout the novel, Barry uses casual, understated violence to prepare us for the grand finale which, when it comes is quite spectacular. I particularly loved the scene where Terry is preparing to go to battle, his warrior dress of choice being his old football clothes, still pristine in the back of his wardrobe presumably for just such an occasion. As he and Pike set off to ‘war’ Barry’s writing becomes visual, almost cinematic in style, drawing in the reader and allowing us to share the thrill of the excited anticipation that Terry and Pike feel for the upcoming violence.

Terry is a flawed character and one who stirs both empathy and frustration in equal measure. He is the victim of a society that only rewards the upwardly mobile, as depicted by the luxury apartments that are replacing the traditional Nottingham landscape. Terry has no place in this world and is forced to exist in the dark, underbelly of society. However, at the same time, he is a man who refuses to own his own part in the way his life has turned out. There is the sense of lost opportunities threaded throughout the novel but Barry does leave us with the small hope that, just  maybe, Terry will come to his senses and try and find a place in the world with Marge.

This novel is a spectacular read, which establishes Barry as a talented and intelligent writer. Terry’s plight is a very real one and one that offers readers much pause for thought. The squandered lives and lost opportunities that are personified by characters like Terry and Pike are both heartbreaking and chilling. These are men with nothing to lose and that’s a pretty dangerous place to be. Barry offers us no answers just a glimpse at the casualties of Thatcher and subsequent governments’ refusal to address poverty and the alienation and disaffection of large sections of society. Barry’s continued references to history even seem to suggest that greed and the misuse of power is part of the human condition. Survival of the fittest when power is equated with wealth becomes survival of the richest.

As a fan of Mark Barry’s writing, I can’t recommend this novel enough. A thought provoking and socially relevant tale, if you read one book this year then make sure it’s this one. 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Lover by Moonlight by Emily Arden


Lover by Moonlight is an engaging erotic romance that takes the reader on a whirlwind of emotions, set against an idyllic backdrop of Oxford, the English countryside and Verona.

The story is essentially the sexual awakening of twenty year old Rosa as she falls in love for the first time. Complications arise as the object of her desire is her step brother, Roberto. Although her feelings are returned, Roberto embarks upon the subterfuge of pretending to be someone else, in order to make love to Rosa thus setting in motion a complex chain of events.

In Rosa, Emily Arden has constructed a realistic young woman, who is studying at Oxford and desperate to spread her wings and experience more of life. She is on the cusp between girl and woman and Arden very effectively illustrates all of the confusing feelings that are part and parcel of that time.

The story is told to us from the perspective of both Rosa and Roberto, so we are able to see how each of them is trying to avoid what they are feeling. As they hide behind pretences and, other characters such as heart throb actor, Aaron Forsythe and Italian beauty Lysabella are drawn into their midst to cloud issues even further, Arden successfully builds the tension that adds an extra spark to the story.

Arden also creates the perfect backdrop to her story as the setting changes from Oxford to Rosa’s family home in the countryside and Roberto’s villa in Verona. The descriptions of Italy are particularly sumptuous and the reader can almost experience the warmth of the sun and the wonderful food that intensifies the romance being played out between Rosa and Roberto. The skill with which Arden employs descriptive language is also evident in the sex scenes, which are neither smutty nor gratuitous.

I think in Rosa, Arden creates a convincing and likeable character. She is a naive girl and I particular liked her friendships with Sara and the more flighty Tamsin. I have to confess though that I had more trouble liking Roberto, partly because of the way he manipulates Rosa. In fairness, he tortures himself over his behaviour but I found it hard to forgive him. I also had slight issues about the fact that at 34, he’s a lot older than Rosa and has in fact been her step brother since she was three.

Arden goes to great pains, however, to show that the relationship is equal and both characters have been attracted to each other long before their sexual liaison. In fact, even though Rosa thinks she is having sex with someone else, she is fantasising that it is Roberto so maybe I am being over-sensitive.

The lovely Italian backdrop makes this book the perfect choice for a summer read and, if you like romance with a hint of erotica, then I think this could be just the book for you.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Girl In The White Pajamas by Chris Birdy

The Girl In The White Pajamas is the literary equivalent of comfort food. It hooked me in from the opening page and, after the stresses and strains of everyday life, I found myself looking forward to the time spent with my kindle getting my nightly fix. It’s the kind of book that demands nothing of you but delivers entertainment and escapism in spades.

The novel starts with a fatal shooting which weaves a web of mystery that becomes increasingly complex and keeps us guessing until the very end. The murder forces Bogie McGruder to leave his new home in Florida and return to Boston, where he has to deal with his estranged family and an ex-lover. At the same time he is forging a relationship with a three year old daughter who he gets to meet for the first time. All of the characters are somehow linked to the murder of a man, who turns out to be a cop and Bogie’s half brother. It becomes a race against time for Bogie and his colleagues at R&B Investigations to try and unravel the mystery.

As gripping as the plot is, for me it’s the characters who make the novel so readable. Bogie has survived a horrendous childhood at the hands of a father and step mother who didn’t want him but despite this he is a kind person and a loving father. Bogie’s strength is that he cares about people and consequently is able to create a sense of family wherever he goes. He even takes care of the step mother who made his life hell as she succumbs to dementia and falls on hard times.

Chris Birdy also offers us a fabulous cast of likeable, strong female characters, ranging from the delightfully precocious three year old Isabella to Bogie’s designer clad, no-nonsense partner Rose. Bogie’s relationship with Bailey, the mother of his child is as complex as she is. An unsuccessful lawyer, drowning in debt, Bailey’s sense of helplessness in the face of her predicament is conveyed effectively by Birdy and elicits much sympathy.

The Girl In The White Pajamas is the first in the Pajama series and my only slight issue with it is that it read a lot like a sequel. So much so that I did in fact check that I was reading the right book. It in no way impeded my enjoyment of the novel but, at times I felt as if I was being plunged headlong into a story and relationships that had already been developed as there is very little background given.

What Birdy does give us though is a very satisfying read with characters that are easy to engage with and like. If you’re looking for a novel to take you away from what’s going on in the real world for a while then I think this is the book for you. I am very much looking forward to reading the next story in the series and catching up with Bogie and his ‘family’. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Highlander (The Rise of the Aztecs Series Book 1) by Zoe Saadia

The Highlander is the story of two boys whose friendship defies tribal feuds and wars. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether the novel was aimed at a teenage or adult audience but it quickly became apparent that it doesn’t really matter. The Highlander is a thrilling, thought provoking read for all ages.

The two boys, Kuini, a Highlander and Coyotl, who is from the lowlands are both something of free spirits and meet by chance as children. Their friendship endures through secret meetings and notes and the main action of the story takes place when they are fifteen and political tensions within the region are at a crisis point. Zoe Saadia uses her novel to communicate the valuable message, particularly for young people, that our similarities as human beings are far more important than any cultural differences.

Kuini and Coyotl couldn’t have had more different upbringings. Kuini has been raised to be a warrior in the more remote, harsh conditions of the Highlands where his father is a Warlord while Coyotl has enjoyed a pampered childhood as the first son of the Emperor in the more urbane Great Capital. However, both boys possess an openness and curiosity about life beyond their own experiences. It is this natural curiosity that lends excitement to the plot and places the boys, particularly Kuini, in a perilous situation.

Saadia’s passion and knowledge of history is evident on every page and this lends a great deal of credence to the novel. There are lots of names and places that are difficult to remember but, as I lost myself in the sheer pleasure of the story, the names that mattered stuck and the rest simply melted away without standing in the way of my enjoyment.

I particularly liked the way Saadia uses the character of Iztac, who is Coyotl’s half-sister, to show how women were used as pawns, offered by up by their fathers as a means of appeasing other men. Watching Iztac’s fate unfold and her spirit and intelligence squandered, is heartbreaking. We also see how wives are displaced at the whim of their husbands as Iztac’s own mother has never recovered from the indignity of being replaced as the Emperor’s chief wife.

All in all, The Highlander is a thoroughly engaging read about friendship but there are very serious undertones that make it a relevant choice for readers of all ages. The Highlander is book one in The Rise of the Aztecs’ series and it sets a very high bar indeed. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Hollywood Shakedown by Mark Barry

Hollywood Shakedown is an atmospheric crime novel in the tradition of Chandler and Ellroy. Set against a backdrop of the seedy side of LA, the plot is driven by a quest to find a rare manuscript that may or may not exist and Barry takes us on a breakneck journey with mini-sojourns in Chicago and London along the way.

The main protagonist is Buddy Chinn, a writer who doesn’t write but spends all his time drinking, gambling and wondering about the whereabouts of his lover and soul mate Monique instead. Buddy is a complex character, who tests our patience and ultimately has the potential to disappoint us. Barry’s skill and confidence as a writer, however, is evident in the way he gives us Buddy, warts and all, to make of what we will. Buddy’s fatal flaw is his fear of abandonment brought about by having to live in the shadow of a mostly absent father, a father who also happened to be an alcoholic and successful writer. Buddy’s entire life is defined by his insecurity and a crippling fear of failure.

His relationships with others are inevitably difficult. He loves Monique more than he’s ever loved anyone but he can’t trust her and their relationship is tainted by his fear of being truthful about who he is and what he wants. Monique is a free spirit, who pays a heavy price for loving Buddy and we are left in the end wondering if she deserves better. The heart of the novel turns out to be Simon Harris, a transplanted Brit who, despite being a bit of a wide boy, provides the conscience and reason that Buddy lacks.

One of my favourite themes in novels is when cultures collide and this is played out to great effect in Hollywood Shakedown. Barry takes great delight in setting Buddy, a life-long Los Angeleno, loose in a world that couldn’t be more different to his own. I laughed out loud several times as Buddy navigates pubs and has to endure a football game complete with Bovril. During his travels, Buddy encounters a myriad of characters and, one of Barry’s strengths is that there are no ‘throwaway’ characters, no matter how small or insignificant their function within the novel may be.

As the novel draws to a close with Buddy and Simon preparing to face their tormentor, the tension becomes almost palpable. Barry can’t resist playing with us a little bit, offering an alternative ending, but finally we are left feeling battered, bruised and a little bit heartbroken, much like Buddy himself.

Monday, 6 April 2015

As Snow Falls by Elle Klass

As Snow Falls is a simple, unusual story, in which Elle Klass affords us a glimpse of a woman’s life in its entirety. The novella begins with an old woman, who has reached the end of her life, reminiscing about the unusual twists and turns it has taken.

The novella starts off in an almost cinematic style, which is very effective and allows the reader to get a vivid image of where the old woman is. The isolation is emphasised, not only by the fact that she is in a cabin far from the beaten track, but also due to the heavy snowfall that will further cut the cabin off from the world.

The style of the novella is unusual in that there are no characters, dialogue or interactions. All events are related to us by the old woman, who remains nameless, which creates a sense of distance, seeming to further isolate us from her. Each chapter is essentially a memory which ends with a description of the old woman resting in her chair, waiting to die. This repetition and rhythm mirrors the rhythm of the woman’s life.

The woman’s memories begin in the womb with her reluctance to leave her “sanctuary” and thus start a journey that is not always easy. The woman is a prickly character, especially during her childhood and young adulthood, where she finds it difficult to get on with people. She sees society as an “evil” for forcing her to attend school and then go into the work place where she is unhappy.

The novella adopts a supernatural/spiritual tone, when the woman meets a seeming stranger in a park, and decides to change her life by embarking upon several years of travel. Dreams and premonitions also feature heavily in the story. The woman’s life improves when she finds true love and from then on her memories are the more conventional ones of marriage, children and the loss of loved ones.

I think As Snow Falls has a lot to recommend it. Klass is clearly an assured writer and she sets a scene of isolation beautifully. My only misgiving is that the nature of the story makes it difficult to connect with what is essentially the only character in the book. Klass clearly demonstrates how we are all isolated within ourselves, no matter how much we may love other people but has ultimately isolated us from the heart of the story by not allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in it.  That being said, I really admire the fact that Klass has tried to do something different with her writing and if you are looking for an original, quirky read then you should give this one a try. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

One Summer In France by Bev Spicer

One summer in France is a light-hearted, breezy memoir, which will resonate with anyone who survived the 80s. Bev Spicer’s account of a 1979 summer spent with her friend Carol in France is littered with cultural references such as pop music and the notoriously popular ‘Charlie’ perfume.

Spicer’s description of her university life in Keele will strike a chord with those of us who have endured communal living. She humorously depicts the mix of people you are likely to find yourself living amongst, including the universally loathed obsessive food labeller.

The memoir is set at a time when the world was a more innocent, less security conscious place and life moved at a slower pace. Education was not only free but bursaries were being handed out like biscuits, hence the £350 that Bev is awarded for a so-called cultural experience in France. Spicer captures the sheer joy, naiveté and arrogance that goes along with being twenty but tempers it with the wry nod of her older self. It’s her a 80s adult voice that acknowledges how lucky students of the 70s and 80s were in comparison to now and we sense her adult dismay at the wild abandon with which the girls travel helmetless and fearlessly on their hired mopeds.

 Interrailing, for lots of us in the 80s, was a rite of passage and Spicer perfectly evokes the mood of that time when every European kid under the age of twenty five seemed to be on the move. Her memoir is, for the most part, a series of encounters that Bev and Carol have with different people such as the locals whose only livelihood comes from tourism, parents who are desperate to offload their kids onto the girls and the spectacular fifteen year old Swedish girl happily travelling around Europe by herself. We see the cultural differences filtered through the eyes of two middle-class students whose only agenda is to have a good time. What comes across loud and clear is something that we probably already know but is always pleasing to revisit and that’s the fact that people are generally good and decent wherever in the world you happen to go.

What I particularly enjoyed about the memoir is the relationship between Carol and Bev. The girls are very different; Carol is loud and confident whereas Bev fancies herself as a bit of an intellectual, taking great pains to let the people around her know she is reading the likes of Moliere or Baudelaire. The story though, at its heart, is a celebration of friendship and the kind of intense friendship that is unique to young women.

If you are looking for a light read that will take you down memory lane and have you chuckling at Bev and Carol’s adventures then this is the book for you. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Presidential Shift by C. G. Cooper

Presidential Shift by C. G. Cooper is the perfect weekend read if you’re looking for a bit of escapism from the grind of real life. It’s the fourth book in the Corps Justice series although, given that it is the first one I’ve read, I was able to enjoy it as a standalone read. There are some references to incidents that have gone before and relationships have obviously developed throughout the series but none of this impeded on the flow of the story.

The novel is driven by political intrigue and chicanery and centres on a company called SSI which is manned by ex- service personnel. The lead character, whose father founded the company, is a former Marine named Cal Stokes and he is hired by the President to investigate corruption within the US government.

Events take a more sinister turn when two attempts are made on the First Lady’s life and Cal and his SSI colleagues become caught up in a domestic terrorist plot that leads them to a group of white supremacists. The main cast of characters are convincing and the banter between them believable. Some of the relationships had obviously been forged through events in previous novels which made me want to read more. My curiosity was particular piqued by Senator Brandon Zimmer, Stokes’ former foe who is now his good friend.

The narrative is fuelled by action with lots of twists and turns and there is a surprising twist at the end which adds an extra punch to the story. If you enjoy losing yourself in ‘24’ style adventure then this will be your kind of thing. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Carla by Mark Barry

Carla is a compulsive, unrelenting novel in which Mark Barry gives a human face to mental illness. It is the story of John Dexter, a 42 year old man with a personality disorder so extreme he is unable to live independently. Most of his adult life has been spent in prison, mental health facilities or being financially supported by his wealthy father.

However, the novel is about so much more than that and I suspect that every reader probably takes away something different after reading it. In the novel, John describes one of his fellow patients, a woman with a seriously disfigured face, and reflects how when people look into it it’s like a mirror, revealing more about them than the woman herself and I dare say the same might be said of John. For me, it’s a novel about redemption and a man being finally able to accept who he is.

Mark Barry is more than a weaver of stories; he is a master craftsman who makes brave choices not only with his subject matter but in his choice of language and the way he plays with our expectations of style and form. From the outset the tone is chatty and light, in direct contrast with John’s thoughts and feelings. Barry ensures that we connect with John, creating a dialogue between us that then challenges us to distance ourselves from him as he reveals the full extent of his ‘madness’.

As John’s tale unfolds, Barry never lets us forget who is in charge as he drip feeds us John’s back story, playfully switching between narrative and exposition. We are given glimpses of John’s past with references to explosive episodes and their consequences so that, even when he tries to show restraint in difficult situations, we are primed and ready when he eventually loses it in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.

John’s disorder is one where he develops obsessive feelings towards women and we get to witness his torment in his relationship with Carla. Carla is a woman young enough to be his daughter, who evokes a protective instinct in John that proves to be his salvation. His need to protect someone becomes greater than his need for affirmation and love.

John’s relationship with Carla is not his whole story; it’s simply a slice of a life that has been defined by unhappiness and pain. It is, for John, however, a life changing period and possibly the most precious time of his life – “A life in just over ten weeks.” Regardless of the outcome of the novel (which I won’t reveal) John’s story is never going to be a happy one. Barry foreshadows the tragedy that John carries around with him by recurrent references to suicide. For example, John has spent each morning and evening since the age of 15 contemplating ways to commit suicide. For me, one of the most poignant lines in the novel comes when John asks us, “Can you imagine a life where you never wake up feeling well?”

Carla is not an easy read but it is an important one and it forces us to face the reality of mental illness. Barry takes us on a tour of the mental health system with its reliance on drugs, talk therapy and the more invasive ECT whilst tenderly offering us a glimpse of characters like Leroy, a murderer for whom there is no chance of rehabilitation. Barry gives us no answers but, by giving us John, he invites us to acknowledge that maybe, given the right set of circumstances, we are all just one step away from madness.

As John loses his heart to Carla, he cautions us to fear for her safety but, ironically it is John himself who garners our sympathy. A man who, as a little boy, was left so traumatised by his mother’s abandonment of him and his subsequent brutal experience of public school, his personality fractured in a way that he can never recover from. It is John’s self-awareness that is his saviour. It allows us to forgive him all his failings and allows him to finally accept himself for who he is.

Carla is a novel that will leave you feeling battered and bruised but ultimately in a better place for having read it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.