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The quick witted amongst you will have noticed that IEBR is no longer reviewing. It was a year long project and we reviewed approximately 150 ebooks. There are plenty more great ones out there. It’s up to you to find them now.

We’re still getting visits to the site and so we’re keeping it open as an archival catalogue of the reviews posted over the year of the project. Click on the virtual bookshelf to find them.

Please notify any link breaks or errors to indieebookreivew@btinternet.com or to the indieebookreview facebook page.

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For ongoing reviews why not visit Reading Between the Lines Review Collective. It’s hub is a Facebook Page (to ease administration) but the reviews are posted on the individual reviewers site. All reviewers are publishing writers in their own right.

The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska

physisI may be stretching the truth only a little when I suggest that in days gone by mainstream literary publisher types dismissed this novel as ‘just an old man’s havers’. But dismiss it they did and it’s just another indication of the fact that ‘no one knows anything’ is all too prevalent in mainstream publishing.

Here in the world of indie publishing I DO know something and I believe I can spot good writing and a great novel when I see one. That’s why I write reviews, to share this knowledge with you, the potential reader. And for my money, if there was any justice in the world I reckon The Physic Garden would (and should) win the Orange Prize for Fiction – or similar.

I have read a lot of Catherine Czerkawska’s output over the past year (and known her for many years) but believe me my comments on The Physic Garden would stand whoever had written it.  Knowing the writer and some of the ‘history’ around the non publication of it, I feel confident in stating that it has become clear to me that while some writers may well need editing, other writers write best when unfettered by the constraints of the mainstream demands and fashions.  Catherine is clearly one of these writers. As a longstanding professional she is more than capable of structural editing and with developing confidence I hope that she will finally realise that work such as The Physic Garden is not in the bestsellers list purely because they are served by marketplace fashion rather than by any real understanding of what makes good novels.

This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. It’s reminiscent to me of The Mill on the Floss and Tess of the D’Urbevilles BUT it’s better because I cheered when the Tullivers were drowned they annoyed me so much and however much I know I should have sympathy for Tess I just want to give her a slap and tell her to grow up. In constrast I had such a feeling of emotional engagement and empathy for William Lang that it actually broke my heart a bit when the denoument was revealed. Yes it’s true. I kept telling myself, it’s only a story but WHAT a story. It is a beautiful, elegant at time elegaic expression and exploration of betrayal.

And the construction is so great too.  In the beginning it seems incredible to the reader that William can have much of a secret, and one cannot imagine what the ‘betrayal’ which caused the lack of friendship would be. I guess it’s at this point that the superficial reader would dismiss the story as ‘an old man’s havers.’ It may be an old man’s havers. If so, what havers. And actually, what we have is yes, an old man, but he’s telling the story of his life, so it’s not ‘old’ in any sense at all.  Perhaps the combination of an old man looking back on his life in a historically distant time is too much for the superficial reader?  But the skill with which Czerkawska keeps the reader on the hook, getting right to the end of their tether asking ‘why’ and ‘what’ and ‘how’ (active engagement in such questions is a great way to draw an audience through a story in much more depth than simply feeding them a plot which answers specific questions at every small step of the way) and one has a constant unease because one realises it must be something really bad if William is still so obsessed with Thomas even all these years on. And yet, the old man William, how can he have any really dark secret?  We are played with in the best way possible. It’s not a ‘thriller’ but it keeps you asking questions and so keeps you engaged.

Then, we find out part of the reason. And it’s shocking. And sympathy with William is firmly established. However, one still can dismiss William (the young William) as simply being too ‘moral’ for the world he finds himself in and conclude that he’s bound to be let down by Thomas – but you’ve still only got a small part of the whole story under your belt. There’s so much more.  One becomes as obsessed with finding the answers in the story as William is with Thomas. That is really clever writing.

There is so much domesticity that one is completely tricked into thinking the ‘bad’ thing will have to be small and William’s response will have to be over-reaction.  You think?  Czerkawska pulls us along towards some truly grim and awful resolutions and even when you think you’ve cracked the ‘why’s’ they suddenly become less important.  When you know why there is still more.  It’s not just about the reasons. It’s about the effects. It’s a deep study of betrayal and how that impacts over a lifetime.  I was being manipulated by the writer all the way along in the best of ways.  I felt like Czerkawska was completely in control of her story and that I was privileged to have it fed out to me in the way it was. No editor could have done a better job, believe me. This is writing from the heart and with the skill of a lifetime’s experience as a creative individual.

The history is also very interesting. There’s plenty of wee gems of information regarding gardening and publishing – the impact of the printworks on the garden is a very clever and very powerful image throughout and works on the reader on a subliminal level to show the connectedness of things which otherwise one dismisses as quite diverse.

But most of all I have to commend the power of the writing which can get a reader to care so much (about an old man’s havers.)  When the denoument is finally revealed and it all comes crashing down around the reader’s head, Czerkawska is not finished. She has consideration for the bombshell she has dropped and gives us time to fully get to grips with what’s happened by the final section which patiently explains life ‘after’ the end and pulls all those questions together and leads to understanding. This section contains the most eloquent and deep exegesis of betrayal I think I’ve ever read.  It touched me deeply. And it got me thinking about betrayal in a whole new light. Which again has be great for a novel – it connected directly with my lived experience.  It’s a novel written by a very good writer and written for readers. It may not have passed through the filter of mainstream editors but I think it’s all the more powerful for that. This is truly an ‘authored’ piece and the committee work a publishing company looking for that elusive ‘bestseller’ would have destroyed it.  If you ever want an example of how writers can achieve great things without intervention – this is it. This is as good (and better) a novel as many I have read, including classics.  But what do I know – after all, this review would be dismissed by the mainstream as just an old woman’s havers wouldn’t it?

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

The Physic Garden is available in Kindle format

Find out more about Catherine Czerkawska. 

And this is our last IEBR review. It’s been a busy and exhausting, but extremely rewarding smallREADINGyear’s work.  For those mourning the passing, don’t fear – we have evolved into a more flexible, less admin hungry review collective and in future if you’re looking for a great read, why not try the evolved site READING BETWEEN THE LINES on Facebook. All you have to do is like the page to get news of the latest reviews.

If you don’t ‘do’ Facebook you can also find out about Reading Between the Lines HERE 

 

The Frankenstein Inheritance by Simon Cheshire

frankenstein1879.  Professor Marchbanks arrives at Charing Cross station having just travelled from Europe. He is very afraid.  He is accompanied by two children, incongruously named Victoria and Albert.   There is something strange about them.  They have pale, waxy, unnatural-seeming skin, piercing, needle-sharp eyes, strange fissures and what looks like stitching on their heads and necks. They are alarmingly intelligent but remember nothing which happened more than a few days before.  They also extremely strong: Albert even rescues some children from drowning with extraordinary presence of mind and daring within a few minutes of leaving the train.

Yes, Victor Frankenstein’s spirit has passed on to his descendants and they are carrying on the good work.  In this parallel universe, they have bought up every extant copy of Mary Shelley’s unfortunate account and had them burnt.  Professor Marchbanks has been called out to the Frankenstein castle, remote and terrifying, to give advice about the latest developments in the programme.  He is appalled by what he sees and escapes with the two children.  But their creator Wolfgang von Frankenstein is determined to have them back.

Thus starts a gothic thriller, full of the special darkness which only Victorian London can give, involving horror, some particularly nasty deaths, a chase across the stews and teeming streets of the East End as it once was – Jack the Ripper country.  The pace is breakneck, the tension taut like a bowstring.  A terrific read in its own right.  I devoured it at a sitting.

But there’s more.  Underneath its pastiche (though I don’t like using that word because it seems to cheapen the whole) is a serious debate.  Simon Cheshire is well aware of the literary tradition, the way the central image of Mary Shelley’s novel galvanised a whole genre as well as raising just about the most serious possibility which could ever face the human race.  Many writers and, of course, film directors have revelled in the story’s horror and sensationalism (after all, it  took the gothic and romantic to a new level) and are oblivious to its ethical and societal implications.  Cheshire understands how a later generation could realise what power Victor’s discovery can lead to in an industrial, capitalist society.  Technology and money meet in an unholy alliance which adumbrates the modern age: Wolfgang’s ambitions, which forecast contemporary debates about the ethics of medicine in prolonging and even perfecting life, are suddenly given shape by his realisation of the power of money and the tentacles of Victorian finance.  They have emerged from Romantic fantasy, entered the real world and become inestimably more dangerous.

Simon Cheshire has made his writing reputation through humour.  But there’s not much to laugh about here.  Nevertheless, cheerfulness does keep breaking through.  The climax of the novel, Wolfgang’s demonstration of his discovery to the most select members of Victorian society, takes place on the premises of a rather shady pharmaceutical firm on the brink of bankruptcy and desperate for the one blinding transformative success – Phage and Blight Ltd.  Cheshire has a Dickensian talent for surnames.  These, especially the second, help to suggest that, though the consequences of this occasion are horrific and serious, a thread of black humour runs through it.

Perhaps, however, the most impressive feature of the novel is the very one over which Mary Shelley agonised most.  What can the place of Victoria and Albert be in human society?  In Cheshire’s story, they perform wonders.  They are fiercely loyal, especially to Professor Marchbanks. They are instrumental in destroying their maker.  It would be easy for them to die in the attempt: we could feel sad for a while and then forget about them.  But Cheshire presents no such easy solution.  Victoria and Albert inconveniently stay alive.  They have special and entirely benign powers.  The solution involves a character with another Dickensian name: Inspector Goodley, who shares with Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff the distinction of being one of the very few policemen in the Victorian fictional world who is both intelligent and a force for good.  Once again, the implications of a moral difficulty are not shirked.

So – a page-turner which can be read as merely terrific entertainment and also a narrative which deals seriously with issues still current today.  But there’s more.  Earlier, I used the word ‘pastiche.’  Well, it is: a modern presentation of the language and conventions of a particular sort of nineteenth-century literature.

To work at all, pastiche must be done well.  This demands a deep literary understanding.  Just to check my instincts about this book, I reread the opening pages of, next to Mary Shelley, the other great peak of nineteenth century gothic writing, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that bewildering mixture of genius and prejudice.  Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to and escape from Dracula’s castle, with its peculiar first-person tension between paranoid dread and detached exactitude of observation, is echoed with great force in Professor Marchbanks’s opening account.  And more: Stoker’s novel is a complex construction of multiple viewpoints: letters, articles, newspaper reports, reminiscent accounts, all maintaining the hectic pace without sacrificing his eye for detail.  Cheshire’s method, though on a much smaller scale, is very similar and has the same effect.

And this led me to another musing.  The Victorian horror/crime/supernatural novel lives on.  The Quickening by Mari Biella, which I reviewed here recently, is a fine example, as are Susan Hill’s ghost stories, Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency novels and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series.  These are all very fine writers; in their hands, pastiche is more than imitation, more even than homage.  It’s a living tradition with a lot more mileage left in it.  The Frankenstein Inheritance is a great addition.

Reviewed by Dennis Hamley

 Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Simon Cheshire

 

Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

nailOn my journey to becoming a professional writer I read many books on the subject of creative writing. Many of them focused on one aspect of writing such as characterisation, settings, dialogue, structure etc. So, although I am now writing full time I was drawn to this book to see how it compared with the others in my rather large library.

 

Well, to begin with, I have to say this book was completely different to any other I had previously read. Roz, who is a professional writer and ghost writer, warns the reader at the outset that Nail Your Novel is not a book about the details of plot, character, and other aspects of writing, But that it is a complete project plan for writing a novel. She has developed a method to tackle writing a novel from initial inspiration to final polish. In the process of doing this she draws on techniques from Hollywood script writing, improvisational drama, project management, and sports psychology.

She starts from the premise that before you start writing you need a detailed story plan, so I thought maybe there won’t be a lot in this book for me because I’m a pantster, that is I’m a writer who starts with an initial idea and runs with it to see where it will lead me. Roz is definitely not a pantster, and she spends a large part of the book giving tips and ideas on how to build a story plan leading to a first draft. She instructs the writer to turn off their inner critic and advocates ignoring editing, spelling and grammar while compiling this first draft, because this is the creative stage and to spend time on such things, which should be left to a later stage, is simply wasting precious time which could be better spent compiling your draft.

Some of the tips she gave to get the draft going included games, such as the cards game and the improv game. These were quite helpful, although I have used index cards in the past, although maybe not entirely the way that Roz suggests. She has a section on writer’s block and suggests various ways that she calls block busters, to move past the block.

One thing I found particularly useful was the Beat Sheet, and I think I will use this in my own writing. She refers to it as the Beat Sheet game “In Hollywood, scriptwriters break down a story into a summary they call a Beat Sheet” which lets you check all of the story mechanics. She goes on to give a list of questions that need to be answered to improve your story, and which she says the Beat Sheet will help you to answer.

It’s impossible to cover all the aspects Roz covers in this book, but I certainly found it useful and I would recommend it to any aspiring writer, but not only that, I think many seasoned writers would find something of value in this book.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Roz Morris 

Alternative Dimension by Bill Kirton

newadThis is a second opinion review. For an earlier review (before Bill ‘came out’ as author) click HERE 

First of all let me say that this book is different. It is not one of Bill Kirton’s crime novels, nor is it a spoof, although Kirton’s brand of humour does shine through. I hesitate to classify this one. Is it fantasy? Is it sci fi? Or is it a blend of both. Whatever it is, I found it not only unusual but highly entertaining.

As soon as I started reading I knew I was going to like this book, although the Prologue did not really address what the book was about, and the character in the Prologue appeared only fleetingly in the story. But the character, who hates mirrors as much as his name, is the product of flower children, and because he was conceived in a barn at the Stitchley Experience event, he was named Stitchley Green. His parents, Samuel and Samantha “tossed a coin to decide whether to make love that night or wait until the following day, and do it in dew and sunshine. It was tails so Stitchley was conceived twelve minutes later on a hay bale. If the coin had come down heads, he’d have been called Dew.” I would have liked to follow Stitchley, But Kirton had other ideas.

The story is based on a computer programmer’s vision of an Alternative World. A world where people could go to relax, have fun, and be anything they want to be. He sets up this world which he calls Alternative Dimension, or AD for short, whereas real life is labelled Normal Dimension, ND for short. When describing what he has done, he says “Their avatars moved in magic kingdoms but the experiences took place in the minds of the people sitting at keyboards in ND.” Initially the world he set up reminded me of the computer game Sims, where other worlds and realities are played out on the computer. But AD goes well beyond this, and “in AD if you could imagine it you could do it.” Needless to say that the avatars acting out the imaginations of millions of people around the world created some interesting situations.

Joe gives himself two avatars. He is Ross Magee who moves around AD like any other player, but the other avatar is Red Loth, the creator of AD which is based on God’s creation of earth. But Red Loth gets more than he bargains for when other avatars demand commandments, and the compilation of these commandments was hilarious. For example, Joe thought anal leakage should be banned until he is reminded that avatars do not possess an anus! He reckoned people could worship graven images if they wanted to, and he advocated castration, the removal of the entire male organ in order to make bicycle and horse riding more comfortable. In this section Kirton comes closest to the kind of spoof writing that he is so fond of, and uses to great effect in The Sparrow Conundrum.

There is also social commentary in this book, and I loved the quote, “To the north were the Canadians, who were thought by all to be Americans, but nicer.” (apologies to any Canadians reading this but it is an example of Kirton’s satire). Kirton goes on to say that AD mimicked the world. The UK had no “industrious shopkeepers from the Indian sub-continent, no plumbers or construction workers from Poland and Eastern europe, no Russian plutoctrats” and so “AD Brits were deprived of the chance to grumble that all these foreigners were taking their jobs and claiming unemployment benefit.”

Stitchley appears briefly in chapter five, where he is classed as an entrepreneur. He takes the name of Brad the Enigma, and tries various occupations, they all fail, but then he sets himself up as a Consultant and becomes highly successful.

Joe, meantime is busy creating an environment in which normality and virtuality could be synchronised. He is trying to create the perfect world but “others found that their avatars freed them from life’s limitations, and yet their only use of freedom was to tread predictable paths.” When creating their avatars “almost everyone elected to be beautiful, fall in love, become tycoons, warlords or porn kings and queens.” Not all of the avatars are human though. There are animals of all descriptions, both real and mythical. It would seem that some people were more comfortable as cats, dragons, unicorns, dogs, horses, ad infinitum.

As the book continues Joe is not entirely pleased with how things develop. He had meant AD to be a fun place, but bureacracy has a way of rearing its head, and he is less than pleased to find the Health and Safety Inspectorate operating.

The book continues, illustrating various stories of the people involved in AD, the real life stories as well as the imaginary ones, such as the voluptuous sexy female who is, in reality, a wheelchair bound male researcher. Some of the stories are pleasant, some not so pleasant, and at one stage in the book cannibilism rears its head.

I don’t want to go much further in describing the book as I don’t want to reveal the ending. Suffice to say that AD is a place where inhibitions could be cast off and dreams lived. A place where someone could be outrageous and do anything with no consequences. It is a mix of satire, social and political commentary, with a philosophic outlook. It is a very clever and interesting novel illustrating what can happen in a perfect world.

I’m glad I read it, although it gave me a lot to think about.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Bill Kirton 

Another World is Possible

ACPRINTIf you are one of those readers who simply devours fiction – you know the kind of fiction I mean: clichéd romances and thrillers, with stereotypical characters and pedestrian writing – then this book is NOT for you.  Another World is Possible is for those who want something different to read, something challenging, something authentic.  In short, it is a book for thinkers.

Those words “different”, “challenging” and “authentic” sum up the book.  It is constructed like a set of Russian dolls: there are puzzles within riddles within a conundrum.  The overarching conundrum is, of course, whether Roisin really is the lovechild of Che Guevara.  I’ll say no more about that, except to warn you thinkers that you’ll be kept guessing throughout.

You’ll also constantly ask yourself other questions.  Who is narrating the story?  How much of what they say is truthful?  Where does the reality of the story end and the fiction begin?  An awful lot is known publicly about the life and death of Che Guevara.  But did he really stop off at Dublin Airport in 1964 and Shannon Airport in 1965?  Is it possible that his words and actions during those stops altered so dramatically the course of the lives of characters in the book?

And there are as many, if not more, questions about the author.  We know, because Cally Phillips tells us in the introduction to the book, that her lifelong interest in Che is something of an “obsession” (her word).  Cally also tells us that the story is “personal” to some extent.  But to what extent?  The mother/daughter relationship between Mary and Roisin is so finely drawn you just know it must be based on reality.  And the squats in London in the Sixties are so accurately described you feel she must have experienced that life as a child.  The same goes for the London music scene in the Seventies.  Then suddenly you find yourself wondering, even though you know it can’t be possible, whether the author herself is the lovechild of Che Guevara.

See what I mean?  Questions upon questions; riddles everywhere.  It’s a challenging book, to say the least.  Not only is it cleverly conceived and constructed, it is also written in clear, unadorned prose.  A must for thinking readers everywhere.

If you fit that bill, go to these links on Amazon to download the Kindle version or to order up a paperback copy.

Reviewed by Brendan Gisby 

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This review was originally posted as part of the Reading Between the Lines Collective on Brendan’s own site but I thought it appropriate to include here on my birthday since fact and fiction in identity are key feeatures of the story and of my life.

If you want to join in my 50th birthday celebrations, he best present you could give me would be to buy one of my books – failing that hop over to my site  HERE and join in the 50 days of celebration currently underway.

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory by Julia Jones

fictionfactoryThis is a second opinion review. For an earlier review on IEBR click HERE 

A Fascinating Study of the Literature of Popular Culture

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is not a biography.  It is exactly what it says in the subtitle on the cover ‘The working life of Herbert Allingham’.  I read it because I’m a fan of his daughter, the crime writer Margery Allingham, and I was fascinated to learn about her family background.  I hadn’t known that her father (in fact her whole family) worked in the popular literature industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Allingham was born into it.

Julia Jones (no relation!) inherited the Allingham family archive when Herbert’s youngest daughter, Joyce, died, and Julia has also written a biography of Margery – soon to be released as an e-book. The archive has proved to be a wonderful resource – a unique collection of documents giving us a window onto the world of ephemeral popular literature – the soap operas of our great grandparents’ generations.

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory  is a fascinating account of the growth, flowering and diminishing of mass-market literary culture – the penny and half-penny illustrated weekly papers that my grandmother used to refer to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but read all the same. Most of the titles have now vanished, but Tit-Bits was still around when I was a child and my mother was still reading Women’s Weekly and My Weekly (in their modern transformations) when she died a few years ago.

This book tells a big part of the social history of Britain – how the weekly papers with their serials and stories both reflected and influenced a sector of society. They often had titles such as ‘A Woman Scorned’, or ‘A Mother Cast Out’, and plots that resemble silent movie classics like ‘The Perils of Pauline’. Like modern day soap operas, they were unashamedly formulaic with every episode ending on a cliff-hanger. Rags to Riches stories were very popular.  Uneducated boys from homes of unimaginable poverty, with dead-end jobs in factories, women who spent their lives in household drudgery, read them or had them read to them.  The periodicals were even sent to the front during the first world war to brighten the lives of the ‘Tommys’.

Julia Jones clearly describes how changing social conditions – divorce, feminism, education etc, changed the content that Herbert Allingham scribbled every week for 50 years until he died.  He was as much a factory or industrial worker as any of those who bought the papers.  There are no holidays when you have three children to feed and educate and you’re paid by the yard.  There was no welfare state

Although Herbert’s work was published in almost all the periodicals throughout this time, his name rarely appeared – the authors of serial fiction were usually anonymous.  This seems rather cruel.  Cruel too that Allingham, unlike his daughter, never had the chance to see his fiction between the covers of a book.

His personal life seems to have been sometimes quite bleak – his wife Em is described as a ‘cough drop’ – a bit of an acquired taste.  She appears neurotic and wilful and her daughter Margery obviously had a difficult relationship with her.  But Em too, was often part of the Fiction Factory – helping Allingham write some of his serials, writing stories of her own. A strange, possibly unrequited, love affair with a doctor resulted in a complete breakdown.  Allingham wrote through it all, producing his 10,000 words a week whatever calamity was taking place at home.

So, at least I now know the context that framed Margery Allingham’s development as a writer.  She described herself once as her ‘father’s apprentice’.  He helped her all he could, though he didn’t always understand her different gifts.

This is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated with frames from the ‘penny papers’ and it will please those with an academic interest in the history of popular culture as well as the casual reader interested in social history and biography. The paperback is expensive, though it’s a bargain when you think of the research that has gone into it and the amount of information it provides, but the E-book is affordable at 7.99.  Hurrah for E-books!!

 Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Julia Jones