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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?

The Assassin by PJ Fox

One of my reading resolutions to myself this year is to read any PJ Fox book that I haven’t read yet. As you may recall, the first book I read of Fox’s, The Demon of Darkling Reach, became Segnalibro’s first ever Book of the Year in 2015. I was floored by its brilliance, and The Black Prince tetralogy (of which The Demon of Darkling Reach is the first book in the series), is definitely on my list of the best series of books I’ve ever read. My next PJ Fox book was The Assassin.

The Assassin follows the fortunes of Ceres, an assassin who has visited the strange, slum strewn land of Dharavi to kill a rogue “brother” from his organisation. Ceres is good at his job but does not bargain for tenacious, child-like but beautiful Udit, who introduced herself to Ceres at an inopertune moment , leaving him astonished and bewildered at the interruption of his job.

Despite being a fairly short book, the narrative had a bit of a slow build up to give readers a real sense of Ceres’ surroundings and of Ceres himself. Beautifully written by Fox, as I knew it would be, she builds up a picture of Dharkun and of Ceres, strangely conjuring up a vague image in my mind of Clint Eastwood strutting into town to slay the bad guy! (Pretty sure this is my vivid imagination playing tricks on me, though!)

Ceres is your consummate quiet, brooding, cold-blooded killer. He does his research and savours the kill. Udit deliciously throws him off balance with her strength of character juxtaposed against her tiny build. Ceres never loses control but Udit definitely wavers his composure as she throws into question his philosophy of life and love.

Fox seems to be giving somewhat of a social critique too. Trust is a rare commodity in Dharkun, and it is a dangerous place to be. This slum town is dirty and dank, it has tyrants at every turn, yet there is a loyalty there of each other, to a large extent. Strangers are noticed and there are dangers lurking around every corner, but the people who live there know where to avoid, for the most part. There seems to be an acceptance that the bad people will do bad things and nothing can be done about it. Fox also challenges the dynamic of how certain stereotypes are perceived by mirroring Ceres level of honour and responsibility to his brotherhood and to Udit against that of Udit’s father, a cleric who tries to appear righteous but in reality, has his own agenda.

The Assassin is essentially a love story. There are some not so pretty scenes but there are some really tender scenes too. However, the one constant is Fox’s beautifully sculptured narrative. I could wax lyrical about PJ Fox’s writing skills all day. She is definitely one of my favourite writers and while this was not my favourite of Fox’s books, I enjoyed it nonetheless. Her ability to create a scene so perfectly to envelope her multi-faceted characters into is nothing short of remarkable. I am currently reading her latest Wattpad novel Prince of Darkness,the follow-up to her first Wattpad novel Book of Shadows and again, they are beautifully constructed literary works of art. If you haven’t read these yet, you really should. As for The Assassin, it truly is a fantastic novel and I would definitely recommend it.

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F.Ross

Way back in April 2015, my Book of the Month was the hilariously, yet poignantly brilliant The Last Days of Disco by David F.Ross. Since then, I’ve eagerly awaited Ross’s follow up novel, The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas. When it arrived in the post with a vinyl record of the Miraculous Vespas one-hit wonder and containing an interview with Max Mojo (voiced by Colin McCredie), band manager and one of the main protagonists of the book, I was beside myself with excitement. (I’m actively searching for someone who would be willing to offer their record player so I can actually listen to this wonderful blast from the past!)

The Rise of the Miraculous Vespas picks up where The Last Days of Disco leaves off, although a lot of the main characters from the first book are only bit parts in this next instalment, as the focus shifts to the criminal Kilmarnock underworld, with it’s rich, often-eccentric characters and tells the tale of how Max Mojo and his big ambitions for the Miraculous Vespas come to be part of a larger plan to protect the fragile Kilmarnock criminal status quo against the threat of the McLarty gang, who have previously been ousted from Kilmarnock but are planning a big comeback.

Like it’s predecessor, this book is incredibly funny and had me giggling to myself at regular intervals. Ross has a real flare for comedy and I knew this would be a really enjoyable read, purely based on his hilarious one-liners and amusing build up of farcical situations. There are two many brilliant one-liners to mention but a particular favourite of mine was:  “He now resembled a fine bottle of red, where before he had been a shook-up bottle of Vimto.”

Yet Ross hasn’t just written a book to make his readers laugh. As with The Last Days of Disco, there are a number of poignant moments throughout the book that seem to creep up on the reader when they least expect it. The narrative is so well balanced in terms of generating an array of emotions in the reader that even when Ross evokes an image of sadness, the reader knows that there will be a moment of hilarity just around the next page.

However, it is the characters that make this novel so brilliant. Max Mojo is a young man with a dream and serious mental health issues following a head trauma. He has moments of complete lucidity and other moments where he is battling with his inner voice telling him to lose control in any given situation. The other Miraculous Vespas band members are also intriguing for a variety of reasons; a complete bunch of misfits equally as individual as each other. In comparison to the Old Firm of criminals such as Washer Wishart (Max Mojo’s dad) and Fat Franny Duncan, it seems that confidence and individuality breeds success, which gives the reader a sense of hope that despite Max Mojo’s and his Vespas issues, they could just succeed. Ross’s characters complement each other so well and the picture he creates of 1980’s Kilmarnock life containing the nostalgic reminders of the news of the day, with musical markers along the way, makes for a really interesting and enjoyable read.

Like The Last Days of Disco, Ross takes the reader on a journey, but with the added perspective of a nostalgic Max Mojo, as he gives an interview alongside the narrative, giving his own perspective in his own, vulgar way. The interview sections are indicated by an italic font, making clear where the interview starts and stops. The interview, in full dialect, is a really funny vehicle to show that over the years, Max Mojo hasn’t really changed much. I am massive advocate for dialect in novels, particularly those that are trying to capture the essence of a locality, as the Disco Days novels do, and whilst it can take a little longer to read while the reader deciphers the meaning, it is generally not all that difficult to get the gist. Quite frankly, it adds an extra facet to the characters that gives the novel that extra spark of brilliance. Max Mojo’s interview links the chapters together nicely, giving a retrospective view of the events that make this story.

The overlap between The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is to such a degree that you would not necessarily have to read one to understand the other. There are the odd character overlaps and general story-line links but The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is a fine story in its own right. Ross gives us an update at the beginning of the novel to describe how one book links to the other, which is a great tactic for making sure the reader is up to speed.

The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas is a perfectly constructed sequel to The Last Days of Disco. The reader is not left with a big cliffhanger to wonder about, yet there is enough scope for further tales to be told. As there is apparently one more Disco Days book to come, there is more to look forward to, which I’m very glad about. Ross’s skill for balancing comedy with action and poignant moments is fantastic and I can’t imagine that he could write anything that I wouldn’t enjoy. There’s enough action to keep the story moving and with the multi-faceted characters and nostalgic reminders of times past, this is a truly brilliant narrative. I’ve genuinely been looking forward to this book for a long time and it didn’t disappoint one iota. I felt I had one more advantage in being able to picture Max Mojo in my mind. My four-year-old daughter is one of the biggest Woolly and Tig fans and has Woolly and Tig on constant replay on BBC iPlayer, so Colin McCredie, who is Tig’s dad (and the voice of Max Mojo on the record that I received with the book), is an image that I can recall with considerable ease. To imagine Tig’s dad in the interview, all belligerent and cocky as Max Mojo, is an image to behold! I can highly recommend watching an episode of Woolly and Tig before reading, so you too can have this added extra image in your head when you read this amazing book! If you don’t fancy watching five minutes of toddler’s drama, it certainly won’t lessen your experience of this wonderfully funny novel. Ross has done a mighty fine job of following up the brilliant The Last Days of Disco and I’m very much looking forward to reading the third and final Disco Days novel. I would recommend this book as strongly as I recommended reading The Last Days of Disco.

 

If you’d like an opportunity to win a copy of The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, as well as read a fantastic short story, Waterloo Sunset, written by David F. Ross, drop by my Facebook Blogaversary Party on Friday 4th March. Segnalibro Blogaversary Facebook Event

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech

Every so often a book will come along and will seep its way into your heart right from the very beginning. You’ll instantly connect with the main protagonists and it will leave you feeling completely overwhelmed by how much it has affected you. For me, this was the effect that How To Be Brave by Louise Beech had on me.

How To Be Brave is a true fact-meets-fiction novel in that it is loosely based on Beech’s own experiences as a mother of a diabetic daughter and the true story of how fourteen men (including her grandfather) were lost at sea. Beech’s main protagonist, Natalie, is forced to come to terms with the shocking diagnosis that her nine-year-old daughter Rose has Type 1 diabetes after she collapses in the kitchen. As she has to learn how to manage her daughter’s condition in terms of learning the routine of testing her blood by pricking Rose’s fingertips and injecting her with the correct dose of insulin numerous times a day, whilst at the same time dealing with Rose’s own difficulties in coming to terms with her illness, Natalie struggles to keep it together. Her husband, Jake, is in Afghanistan and she is not good at accepting help, so she pushes on, trying to find a way to reconnect with Rose and to try and help her come to terms with her life-changing condition. As these traumatic events unfold, Natalie and Rose are individually ‘visited’ by Natalie’s long-dead grandfather as he becomes the lynch-pin that binds Natalie and Rose together. Natalie tells Rose the story of her great-grandfather, quite literally an exchange of blood for words, and they share this mind-blowing story of how Grandad Colin survived being lost at sea for such a long time and what became of those who were lost at sea with him.

Beech has quite clearly demonstrated her own bravery in bringing these two emotionally heart-wrenching stories together to write a beautifully poignant, yet uplifting novel. The two stories are so flawlessly intertwined and despite the element of the fantastical, Beech has seamlessly juxtaposed the two stories to write a wonderfully truthful account of a mother’s struggle to cope. The reader shares Natalie and Rose journey, as well as the harrowing reality of being lost at sea. Whilst, on first consideration, it may be difficult to see how these two stories could knit together, Beech does a wonderful job of making it so naturally combined. The threads of authenticity enhances the narrative for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

Ultimately, this is a story of survival, of the desire to survive and what it takes to be brave in the most adverse of situations. Each character is fighting their own battle that, in turn, inspires others to fight for their own lives. The fourteen men on the boat all handle their dire situation in different ways, depending on their strength of character and their reasons for wanting to survive. All the characters are pushed to their limits on numerous occasions, yet they find strength from within, and from those around them, to push on. Beech draws such engaging characters that each pitfall is devastating to the reader and each victory is thrilling.

The sense of realism that Beech brings to this novel completely engulfed me; I felt for Natalie and Rose so much as a mother of three girls myself, all of them as smart-mouthed and sassy as Rose. I sympathised with Natalie as she is rejected by Rose and I despaired for Rose as she has to grow up fast to adapt to her new lifestyle. I laughed at Rose’s cheek and I cried at her level of wisdom for one so young. Beech weaves such a rich tapestry of characters throughout the novel that the reader cannot help but will each one to survive and wish the best for each of them. Knowing that the basis of the novel is in real-life situations adds extra depth to this wonderful narrative. As Rose is desperate for the men on the boat to survive, so too is the reader. Beech describes their plight with such intricate detail that you can almost place yourself on the tiny boat and imagine the treacherous conditions that they suffered through.

If I had the time, I would undoubtedly have read this book in one sitting and it is definitely a book I could read again and again. I loved it from the very first page to the last. I felt that dreadful sadness when a book that you have been so engrossed in ends. It is a stunningly written novel that completely deserves the acclaim it has been afforded so far. It is moving, funny, gripping and uplifting. How To Be Brave has completely won me over and I have every intention of telling everyone I know to read it.

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The Prince’s Slave by PJ Fox

It wasn’t that long ago that I made PJ Fox’s The Demon of Darkling Reach my September Book of the Month. Since reading, and loving, this book, as well as it’s follow up, The White QueenThe Prince’s Slave trilogy has been on my reading list. The time had come for me to read it and I started it with a little trepidation. I wanted to be blown away by it, as I was with the first two books in The Black Prince trilogy. I’ve been in this position before. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a big Stephanie Plum fan (Janet Evanovich) so I was looking forward to reading Metro Girl when that came out and I was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I expected to. In the shadow of a series I adored, Metro Girl didn’t come close. I was a little worried that after enjoying The Black Prince trilogy so much, I wouldn’t enjoy The Prince’s Slave.

The Prince’s Slave is a modern re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. The main protagonist is Belle, a confused college student, who attends a college in Dresden in the hope that she might find the answer there to what she wants to do with her future. She has been a keen ballet dancer until an injury dashes her hopes of a future career in dancing, but she suspects that this wasn’t her calling anyway. Determined to work hard and get a decent job so that she does not follow in the footsteps of her neglectful mother and her alcoholic father, we join Belle in a nightclub in Prague, having taken her homework with her on a night out that she didn’t want to attend, as she is neglected by her friends. She sees Ash, an intriguing, smart-looking but very intimidating man, staring at her, and when she is presented with an opportunity to speak to him, she uncharacteristically gets defensive towards him. She thinks that is the last she has seen of him until she is tricked into a dreadful situation that puts her in grave danger. Ash saves the day, or ruins her life, depending on how it is perceived, and we are shown how Belle reacts to Ash’s actions as her life changes beyond recognition.

I was overjoyed to find that I had nothing to worry about and was not about to have a Stephanie Plum crisis. I loved this trilogy from the first page to the last. As with The Demon of Darkling Reach and The White Queen, The Prince’s Slave is a really intelligent narrative that challenges pre-conceived ideas at every turn, and it is all the more refreshing for it. While this trilogy is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, Fox continually challenges the ideology of fairy tales throughout, including the Disney versions, arguing against their perceived image of what true love should be. Not only does she challenge these accepted notions, she urges the reader to consider the possibility that perhaps the assumptions that are generally held about how a relationship might develop is not the only way. While Belle initially is abhorred by Ash, his acceptance and adoration of her just as she is makes her question whether she can overcome her anger and distress at the way in which they have been brought together; she is his slave as she understands the situation, and also this is how Ash understands it to an extent. However, both characters are experiencing new facets of their sense of self. Self-assured Ash realises that Belle is not, and never will be, a true submissive, and Belle is challenged and intrigued by the world that Ash is introducing her too.

In reality, Ash doesn’t want to change Belle beyond expanding her sexual horizons. He treats her differently to his “other girls” by allowing her to share his bed and by giving her all she desires. He introduces Belle to the sexual lifestyle of a dominant/submissive relationship and she is appalled, yet fascinated by her body’s reaction to Ash’s sexual approach. Belle is fighting against being told by everyone in her life that she should act to a rule book of conformity and Ash is introducing her to sexual experiences that confuse yet arouse, further encouraging her that conforming is not necessarily what makes a person happy. There are some highly erotic scenes throughout the trilogy but they are not gratuitous, and each serves a purpose of highlighting Belle’s transformation of no longer being the wallflower but being the centre of Ash’s attention. Ultimately, as Belle learns more about Ash and him about her, they are able to develop their sense of self so that they both get their own happy endings, together, putting to rest a few demons from their childhoods along the way.

One thing I have learned about PJ Fox is that she doesn’t take a beaten path with her writing, but more seeks the road less travelled. While there are undoubtedly minor comparisons to be made to that other BDSM-related trilogy, what Fox does with her trilogy is shows EL James how it’s done. Fox shows how to write characters that engulf the psyche of the reader so that they are able to leave their preconceptions to one side so that the main protagonists can get their happy ending with the reader’s blessing. She also shows how to write a narrative that entices the reader without resorting to formulaic, Mills and Boon style descriptions. Fox displays how to formulate a story without repeating the same coined phrases over and over and also how to educate the reader in more than different types of sexual devices. Fox doesn’t tell the reader what to think, more that she provides as much information as she can to allow the reader to reach their own conclusions, assuming that the reader keeps an open mind and considers that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways for people to be happy; that conforming to an image of what people think is right isn’t actually right for everyone. Everyone has their own predilections and as long as they are not breaking the law, who is anyone to tell them that it is wrong.

50 Shades of Grey has been my guilty pleasure; I’ve mentioned this on more than one occasion. In fact it was a discussion on PJ Fox’s website about 50 Shades… that made me read The Demon of Darkling Reach in the first place. Not any more. I couldn’t read it now without feeling completely irritated by its inadequacies (not that I hadn’t noticed them before). The Prince’s Slave is a much better trilogy in every possible way. It encapsulates all that 50 Shades of Grey could have been in the hands of more skilled writer and storyteller and is much more eloquently written, something I have come to expect from Fox’s narratives, whether it be in her novels, on her blog or indeed, her messages on Facebook! Aside from the 50 Shades comparison, it is just a fantastic story and a joy to read. Fox has previously mentioned that people have commented that her books leave them with the feeling that “they don’t know what to think”. I think that Fox tells a brilliant story in a wonderfully engaging style. No if, no buts. I will undoubtedly be reading Fox’s other novels and of course, the release of final parts of The Black Prince trilogy is just around the corner. However, I have no doubt that I will read The Prince’s Slave again, and again, and again… Christian who?

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