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.

Did you Whisper Back? by Kate Rigby

whisperThis is a short but compelling story of descent into schizophrenia. On the face of it, it is a very ordinary rites of passage type story of the young Amanda struggling to come to terms with her adulthood and identity. But she’s struggling against insurmountable odds. There is a secret which blights her whole life. She believes that she was born a twin and that her twin sister was ‘thrown in the dustbin’ shortly after birth.  But Amanda is convinced that her twin ‘Jo’ is still alive and wants to find her, to make herself whole.

Through the twists and turns of the story, dealing with her alcoholic mother, her poetry stealing stepsister and her fairly inconsequential stepfather, Amanda is increasingly dissociated and lives more and more in her ‘own’ reality.  What is hard for the reader to gauge (and this is the strength of the story) is just whose reality is ‘the truth.’ Or what indeed truth might mean in this context.

Amanda struggles, pretty much as all young people struggle, for much of the novel, but then it becomes clear that this is something much more serious. She is in the throes of a breakdown and this breakdown is at least partly in consequence of the terrible family ‘secret’ that has been kept.  Her mother denies her claims about her twin sister. I don’t want to spoil the story but suffice it to say things are not what you would imagine at all and you feel real sympathy for Amanda who loses the struggle to ‘hold it together’ and one can hardly blame her.  It’s a very significant insight into the schizophrenic mindset and how in psychotic episodes one lives in a completely different world.  I experienced the same feelings I did when watching ‘A Beautiful Mind’ where one is incapable of distinguishing what is ‘real’ and what is not. This is down to the writing which dissociates the reader in a way consistent with the experience of the schizophrenic. It can be disturbing at times, upsetting in both form and content, but that’s the whole point.  The ending is abrupt – which I’m assuming is a deliberate intent to show that a) there are no ‘happy endings’ in life and b) there are not really ‘endings’ in life and c) that what we are looking at is a very very small beacon of hope, a very small new beginning rather than an ending. If you can allow the novel this then  you will learn something from it. Otherwise you may simply be disappointed that ‘the story’ doesn’t come to a ‘conclusion.’ I can live with the abruptness because I think its stylistically intentional – though of course I want to know more about what happens to Amanda next. The abrupt ending had me wondering though if such a desire was in fact voyeuristic – but really it’s just the expectation of the reader at work, looking for a structure that comforts and satiates. This novel certainly doesn’t do that but it’s all the stronger for it. It’s a brave telling of a lifestory which may be fiction or fact in origin.  The message above all that it passes on is that all actions have consequences beyond the intention and that keeping family secrets can cause huge emotional and mental problems to family members. Which is a message everyone should be made aware of.  When mental health problems affect more than one in four people, it’s important to bring a realisation that it is the ‘ordinary’ things in life which can cause mental ill health, it’s not something people are ‘born’ with. It’s not because they are ‘odd’ or ‘weak’ or in some way strange. It’s about vulnerability under pressure. Something we would all do well to remember. For that, as well as for keeping me ‘guessing’ through an uncomfortable but sadly familiar story, I thank Kate Rigby. The abruptness of the ending had another impact too – it made me very keen to read more of her work.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle Format  

Find out more about Kate Rigby 

The Unlost by K.L.Gillespie

unlost

I’m baffled by this collection. Let’s look first at the positives.

K L Gillespie has an individual voice, a uniqueness of vision and an imagination that can dance seamlessly between the playful and the macabre. She’s clearly intelligent, sensitive to what might be called the compulsive personalities of her subjects and has the ability both to shock and amuse. Her perceptions frequently go beyond the traditional ‘norms’ but she manages to make them accessible and acceptable to the reader.

She’s also prepared to test and explore the limits of the short story form and some of her effects are achieved with admirable economy. (Check out the flash fiction ‘Dinner Date’ to see what I mean.)

So far, so good. Then there are the nice stylistic touches that lift some of the narratives out of the ordinary. Sometimes they bring a smile, as in ‘Four minutes later at 10:37 a.m. Pam’s soul rose from her body. “Thank Christ for that,” she said as she counted her fingers and checked her toes.’ Sometimes, they imply deeper truths under the surface, as in ‘Someone threw a coat over Pam’s corpse, a shred of dignity in the circus of death’. And sometimes, their economy is painful when, for example, they extend the abuse to which a character has been subjected into her afterlife: ‘The coroner’s hands were buried inside Pam’s stomach up to his wrist. It wasn’t painful but she felt violated to the core’. Then there are the word choices that hit the mark exactly, as when a character refers to his need to collect sanitary waste as ‘my despicable alchemy’.

The humour is often triggered by a linguistic awareness that springs nice little surprises, as in the opening lines of Sometimes: ‘Sometimes I lose my mind. Last week I left it on the bus’. That’s a clever effect in itself but she then develops it with the same easy, seemingly artless wit: ‘… and my husband had to go to the depot and pick it up for me. He didn’t want to, said he was too embarrassed but he was hungry and I couldn’t remember how to cook dinner without it’.

Then there are the throwaway classical and other references – to Plato and the River of Plegethon, the Charles Bonnet syndrome and the (admittedly less satisfactory) familiarity with Dali and surrealism.

All very positive, as I said, implying a writer in control of her material with a broad referential framework and sensitive to the power of the imagination and the words she uses to project it. But why oh why does she not give the same degree of attention to the editing process? I know we’re all guilty of missing typos. They have a way of slipping through the tiniest of filters. But here they multiply through all the texts and they’re not just the occasional mis-spellings.

Inauspiciously, they begin in the tautologous opening sentence when ‘Pam’s body was found wedged behind the door of a public toilet at 10:31 am on Monday morning’.

Thereafter, it’s easier to list them in categories to convey just how frequently they intrude. There are the inevitable apostrophe errors – not just the recurrence of ‘it’s’ for ‘its’ (because that’s not even consistent), but also the plethora of ‘ordinary’ omissions: ‘she pored over the coroners every move’, ‘discussing last nights television’, ‘my patch is as wide as a tom cats’, ‘the size of a mans head’, ‘her new lovers mouth’, ‘it will wait patiently for tomorrows’ post’, ‘for gods sake’, ‘partners make concessions for each others happiness’, ‘everymans fantasy’, ‘my best friends husband’, ‘his minds eye’. They also appear where they shouldn’t – in plurals, for example: ‘there are so many wannabe’s out there’, ‘pornographic photo’s’, ‘it’s like showing new boyfriends photo’s of me in the bath’, ‘silk stockings and stiletto’s’.

Next, there are the lapses in grammar: ‘They soon bored of her’, ‘Pam sunk her teeth into Rollo’s arm’, ‘Dali sunk down’, ‘I’ve drank blood with Aleister Crowley’, ‘The velvet tones of the night time presenter rocks me gently’, ‘the heightened state of my senses allow me to experience each note’, ‘it was criminal the way they treat him after the take over’.

And how can someone who produces the expression ‘my despicable alchemy’ write sentences such as ‘He was mortal and I envy him of that now’ or ‘a group of Italians chatter away quickly to my left while an American lazily notice the obvious to my right’?

Four times ‘afterall’ is used as a single word, while ‘anymore’, ‘everytime’ and ‘rushing head long’ also appear, along with the word(?) ‘hypnogogically’.

Bafflingly, given that the material is pretty explicit most of the time, later on we come across the word c**t – yes, with the asterisks – and yet lower down on the same page, there it is in all its unasterisked glory.

Little attention seems to have been paid to the formatting either. The author’s name appears on a couple of occasions, mid-page, mid-text, and the stories follow hard on one another – last line, title, first line – with nothing else to indicate any narrative change. Paragraphs are indented or not as the case may be, with no real or apparent rationale.

The positives with which I started are real and valuable. I find it astonishing that a gifted author should pay so little attention to the editing process. Given that conventional attitudes to independent and/or self publishing are so ready to consider it inferior to ‘real’ publishing, we really must take responsibility for maintaining the highest quality standards.

 Reviewed  by Bill Kirton

Available  in Kindle format

Find out more about K.L. Gillespie

Lives of Perfect Creatures by Keith Edwards

perfect‘Though mid July, the air blowing off Mount Hood still tasted like snow, and there was a restless humidity lurking underneath, as if summer circled the streets of Portland like a restless cat looking for a sunbeam in which to settle.’

This is the second sentence of Keith Edwards’ ‘The Lives of Perfect Creatures’, and is exactly the kind of reassurance you need to find quickly in a self-published book that the writer knows how to write.  It was especially welcome as the first sentence described the main character ‘peddling’ her bicycle around town, leaving me uncertain if this was an American spelling, a typo for ‘pedalling’, or if she was actually trying to sell her bicycle!

I was attracted to ‘The Lives of Perfect Creatures’ because it’s set in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and I spent a year living there back in the 1980s.  It’s a part of the States with its own unique vibe, and this book captures the individualistic kookiness of some of its inhabitants perfectly.  I met all kinds of eccentrics in my own time there.  It’s as if all the weird people just kept heading west until they got to the sea,  and then they had to settle down together.

Although this oddball book has got its share of imperfections that would probably forever exclude it from the lists of conventional publishers, it’s also got a lot of quirky charm and it doesn’t linger too long on the palate, so it’s well worth a quick read.

We are introduced to two main characters, young women called Sophie and Astrid, librarians at the Sacagawea Library and Reading Room, whose display of taxidermy includes ‘a cobra coiled around a pile of encyclopedias rearing back, ready to strike a mongoose that was defending himself with a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass’.  Other denizens of the library include ‘the three crones who resided in the Reference Office’ who had ‘long been suspected of answering reference questions by rolling the bones, reading entrails or consulting tomes arcane, malignant, and not at all sanctioned by the American Library Association.’

Sophie and Astrid entertain themselves with strange accoutrements and surreal conversation, and their speculations on Sophie’s encounter with a mysterious moustached man is the starting point of the book’s storyline.  Together with a third character, Sophie’s ex-boyfriend Sam Flanges (‘Even as a child, his perpetually disheveled hair and slightly silly grin made him look as if he’d been gulping cough syrup’) they set off on the trail of this enigmatic stranger, whose umbrella is in Sophie’s possession.

The task is made harder by Portland’s status as ‘the city with the most facial hair in North America.  Everywhere she went, she was indundated by men sporting Chinstraps, Captain Jacks, Door Knockers, Lamb Chops, Soupstrainers, Imperials, Mutton Chops, Soul Patches, Facespanners, Pencils, Royals, Pancho Villas, Van Dycks… She stopped at the House of Louie for dim sum, and found every waiter sporting a Wing Chow.’

After a while, Sophie does meet her man – he is recovering on a park bench after being beaten up by a gang of clergymen over ‘theological disagreements’.  His name is Jonah Peach, and he knows a certain Claude Aster – which is also the fictitious name Astrid sometimes gives herself.  Sophie and Jonah discuss aliens, and seem to get along well.

That night, Sophie is visited by Yuri Gagarin, the astronaut.  Now the book starts to fill up with other strange characters.  One of them, Pyotr Rabbit, ‘a Russian mystic’ and frustrated wannabee astronaut, offers what is perhaps a clue to how to take the whole book in a random conversation with Sophie:

‘So, you’re saying I should take lots of drugs, then this will all make sense?’ she says.

He replies:

‘Not saying yes, not saying no.  Just saying have an open mind.  Many things fight for attention.  Some are important, others not as much.’

Well, next thing is Sophie gets kidnapped by three men with mustaches (‘They took Sophie by the arm in the trained, solid grip of men who were used to restraining people for fun and profit.’) and questioned by a man calling himself Claude Aster.  They want Jonah’s umbrella, but Sophie no longer has it.

I could go on, but to be frank, by the time I was half way through the book, the plot had vanished into irrelevance for me.  The latter part of the book features alien invasion theories, robots, and a good deal of running about and fighting.  However, what actually kept me reading were the charmingly tangential conversations that the characters kept having, and the sharply observed descriptions of people, clothing, houses and rooms that actually had more to do with real life than the wild fantasy of the plot.

So, in conclusion, in my opinion this book is well worth a read for its Oregonian whimsicality, witty jokes, and passages of fine descriptive writing, but don’t expect to care too much about what actually happens!

 Reviewed by Robert Dodds

 Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Keith Edwards

Hope Springs by Sonia Scott-Fleming

hope springsIf I were to try and describe this unique work in one word it would be BIZARRE. And I mean that in a good way.  But I have 500 odd words to fill so I don’t want to leave you guessing. I’ll take a punt and say that for me it had the feel of a modern picaresque novel. There was nothing I felt so consistently throughout as much as that I was reading a sort of modern Moll Flanders or Tom Jones. Again, I mean that in a good way, even though I’m not a great fan of 18th century literature or the picaresque. Which goes to show that putting a modern spin on such tales can work. And in and of itself is actually quite a remarkable feat.

The tale of Hope Springs is delivered through a sort of diary. Initially the first stage of the diary is/was written when Hope was a small child (no pun intended and I guess it’s at this point that I should point out the central feature of this novel – it’s USP if you like – is that the title character Hope is a dwarf. Or to give it the proper medical  term achondroplasia). This brings a whole new level to the notion that a picaresque novel deals with someone ‘low’ in society! I revelled in the language of this first section. It put me firmly in mind of Lee Hall’s Spoonface Steinberg (which if you’ve never read or heard you really should!) and made me laugh even when there were obviously sad and serious points being raised.

Laughing with Hope rather than at her is surely the object of the exercise. Throughout the diary Hope elicits a great amount of self awareness and shows herself ‘warts and all.’ She accepts how badly she behaves a lot of the time (much like Moll Flanders) and leaves it up to the reader to decide how far she is deserving of sympathy.

Of course Hope’s life was never going to be easy. She often doesn’t help herself. She’s aware of that. It seems she can’t help herself in that respect.  Throughout the whole story though, this frisson between wanting to feel empathy and not wanting to stereotype or stigmatise her is rife. And perhaps the intention is to show the reader that no one is perfect and that empathy is not the same as sympathy. Being truly ‘sympathetic’ about Hope is often difficult. Empathising is pretty impossible (unless you also have achondroplasia and I’m suspecting most readers won’t) but ‘liking’ her no matter how many awful things she does, is actually shockingly easy. And she does some HORRIBLE things. I struggled to deal with some of them. And with how she flits from great personal insight into complete disregard for the wellbeing of other human beings. But I think this is part of the purpose of the novel. It unsettles and it makes you think. Hard.

Hope goes on an ‘epic’ journey albeit on a small scale (again no pun intended.) It has that unsettling quality of good fiction written in the first person, that you do find yourself wondering if maybe, it just might be REAL not fiction after all.

There’s a lot in this story and I can’t possibly go into it all without ‘spoiling’. I’m still thinking about the significance of the ‘drama’ element in it. What I can say is that having finished reading it, I realise that however random or unplanned things seem to be in this work, they all have a clear and fixed purpose if you are prepared to look deeper. Which is a great tribute to the writer. I don’t think picaresque can be an easy style to write and this really does nail it in my opinion. If you are looking for a straightforward contemporary plot with a happy ending and all the loose ends tied up and a reason for everything that happens this will not satisfy you. But if you let yourself go and go with the ribald modern picaresqueness of it, I think it will. It certainly gave me many a laugh as well as much to think about.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Hope Springs is Available in Kindle format

The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer by Andrew Crofts

Our perception of fame in today’s world is that it is achievable by anyone. Whether through TV shows such as Big Brother or X Factor, a You Tube sensation, or by simply marrying a footballer, fame is something that can happen to anyone almost overnight. One could argue that the internet and reality TV have, therefore, levelled the playing field resulting in a more democratic public sphere – fame is no longer for the privileged and super-talented, but for everyone. Our thirst for celebrity and fame has also been the subject of ridicule, however, such as in Charlie Brooker’s 2011 TV series Black Mirror. In one episode, we are offered a vision of the future where we spend our days on exercise bikes, earning ‘points’, distracted into submission by TV and light entertainment; the only glimpse of escape from this daily drudgery is to enter the Hot Shot talent show.

In Andrew Crofts’ novel, our protagonist, Maggie de Beer, is completely consumed by the idea of success and fame. Beginning in the early 70s, Maggie’s story is an almost nostalgic portrayal of celebrity. Hers is a world before ‘Heat Magazine and the bloody internet’, when glamour, sophistication and mystery were still valued. She idolises Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, plastering her bedroom with their posters, whilst dreaming that she will one day ‘walk amongst them’.

True to most adolescents’ experience, she feels her parents do not understand her and she is sickened by their lack of sympathy for her ambition. They are presented as up-tight and old fashioned and she begins to feel a prisoner in ‘their gloomy, claustrophobic little home’.  Her father just wants her to do her homework and tells her she will ‘end up in the gutter’ if she holds on to her childish fantasies. As dreary as he sounds, the reader can’t help but share in her father’s pessimism – to become as famous as Monroe or Hepburn seems a tall order for a girl from Haywards Heath with no discernable talent. If nothing else, however, Maggie has courage and conviction, and by the close of the first chapter she is on the train to London to find fame and fortune.

The novel then rattles along at a fair old pace, covering a good forty-year period from beginning to end. In this time Maggie tries and fails at almost everything she does – model, actor, singer. She manages to make some money as a glamour model and as an escort, and although this is surely not what she envisaged doing, she does enjoy the attention. Despite these constant set backs, however, Maggie refuses to give up, and whilst there is something to admire in her determination, she comes across as increasingly delusional. Her big-break is always just around the corner, but she always manages to fall just short.

In one excruciating episode, she is reunited with her fifteen year old daughter, who she was estranged from at birth. Her daughter is already a successful actor, but Maggie still believes she can give her daughter some helpful advice, the benefits of her experience. It is quite clear that her daughter is doing just fine without her, especially as Maggie’s next move is to sell the story of how she gave her daughter up to the News of the World. In her twisted, delusional mind, Maggie thinks that this is somehow going to be the crowning moment of her chequered career.

Maggie, like most of us, craves love and attention, but is continually looking for it in the wrong places, whether it’s from unsuitable men or a largely unreceptive public. She rejected her parents love long ago but they still occupy her thoughts – she constantly wonders if they are taking notice of her success or if they will come and find her and apologise to her for getting it all wrong. Her childlike longing for her parents approval, fixes her as a tragic lost child in the readers mind, ensuring we remain sympathetic to her plight.

Maggie closes her story by declaring that she had ‘finally made it’. Although she has found some success, it is tainted by tragedy, guilt and regret. She has sacrificed everything in pursuit of stardom and is certainly no happier when it arrives. Maggie’s story is a fable for our times and reminds us all to be careful for what you wish for.

Reviewed by Joel Porter  

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Andrew Crofts  

Spirit of the Place by Dennis Hamley

I have never been a fan of the eighteenth century. Literature, drama, style, politics, culture they all leave me thankful that the Romantics burst onto the scene saving us all from the worst excesses of what went before.

But in Spirit of the Place, Dennis Hamley draws me into his vision of the eighteenth century and opens my eyes to possibilities. My first favourable impression was the description of the aging Alexander Pope. Just as I imagined him to be. And immediately I realised this was not going to be a straight homage to an age I hated. It was an examination of the age from a variety of perspectives. All wrapped up in a brilliant storyline. There is not so much a tension between fiction and reality as a frisson between the two. In that respect I found it to be as exciting as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, one of my favourite plays, the memory of which Spirit of the Place evoked more than once – in a good way.

The language didn’t jar. I could believe in the eighteenth century parts while not feeling a jar when the story moved back and forth between past and present (well, two different pasts now I suppose!) The novel is what is these days called ‘timeslip’ and looks at happenings in 1793 and 1993 drawing links and parallels between them. I promised myself in writing this review I would not go into plot AT ALL, because I don’t want to spoil any part of it for the reader.

I can tell you that it deals with notions of man and his relative place in nature – and there are interesting parallels between 18th century neo-classicism and late 20th century genetics.  There is also a fascinating retrospective view of the emergence of the Internet which should give all contemporary readers a pause for thought and a slight shiver about how quickly things are moving.  There’s also more than a hint of the supernatural.  Nothing is what it seems and the plot (of which I refuse to speak) really does keep you engaged throughout.

I found myself slowing down my reading pace because while I was desperate to know what happened next, I didn’t want to finish the story. This to me is the mark of a truly good novel. I was so glad that the ebook ‘updated’ edition included a postscript which brought events nearly up to date! But I wished I’d read it when originally published as well. I wish it had been part of my minds library all these years.

Spirit of the Place was originally published in 1995 as what is now referred to as a Young Adult novel (where would we be without all these categorical definitions eh?) but I have to say I’d never have thought it.  I suspect it was more down to extant relationships with childrens publisher Scholastic than anything else. Why a mainstream publisher didn’t pick it up then remains a mystery as profound as those contained within the novel itself.  All I can say is when I was a Young Adult (many moons ago) there was no such category and I have to say I think it can be a dual edged sword.  In 1995 I was in my mid 30s and there’s no way I would have bought a young adult novel. But in 1995 I read and enjoyed Arcadia. I didn’t see it performed till 2005. To my mind Spirit of the Place is very much adult fiction (no, I don’t mean adult fiction xxx) in that it deals with some deep issues. Yes they are accessible but they are not issues just of interest to young adults. So I’m sorry that I never got the chance to read it back then, but I’m happy to have had the chance to read it now. It’s one of those books with images that will stay with me. That’s why I’m not telling you ANYTHING about the plot.  I want you to have the experience and go on the journey for yourself. But do go!

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in kindle format

Find out more about Dennis Hamley