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. 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Rogue Goddesses by Gary Henry

The beauty of Rogue Goddesses by Gary Henry is that it works both as a standalone novel or a fitting sequel to the wonderfully entertaining American Goddesses. Henry cleverly uses a prologue to introduce new readers whilst reminding returnees of the backdrop to the story.

In a nutshell, the world is being policed by the women who developed Goddess powers in the original story. The years have rolled on to 2030 when 11,000 telepathically connected women, known as the “helpful ladies”, are fighting crime and keeping the world safe.

All of our favourite characters from American Goddesses are still here but they play a supporting role to the new generation of Goddesses, most notably Tammy, the teenage daughter of Trish and Tom Wilkins.

Henry also reintroduces Melinkova, the rogue Russian Goddess from his original story by allowing her to inhabit the body of a murdered 18 year old prostitute. The incongruity of a hard bitten 48 year old hidden behind a vulnerable appearance makes for every man’s nightmare. In Melinkova, Henry affords us a glimpse of what she might have been had she not been abused by so many men on whom she wreaks a very satisfying revenge. This fracture of personality is even more apparent in his character Rhonda Sue, another rogue Goddess, who we come to view sympathetically despite the carnage she unleashes.

Henry’s skill as a writer is apparent in the assured way he is able to switch between time frames. There is a sub-plot, where Tammy is taken forward to 2630 and shown a vision of a future where the rogue Goddesses have enslaved all of mankind. This is done order to galvanise her into using her fledging powers and is a device that works extremely well, even allowing Henry to have a little fun at the end of the novel.

Rogue Goddesses is set in the future and contains elements of sci-fi. For example, there are nani-phones which allow people to quite literally have all of technology at their fingertips and driverless cars. Henry’s style though is such that he makes these things completely believable within the realms of his story, just as he does with the many powers that the Goddesses enjoy.

Ultimately, Rogue Goddesses is a celebration of women and sisterhood. Henry presents us with the ideal of a supportive and kind, matriarchal society, which is able to triumph despite the threat posed by the somewhat sad rather than bad rogue Goddesses.

I loved this novel, it’s a lot of fun and it makes a refreshing change to read about women who are kicking ass and saving the world. 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Round and Round by Terry Tyler

Round and Round by Terry Tyler is a novella with a hint of paranormal but its roots are firmly fixed in real life. Tyler raises the question of self-determination versus fate and in so doing reminds us that life is to be cherished as it comes with no guarantees.

Tyler’s protagonist, Sophie Heron is staring down the barrel of forty and faced with the realisation that her life hasn’t turned out the way she expected it to. Not all writers enjoy both skill and popularity but Terry Tyler manages to secure a foot resolutely in both camps. One of the reasons why her books are so appealing is the way in which she creates characters who we can all relate to. Sophie Heron is every woman, she’s dealing with authentic issues such as insecurity and uncertainty that we all, at some point in our lives, experience. Tyler has a real knack of being able to describe the everyday in a way that allows us to connect with it and live it along with her characters.

Round and Round is the third Terry Tyler book that I have read and each one has been infused with her warm, gritty humour. There is a light-heartedness to them which belies the series issues that are simmering beneath the surface. Round and Round is no different and readers are invited to reflect on the way, for most women, confidence is directly linked to appearance, especially weight. There’s also the loneliness and sense of loss that is inevitable as we get older and friends disperse. Most of all though Tyler asks us to contemplate what it is that makes a relationship healthy and enduring?

Tyler’s power as a writer lies in her ability to make it seem so effortless. In Round and Round, she adopts a conversational tone that draws the reader directly into the story, we can almost hear her warm, husky voice narrating it to us. The sheer readability of Tyler’s novels, however, shouldn’t distract us from the expert control she wields over the novella’s form. Employing a Christmas Carol style technique, she allows us to see Sophie’s life in the past, present and future and, in less assured hands, the story might not have flowed as naturally as it does.

What I like most about Round and Round is that, at its heart, it is an uplifting but cautionary tale urging us not to take our lives for granted. Sophie does not have the confidence to go after what she wants and throws in her lot with four men, each of whom represent something different. Tyler uses the men to highlight how the characteristics we think are important aren’t always the ones that make us happy. Lust, excitement, money and stability will only get us so far and true happiness maybe comes from friendship, acceptance and understanding.

The brevity of Round and Round makes it the perfect introduction to Tyler’s style and I have no qualms in recommending this or any other of her novels. She is a safe pair of hands, who comes with a guarantee of an entertaining, thoughtful and relevant read. 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Night Porter by Mark Barry

My only concern with Mark Barry’s wickedly clever book, The Night Porter, is that I may not be able to fully do it justice in my review. It really is a joy to read and a novel that operates on many different levels.

Superficially it can be enjoyed as an observational take on life in a high-end hotel, as narrated to us by the night porter. It focuses in particular on a short period of time leading up to the Arkwright literary awards, in which the hotel will play a pivotal role, not least because it will become temporary home to four of the writers. The novel develops into something of a mystery as one of the writers is attacked in his room and left for dead.

Barry’s tour de force is about so much more than this though. Throughout the novel, Barry skilfully affords us a playful metaphorical nod to the art of writing and never lets us forget that he is in fact constructing a story. He deftly raises the question of what it means to be a writer and whether one form of writing is any more valid than another. Barry uses the character of Julian Green, an acclaimed indie writer who despises the more commercial writers, to represent the ‘literary’ school of writing. There is the constant reference to the “paradox” within writing, whereby what is popular and successful is not necessarily ‘good literature’.

Barry’s exploration of writing as a craft is made even more effective by his own brave experimentation with the novel form. Julian makes the comment that, to be successful, “footnotes and fancy titles” should be avoided and yet, ironically, Barry makes excellent use of both these devices. They lend the novel both a dry sense of humour and, in the case of the footnotes, a deeper glimpse into the mind of the night porter.

The heart of the novel is of course the eponymous night porter. He is a complex and at times devious character, who captivates the reader with his gloriously prissy and yet sincere account of his life in the hotel. The night porter is a man defined by his job, hence his anonymous status, and in the beginning it would seem he is nothing without it. He subsumes his own identity to the needs of the job and we get the idea of him being like an iceberg, with only ten percent of who he is on show to the public. He seems to have no close friends outside of the hotel and reveals that he has been celibate for six years.

The night porter prides himself on his isolationist stance as a “lone wolf” but, as he becomes more and more infatuated with the writers, we begin to question the impartiality of his view point. He is smitten by the romance writer Amy Cook and hates the “sociable nazi” Martin Sixsmith, who is the bar manager and his nemesis. The night porter may be the “all-seeing eye” of the novel but Barry never lets us forget that he is a human being with all of the flaws and prejudices that are part and parcel of that.

The novel ends in a froth of fun when, like a magician Barry pulls aside the curtain, affording the reader a tiny peek at the mechanisms behind crafting a story. The Night Porter is, without a doubt, indie writing at its best. It is an intelligent, funny and most of all engaging novel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.