How We End Up- Douglas Wells

How We End Up

I was swept along by this multi-shaded literary social drama. Even when the colour of life was bright dark shadows always lingered, ready to overwhelm any, or all, of the three main characters. On the face of it, these people have been dealt a more than reasonably favourable hand in life, but none played it out at all well. This is a deep-dredging read full of soul searching, variously damaged character and of the randomness of life’s dice that are never afraid to roll. We see great opportunity contriving to yield far from great results. Sometimes the less than satisfactory play of events, emotions, preferences and addictions are overcome by great strength of character, and yet more often they are compounded by ingrained flaws.

This book is not only well written, it is also pacey and extremely gripping drama. The characters all feel real to me, being an individual whom can be seen to have perhaps made less of himself than apparent opportunity might suggest. I guess that most people might agree that they’ve underachieved in some key ways, if they are prepared to dissect their lives with brutal honesty. Brutal honesty isn’t something that hides between the lines in this books pages.

Some readers appear to find some comedy in the characters flaws. I found little of that, apart from an occasional smear of black humour. However, there is certainly cartloads of irony in certain attributes that should/could have given life-long advantage, but which were overwhelmed by deep-running rivers of inherently flawed character. Wells has a deep understanding of intrinsic, often genetic, behaviour that usually dictates life despite rather than because of the paths we are placed on, and the deviations we discover for ourselves. We are what we are. The frog will always be a frog. Dreaming of being a famous poet or a princess may just lead one that way, but even if the path is found, more than often, one’s innate character fails to let one stay on it.

Finally, on the basis that any news is good for advertising, then Bushmills whisky should do very well out of this book. I wonder if the brand may be the author’s favourite tipple, or perhaps he just has shares in this famous old Northern Ireland Distillery.

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El Cajon- Joel Shapiro

ElCajon

One thing is for certain- this book gives El Cajon, California one heck of a reputation and one no city would want. Another thing, for certain- people don’t do well when addicted to Vicodin. Opiate addiction is very topical. One can only hope the medics and pharma people get a conscience before too many more people have their lives torn apart by addictive prescription drugs. But what the heck has that got to do with this book. Well, apart from the fact that Haim, the first-person narrator, is still somehow alive and even gets a few things right, there is a serious warning here. We see a few heroic deeds, but not from an actor one would ever wish to emulate. He is the very antithesis of John, Die Hard, McClane. A film about Haim Baker would not create quite the same sort of wannabe buzz.

Before you take a first overdose on opiate-based medicines, read this book. However, don’t read this book if you are planning a trip to San Diego County, unless you are open to having your mind changed.

This is a book which quickly becomes hard to put down, but not necessarily because you are enjoying it. Frustration with the first person, no hoper is going to drive you to distraction. Like the effect of the dumb principle in the high-tension film drama, one can’t believe the stupidity for walking into trouble, while not being quite irritated enough to switch channels. Actually, that is probably not so different to having a mild addiction to Vicodin.

This book is extremely violent and at times exceedingly crude. Urine and blood seem to be constantly pouring in equal and often mixed volumes. And this book gets the near fatal stages of opioid addiction about right- except that PI Haim Baker somehow still manages to function, and even kill the right bad people. The book also highlights the terrible world of people trafficking, focussed here on girls bashed and drugged into the sex industry. Actually, that part of the book is particularly sickening. Sickening for the sane and those merely into substance rather than people abuse, that is! But, just as we know that nearly every neighbourhood has an addict at deaths door, we also know that not all our children are safe wheresoever we live. I choose to see a second serious message from Shapiro. That even in places with a veneer of respectability such abuses can be hidden.

The writing is fast paced, and generally of a good quality. However, the grammar is far from conventional. For example, the disappearance of the period, the comma, is used to convey rapid and often chaotic and stressed, stream of consciousness, thought. Shapiro writes well enough to usually pull this off. However, one would want to load up with plenty of oxygen before reading some passages aloud. Even if there was pause for breath, one would have to check the audience first. Haim isn’t exactly shy about some excruciatingly detailed body malfunctions.

Haim is like the most down-beaten, unprepossessing, suicidally inclined private eye one has ever read about, and then some. If it wasn’t for the kindness buried in his soul and for the reported damage in his personal life which has helped draw him low, many might jettison the read unfinished. That would be a pity. But to sustain any credibility, either Haim dies next time out, or breaks his addiction.

Yes, the book deserves five somethings, though five pain killing white tablets may be more appropriate that five yellow stars. But for those that eagerly consume thrillers in which the least bad guy eventually wins this is a good fix. I would absolutely recommend this book for those that like no-holes plugged entertainment. The pictures Shapiro paints look disgustingly real to this reader.

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Ape Mind, Old Mind, New Mind- John Wylie

ApeMindWylie

A well written academic book written in a style and at a scientific level that most of us can connect with, even if we can’t quite compute all the scholarly depth that make up the full picture. I definitely place myself in ‘the superficial understanding’ category but never felt intimidated by complexity. Wylie reexplores evolutionary biology bringing into play his clinical and philosophical knowledge and private observations in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, and medicine. Wylie’s observations which build into a broad psychological theory that fits as a complementary extension to classic Darwinism, add considerably to our conventional understanding of human evolution. With the obvious exception of many dogmatic scripturalists, I think this book has a lot for all those interested in why we are what we are questions. Wylie adds to our understanding of personality evolution, looking at the intellectual creature that with all the psychological baggage we carry from our ancestors.

I did rather question some of what I read to be rather afterthought attempts to tie in sacred spirituality and philosophy. I guess some attempt at this is, though, beneficial if it might draw in all but the most dogmatic of ‘Abrahamists’. Anyway, arguably, religion could not be left out of a fully rounded ‘thesis’. Otherwise I had no personal issues with any ideas in this very well written book. Nearly always, Wylie found simple ways of distilling out the complexity of his arguments. A few more real-life anecdotes from Wylie’s career would I’m sure add a great deal of enjoyment for the general reader, without losing the focus required by the more scholastic. This is a serious book, exploring the whys and wherefores from a full range of psychological illnesses balanced against normal, (average), behaviours, that make us the deep thinking but not always rational creatures that we have become.

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Life Unfinished- Martin White

Life Unfinished

White has created a very readable biographical fiction out of the life and times of Franz Peter Schubert. The book is very engaging, even for one that knows next to nothing about the ‘engineering’ of music. Period history is my fascination here, along with my naive appreciation of the music itself. I now know a good deal more about the history of the classic period of European music than I did before the enjoyable experience of reading this book.

There are many books and films about the life of Schubert, all rather building on the same store of facts and sometimes rather weakly anchored conjecture. The widespread, if not consensual, view is that Schubert was bisexual. That is based only on the certainty that many of his acquaintances and friends in the worlds of music, theatre and painting were of diverse passions. Though whether he caught syphilis, a disease that in this account almost came to finally define him from a rare sexual encounter or from a promiscuous existence is debatable. In fact, contemporary records give little evidence that he even suffered from that particular disease, although his general decline in health is well documented. What is known as undisputed fact is that Schubert was extremely socially awkward. He was often shy to the point of this being psychologically overwhelming to his character and even damaging to his career.

He fantasised about several women in his life, most either simply tragically unsuitable or deliberately chosen because of the extreme unlikelihood of any possible union. Whatever the deep reasoning for these ‘affairs’ never leading into meaningful shared physical relationships, he certainly had a talent for focussing his heart on those that were socially unsuitable. Whether servant or aristocrat, the women he cherished were consistently well above or below his social station. Schubert himself was born very much into the educated upper classes, all be it very far short of its summits. White builds on these known elements along with commonly conjectured plot based on his eventual death from syphilis. The second half of the story buildings very much on the medically observed course of the disease and its then treatment.

White’s description of the music, especially of Schubert’s more serious works, which were rather passed over during his life, are very poetic. One is drawn into feeling like a genuine spectator not just in the room, but also one privileged to glimpse many imaginative and plausible mental thoughts. Although there is a drift into substantive speculation I have confidence that White never loses connection with what we know from genuine contemporary records.

I have far from a complete idea as to how much of this book has been based on previous novels and films, and how much has been sparked with true originality. Not that that can make much difference to the enjoyment of this very plausible and generally sympathetic interpretation. What matters is that this is a very well written piece of biographical fiction based available documentation.

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When the Stranger Comes- Karen S. Bell

WhentheStrangeBell

Writers enjoy having the power of God over their characters, but what if they also attract the forces of the devil? What if the power of life and death in a fiction translates into a ‘real’ existence, if some elements of the authors omnipresence on the page slips into physical life? The book is very much paranormal, some of a magical realism bend and some with a quasi-religious one. Through excepting the premise that many good versus evil, religious/paranormal boundaries collide in mystical ways one can enjoy the book. Most of us have little trouble suspending belief to enjoy a good yarn. I preferred to read this is the imagined world of a psychotic personality in total meltdown. This was easy given that the book is written in first person. I enjoyed this as a false reality from which we are supposed to hope the character voice, Alexa, will escape. I was a bit underwhelmed by the lengths Bell went to in exploring the threads of the story as it drew to the end, as for me the detail rather reduced the power of resolution. Climatic events, both in life and books, are best enjoyed without distracting reflections on the rationality of the mechanics.

This book is well written, describing Alexa’s world in a way that easily paints strong scenes in one’s mind. As a writer, I can appreciate the mind games as Alexa the well-established, if quite famous, author, struggles to complete her trilogy. Some of the other characters, especially Margaret, her book editor, are very well-rounded. I may have enjoyed the book more with a few chapters written from the mind of Margaret, watching the mental breakdown of her number one selling author.

This is the second book of Bell’s I have read. She is a very gifted writer who might achieve greater success with psychological thrillers without the distraction of paranormal elements. Provided, of course, she could find the discipline of scripting her stories without occasionally falling for the convenient escapes of the unrestrained supernatural.

It should be obvious that I enjoyed this book more for the qualities of Bell’s descriptive writing than the story it tells. However, I am sure that those that relish the buy-in to the paranormal will find this to be a great read. There are plenty of original elements as well as standard themes of the paranormal and mystical realism genres. We have here a, ‘watch what you wish for’ morality tale. The allegorical foundations of the theme resonate throughout. The four stars rather than five isn’t a devaluation of the Bell’s work. Rather, it reflects my view that this book, despite all its qualities, didn’t do talent full justice.

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Lance: A Spirit Unbroken- Walter Stoffel

LanceUnbroken

This is a good dog lover’s read, which may require the grabbing of a box of tissues before one reads to the inevitable end.

One of the strongest features of this book is that it is undoubtedly one hundred percent true. One knows that every incident happened just like that, without Stoffel being drawn into even plumping up the truth. We get a feel for exactly what it is like, not just living with a headstrong dog but one that has been severely damaged by past treatment. We can’t help but appreciate what a commitment any dog, let alone a Lance was. The sad thing is that, it is those that don’t appreciate animals that would most benefit from reading this book. In reality, most readers are going to be committed dog lovers who understand the sentient nature of the creatures. This is the sort of book that should be required reading for those planning on having a dog as a pet. Many of the manifest problems in Lance are extreme, but they are common to all dogs by degree. Collies, especially pure bred/inbred ones, quite plausibly because they are particularly intelligent dogs, are prone to psychotic behaviour.

I was drawn to remember the intelligently calm behaviour of George the sheepdog, in the closing years of a tough life, in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, as contrasted with George’s son, the over-excitable and scatty younger dog that may have been born with a touch of madness. In human terms, I believe we might say that the first ten years of Lance’s tough life left him with a containable but incurable schizophrenia, even if he was as potentially well-adjusted as George when he was born. Humans are no different. Once driven to madness there is often no road that leads to a full recovery. The author and his wife did all they could to give Lance a stable and loving home. I draw attention to this classic 19th Century book to demonstrate that

Chapter by chapter, this read is very entertaining. I am though critical of the quantity of repetition and back-peddling. There were too many times when the author seemed to be say, ‘Oh, that reminds me of something earlier’, and then proceeds to run back to an earlier point in the chronology. In the end, that is a minor criticism though temporarily distracting.

Stoffel’s writing style makes for easy reading. My overall thoughts on reaching the end were of pleasure in having been so well entertained. Of course, the story contains a lot of sadness when inevitably the end of the book was also the end of the line for Lance. I have little doubt that the author was changed more by their tight companionship than was ever the dog.

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Execution of Justice- Patrick Dent

Executionofjustice

This is an action-packed thriller centred around themes of white slavery, 1970s middle-eastern politics, military undercover operations, crime, psychological damage and revenge. It is very fast paced, fast enough to be an action-packed blockbuster film without the book-gutting re-write. The writing is immediate, easy, generally well composed and professionally edited. And boy, is it both far-fetched and time-evaporating exciting. Yes, this is very much a ‘boys with guns’ action book, ably supported by a couple of powerful female characters that almost make it to being main-characters. John Drake fights two major protagonists, the first being a cruel and dominating father and the other the classic man of evil, as close to the devil Homo sapiens can conjure.

The plot is clever enough, though the quickly obtained Rambo skills of the ‘good guys’ team are certainly implausible. Some of the violence is very graphic, so be warned, but no worse than one seen in over 18 category action films. The written words bite depends, as it always does, on the pictures the reader chooses to visualise. At least it is easier to tune out of graphic detail in a book than while watching a film.

I really enjoyed this book, which delivers exactly what the hype suggests it should. One just has to suspend belief a touch or two. The hard men are hardly slowed by broken ribs or ruptured ligaments, and have powerful enough auras to keep away a storm of bullets. Fortunately, in the end, the baddies are all a touch weaker than the ‘better guys’. Some may also doubt the plausibility of certain actions sanctioned by ‘friendly’ political and military forces. However, on that score, my view is that Dent is entirely accurate. It isn’t only one’s enemies that are expendable even in are major democracies. There is only one plot aspect I thought didn’t fit, that concerns the behaviour of John senior mid-way through the book. I won’t risk a spoiler other than by adding that devious and life-risking manipulation of the son by the father became rather incredulous.

This is a great week-end read. Thriller writing done well.

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Matriarchs: Eliza’s Revenge- Susan McDonough-Wachtman

Elizasrevenge

A light-hearted, entertaining post-feminist twist from a committed feminist writer?

I’m not sure that McDonough-Wachtman would accept that as an even partly accurate statement, but that was the sense of her writer that reading Eliza’s Revenge gave me. It is nice to read books from her generation of feminist writers that manage to be affirmative for women, while accepting that female governance doesn’t naturally take the thorns off pink-tinted roses, or indeed those blooms of any other hue. Men in this story are still agonists but, refreshingly, at least not protagonists.

We are some way in the future, with a story that is set on a female controlled planet. This world’s environment is well governed by its women, though from the human perspective in a rather worryingly narrow ‘religiously’ organised way. The whole planet has the feel of being moulded by a tree-hugging, socialist, governance of pagan feminist priestesses. This is certainly no utopia, though we begin with that expectation. There are sinister undertones of unnatural practices and manipulation of male genetic characteristics. The men of this planet are now as female as Barbie Dolls, while some of the women certainly aren’t all ‘sugar and spice’ humanists.

The writing is rather head-hoppy which doesn’t help the flow of the story, but the overall read is entertaining. Whether philosophical thought really stretches from entertainment into a substantive speculation I can’t really decide. Certainly, there are some important pointers about the directions humanity might move in, and the subsequent effects. The science fiction is a story enabler, rather than a serious framework; a fantasy setting in which to play with social perspective. Where one is obliged to give stars then I would give five, for the overall readability and quality, even if these stars twinkle rather than shine a consistent and penetrating bright light.

I got the sense that McDonough-Wachtman is capable of writing with a great deal more ambition than she showed here. Far too many corners were cut with a convenient fantastical twist, and the tone was far too tongue-in-cheek to give any hard bite to the plot. This is a general readers book, not a genre scifi, and though it may well be appealing to rather more female than male readers that really isn’t a defining quality. The point that a matriarchy is no more capable of maintaining utopia from subversion than a patriarchy is well made.

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Kings of Paradise- Richard Nell

Kings of Paradise

Using stars, if books can ever be fairly classified in such a blunt way, this book requires five.

The first thing to note is that there isn’t much paradise here, even in the relatively mild climatic conditions of the south. Secondly, there are kings, legions of princes and princesses, and every kind of human ogre, and all have very tough lives, many characters hardly rising above the shitpits of crude existence. Generally, this is a story about the brutish nature of humanity, seen in the evil waves of real history and not just in these dystopian pages. The knife cuts every bit as deeply, with just as much pain, as in any human conflict. Little of it is truly fantastical, though we get a glimpse of fantasy spells in the final chapters, though nothing as far-fetched as fire breathing dragons in the first long tome of this eventual trilogy. The overall tone of the book is a plausible if dark read, and not at all one I recognise as fantasy genre. In fact, when fantasy elements crept in they didn’t seem to fit well at all. The balance of reality and wizardry is not my biggest problem here though, that being the overall weight of words.

There are two excellent 80,000 word stories in this long volume, plus 40,000 words of material to save for later. The quality of the writing easily sustained this reader, but as two books in a series, one about the south and one about the north, what is good reading could have been brilliant. The two main stories might be better weaved separately in the proposed series of books, rather than threading separately around each section by section. A minor grievance, as is often the case with indie authors, is that the editing isn’t always quite up to the quality of the descriptive writing, but all in all the production is very good. Some sections of the book, which may have faced late rewrites, are certainly less well chiselled.

I can see one reason for putting all this into one book, that being because the story of Ruka is just too bleak even for the dark side of grimdark, however that could be lightened considerably without losing the terror in his character. The story of the priestesses could easily be written lightly enough to act as a counterfoil, which to some degree it is anyway. I have to admit that a book focused simply on Ruka would have many readers reaching into their drug cabinet.

As mentioned, the book moves further from a classic dystopian genre towards fantasy as the abilities of Kale ‘mature’. In my view the ‘game of thrones’ feel of the script is strong enough without superpowers, and certainly Nell writes great storylines that really don’t need the escapology of supernatural talents. Exaggerated human skills, even out of body experiences, fit the foundations of the book’s world very well, but the creeping in abilities of Nordic gods, in my opinion, don’t.

My interested was sustained, I really wanted to get to the conclusion. However, when the end came we had already passed several far more powerful climaxes. That was certainly a disappointment, if one that isn’t uncommon in planned trilogies. Authors need to hold back some storylines of course, but the biggest ‘bang’ in every book in a series should be in its final chapters.

Would I read more by this author? Yes, for sure. But also note that I already feel I’ve read at least two of his books.

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Caligation- Bhri Stokes

Caligationstokes

The main character, Ripley, believes himself to be in a dream. The reader needs to buy-in as the focus shifts towards the dream being a new reality; a very strange one, but reality nevertheless. This either works for one, or it doesn’t. I am reasonably good at suspending belief, however, this story lost a good deal of its ‘believability’ for me. The book has some excellent reviews, so probably I am unusual. From the point at which I felt obliged to see the story as more than the telling of a dream I could no longer make any sense of the animal effigias attached to every semi-human. For me, fantasy needs to at least hold a thin string to scientific and/or philosophical plausibility. The buy-in isn’t helped by some serious structural problem with the book. The constant and insufficiently marked point of view changes, head-hopping, is very distracting. Often all we get is a line-break between the thinking and actions of varied changing characters, which often flicks to different locations and time frames. Then on top of that we have the confusion of the characters twinned animals communicating telephonically, with the warning of italics, but again without clear point of view direction. There are quite a few ungrammatical links between phrases, which sometimes jolted my progress. They didn’t distract me for more than a moment, as the story’s buzz was so good. However, the liaison between sentences doesn’t always bear up well under scrutiny.

The book could be improved dramatically by simply employing different typeface for different species, so helping one with the shifting scenes and characters. Changes in physical script would have also helped to give a greater variety of voice. Okay- this sort of typeface manipulation is frowned on by many literary purists, as of course traditional standards of grammar and sentence construction can make any point of view shift perfectly clear, but I think that this book is a case in point for the use of such devices. There is such a complexity of ‘communication’ between the characters, and a such a strong requirement in the writing style to shift focus quickly, that I think a mix of unorthodox cues for the reader is entirely justifiable.

So why then am I actually very positive, able to report that I enjoyed the book so much? Well, clearly it could be a lot better with a comprehensive rewrite. However, this is great entertainment. I had no trouble in finishing the book, when usually with so many structural faults I would have abandoned it very early on. Stokes’s writing draws very clear pictures and plenty of colour. I got a very strong sense of what her strange creation looks and feels like. The story and the speculative thinking behind the book is strong, bringing together many mythological ideas and rebuilding them in an intriguing way. With comprehensive editing this could become a really good fantasy novel rather than just a really good story. The ending is very thought provoking. I liked that very much.

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