The Hurricane Lover by Joni Rodgers

hurricaneAnyone like disaster movies?  Did you watch the Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Volcano, Deep Impact? I have to admit that I did and – even more shocking! – have even watched repeats, wrapped up in a blanket and dosed with flu remedies.  Written by Joni Rodgers, an experienced novelist and ghost writer, the Hurricane Lover would make an excellent script for another and I’d probably watch that too, with or without the honey and lemon.  It’s based on the phenomenon of the two mega-hurricanes Katrina and Rita which piled into the Gulf coast within a few weeks of each other, and it gives graphic descriptions of what it was like to live through them. Very topical in the wake of the recent New York disaster.  This isn’t my normal kind of reading, but I’m a sucker for documentaries about storm-chasers and was eager for a bit of light reading after ploughing through piles of lit-crit for research purposes. So, I put myself in James Bond mode, disengaged the brain and the reality check and prepared to be entertained, scared witless, and finally have the universe returned to normality – a bit like a ride on the Tower of Terror roller coaster in Australia, but at £1.94 it’s a lot cheaper.

There are two feisty central characters.  Shay, a ‘smile’ girl on daytime TV, longs to do some serious journalism.  Her ex-lover Corbin is an expert on hurricanes and earns his living predicting them and advising companies and governments how to minimise the damage.   Hurricane Katrina brings them together again after a long period of bitterness and acrimony.  Shay has uncovered a website that lures men into bizarre sexual encounters that result in identity theft, financial ruin and murder.  She believes that Corbin’s much loved brother, Guy, whose wife is 8 months pregnant, is going to be the next victim.  The perpetrator, known only as Queen Mab, is known to operate under the cover provided by hurricane chaos and Shay believes that Katrina is going to be the backdrop for her next strike.

Corbin, having predicted the horror that Katrina is likely to bring, leaves the safe haven he’s created for himself, Guy and his wife, to follow Shay out into the storm in pursuit of Queen Mab.  Conditions worsen, Shay almost drowns in rat-infested water, is separated from Corbin by the storm, but survives despite everything.  And even though she has initially failed to pin down the murderess, she has a story about the victims of the hurricane that networks are going to compete for.  Guy is safe, but the victim proves to be another member of their close family.  Corbin wants revenge.  He also realises that he is still in love with Shay.  Hurricane Rita builds out in the Atlantic and it becomes clear the Queen Mab now has someone else on her hit list.  As Corbin and Shay close in on her, their own lives are increasingly at risk.

There are some chillingly authentic descriptions of Shay’s interviews with people who refuse to leave their properties and she has to leave them to face what she knows is certain death as the water level rises.  At one point she bumps into an obstacle in the water and realises that it is the body of a young woman.  Later she is challenged by a terrified policeman holding a rifle and threatening to shoot her because he believes she’s a looter. The hard choices that survivors had to make are illustrated in one scene where Shay has to drown a caged dog to save it from an even slower and more painful death.  Based on personal accounts of what actually happened in New Orleans on the night the hurricane made landfall, this isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted.  It’s the inclusion of these elements of reality that lift the novel into a different league.

The chapters are also interspersed with emails (in the public domain)  from the disaster management team at FEMA and they make sickening reading.  If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, then the FEMA management’s inaction should also be immortalised with a similar saying.

The novel contains all the elements of the disaster movie genre – the fast pace, the superhuman escapes from near death experience, the ability to have sex anywhere, at any time despite having broken several ribs, been stabbed, kicked in the nether regions and recently knocked unconscious!  You have to suspend disbelief, but it all adds to the fun.

This novel is well outside my usual comfort zone in terms of genre.  I love thrillers, but rarely read this kind of hybrid, though I have to say that it carried me along like a tidal surge.  The only thing I struggled with was the American vernacular.  English English and US English seem to be diverging at the speed of light. Shamefully, I didn’t know what a ‘goat screw’ was – I obviously don’t get out enough!  The novel is set in the deep south of New Orleans where residents still speak a version of French.  The author has included just enough simple French phrases to give a taste of the New Orleans dialect and that didn’t give me any trouble.  It was the fast-paced vernacular that puzzled, as it sometimes does these days in US movies and TV series. I got the gist however, and it didn’t deter me.  It was quite late when I finally put out the light.  And I won’t be moving to the Gulf coast of the US any time soon!

Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format  

Find out more about Joni Rodgers

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Poison Oak Summer by A.K.Dawson

poisonoakOn the cover it says Poison Oak Summer (Part One), which should have been the giveaway, I suppose. But as it is a novel, I imagined it was the full bit, the whole thing, the alpha to omega, so to speak. So I paid me seventy seven p, and waited till it hit the Kindle. The price, perhaps, should have been another clue.

Apart from a few reservations, I read it with a lot of pleasure. It’s a YA book, which always interests me, because I’ve written several of them myself, and I wonder, still, what YA’s make of them, and whether we older types have any hope of getting it right. That, of course, remains a mystery, but this book is set in a summer camp in America, has tough young men and smart young women, and is fast moving and a little spooky. I should think it has a very good chance of hitting the spot.

It’s a bit weird, too, from the very start. Our heroine, Lucy, is English and is dropped at the apparently empty camp out in the wilds of the San Francisco hinterland with no back-up, little luggage, and absolutely no welcoming committee. The ‘warden’ is an ageing hippy called Super Steve, and the place has an aura of loneliness and absolute abandon. The first two people of her own age she meets are an Australian who very quickly makes a pass at her, and an unpleasant girl called Shelly who sees her as a deadly rival.

Worst of all, before she’s even met the hippy, she has found a small, drowned boy in the river. A boy whose body cannot be found an hour later, and whose presence is disputed by Steve, then everyone. Lucy, afraid, sleeps in the woods, and picks up a fierce infection from contact with the leaves and branches of a poison oak.

The children begin to arrive next morning. Steve, welcoming them, makes it clear they have died and gone to heaven, in summer camp terms. There is only one rule, and that is that there are no rules. They can do what they like, engage in any activity, eat and drink entirely at their own desire. Lucy, feeling like an uptight English swot, begins to teeter on the edge of lost control.

She is vulnerable. She is recovering from the death of her lost love, David. Worse – she feels that she killed him herself, behind the wheel of his car the day she passed her driving test. Her grip of reality begins to fade. The continued mystery of the drowned boy gets worse. Until she spots him in the camp, alive and well, and laughing. Meanwhile the three little girls who are her exclusive charges are turning very nasty.

As I said, it’s gripping. The main problem is that it re-covers ground too many times to sustain the mystery, it needs at least another major twist. But when that comes it means you have to buy another book. The possible resolution to the main mystery leads on to another one. But we don’t get to see it.

It is, quite clearly, a deliberate marketing ploy, and at seventy seven pence a volume one can’t complain too much, even in these troubled times. But it was a bit annoying, and could well prove counter productive. Maybe it’s another YA thing, though. Teenagers love serials, let’s say. People love suspense. My trouble is, I’ve never even watched an episode of Eastenders.

Reviewed by Jan Needle

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about A K Dawson 

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 Sun’s Companion by Kathleen Jones

suns companionThis is a SECOND OPINION review. An earlier review is on IEBR HERE.

Kathleen Jones understands the art of story and how it works.  By the end of the first couple of ‘The Sun’s Companion, her effortless-seeming prose had me completely engaged.  Tamar Fell is a schoolgirl who has moved home too many times.  In her new school she meets Anna, who has moved as well, though not because the rent is due, as is Tamar’s case.  Anna is a German Jew.  The Second World War hasn’t yet broken out, but Anna has experienced terrible things, and she’s fled with her mother and can’t ever go back.

Despite their very different backgrounds, a friendship is forged between these two girls. This part of the book, charting the girls’ growing years against a background of approaching war, is completely gripping.  Unfortunately I cared more about the girls as children than I sometimes found myself caring later about their adult selves. Anna’s single-mindedness in pursuit of her dreams, for example, failed to strike a chord with me and I was sorry to see Tamar’s story – and, indeed, the whole book – culminate in an ending that came across as too pat.

This sounds like a gripe, but don’t let that put you off. This was a book I read for pleasure, and which had me hooked all the way through. The real strength of the story lies in its detail. Here we have life in an England overshadowed by war, skirmishes with the arts establishment, robust experiences as a Land Girl and so much more.  And everything is written as if from experience.  You can’t believe Kathleen Jones hasn’t been there. So much rings true.

Kathleen Jones is fine writer.  Her use of language is skillful and precise and has the beat about it of real life.  Hardly surprisingly, I recommend ‘The Sun’s Companion’.

Reviewed by Pauline Fisk 

Available in Kindle Format  

Find out more about Kathleen Jones 

 

 

Sitting Duck by Robert Dodds

sittingduckI looked forward to reading this book which was described as a pacy, comic novel, which was ‘Not a whodunit, but a who’ll do it!’

Sitting Duck is written in the form of a journal, and right at the beginning, the reader is informed that ‘This is a journal of a man about to die’. So no surprises there – Martin Mallard, the man writing the journal will not survive.

Martin is not a particularly likeable man. He is a middle-aged dentist who comes over as pedantic, staid, and uptight, and the journal follows his first holiday outside Europe. He has chosen the island of Pootapuri which is a somewhat rough and ready place more likely to attract backpackers.

His fellow holidaymakers are an odd bunch and he succeeds in alienating quite a few of them. I felt this was a place and holiday which was an odd choice for this man to make. I also felt the holiday venue could have done with an inspection by health and safety, because many of the tours the holiday makers took were fraught with danger.

As I read further into the journal I couldn’t help feeling Martin was accident prone, but then the accidents took a sinister turn. Things like a pile of roof slates falling on him when the group visit a slate making factory, then his bed goes on fire, he’s pushed over a precipice, warned of danger by a priest, and is lost in the jungle. All this, plus the knowledge that this man will not survive, makes it plain he is being hunted by someone with homicidal tendencies.

I did cringe at places when he did silly things, such as eavesdropping, looking through bathroom keyholes, and his encounter with a masseuse – I won’t go into details about that.

I didn’t find Martin a likeable character, nor did I find his antics particularly appealing. The comic nature of the situations he found himself in, also eluded me, however I think I may lack a funny bone, and I’ve never found the slipping on a banana skin type of humour, funny.

However there was a growing feeling of menace as the journal progressed. There was also a great feeling of the primitive nature of the country which was largely uncivilised.

I think the author achieved what he set out to do and this was an unusual and intriguing book.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Robert Dodds

 

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

Hippie Boy – A Girls Story by Ingrid Ricks

HIPPIE-BOY-cover-e1315695912127This is the kind of true story that you sort of wish was fiction. But then, a lot of the power is in the fact that it is a ‘true’ story.  It’s not a misery memoir but a close observation of one woman’s childhood experiences in a seriously dysfunctional family.  For those who have read Ingrid Rick’s powerful tale of the loss of her sight, Focus, this work gives a lot of backstory and in many ways comes to explain, if not the condition she suffers from, then perhaps the significance of childhood trauma in adult health.

Yet in many ways it is an uplifting story of surviving against the odds.  The life is ‘ordinary’ in so many ways and yet it’s an extraordinary story that comes out of it. It’s not written with any sense of vitriol to the parents who, it has to be said, must bear most of the responsibility for the outcomes.  And Ricks portrays herself not as a victim or even a heroine, but as a witness to her life.

What is saddening is to see so clearly expressed the  love and need of the child and how that is subverted when the parents actually use (or need) the child to play the parental role. The responsibility heaped on the young ‘hippie boy’ from both parents is all too familiar and all too tragic.  And it’s something of a taboo in our society.  Something adults don’t like to think about.  But Ricks, while never letting her parents fully off the hook, does not dwell on their inadequacies and instead tries to understand them and their perspectives. It’s a very noble thing to do and I’m not sure I would be as forgiving.  Her mother ‘suffers’ from what I’d call religious fanaticism and her interactions with the Mormon church bring a lot of unnecessary grief to the young Ricks and her siblings.  Her father is clearly a drifter, a dreamer and a man for whom the ‘reality’ of the world of responsible parenthood is just too hard to deal with. But Ricks always sees the good side of her father, her love for him shines through and she does not cast her mother as the wicked witch, instead without sugaring the pill she tries to explore and explain the reasons behind her weaknesses. Thus we see a realistic picture of a family – and one I’m sure that is replicated (to some degree) much more than we would care to admit.  And it is to Ricks’ credit (and to her family for accepting her story) that she tells this story, allowing us into a very personal space.

It took a long time and immense bravery and commitment for Ricks to finally shape and tell her ‘story’ and in fact it was the impetus of her own children which helped her achieve her dream.  Which at least gives me some hope that cycles do not have to be repeated, that there can be progress even from the most dysfunctional of family situations. The work is titled a ‘memoir’ and there is plenty of misery, but it’s not a misery memoir, nor is it just writing as therapy.  It is by turns a road movie, an insight into the ‘reality’ of the smalltown American working class experience (think Wonder Years but REAL) and a painful reminder of the inadequacies of adults to parent their children – that love can mean many things and that sometimes love is not enough.

At times some truly grim things happen and some incredibly disturbing ones. But at all times Ricks telling of the story through descriptive prose is clear and compelling without being overwritten. There is a truth which can only be achieved by one who has carried the stories as life experiences  And the inspiration Ricks offers others to ‘tell their stories’ is palpable.  For her,  the memoir style of writing is not about moaning about how bad your childhood was to mitigate one’s adult failings. It’s about taking back the power which has been stripped from you by having to conceal the truth of one’s life.  It is giving an identity to a person. By being brave enough to tell their own life from their own perspective. Ingrid Ricks achieves this admirably in Hippie Boy – and she now works with others to help them do the same thing. This is a very moving story and at the same time both an easy and an uncomfortable read. But read it you should. You’ll learn about more than just the life of Ingrid Ricks, trust me, it’ll make you think about family dysfunction in a whole new, and more mature, way.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Ingrid Ricks