Bombs and Butterflies by Jo Carroll

bombsI’ve travelled with Jo Carroll (virtually) a couple of times before, so I knew I was in for a treat when she decided to take a trip to Laos.  Not that I had much of a clue where Laos was. No matter. It was costing me nothing (or simply the price of an ebook) and I was about to be whisked off to Laos (near Vietnam) via Thailand.

Jo has been something of an independent traveller in the past, having undertaken an exciting (sometimes too exciting?) round the world ticket gap year as a retiree; followed by a trip to Nepal, where she nearly bit off more than she could chew (or did it nearly bite her?) These trips are covered in the excellent Over the Hills and Far Away and its all too short follow up Hidden Tiger, Raging Mountain (both available and highly recommended as ebooks). In Bombs and Butterflies, because her time was short, she took the executive decision to go along (to an extent) with a tour group.  Which somewhat changed the dynamics of her journey for her and gave her perhaps more restrictions than she is used to or feels completely comfortable with.

However, it didn’t change the interest for the reader. Because (at least for me) one of the most compelling things about Jo’s travel writing is that she doesn’t just wax lyrical or informative (though she’s good at both of these) about scenery and history of a place; her journey is at least as much about the people she meets as the places she goes. And I’m interested in people. All kinds of people. Be they Aussie ‘backpackers’ or Buddhist monks.  Bombs and Butterflies introduces you to your fair share of both.

One of the things that puts me off travelling is the very transiency of the experience and the sense that unless one spends a lot of time in a place (something I am unable to do) you don’t really get into the skin of a place, you don’t really get to ‘know’ anything, or make anything other than superficial connections.  But at one step removed, travelling vicariously with Jo, I find that I get to know more than I ever imagined (and probably more than I’d  do if I  travelled on my own.) I don’t think this is just because Jo is a more ‘intrepid’ traveller than I would be, I think it’s because she is as she styles herself now a ‘writer and traveller’ and she knows how to convert her experience into words that take the reader straight to the heart of the matter – be that place or person. Her observational skills are good and her eyes are 20:20!  She doesn’t try to give you anything other than her own experience but that’s part of what’s so captivating. Reading Jo’s work you feel you get to know her as well as the people she’s meeting and share in her experiences along the way (all from the safety of your own couch!) That’s no easy feat.

So I can highly recommend Bombs and Butterflies as yet another episode in the ‘adventures’ of Jo Carroll.  I can’t wait to know where she’s going to head off to next. I don’t go on holidays any more. I don’t need to: I travel with Jo Carroll every step of the way. Keep travelling Jo. Keep writing about it.  There are two places I’d like Jo to go next: Cuba (where I’ve been) and Bolivia (where I haven’t). She’ll need to get saving those pennies.

Cally Phillips reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective smallREADING

Review of The Care Home

carehomeThis is in some ways an ‘expose’ of the Care Home system, but that’s not its central purpose. It is every bit as much one man’s story of trying to make it as a writer.  It’s hard-edged, gritty and not for the faint hearted. It is unrelenting and uncompromising.  It’s also, dare I say it, a bit unfocussed.

A decade or more ago when I used to read TV/Film scripts professionally, I came across ‘drug’ stories all too frequently.  There are many ‘stoners’ who think that writing a story about their experiences will be a cool thing to do (presumably post Trainspotting they felt it was an emerging genre) and without exception what all of these scripts had in common is that they looked like they were written not just by a ‘stoner’ but by someone who was stoned while writing. And since I wasn’t stoned while reading, they really didn’t work for me. It’s that good old bad old myth about all great writers being substance abusing addicts at core (which Lee Carrick also alludes to) which seems to be behind all this.  I could counter this claim quite easily with a list of ‘great’ writers who never took to the bottle or the medicine cabinet, but that’s for a blog post, not a review.  What I will say though, is that writing about drugs culture is actually quite hard to do well. Neil Rushton achieves it in Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and Lee Carrick shows some promise in this field.

Anyone reading this novella will be shocked by the way that the elderly are treated in the Care Home (and indeed should be shocked) and at times the narrator crosses the boundaries of reader sympathy through his own actions. Can we excuse him because of the ‘drug dependence’? I don’t think so.  For me that’s another example of the drug culture excusing its own bad behaviour and it’s a shame because in general one has great sympathy for the young Carrick (we can only assume that as it’s a first person narrative, this is autobiographical to an extent). But he treads a difficult line because he’s showing how callous the ‘system’ is while occasionally straying over the line  into callousness himself. The ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’ don’t sit easily together in this story.  But Carrick can certainly write.  His narrative choices are less successful.  He seems to position narrator and writer as one and that ‘character’ doesn’t gain my sympathy.  I think it’s a mistake, maybe a naïve one but for me it spoils what is otherwise a potentially really important story.  Stuart Ayris  A Cleansing of Souls covers abuse in a much more sophisticated way.  I’d recommend Carrick (and others) to read both Ayris and Rushton if they want to find out how to work in this ‘genre.’

While the rawness and immediacy of the story works quite well, I feel that there’s a more significant story waiting to get out there.  I don’t normally write reviews as if they are script reports but in this case I’m going to make an exception because I feel the writer warrants it.  For me, if The Care Home focussed less on the narrator/authors ‘drug’ experiences and more on the iniquities of what happens at The Care Home, it would be a much better read and reach a much wider audience (which is what the narrator/author claims to want to do).  There are plenty of writers who use their own experience to ‘shock’ but I think that if Carrick aims more at Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ than being influenced by the ‘greats’ who have relied on drugs for their inspiration, and in turn inspire the ‘stoner’ brigade to write self reflexive, self absorbed material of no interest to any but themselves;  he would stand more chance of achieving a work which can grace the shelves of a bookshop.  Although of course maybe he should get up to speed on that front too – maybe he’d rather write ebook niche fiction. It’s his choice. He needs to find his niche or target his market. It’s his choice.  The e-revolution has made all things possible. No one holds you back these days.  McStorytellers has published this novella and they are gaining quite a reputation for ‘giving voice’ to the previously ‘unvoiced.’  But it’s fundamentally the writers choice what he writes and where he ‘positions’ it in the new infinite ‘marketplace.’  And this is perhaps the crux of my dissatisfaction with The Care Home. The narrator/writer seems to aspire to entering the mainstream but perhaps only to stick two fingers up to it. This is an immature reason for writing and hopefully Carrick the writer will shift purpose and aim to write great fiction.  I guess what I’m saying is that if the narrator/writer shifted focus and wrote about what he could put a unique stamp on and was really interesting to the rest of us – the Care Home system – instead of diverting us with the juvenile ‘drugs’ life-experience of a writer (not original and not that interesting) then he might really have something.  It’s definitely worth a read, it gives a voice to a potentially up and coming writer – but it’s largely down to Carrick himself which way he goes from this point on. There’s plenty of ‘could have been a contender’ stories out there.  With this under his belt, he needs to move on and really engage with writing something of substance. In my opinion.  He’s lucky  in one respect.  Ten years ago I would have been paid £50 for such advice. Today, he’s got it for free!

The Care Home is available in Kindle (and paperback) formats.

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Review of The Burrymen War by Brendan Gisby

burrymenThe latest from the pen of Brendan Gisby does not disappoint.  I loved his ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ which was a sort of fact meets fiction biography of his father.  Reading it broke my heart just a little and I really wanted to read more.  Gisby writes in many different styles, and is impossible to categorise (one reason he may not have found mainstream success) and so despite have read many more of his works – from short story collections to novels – nothing quite hit the spot reached by ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ (which is not to say that I ever finish reading a Gisby work without having enjoyed them. Just in different ways). With ‘The Burrymen War’ I found the ‘missing link’ from ‘The Bookie’s Runner.’  While The Burrymen is more obviously fictionalised (the central character is half Asian half Catholic) it still carries the trademark honesty of Brendan Gisby’s strongest work.  You feel the heart in it.  But this is altogether a darker story than ‘The Bookie’s Runner.’

Let me put it this way. When I was a student in Fife, there was one (and only one) pub I wouldn’t go into in town.  Having read ‘The Burrymen War’, I’m glad I never did. Because this pub was the hang out of the kind of men that populate ‘The Burrymen War’. Not a place for a philosophy student to casually drop into expecting a high level debate. Not a place student life in all its unreality would be appreciated. A place where real life is lived.  The setting of ‘The Burrymen War’ is a hard-edged, gritty place. Small town prejudice abounds but Brendan Gisby paints this with the authenticity and dare one say love, that only one who had grown up in such surroundings could. Love may be a strange word to use when there is so much hatred in the book, but if you read it you’ll understand what I mean.  You can’t write honestly without imparting emotion and you can’t write emotionally (even about hatred) without love being a part of it.  We are not talking romantic love here. We are talking something much deeper. Love as a sense of self in community and despair as an isolation from and loss of community.

I don’t know of the history of the ‘real’ Burryman, so I can’t speculate on where fact and fiction diverge, but I can tell you that this is a totally convincing fiction.  Set in The Ferry (where so much of Gisby’s work is set) it is reminiscent of the ‘real’ life 1980’s Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. But with an East Coast flavour.

Don’t let me give you the idea it’s unrelentingly grim. There are many moments of humour within it. You feel at times that the central characters are like a latter day Guy Fawkes gang, hapless and doomed to failure – and yet, in one sense they succeed. The ‘plot’ is cleverly constructed and keeps the story running along. You care what happens to the characters and however alien their world is, they draw you into it. Not just as a voyeur but as an accessory.  But the dark side is always there.

Gisby is an accomplished storyteller who uses structure and ‘voice’ in interesting ways throughout his work.  In ‘The Burrymen War’ the retrospective narrator is Gisby at his absolute best – looking at a past with the benefit of hindsight – and the insight this brings constructs the meaning of that past and contexualises it for the reader while keeping both time frames vividly alive.

‘The Bookie’s Runner’ was a great wee story. Like a Chinese meal it left me wanting more, and ‘The Burrymen War’ completed the meal.  The meal analogy is too tame. It was more like a love affair ended too soon.  After which you cast around for something to make you feel the same way again. ‘The Burrymen War’ made me feel everything I felt in ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ but in a more ‘grown up’ way.  It’s too simplistic to say that ‘The Burrymen War’ completes the space left by ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ because it’s quite a different story but underneath  I still feel strongly that it’s part of the same thing. Part of Gisby’s explanation of the world he’s lived in.  His narrative stance/s in all his works provide a fascinating insight into the man as author and the world as he sees it.  And he times the stories to perfection. Each book is precisely the length they should be and together they seem to provide a completeness.  To fully understand what I mean you’d have to read both of them. I hope you do.

You can get hold of The Burrymen War as an ebook or as a paperback.

I guess you could read it first then read The Bookie’s Runner. But since Brendan prices his work FAR FAR too cheaply you could pick up an ebook copy of both for less than a Starbucks coffee.  And experience a much fuller flavoured taste.  And the ‘aftertaste’ will stay with you a lot longer.  So go on. Give yourself a feast of reading. Coffee for the mind not just for the brain.

51S+7KOV8jL._AA115_The Bookie’s Runner ebook and paperback 

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smallREADINGAlso, note this is blog post 99, so the next one will be a special 100th POST! Coming Soon!


The Valley of Granite and Steel by Mike Maggio

The Valley of Granite and StteelI can categorically say I’ve never read anything like this before. In a good way.  That may just be a statement of my ignorance of a whole genre, sub genre or whatever and I’d love to think that there are many, many more American writers out there writing this kind of stuff. Because it certainly bucks the trend of what I expect from contemporary American fiction. Although I think the last piece of American fiction I read was This Book Does not Exist Which also isn’t exactly representative of American fiction (I think) but was also like nothing I’d ever read before. So maybe I am the stoopid one here, maybe I should get my hiney out on the internet and check out many more American novels on the indie ebook circuit.

But enough of my ignorance.  If I were to categorise (simply in an attempt to explain) this book I’d call it ‘magic realism meets political satire’ and sit back thinking I was smart. Except I’m still not really sure I know what magic realism is.  So I may be wrong on that score.  But when folk start flying through the air and presidents lose their mouth and black guys get two mouths and the like, I’m realising that I’m not in the average, downtown world of political satire where I feel a bit more at home.

The story is told through three main sets of characters. The President of the United States (a loosely disguised G.W.Bushalike), a downtrodden African American called Larry White and a Pakistani immigrant called Choudry and his extensive family.  The central narrative explores what it means to have a voice. This is told through mouths. Too many and too few of them with hilarious, but quite serious results.  It deals with the role of politics, religion and racist stigmatising and stereotyping – and yet is much funnier than this could possibly suggest.  It’s not laugh out loud knockabout humour; rather, you buy into the whole ridiculous world in the same way that you have to for something like Gullivers Travels. But it’s political and social satire of that ilk in a modern setting.

What I liked about this book was how remarkably ordinary the description was. This completely absurd story was told in straightforward, simple, often quite elegant language which urged you to ingest it like the whole thing could be real. Which of course it couldn’t. Could it? – Well, that’s the whole crux of political satire isn’t it? And so one big fat tick on that score.

Having spent what seems like an interminable lifetime (10 years) being an unsuccessful screenwriter, I rarely indulge in the ‘this would make a good film’ line – because it’s such a fruitless comment to make. But in this case I say it because while reading I could actually see this film in the style of a Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze film. Mike Maggio fills Charlie Kaufman’s role of course. Which is saying something as I have the utmost respect for Charlie Kaufman.  For me (and I stress only for me – I suspect there are many more apposite analogies from modern film – a culture I have abandoned in the last 10 years) it had shades of Being John Malkovich meets Eternal Sunshine meets Inception – but this is a stylistic comment not one on the narrative per se. What I’m saying is there are guys who would make the most fantastic film version of this story using in camera effects and all kind of narrative ‘tricks’ But of course it would never get funded any more than it would get a mainstream publisher. Because it’s not telling the sort of story that attracts funding. The voice is too ‘out there’, too challenging to put big bucks behind, or even indie bucks behind I’m guessing. So it wouldn’t make a good film where a good film is determined by box office return. In a parallel universe where creativity counts for more than money it would make a great indie film and gain a great cult following – and I guess it should do the same in ebook form. It is a great read.  But its visuality just cries out to be seen.  We should, though, consider ourselves lucky that while we can’t see it on any kind of a screen, because of the digital revolution we can imagine it for ourselves. We don’t have to feed only on McMainstream fodder.

You can’t buy this book on Amazon or through the ‘usual’ sources. You have to go to to purchase it. Which in itself may be significant. There is much more to explore in American publishing than you might imagine. The Write Deal is a different kind of publishing model – a bookstore which you can become a member of, selling ebooks which I’ll lay odds wouldn’t get out there in the mainstream market any other way. Yes, they might languish in the depths of Amazon’s store, but this is a more proactive way of creating a niche. Here you can browse and download right from the publisher. I predict we’ll see many more of these endeavours in the coming years.

Find out more about Mike Maggio

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Albeson and the Germans by Jan Needle

albesonIt’s a children’s book. Yeah, right. In the same way that Lord of the Flies is a kids book. And that’s a good place to start. With a comparison with Lord of the Flies. It may not strike you straight away that these two books cover much of the same ground but, scrunch your brain up just a little and you’ll realise as I did, that in fact Albeson and the Germans is even more shocking than Lord of the Flies.  Golding gives us his tale of social disintegration and dysfunction at one step removed; you have to believe that all these kids are on a deserted island with no adults around.  By contrast, Albeson is in Portsmouth. A very real Portsmouth. A real kid, with real parents, living a real life.  His experience of society is brutalising and his grip on it all is weak. He is buffeted and bruised by all around him but carries on regardless, because he doesn’t know what else to do.  It’s just life, isn’t it. You just have to live it. As a child you have no control over any of it.

Showing the world from the view of the boy is what gives this story its power. And it’s also proof that even if we are born with a ‘moral compass’ it can be shoved off course by our upbringing and experience. Yet the heartening thing about this story is that through it, and despite everything, Albeson finds his own moral compass (compass is a good word to use here!) He has to take himself out of his environment, out of his ‘culture’ and into another place.  I don’t want to spoil the story but the emergence of the young hero is both structurally clever and reassuringly realistic. Who’d have thought that chips would bring about such change?

There are some really shocking things revealed in this story, especially as regards vandalism – but the point of it is to show the mindset of the child involved – and it does this admirably. If you’ve  ever just dismissed kids as ‘a bad lot’ this will make you think again. It really does give you another perspective on the nature versus nurture debate.

The central point is that Albeson is out of his depth in his own life. I’m sure many of us felt the same as children. And grew up believing the lies and prejudices we were inculcated with at an early age. For Albeson,  the Germans are his nemesis. Fear of them drives him into many a scrape. And beautifully, it is the Germans who actually ‘save’ him and change his life’s course.  I’m not apologising for all the nautical inspired words here because it is when Albeson leaves the shore and sets out on his journey to sea that he ‘finds’ himself.  He has to take himself out of his corrupt society, and stand as an individual on his feet for the first time. Albeit those feet are far off the ground and on a rocking deck.  The symbolism here is underplayed but it’s there.  Albeson’s ‘fall’ is also his rise. He achieves, if not closure, at least a compass bearing for the future.

I loved Albeson. Not just the book, I mean the little boy. I felt for him. I didn’t judge him as much as I judged those around him. I found it hard to deal with his parents. I couldn’t get to grips with his ‘oppo’ Smithy but I empathised with the confused way Albeson related to all those around him. He exhibited a sort of bemused innocence mixed with that childish self-centeredness which makes their motives so impenetrable to him. No one else makes much sense to Albeson. And when you look at it, they actually often don’t make much sense at all! That’s the real triumph of the story, it puts you into the mind of an eleven year old boy, warts and all. It moves you, it shocks you and it offers redemption and hope. And it’s far more ‘real’ than Lord of the Flies. To paraphrase Wilfred Owen: the symbolism is in the story.  I know that Jan Needle really rates Moby Dick as a novel. I’ve never got my head round it. I have a suspicion that Albeson and the Germans may offer an insight into that longer novel and that means I really should go and investigate Moby Dick with my new found understanding and interest in underlying symbolism. If I ever do manage to read Moby Dick it will be thanks to Jan Needle.

If you give this book to a child I think it would be advisable to use the experience as a starting point for some intergenerational communication. By which I mean listening as well as talking. Because this is a book to read not just if you are a child, but if you want to understand a child’s eye view of the world.

You can buy this as an ebook for Kindle


Cally Phillips is a member of the Reading Between the Lines Collective

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Preserving fiction and creating something new…


“We choose to go to the moon…  and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. (JFK, 1962)

The Preservation of the Olive Branch is quite remarkable. It does not just defy genre, it almost defies definition. It is not just a work of fiction, it is a reflection on the creative process.  If you don’t grasp this you will not get to grips with the power of the narrative.  The best way I can put it is that in this novel the author undergoes an exercise in the art of ‘seeing ourselves as others see us.’ But that’s not all.

There are two journeys running through the story. One is the simple narrative:  a thriller

that wants to be a political novel – which fails in its endeavour because of the lack of skill of its young writer – and the other is the life journey of that writer as he revisits his creation some thirty years later. Putting these journeys together you get the life not just of the writer/ narrator  but also to some degree of the author. And this is a compelling idea. It is an exploration of the layers of narrative found here which both challenges and rewards the reader in equal measure.

The potential problems for a reader are that the original ‘novel’ is quite weak in places as the preserving narrator/writer himself acknowledges. An inability to see that the story is not just the novel can prejudice the reader – here is the narrator telling him/her that the story is not good and yet inviting them to read on. Why should they?

Initially it’s because the narrator himself is quite captivating and his story is considerably more compelling than that of ‘The Olive Branch’ itself. And this is what the reader needs to appreciate.  It is the act of preservation which elevates the original novel way beyond what it was. And this is a key and important concept to grasp. The narrator is not just preserving a text, he is revisiting his youth and reassessing his former opinions, strengths, weaknesses and issues of confidence. And he is brave enough to lay this bare for the reader.

As the story goes on, the narrator is drawn back into a reassessment of his past and his relationship with his creative process and we as readers are similarly moved. It is when we get drawn into the subtext, the creative process and the reflective aspect of this work that it really comes to life.

The Preservation of the Olive Branch goes way beyond being a novel and enters the realms of asking what a novel is. What fiction is. What creativity is. It’s deep and it requires a lot from a reader. But then it required a lot from the author, not just the narrator, and it is the layered narrative and the one step removed aspect of the work that really captivates. Brendan Gisby may still lack the confidence to stand in the centre of his work – the narrator offers a second hand perspective of the author’s real thoughts – although when he does this, as in The Bookie’s Runner, his writing is truly moving.  But it is that lack of authorial confidence which is at the core of Gisby’s writing and nowhere more so than in The Preservation – where he bravely tackles this issue for himself and lets us in on the process.  The honesty and humility with which he writes is quite unique and deeply moving.

This is definitely not a novice ride. And I would recommend that readers read both The Bookie’s Runner and The Island of Whispers before they attempt this book. That way they will have seen the best of Brendan Gisby’s writing both his fact as fiction/memoir and his political novel and they will be in no doubt that what he’s attempting in Preservation of the Olive Branch is something worth the investment of time on the part of the reader. You need to be reading on at least two levels all the way through. You need to be challenging your own pre-conceptions of writing style and of the importance of class in confidence and creativity. And most of all you need to be unafraid to challenge your own preconceptions and prejudices about the construction and consumption of creativity.  You will find out more about Brendan Gisby by reading The Preservation of the Olive Branch. If you read it carefully enough, you’ll probably also find out more about yourself.

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The Physic Garden by Catherine Czerkawska

physisI may be stretching the truth only a little when I suggest that in days gone by mainstream literary publisher types dismissed this novel as ‘just an old man’s havers’. But dismiss it they did and it’s just another indication of the fact that ‘no one knows anything’ is all too prevalent in mainstream publishing.

Here in the world of indie publishing I DO know something and I believe I can spot good writing and a great novel when I see one. That’s why I write reviews, to share this knowledge with you, the potential reader. And for my money, if there was any justice in the world I reckon The Physic Garden would (and should) win the Orange Prize for Fiction – or similar.

I have read a lot of Catherine Czerkawska’s output over the past year (and known her for many years) but believe me my comments on The Physic Garden would stand whoever had written it.  Knowing the writer and some of the ‘history’ around the non publication of it, I feel confident in stating that it has become clear to me that while some writers may well need editing, other writers write best when unfettered by the constraints of the mainstream demands and fashions.  Catherine is clearly one of these writers. As a longstanding professional she is more than capable of structural editing and with developing confidence I hope that she will finally realise that work such as The Physic Garden is not in the bestsellers list purely because they are served by marketplace fashion rather than by any real understanding of what makes good novels.

This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. It’s reminiscent to me of The Mill on the Floss and Tess of the D’Urbevilles BUT it’s better because I cheered when the Tullivers were drowned they annoyed me so much and however much I know I should have sympathy for Tess I just want to give her a slap and tell her to grow up. In constrast I had such a feeling of emotional engagement and empathy for William Lang that it actually broke my heart a bit when the denoument was revealed. Yes it’s true. I kept telling myself, it’s only a story but WHAT a story. It is a beautiful, elegant at time elegaic expression and exploration of betrayal.

And the construction is so great too.  In the beginning it seems incredible to the reader that William can have much of a secret, and one cannot imagine what the ‘betrayal’ which caused the lack of friendship would be. I guess it’s at this point that the superficial reader would dismiss the story as ‘an old man’s havers.’ It may be an old man’s havers. If so, what havers. And actually, what we have is yes, an old man, but he’s telling the story of his life, so it’s not ‘old’ in any sense at all.  Perhaps the combination of an old man looking back on his life in a historically distant time is too much for the superficial reader?  But the skill with which Czerkawska keeps the reader on the hook, getting right to the end of their tether asking ‘why’ and ‘what’ and ‘how’ (active engagement in such questions is a great way to draw an audience through a story in much more depth than simply feeding them a plot which answers specific questions at every small step of the way) and one has a constant unease because one realises it must be something really bad if William is still so obsessed with Thomas even all these years on. And yet, the old man William, how can he have any really dark secret?  We are played with in the best way possible. It’s not a ‘thriller’ but it keeps you asking questions and so keeps you engaged.

Then, we find out part of the reason. And it’s shocking. And sympathy with William is firmly established. However, one still can dismiss William (the young William) as simply being too ‘moral’ for the world he finds himself in and conclude that he’s bound to be let down by Thomas – but you’ve still only got a small part of the whole story under your belt. There’s so much more.  One becomes as obsessed with finding the answers in the story as William is with Thomas. That is really clever writing.

There is so much domesticity that one is completely tricked into thinking the ‘bad’ thing will have to be small and William’s response will have to be over-reaction.  You think?  Czerkawska pulls us along towards some truly grim and awful resolutions and even when you think you’ve cracked the ‘why’s’ they suddenly become less important.  When you know why there is still more.  It’s not just about the reasons. It’s about the effects. It’s a deep study of betrayal and how that impacts over a lifetime.  I was being manipulated by the writer all the way along in the best of ways.  I felt like Czerkawska was completely in control of her story and that I was privileged to have it fed out to me in the way it was. No editor could have done a better job, believe me. This is writing from the heart and with the skill of a lifetime’s experience as a creative individual.

The history is also very interesting. There’s plenty of wee gems of information regarding gardening and publishing – the impact of the printworks on the garden is a very clever and very powerful image throughout and works on the reader on a subliminal level to show the connectedness of things which otherwise one dismisses as quite diverse.

But most of all I have to commend the power of the writing which can get a reader to care so much (about an old man’s havers.)  When the denoument is finally revealed and it all comes crashing down around the reader’s head, Czerkawska is not finished. She has consideration for the bombshell she has dropped and gives us time to fully get to grips with what’s happened by the final section which patiently explains life ‘after’ the end and pulls all those questions together and leads to understanding. This section contains the most eloquent and deep exegesis of betrayal I think I’ve ever read.  It touched me deeply. And it got me thinking about betrayal in a whole new light. Which again has be great for a novel – it connected directly with my lived experience.  It’s a novel written by a very good writer and written for readers. It may not have passed through the filter of mainstream editors but I think it’s all the more powerful for that. This is truly an ‘authored’ piece and the committee work a publishing company looking for that elusive ‘bestseller’ would have destroyed it.  If you ever want an example of how writers can achieve great things without intervention – this is it. This is as good (and better) a novel as many I have read, including classics.  But what do I know – after all, this review would be dismissed by the mainstream as just an old woman’s havers wouldn’t it?

The Physic Garden is available in Kindle format    and find out more about Catherine Czerkawska. 

Cally Phillips is a member of the Reading Between the Lines review collective. Click the picture to find out more.

Today  this review is also featured as the final review on the Indie eBook Review site.  It was a great experience editing that site for a year, but all good things have to evolve and out of IEBR has come Reading Between the Lines, a looser, more manageable review collective.   The quality of the books and the reviews is the same. The admin headaches are seriously reduced. I hope you’ll become a regular reader of our reviews year’s work.  For those mourning the passing, don’t fear – we have evolved into a more flexible, less admin hungry review collective and in future if you’re looking for a great read, why not try the evolved site READING BETWEEN THE LINES on Facebook. All you have to do is like the page to get news of the latest reviews.

If you don’t ‘do’ Facebook you can also keep updated about Reading Between the Lines HERE 


Hot off the Press…

I seem to have gone review crazy this month – well, I’ve had some time to read during the great water/snow/gale crisis so I’ve been unable to do much writing and this is the result.  Also, to show that with the demise/evolution of IEBR there is still life in the old reviewer yet.  Things will settle down to a more regular pattern in February but with a group of other avid writer/readers you can guarantee that you won’t get withdrawal symptoms when IEBR closes its doors on 21st Feb.  

Today, hot off the press is a review I wrote in anticipation of the publication of Mark Frankland’s latest offering:  

King Kenny’s Revolution. 

kennyYou say you want a revolution? Mark Frankland’s latest football story set in Liverpool may be just what you’ve been looking for.

I’ve read most of Mark’s football stories/novellas/novels (the man does have a passion for Liverpool FC unmatched among writers and greater than Nick Hornby for Arsenal) In fact maybe t’North should reclaim Mark as ‘our Nick Hornby’ Though apparently Nick brought football to the middle classes. In King Kenny’s Revolution I think that Frankland makes the case for football for the working classes (as well!) in this short but passionate story which makes the case for a revolution in the way football clubs are ‘owned’ and ‘managed.’

Historically of course professional football started with industrialisation. Mid to late 19th century urban workers were given (luxury of luxuries) a half day on a Saturday.  Professional football started as a way of giving them something to do (and spend their money on) so that they’d avoid the drink!  If you were an urban worker in mid to late 19th century Britain you worked all week, went to the footie on a Saturday and church most of the day Sunday. No time to idle around in them days!  No time (or money) for retail therapy.  In checking my ‘facts’ for this review I was amazed to discover that Liverpool FC was originally part of Everton. The impact of the split in 1892 which brought Liverpool into being must have been every bit as important to the ‘fans’ as the religious ‘Disruption’ some years earlier in Scottish Church history and indeed it turns out that from the very inception of Liverpool FC there’s a lot of interesting ‘ownership’ issues. The history of the club is inextricably linked with social history.

But enough of history.

In short, here’s what I can tell you about King Kenny’s Revolution of which I’ve been privileged to have a pre-publication read.

If you’re a Liverpool fan you’ll cheer.

If you’re a football fan at all, it’ll make you think twice about the price of tickets.

If you’re an ‘average’ wage earner things will start adding up at last.

If you’re a banker it’ll give you nightmares.

Because this clever little story is so fanciful and yet so plausible at the same time. It’s a dream, a wish fulfilment if you like  BUT if you get into the nitty gritty and crunch the numbers and look at the possibilities you can see not only that it could happen but that maybe it should happen.  I personally think that several Scottish football clubs could employ Mark Frankland to sort out their finances for them.  Mark shows a way that Liverpool FC could achieve something that Rangers FC haven’t managed – simply by looking at the club ‘ownership’ issue from a diametrically opposed view.  Instead of exploiting the little man as ‘shareholder’ his story suggests a whole new way in which fans can take ‘ownership’ and stick one in the eye to the bankers and big corporations too. What’s not to love?

Typically for Frankland, his story takes hold of you so fast that you are sucked into the ‘themes’ or the ‘angle’ of his socio-political stance. He makes you believe and that’s no bad thing in this modern world! And does it through a simple, story with real characters living ordinary lives – something that certainly anyone with an interest in football can relate to and enjoy.  And I reckon anyone with a dislike of the current global corporation version of capitalism too!

I feel I should also add that the worst script I ever read in my time reading scripts for Channel 4 (halcyon days!) was about golf.  I have steered clear of anything written about golf ever since, though late in life I’ve become something of a golf fan (watching not playing). And so it surprised and pleased me to find that the golf sections of Frankland’s book were well written, funny and as compelling as everything else he writes. So it is possible to write a good story with golf in it!  I no longer need to squirm at the thought of ‘The Back Nine.’

In conclusion – with a final Beatles title in mind: Imagine this – Mark Frankland may be a dreamer, but he’s not the only one. This fantasy COULD become reality. It just needs a few million people to come on board.  Why not invest in the ebook as a first revolutionary step?  It could give you an insight into more than the world of Liverpool FC!

You can get your hands on this little gem from Amazon in Kindle formatminiamazon



Gothic Horror is the new black!

quickening Review of  The Quickening By Mari Biella. 

I’d avoided novel when it came into my reading radar previously because I don’t like HORROR (either as a genre or a feature of my life!) Despite a great review from a fellow writer I respect (Dennis Hamley) who raves about it as a psychological thriller (which I can JUST about handle) I never got round to it. Until Mari came into my view commenting on a blog. At that point I put my theory of reciprocity (or just nosiness) to the test. What happens with me is that when I hear/connect or find out something about a writer I rush to read what they’ve written because I have this belief that one way to connect with a writer is by reading their work. And Mari had downloaded one of my books so I thought it only fair to download one of hers. It’s not a cynical review exchange system. But as a writer I’m curious about other writers and if someone has ‘got’ my work then it seems worth while seeking out their work. I know that I rarely find what I want to read from the bestsellers list and so I have to take action myself to FIND work that I want to read.  And one way of doing this is by looking at the work of those who have read my work.  It’s not a cynical ploy on my part, it just seems to be a place to start finding work from.  If I’d hated it of course that would be as far as it went.  I wouldn’t buy and certainly wouldn’t review anything I really didn’t like the look of. I’m long enough in the tooth to have a pretty good idea of what writing appeals to me from a ‘search inside’ facilty.  Nearly 50 years of constant and avid reading will do that for you I guess.  So I looked at The Quickening and decided to give it a go. Time to step outside of the comfort zone. Sometimes that pays dividends if one does it with the right spirit.

And this time it paid off for me. From the very beginning of the novel I felt like I was reading a classic Gothic Horror which is a genre I taught myself to love in my twenties (when not DOING horror made me seem far too uncool amongst my peers!)  And The Quickening is written in a style and language which I found seriously reminiscent (in a good way) of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I revelled in the language. It was tight and all the way through didn’t slip. It’s not hard to write in the style of the 19th century with any consistency. It’s something I’ve tried and failed. You have to remain so aware of the change of use of language and syntax etc. It’s hard work frankly. But Mari Biella never makes it seem hard. I found myself thinking – if Mary Shelley had written this I wouldn’t be surprised. For those of you who don’t know that Mary Shelley wrote more books than Frankenstein, she did, but she didn’t write ENOUGH books!  And here Biella has filled a gap for me. Something of the quality of Shelley because there’s only so many times I can re-read the originals.

Now, I’m splitting hairs because I know The Quickening is set in the late 19th century not the early 19th century when Shelley was writing. But it’s of a piece. And the late 19th century is a place I’m also very familiar with (and happy in).  I taught ‘classic’ novels at A level for nearly a decade and I’m currently deeply engaged in republishing a lot of 19th century Scottish novels so I’m quite ‘into’ the period.  The fin de siècle obsession with séances and the mysterious and the way rationality and spirituality were the great conflict of the age is absolutely key to this historical period and Biella has taken themes which match to her story perfectly.

I’ll let you into a secret. The way I managed to get into Gothic horror was because I in no way believe in ghosts and I have always been able to give myself the ‘rational’ explanation (which stops the fear factor I don’t like in life) and I lose myself in the psychology of the thing. And Gothic horror allows you to do this –focus on human psychology rather than spirituality  – if you wish. What is so good about The Quickening is that whether you have my approach to these matters – the rational psychologist – or the more emotional, ghost, horror, there are more things in heaven and earth  approach – you’ll find the novel equally engrossing.  Because centrally the story is indeed about the conflict between these two views and you come up with the conclusion that you believe in. I’m sure it has as much to offer those who like the ‘spooky’ in terms of ghost stories of M.R.James and Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe as much as those who prefer their horror more psychologically gothic like Shelley.

All in all, this is a very accomplished novel which has the feel of a modern day classic gothic horror story and believe me, that’s quite something to pull off  – especially for a first novel. I can only applaud Mari Biella for the hard work that must have gone into writing this AND say that when you read it it’s like ice dancing – you don’t see that hard work, you just revel in the moment of the writing.

You can get The Quickening from Amazon HERE


Cally is part of the Reading Between the Lines Review Collective a group of professional writers committed to writing good reviews about great books!

The Island of Whispers by Brendan Gisby

whispersI hate rats.  I’m with George Orwell on that one. It’s room 101 to me. So I was reluctant to read this novel at first. I only did it because I love Gisby’s work and by now I’ve  read near on everything else he’s written so I needed to ‘fill in the gaps.’ An amazing thing happened. As I read through the book I found myself empathising with the plight of the rats and while I won’t say I loved them, I began at least to look at these rats in a totally different light. Because this book is cut out of the same cloth as Orwell’s Animal Farm and Richard Adams’ Watership Down.  But it’s even more clever in my opinion. Because it’s darker. And rats are just the right animal for what is essentially an examination of society and the politics that governs it. On one reading I know I haven’t fully plumbed the depths of this aspect but I do know there is a depth to be plumbed. If you want to. If you don’t, there’s still a cracking dark story of the way society works.  If you were to anthropomorphise rats they wouldn’t be like rabbits now would they? No, and that’s what’s so clever about the story.  You never feel like you want to pick them up and cuddle them. You feel like you’re in the middle of some Stalinist pogrom for much of the time and that sense of unease is quite important to the story. Gisby plays with our emotions in order to make us think not just about rats but about ourselves and our own social relations. The story also explores the relationship between man and rat. On the surface there’s an inoffensive little story of people celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bridge across the Forth. In the background, is what happens ‘under’ the bridge.  In the process of which the tables are turned and the background becomes the foreground. The ‘anniversary’ is essentially unimportant (to the rats at least!)  I like this clever repositioning of priorities. It shows up so clearly that this is a story of what goes on underneath, behind the scenes, in the background. Which of course is why rats are so appropriate. I hate the ‘fact’ that we are all supposed to be no more than five feet away from a rat  at any time. I’ve had two houses infested by rats. One was an old farm house so you’d ‘expect’ that would you? The other was a new build – cunningly newly built on land that had ‘belonged’ to rats and which it seems they weren’t that keen to give up.  And maybe that experience gives me enough insight to actually engage with the lives of the rat colony on the Island of Inchgarvie. Not to like them you understand, but to accept that they exist, or even co-exist with me in the world. Whether I like them or not. As a child we occasionally picnicked on Inchcolm Island in the Forth.  I’m glad we never went to Inchgarvie. Strangely however, in the process of  reading this book I became quite keen for Twisted Foot and his crew to ‘make it’ to a place of safety, I’m not sure I want to meet them face to face. But I cared about them in the way that a great book makes you care about characters.  If Twisted Foot wasn’t a rat I’d be his friend! And so maybe in reading this story I’ve learned something about the importance of live and let live.  There’s a further clue in the dedication! Gisby dedicates this book ‘to all good rats everywhere’ and that insight suggests to me that maybe we all need to think a bit more carefully about  what it means to be a rat. And what it means to be good.

miniamazonYou can get The Island of Whispers on Amazon as an ebook  OR as a paperbackminiwhiteamazon

Or visit Brendan Gisby’s author page for MORE OF HIS WORK


Cally is a member of the Reading Between the Lines review collective 

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