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’.