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r j askew (London + St.Albans, UK)

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Wolfmother
Wolfmother
Price: £2.10

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Stop! Can't you see he's just a poor man with five children?', 20 Jun. 2016
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This review is from: Wolfmother (Kindle Edition)
Wolfhusband takes a beating on the cobbles of Amsterdam in a life rich in the cruellest of beatings from an early age. But he has one big break, he meets Wolfmother, a German woman of strength and principle who falls in love with him, for better or worse, and sticks with him as his restlessness propels them from one end of Europe to the other, goaded by homelessness, joblessness, hunger and bouts of drug addiction.
Amsterdam affords them a poisoned sanctuary in the lower reaches of its illegal economy in reckless hedonism, where they get by, hustling tourists, servicing junkies, begging, riding their luck, and pulling off the odd stroke of cunning.
One thing sets them apart from the legion of other lost souls who have followed exactly the same path: they have a growing family of small children in tow.
Wolfmother is the story of a woman’s struggle to keep her family together when all the forces around her, including her own drug abuse, are working to defeat her.
There is desperation and despair aplenty in this story from the 1980s sub-culture, but there is also intense loyalty, resolve, love and humanity.
So, too, there is a fascinating cast of shifting characters, junkies and dealers who pass through Amsterdam’s intestines like tomato seeds, somehow surviving, just.
We meet Claude – ‘it’s white and pure’ – the rich Canadian in his slightly stained Burberry raincoat whose heroin habit grows into a monster. There’s Swedish Matz who tells a modern day fairy tale of cocaine-fuelled destruction. And Mohammed the user speeding along with a stolen red surf board pursued by heavies.
And the nameless tourists who flock to Amsterdam to cruise up and down its arteries or sit in cafes sipping Amstel, safeguarded by police who sometimes charge around on horseback wielding springy steel batons, sparks a flying up from the cobbles.
And there’s the guilt: ‘don’t let the kids see what we are doing.’ How can they not the reader wonders? But they are undoubtedly loved. They have a pet mouse. A Bible is sacrificed to provide something to draw on. And Wolfmother begs in the streets and starves herself to feed them.
It is all so precarious. Wolfmother’s life becomes ‘white, brown, pink,’ or ‘red, black, or green’ depending on what sort of customer she senses coming her way and what sort of powder she might be able to hook them up with.
Being legitimate without legitimate papers and a firm address is not an option.
Wolfhusband loves her, but is not always kind to her, putting it mildly. But then he is always there for her, fiercely loyal to his family. During labour he asks tenderly if she would ‘like a pipe’ to ease her birth pangs. She declines.
But ‘the magic powder kept steadily calling out’ to her and she becomes enslaved by heroin. But, lucky for all, her maternal instincts give her the strength to beat her addiction.
And behind it all she faces a far worse fear: losing her children to the powers that be.
There is nothing conventional about the love that binds Wolfmother to Wolfhusband. He is a card in his own way, possessed of ‘accomplished handbrake turns’ and a deadpan craftiness in his portfolio of survival skills. Their love for their children is unconditional and total.
But their chaotic life as hedonistic minions in the city of pleasure can’t carry on forever. And so Wolfmother ends as it begins at Amsterdam’s Central Station, with a moving train trip on ripped off money to a new life.
The story begins with an arrival at the same station of one Oscar a healthy young hedonist from Germany, who, if he is still walks this earth, owes Wolfmother his life but may not even know it.


Everything will be Just Perfect!
Everything will be Just Perfect!
Price: £2.25

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A life well travelled., 26 April 2016
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Margaret Leigh’s ‘Everything will be Just Perfect!’ is a rewarding read. The content is entertaining throughout and the writing style is crystal clear. Above all, there is much in her story that is though provoking and moving. It is about living the right way, doing the right thing, not selling one’s soul for wealth and success. Indeed, ‘Everything will be Just Perfect!’ chronicles a succession of false starts and mishaps, minor and major.
Perhaps the more significant major mishap is a divorce which leads to a nomadic lifestyle that sees the author and her mother moving repeatedly from place to place, country to country and continent to continent as they struggle to get by. No less than ninety moves in all.
Much of the story takes place in South Africa during the apartheid era. Things are profoundly unpleasant. But it is home and repeatedly draws the author back. But there is also great natural beauty.
The story is told in two strands, one in the here and now. The here and now takes the author to Depressing Welsh Valley No. 1. The insights into the poverty and barbarity of to be found remind me of some of George Orwell’s insights into deprivation in the 1930s.
That said there is also a certain bleak humour in ‘Everything will be Just Perfect!’ Some of the people who wander through the story are acutely described. The author has a good eye for human qualities. We also grow fond of her faint-hearted rescue hound, whose sedate habits put her in some dangerous situations and causes her some acute pain.
But these things are sent to test the author.
However, there is a major test to be met deep in the dark night that is Depressing Welsh Valley No.1. The author’s personal courage and morality are put to the test in a raw way.
Flipping back through time, the author has an entirely different experience of life in Auckland, New Zealand. She loves Auckland and it continues to exert a draw on her. There is great natural beauty.
The author’s nomadic life precludes the normal career path. Essentially she does not fit into any clear occupation. She writes, that is what she does, all sorts of things, all the time. And when she is not writing, or editing, she sells books. Some of the most charming passages in ‘Everything will be Just Perfect!’ flow from a failed business venture in Wellington, New Zealand. Yes, it was a difficult time, but it is beautifully related.
There are two significant deaths in the read and one significant birth. While these are perfectly ordinary events, they are written in such a way to make them extraordinary. Perhaps that is a good measure of any writing. I certainly enjoyed the read and digested the whole book in about three courses.
As well as Orwell, I was also put in mind of Laurie Lee’s ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.’ High grade nourishment of the reading kind indeed.


Now I Lei Me Down To Sleep: A Briar Malone Mystery (Briar Malone Mystery Series Book 1)
Now I Lei Me Down To Sleep: A Briar Malone Mystery (Briar Malone Mystery Series Book 1)
Price: £2.06

5.0 out of 5 stars 'The handgun bucked as flame shot from the muzzle' - fast crime thriller that shoots straight., 13 Jun. 2015
I enjoyed this escape to a very different world from my cosy little existence in a sleep little city in the sticks north of London. We are talking Honolulu. We are talking fast cars and a fast woman with a bit of a history. Life is at times delightful, rough and always, always immediate. Power, guns, snarling jaws, and perversion all feature. So, too, do family ties, loyalty and the urge to see wrongs righted. The bad guys seem intensely worse than they used to be and the bad guy in 'Now I Lei Me Down To Sleep' is all too believable in his extreme nastiness. His destructive rampage knows no limits. I found him very well drawn, convincing in his monstrosity, an unfathomable 'creation of our times'. So, too, I really enjoyed the local cop, who had a Columbo feel to him with a distinctive Hawaiian touch. But the star of the show is FBI reject Briar. Yes, she goofs from time to time in her helter-skelter rush to get things done, but she tends to land on her feet, 'dropping down in a shooter's two-handed stand, with her finger on the trigger.' And she is willing to pull the trigger when she has to. Life immediate. Death immediate. The American way. I could hear the Ocean in he pages of 'Now I Lei Me Down To Sleep' and it drove me to check out Hawaii and native Hawaiian culture online. I thought Briar's flaws and weaknesses made her engagingly human. She offers great promise for further thrills and spills. There are some deft touches in the writing too. My favourite was the soft 'tic tic' of a switched off car engine. This was a sweet spot for me which served to underscore the pace of the story. There were also some witty angles which served counter-balance the evil guy's malevolence. The story maybe needed a bit of sharpening in the early pages, but I was very soon engaged and my curiosity, once aroused, was held to the end, in part because the story accelerates like a floored Corvette.


Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space
Grandmother Divided by Monkey Equals Outer Space
by Nora Chassler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly written evocation of NY 1983 - with a pot-head mom, 15 May 2015
I bought my copy of Nora Chassler's `Grand mother divided by Monkey equals Outer Space' directly from its smiling publisher in person, on the last day of The London Book Fair, 2015.

There's a certain excitement to reading a book you have not heard of before. It's like a blind date. You never know how things will go. Luckily all was well. Grand Mother Divided won my curiosity and held it to the end.

My copy is on my desk right now, covered in copious notes. I like it being close to me. You just can't have that kind of intimacy with an ebook, now can you?

So what's it all about?

Vic, a pot-head, forty-something woman with a couple of kids and a great body gets pregnant by her coke-fuelled, teen boyfriend in early-1980s New York and ends up having an abortion.

The writing is often excellent and evokes the mood of the moment, and what a moment it was, with hedonism and chaos rampant.

I collated my notes into nine categories, the most fruitful of which was `ace dabs' which are liberally scattered throughout Grand Mother Divided. The author has a gimlet eye for the sorts of details that convince. For example, `Carrie's colorless hair dropped into one of the cokelines on the mirror. Arnie lifted it between his thumb and index fingers, like he was plucking a dandelion for wish-blowing.' And this, Viv, Carrie's mother, has `dowel-like, graspable wrists'. So too, the walls of an office building are `glossy cockroach brown.' Great stuff. Once I knew the author could serve up such tasty dabs I read in part to look for more, and was not disappointed. It's the poet in me, and the prose in Grand Mother Divided definitely has a poetic feel to it.

But the core of the story is the way in which Viv's little family mills around in a semi-dysfunctional way. Mom is still hot and knows it. But she is nearing the end of her `purposefulness' in terms of her biological clock. Yet she pulls Arnie - a fact that bothers him - and makes him a member of the family. He almost has as much in common with Viv's two kids, Elie and Carrie, as he does with Viv. None of this is ideal from a social cohesion viewpoint. Nor is it ideal from the kids' viewpoint either. Eli becomes increasingly pissed that none of the adults in his life can get him to see The Shining. And Carrie was horrified to find that her mom had set fire to an application she'd toiled over for a place in a better school. Of all the characters in the story it was Carrie I felt for the most, having to suffer such a mom. That said, I felt sorry for most of the characters at one point or another, but it was Carrie who seemed to suffer the most. Finding her mom comatose in bed with a brazen lesbian was... ach. Poor kid.

FAME!

That said, Viv is not beaten down. She works things out and tends to get her way, though her idea of what is good is limited. The drugs don't help. But then how would her life look sober? `Some people just like (need) to alter their perception,' she tells her daughter.

Drugs feature frequently in Grand Mother Divided, are commonplace in the lives of Viv and Arnie. Viv is coming down from coke and suddenly feels wrecked because, `Cocaine didn't peter out; coke ducked out, like a robber.' Viv loves her pot, loves it: `The aroma of the moist half-ounce made her feel very happy and calm.' Oh yes, Viv and many millions like her. Moments later, her daughter's school application is going up in flames as Viv accidentally torches it in her haste to light her joint. Oh mommmm!

Perhaps much of American life hinges on that little toot of something or other to give it meaning. But then - confusion! - Arnie falls in actual love with Lucy, real love of the 3D walking-around variety. Up to now his love life has comprised being taken by a woman twice his age, and casual blow jobs from the guys down on the dock. Real love in NY circa 1980 seems more shocking than any amount of casual sex on a bed of coke. Where was I? Oh yes, Lucy is compared, counter-intuitively, to a `flat coke, sweet and warm, with no edge.' But then she is not a native of the parish, being from out of town, Georgia even. Though even she looks like Fame's Irene Cara.

New York is a the elephant in the room of this story. Everything the characters are is because they are New Yorkers to their fingertips. Viv's little crew is a New York family, assertive and active. They get on with it. Yes, their lives might not be ideal, but they sure as hell live 'em, even the kids. And Viv loves her city, the very air of which, `felt cosy as a quilt, warm and muffled and welcoming.' Arnie to-and-fros to the local Gristedes where he has a dealer. There are still mourners outside The Dakota, where John Lennon met his end. And out-of-town Lucy sees Arnie, Carrie and Eli as, `the kind of interesting people she wanted to meet'. Yes, New York makes to much possible, but is also perhaps a harsh trap for families like Viv's. Their lives are interesting to outsiders, but you would not want to living as one of them. Carrie knows it, feeling like she was, `in a sit-com someone had forgot to make funny'. Arnie is in love NY style. Out-of-town Lucy lives `inside a pretty picture'. He watches over her sleeping form as the sun rises over Central Park going `through the shades of a healing bruise'. Now how NY is that description?! Perhaps out-of-town Lucy's love is healing some bruise Viv inflicted on him by `initiating their affair'. NY and bruise seem to go together perfectly somehow. Behind his Ray-Ban Wayfarers Arnie - who is also sick of coke - turns out to have a soft heart. That said, that said, he also leaves Viv in a brutal NY sort of way by just going.

Where was I?

Oh yes, sex. Yes there is sex, not overt in your face sex, background sex, matter-of-fact sex. Yes, sex with Arnie lands Viv with a tricky little problem. But hey, nothing that a $500 loan from her father-in-law can't fix. Two passages in Grand Mother Divided were disturbing. Firstly, one of the kids can't sleep because of the `sound of her mother ****ing'. Not nice for the kid, for any kid. But the toughest passage in the book for this reader was where Carrie was solicited to pose for some pics to go in a book to be called `The Sex Lives of Children'. Seriously bad stuff. Some taboos should never be broken. Libertarianism must have its limits. Rant over.

Grand Mother Divided is an excellent retrospective of life in the badbrands of haute-postmodernism - crap food, regular drugs, booze, chaos. Yes, the city offers life with an edge for those stuck out in the Labrador-breeding suburbs, but it's not an ideal place to get stuck trying to bring up a couple of kids. But what do I know? Some will argue kids grow up stronger from the experience. So no judgement. Actually, no, I feel so strongly for Carrie. Viv is a bad mum. It has to be said. I really felt for Carrie.

LOVESEAT BLUES

That said I loved the arch humour, too. Like the all-girl band that got worse and worse the more they practised, Viv sucking so hard on her joint she swallows the roach, the fuck-off fake owl with an NY pigeon perched on its head.

And then, and then, there was a wonderful passage near the end which seemed to cut to the truth behind all the name-checked brands, films, sounds, celebs of the time: `Some people don't want to know the truth; they cling to their fictions for dear life, they kill for them...' The read was worth it for that thought alone.

The emotional engineering then gets seriously good. A few pages on, Viv is weeping as she leaves the abortion clinic, not because the life she was carrying has been terminated but `about her lack of money'. Damn, don't want her giving in to - shhhhh - moral scruples.

And then - the most moving part of the story for me - we see her stretched out alone on the loveseat in her rubbish apartment. Life. Bleeding.

If NY - the big, bold and beauteous beast of a city - is the elephant in the story, this description of Viv seems artly fitting. There she is dancing by the jukebox her Wonder Woman tits jiggling around in her `little t-shirt that said Carnaby Street on it in faded letters. She had a belt of silver elephants, in a chain: trunk to tail, tail to trunk.'

Yes, I loved this writing.

Yes, I baulked a little at the title of Chapters 1 and 17: Chapter Zero. Why? Because it instantly put me in mind of Ground Zero and NY 2001, thus diluting the 1980s retro feel. But this is a small criticism. More seriously, I am not entirely into the full-fat title, which I think is maybe trying too hard.

I finished the story thinking I really wanted to know what became of Viv, Carrie and Eli. And Arnie, too. I think there is excellent scope to write a 2015 sequel. Viv wld be, what, 75 now? Does she still like a spliff? Is she still hot? And does Carrie end up with a doctorate in marine-biology? Eli maybe becomes a cop? And Arnie? A dad with five kids in the Labrador-breeding burbs? Not for me to say. But I would dearly like to know!


Humus & Dutch
Humus & Dutch
Price: £7.70

5.0 out of 5 stars A very human insight into the fight against terrorism, 20 April 2015
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This review is from: Humus & Dutch (Kindle Edition)
'Humus and Dutch' is one of the most unusual books I have read in some time. Why? For two reasons: firstly its content - the investigation of terrorist plots and actions; and secondly the portrait it depicts of a a keen young spirit confronted with some of the nastiest aspects of human depravity. Terrorism. Quite a word. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, it is often said. Nothing is simple. Apart from the fact that the innocent die. Like Eli the toddler who got a rocket through his body in a home in northern Israel. Like the hundreds who got blown up on trains in Spain, and in London. Like the thousands who went to work on the 9th of September in New York. Sneak attacks. No warnings. Death. Some of the most revolting events of our time. And the wars of course. Two sides to every story, they say. And behind it all an even greater holocaust. And history. Biblical history. Imperial history, France, Britain, the age of empires. And ideals. The idea of a home for the Jews. The Balfour Declaration. It is all in this little book. We lead busy lives in the West. It is sometimes easy to forget how things are and why things are as they are. But if you are an Israeli citizen you have a a more immediate take on things. The threat to you is real, daily and permanent. But you have also learnt lessons from previous events. You refused to bow to terrorism. You have no choice but to resist. You become very skilled at knowing how things are, what the threat is, how it goes. This little book gives an insight into how patience and intelligence are key factors in a very human instinct to survive, to fight back. Israel gets a lot of criticism in the press and on TV. 'Ach, there they go again, those Israelis. Why don't they just give the Palestinians a state?' The Hezbollah rockets raining down on Israel tend to get overlooked. Perhaps Humus and Dutch will help to redress this picture because it gives an insight into how it is to live with the threat of being wiped off the map. You do what you have to. You do not like doing it, but you are part of a citizen army and you do it. And you do it well. Humus and Dutch does not make great political points and it is not vehement against the Arabs. It just gives an insight into how it is for young Israelis who have to deal with people who want them gone. But gone where? Just gone seems to be the answer. It is natural to want to resist when faced with such a view.

The second reason I was absorbed by the read was author's sheer vitality of spirit. She has a talent for what she does. And an enthusiasm. Much turns on how well she and her colleagues perform. It's not James Bond stuff, more a patient sifting of thousands of bits of information. She knows what is important in life for all of us, something may of us take for granted - at our peril I would argue, 'Peace is not just something taken lightly when you live amidst war zones and terrorism. It's a great luxury that must be protected and maintained. Not only in the Middle East, but everywhere.'

The author of Humus and Dutch has experienced much and lost friends, yet she remains positive by nature. It is sad that such a person should be overshadowed by traumatic events and continual threats, however. She says herself, 'I don't have many friends. The reason being that I tend to be cautious and sometimes distrustful of people because of my Israeli background. War and terrorism make a person guarded.' She is good at what she does. But it takes its toll. In he own words, 'My whole life has been and still is dominated by combating terrorism. To me as an Israeli, terrorism has had a face and name for a very long time. Not just of one beloved person, but of many. At some moments, it seems as if I'm living in two worlds.'

And so it goes, at this very moment people will be plotting acts of terrorism and others will be trying to thwart them. The Western way of life - freedom and tolerance - hinges on the intelligence, willpower and courage of those who work to counter the terrorism that mars life as we know it. Humus and Dutch is an informative and uplifting read, with a very human touch to it.


When Time Comes: A Summer Romance Novella
When Time Comes: A Summer Romance Novella
Price: £2.29

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic romance for those who love to dream, 12 April 2015
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When Time Comes is a classic romance story. Girl is lonely and unhappy. Girl's luck changes to good, good and even better. Girl meets man of her dreams in unusual circumstances and dreams become realities. But there are some hitches along the way. The course of true love never runs smoothly, they say. But this is a happy ever after story. And so the girl finds a way. The great They also say life is stranger than fiction, so anything is possible. I won't give too much away.

I think the story is mostly for female readers who enjoy reading about the dream romance. I've never been into that dream so the story wasn't my ideal read. That said, the story is well constructed, well written and well edited.


Walking Over Eggshells: Surviving Mental Abuse
Walking Over Eggshells: Surviving Mental Abuse
Price: £2.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'You are such a disappointment to me' - surviving a cruel mother., 24 Mar. 2015
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Mother to daughter - 'How I wish you'd never been born, you've caused us all so much grief and pain'.

Lucinda E Clarke's 'Walking over eggshells' is a tale of survival in the face of excoriating maternal rejection.

Some mothers, it seems, are not naturally inclined to be the carriers and guardians of life; where they should comfort they reject, where they should encourage they damn, where they should love they revile.

Mother to daughter - 'If I'd known how you were going to turn out, I'd never have had you. You are such a disappointment to me, I'm ashamed of you.'

Just typing such razor words is an unsettling experience. I can't imagine being on the receiving end of them. Nor can I imagine what it takes to utter them.

Personally, I hope I would have walked and carried on walking and never turned back. But this may be easier said than done. Perhaps staying is even harder, however. No, there is no winning for the daughter of such a cruel mother.

Mother to daughter - 'You're just an ungrateful child. I told you you'd always be bad, you always have been. You never deserved a mother like me.'

Year after year, decade on decade.

I confess the mother makes an interesting study. Most monsters do. We wonder why and how she is as she is, all sorts of things. And, of course, how we might respond to such systemic and routine belittlement.

The author - who was still getting physically slippered when she was twenty - simply gets on with things as best she can. Her resilience as extreme as the attacks she endures.

We are brutal animals at times. And all this behind a seemingly nice middle-class facade. It was ever thus.

Amazingly, the author doesn't become an urban terrorist or even a junkie. She goes off to teacher training college. All very normal. Childline had not been dreamed up then. Things were hushed up.

Yet, it was the late 1960s, and things they were a-changing - the music, hair, hemlines, the pill. To many of the mother's generation, it was a time of shocking degeneracy, the end of everything.

INTO AFRICA

Inter-familial wars were commonplace, as the new youth pushed and pushed, and the last of the old school tried to keep their 'children' in their place.

Mother to daughter - 'Oh yes, it's all about the young now, isn't it? Everything's for them, nothing for normal (reviewer's italics) people.'

So 'Walking over eggshells' in some way reflects the wider pain of a new generation, struggling to find its way in a world that was lost and found in a tumult of war and revolt: Vietnam, civil rights, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), Led Zeppelin, purple flares. The author even owned the sixty-fifth Mini to roll off the production lines. Now how cool was that?

Yet she still displayed strong traits of the old school. She dates a young Tory and seems set to marry into the burbs. But - what's this? - a powerful counter-weight to her mother enters the story. Jeremy the job-getter. Alas, Jeremy loses jobs as rapidly as he gets them. That said, he shows off-the-scale initiative, marries the author and whisks her off on a succession of adventures from Scotland to Joburg, via Libya, Kenya, and Botswana.

For this reader, the best part of the book was the time spent in Libya. If you have to escape a cruel mother, Libya is as good a place as any. But in all seriousness, the insights into what seemed like a last hurrah for the buccaneering colonial approach to go-getting was both entertaining and enlightening.

The author was kept very busy in every outpost and became progressively busier when she herself had children and Jeremy-the-job-loser becomes increasingly unreliable, as his drinking and business mishaps mount until he and the author finally drift apart. This part of the story is profoundly sad, reflecting and compounding earlier hurts.

The questions mount along with the debts. I was moved that the author was still struggling to come to terms with her mother in her mid forties.

Both she and her mother remarry, adding further players to their lifelong battle. It makes no sense to an outsider. But this seems to be the essential nature of family warfare - senselessness.

That said, the author was not wont to dwell on her own misfortunes. She was too busy. A surprising new career in radio springs up for her. She gets even busier. She has to be.

Meanwhile, there is her mother, always her mother, unrelenting to the end - apart, perhaps, from when she is medicated.

But by the very end, the author has worked it all out.

Daughter on narcissistic mothers - 'There is nothing, absolutely nothing you can ever, ever, do to change things. Yes, we can distance ourselves in order to protect ourselves, but we cannot change our mothers' behaviour, no matter what we do or say.'

I am sure that 'Walking over eggshells' is a must read for any woman with an extremely domineering mother.


Billy and the Devil
Billy and the Devil
by Dean Lilleyman
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars 'The boy who danced against the grain' - brilliant contemporary fiction, excellent writing, expertly told., 21 Mar. 2015
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This review is from: Billy and the Devil (Paperback)
I made a lot of notes as I read 'Billy and the Devil.' Reading over them, I see I wrote 'BRILL' next to a chapter title, 'Drink a bottle of cheap champagne', and then wrote, 'Stella. Stella. Cake. Stella.'

The above-mentioned chapter is just sixteen lines long, comprising some ninety-three words. Billy is getting married, he says 'I do'. But the only reference to his bride is, 'Her not saying much.' Twenty-three of the ninety-three-word-tumble are the names of alcoholic drinks - the real loves of Billy's thunderstorm life.

'Billy and the Devil' by Dean Lilleyman is a masterly portrait of an ordinary person who recoils from being ordinary and whose family history dooms him to play the role of the tragic rebel who 'doesn't seem to be able to find in-between.'

Up to a point all is well. Billy is a joker, 'the boy who danced against the grain', a hero to his classmates. He's quick-witted, he notices things, and he dares to do. Maybe there's a Billy in every class of fifteen-year-olds. We love his rascally cheekiness. Yes, we know he's wasting himself, but Billy is Billy. We love him.

But Billy's a bit of mess beneath his crazy confidence. Three barley wines in a pint pot? Nut-aaah! Still, he's a laugh and we love him. And of course he's a hit with the ladies - his mother apart that is. 'We're worried about Billy's drinking' another kid's parents tell her, quietly, trying to be helpful. But what can she do? Nothing.

They say alcoholism's a disease. But a disease of what? The body or the soul? Which rots first? Why does Billy succumb to it, when those around him do not?

The writing in 'Billy and the Devil' is at times exquisitely poetic in the acuteness of its observation: a hedgehog's eye 'goes orangey-red as Chris turns it towards the headlights'. Sometimes it is savagely brutal. Ernie the pig-man removes the runt from a sow's litter: 'her lesser-made son is smashed against the wall, again, again'. I was often reminded of Graham Swift's writing in his powerful novel, 'Waterland'.

Yes, there is much rawness in Billy's young eye. He watches two mongrels making out on the school playing field: 'the male sits licking its genitals in the six-yard box.' There is a desperate vigour about the life in him.

And a sadness. On looking at the footprints his wellies have made in the snow of his youth near Mansfield, in Yorkshire, he says it's 'funny seeing where you've been. I look at each footmark and try to remember being there and how I felt, but I can't.' In some ways, some of the chapters of 'Billy and the Devil' felt like footprints in the snows of my own youth, especially some of the references to music. And a reference to George Best - another thirsty man - was highly evocative of a certain time and lifestyle.

ARCH WIT

I'd best not give too much away. There are some eighty-five mostly shortish chapters to the story. When I first looked at the contents page, I thought it might be a collection of verse. The bite-size chapter move the read along smartly through the decades of Billy's life, yet the story never feels rushed.

Oh and the wit. You will find great wit throughout the story. Sometimes it is just of the half-a-smile-I-know someone-just-like-that variety: Bruce the numpty with his 'tee-shirt from a Def Leppard tour he never went to see'. The wit keeps pace with the story's progression into ever darker places, becoming increasingly biting and then cruel. Billy mocks others mercilessly, such is his alienation from the 'gadges' but himself ends up as infinitely sadder than the ordinary people he despises. So the joke is on him perhaps. Except it isn't that funny at all, especially for his wife and kids, or for him. Poor Billy seems scared, loveless, out of touch with all that is gentle. He relates more to Nature, especially birds, than people, who are 'ugly and tell lies'.

Jameson and Guinness have him firmly in their embrace, fill the voids in his life literally and liberally.

As well as its poetic dabs, Billy and the Devil is also in part a play or even a TV script. It is certainly dramatic, a dramatic trek in a jagged emotional mountain range. The peak of the story, at least for me, came at around the 70% mark on my Kindle.

Billy has just been through a reunion with his lost father which - like some nuclear sugar high - has him feeling briefly at one with himself, but which then ends in a shocking sexual encounter of his own making. At every turn, his unrestrained nature leads him to mess up. But - shocking as it is - this is a false peak. There's more and worst to come for Billy, much worse.

Before we get there, Lilleyman serves up the funniest passage in his story. I won't detail it, but the chapter in question is 'On the fifth day of Christmas.' I loved this deft interlude. The wit comes between two very harsh passages and is appropriately arch.

There then follows a sex scene during the course of which we find ourselves inside Billy's head, 'and the picture changes to ...' Even Billy is horrified at how he is: 'I shake my ****ing head till the Etch-A-Sketch changes to slate, but too ****ing late.' Billy is a lost man.

MASTERFUL EXECUTION

The next chapter 'Door locked' gives us just two lines and the last word is 'Pub', perhaps used as a verb. Drink is all that Billy has left. Drink is his salvation and escape. Brilliant. The drama of this two line chapter is total.

The other player in all this puts in his one and only appearance shortly after this, as if to check the totality of his dominion over poor Billy: 'the black and horny devil scaled the church organ pipes like a cloven-hooved spider.'

We are on the over side now for Billy, the descent. The language is often harsh and crude. But that is fitting. Yet there is elegance, too. Billy is seeking comfort from a priest on the phone while at the same time opening a bottle of Blue Nun. We see him drawing the cork and hear, 'the glug of the pour'. Such artful and apt working there.

It gets better, too. Some of the best wording is at the start of the story, when Billy was a kid and towards the end when the man that is Billy is regressing and retreating to places he knew when he was a kid. We see the monster Billy and the nature boy Billy back in the woods: 'as another gust of late summer wind shivers the drooping canopy of leaf, as he spits onto the fly tipping...and the blue night darkens.' So too, 'the crack-snap of the dark undergrowth' evokes the sound of a dark fire burning around his ankles.

And always there is the drink, 'A half-Bells and six cans of Guinness should take me through to opening time.' It's eight-thirty in the morning.

We are not spared. We have to know how it is. And so Lilleyman takes us down a little lower in a brilliant coda of emotional and physical collapse with just a glimpse of redemption. The last chapters of the story felt like being in the centre of a decomposing thunder cloud. The worst is over, but it rumbles on until it is no more and the air clears after its passage. It's brilliantly raw and feels real.

I was in Brighton this week and saw several Billies swaying or dribbling in their alcoholic tragedy. Yes, Billy's devil is alive and well and still super busy about his work in the lives of many. Having read Dean Lilleyman's story I will always wonder who they are and what their stories are. I also went into a pub and - as I gazed at the vividly alluring shelves of schnapps and bourbon - could not help thinking that the Devil has a lot of willing helpers. I felt a little like a collaborator myself as I raised a glass to my lips. Cheers, Billy.


Tommy's Tunnel: My grandad's story and his role in the Battle of Messines Ridge
Tommy's Tunnel: My grandad's story and his role in the Battle of Messines Ridge
Price: £1.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War scars at the heart of a very British family, 2 Feb. 2015
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Tommy's Tunnel is not really a war story. Yes, a great event from the Great War is a backdrop to much of the story. But this does not make it a war book. In fact, it could more accurately be described as a peace book. Why? Because it is about that old fella sitting at the end of the bar minding his own business, enjoying his pint. There will have been many thousands of Tommies whose lives were like Tommy's. They survived the 1914-18 war, only to live the rest of their lives bearing some terrible scars. Many of us will have remembered them as our granddads. They are all gone now. The idea of counselling and the talking therapies didn't exist when they needed them. Their way was to bottle it all up, not to talk about it. How could they talk about it anyway? The things they did, saw, and suffered were unspeakable.

Reading Linda De Quincey's commemoration of her own grandfather was a moving read. I felt like I knew Tommy myself at the end of it. He was so much a part of the family. And it was and is a family that feels very familiar - a typical British family. The family members mill around Tommy, living their lives with him in the background, keeping an eye on them. None of them had any idea of what happened at Messines Ridge of the thousands of German boys who died in a blink because of the 20 or so tunnels packed with explosives which blew them to pieces at 03:10 hours on the morning of June 7, 1917. But Grandad Tommy knew because he helped to dig one of the tunnels.

The memory of the moment bubbled up fifty or so year later at a family event, a wedding. One of Tommy's nephews listens to the tearful and distressed old boy talking about death, talks him round, helps him to go on. It must have been quite a moment. Men were different then, even in the 60s. They found it very uncomfortable to face strong emotions, embarrassing almost. And it was very unusual to see one of that silent generation break down. It would be called post traumatic stress disorder. What a terribly prosaic name. Guilt, melancholia, despair are more accurate. Another's term is survivor's guilt.

One line in the books seemed to sum things up perfectly, 'I got the impression he didn't think it was fair to kill the enemy without warning'. In other words the whole basis of modern war was totally at odds with Tommy's sense of sportsmanship. And it bothered him for the rest of his life. And all this after he had seen many of his comrades killed in earlier battles. Yes, there was a very powerful sense of humanity in Tommy. War humanity up though.

But Tommy's Tunnel is a peace book. It is about the peace that we have all enjoyed - mostly - since 1945, which was the real end arguably to what started in 1914. Tommy enjoyed it too, living a long and full life surrounded by a large and loving family. He enjoyed his football and many a pint at his local. He sounded like a really great granddad to have had around, keeping an eye on things. 'H'way, pet.'


I Lift Up My Eyes
I Lift Up My Eyes
Price: £1.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WHAT IS A WOMAN TO DO? - VISCERALLY MOVING INSIGHT INTO THE TRIALS OF AGEING, 16 Dec. 2014
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This review is from: I Lift Up My Eyes (Kindle Edition)
Take four men and one loving but unloved woman. Light the blue touch paper and stand - as close as suits you, depending on whether you prefer a dash of passion or the quiet life.

Ann's husband, Robert, was a knight in shining amour, but has suffered a setback and is now ill in a very bad way. He isn't the man he once was. But there is always sport on TV and radio, sometimes simultaneously. Anything to avoid making a decision. Then there is Duncan who sings in the choir. Yes, he is older than Robert, but he is still a player and he still has life in him, even though he has health issues, too. Damn annoying thing, the human body. John is Ann and Robert's late gift. But the shine rubs off him a touch as he, too, loses his way a touch. And then there is the fourth male in the mix - God.

Ann is a good woman. She loves nature and long walks. She is vigorous and alive. But her life is cruelly constrained by Robert's reduced state. He is no longer a winner. Duncan still has a winner's patina, even though he is over 80. His reputation precedes him.

Ann becomes entangled in some extremely painful dilemmas as she struggles to do the right thing, and still feel alive as a woman. Life being life, all does not go smoothly for her.

You will have to read I LIFT UP MY EYES to discover exactly what happens. But I can assure you Jane Bwye's second story is a viscerally moving saga of how life tests us as we get older, of horrible challenges to our cosy sense of order. And at the root of the story is a question which millions face everyday: 'Do I do the right thing, or do I live while I still can?' The two are often strongly opposed.

I found this read very difficult at times as it reminded me of the toll illness extracted in my own family. But we have to face these things and deal with them and many people, women especially, will face the problem Ann faces of still being alive 'that way', when her nearest and dearest turns his back on her, quite literally.

What does God have to say about all this? You will have to read the story to find out. I recommend you do. It's a simple but moving read of novella length. Highly relevant at a time when the population is ageing rapidly. There are also a some moments of arch humour amid the darker moments. And a few surprises to top things off.


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