Search This Blog

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Book review - More to Life

The fictionalised travel memoir More to Life (2017),  'based on real events', is by Maureen Moss, an inveterate globetrotter. It is at turns illuminating, poignant and amusing.

Approaching her fiftieth year, suffering the trauma of divorce, loss of job and sale of house, Rachael Green decides to ‘find herself’ by travelling to the Far East. Small snag: she has three children, two of them teenagers. It’s agreed she’ll take Conrad and Sara, leaving the youngest Sophie with her ex. Sophie can join them at the tail-end of their jaunt in Australia. Simple, really. Brave. Or possibly foolhardy. These events take place in 1997; it might be riskier attempting this kind of journey these days.

First stop, the Indian subcontinent. We’re treated to the sights, smells, the poverty, and the wonderful tigers. Travelling on a shoe-string budget meant that their accommodation wasn’t quite what they were used to. ‘In our dark, damp, dingy, smelly rooms cockroaches scurried up the walls, across the ceiling and down the opposite side. Sitting on the toilet in the one-metre-square shower room required keeping your feet above the floor level to avoid the creatures scrambling over your toes.’ (p117)

From time to time, Rachael sends a letter to Sophie, possibly to sooth her angst over leaving her daughter. And her thoughts dwelled on her decision: ‘I was hauling them around places where dead bodies lay unnoticed, where extreme poverty and physical deformities were commonplace, and where parents had to sell their children.’ (p118)

There are plenty of amusing interludes to lighten the mood, such as travelling in a railway compartment designed for six people yet accommodating fifteen, some of whom used the luggage racks as extra seating.

Then it’s on to south-east Asia, starting in Singapore, then to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. They’re joined by Rachael’s sister-in-law Louise who has left home, and Gecko, a friend of Conrad’s, and Michael, the boyfriend of Sara. These additional mouths to feed strain the budget further, but provide more conflict, amusement and distractions: penalty for removing pebbles from the beach, five to ten years’ imprisonment. Rachael says she reads a lot on the journey – though doesn’t explain what; was this before the e-reader? Then there’s Sara’s scream, when a huge cricket jumped in between her boobs! (p165) and Michael’s worry about safety when they’re floating in the river in a boat made from a B52 bomber fuel tank – during a lightning storm! (p166)

I don’t know why Rachael should feel she needs to atone for being part of the human race, for being one of a species capable of the appalling slaughter and inhumanity of the Pol Pot regime. You can be appalled without feeling misplaced guilt, surely? (p182)

From the tragic to the frivolous. There’s a joke that Rachael makes about the Mekong Delta, referring to the emperor from the Flash Gordon adventures. Unfortunately, the Mekon was a Dan Dare villain; Emperor Ming was the Flash Gordon villain! As Sara observed, ‘You’re funny, Ma – not.’

The book is teeming with vivid description, such as: ‘Images flashed past, of baskets suspended from shoulder poles, water buffalo gently swishing their tails in muddy rivers, field workers in conical hats bent low as they toiled. In the villages barefoot skinny children played in rubbish-strewn streets… monkeys approached lopsidedly to steal bananas…’ (p192)

Of all the places she visited Rachael seemed most affected by Vietnam and its stoic gentle people. (p237)

Did Rachael ‘find herself’? You’ll need to read this always entertaining, colourful and thought-provoking book to find out. At the very least she proved that there’s more to life than feeling sorry for yourself. Highly recommended.

A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Lesley Ann Sharrock – R.I.P.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the unexpected and sudden death of Lesley on April 17.

She has been a virtual friend since 2011 when I accepted her first novel The Seventh Magpie for Solstice (a US publisher). It was an excellent debut. Later, after I left Solstice, she retrieved the rights and revised and republished the book in 2015. It is still available and is definitely worth reading. This is my review from 2012:

This is an intriguing novel that should appeal to many, especially expats.

The basic question raised is: Can one woman – genetically linked to a time of witch burnings and religious persecution – prevent a devastating global war between conflicting ideologies in the near future?

The answer isn’t simple, however. Three women hold the key.

In the year 1624, in Wales, Mair Griffiths is executed for witchcraft.

While in 2060, Jeena H Roberts commands a top-secret mission using experimental technology. This is an attempt to capture the perpetrators of the outrage that acted as a catalyst for a war that has thrust the world into flames.

And in 1986 the adopted Helen Ross travels to Wales in search of her birth family. But what she discovers in the ancient stones of that land of magic and melancholy is far more ominous than she could have ever imagined… And on her journey, we travel to her family’s past in the post-war years, the 1950s and 1977, poignantly recalled with insight and heart.

The three parallel narratives will interlink in time. And over all seems to hover a pall of inevitable doom – perhaps exemplified by the mysterious magpie…

This is one of those books that will linger in your memory long after you’ve finished it. And I feel that the depth of story and character will also reward you so that, by the time you turn that last page, you will have lived much of the life of Helen Ross.

Spookily, Helen Ross was one of my pen-names for articles and short fiction! There are autobiographical elements in The Seventh Magpie. Lesley was an adopted child and I could empathise with her since my wife and I were also adopted. She says she was inspired to write this novel in response to her own journey of discovery. These parts of the book are particularly poignant. She was born in Strawberry Field children’s home in Liverpool; it no longer exists. She was raised in Kirkby and subsequently lived there for twenty years before moving to London. She studied English and drama and worked as a freelance writer, her articles appearing in Cosmopolitan, Marie Clare, Red, Bite, Forum, and Time Out among others before she established Moondance Media, a magazine publishing company. Her dark and compelling short story Mrs Webster’s Obsession was turned into a film. Eventually, she moved to J├ávea in Spain: all these places figured in her first novel.

Latterly, Lesley was gaining recognition with her crime novels, writing as Lesley Welsh. Her first crime thriller Truth Lies Buried was published in June 2016 by Thomas & Mercer and has been nominated for the CWA Golden Dagger Award as the best crime novel of 2016. My review of this is here

Her second crime novel The Serial Killer’s Daughter will be published in June 2017 by Bookouture. She had completed a third and was doing a final edit.

Recently, she adopted a stray cat that had been trapped down a hole for some time. She named him Ace, after the Kirk Douglas film Ace in the Hole, and kept her FB friends apprised of his health and amused by his antics.

Lesley was a strong character with lashings of humour and her passing has left a hole in many lives.

R.I.P. Lesley.


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Sale - Free e-books from Crooked Cat TODAY

 A great selection of Crooked Cat books on Amazon going for FREE or vastly reduced price!

If you haven't tried their crime, romance, paranormal, mainstream, mystery and horror titles, now is the time to indulge yourself!

Among them are my 6 titles all FREE with Kindle Unlimited:


Monday, 10 April 2017

Book reviews - Dumarest Saga #16 & #17

Reading E.C. Tubb’s long-running science fiction saga, I have reached the halfway point with volumes 16 and 17 in the 33-book series.

While each story is a self-contained adventure, these two books are continuous in theme, characters and environment, so I read them back-to-back.

The Dumarest novels are set in a far future galactic culture that spread to many worlds. Earl Dumarest was born on Earth, but had stowed away on a spaceship when he was a young boy and was discovered. Although a stowaway apprehended on a spaceship was typically ejected into space, the captain took pity on the lad and allowed him to work his passage on the ship. By the time of the first volume, The Winds of Gath, Dumarest has traveled so long and so far that he does not know how to return to his home planet; and in fact nobody has ever heard of it, except as a myth or a legend. It’s clear to him that someone or something has deliberately concealed Earth's location. The Cyclan, an organization of humans (cybers surgically altered to be emotionless, who on occasion can link with the brains of previously living Cyclans, in the manner of a hive mind process, seem determined to prevent him finding Earth. The cybers can call on the ability to calculate the outcome of an event and accurately predict results.

An additional incentive for the Cyclan to capture Dumarest is that he possesses a potent scientific discovery, stolen from them and passed to him by a dying thief, which would inordinately amplify their already considerable power and enable them to dominate the human species. Also appearing in the books is the humanitarian Church of Universal Brotherhood, whose monks roam many worlds, notably every planet where there is war.

All these books reveal imaginative situations, fantastic colourful civilisations and a vast array of characters. 

Haven of Darkness (#16)(1977) introduces us to the planet of Zakym, where the spectres of the dead appear at the time of delusia, when the twin suns attain close proximity in the heavens. On Zakym the beautiful Lavinia is not only haunted by ghosts, she is being courted by an unsavoury power-crazed noble, Gydapen. Into this world arrives Dumarest, cleverly escaping capture by a Cyclan agent. Here, he learns that the human inhabitants stay indoors at night; a curfew is enforced. Anyone caught outside at night falls prey to the Sungari, the original seemingly mythical yet deadly inhabitants of the world.

When Dumarest suffers the kickback traces of an earlier treatment, he is privy to certain knowledge: ‘A man lived every second of every hour since the time of his birth and each of those seconds held all that had happened to and around him. A vastness of experience. An inexhaustible supply of terror and pain and hopeless yearning. An infinity of doubt and indecision, of ignorance known and forcibly accepted, of frustration and hate and cruelty and fear. A morass in which glowed the fitful gleams of transient joy. Each man, within his skull, carried a living hell.’ (p151)

Dumarest earns the love of Lavinia to the chagrin of her suitor and, to avoid a civil war, he has to face Gydapen in a tension-filled showdown.

(At this juncture, the publisher (Arrow) changed the cover artist.]

Prison of Night (#17)(1977) begins with the mysterious death of a monk of the Universal Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the story continues with Dumarest living with Lavinia on Zakym. Dumarest wondered about the delusia effects, a planetary insanity which he now shared. Possibly, ‘wild radiation from the twin suns merging as they closed, blasting space with energies which distorted the microcurrents of the brain and giving rise to hallucinations. Figments of memory made apparently real, words spoken but heard only by the once concerned…’ (p20)

Despite his help in saving Lavinia, her ruling council still considered Dumarest a stranger. ‘Xenophobia, incredible in this age, was not dead.’ (p36)

Time and again, Tubb throws in tantalising glimpses of other worlds, other cultures. ‘There were words, ceremonies deliberately kept devoid of mysticism, the throb of bells. Always there were bells, deep, musical notes captured on recorders, now filling the air with the melody gained on Hope where tremendous castings of bronze, silver and brass throbbed and droned with a solemn pulse, which touched the wells of life itself.’ (p44)

A greater threat to Zakym and Lavinia has emerged, and it is only through Dumarest’s bravery and insight that the danger can be averted. It would also mean confrontation with a powerful manipulative cyber. A tense, fast-paced finale.

After seventeen books, Tubb has remained consistently entertaining. I will surely continue with the saga.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Writing - using brand names

Recently I came across a query from a writer concerning the use of brand names in a current or new novel. The feeling was that brands shouldn’t be used in the story as they will date the book. I’ve encountered this viewpoint before, and I don’t believe it stands up to examination.

The first assumption is that the novel will still be read in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years hence. Apart from a handful of bestsellers and Big Names, it’s probable that our books will gather dust or be archived on an e-reader in less than five years’ time!

I’ve also read elsewhere that writers worry about mentioning a make of car because it will date the book. This is nonsense. Naturally, it depends on where you live, but generally there are plenty of old makes of car driving around, some of them well over twenty years of age.

By their very nature, contemporary novels are written in the now. Without the gift of clairvoyance, a writer cannot predict what will be appropriate or fashionable in ten or twenty years’ time – that goes for clothing, vehicles, utensils, electric apparatus, types of buildings and vocabulary. So why stress over it?

Brand names serve a purpose. Brands identify visually for the reader now, and help with verisimilitude, whereas generalizing doesn't put the reader there. Any number of classic crime novels refer to out-of-date commodities; the reader doesn’t care, the reader is sensible enough to know when the book was originally published. If a fairly ‘old’ book is available and is being read, then the reader is probably aware of its provenance.

Let’s be honest, some people still use the old-fashioned typewriter rather than a computer to type. I believe Frederick Forsyth bought a new typewriter before starting a new book; he must have quite a collection by now. Some writers still use a pen. 

Some things never go out of fashion, or if they do, they may well return - vinyl discs, for example.

Motion pictures can be used to bolster this argument, too. A movie is of its time, even if contemporary when filmed. Audiences don’t dismiss the film because it’s ten or so years old. It’s the story that matters. Take for example the science fiction film, Blade Runner (1982): now, several big-name brands in that film have long been out of business, though the film was supposed to occur in 2019; this discrepancy doesn't affect the attraction of the movie, even now; it’s an alternative or parallel universe.

Bottom line. Use brand names where appropriate. Beware, however, how they’re used; if in a derogatory manner, those lawyers might take an interest!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Book review - Upstairs Girls

This non-fiction history of prostitution in the American West by Michael Rutter (2005) is fascinating and illuminating in its many revelations. Known as the ‘oldest profession’, prostitution is sadly with us even today in Europe, notably due to mass immigration and open borders that allow free transit of criminal gangs and people traffickers. It’s not only in Europe, of course; every culture has prostitution.

The Hollywood myth of the harlot with a heart of gold has some truth in it, judging by a handful of profiles related here. But for the majority of working girls, their lives were miserable, tragic, and short-lived.

The Victorian sensibilities had been transferred to the Old West. There were ‘decent’ women and there were ‘sporting’ women. And the latter were not welcome in polite society or even in that part of town. Inevitably, red-light districts sprang up almost as soon as any new town was created.

A wide range of distressing circumstances could contribute to a woman joining ‘the sisterhood’. There were the ‘camp followers’ who went where the gold strikes offered easy pickings, where the railroads offered plenty of eager men with money to spend. There were those women who were abandoned, widowed, or even escaping abusive relationships, or perhaps destitute and starving. Their recourse was to enter a bawdy house. Maybe it was considered a temporary measure, but often it became permanent.

The book is a frank appreciation of Western women for hire. Possibly this profession above all others has the biggest vocabulary to describe its work-force: alley cat, bawd, belladonna, black-eyed susan, celestial, crib girl, cyprian, daughter of joy, demi-monde, dove, ebony Jezebel, fair sister, fallen angel, haute couture, hooker, lady of the night, nymph de prairie, prairie flower, shady lady, soiled dove, streetwalker, and upstairs girl, among many others.

There were different sorts of bordellos. Usually run by a madam, they might have the backing of a local wealthy businessman, a silent partner. Top of the scale were parlor houses, the elite of their kind, such as the Cheyenne Social Club (Cheyenne, Wyoming) and The Brick House (Virginia City, Nevada). The girls in these establishments kept half their ‘earnings’ and were well fed and clothed in the finest dresses, even wearing garments from France. They had to be young and retain their appeal, however, or they might have to move to the next lower rung in the pleasure ladder, the high-end brothels. Most of these places were still desirable with decent furnishing but not as fine. ‘The fallen angels weren’t old, but they might look slightly worn. The food in the bordello was good, the liquor was acceptable, but the wine list wasn’t as deep.’ (p19)

The so-called common brothel was the working man’s whorehouse. Those of less attractive countenance, who had started to lose their charm or youth, might find themselves here. These brothels were often located in dancehalls, saloons, gambling halls or apartment buildings.

Next, the low-end brothels were shabby, where the women were not in their prime. ‘In smaller towns they might be friendly and personable, though in cities they tended to be drab.’ (p21)

A cottage girl was an independent contractor, who had no madam or pimp. This was a precarious route for many, yet a few were very successful and made their fortunes.

‘At the bottom of the prostitution hierarchy was the crib girl, who worked out of a crib house.’ (p22)  A crib girl had somewhere to trade, at least. Streetwalkers plied their business outdoors in the main, and in winter a good number would freeze to death.

The trade in California was diabolical, most especially for Chinese women and girls. Some of them were sold to pay family debts; when they were too old to be attractive to men they would serve as cook, maid or field worker. The notorious madam Ah Toy tricked or bought unsuspecting girls cheaply, most not yet in their teens. She was brutal and a cruel taskmaster. The tongs, corrupt police and officials made their fortunes off Chinatown’s prostitution, gambling and opium. Many members of charitable groups in San Francisco risked life and limb to steal girls from brothels and given them a proper education.

Historian Rutter doesn’t flinch from writing about the occupational hazards faced by the upstairs girls – physical abuse, pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual diseases and, not surprisingly, murder and suicide.

Another group of women sometimes linked with the profession were not usually on the game at all, but simply danced and entertained. These were the hurdy gurdy girls, the dancehall and saloon girls. They’d either entertain on stage or charge men for a dance. Miners fresh from the fields would pay a small fortune simply to hold a woman and dance with her. Despite their ostensibly innocent occupation, these women were condemned by the local communities. Gradually, as towns became established, moral purity movements fought against the trade, effectively pushing it underground.

A significant part of the book relates the stories of significant ladies of the night, among them Fanny Porter, the madam with a heart of gold, Laura Bullion, a Wild Bunch camp follower, Mattie Silks, Big Nose Kate, who was Doc Holliday’s lover, Poker Alice, and Mary Ellen Pleasant, the mother of the civil rights movement. They’re heart-breaking tales, most of them, and yet a good number of these women used their dubious profession to gain rank and importance and even own property and wield considerable power in their communities, despite having no such thing as ‘women’s rights’.