Widows-in-Law by Michele W. Miller: Book Review

Lauren and Jessica are the ex-wife and wife of a cad who becomes a cadaver in what appears to be an accidental death. With Brian’s dealings a shade or two murkier than most people realised, it could be murder.

The pair are thrust into the heroics of this novel when business colleagues from the criminal underworlds of gambling and arms-dealing come looking for money, missing since Brian’s death.

The novel is very plot-driven and a different beast to previous work by the author. It’s probably the most commercial novel to date from this scribe too, whose work (often in the horror genre, but this one is more mainstream thriller) has a literary quality.

Informative when it comes to the law and money laundering elements, this book’s also pacey and exciting.

Well worth a read. Get it here.

Bianca Bowers’ Love is a Song She Sang From a Cage: Poetry Review

All’s fair in love and war, as the Old Fart of Avon, or Stratford, or Wherever TF, once said. (It wasn’t Shakespeare though. Okay? Do not attribute that to Shakespeare. He was the Bard. Not the Fart. Also, I just checked attribution.)
Bearing that in mind, if there’s a theme permeating Bianca Bowers’ terrific Love is a Song She Sang From a Cage, it’s love, as the title suggests. Although the love on display is not just in the negative sense described by the title, the poems are thematically driven by a loss of love, or love that is less than salubrious in the senses of romance or mutual respect.
Whether the poet’s voice is playing the dom or the sub in the relationships described, Bowers is on form with an awesome series of analogies – such as having a remote-controlled heart, or identifying with Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct character Catherine Trammell.
These images are found in two of the darker pieces.
Playing out the idea of remote-controlled love, with wires and an eponymous timer thrown in, for instance, the narrator implies that he or she’s not in total emotional control, that they could abandon their relationship at any point. Hence the opening line of this review: All’s fair in love. Sure, the devastation of heartbreak can suggest an element of psychopathy from the heartbreaker.
But this able poet captures both sides in the collection. There are other pieces that wonderfully render the poet as victim of circumstance, of abandonment or of unrequited love. Diverse in length, subject and structure, there’s a haiku-like concision to some of the verse too.
I learned a new word from the collection too (or perhaps re-learned an old one, given the pliability of memory and vocabulary): Caliginous. Dark, dim or misty, according to the first definition that pops up from the Google. More of these poems might have an uncertainty to them if not for the confidence of Bowers’ voice. No doubt she can pull off such a feat when she chooses, but with descriptions of such emotional intelligence, and of powerful language, what we often get instead is razed houses, or conflagrations of pages of poetry, or an insistence that memories of lust or love could be turned to ash if the poet so chose.
Indeed, again, the collection’s theme seems to tie in, both neatly and more broadly, with the fantastic title. Love is a Song She Sang From A Cage is available at Amazon.

Book Review: The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

First published a decade ago, John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose (here at his site) features the Romanov dynasty’s final years at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and their subsequent detention after the 1917 revolutions in Russia.

Told via flashbacks, its narrator is Georgy, a peasant teenager who takes a bullet for the commander of the armed forces as he passes through the young man’s village, and is subsequently employed as an attendant to the crown prince.

Roddy Doyle covers a concurrent period of social upheaval in Dublin via Henry Smart.
If both books have a failing, it’s the creative flair employed in changing historical details to suit the narrative. Doyle’s A Star Called Henry extends the Volunteers’ takeover of Dublin’s General Post Office by a day during 1916’s Easter Rising, as Doyle had too much going on – or so he claimed at the time. But there’s very little in the novel that he couldn’t have worked around in terms of the historical details – even calling the shenanigans.
For Boyne, Rasputin’s death (as just one example) could have been mined for far more sh1ts and giggles. The crazy libertine attitude of the starets lunatic monk man and his cabal of princes and prostitutes could also have been hyped up.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the historical details before they start into the book might be disappointed with certain elements due to expectations – although the storyline itself entertains through the life of the protagonist and his wife.
Although it has its moments, the writing is surprisingly simple much of the time too.
There’s a thread or two left hanging a little too loosely, involving espionage, and a lack of closure related to bereavement – in fact plenty that doesn’t seem to round out as it could.
But so, too, is the life, with the threads that be a-hangin’.

Would I recommend it? Da. Nine thumbs-up here.
Here it is on Goodreads.

Ashby Holler by Jamie Zakian Book Review

Jamie Zakian’s Ashby Holler, available at Amazon, features the intrigues and political machinations of a transport company that is a front for a criminal enterprise. In more than one sense, Ashby Holler’s a lot like Game of Thrones transplanted to an American subculture. It seems at times as subtle, sex-filled and brutal.

The equivalents of earning of stripes, gang-hazing, and rising up through the mob are here, just tweaked with a wonderful originality that has evaded this reviewer in the past. I have yet to see Sons of Anarchy, for instance, and if there are similar ideas in other entertainments, they’ve passed me by.

Sasha Ashby is one of the younger members of this family-owned business, keen to become Sergeant-at-Arms. If she’s to enforce order within this group, however, she has to overcome prejudice against those who know she got a severe facial beating a few years previously from one of the other employees/gang members.

This bunch parties like the Irish, with drunken scraps playing side-show to main-character sexual interactions during birthday celebrations or other events. Characters end up in bed together after sidestepping such brawls on the way to the bedroom. Sasha has to contend with her own bisexuality which will not be tolerated if made public knowledge. Alongside Sasha’s sapphic fun, there’s a love triangle involving brothers. Relationship status? It’s complicated.

Adorable quote: Audrey Hepburn meets some stabby madwoman!

All the while, agendas are being woven into a delicately-plotted narrative that involves trucking, shipments and cabin conversation that explores the often-changing dynamics of a rich cast of characters.
Get this book here.
Follow Jamie Zakian on Twitter.

Dead Men Naked by Dario Cannizzaro

Dario Cannizzaro’s narrator Louis, the protagonist of Dead Men Naked (available at Amazon), loses his best friend Neil in a bizarre, seemingly hallucinogenic near-remote attack from an attic window as they stand in the same room, by Lou’s neighbour and a giant crow. Given the tequila and other substances taken, it is difficult to determine what exactly occurred through the narrator’s eyes. But Louis comes round the following morning worse-for-wear; he finds his friend’s body, realises that what happened was no dream, and summons the authorities to the scene.

Strange beginnings complement a funeral where Neil’s parents end up consoling him as much as vice versa. On the trip, while Lou drowns his sorrows, he meets Mallory at a nearby, not-so-nearby dive, and begins an exploration of the spirit world. The journey is a theme in this novel, the roadside scenery described with a vivid and subtle poetry throughout. Also beautifully captured are aspects relationships – for instance, lifelong friendship.
The idea that you can fall out with or fall away from childhood friends for a number of years, and revert back to that same friendship that will always be there, serves to fortify Lou’s sense of loss.
Also captured in the dreams within the novel are wonderfully subtle elements that are typical of our delta wave activities. The idea that you want to look at something, for instance, but you’re prevented from doing so by other factors that would be trivial in real life, is one detail that stood out.
There are aspects that have echoes of movies such as the Guillermo del Toro-produced The Orphanage, or even the more mainstream The Sixth Sense. The reader can take things a number of ways. Knowing what’s real and what’s not in this novel is not an issue, perhaps because knowing isn’t all that important. One can assume that the author expects a little reader interpretation.
Let it wash over you. It’s the kind of work that stays with you, and you can digest it long after you have read the final page.
Get Dead Men Naked on Amazon. Follow Dario Cannizzaro on Twitter.

Pressed Flowers by Bianca Bowers: A Review

Like many of the finest scribes, such as continental Irishmen Beckett and Joyce, Bianca Bowers is an exile. A poet and author originally from South Africa, now living in Australia, she often writes about rootlessness and place, and searches for a definition – or redefines the idea of – “home” in a variety of ways.

Pressed Flowers is a collection of poems she has retired. Think of them as a Greatest Hits album of the songs she no longer performs. Much of this work has been previously published and, given that many poetry publishers and contests demand first-publication rights, it’s easy to see how such a collection could come about. What is not so easy to understand is that Bianca Bowers is now giving away this inspiring work for free. All you have to do is to subscribe to her web presence.

Bowers’ poems frequently have a power, whether through the force of the language to which she’s clearly entitled given her eloquence, through a compulsion to claim the aforementioned space, or to articulate themes such as motherhood and aspects of the feminine. She’s not a man-basher, but anyone with any social insight will acknowledge that Bowers has some vindication to make a case for herself and for women more broadly. One of the most anti-man poems – if we could call it that – is His Sin, where the futility of fate is examined. A woman has to accept that her life will not be what she had hoped for. Whether abusive or unfaithful, the narrator’s lover is clearly a factor in this realisation – or at least the articulation of the idea.

Given that we don’t have far to look into many world cultures of both the present and the past to determine that men have frequently been (for example) pissing their wages against the alley wall next to the pub rather than bringing it home in the form of groceries or clothes, the universality in the personal is apparent.

Much of her work is characterised by loss or sadness. But again, to stress, Bowers’ poetry is rich and multi-hued in themes and tones. Her work is frequently vivid in its imagery, emotionally charged, dynamic, and raw. It features nature in various guises – both at its most brutally Darwinian and in its sheer beauty – often at the same time. It covers human interaction insightfully, and the strength and fragility of relationships. While I don’t want to give away details, the morbid Smiling Bag is a clever piece of work that could be shoehorned into a detective noir novel.

There is a very creative exploitation of language throughout this collection. What we can assume to be a road surface, hot underfoot, is described as “solar-powered tar”; in the same poem, a “secret sin” is apparently sent out as a bottled message into the sea in an act of catharsis. In this and other work, Bowers has a remarkable capacity to surprise.

Perspective is important too: A butterfly rests upon an elephant’s trunk, perhaps feeding on the larger beast’s tears. The sun is a mere star, the moon a whole planet.
Not every poem’s ideas appear fully developed, but – just as we can read a brilliant short story and say the same, in the sense of things being left open, the reader can draw conclusions – fully-teased out detail is unnecessary with imagery like this, and each piece is a satisfying read, distilled to fine thoughts and wonderful word choice.
There are images and ideas throughout Bowers’ work to inspire further thoughts and ideas, concepts and themes that leave this reader both contemplative and envious in an “I wish I’d thought of that” way.

Bianca’s website is here. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, and elsewhere.

Morium by SJ Hermann: Book Review

SJ Hermann’s Morium, available at Amazon, features school kids who are emotionally overwhelmed with life. 
It would not be too glib to suggest that the concepts behind EMO behavior are probably more broadly embraced than by those who identify overtly with the culture, and they are rife in this novel.
One might ask why that is. What with pallid handsome Edward Cullen, and the grip of vampiric subculture on the zeitgeist in the last ten years, teen angst has its outlets in pop culture in ways that are darker than, say, 90s grunge. Sure, there were always Goths. But black, today, is the new tie dye.

Introspection is a little more profound in the teenager – and solitude brings negative thoughts. This is all made explicit in this impressive debut.

Hermann’s Morium – the first book of a series – tackles the issue of bullying through the prism of science fiction and the supernatural. The novel features broody moody (although decent) teens, bullied in high school, who find themselves endowed with supernatural powers that they struggle to control.
Lexi is a self-harming girl whose single-parent father struggles to find a job. Like Lexi, her friend Nathan is undermined at school by bullies. A third character – whose sexuality was questioned by even parents when she arrived in the area – rounds out the triumvirate.
Small-mindedness is shown to be not exclusively prevalent among teens. And as the story progresses, we find out that the superpowers discovered by our heroes can become messy.
The metaphysical problem of other minds is addressed too, and issues concerning what constitutes a soul, although not explicit, are woven into the plot.
Nathan and Lexi – the victims of school bullying – level-up. Their high school adversaries are supplanted by villains such as bank thieves, rapists and muggers. Both supernatural and science fiction elements feature– and it is clear here that superpowers often corrupt. It would be fair to suggest that although the characters are identifiable, there is no clearly defined good vs evil – and so too in life. The roundedness of the story – and the dysfunction of the central characters – means that good people can turn bad.
The old billboard posters for the original Superman (1978) advised that the movie was worth watching because you’d believe a man can fly. Hermann’s detail in the flight of his characters is rich enough that you’ll believe the same. And in the best way, bringing about supernatural powers brings on superhero themes. Think Spiderman’s Uncle Ben on power and responsibility. Think the best of the Marvel Universe. And continuing the theme of movies that are like this book, in terms of character development and dynamics – splintered families, extraterrestrial stuff – it has touches of a great Zemeckis or Spielberg movie too.
There’s a dash of clever feigning on occasion – readers may be unsure sometimes who they’re following through the story for a page or two. But these sleights of hand have neat rewards.
Explaining the science bit also wraps neatly into the story. It is a tale with a moral core that impresses in this era where such details are rare.
You can get Morium today at Amazon. You can find other books in the series at SJ Hermann’s author page. Follow SJ Hermann on Facebook and Twitter.

Maze: Daughter of Darkness Part Two by Katya Mills Book Review

Maze, available at Amazon, is Part 2 in The Daughter of Darkness book series by Katya Mills. Your need to read the first is mitigated by a number of factors, not least that we learn about the origins of two of the main characters in the series here.
There’s a conceit in superhero movies and comics related to how the hero is created by the villain, or perhaps by some huge adversity. In versions of these tales:
-Spiderman gets his powers from a genetically enhanced spider bred by a nefarious corporation run by the Green Goblin’s alter ego
-Tony Stark becomes Iron Man when he’s kidnapped by terrorists and compelled to build the very suit which helps destroy them
-and Batman’s origins stem from the death of his parents at the hands of the Joker.
Maze by Katya Mills is available at Amazon
Maze by Katya Mills
Katya Mill’s Maze features the origin stories for Kell and Maze, both of whom are main characters in Mills’ books about DeLux (“Of Light”) creatures who live among us, masquerading as human. These beings feed off human fear. Like vampires, they can choose to simply take what they need, they can leave their victims fearless, or they can suckle on their human victims until they die.
Kell discovers her essence as DeLux through what she sees of her uncles; like a pack of dogs who are fully domesticated in the house, once they leave family life, they go hunting at night for their human prey. Kell flees her borderland Texas home in horror.
Maze – the heroine’s love interest – is somewhat more self-created, discovering his true nature in his pubescence, in a less affluent area of Los Angeles. But he too has been forced to flee an oppressive father, once his mother determines that he has inherited her recessive gifts.
There are touches of the epic in these events. They feature incidents that could fit into modern-day versions of the heroic flight of Aeneas, or Odysseus’ efforts to return to Ithaca. 
There’s a Tom Bombadil type choral character in Kell’s backstory, an old man with a clubfoot, who brings insight to her about her family. I’d like to see more of him.
Indeed, the writing is such well-crafted, literary stuff that if the novel has a failing, it’s that Mills seems to throw away some fine details in a single line. But when there’s so much going on, it’s irrelevant which aspects are focused on and which aren’t.
There are wonderful dynamics developed between the characters; the jealousy over who gives a massage, shared love of ice cream, and establishment of how characters dislike and distrust each other.
But this novel ends on a climactically powerful low note with a snake motif. There is friction in Ame’s tight little group, and – as villainy becomes apparent – Maze may be considered the Empire Strikes Back of the series so far.
You are likely to never read anything quite like this.
You can buy Maze at Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Katya Mills is on Twitter. Much of her incandescent web presence is curated by this great scribe here and here.

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle Book Review

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle (available on Amazon US and UK) is making its way into paperback format this month 
(August 2016).

As I read through, I am enthused to see in Searle a scribe who can pen a (somewhat) memoir-like piece of long, (recent) historical fiction, with the panache of an old gentleman such as Graham Greene.

UHQ-literary style is a rarity in thriller fiction today; Banville could be cited as an example, but his novels – if thrillers at all, and some involve murder and conspiracy – are finely wrought outliers. 

There is action in The Good Liar – not frenetically paced, much of it well timed to be surprising – and certainly more than enough violence to punctuate the humorous or cogent discussions of and meditations on infirmity, duping, history and politics.
I found the Grumpy Old Man at the novel’s core to be somewhat endearing; he has much of the same shtick as a typical moaner.

Searle’s work matches style with great plotting. Dickensian-Gothic elements permeate a prewar Nazi Germany rife with Trumplike hate, and a catfishing scam artist many decades later as the protagonist who claims no interest in history, as what’s past is past. 

But elderly Roy has played a greater part in post-war Europe’s reconstruction than he cares to admit. Beyond a superb plot, the book is a rivetting character analysis of how Roy – through his history – comes to be the grumpy old manipulator we are presented with at the novel’s opening. 

A reader might ask: “Are some people born nasty?” It’s a determination that is difficult to figure out.

You can buy the book in all good bookshops. It’s available at  Amazon US and UK.

Follow Nicholas Searle on Twitter.

Have you seen this girl? by Carissa Ann Lynch Book Review

Remember that daft End Of Days (1999) movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, with Gabriel Byrne as the devil? What was it called? 

One of the opening scenes is Arnie waking up in his messy apartment, and putting together a breakfast that includes a cup of coffee, some Chinese leftovers and slice of greasy pizza that he’s just found on the floor. He sticks it all into a blender and turns the thing into a smoothie.

I’d wonder if that was in the script. At what point in the production did somebody say “Okay, we’re two scenes into this 90 minute movie. We need something at this point that’s so farken lewdurkriss that it will make people want to walk out of the theater. Any pizza anywhere?”

The first book in the Flocksdale Files series, Have you seen this girl? by Carissa Ann Lynch features a similar opening scene – the home of what appears to be a heroin-snorting couple. It’s done better than Hollywood could manage in its fin-de-siecle excesses. The scene reads like a panning shot in a movie, as it describes the heroine’s (fnar!) routine. A wonderfully described hovel, and there ain’t a daft breakfast NutriBlast in sight. Wendi DOES use a straw to start her day. (Actually, it’s a straw-shaped dollar bill. Her place is so messy that she can’t find the straw.)

Think of a pal you consider braver or more foolhardy than yourself. Imagine being held by terrorists alongside this friend, and you watch this friend getting his head blown off because he shows a little backbone. What would you do then?

This is the kind of stomach-churning scenario you’ll also find here.

The story could be read more broadly as a metaphor for drug addiction (alongside the drug addiction itself). Are we responsible for the daft mistakes we make in our early teens?

With drugs, you can reach a point at which you decide “No!” But you could be hooked already, acquired insight at odds with your needs. Addiction ensnares: So too is Wendi. And the irony of her appalling situation is acute.

Lynch is deft at presenting the most horrific material with such subtlety and taste that she inspires reader fear and empathy without being graphic or lewd. I can hear parents everywhere asking their writer offspring: “Why can’t you write more like that lovely author, with the books about prostitution and the drug addicts?”

It’s all great stuff.

Get the first book on Amazon! Get the whole series there too!

Follow Carissa Ann Lynch on Twitter!