The Construction of Dreams

2021 novel, “Paper Castles” was my first taste of the work of indie author, B.Fox and though formatted into three parts, the smooth conversational style of this debut novel had me hooked by the end of the first chapter. It is true that the book may be regarded as ‘literary fiction’, given that it does not fit neatly into an established genre, but be assured, irrespective of the notional label, this is a fine example of accomplished storytelling.

James Brooke, aged 28, graduate of Cleveland and wannabe architect has returned home to Westland, Ohio, weighed down by student debt and a glaring lack of opportunity. Moreover, James finds himself reliant on a father beset with his own struggles and in the absence of James’ late Mom, without the maternal influence that formerly kept the family together and fanned the embers of their son’s aspirations.

On one level the story is an interesting study in the communication James has with himself (and the reader), but also the collision of the possible with the pragmatic, respectively represented by son and father and the consequences of a failure to engage. More broadly, the novel calls into question the status of the ‘American dream’, the worship of money and the human casualties that get left behind, collateral damage in an unattractive, largely utilitarian system.

Using the real estate industry as a metaphor to reinforce the themes, the author also highlights the need for aesthetic vision, combined with pragmatic discipline, if huge potential is not to be simply sacrificed on the altar of crude economics.

Still, it is the wanton disregard for human capital and the disadvantages to be overcome by the socially powerless that lend real depth to this book. Karen, whom James meets in a diner, is trapped in a waitressing job that enables her to also provide elder care to her frail grandmother. But, can this unusual alliance provide the key that may liberate the young couple from their respective challenges? The author has created a fascinatingly complex relationship between the two characters and James’ observation that “it feels good to be outside of my own head for once. Hers is so much more interesting”, alludes to an important psychological connection, but can it be enough?

Certainly, Karen’s assertion that “It’s not the American dream what’s important; it’s the dreamer! A dream can’t be alive without a dreamer who believes in it.” seems to best describe the essence of this novel, However, on balance, the avoidance of a trite conclusion is also to the credit of B. Fox. Hugely satisfying read, I shall look forward to the author’s future work with great interest, but, for now, I have no hesitation in lodging “Paper Castles” on my current favourites’ shelf.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

No Lightweight Short Story…

This was my first experience of Ken Stark’s work and yet, despite the short format, “Dead Weight” packs a powerful punch. Subtly horrifying, the author exposes the abject vulnerability of a mind imprisoned in a paralysed body, juxtaposed with a shackled body, the consequence of a broken mind. In common with top writers in the genre, Stark doesn’t rely on graphic description, but instead allows the reader to formulate a mental picture in all its shuddering repugnance. Bravo!

Rather like a tasty aperitif, this short story has stimulated my appetite for a more substantial course and waiting in my tbr list is Mr Stark’s post-apocalyptic zombie thriller. “Stage 3”. Can’t wait. Bon appetit!

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.

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.