Mesopotamian Blues

I don’t regard myself as a connoisseur of children’s books, though I’ve read quite a few over the years (what parent hasn’t?), but it’s been a while. Still, it made my dip into the world of ‘Varjak Paw’, a Mesopotamian blue cat, all the more refreshing.

Originally published in 2003 and winner of the Smarties Prize Gold Award, in Varjak Paw the author (S.F.Said) has created an interesting main character, heroic but humble, timid but courageous, naive but open to new ideas and tolerant of different pedigrees and perspectives. In keeping with classic books, such as “Watership Down”(Richard Adams, 1972), the fact that the characters are animals simply alters the context, but not the need for the cast to resolve the attendant challenges. In this example, feline blue-blood Varjak Paw and his family are living a leisurely existence with the Countess, but when their kind benefactor mysteriously disappears, Varjak Paw finds himself traumatically relegated to the street and facing threats to which he is not accustomed. The young cat needs help and to learn quickly how to survive.

Given the nature of the book, it is only right that due credit also go to the illustrator, Dave McKean, whose minimalist black and white drawings complement the story and deftly draw the eye, providing a visual treat that supports the fast-moving narrative. I note there is also a sequel to this adventure (“The Outlaw Varjak Paw”, 2005), which I shall add to my tbr pile, but in the meantime, I have sent my copy of the original book to my eight year-old nephew for a rather more expert opinion, though I remain confident that he will approve.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Masking an Iceberg

Jane Davis is the author of nine novels to date, of which I have read six so far. This latest example was published in 2015 and the following year was lauded by Writing Magazine as the ‘Self-Published Book of the Year’. Indeed, “An Unknown Woman” exemplifies much of what I enjoy about Ms Davis storytelling. The themes are broad, the female characters especially are fascinating and the situations confronting them incite in the reader a deep-seated empathy.

The premise of this novel is that each of us is akin to an iceberg, with only a small proportion of ourselves showing above the surface. Even those closest to us may project a persona that avoids the exposure of unflattering traits and inner compromises, in the face of life’s changing demands. However, crises sometimes have the capacity to ‘out’ submerged feelings and secrets, enabling them to bob unexpectedly to the surface,no longer private, no longer hidden.

A fire, which destroys the home of Anita and Ed and with it the possessions gathered over their fifteen years together, is such a catalyst. It is a stress test of their cohabiting relationship. Without the trappings built up over time, are their foundations strong enough to withstand the necessary rebuild and attendant doubt? “Something of herself or of Ed had been invented in each object.” The wrecked house is perhaps a metaphor for the decisions required. Whether to replicate their former home, or take the opportunity to remodel a more ambitious project, maybe just cash in their chips and go their separate ways. For Anita in particular, her job as a curator at a famous historical site provides an interesting perspective around the relationship between past and present, but the reader also gets a glimpse of the influence of nature and nurture in Anita’s upbringing and the source of the bond with her father.

A parallel and contrasting strand to the story, though equally absorbing, concerns Anita’s parents. Patti and Ron have a longstanding marriage shaped by the traditions of a different generation, a very different time, but they have their own secrets. As the two couples work through their respective challenges, learning anew about each other and recalibrating their attachments, the novel alludes not so much to a radical ‘reset’, as to an ongoing evolution that the reader can’t help but find familiar.

Notwithstanding the delicious language and attention to descriptive detail that makes Ms Davis writing stand out, for this reader, it is also the underlying scope for reflection and food for thought that offers genuine depth. It may be reassuring to note that as we float along the currents of life, the ice from which we are formed will be sculpted. Still, worth also remembering the mask one chooses to wear may be simply a protective covering.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Werewolf & the Tailor…

I have drawn these two short stories together, as companion pieces, released under their own covers (on Kindle only) and because I found them intriguing. Author, Alan Scott, has created ‘The Storm’ series, which currently comprises a trilogy of novels and three books of short stories and ‘Tea’ was taken from “Stories of a Storm Filled Night”(2014). The stories are set twenty five and twenty six years respectively, after the events detailed in ‘Scions of the Storm’ (Book 2 of the trilogy) and signpost the reader towards “Echoes of a Storm” (Book 1), where it all begins. It’s an interesting promotional strategy, which offers the prospect of a much more developed dark fantasy, but hinges on whetting the readers’ appetite through two short abstracts.

The signs were good, when having immersed myself in ‘Tea’, I was very quickly loading the follow-up onto my tray for the conclusion to the initial story and therein lies a clue. The two stories are of their nature – short and centre on the curious relationship between two very different characters, who come together annually on the longest night, “when the shadows were at their deepest and darkest”. This single night, established as the briefest of respite from their respective experiences of isolation, stands testament to the value of companionship and the healing potential of hot tea and warm attention. In these brief pages, the seemingly mundane traverses life, death, loss, duty and identity and gives the reader the sense of epic events distilled into a cup of tea shared between people, with whom a special affinity exists.

It is very much a case of less is more, yet the quality of the writing leaves the reader wanting to understand the broader context for the short stories and learn more about the enigmatic ‘Shadow Killer’ (William) and the diffident tailor (Samuel). Certainly, for fans of dark fantasy, these morsels will surely have readers seeking the main course and spurred by these tasters, I have added The Storm trilogy to my tbr list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Time Stands Still for No One?

As we tentatively turn the early pages of 2022, it puts me in mind of the recent launch of the latest novel by Kevin Ansbro – a moment of exciting expectation to be savoured. Ordinarily the author has a distinctive flair for storytelling and perhaps a connection to the Blarney Stone, which has the reader suspending any shred of disbelief, to simply revel in the warmth and feel-good vibe radiating from the page. Yet, with each new book, the author needs to deliver anew.

In his latest book, “In the Shadow of Time”, Mr Ansbro utilises the device of time travel, albeit sparingly, but the presence of a machine opens the door to the prospect of extraterrestrial technology and the possibility that alien beings walk among us, or at the very least, have a ringside seat to the soap opera that is humanity. Still, in this incarnation, ‘they’ are more than bystanding viewers, able to influence individual lives and the impact for the clutch of main characters is profound. I have commented in earlier reviews of the author’s penchant for the unusual melding of elements from multiple genres and here too Mr Ansbro has created a kaleidoscope of literary colour, borrowing from romance, scifi, thriller, contemporary history and the paranormal, embroidered together in a unique style, which also shares with the reader the author’s twinkle-in-the-eye humour and fondness for the absurdly macabre.

Hugo Wilde is of noble birth, yet plies his trade as an assassin for British intelligence, supported by his loyal friend and sidekick, Vincent O’Toole. Meanwhile, also residing in 2020 England, Sophia Ustinova is a leading physicist, married to a Russian assassin backed by the Kremlin. It’s an unlikely match, not so much ‘made in heaven’, as enabled by the distance of fifty years and the sanctuary provided by the intervention of benign, but mysterious benefactors. Starting from different spots in time and space, ‘fate’ conspires for the lives of two remarkable youngsters in the story, Pablo and Luna, to also converge in a new home in Mexico City, 1970. The gathered cast are all integral to the plot and for a series of reasons appear to have been granted the chance for a fresh start, unhindered by disparate pasts, but with the means to influence a series of wholly different future outcomes. Indeed, the theme of salvation is strong within a story that oozes a sense of karma at play.

It is to the author’s credit that the intricate choreography of the central characters is understated and yet the attention paid to developing the supporting cast, as well as reference to authentic time and place detail, is also admirable. The reader instinctively wants good things to happen to good people. but through the trade-mark elegance of Mr Ansbro’s prose, even the resident villain is not begrudged the potential of a second chance. In common with many good books, this fine addition to Mr Ansbro’s growing body of work may evince different responses in the reader. For myself, the range stretched from the simple enjoyment of masterful storytelling evoking a range of emotions, to a thought-provoking tease, which I fancy may also have been the author’s intention. Bravo!

In any event, the New Year is off to a good start.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine…

Whilst ‘romance’ is a genre I have ordinarily neglected, what better time to indulge in a novel high on the feel-good quotient, than Christmas week? Moreover, in her latest novel (published November 2021), Christian author, M.C.Harrison has certainly tapped into the Christmas spirit and the magic that attends the festive season, whisking the reader away to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Miss Holly Bennett hails from Richmond, but when her unreliable boyfriend (Craig) disappoints yet again, the main character takes her sister’s advice and heads to the snowy slopes, with her dog ‘Skeeter’, for some retail therapy in the Victorian quaintness of rural Bethlehem.

Lifelong member of that community, Tyler Morris, is owner of ‘The Olde Yarn Bookshop’ and is also leading the local response to a bizarre drone problem besetting the townsfolk. Still, it is the palliative care of his mother and childcare of his orphaned nephew that dominate Tyler’s life.

The challenges for this star-crossed couple include creating the space for their natural chemistry to flourish, but also finding common cause in combatting local corruption and fashioning a very special Christmas celebration, the life-blood on which the town depends.

This is an easy read, over a gingerbread latte that oozes traditional values and charm. It also made this reader want to book into the ‘Sweet Betsy from Pike’ bed and breakfast immediately and inhabit a world not so much lacking realism, as simply filtering out some of the customary ugliness. Escapism – absolutely, but a welcome reminder perhaps that the sharing of life’s trials and tribulations can make the good times even sweeter. Certainly, in this COVID-dominated period, Ms Harrison has demonstrated that happiness can also be infectious!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Wilt Wields, Others Yield…

5 December 2021 (13:35)

In “The Blood Within the Stone (Book 1 of the Wraith Cycle)”, published in 2017, T.R.Thompson seeks to establish an impressive cast of characters and introduce, in particular, professional thief, Wilt and his street urchin friend, Higgs. The accompanying world-building also takes in their home environment – ‘Greystone’, where Wilt modestly aspires to join the ‘Grey Guild of Thieves, but the growth of his precocious mental talents brings Wilt to the attention of more powerful forces that draw the friends to the mountain fortress of ‘Redmondis’. In this rarefied atmosphere, overseen by the sinister ‘Nine Sisters’, the skilled are nurtured (crafting, healing, apothecary, etc), while for potential ‘wielders’(those who can read and eventually control minds), a chance to train among the elite ‘Black Robes’ and develop their prodigious gifts.

The proverb, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, is an underlying theme for the plot, denoted by the ruthless exercise of the collective might of the Sisters and their company of guards. However, Wilt and Higgs are able to rely on allies operating outside of Redmondis, able to offer some protection and insight into the seeping evil threatening to subsume and suppress the population. It’s a risky strategy, to place the youngsters at the heart of such a nest of vipers, but Wilt and Higgs must also develop their skills quickly, if they are not to be overwhelmed.

Of course, the ability to shape-shift is a useful skill to have, in the circumstances, but the awe-inspiring power of the mind and Wilt’s struggle to master his inner strength, for the good of others, without compromising his humility or jeopardising his spirit, is an interesting challenge. The book also emphasises the value of friendship and it is the circle of strong characters around Wilt who realise his potential, yet also keep him grounded.

This first book in the ‘The Wraith Cycle’ series, is necessarily required to familiarise the reader with this fantasy world, the nature of the key characters and their evolving relationships. Certainly, the author has seeded the reader’s curiosity around the onward adventures of Wilt, Higgs and their diverse crew. The description of something as intangible as the wielders’ ‘gift’, is an unusual challenge for the writer, to formulate images of coloured ‘welds’ connecting minds, but not in a reciprocal fashion, but rather at the bidding of a frighteningly powerful minority. It is an uncomfortable proposition for the reader! Still, T.R.Thompson has forged a gripping tale and I look forward to reading Book 2, “The Forked Path” and in the knowledge that Book 3, “A Flame of Song” is due to be released on 17.12.21. Happy holidays fantasy fans!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Black lightens the dark

Skelly’s Square

Stephen Black described his debut novel, published in 2019, as “a supernatural fantasy that explores very real themes and issues”, which was helpful, as for me the peg that is ‘Skelly’s Square’ doesn’t fit snugly into the round holes of several familiar fiction genres. Fantastical certainly, with intriguing supernatural elements and some YA tendencies, but as the world blithely stumbles towards the brink of disaster, the unwitting champions of the planet are the most unlikely of superheroes. The titular, OCD-wracked Kirkwood Scott; an alcohol-dependent, homeless teenager (Meredith Starc); physically disabled, young wheelchair-user (Harley Davison); and the late Emily O’Hara. However, what the living characters have in common is their status as pawns in an intergalactic power grab, which threatens the very existence of mankind and will see the trio cast as the last line of defence against ‘the Scourge’.

Leading the predators greedily eyeing the Earth is Colonel Augustus Skelly. A wonderfully macabre villain, Skelly has the opportunity to avenge the ignominious cull of his whole command at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, where, though among the triumphant Duke of Wellington’s forces, the 49th Somerset Regiment would warrant little more than a footnote acknowledging they were attendees. Two centuries later, as Skelly marshalls his troops to storm the portal and unleash the dark forces of occupation from another dimension, the ultimate comeback is at hand.

And it is this contrast of scale and perspective, which lies at the heart of this finely balanced story and offers sardonic levity in the face of individual and collective doom. The three young people struggling with respective circumstances, which threaten to overwhelm, are beautifully observed by the author. Scott and Starc particularly come perilously close to a sense of individual, rock-bottom hopelessness and though the reader may be discomforted by the depths plumbed, Stephen Black has skilfully constructed the exhilaration of a countering ascent befitting of a roller coaster, careering around Northern Ireland.
For this reader, Harley Davison was an unfortunate late-comer to the party, whose character didn’t quite experience the development of her peers, but I applaud the author for his sensitive portrayal that avoided defining the young woman by her disability and I hope the cameo appearance in this first chronicle may be fleshed out further in the sequel.

Of course it is possible that Mr Black’s exposition of some mundane, demoralising aspects of the human experience, anchor the plot and thus offer an artful way of giving full rein to the more imaginative elements. However, whilst the blunt observation of Meredith Starc is wryly accurate, “It’s hardly DC versus Marvel…” the book (all ninety one glorious chapters) gambols along relentlessly, suffused with that most human of emotions – hope and in the depths of the created gloom, the author shines a welcome torch. I shall look forward to Book 2 – “A New Jerusalem” with a warm glow of expectation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Baldwin Does the Blues

02 October 2021 (12:20)

Through a quirk of serendipity, my completion of Book 4 in the Penguin 60s collection coincided with an examination of the late James Baldwin’s life on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Great Lives’ programme. Notwithstanding the enormous contribution of this American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist to the civil rights and gay liberation movements of the mid twentieth century, I was  unfamiliar with his work. Yet, the three short stories in this volume, taken from “Going to Meet the Man” (1965), are an excellent taster, which has whetted my appetite for more.

“Sonny’s Blues” is the longest of the three tales and encapsulates the topics often associated with the author’s take on anti-black racism, such as drug addiction and masculinity, but also offers a fascinating glimpse into complex family relationships and childhood upbringing as underpinnings of individual life experience. It is a sombre, but absorbing portrayal of Sonny and his tentative reconciliation with sibling and society through his music, within which he lays bare his pain.

“The Rockpile” and “Previous Condition” are shorter vignettes, but also evoke the harsh reality of poverty, the pernicious effect on childhood and the tension it confers on the relationships between those trapped in its grip. No doubt, Baldwin drew heavily on his own experience of growing up in Harlem, but for the uninitiated he describes a sobering, but sadly not unfamiliar world, tainted by inequality. Though short and challenging for the reader, these stories have depth and a food-for-thought quality that make them worth seeking out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Salted Crowe

“A Kind of Drowning” was my introduction to the work of Irish, indie author Robert Craven and in Garda Inspector Pius John Crowe, the author has created a fascinating character, worthy of that most popular genre – crime fiction. This is a short novel and consequently the story is quite tightly written, but the pace of the action is engaging and the author has a good eye, which draws the reader into life in the sleepy coastal town of Rosscarrig, complete with its incongruous hotspot. “If Rosscarrig was slowly checking out on the gurney, The Boogie Woogie Cafe was the last bright pulse on the monitor.”

However, in an unusual departure, Detective Crowe is lying low following his suspension from duties. With his marriage recently flat-lined and his police career also hanging in the balance, Crowe is thrown the lifeline of somewhere to stay by a retired colleague and slinks away from Dublin to lick his wounds. Though three months without pay will be a stretch, the examination of Crowe, very much a fish out of water, is interesting and his befriending of local inhabitants belies the gruff, hard-baked exterior, though he’s not ready for hearth and slippers just yet.

The island of Inishcarrig lies off the coast, privately-owned by a Canadian billionaire, but comings and goings by helicopter and the unexplained death of a newfound, vulnerable friend triggers Crowe’s professional instincts. Despite his ‘civilian’ status, some sniffing around discovers that Crowe isn’t the only one flushed out from the smoke.

The deliciously nicknamed ‘Teflon D’ is a major drug dealer, but has also been experiencing some difficulties in Dublin and is rumoured to have moved to the seaside town, where Crowe has the invigorating salty oxygen of a busman’s holiday.

What I liked most about this book was getting to know the main character. ‘Podge’ Crowe is seriously flawed, yet the peeling back of some of the layers of his awkward complexity was a highlight. Moreover, removing the detective from the streets of Dublin also enabled the author to showcase a contrasting community, in which it is possible to simply bask in their ordinariness.

I was delighted to read on Twitter that Mr Craven, @cravenrobert, is working on further tasks for Crowe and I shall watch for the next instalment with interest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Pen is Indeed Mightier Than the Sword…

Book 3 of the ‘Penguin 60s’ collection moves on from classic fairytales to classical Roman literature. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from AD161 to his death in 180 and is often referred to as the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. However, what is remarkable about this fascinating and significant tome is not simply that it continues to be read nearly a thousand years after it was written, but that it continues to resonate with scholars and contemporary world leaders alike.

This slim abstract from the original twelve volumes gives the reader an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a leader of one of the world’s largest and most influential empires. The ‘Meditations’ as they became known, record the reflections of an emperor and the Stoic philosophy that underpinned his view of that world and man’s place within it. It is not an essay, but in the main a collection of sayings, which today might be seen as the equivalent of snappy ‘sound bites’. That they remain worthy of study and continue to be often quoted is surely testament to their literary value. Marcus Aurelius was capable of maintaining a brutal regime, consistent with the period, but history has certainly looked positively on this particular aspect of his legacy.

“So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune’.”

And reassuringly…

“Nothing can happen to any man that nature has not fitted him to endure.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.