Tag Archives: review

The Automation – a review

From the very cover of this book, you know it’s going to play with you. “By” BLA & annotated “by” GB Gabbler,’ it announced, with [anonymous] at the bottom. Two pen names for probably one author, it kicks down the fourth wall in the acknowledgements section, which is essence a conversation between these two. And I was hooked.

From that description, I realise this sounds like a book at high risk of being full of pretentious literary twaddle. My impression is that the author behind the pen names has read (quite possibly under duress) a great deal of ‘literary’ fiction and is now taking their revenge upon the literary genre. And a very funny revenge it is, too. It manages to deconstruct as it goes, while at the same time creating a fascinating story in which a great deal of happens and people think about it to only a reasonable degree!

Central character (possibly) Odys Odelyn witnesses a suicide, and as a result of which finds he has inherited the dead man’s automaton, a sexy girl-like entity made by the God Vulcan, and not the only one of her kind. He’s drawn into a world of old Gods, modern conspiracies, weird existential issues and apparent threat. There’s enough story here to keep anyone busy.

The narrator claims both God-given omniscience, and absolute truth for the story. While mostly acting as a third person narrator, it’s clear that this voice considers itself a character within the story. Gabbler disagrees with the narrator a great deal, and while it seems to be for reasons of trying to make a better book, I have a growing suspicion that Gabbler knows far more than they are letting on. Book two may clarify this – which is out in July 2018, so I don’t have too long to obsess over it.

This book gave me something I really appreciate in fiction – things to chew on and wonder about. There’s so much it didn’t clarify even as it was telling an excellent tale. I can’t imagine where this is going, and that makes me enormously happy. The narrator encourages you to think the tale is going one way, and then takes it off somewhere entirely different on a number of occassions.

A little way in, I started to worry that it was going to be a too-clever book, and thus too cold and that I would end up feeling sad and jaded when I’d read it. I have had this problem with ‘proper’ literary work on more than one occasion. Many of the characters are grotesque and outrageous. Most of them have done terrible things, none of them are, according to the narrator, quite who they want us to think they are. But even so, I came to like some of them and care about some of them in a way that allowed me to invest in the story.

I wait impatiently for the coming of volume 2.

More about The Automation, and The Circo Del Herrero series here – http://circodelherreroseries.com/

Advertisements

Ghosting for Beginners – a review

Ghosting for Beginners is a poetry collection by Anna Saunders. I first encountered Anna about a month ago when she read at Piranha Poetry in Stroud. So I put up a hand to review her new anthology.

There’s great delicacy and precision in Anna’s writing. I very much like that about her work. If she talks about a walk, a day, a bird, it doesn’t seem like a generic one conjured up to make a point, but something specific and individual. She writes a lot about encounters between humans and nature, or humans in the context of nature.

There are a lot of ghosts in the collection. The title of the anthology comes from a poem of the same name about the modern oddity that is ghosting – when people disappear out of other people’s social media lives, usually in a dating context. It’s not the bravest way of breaking up with someone. Many of the other ghosts are more traditional hauntings. These, set alongside poems about extinction and climate change meant that for me, the collection had threads of loss and grief all the way through it. I read it as a deeply haunted piece of work – and I think the title of the collection is an invitation to do just that.

There’s also just a whisper of humour running through these poems. A ghost of a smile, if you will. A feeling that this is an author who can laugh at themselves and who has a keen sense of the absurdity in many situations.

If you hop over to the publisher’s website – http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/anna-saunders-gfb/4594255832 – you can read a selection of poems from the collection. What’s here is a good representation of the book as a whole, and if it speaks to you, you can dive right in and buy a copy. Which I can certainly recommend you consider doing.


A Stranger Dream – review

I don’t dabble that much in colouring books, in part because I frequently end up colouring for work purposes. However, I was asked if I’d review this, and I said yes, for the simple reason that creator Sarah Snell-Pym is a very lovely person. She’s also got what I can only describe as a unique mind, and as a consequence what she’s made is a truly unusual colouring book.

The front cover describes it as ‘a non-linear visual poem about identity… in an adult colouring book.’ The poem is embedded in the images and you have to find the words, some of them are more obvious than other. That calls for a deep engagement with each page, and it gives a strange coherence to the book as a whole.

The art is only on one side of any given sheet of paper. This means that by colouring in one image, you don’t mess up another one – especially an issue if you want to use pens or inks.

There’s a lot of variance in terms of how much of the page you are offered for colouring. Some pages have a lot of open space, encouraging you to do your own thing. Some pages have a lot of black on them, so you don’t need to do much to get the whole image. I like this. It creates room to decide what you’re equal to.

Sarah’s art style is playful, and easy to get into. One of the things that stuck out for me is a reoccurring image of two unhappy blobby beings who merge in the middle. A personification of dysfunctional co-dependency, I thought. Two beings with no proper boundaries, or one identity being subsumed by the other. They connect with the relationship and identity angles in the poem. if you look closely, you can see them co-blobbing at the bottom of the book cover.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Dream-Love-Sarah-Snell-Pym/dp/1530078490


This Fragile Life – a review

This is an incredibly emotionally intense novel. It’s contemporary, set in the real world and is not fantastical in any way. It’s a book that explores the human heart and psyche with a mix of razor sharp insight and compassion.

Martha, after five rounds of failed IVF treatment is coming to terms with the idea that she is never going to have children. Martha is a successful business woman with a classy flat and a nice husband and from the outside she looks like she has it all. High School friend Alex didn’t get (or want) the snazzy college place or the high powered job – she works in a cafe part time and teaches art to disadvantaged kids. She has no money, no healthcare, and a tiny home. Alex is pregnant, and Alex does not think she has what it takes to be a decent mum. And so how could she refuse Martha’s suggestion that she give her baby to her friend?

Nothing, it turns out, is that simple. This is a tough story, and while avoiding spoilers, I will say that it made me cry, a lot.

There are lots of themes here. Poverty and privilege. What makes a good parent. What giving birth looks like when you’re dealing with private health care and have no insurance. What success means and what good relationships require. No one in this story is how they first seem. Some of them act terribly, or think really awful things. As you find out more about who they are and where they come from, many of those things make more sense. This is a story about how wounding is passed down through families and how hard it is to break out of family patterns of behaviour. It’s a story that makes clear that we do all have the power to choose and that none of us are obliged to keep repeating the things in our histories.

Events in this story bring out the best and worst in people. It’s a tale that demonstrates our capacity to grow and change, that we can all decide to be better than we were and that we may all have qualities we won’t know about until tested. Do we pull apart under stress, or prop each other up?

If you’re feeling fragile, this may not be a book for you – but it may also be cathartic. It’s well written, and it has a great deal to offer.

 

 


The writings of Jonny Fluffypunk – reviewed

Jonny Fluffypunk is one of the many strange, colourful (and in this instance, stripey) contributors to Stroud being such an awesome place to live. I’ve seen him live repeatedly, and have finally got my hands on his published work.

The Sustainable Nihilist’s Handbook mixes poetry with short prose pieces. The poetry has the energy you’d expect from someone who does a lot of performance. Most of it is funny, but without becoming trivial. Surreal, surprising, uneasy. Mr Fluffypunk is the master of too much information, with confessions from his youth which may or may not be true but will leave you with some startling mental images. It’s a small book and does not take long to read, but unlike many poetry collections, it is the sort of thing you can just sit down and read cover to cover in one go.  I can heartily recommend it.

More here – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/the-sustainable-nihilist-s-handbook-by-jonny-fluffypunk

 

Poundland Rimbaud is Jonny’s second collection and like the first, it contains a mix of poetry and prose. Unlike the first, it also has a steady supply of footnotes. Some of these add context and insights, some whip the rug out from under a poem’s metaphorical feet (I could get a joke about meter in here, but I’m resisting it). Again there’s the kind of comedy that comes from discomfort, over sharing, and a keen eye for the inherent ridiculousness of human beings. The last section of this book is a full script, with production notes for the one man show ‘Man up, Jonny Fluffypunk’. Having seen the show, I found this fascinating, but have no idea how it would read for someone innocent of the experience. In the printed version, the author lays bare the methods by which the audience is to be emotionally manipulated, and its not just about long, uncomfortable silences…

I thought the whole thing was brilliant, and highly readable – as with the first book I devoured it over a couple of sittings.

More here – http://burningeye.bigcartel.com/product/poundland-rimbaud

Jonny Fluffypunk talks in his work about poetry being dangerous, and about being personally dangerous. I can vouch for this, having mistakenly sat in the front row at one of his shows, and consequently had all of the poetry relating to unrequited teenage love directed towards me. She was plump, greasy, not conventionally attractive, and largely oblivious. I was considerably older and there was no scope for obliviousness. There’s been no point in my life when anything like that happened in a real way – it could only happen as a joke, requiring me to look into some personal voids I generally try to ignore. Live art is inherently risky, you never know what a poet might decide to do to you.


The Path to Celtic Buddhism – a review

When I offered to review The Path to Celtic Buddhism by Dru, I assumed it would be a book approaching Buddhism from a Celtic perspective, because I’ve seen that before. I was entirely surprised by what this book is and where it took me.

It turns out that there is a Celtic Buddhism movement that comes from the Buddhist side – specifically Tibetan Buddhism. This is because Tibetan Buddhism has its root in Bon, an older, animistic religion that I am now eager to learn more about! Tibetan Buddhism considers it important that a person understands who they are and where they come from in order to meaningfully engage with Buddhism, because culture and background shape us, and shape what from a Buddhist perspective, are our illusions. And so a movement has emerged to look at a grounding in European identity for people of a European background wanting to explore Buddhism. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The author – Dru – tells the story of his own curious life path. Having spent time as an angry punk in his teens, he went on to spend 21 years in Trappist monasteries. As part of his monastic experience, he spent time in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery. Dru explains his transition from Trappist to Celtic Buddhist and shares some of his understanding of spiritual life. It is a fascinating read, there’s a clear sense of a man who hasn’t got a lot of ego and who is living in a profoundly spiritual state, and grappling with language to try and get the sense of that across to those of us who are not living it.

This is not a how-to book, it offers no rules or dogma, but it does gift the reader with insights and possibilities. Dru’s path is his alone, and has clearly brought him a lot of insight, but the odds are no one is going to read this and want to take exactly the same route. I like that about this book. It’s an invitation, not a guide.

I really enjoyed reading it. This is quite a raw text, it clearly hasn’t had a professional editor on it. I noticed it but did not find it a barrier to reading. This is the kind of book conventional publishers don’t do – too niche, too personal. I think there’s a lot to be learned from non-dogmatic personal testaments of experience. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but if it sounds like your sort of thing, do check it out.

More information here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Path-Celtic-Buddhism-initiation-forgotten/dp/1978178077


The Forgotten Room – a review

As psychiatric nurse Maura Lyle pulls up to Essen Grange, you know what kind of story this is going to be. Essen Grange is a vast, crumbling, sinister, mouldering pile of a place and inside it is a crazy old guy who needs sedating, locking in his room and taking care of. The cleaning lady has, as Maura quickly identifies, been to the Mrs Danvers’ school of running big, creepy old houses. This is a gothic novel. It is such a gothic novel, and I really enjoyed it.

Of course it isn’t long before the first body appears – or rather, the first bones, hinting at a family secret and a troubled past. There’s a gardener with only one ear and a tragic back story. Maura herself is recovering from the death of her partner and worrying about the sinister doctor who appears to have got her this job. There are people who are not saying things, and not saying them so loudly that you can almost hear the words. Except when you find out, nothing is what you might have expected in this tangled, tormented web of lies and cruelty.

With its claustrophobic, almost incestuous atmosphere, its mysteries and deaths, Essen Grange rivals anything Daphne Du Maurier came up with for sheer gothic presence. The house itself exerts a supernatural force on the lives of people it touches, drawing them back, drawing them in, as though there is some malevolent awareness here that is able to pull all their strings for its dance macabre.

The plot is intense, twisty and complicated, and there were times in the middle when I felt I wasn’t keeping up with who was who and who had done what to who else – and I was right. What at first seems like an unravelling of the mystery turns out to be a deepening of it, and nothing is as it seems. Slowly, the question of who, and why is properly answered, and the answers themselves are deeply uneasy. There are horrors here, but they’re more psychological than graphic – although there are a few moments of full on grossness in the mix.

I had trouble putting this one down. The need to make sense of it, to find out what had happened, and how, and why, was compelling. I too kept getting sucked back into the madness of Essen Grange. It proved a deeply satisfying read, and it is a story I expect will stay with me.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Forgotten-Room-Ann-Troup-ebook/dp/B01BW633TA


Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.


Snow Sisters – a review

This is the second Carol Lovekin novel I’ve read, and I love it. As with Ghostbird, I picked Snow Sisters up as a review copy.

This is a ghost story, and the young woman who does the haunting died young for reasons, and the reasons are awful. Be warned, there is enough detail to break your heart, anyone worried about possible triggering, feel free to comment and I’ll email you the relevant spoilers.

That said, this is not overall a grim or dark sort of book. Haunted, yes. Troubled, yes. Challenging, yes. But also intensely beautiful and ultimately hopeful.

The Snow Sisters are Meredith and Verity, teenagers in 1979, living in a remote house in Wales. Their mother, Allegra, is an artist, and allows herself free rein where artistic temperament is concerned. The house belongs to grandmother Mared, who is in London caring for her brother. This is very much a book about relationships between women, about mothering, and not mothering, about what it means to be sisters. The characters are all complex, flawed, human and fascinating. There are reasons to feel sympathy for all of them – although some more than others. We mostly see events unfold from Verity’s perspective, and while Verity does not think well of herself, she comes over as a very sympathetic person.

I admit I found the first few chapters a bit disorientating and had to re-read a few sections to properly get my bearings. There is a third person narration around the events of 1979. We also get first person narration from Angharad  the ghost, and present time first person narration from Verity. I think what also threw me was that I assumed Angharad would be part of Verity’s family tree, and she isn’t. The connection between the living girls and the dead one is all about the house.

That said, there are some interesting parallels in their lives around attitudes towards education. For some – Verity, Mared and Angharad, education is the way out, the route to freedom, adventure and self determination. For Allegra and Meredith, education looks like a trap. For Allegra’s father and Angharad’s father, education is wasted on girls.

For me, there’s an underlying question in this book about the degree to which women’s lives are shaped by men. For the historical figures, it seems this is the only way, and only Angharad has a sense that things could be different. Nonetheless, her life is entirely shaped by the men in it, and it is only in death that she’s able to connect meaningfully with other young women. Allegra’s life has also been shaped by her father, by a lost love, and in the end by a failed relationship with a man. She’s a person who doesn’t seem to know how to be a person in her own right without reference to masculine influence. We never really find out where Mared stands with all of this, but we do see something of what the snow sisters do to make their own lives on their own terms.

There’s a lot of Pagan content here, too – Mared and Meredith are both spell workers. There’s an inherently animist feel to the story – the house is definitely a character, there’s a garden that is also very much a character, and an attitude to nature and wild things that Pagan readers will find resonant.

This is a book I will be reading again. It’s a book I want to put into the hands of other women who are grappling with family legacies. It’s certainly a book I want my son to read. It’s beautifully written, full of wisdom, compassion and a deep understanding of the human heart at its best and worst. Highly recommended.

You can get it anywhere that sells books, and direct from the publisher here – http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983700

 


Did you whisper back? A Review

I picked up this psychological novel by Kate Rigby through my involvement with Neverland blog tours. What a wonderful find! I read it over an afternoon and evening – it’s not a huge book, but it was also something I found I just couldn’t step away from. I had to know.

This is in essence a book about how ancestral choices can play out in the lives of later generations without them having any idea what’s underpinning things. The central character, Amanda, is both withdrawn and clearly a bit irrational, and we see this early on as she makes some troubled leaps of logic as part of a quest to find her missing twin sister. The book blurb reveals that the missing twin isn’t real and that Amanda is heading for mental breakdown, so, no spoilers from me in saying that much.

The questions of how and why the young woman at the centre of this story has become so unhinged from reality takes us on a journey into her past. As someone who has done a lot of work on ancestry and how it impacts on descendants, I can heartily recommend this novel as a representation of how things get passed down.

The writing is incredibly paired down and intense, full of depth and precise observations of both wider life, and the world inside Amanda’s head. This is an exquisite exercise in telling rather than showing. I’m not a big fan of the modern fad for ‘show not tell’ because it limits where you can go. When it comes to psychological issues, ‘show’ often won’t do it, and ‘tell’ can take us in deeper and far more effectively. There’s no page space wasted on playing everything out. We’re allowed instead to grapple directly with the meat of the story, and with the ghosts haunting it.

I loved this book, I think it’s a fantastic, gem of a novel. It isn’t comfortable or easy reading, but it is profound, intense and provocative.

Buy the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Did-You-Whisper-Back-disturbing-ebook/dp/B0077E2M26