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Allie (Poynton, UK)

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Well Oiled
Well Oiled
by Rubin Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhere in here there's an edgy thriller eager to get out, 12 Mar 2014
This review is from: Well Oiled (Paperback)
Somewhere inside this book there is an edgy thriller eager to get out; engaging characters confronting a credible threat – murder, both actual and attempted, kidnap - darkly machinating forces using super hi-tech wizardry to perpetrate crime – fraud, embezzlement, theft, tax avoidance and money laundering – a threatened environmental disaster all set within an interesting, well-fleshed out vision of life thirty years from now.
So why can’t I find it?
First of all, the title is a tad misleading. It led me to expect drilling platforms, a tanker adrift, ecological catastrophe after a spill….. Or perhaps the hilarious antics of a high-spirited group of lads out on the town (well-oiled being a British euphemism for inebriation). It didn’t prepare me for a small town in California or a well-heeled family with a strong sporting tradition, so I was wrong footed from the start.
Secondly, and most importantly, the plot – in its stripped-back form fast paced and engaging – is absolutely smothered by superfluous, minutely faceted detail. The book is set in 2040 so obviously some scene setting and cultural acclimatisation is needed, but the comprehensive inventory of technology, especially computer terminology, a plethora of bewildering acronyms and strings of purported computer code left me in the dark as I don’t have a degree in computer science and in any case it added nothing to the plot. That they were able to hack into systems, piggy back onto other computers, break or create encryptions etc is important but how they did so is not. The relentless enumeration of lap times, bike set-up, swim speeds and even the colours of hats worn by different groups of competitors during a triathlon completely obscures the important detail of other competitors and mis-directs the reader from its presumed function which is establishing character. A chess game, literally listed move by move choke-holds the end result, which is what matters.
Thirdly, the over-used technique of retrospective. Characters are repeatedly taken on convenient trips down memory lane to fill in back story, some of which is relevant but much of which is not. The ‘I remember when’ tool is a classic telling-not-showing error and frankly feels like a cop-out. It gives the impression that the writer has created a tangle in his plot which only a convoluted explanation of matters that the reader hasn’t been given any opportunity to fathom out for herself, can unknot. It’s very Nancy Drew, who, incidentally, is name-checked more than once. This, too, allows the plot to be dragged back, rather than driven forward, requiring action to be freeze-framed while the background is sketched in, and when the information turns out to be irrelevant it is just plain annoying, like finding you have been standing in the wrong queue.
The Nancy Drew allusion has another aspect here. Everyone is so darned NICE. I found the family at the heart of the story to be cloyingly likeable and endearing. In my experience teenage boys grunt and smell and have erotic thoughts about girls, but Frank and Joey eat vegetables and do their homework and have reasonable conversations with their elders about which college course they might apply for and heaven forfend that their relationships with the two girls should trespass beyond chess and bicycle rides. I suppose Grandma’s sweet potato pie and Grandpa’s home-cooked belly-pork (complete, of course, with recipe and method – actually, the belly pork did sound delicious, would that be 225 degrees F or C I wonder? Oh! Sorry, got distracted there….) make a useful contrast to the auto-navving cars and built-in GPS and wondrous technical gismos of everyday 2040 California. The close family relationships amongst them and their wholesome, healthy lives ground the story to an extent and prevent the hi-tech, futuristic aspects of the book from dominating. But this is supposed to be a THRILLER! With a murderous gang and nefarious councillors, secret goings-on behind closed doors, dodgy financial deals. I wanted to see the dark side, violent encounters, assorted weaponry. I wanted sleazy, furtive; a real and credible threat, but the bad guys were faceless and therefore toothless too.
It’s such a shame because the plot itself does hang together; the machinations of various officials in city hall, the controversial presence of a capped oil well in the countryside, small-town grievances and festering resentments amongst some members of the citizenry all contribute to pose a mystery which Grisham might not be ashamed to own.
It’s in there, somewhere.


The Zombie Gospel: A Fractured Narrative
The Zombie Gospel: A Fractured Narrative
Price: 3.09

4.0 out of 5 stars A book with hidden depths, 26 Feb 2014
I liked this book far better than I had expected. The word ‘zombie’ is an instant turn-off for me and undeniably the undead, desiccating flesh, ghoulish decomposition, the consumption of dead brains and live seafood were all very vividly featured. But this is one of those books which goes to prove the maxim that what a book is essentially ABOUT is not always the same as what happens in it. In fact the subject of this book is intolerance. It highlights our propensity to make diversity an excuse for bigotry and explores our fear of anything which is different to us.
In some future time a meteor shower infects everyone with a virus which means that those who die remain ‘undead’ zombies. Only the religious consumption of preventative medications save the living from this fate but failure to follow the regime, or abuse of the drugs, results in a growing population of undead. The bodily decomposition of these zombies makes them an easy target for mainstream society and they suffer extreme prejudice in some cases even from their own families. Happily, a new treatment means that they can regenerate so that they look the same as their living neighbours (or better), but this makes matters worse as it means that they could become unrecognisable to their bigoted fellow-citizens, and enmity and suspicion escalate in the small Floridian town.
In one sense I thought taking a culturally popular motif and using it to explore these relevant but prickly issues was a master-stroke; this book would be an ideal launch pad for discussions about race and colour, religious diversity, cultural difference, alternative sexuality and personal identity with teens. At one point a character identifies the things that are important in her life; positive relationships, realistic goals, a healthy self-image. What more do we wish for our teenage children? In spite of its sometimes gruesome plot, which includes some violent and sexual content, this book really is a ‘gospel’ – good news. In another sense I felt that the underlying themes of prejudice and the struggle for tolerance and personal identity, not to mention the positive message, were wasted and the zombies were maybe even a bit of a cop-out. Surely the ostracised minority communities of any small town in the real world would provide an equivalent platform for this very valid exploration of these important and relevant themes, and have far more impact?
But more even than the subject I liked the way Peter Jason Payne has structured his novel. He describes it as a ‘fractured narrative of four polyphonic novelettes’ although I thought it had far more unity than that. Told from shifting points of view (polyphonic) the narrative describes a town in crisis by zooming in on the lives of some half dozen residents all struggling with different aspects of the same issues. The focus bounces from one to another, but cleverly keeps them all in view as a major character in one section is mentioned or seen in passing in another. As events escalate they are brought closer and closer together, the ripple-effect in reverse, as the town mob and the authorities converge on one house. The technique gave the book what I call a ‘readerly’ quality – it kept me on my toes, keeping track of who was who, and related to whom, and dealing with what, and I regretted that I was reading it on my kindle as quite a bit of skipping back was required. This isn’t a criticism; I like it when a writer asks me to engage in the narrative. I’d have liked the author to develop this further – perhaps by adding some time-shift. J.R. Crook’s award-winning ‘Sleeping Patterns’ came to mind. This isn’t as polished, and the zombie motif cheapens it, but it’s in the same vein.
A short synopsis at the beginning of each section, followed by an even shorter, italicised one or two sentence summary, was an odd addendum as it gave away they content beforehand, although it was occasionally misleading. However it did give the book the experimental, almost draft appeal the author was perhaps seeking.
Although I found his subject matter gruesome I did admire some of Payne’s descriptive language, and especially that he took the time and trouble to sketch in some landscape or meteorological detail which I think adds so much to a book but which is, sadly, so often omitted by modern writers these days. I was sorry that the promised explosive climax to the story did not materialise. I thought he wimped out on that. Some close attention to proof reading would eradicate some typographical and grammatical errors. However, once I got past the zombies this was a surprisingly interesting and challenging read, and taught me never to judge a book by its cover.


Breeder
Breeder
by Casey Hays
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting..... but troubling, 10 Feb 2014
This review is from: Breeder (Hardcover)
In ‘Breeder’ Casey Hays introduces us to the post-apocalyptic world of the Village, apparently the only remaining community after the Fall. The Fall was the fault of men (specifically males, not Mankind) and so the Village is run by women for the benefit of women. Men serve one purpose only, confined to caves in the Pit, guarded night and day and visited for the distasteful – but necessary – purposes of procreation. Those women designated Breeders neither expect nor desire an emotional context to this mechanical exchange; indeed, they consider men as mere ‘stock’, sub-human, like ‘dogs.’ The Village is run according to ideas of fatalism and astrological pre-destination; each woman has her fate mapped out for her at birth and is brought up to accept and embrace it without question.
But Kate is a rebel. Designated a Breeder and also earmarked one day to take over the leadership of the community, she believes in asking questions, free choice and individual, alterable destiny. This is all good! Even though her insurgence leads her into violent clashes with the hierarchy, the qualities of self-determination she demonstrates are laudible. She soon finds out that things both inside and outside the Village are not as the elders would have them believe.
I found the setting of this story to be well drawn; I soon got a clear idea of the village community and characters. Kate is a thoroughly well realised character. As the story is narrated in the first person the reader gets a very vivid revelation of her thoughts and feelings. In fact her dilemma – loyalty towards the village, fondness for its inhabitants, a desire to protect and improve things, set against a powerful sense of her own individuality and desire to make her own choices – is rather over-iterated. Again and again we are taken through the sequence (instinctive distrust, reluctance to cause trouble, preparedness for self-sacrifice, determination to stay true to herself) as she encounters each obstacle and challenge which the plot throws at her. The story would have moved on much more quickly if we had been allowed to take these as read as we came to know Kate more deeply. Alongside the extended periods of internal agonising and a fair amount of dialogue, however, the plot is well structured and there are episodes of exciting action which save the novel from introspection.
In a way I wish I could leave my review there. An interesting and fairly well written novel with an engaging central character and plot line. But there are other aspects to this novel which I found quite disturbing. The prologue is a lengthy bible passage and each chapter begins with bible verses. It was sometimes hard to see how the epigrams related to the chapter content; they felt contrived – I so wished they weren’t there, because their presence forced me to look for Christian context and parallels which the plot struggled to support, ultimately setting it up to fail.
Two examples: Firstly, obviously the very controlled, sometimes brutally violent, unfeeling and eventually dishonest community of the Village is not being held up as an example to be followed; Kate’s rebellion makes that very clear and we trust her judgement. On the other hand I am afraid that the emphasis on trusting and having faith in forces outside of yourself, the discipline and conformity required in the Village did come over as a facsimile of some institutionalised religions. Kate seemed to be kicking against the very thing that the writer seemed, through the bible references, to promote.
Secondly, towards the end of the book, a male character is described in distinctly messianic terms, ‘Prince’, and, ‘saviour’, and Kate’s decision in relation to him feels disciple-like, but in fact it is Kate herself who is the rescuer, not him. Is IAN is supposed to have an ‘I AM’ parallel (ref Jesus’ way, truth, life, light, bread, good shepherd, resurrection, true vine ‘I am’ claims)? I was left confused. But if so it is a shame, it takes away from the feisty, attractive Kate and her achievements in challenging authority.
Lastly, and most seriously, the novel is aimed at Young Adults but I would hesitate to recommend it to any teenagers I know due to what I felt to be its potentially harmful attitude to sex. A healthy emphasis on being in control of your own body: yes; of not bowing to peer pressure: yes; of sex as primarily procreative: yes. But sex as implied in this novel is base, almost bestial, reduced down to its lowest manifestation: copulation and mating. Sexual intercourse takes place in the 'Pit', bible-speak for sin, hell and damnation. The portrayal cried out for balance (love, connection, commitment, pleasure, sharing) placed, naturally, in its proper context. While of course sex under the terms enforced in the Village is abuse to both participants, Kate seems almost hysterically paranoid about it to the point that even when she falls in love a sexual expression of that emotion is rejected and denigrated in terms which have heavy moral connotations; ‘I am not a Breeder.’ Of course I am in favour of sex being respected and reserved for appropriate situations and participants, but this book left me with the overwhelming impression of sex as dirty and even fearful, a cause for anxiety and shame. These are not attitudes I would wish to foster.
Given the foregoing, I felt very uncomfortable indeed that the only person of colour in the village is Belle, the woman tasked with instructing the girls in the sexual act.


Guild of Empaths: Healer
Guild of Empaths: Healer
Price: 2.53

3.0 out of 5 stars If you want fun and escapism, read on...., 10 Feb 2014
This is a fast-paced romp of a read unfortunately a bit bogged down by the scientific rationale and contextual detail required to establish its setting in an imaginary universe.
It always intrigues me that with characters to create and a plot to weave, fantasy writers also set themselves the challenge of crafting an entirely new universe in which to place their story. Personally I struggled to comprehend the bio-science which under-girded the plot: emotional pollen; a planetary atmosphere which automatically sterilized, sometimes drove insane but also imbued with extreme longevity anyone who was exposed to it. It was all more weighty and dense than it needed to be to support the plot, but when I stopped worrying about it and concentrated on the characters and the story I found them fairly engaging.
Loreli is a feisty medical graduate who, disappointed to receive less than a distinction in her final exams, takes herself off for some fun while she readjusts her expectations. At the airport she meets Toran, a handsome traveller who is the only person she has ever met who shares her gift of ‘seeing’ the emotions of others in coloured auras around them. It turns out that he (and she) is an ‘Empath’ and this gift they share is highly valuable, but this news takes second place as they enjoy some good old fashioned all-expenses-paid bump and grind in a number of luxurious resorts. Their interchange is witty as well as credible and even a little poignant as Toran’s dying symbionts cause him to age before our eyes. An emergency dash via private space shuttle is required to save him; the plot moves swiftly to the resolution which is ultimately satisfactory if a little rushed.
The literary opportunities presented by the coloured emotional auras are largely unexploited; what a shame. Blue, red, green, yellow, silver – it was all a bit Crayola. I was aching for some iridescence, a hint of heliotrope, a glimpse of cobalt, magenta, indigo, puce. A number of typos and grammatical errors also detracted from my reading experience.
The plot is light-weight but none the less enjoyable for that, unfortunately almost smothered by the contextual detail and scientific framework. It pans out – just.I guess it depends on what you want from a book. If you want a deeper understanding of human nature, don't look here. If you want fun and escapism, read on.


Bear Essentials
Bear Essentials
Price: 0.77

4.0 out of 5 stars A twist in the tale you won't be expecting, 18 Dec 2013
This review is from: Bear Essentials (Kindle Edition)
Bear Essentials is a gritty and yet oddly philosophical tale about knowing your enemy. Action-packed from the beginning, the story becomes increasingly macabre with a twist at the end which Roald Dahl would have been proud of.
I found the style of writing punchy; it didn't hold up the action; the breathless exchange of dialogue as the two men yomp through the wilderness was especially well done. On the other hand I found it hard to distinguish between the two voices at times, which muddied the waters as their characters and the relationship they share does play a vital role in the success of this story.
When you sit back and reflect on the logistics of what the writer is describing, questions arise, but this story illustrates the truism that what happens in a story isn't always what it is about. The true subject of this one arrives from left field and gives you a slap you won't be expecting. I guarantee that when you've read it you'll be itching to discuss the questions it raises with someone else, as I am.
If you're planning a road trip with friends in the near future, make sure you all read it so you can while away the hours in the car talking about it (but not if your trip takes you anywhere near bear country!)


Sleeping Patterns
Sleeping Patterns

4.0 out of 5 stars A book within a book within a book., 9 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Sleeping Patterns (Kindle Edition)
A book within a book within a book. This novel is best described as three concentric circles of narrative about a compulsion to read a story in order to discover and understand its writer. The characters, along with the reader, are pulled into the maelstrom, intrigued, a little furtive, stealing into rooms temporarily empty of their tenants, prying into papers left unattended, trying to make sense of odd behaviours witnessed at a party and snatches of conversation heard along the hallway. Shifting like a kaleidoscope, this story defies conventions by its achronology and shifting narrative voices. A minimum of description leaves the settings shadowy and uncertain; it was unclear, for a time, which city the characters inhabited. Likewise the narrators' carefully veiled motivations muddy the waters of intention, their relationships are casual and tangential. But like a jigsaw, a whole emerges from the constituent parts which satisfies.
On a slightly negative note, I did find some of the phrasing and word-choices created a somewhat staccato effect which inhibited the smooth flow of language, as though the work was a translation, or had perhaps been written in a language which was not his mother tongue. I was sorry to be reading the book on my Kindle as opposed to in hard copy, as the flicking backwards and forwards in the text to make all the connections was very laborious. Nevertheless, an intriguing and interesting read.


Eden's Garden
Eden's Garden
Price: 3.59

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ideal but undemanding summer read, 9 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Eden's Garden (Kindle Edition)
A pleasing story very reminiscent of The Forgotten Garden. An secret from the past unites an estranged couple in a search for the truth. A small, gossipy Welsh village replete with caricatures, a dilapidated stately home and some very nice descriptions of landscape, flora and art complement the rather darker and mysterious scenes from the past. The author makes a real effort to understand and portray the issues of caring for an elderly parent and the dichotomy which increasingly exists between ageing and maintaining an enjoyable independence for older people.


Quilt
Quilt
Price: 0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Bright and effervescing language illuminates its subject matter, 9 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Quilt (Kindle Edition)
Quilt is an intriguing and sometimes perplexing story of loss, loneliness and coping. A man loses his father and begins the doleful process of funeral-organisation and house-clearance - the cumbersome outward manifestations of the grieving and coming-to-terms which occupy him within. On the face of it a dreary enough subject for a novel in all conscience, although a very human one to which many of us will all-too-poignantly relate, and yet the fizzing, darting, tangential lexicon of Nicholas Royle’s prose illuminates it into a bright and effervescing thing. At times I felt like a pin-ball in one of those old-fashioned amusement machines, ricocheting from one image to another, spun off mid-sentence into new trajectories by rhymes and associations of ideas. Then again I was on a bob-sleigh, hurtling down a linguistic crevasse with my stomach in my mouth wondering what on earth was going to come at me round the corner of the next page.
How refreshing it was to have something required of me in the reading process! To be obliged to grapple with the allusions and to think about the philosophy, natural history, psychology and literary references which make up this novel, in order to make sense of it. This novel has more than a little of the savour of the novels of Henry James, Conrad and Poe, which require the same kind of ‘active reading’. Certainly, Nicholas Royle has much of interest to say in his Afterword about the nature of fiction and the role of the novel itself which is well worth reading. Perhaps what we have here is a neo modernist novel. How splendid!
The journey on which the author takes his character (and his readers) is unexpected to the point of being bizarre, but peel away the word-play and what remains is a heart-felt homily which speaks in words a mile high of the abject emptiness of grief and the frantic, eccentric efforts we make to fill up the void.


Of Words and Water 2013
Of Words and Water 2013
Price: 0.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something for everyone, 9 Sep 2013
Getting something for nothing can either be a lovely surprise or something we take for granted. Fresh clean water falls into the latter category for most of us. Even during the heat wave we in the UK are enjoying at the moment we have refreshing showers a couple of times a day and water the garden in the cool of the evening without giving it a second thought. Sadly that isn't the case for many millions of people, a plight which this anthology seeks to relieve.
The book is free to download. All the writers ask is a donation to WaterAid, a charity which helps people get that basic necessity of life: clean water. Their website and Facebook page make it easy to make an on-line donation but won't rail-road you into it; you can give as much or as little as you like.
The book itself falls squarely into the former category. An eclectic mix of short stories, poetry, song and memoir, there is something here for everyone except any kind of difficult to swallow on-message sentimentality or guilt-trip evangelism. The stories are all entertaining in their different ways, with water as their loosely - sometimes very loosely - connecting theme.
What is more, as the contributors are mainly Indie authors working hard to get their voices heard, the anthology provides a wonderful showcase for emerging talent, one of which may well turn out to be your next favourite. Personally I'll be looking out for more from Patrick de Moss, whose `Old Waves, New' is a hauntingly rendered account of the awkward and past-laden reunion of a father and son in a remote cabin in Nova Scotia which had me absolutely gripped. I found Ali Isaac's autobiographical account of discovering her unborn baby had a rare disorder heart-breakingly honest and poignant but without a whiff of self-pity. In contrast, Mike Duron's delightful and playful `Fwish' was full of fun and grammatical naughtiness. Life the author, I could have coped with only one instalment of Boo, but it did envy him that diamond-yielding frog!
Considering nobody, from the editor to the illustrator, receives a penny in recompense for their contribution to this publication, it is beautifully produced and painstakingly edited, another lovely surprise.


When God Was a Rabbit
When God Was a Rabbit
Price: 3.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Takes a leap of faith to believe in, 13 Aug 2013
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My expectations of this book - that it would be a quirky, pleasingly ingenuous, child's-eye view of the world - were only half fulfilled.
In the first half of the book Elly does indeed boil down the world to a size and shape manageable for her nine year old understanding. Never simplistic it is at the same time simple - a matter of knowing who she is, that she is loved, that grown-ups are complicated and not always to be trusted and that if you believe something to be true, it will be.... somehow. Although childhood throws her some curved balls she has the strength of character and also the imperviousness of youth with which to withstand them. Elly has an endearing, innocent capacity to see things she does not understand, and yet also a surprising penetration which allows her to instinctively understand what cannot be seen. Yes she is hurt, perhaps more than most children are, and the black events of history impact her as they impact us all, but Elly heals and we feel, `here is a survivor.'
But twenty five years later Elly the survivor is nowhere to be found. Her up-beat, essentially hopeful voice has been usurped by a burdened, plangent tone. With every reason to be happy - plenty of money, a secure if slightly bizarre home-life, a successful career, a cosmopolitan life-style - Elly is not. Romantic love has passed her by and she has no friends beyond those of her childhood. Whatever catalyst has crushed that resilient, wise, hopeful child is never explained.
Inevitably her bleakness seems to attract more to itself; troubles come, three and fourfold, not only tragedies personal to Elly but those which affected us all; Princess Diana's death, 9/11, and Elly all but crumbles under the weight of them so that there seemed to me to be no relation whatsoever between this Elly and her former iteration and therefore no point in either.
The mood of the second half of the book is dark indeed, lightened only by the beautifully described landscapes of Cornwall and the troupe of wonderful but somehow improbable characters who inhabit it. I found the desolation of the second half of the book almost intolerable, not just the events it describes but also its relentlessly miserable tone.
The happy ending which Sarah Winman plucks, like God the rabbit, from the hat of the dismal crucible she had constructed for poor Elly did need, like the rabbit itself, a real leap of faith to believe in.


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