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.

Death is but a Door…

11 July 2021 (14:30)

I am indebted to indie author, Megan Shunmugam for the opportunity to read an ARC copy of her debut novel, “Phoenix”, in return for an honest review and for fans of YA fantasy, this book is something of a treat.

The story begins with the ending of the mortal life of main character, Alexia Solenia. Of itself this is an unusual gambit, yet it is through the demise of the key character that the author is able to construct a platform for Alexia’s onward journey to an ‘afterlife’ and the other-worldly adventures that await her.

There’s perhaps an inherent curiosity about that which we can’t know. Still, the author’s imagining of the ‘City of Lost Souls’, as a “sorting chamber for those who have died and are not claimed by the ether”, is a further compelling kickstart to the book and enables Alexia to be identified as an elite silver ‘Helper’, with powers to be discovered and nurtured. The city, though, is but a waystation en route to the heroine’s assignment. Received in a comfortingly familiar manila envelope the instructions orientate Alexia and the reader to our shared destination, the kingdom of Arianon and the young, recently-crowned king, Fenix Arbora, the intended recipient of Alexia’s ‘help’.

Thus the reader is transported seamlessly from Earth, to the ethereal dimension, onward via portal, to the world of Vessus. In fact, I found the author’s deft explanation for the next life, as a means of connecting the universe, quite ingenious. The plot also offers the prospect of a second chance for Alexia, if she can complete her mission and keep her soul intact, though the prospect of failure and the accompanying jeopardy are never far away.

Notwithstanding its tolerance of magical creatures, Arianon, it transpires, is under pressure from multiple existential threats, while its young ruler attempts to stabilise things through a shrewd alliance with the powerful Sur family from the kingdom of Pneros. The lengthy history of Vessus has been relatively peaceful for a thousand years, since the end of the ‘First Wars’, but there are troubling signs that the infrastructure that has ensured the citizens’ safety is eroding. Helpfully, the author intersperses the contemporary action with some of the historical context to aid the reader’s grasp of the impending conflict and the deepening shadow of further potential war.

Fenix’ right hand is his cousin Flynn, who has misgivings about the cost of allying with the tyrannical Surs, but can be relied upon to remain loyal to his king. Inevitably perhaps, both are attracted to the visiting Helper and their shared danger develops their bonds of friendship, but there is more to come from that romantic triangle. As indeed there is from this ongoing adventure. In “Phoenix”, Megan Shunmugam has established an interesting cast of characters with lots of road yet to be travelled. The author has confirmed that the sequel will follow and it is testament to the success of her storytelling in this first volume, that such a prospect is rather exciting! The novel is consistent in its appeal towards the YA readership, though, except perhaps for an overuse of the ‘eye roll’ by multiple characters, the story may well appeal to a wider readership of fantasy fiction. I congratulate Ms Shunmugam on an absorbing debut and I shall watch for the sequel to ensure it is added to my tbr list. Remember the name!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Prince of Charm – Hans Christian Andersen!

Book 2 of the ‘Penguin 60s’ collection and six stories from the archetypal fairy-tale-teller. Born in 1805 in Denmark, Andersen is clearly of a different time and yet his stories have been adopted by many countries and revered as classics. That is certainly true of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, which continues to speak to the folly of outsized vanity and weakness in the face of unrequited truth.

The other five tales were more obscure and new to me, but equally charming. Clearly written for children, in the style of parables, what the stories have in common are the important lessons to be drawn from characters who submit to negative human traits such as greed, vanity, or profligacy. Look out for the titles:- “The Bronze Pig”; “Little Claus & Big Claus”; “The Flying Trunk”; “The Bottle”; and “The Girl Who Stepped on Bread”. Improbably effective, such tales should not be underestimated, as they continue to convey morals, which resonate two hundred years on. Quite a legacy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bosch Closing on Iconic Status

15 May 2021 (18:30)

Back in the saddle at the LAPD, after a short-lived retirement, Harry Bosch reboots some ground rules with his erstwhile partner, Kizmin Rider and tries to avoid the impression that he’s a dinosaur. But, though some faces have changed in the Robbery Homicide Division, Deputy Chief Irvin Irving’s presence lingers like a bad smell and he’s lying in wait for Bosch, confident that the errant detective will make a mistake. By contrast, the ‘Open-Unsolved Unit’ is where the new Chief of Police is hoping Bosch will make his mark and help address the rhetoric around his department’s ‘greatest shame’. “A city that forgets its murder victims is a city lost…”

The murder of teenager Becky Verloren in 1988 is the first investigation allocated to Bosch and Rider in their new assignment and with the scientific advances made in the interim, on the face of it, the forensic possibilities of DNA might just make the case a slam dunk formality. Only Bosch and Rider also need to overcome errors in the original investigation and the apparent loss of key evidence from a secure police archive. Notwithstanding the ‘newbies’ have been allotted the period with the most unsolved cases, Bosch is content and almost reverential in the realisation that he is back, in his most natural environment, immersed once again in what amounts to a ‘blue religion’.

The original detectives in the Verloren case had surmised the hallmarks of a murder disguised as suicide, but the challenge for the current investigators is to revisit the evidence and generate more, despite the passage of years. Yet, while the machinations of the investigation are compelling, what makes the series of books stand out, for me, are the story arcs that link key characters and other books in the series. For example, Kizmin Rider has helped facilitate Bosch’s return to duty, but whilst an admirer of his skills as a detective, she has also taken a risk with her own career and is nervous about her partner’s capacity to attract trouble. There is also an awkward reunion with Jerry Edgar, Bosch’s former partner and a passing reference to Cassie Black (key character in “Void Moon”, published in 2000). In that sense, the reader is invited to consider this next piece in a far grander puzzle, created by Michael Connelly. Each piece/book can stand alone, but it also fits neatly into a larger examination of Bosch and his contemporaries across an impressive sweep of time.

Intriguingly the author adds familiar and obscure markers to the passage of years, through his reference to real-time events and developments. In this case, not only the emergence of DNA as a forensic tool, but also the changed regulation of wire taps. Thus, Connelly’s attention to detail has contributed to another graphic snapshot of his hero that can also be appreciated in the evolving ‘scrapbook’ that is emerging within the Bosch series. Albeit this is the eleventh book in the sequence, there is also no sign that the series is losing any of its pace or momentum. “The Closers” is another in the quite prolific output of an author ‘in the groove’, another page-turner that impels the reader inexorably on to the next book (“Echo Park”). Michael Connelly continues to consistently deliver a refreshing brand of crime novel that may well push Harry Bosch into the pantheon of iconic detectives, with the likes of Holmes, Poirot and Morse.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Girl Power!

2 May 2021 (23:30)

During ‘Indie April’ this year, I alighted on this debut novel by P.J.Sky, published in 2020. The book is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, which was a bold choice and chimed absolutely with the story that unfolds, though in some respects the author has clearly intended the book for a ‘YA’ readership. Of course, such genre labels are merely a guide and the presence of a main character capable of extreme violence (necessary for the plot) is only partially offset by the absence of ‘bad language’. In fact, I found the reliance on “Dag it” as the expletive of choice for the youthful characters rather euphemistic, but ironically this quaint touch may equally find favour with an older reader resentful of more colourful, but accurate language. In any event, I believe the book might be best described as an ‘adventure / thriller’. Certainly the presence of complex themes such as identity; loyalty; power; betrayal; revenge; and social order command broad appeal, whatever the age of the reader.

The novel centres on two female characters from very contrasting situations. Starla Corinth is the daughter of the political leader of the sole walled city. The elite population within the enclave enjoy high living standards, derived from monopolised resources and a culture ‘protected’ from those unfortunate enough to find themselves existing in the surrounding wastelands. Moreover, for the city dwellers, “ The ultimate penalty and punishment was exile,” from which there was no return. Such is the destiny of Ari, once a child of the city, but ejected with her parents for reasons unknown and now alone but well-versed in the ways of survival in the wilderness.

Still, when Starla finds herself mysteriously removed from her gilded cage, but hopelessly equipped for ‘freedom’ in the wastelands, Ari just might be her only ticket home. Of course the malevolent forces that conspired to make the leader’s only daughter disappear in the first place  cannot afford to see their skulduggery uncovered and thus the stage is set for the chronicling of the attempted ‘home run’.

Within the the plot I enjoyed very much the development of the titular character particularly . Ari has endured a tough life, which has conferred resilience, self-sufficiency and ruthlessness. She is a young woman of action, able to look after herself. Yet, her solitary existence has also created a hard shell through which Ari finds it difficult to trust anyone. By contrast, in the wastelands, Starla is immediately confronted by her vulnerability in such an alien environment, but she does have skills to bring, not least the ability to reach out, on a human level, to her companion.

In this exciting and compelling debut, P.J.Sky has created an interesting dystopian world, with contemporary echoes and two strong female characters with lots of mileage for further exploration. I look forward to the sequel (“Ari Goes to War”) with some relish.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Framing A Moment…

15 March 2021 (22:30)

One of the consistently compelling features of Jane Davis’ work is the elegance imbued within her writing style, which makes each title such a sumptuous treat.This is my fifth sojourn into the author’s impressive list of books and I am struck by the breadth of historic and contemporary backdrops, between which Ms Davis seems to move with such consummate ease. However, this particular book, set in large part during the decadent Edwardian era, seems to give full rein to the author’s lavish prose and introduces another wonderfully characterized female protagonist.

Lottie Pye was born in 1910 and in mysterious circumstances was spared the workhouse, instead to be raised in Brighton, in the care of humble bakers, Kate and Sidney. By contrast, as a child, Sir James Hastings, her son, enjoyed the trappings of wealth, but grew up motherless, that’s to say he only met his mother once, at a photographic exhibition in Brighton when he was aged ten, where she was accompanied by an amputee soldier, apparently taken under her wing. However, since Lottie went on to live to the grand age of 108, Sir James was an old man himself by the time his mother’s solicitor wrote to inform him of her death. There followed the delivery of Lottie’s life’s work, forty two boxes of photographs and a letter partially explaining/excusing her absence from his life.

It’s an extraordinary scenario and through a cleverly crafted plot, the reader is immersed into the life of a woman apparently born to a great purpose and the slow reveal of her journey is told through the alternating stories of mother and son. The interplay between the fly-on-the-wall immediacy of ‘Lottie’s story’ and the retrospective reflections of Sir James’,  combine seamlessly into an absorbing family saga. Both stories are told in the first person and Sir James is assisted by a photography student (Jenny), to interpret the snapshots of his mother’s professional progression and deduce their significance. Over time Jenny is also able to offer insight into Lottie’s circumstances and some impartial balance, which may even advocate Lottie’s posthumous rehabilitation, or at least a more compassionate reading of the judgements made. 

The book is teeming with complex relationships and examines the relevance of blood ties and societal expectations of mothers particularly, but also the undeniable power of love and the fickle nature of human attachment. The fault lines of class and gender are also prominent, as is the concept of ‘doing one’s duty’, which may constrain an individual’s behaviour and aspirations with glutinous social norms. Still, what sets Lottie Pye apart is having the courage to resist the path of compliance, but being prepared to pay the personal price of those contentious choices, in an effort to remain true to herself. Certainly by the end of the book, I had become quite an admirer of Lottie Pye and her ardent refusal to be cowed by the inequities of her time. A life well worth exploring and another book destined for my ‘favourites shelf’, in the sure knowledge that there is more to be wrung from this excellent novel.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

‘Penguin 60s’ Stylish Opener

The ‘Penguin 60s’ were published in 1995 on the occasion of the famous publisher’s sixtieth anniversary and this was my first dip into the distinctive, orange-spined collection. Rather like fine dining, what these small volumes lack in quantity, they make up for in quality and the opening two short stories by Martin Amis are quite sumptuous. Drawn from the author’s original book, “Einstein’s Monsters”, the stories included here are deliberately very different, though each offers unsettling descriptions of a dystopian society.

“God’s Dice” explores the impact of Polish strongman, Bujak, on his poor neighbourhood and family. Physically intimidating, just Bujak’s presence among them provides his neighbours with a welcome sense of security, but in the jungle, even big, noble beasts cannot defend the weaker members from the nagging attention of scavengers. Strong of arm and heart Bujak must also temper the temptation to give in to baser animal instincts when confronting society’s jackals.

By contrast, “The Little Puppy That Could” centres on that most adorable and guileless of creatures, a young dog. However, natural selection on a future Earth has fostered all manner of aberrations, such as idle homosapiens, no longer capable of carnivorous hunting and dogs that have developed homovorous tastes. Still, with the dog no longer ‘man’s best friend’, even a puppy is unwelcome in a human village, that is until he befriends a youngster, untainted by the reality of victimhood.

The story certainly offers food for thought and the possibilities conferred, if humankind were to be shorn of its capacity for predation and instead needed to contend with being prey, behaviour adapted to new imperatives of survival.

Martin Amis is an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and essayist and this snapshot of his obvious skills is fascinating.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bugging Miss Benson!

15th January 2021 (15:15)

I confess that I was prevailed upon to read “Miss Benson’s Beetle” by my wife (having read the book, she felt an urgent need to discuss it with someone and the restrictions of COVID ‘lockdown’ conferred the privilege on me. Hence the formation of a rather bijou book club for two). However, it proved to be rather fun! This was also my introduction to the work of Rachel Joyce, though the author has ‘bestseller’ credentials and this latest novel has the hallmarks of an accomplished storyteller.

The Coleoptera referred to in the title is the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, which, in 1914, ten year-old Marjorie Benson studied with her father in his rectory study, while her older brothers were away fighting in France. Together they imagined how it would be to discover this incredible creature and bring the first specimen home, for scientific validation. Such an expedition was the stuff of dreams. However, real life intervened harshly for Miss Benson and aged 46, she was instead washed up on the shores of a hopeless teaching career, acutely aware that her capacity for adventure was running out. Still, what had been sustained through her intervening passage into adulthood was an enduring fascination with beetles and her passion re-ignited, an expedition to the French archipelago is belatedly and hurriedly planned.

Clearly, the limited life experience of the doughty Miss Benson will be one barrier among many, but despite Marjorie’s misgivings, her self-appointed, flamboyantly attractive companion (Enid Pretty) becomes the equivalent of a latter day Passepartout. Certainly Enid and her more worldly perspective provides a crucial counterweight to her earnest employer, but she also injects comic relief within a sometimes tense journey towards Miss Benson’s overdue date with destiny.

Set mainly in the 1950s, the plot follows the intrepid duo’s travelling obstacle course and challenges, compounded by sexist attitudes commonly held at that time. However, the author also ridicules the imperialist assumptions of the Brits encountered abroad and lampoons the civilising influence of such a nation of stereotypical eccentrics (Miss Benson leaves her native shores in a pith helmet). Indeed, the dated images successfully created by the narrative, at times felt like a Pathé newsreel brought to life. This is by no means a criticism, but it does apply a gloss to the story, which knowingly underplays some of the attendant struggles encountered by the two main characters. Yet, what is most gratifying is the burgeoning relationship between Miss Benson and Ms Pretty, forged by circumstances that ultimately erase their obvious differences in favour of their collective and considerable strengths.

I think it would be fair to suggest that whilst not labelling this book as ‘chick lit’, my fellow reader’s appreciation was more lavish, but as the book demonstrates, life demands ‘different strokes for different folks’. An entertaining, light read for all!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.