Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Sea Wall: a journey on the South Dorset Ridgeway by Jennifer Hunt (Archaeopteryx, 2016)

January 2, 2018

I came across this delightful little volume of thoughts, snippets, poems, lino cuts and two inspiring concrete poems at the Weymouth Book Fayre at the beginning of December last year.

The Fayre showcased what all us local authors have been producing. A huge range of books was available there, from stunning picture books of the coastline, through fiction (mine included), via local history (wrecks and castles and battles galore!), to poetry (such as this).

Jennifer Hunt used to live in the shadow of the South Dorset Ridgway, and learned long ago that ‘sea wall’ is what Martinstown people used to call the part of the Ridgeway that kept their village safe from the sea.

Some of the material was created as a result of an Artsreach project, walking the Ridgeway in the summer of 2015. Other poems were the result of her long and deep engagement with the land of the Ridgeway.

In 2016 and 2017 I took part in similar projects, experiencing the landscape over a couple of days and writing about it intensely for the SATSYMPH project (now, sadly, ended). If you ‘do’ Facebook you can access the work we did here : https://www.facebook.com/LBSPoetryParks/. I can attest to the power of clearing your mind and simply sitting or walking in the landscape. In my case sitting on Eggardon Hill in June of 2017. Your eyes and ears become much sharper, and you really smell the land – cut hay, the flowers crushed by your own feet, cowpats – all of it comes to you if you give it space. I got royally sunburned, to the extent that I still have the mark of Eggardon Hill in June upon me as I write this in the winter. I find that somehow very fitting.

But back to Jennifer Hunt’s Sea Wall. I particularly liked ‘West Wind’, a cinquain (a poem constructed of 2,4,6,8 and 2 syllables) which is as full of matter as a pie is full of meat *. The first stanza goes like this:

“Thick fog
wet as sheep’s wool.
Birds fly up underfoot.
A single apple tree in blossom.
West wind.”

‘Ah’, I hear you cry, ‘but that fourth line has 9 syllables, not 8!’ And I admire Ms Hunt as much for stepping outside the form and using the line that makes perfect sense as I do for her choice of the strict form in the first place.

Here are a few lines from the prose poem ‘Maiden Castle’. So much rapturous blueness:

“Clouds of small blue butterflies rose up from the grass. I looked them up in my Observer book – Chalkhill Blue, Blue Skipper, Silver-Studded Blue, Common Blue. White-chalk and blue-sky names, the colours of my childhood summers on these ancient hills.”

The two concrete poems are ‘Quern Stones’ and ‘Snail’ (which seems to have no formal title but is, determinedly, snailish). Consuming these is like eating a Cadbury Crème Egg – first you work your way around the outer shape of the thing, then you begin to investigate the luscious interior, turning the book this way and that to get at every sweet lick. Yummy.

The Illustrations are fresh and sharp and bring an extra dimension to the natural world being described.

If you enjoy the landscape of Dorset I am certain you will love this collection.

I don’t believe Jennifer Hunt’s work is available from The Great Zon, so look out for her at craft and book fairs in Dorset, or contact her via http://archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk/

(*which saying comes from : http://www.samuelfrench.co.uk/p/10731/hans-the-witch-and-the-gobbin)

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Review: ‘Permeable’ by Hannah Chutzpah (Burning Eye Books, 2017)

December 20, 2017

This is a poetry collection by a performance poet whose work performs just as well on the page as it does on the stage.

Hannah Chutzpah is a self-named poet, which name demonstrates both her delight in words (Hannah) and her activism as ‘potential maggot thrower’ (Chutzpah). As she says in the poem ‘A dude in an East London pub has just out-Jewed me’, she is half-Jewish, half-American and bisexual. She is what every poet with something to say needs to be: on the outside looking in – sometimes wishing to be on the inside, sometimes pointing out to those on the inside how unacceptable, weird or just plain naff their behaviour looks like from out there. It is a brave place to live one’s life.

I first heard Chutzpah at a three-woman Edinburgh try-out gig in deepest Hackney some years ago. I was impressed, so I bought her pamphlet Butterfly Wings, where some of these poems were first published, and watched others develop on Facebook. When I heard this full collection was out I was keen to review it (not least because I lost the pamphlet in a move) and it is as good as I hoped.

The title of the collection is taken from the idea of roots working their way down through Maslow’s hierarchy of five needs (food and shelter, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation). While the collection certainly travels through all the five levels, I’m not sure the poems are always in the right level. You might have fun re-allocating them. I did, although it was a surprisingly complex task. Chutzpah says about the decision to include the Hierarchy ‘”Millennials” have been raised with a lot of insecurity around the basics of jobs and housing. It doesn’t always stop us, but it often erodes us.’ This is becoming increasingly true, making Permeable an important (and definitely quotable) book for the way we live now.

Here are some of the highlights: ‘This is your Twenties’ in the first section about food and shelter, drives forward like Auden’s ‘This is the night mail’: it deals with the constant relocation by a whole generation of ‘urban nomads’ looking for the ‘scraps of jobs going’, upping sticks, cats, plants and lighters, ‘And you think you might be doing this wrong.’ Your whole life can be fitted into a transit van, you flit between flats, all the time looking for The One – the good job ‘with a pension scheme/You’ll actually use/Or the person you’ll grow old with.’ ‘Tumbleweeds’ expands on that idea:
‘They said we could be
Tall as redwoods
Bright as autumn maples
Bold as monkey puzzles
But to survive
We are learning to be tumbleweeds.’

Two more of my favourites from this first section are ‘Job Centre’, ‘Blood, Bone, Bowel, Brain, Breast’, about working at a cancer charity, and ‘Fairy rings’, which is a modern take on the  way a London borough can be Unsafe, moving through OK and Cool to Unaffordable in the time it takes to get settled in a new flat.

In the second section, acquiring safety enables the poet to play ‘Shithead Bingo’. You can play it too: the instructions are very clear. ‘Too Good to be True’ has been true for me many times. Does ‘Platters of praise you never knew you were hungry for’ speak to your own experience?

From the ‘love’ section I pull out ‘Tetris (as a Relationship Analogy)’ and ‘Necrokitty Comic Sans’ which titles are so good in themselves you wonder what the poet could possibly add, but she mines the analogies deeply. In this section is also the clever ‘In Tents’.

In the ‘self-esteem’ section the poet lets her readers see how raw some of this emotion is. ‘Snakeskin’ resonated particularly with me.

‘Self-actualisation’ contains, perhaps unsurprisingly, some complex poems of which my favourite is ‘Butterflies’.

This really is poetry for a Millennial generation: if you are that generation it will speak to you. If you are older than that (as I am) it will help you understand what today’s young adults are going through.

Or you could just enjoy it.

Get it from Burning Eye Books here: https://burningeyebooks.wordpress.com/?s=permeable

Or from The Zon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Permeable-Hannah-Chutzpah/dp/191157003X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1513796629&sr=1-1&keywords=Permeable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Whales and Strange Stars’: review

December 7, 2017

Whales and Strange Stars: An Adventure by [Sharp, Kathy]

Kathy Sharp is a novelist well known for her three charming fantasy books set on an historical, fictionalised Isle of Portland: the Larus trilogy.

This, her latest novel, is also set in a simpler time than our own – but in a quite different place (although in it, too, water plays an important part).

Whales and Strange Stars begins with the quiet elegance of an otter slipping into the water. The story quickly gains breadth and depth and momentum as it swims downstream, urged on by deliciousness such as this ‘an empty gape draped in drab’ and this ‘The infant New Year lumbered forward unsteadily, burdened with ice and nearly knocked off its feet by strong winds’.

The book’s time is the eighteenth century and, as an historical novel, is unusual in that it does not deal with specific historical events, except for a passing reference to the king raising taxes to fight his war in America. What it does is tell a story of the time before the railways came and changed communications forever.

The book’s place is East Kent, as the author explains in an Afterword. If you are familiar with that part of the world you will enjoy picking out the real locations and geographical features which have been fictionalised for the book (and checking them at the end, when all is revealed). The author writes of the area with a deep affection and intimate knowledge, lightly worn. Exquisite thumbnail sketches of the river, the marshes, the winter weather, the big skies, the very contents of the hedgerows, set the scenes of the book.

The story concerns hard lives and making do. When money is scarce what may a man try to cushion his family from hardship? Personal possessions are so few, is it wrong to covet a fine knife or pretty ribbons?

It also concerns love – of uncles and niece each for other, of a man for his boat, occasionally of a man for his liquor. But it also concerns greed. How powerful men may ensnare others to their will, how having a little more makes a man want a lot, and how this can make him seem quite mad to his loved ones. There is treachery in the story too, as well as coercion.

And, finally, it is about growing up in a slow, circumscribed universe. How a girl on the cusp of womanhood, living in a backwater, full of fancies and commonsense both, must puzzle out the behaviour of the adults in her world for herself. Men and women alike are too busy working to explain. There is a book on manners, and there is the back of my hand, and between these two extremes one must puzzle out what actions and words may mean and what that may signify for one’s life to come.

It is also a salutary lesson against eavesdropping.

 

Book review: ‘A murder on the Appian Way’ by Steven Saylor

November 21, 2017

This book was ‘givers’. Indeed, I cannot even remember who gave it to me. It has had a hard life, which it began in Poole library. Lord knows where it has been since then to get so tatty, but I shall put it on the shelf of treasured fiction and search out more by Mr Saylor.

This is book #5 in Saylor’s ‘Gordianus the Finder’ series. There are maybe as many as nine in all. This one came out 20 years ago.

It is beautifully researched, entwining what is known about the events described with fiction. The Romans wrote a lot of stuff down, so there is a considerable factual basis for the book, upon which Saylor has embroidered a story which canters along a path richly strewn with action, interesting information about this Roman period (52BC – Marc Antony is a young man), and wit.

Tightly plotted and economically told.

Great stuff.

* * * * *

Wonders will never cease

November 21, 2017

My new novel, coincidentally entitled Wonders will never cease, will be available on Kindle on 2 December. You may pre-order it from Friday 24 November.

Please share this information on all the social media sites you frequent.

The whereabouts of the paperback is currently a bit of a mystery. But it too should be available on or shortly after 2 December.

WWNC Front Cover November 02 (002)

April 22, 2017

Love Songs of Carbon (The Yellow Earl: Almost an Emporer, Not Quite a Gentleman) by [Gross, Philip]   I found the first two poems of this collection very difficult and left the book alone for some months. But then I thought – either read it or take it down the charity shop (I do sometimes wonder who buys the books I leave at the charity shop – the last one was a bone-dry biography of Ben Nicholson: but I digress). So with a small sigh I re-entered Love Songs of Carbon – and wow! ‘Thirty Feet Under’ uses the imagery of a super-low spring tide to talk about ageing. ‘Mould Music’ is fascinating about the moulds that appear on all living things (except, actually, human bodies – if you have mould you need to see a doctor, stat). But I have now reached ‘A Love Song of Carbon’ (the title poem) and have been absolutely blown away by this about scattering the ashes of his parents on Dartmoor. I am now chomping through the rest with great enthusiasm. He uses as his colouring pencils not only the natural world, but also the part of the world I am from.

I sometimes write poetry and have always denigrated what I write as ‘just nature stuff’ because robins and storms and seasons figure largely in it. I may stop doing that (denigrating), because I now see that the natural world is a fine metaphor for the human condition. Why would it not be? We and it are all made of carbon, after all. Even my storms are distributing carbon from here to there.

If you have only read the first couple of poems you have absolutely not seen the best this collection offers. (And it has to be said that the cover does not beckon one in either). But what is inside that rather dull cover is akin to reaching the top of the hill outside Weymouth and seeing the sea sparkling in front of you. Go on! You will be rewarded.

Review of ‘The Chinese Spymaster’ by Hock G Tjoa

March 23, 2017

The author provided me with an e-file of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Chinese Spymaster by [Tjoa, Hock]

I enjoyed this book a lot. I like to learn New Stuff when I read fiction and, for me, this book contained plenty of fascinating, fresh, information about the Chinese in general, particularly their intelligence agencies; the Pashtun people and their fragmented existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the reaction of intelligence communities in countries such as Israel and the UK to their Chinese counterparts. Tjoa maintains that his depiction of the Chinese intelligence agencies is without foundation in fact. However, it is certainly founded on intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and rang very true.

The premise is that the Pashtuns are seeking to acquire a portable nuclear device to use as political leverage. They are talking to six different potential suppliers. (This is not a spoiler: it is part of the blurb.) It was an interesting and timely plot device. And enabled Tjoa to investigate the character of Spymaster Wang, who was a child during The Great Leap Forward, when blame and self-criticism were vicious tools of the state, and recognises that elements of that mindset still exist in China today. The ways in which Chinese friendships and families work are subtly different from western ways. As are their work relationships. Tjoa shows us this through Wang’s way of working and his social interactions.

At its best this book stands comparison with Le Carré’s early work. Spymaster Wang and George Smiley would very much enjoy each other’s company. Much of the book consists of people finding stuff out and puzzling over what it means. I prefer this sort of spy thriller to those where there is a high and bloody body count. There is action, but the espionage is more cerebral than physical.

A nice line in Chinese aphorisms runs through the book. I particularly liked ‘act without desiring the results of your action!’, a mantra apparently predating the Lord Buddha, taught by Japanese Zen masters, who were themselves taught by Chinese Zen masters.

By the end of the book I felt I knew considerably more about the way in which power is shifting towards the East in our world. It is moving not only towards China, but also towards various, post-Soviet, ‘Stans along the Silk Road and lining China’s borders – and, of course, one must not forget the firestorm which is the Middle East. Le Carré and others cast about constantly for new theatres of espionage and intrigue now that the Iron Curtain has come down. These days a refreshing breeze disturbs the Bamboo Curtain, giving us glimpses behind it. Charles Cummings touched upon nationalism among the Uyghurs (one of China’s ethnic minorities who also turn up in The Chinese Spymaster) in his 2008 book Typhoon. Tjoa also contemplates the rumblings of nationalism in this part of the world (might it begin, in truth, with the Pashtuns?) This is fruitful ground for the modern spy thriller writer.

There is rather more ‘telling’ in the book than the modern, western, fashion in fiction-writing favours. But in the context, it is probably the most economical way to keep the story moving.

The occasional shifts in where and when we were kept me on my toes. In one case we unexpectedly timewarped some ten years into the past. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was essential information. And how else was it to be offered to the reader?

Tjoa thoughtfully provides a ‘Key Words, Abbreviations and Institutions’ section, and maps. An aide memoire to the large cast of characters would also have been helpful. I had no difficulty with Hu and Yu. Nor with Wang, Tang and Owyang. The use of nicknames (apparently a Chinese schtick) helped. But I did have difficulty remembering who was who among the many minor characters. (I would make a lousy spy!)

If you like your spying bang up to date and more mental than action-based, I believe you will enjoy this book.

Review of ‘Wisdom of Fools’, collection of short stories by Phil Harvey

February 26, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Wisdom of Fools: Stories of Extraordinary Lives by [Harvey, Phil]

 

Of this collection of eight stories by Phil Harvey six of them are contemporary, two are science fictionish.

Phil Harvey has other important career strands alongside his fiction writing. He is the author of non-fiction books about contraception, government snooping and libertarian values; he has set up a charity which implements family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention programs in developing countries; helped fund the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Police project and NORML; he works to raise awareness of freedom-of-speech issues and injustices caused by the war on drugs; and he runs a company which helps adults enjoy their sex lives. His compassion in and deep knowledge of these various areas informs his fiction, to advantage.

These are meaty stories. The author turns out to be one of those treasured finds in whom, as a reader, one may place absolute trust (although that was, perhaps, not completely true of the final story in the collection ‘Xa’s Pool’: it is still a fine story).

The eight stories are delightfully varied. Nevertheless, they do have aspects in common. I would describe them all as having both a visceral foundation and as many layers as an onion. Harvey sketches in characters at the same time as he develops the story – no hanging around to see the set and meet the cast here. Not a word is wasted, which is essential when constructing short stories. The story is underway from the first sentence: the pace and length are perfectly judged – and at the end is a payoff, which one had not seen coming, which is perfect and thought-provoking.

Harvey is a man who really understands the short form in fiction and uses it beautifully. The Amazon puff names several writers of short fiction in whose company these stories can stand. I hereby add Ernest Hemingway – yes, Harvey is THAT good.

My favourite (and it’s a hard choice) is ‘Virgin Birth’ which looks at particularly difficult moral choices that might surround a surrogate pregnancy – the sort of choices that I’ve never been encouraged to think about before. I found it revelatory.

This is a short book. One can absorb a story in a sitting. Even if short fiction isn’t your usual fare I urge you to give these a go. If you’re still wrinkling your nose at the idea, Harvey has longer fiction available. This is an author well worth discovering.

Review of ‘The Damascus Cover’ by Howard Kaplan

February 25, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

The Damascus Cover (The Jerusalem Spy Series Book 1) by [Kaplan, Howard]

In the new introduction to this edition the author tells us that in its first incarnation, in 1977, this novel sat in the lower reaches of the Los Angeles Times best seller list for 10 weeks. This reissue, self-published by Howard Kaplan in 2014, has obviously been put out to tie in with the forthcoming film, now apparently due in 2017. (Although how they will manage without the late lamented John Hurt, who can say.)

For present purposes, perhaps the most important thing to know about Howard Kaplan is that he has a little experience of being a spy and a lot of knowledge about the Middle East. He has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. He knows the life of which he writes.

This is an excellent spy thriller. Authors are so often recommended by publishers as ‘the next John Le Carré’. None of them are, of course. And attempts at comparison simply weaken the writing of those who are not. However, Kaplan is (or was), writing gritty spy fiction which stands genuine comparison with Le Carré circa ‘The spy who came in from the cold’.

I pride myself on being able to spot a plot twist even if it is secreted in a bag of fettuccini, but this book wrong-footed me not once, not twice but thrice. I like to be wrong-footed. Nor did those cunning plot twists feel remotely strained: as soon as the unexpected occurred one could see how it was the inevitable result of what had come before. Thus the book quickly gained a sense of menace: what has Ari missed? How will it come back to bite him? The spy-protagonist is no two-dimensional cipher: the reader goes with him into the abyss created by his own character failings, spiralling down and down, as shown through the action of the book.

The settings are Cyprus, Jerusalem and Syria – economically and vividly drawn. The Middle Eastern setting are topical (despite the book’s age). Aleppo, Beirut and, of course, Damascus all figure largely and are described at a time when they were still beautiful, multi-cultural cities.

The new introduction gives some insight into what has occurred in the Middle East since 1977, but it is not really sufficient for those of us whose knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and wars since 1948 may not be deep or recent. To enjoy this fully it will repay a quick and dirty Google of the main dates and conflicts in the area (there are quite a few) so as to have at least The Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War clear in your mind. This link may be of assistance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Middle_East#Modern_Middle_East

FYI: The prologue and final chapter comprise *graphic* scenes of torture.

There are a few typos which could have been put right when the text was readied for printing this time around. Or perhaps they were introduced at that point – who can say. They will not spoil your enjoyment.

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life by Alex Storer

February 22, 2017

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life

This is an interesting monograph about the late, greatly lamented David Bowie – with a kick ass cover image of Bowie on stage during the Outside tour – which quickly has the reader considering their own favourite Bowie music as well as, perhaps, considering which musicians provide the soundtrack to their own lives. I found it a fruitful line of enquiry. As well as a rundown of Bowie’s music it also encompasses the way we enjoyed music back in the Nineties – searching for music in town centre stores; the weekly music press we relied on for information. Then moves us into the internet age – the way CDs gave over to mp3 downloads; the whole world of music which became available online; magazines that are now only a distant memory; also those that survived, some on paper, some online.

If you are a Bowie fan then this account will jog your memory about lesser known albums and singles, videos and tours which you may have forgotten about. Bowie’s musical production did, after all span five decades, as Storer points out. It will remind you of your favourites and motivate the sort of conversations which start ‘yes, but also …,’ which could keep you up late into the night and require considerable consumption of alcoholic beverages.

I got slightly confused about when we were from time to time. But I understand that the story doesn’t unfold to best advantage in an entirely chronological way, and if that sometimes led to a certain confusion with when in Storer’s life we were, I could still see demonstrated the impact the music had on the author’s life.

I found it interesting that Storer contrasted the wait for albums and, occasionally, the hunt for them, with the ease we experience buying music now. I remember, in the Seventies, driving from Aberystwyth to North Wales on a pilgrimage to the only record store in the principality that stocked American imported blues music. Bliss! How little of the glorious music in stock I could afford. Woe! Being one whose favourite music was always on the other side of The Pond I don’t regret the passing of the physical purchase of music in the way that Storer does. But I can certainly understand it. The way we enjoy music now brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘easy listening’. Storer has done more than follow a major artiste through nearly 40 years of his recording career (with a nod to the decade before that), he has also reminded us how music was produced and how we consumed it. Also how Bowie was always in tune with the zeitgeist in the design of covers and new instrumentation, new methods of production and dissemination of his music.

If you are a Bowie fan you should certainly read this short treatise on the man’s music. If you are interested in how the production of music for mass consumption has changed in the past 30 years you will find much here to interest you. If you are interested in being prompted to think about who your own musical heroes are and what impact they have had on your own life, this is a good place to start.

Enjoy.


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