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The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor.

The Backstreets of Purgatory is a novel that brings together a variety of characters in Partick whose stories, though separate, intertwine throughout. Finn Garvie, the main character, is a spoilt man-child who strives for perfection in his art. He aspires to be the Caravaggio, his inspiration, of his time, but is struggling to assimilate his ideas onto the canvas. His girlfriend, who loves him, doesn’t know what to do with him; his best friend just irritates him and he is beguiled by the beautiful Kassia, convinced that she is his muse. When Caravaggio himself shows up in Finn’s life, stuck in purgatory until he assists Finn in finding his art mojo, Finn’s life takes an unexpected and sinister route.

This is an unusually constructed novel that deals with mental health issues, societal expectations and the individual character’s perceptions of success or failure. Taylor tells each character’s story, their thoughts on how their life has got to where it is and where they think it is going, and mirrors this with the other character’s who are inextricably linked across the board.

Taylor gives us a well-written, highly descriptive novel that is reminiscent of classic novels, with multi-sensual descriptions, and detailed, multi-faceted characters that are fraught with worries and show a distinct lack of confidence in themselves, that encourages them to skew their view of their surroundings and of those people around them.

This book also provides the reader with a lesson in Caravaggio himself. I knew nothing about Caravaggio beforehand, and Taylor gives enough biographical information and that of his paintings to give the reader enough information to follow the story but it also gives the reader an education too.

I found this novel a little unusual in places but it is funny, emotional, violent at times, and often poignant, ticking a lot of boxes in my “good novel” checklist. I look forward to reading Taylor’s next novel.

Absolution by Paul Hardisty

The Claymore Straker series by Paul Hardisty is without a doubt a very valuable jewel in the Orenda Books crown. Every novel is a journey, figuratively and literally as Straker travels far and wide to fight his cause. I was honoured to be asked back on to the blog tour for this latest instalment.

In Absolution, Straker almost shares the limelight with his old flame, Rania, as she gives an account of her story in journal form alongside the third person narration of Clay’s story. Having kept his head down since giving evidence about his military service in South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his cover is blown and those who surround him are put in grave danger as he is hunted down. Parallel to this, Rania’s husband and young son have gone missing, and she is being framed for their murder. As both parties try to solve their problems using their skills honed from previous adventures, Clay and Rania try to help each other whilst fighting their feelings for each other for the greater good.

As with the other books in this series, Hardisty writes with great intelligence and weaves his narrative with scientific, political and religious analysis to educate the reader and provide truthful background to the settings in which he places Clay and Rania. Together with the stunning imagery to describe the most barren of landscapes, and his brilliant character structuring, a Hardisty novel does not disappoint.

The dual narrative with Rania’s diary and Clay’s perspective through a third person works really well. Both characters are flawed and are haunted by their past actions, yet both characters are driven by love to make difficult choices. Sometimes there is no good decision for the character’s to make and Hardisty’s bravery for putting these decisions into their hands is to be admired.

This novel moves fast and it did not take me long to read it, mainly because I could not put it down. Straker is such an intriguing character and no matter what he does, the reader wants him to have a happy ending, ideally with Rania given their attraction to each other. From the title of the book, and the direction the narrative takes, Hardisty could well leave this series as it is and it will be beautifully rounded off. However, there is undoubtedly potential for more and I would be sorry if this would be the last Straker novel.

The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady

I was delighted to be asked to read and review The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady. From the premise of the novel, it seemed like it would be a funny story.

Here’s the blurb:

THE BLURB:  The world of arms dealing, espionage and TV cookery collide in this fast moving comedy caper.

Failing celebrity agent Dermot Jack thinks his luck might have turned when a mysterious Russian oligarch hires him to represent his pop star daughter.

Disaffected MI5 officer Anna Preston is just as happy to be handed the chance to resurrect her own career. Little do they know that their paths are about to cross again after seventeen years as they’re thrown together in a desperate attempt to lure a notorious arms dealer into a highly unusual trap.

Hard enough without having to deal with the lecherous celebrity chef trying to save his daytime TV career or the diminutive mafia enforcer who definitely has his own agenda. Then there’s the very impatient loan shark who ‘just wants his money back’.

And Anna’s bosses are hardly playing it straight either. But one thing’s for sure. There’ll be winners and losers when the Meal of Fortune finally stops spinning. Oh, and another thing, Anna and Dermot are absolutely not about to fall in love again. That’s never going to happen, OK?

There is a lot going on in this novel but Brady keeps the plot moving with wonderful fluidity. Each character brings its own comedy to the story and all the characters are hilariously flawed in some way.

Alongside the hilariously funny characters, the plot is exciting and keeps the reader gripped throughout. Brady has multiple storylines going on yet manages to seamlessly link them all to a fantastic conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Any novel that offers up funny and exciting, like The Meal of Fortune does, is well worth a read and I would recommend it for anyone who likes a book that makes them laugh out loud.

The Man Who Loved Islands by David F. Ross (Orenda Books)

The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespa’s have been two of my favourite books of the last two years. I have been looking forward to reading the final book in the Disco Days trilogy, The Man Who Loved Islands, whilst feeling a bit sad that this is the last one. However, I knew that it would be a fitting end to what has been a brilliant series.

Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, once best friends, now barely acquaintances, have slowly come to realise that while they have followed their passions, now middle-aged, life has left them behind and they are depressed at the thought that their best years are behind them with nothing to look forward to but loneliness and eventual death. Having both reached an impasse in their respective lives, with health problems looming over them and career satisfaction a thing of the past, they are forced to re-assess where it all went wrong and to try to make things right. They need to find a common purpose, and using contacts from their past lives, including the mad, but hilariously funny, Max Mojo, former manager of the Miraculous Vespas, Bobby and Joey embark on a challenge of a lifetime, to try and right some wrongs and to secure a future for them both.

The Man Who Loved Islands, like the first two books, is a political and social commentary using the predominantly working class characters to highlight what it is like to make your own destiny in the face of social adversity. Ross discusses crippling mental illness, overwhelming loneliness, ambition and the ties of family in good times and bad, with a remarkable honesty. What Ross does so beautifully is that he creates a narrative with the perfect balance of poignancy and hilarity that keeps the reader invested in his characters and they will laugh and cry with each emotionally charged chapter.

The soundtrack to each novel is integral to the action on the page and in The Man Who Loved Islands, this is no different. Ross threads classic songs throughout the narrative to add another layer to the story. Much like a film creates an emotional connection by its soundtrack, so too does the song choices in Ross’s novels. Of course, Bobby is a DJ, and Max Mojo is a band manager, so music is an important aspect of the plot anyway, but the choice of songs is key, provoking a memory in the reader or placing the action at a particular time or location, and as much as the reader is mentally reading the novel in a Scottish accent (that might just be me), they are also mentally listening to the soundtrack as they read, which undoubtedly enhances the reading experience.

Ross also takes advantage of the locations in which his novels are set. Most notably in The Man Who Loved Islands, is the use of the Ailsa Craig as the location of Bobby and Joey’s challenge. Ailsa Craig reflects a monument that stands the test of time despite being battered by the elements and the wildlife, perhaps in the same way that the friendships within the trilogy survive despite taking a severe beating over the years. Bobby and Joey have had a turbulent relationship since they parted ways in their late teens but they remain fiercely loyal to each other, often despite themselves. Even Max Mojo, who looks after himself first, also seems to look after those who have helped him over the years, even if it is not always intentional.

The Man Who Loved Islands is a story about what happens when you have fought for your dreams against all odds, but have squandered friendships along the way, finding yourself lonely, regretful and unhappy. All the characters are perched on a knife-edge and their fortunes could go either way with every decision that they make, but ultimately, they have reached middle age and something is missing. Ross has finished off this trilogy in tremendous fashion. As we have come to expect from Ross, the plot lines have been intricately woven, and have been tied up beautifully in this last novel in the trilogy. Among the humour and the sadness, Ross injects hope into his novels and even when there seems to be no way back, the spirit of the characters in adversity as they rally each other in their own inimitable way, encourages the reader to see that everyone has the opportunity to change their trajectory.

Looking at the trilogy as a whole, this is a fantastic politically, socially and musically influenced set of novels about growing up and out of Ayrshire in the 80’s and revisiting the characters in the present day to see how they did. I love a book that can make me laugh out loud in one chapter and make me an emotional wreck in the next and every single book in this trilogy has had this effect on me. I have enjoyed every single page of these novels, from the nostalgia filled first book to the reality check third novel and I’m sorry that it is all over. I’m very much looking forward to reading future David F Ross novels, but I will be undoubtedly be revisiting this trilogy in the future as these novels have become firm favourites.

Man Who Loves Islands

My Girl – Jack Jordan

Today is my day on the blog tour for Jack Jordan’s latest novel, My Girl. I hadn’t read any of Jordan’s work before this novel so I didn’t really know what to expect. Sometimes I think that it is good to read a book without any expectations and that is certainly the case with My Girl. I rarely get chance to read a book from cover to cover but I was compelled from the first page until the last and finished this book in no time at all.

My Girl tells the story of Paige, a woman whose alcoholism is spiralling out of control following the murder of her daughter and the suicide of her husband. She pushes away those who love and care for her and as descends to new lows, strange things start to happen that has Paige questioning her sanity as she realises that she is fast losing grip on reality.

I’ve tried to be as vague as possible in this overview so I don’t ruin the novel for future readers as this is a book that will absolutely floor you by its twists and turns. This beautifully written book puts you in Paige’s shoes as the reader learns the depths of this poor woman’s despair. My Girl is filled with pathos and it is a highly emotional read. I was regularly moved to tears and Jordan treats extremely emotive topics with such sensitivity and tact that he is able to elicit a truly sympathetic response to Paige, even when she isn’t helping herself.

My Girl is difficult to review without revealing too much, but like a few books I’ve read recently, it is one of those magical books that you wish you can un-read and read again, just so you can relive the shocks and rollercoaster of emotions that Jordan provides in this book. Jordan has struck a beautiful balance between character and plot to give the reader a perfect reading experience. My Girl deals with topics that are not particularly pleasant but the novel as a whole is just brilliant. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you like a gritty, gripping novel, you’ll love My Girl.

Raking the Dust by John Biscello

I am often approached by authors asking me to review their novel and whilst I always agree to do them, my reading time is greatly diminished these days, so I make sure to advise that I will review their book but unfortunately there may be a bit of a wait. John Biscello is one of these authors who has waited for quite some time for a review, so here it is. Apologies for the delay!

Raking The Dust tells the story of Alex Fillameno, divorced dad of Samantha, an, as yet, unrecognised literary genius and friend to all. When he meets DJ, Dahlia Jane, he is captivated by this woman and the way she makes him feel. Yet he seems perpetually in a state of ennui and no matter what is good about his life, he is haunted by his past and does not seem to be able to get a proper grasp on where his future lies. As DJ introduces him to a lifestyle he would never have imagined, he becomes obsessed with the practices she introduces him to.

If I am honest, I really struggled to get through this book. Whilst Biscello is a beautiful writer in terms of his poetic flair and his wonderful use of figurative language, I wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to tell the reader most of the time. With a mix of reality and fantasy just a bit too far and wide to marry up, I found it difficult to follow. I’m sure there is some kind of abstract meaning but unfortunately I struggled to grasp it.

There are sections of lucidity, such as when Alex is with his ex-wife and daughter, and when he is talking about Jeannie, his former girlfriend. This holds promise of discovering more about why Alex is so lost within himself. Then there are sections of confusing narrative where it is difficult to know what is real and what isn’t. Biscello’s decision not to use speech marks is often misleading and leads the reader (or at least, me) to read certain passages a number of times to grasp who is speaking within the conversation. In a series of fairly feasible events, there was a certain aspect, of which I won’t mention here for those that may wish to find out for themselves, that raised the narrative to a level of fantasy that didn’t really work for me. The sexual act that takes place between DJ and Alex is so unrealistic that it just seemed to overshadow the whole novel with a big question mark.

I think perhaps I was missing some point that may be obvious to others who have read it but I couldn’t for the life of me see it, which was such a shame because I did like Biscello’s writing style. He writes with such a lovely poetic style that the plot of this story seems a bit wasted on such beautiful phrasing. Also the references to various writers and poets was fascinating to read and Biscello is obviously very well read. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it by any means but I did not enjoy it as much as some other books I have read recently.

I loved Samantha. She was my favourite character. Biscello describes her childlike innocence and occasional adult-like responses perfectly and Alex’s exchanges with her are really lovely. He is a good Dad to her for the most part and knowing how much he nurtures Samantha and how much she loves her Daddy makes it all the more frustrating when Alex seemingly forgets his responsibilities in favour of being a drunk, drugged up bum. I like a book where I can cheer on the main protagonist and I didn’t feel that connection with Alex.

Whilst I wasn’t a fan of Raking The Dust, I would love to read more of Biscello’s writing but this novel wasn’t to my taste. That’s not to say it was a bad book, but it wasn’t for me. All reading enjoyment is essentially down to personal taste and for me, this didn’t tick my boxes. However, if you do read it, and you can see where I’ve missed a significant point, please let me know. If you like something that is a bit different and you don’t mind a heavily realistic novel with a dash of bizarre, perhaps this may be the book for you.

Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus (Orenda Books)

I’m having a wonderful time reading the new offerings by Orenda Books as they come to me at the moment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Orenda Books are on fire! I’ve yet to read a book by this publisher that I haven’t enjoyed from cover to cover. I’ve not only enjoyed, but been blown away by the uniquely complex plots and beautifully written narratives that are unlike any others that I’ve read. My latest Orenda read was Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus.

Epiphany Jones is a dark tale whose main protagonist, Jerry, has had a traumatic life to date, which has left him psychologically damaged. He hallucinates on a regular basis and his sex life is based on fantasy connections with women from his past. As he just about manages to hold his job down at an art gallery as a colour correction operative, he finds himself accused of stealing a famous Van Gogh painting and being followed by the strange Epiphany Jones.

As a completely unreliable narrator, the reader is left as bewildered as Jerry, as he openly admits he has problems and his judgement can’t be trusted. Grothaus takes the reader in different directions so you are not really sure what is going on from one chapter to the next, much like Jerry. He is fully aware of his hallucinations but isn’t always sure what is real and what isn’t which provides the reader with an extra sense of suspense throughout. Grothaus has struck a great balance between his main protagonist as equally funny and pitiful as he is thrust into a bizarre turn of events that he has no control of. Epiphany calls the shots, yet for some unknown reason, needs Jerry for her own end game.

Grothaus tackles mental health issues with a no-nonsense approach and illuminates how these issues can be used to take advantage of vulnerable people. He also shows the use of religion as a mask for unsavoury individuals and in Epiphany, he shows the depth of her belief in God, so much so that she thinks God talks to her and tells her what to do.

Epiphany Jones doesn’t stop there. Grothaus also highlights the horrific effects of sex-trafficking across the globe and shows the seediness behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and gives the reader an alternative view of the film industry. The reader is shown a striking juxtaposition of the two big money industries which further adds a sense of hopelessness to Epiphany and Jerry’s plight.

From start to finish, Epiphany Jones is a moving, gripping, fast paced novel. There are amusing moments in parts but this is also such a poignant read at times, as Grothaus tackles these difficult subjects. This novel is full of conflicting emotions and disturbing parallels which gives the reader plenty to think about long after the novel has been finished. It is also a thoroughly enjoyable read, with a good balance of humour, suspense and poignancy that encompasses what Orenda Books is so brilliant at recognising in its choice of publications: that sense that this has been a reading experience that you will never forget, and that this book will remain with the reader as one to talk about for years to come. That’s certainly my experience with every Orenda book that I’ve read so far, and when someone asks me what book I’d recommend, you can guarantee that an Orenda book will be my first suggestion. Epiphany Jones, anyone?