July 22, 2017


by Sarah Moriarty
300 pages, Little A (Amazon), Kindle Edition

Review by J. S. Colley

I chose this free book from Amazon Prime’s First Read program.

The Willoughby children lost their father and now they’ve lost their mother. For decades, the family spent every summer at their beloved lake house in Maine. Now, they gather during the Fourth of July holiday, sans parents, for what could be their last stay.

There are four children: Tom, Gwen, Libby, and Danny. Tom, the successful, eldest child, is obsessive and rigid. Gwen, the wild, fun-loving artist, finds herself with a difficult decision to make. Libby, the thoughtful, sensitive lesbian, is still coming to terms with who she is. Danny, the youngest, was so attached to his mother that her death sends him into a deep, dangerous depression.

Over the course of their holiday, details of the family’s past are revealed through the eyes of each child as well as the now-deceased parents. As is common in families, each member’s reality is different, each relationship tainted or bolstered by witnessed events. While they make the difficult decision of what’s to become of the aging house that binds them as a family, secrets are revealed, perceptions shattered.

The writing is both skilled and poetic, but the diverging storylines, if not trite, are expected; the characters clich├ęd. Which is disappointing. The author is a beautiful writer but, in this case, the story seemed a vehicle for the delightful prose instead of the prose being a vehicle for the story.

The children and, I would argue, the parents are all stereotypes. The successful, seemingly wealthy, older brother is cold and obsessive. His siblings snicker at him behind his back. And, of course, the reader is told he was a “Bush voter.” (For once, I’d like to see a successful person be characterized as something other than cold, heartless, and obsessive or a Republican. Are there no successful businesspeople who are Democrats?) The lesbian sister is kind and tentative about her siblings’ possible reactions to her chosen partner. (Sorry, but this felt like the perfunctory gay character, another social issue checked off the list.) The wild, promiscuous artist with the unwanted pregnancy and requisite difficult decision. (Another social issue? Check.
And, are there no sensible artists out there? How do any of them produce meaningful or prolific works with such a lackadaisical attitude?) The youngest child, coddled by his parents, especially his mother, is incapable of functioning in the world. (Is the youngest child anything other than this?) The addle-headed but well-intentioned mother, Scarlet, who is willing to live with her husband’s dark secret. The seemingly loving husband who, as mentioned, has a dark secret. It’s as if the author wanted to pile as many au courant socio-political issues as possible into the novel. All novels should aspire to teach us something, but the learning should be like a hidden nugget to be ferreted out. The reader wants to feel as if they are on a scavenger hunt for hidden meanings and symbolism, or else they would have chosen non-fiction. When a reader sees too much of the author on the page, it takes them out of the story.

But, in spite of its flaws, readers who love descriptive writing will find North Haven worthy. And, I must admit, while I found myself, near the end, skipping over some of the more repetitive descriptive narrative, and while the psychoanalyst’s playbook definition of personalities based on sibling birth order took me out of the story at times, I still managed to enjoy the novel. 

I would definitely try this author again.

July 11, 2017


Country matters on Booksquawk

448 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

It’s time to dig our old walking boots out from the back of the cupboard.

Of course they smell funny! Be something wrong if they didn’t…

Our guide is Robert Macfarlane. His bestselling The Old Ways is about the act of following paths, and describes journeys he’s taken in the UK and elsewhere.

Macfarlane isn’t afraid to get spiritual as he seeks to delineate the paths of the mind and the psychological topography our feet follow, on clearly signposted routes and uncharted territory alike. In considering the way, you will consider yourself, things that have happened, things that might happen, and things that happened to other people. These paths are internal as much as external, the author reminds us.

This type of thinking was old news to the Aborigines going Walkabout, or the peregrini and holy men of other religious persuasions, looking for enlightenment on the road throughout history. We’re travelling on a very, very old path indeed.

Macfarlane was friends with the late, great Roger Deakin, and indeed the Waterlog author haunts the early part of this book as Macfarlane considers a walk they’d taken through an ancient holloway. Other long-dead writers also keep step with Macfarlane, particularly Edward Thomas and Nan Shepherd. Indeed, Macfarlane pens a vivid reconstruction of the former’s last days as he prepared for the front line in the First World War – before the poet’s pathway was cut short in the crude straight lines of the trenches.

To follow Macfarlane’s line, writing about the natural world and our paths through it is as important as actually walking. Considering the act - reflecting upon the act - becomes as necessary as putting one foot in front of the other.

Macfarlane examines the literal bedrock of Britain – chalk, gneiss – and the shifting sands and silt above it as he walks, often in the company of fellow enthusiasts. The book’s sub-title is actually a bit of a misnomer, as a good portion of it is dedicated to following paths by sea to the Hebrides on a boat, where no footsteps have voluntarily treaded apart from those laid by maniacs in Victorian diving suits. Macfarlane’s companions aren’t quite in the “rich eccentrics and artists” category we see now and again in Roger Deakin’s work, though there are a few people who seem charmingly detached from the cares and hassles of ritualised, 4x4 beat wage slavery. Who doesn’t want to get away from that, frankly?

Special mention must go to the artist Macfarlane stays with, who has acquired a human skeleton. He wants to bore a hole in a gigantic rock, like coring an apple, place the bones inside, then replace the bore hole and leave it for a few millennia until someone discovers it, and wonders what was going on.

I have been thinking about this for months. To quote The Joker: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”

Other routes include part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain and a perilous track – for more than one reason – in Gaza.

Perhaps the most memorable walk is on the Broomway in Essex, a beach path which is swamped by the tide at certain times of the day. Under a strict time limit, in misty conditions, with the hard-packed sands like glass under their feet, Macfarlane and a companion dice with death. Their journey is hazy, almost psychedelic in tone, divorced from reality in a dreamlike state. Like the strange compulsion which might seize you to leap off a cliff face as you peer over the edge, Macfarlane’s feet seem to want to take him out to sea, even as it advances towards him, and certain doom.

Climbing can be a deadly serious business, of course – quite literally. The hairiest things ever got for me was a stroll along Striding Edge in high winds, but I’d bet that drop has accounted for surer feet than mine over the years. Macfarlane keeps loftier company, heading out among the big boys in the Himalayas. He focuses on the high country near Mount Kailash, a place of ancient pilgrimage for Buddhists in Tibet.

He enjoys the trip, but his guide tells horrendous stories about people who have been killed trying to reach the summit. Macfarlane successfully fights the urge to reach for the top. In considering that spectacular snowy peak, cut through with black rock, he echoes the thoughts of Roger Deakin, who planned to swim in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, only to think better of it on the day. Some natural phenomena are absolutely fine to just look at.

There’s more hair-raising stuff when Macfarlane recounts a hike in the Cairngorms, when he follows the footsteps of an earlier, unknown climber in the snow only to find that the tracks appeared to have vanished off a cliff-face. For a few decidedly hirsute moments, it seems as if the author might follow. He is candid about his feelings of panic and guilt at having veered off a safe route and come so close to a nasty end.

There are other-worldly fears in The Old Ways, too. Macfarlane joins Guy N Smith in the club of “British writers who claim to have seen a feral big cat in Britain” after a creepy encounter with a glowing-eyed creature as he drives through the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire. A friend who is with him corroborates the sighting, and also thinks it was a big cat of some kind.

Even spookier is an experience he has while camping out alone in Chanctonbury Ring, a notoriously haunted copse in the South Downs where he is menaced at night by an unseen, shrieking creature outside his tent.  If it’s a bird, then it’s no bird he’s ever heard before.

Even if you’ve never experienced hillwalking outside of screaming abuse at Tomb Raider in the 1990s, or embarking on Peter Jackson’s entire Lord Of The Rings special edition saga on DVD, this is a gripping journey. It is infused with the spirit of adventure, but also a sense of wonder – an unbeatable combination.

If you’re like me – someone whose spirit would haunt less well travelled paths, should spirit exist – The Old Ways will make you hungry for the open road, and eager to head for that twilit blue world glimpsed only fleetingly, like the green ray, somewhere between the treeline and the far horizon. 

June 15, 2017


by Martine McDonagh
208 pages, Unbound

Review by Pat Black

Sonny’s 20, lives in Redondo Beach, and he’s just found out he’s a millionaire. It’s bildungsroman time!

Martine McDonagh’s third novel is a young-guy-on-a-journey story, but if you’ve stuck with her career so far – and we have – then you’ll know that it won’t be your typical voyage from youth into young manhood.

Narcissism For Beginners is the story of Sonny, a British/American teenager with a very odd personal history. He’s looked after in Southern California by Thomas, a man of mystery who has stepped into the role of guardian in place of the lad’s biological father, Guru Bim, a cult leader.

As Sonny reaches his 21st birthday, a Richie Rich scenario unfolds, and he discovers he has inherited a cash sum as long as a phone number (complete with international dialling code prefix).

Now at this point, most of us would smile wryly, maybe with a twitch in our eye, as we consider the ensuing carnage if we’d had an unspendable wodge of cash deposited in our bank accounts on the morning of our 21st birthday. I think I’d still have a pop at a lifelong sesh these days if fate was to bestow that kind of luck on me, with thanks and best wishes from Euromillions, and I am getting seriously auld.

But Sonny’s different. He’s already gotten those urges out of his system, not to mention a fair bit of meth - thanks in no small part to Narcotics Anonymous, as well as the guidance of Thomas, who seems to have followed a path of mellowship and sobriety in concurrence with his young charge.

Sonny is… we are almost astonished to learn… quite a conscientious and sensitive kid.

Still got some lip on him, though. We wouldn’t quite take to him if he didn’t.

Sonny decides he wants to find out more about his father, the great Guru Bim, as well as the shadow-play figure of his mother, who he hasn’t seen since he was abducted from his home in Scotland when he was barely old enough for school.

He jets off from Redondo Beach to the UK, armed with a series of letters from Thomas, some pop culture references and that great big stack of money. Chief among his cleaner obsessions is Shaun Of The Dead – a movie which is proving to be, ironically, deathless in cultural terms (and also has a curiously large following across the Atlantic considering it is so virulently British). Sonny is undertaking a pilgrimage to check out Shaun Of The Dead’s locations – but really, he wants to find out the who, where, what and why of his life.

It doesn’t do to have too many blank pages in one’s own history book.

This is not an action and adventure novel. Nor will you find much in the way of sex and drugs, other than mentions of times past. This was an act of bravery in itself by McDonagh; it would have been easy to side-step questions of Sonny’s identity and provenance by simply layering on the sleaze, Skins-style. Our hero is mainly following up on an old address book, meeting people who were part of Bim’s cult in the early days, as well as people who were involved with his mysterious father before he became the guru. Sonny records the conversations he has with these people in some diverse British locations, including London, Devon and the west coast of Scotland.

Barring some wry observations about one crazy lady in particular who was part of Guru Bim’s “shaking” cult, Sonny is mostly content to let them speak. In between chapters, episodic letters from Thomas address this epistolary style more directly – but there is danger in these pages, even murder, as the secrets of the past are revealed. And there are some absolute jaw-droppers.

Narcissism For Beginners is a journey back in time, looking at the sometimes convoluted, sometimes downright insane paths our very existences have followed, many of them taken on our behalf before we were even a slight dreaming-dog tremor in our fathers’ legs. The book points out some uncomfortable truths: that sometimes our own flesh and blood are an embarrassment at best, downright evil at worst. That your favourite uncle might have committed terrible crimes. And that some people we only shared a living space with have bestowed kindness and grace upon us to rival the seraphs.

The ending completely wrong-footed me, and asks that difficult question: Who among our family, friends and acquaintances really matters? If you had only five phone calls left to make before your life ended, who would you ring?

The book left me wanting more. I wonder if Sonny’s journey will continue. Even if not, we can only marvel at his good fortune, and feel desperately sad for his past.

Read the author interview here.


Booksquawk interviews Martine McDonagh, author of Narcissism For Beginners. We talk teenagers, narcissism, weird cults, crowdfunded publishing, and designing the greatest t-shirt ever (in our opinion, and almost officially the nation’s, too).

Interview by Pat Black

Pat Black: It seemed to me you were taking a lot on with the character of Sonny – adopted; raised in the US; a former addict; just 20 years old. How did you approach the character?

Martine McDonagh: Well, naturally he didn’t arrive fully formed, or I might have been more inclined to shy away from the challenge! When I wrote the first draft of NfB, Sonny wasn’t in the picture at all; he came along when I realized his father, the Guru Bim wasn’t sufficiently three dimensional as a character to carry a novel. Developing the third dimension would have diminished him as a narcissist, who at the most extreme are typically two-dimensional characters, and so Sonny was born, the child of narcissistic parents.

Martine McDonagh
As I’d already imagined and built the world Sonny would be born into in my first draft, who his parents were, where and how they lived and who with, the main task really was to work out how those characters in that world might interact with and affect Sonny growing up. I did a lot of reading on the subject and drew to some degree on my own experiences. Emotional and material neglect seem to be common features of narcissistic parenting and the children of narcissists are generally considered to exist to serve the perceived needs of the parent. To his Guru father, Sonny is a possession, an extension of himself, who has to be stolen back from his mother and returned to his rightful owner. Once that’s been achieved, Sonny is allocated an alternative and completely unsuitable ‘mother’ and left to find nurture where he can and develop some resilience to all the dysfunctional stuff that’s going on around him. It’s only in teenage, when Sonny is in a place of relative stability that he crumbles and gets into all kinds of trouble and has to use that resilience to fight his way out of it.

At the start of the novel, Sonny doesn’t remember or doesn’t know much about his more distant past, and believes that unless he unravels the truth, his transition into adulthood will be hampered.

Once I decided to write him in, Sonny really just seemed to grow organically out of the story; but he couldn’t just be a victim of circumstance, he had to develop a personality and voice of his own as he unravels his own identity. Most importantly, I wanted him to have a sense of humour so that he could always lift himself out of despair and it took me a while to get that right.

PB: Was the cult of Bim a comment on how gullible we are, or how manipulative people tend to get on in life?

MM: A mix of the two, I think, but perhaps more about the latter. Narcissism has become a bit of a buzzword in the past couple of years, with the explosion of social media and Trump’s election to president, but I first became aware of narcissistic personality disorder about 15 years ago, after my father died, while reading Alice Miller’s The Drama of Being a Child and trying to make sense of my own childhood; in particular my relationship with my mother. For a long time prior to that I’d been interested in people who set themselves up as gurus, and after reading Anthony Storr’s Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus the two subjects collided. One of the central questions about gurus is how on earth seemingly rational, intelligent people can be persuaded to follow, sometimes even to their death. Storr says that the guru’s absolute conviction of his own authority can make children of us all.

PB: Was it difficult to get inside a modern teenager’s head?

MM: Well I’ve no idea how well I’ve managed that, but it definitely helped to have been a teenager myself, albeit more than a few decades ago. I grew up expecting to have died in a nuclear holocaust by the age of 35, which I don’t think is so different to the anxieties and issues that teenagers have to contend with now: climate change, unemployment, increasing infantilisation through lack of independence, and of course the prospect of being wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, which appears to be back on the menu.

As the single parent of a son now well into his twenties, I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of teenagers and as the manager of numerous bands over the years, I’ve spent more time than I probably should have enjoying the tour van banter of young men on the road. While I was writing NfB, I lived with friends in Redondo Beach whose teenage son was a brilliant source of inspiration. My own son, who was living in LA at the time, was also a huge help and we spent a lot of time in cafes eavesdropping on teenage conversations.

PB: The book was part of an unusual publishing initiative. How did it come about?

MM: Quite early on in this project, I realised I didn’t want to continue working with my then agent, so we parted company, and rather than take on the distraction of looking for a replacement, I decided to keep on writing. When I’d finished, I researched which publishers would accept submissions direct from authors – it didn’t take long, there aren’t many! – and decided to submit to one or two of them before embarking on the exhausting process of looking for another agent. I’d already started writing the sequel to NfB and wanted to keep the momentum going.

Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher who behaves in the same way as any other trade publisher (trade publication is through Penguin Random House) except that once a book has been accepted by them, the author has to crowdfund the production costs before it can be published. Having come from the music industry I’ve always found the publishing industry in general to be a wee bit elitist and closed, and I liked that Unbound was doing things differently and having considerable success and industry acceptance as a result. I think the theory of having a band of grassroots supporters behind a book who will champion it after publication is brilliant, even if it doesn’t always work out that way in practice. Anyway, I submitted to Unbound, they accepted it and off we went. Not that it was easy, I found the crowdfunding process quite stressful, it’s not in my nature to ask for support, but I got there and I know other authors who’ve managed that side of it really well. I’m very pleased with the end result in terms of production values and the quality of the finished product.

PB: What are you working on at the moment?

MM: I’m now writing the third draft of the sequel to NfB, set 21 years later. It’s been slow going because of other work commitments, but I’m getting there and hoping to finish it by the end of the summer. I’m also thinking about and collecting snippets of information around an idea for another novel, but I’ve no idea when I’ll get stuck into that, because I’m starting to think that Sonny’s story might actually be a trilogy.

PB:  I heard a rumour you were behind the design of an iconic piece of pop culture art connected to one of the best-known British bands of the 1990s. Is it true, and if so, care to comment on how it came about and what it means to you today?

MM: I’d shy away from using the word ‘design’ as I’m definitely no artist, but yes I drew the James flower motif, when I was the band’s manager, initially to brighten up a boring poster and then used it in various t-shirt designs. To be honest, it means very little to me now, but I was pleased that it came second (to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures) in a BBC6 poll of iconic band shirt designs last year; it’s always nice to get some credit for something you’ve done, even decades later!

Read the review of Narcissism for Beginners here.

May 22, 2017


Booksquawk interviews Evangeline Jennings, author of the roaring compendium of revenge, Riding In Cars With Girls. We chat about feminism, Doctor Who, Ellen Page in Doctor Who, X-Ray Spex and taking Donald Trump for a ride.

Interview by Pat Black

Pat Black: Riding In Cars With Girls references a Drew Barrymore movie, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Which of the current crop of young actresses would be your ideal FemNoir leading lady?

Evangeline Jennings: I know she's flavour of the month, but it's hard to look past Millie Bobby Brown, Eleven in Stranger Things. I don’t know if you saw her in a show called Intruders but she was absolutely fantastic as Madison, a child possessed by an immortal serial killer. In four or five years, she'd be perfect.

I also think Elle Fanning has something special. I could see her doing great things as a lost and vulnerable woman with a gun and a knife.

I don't know if they're "young" anymore, but I would like to see Bonnie Wright and Evanna Lynch play something really dark together. I'd be delighted to write that for them. And Kristen Stewart was born to play a relentless revenge demon.

PB: Reading this book brought it home to me how attitudes have changed towards LGBT people, even in the past 20 years. This is especially true in British entertainment. In Doctor Who at the moment, the Doctor’s current companion is gay, but it’s NBD; a simple, even minor component of her character. This would have been unthinkable in the same show in its initial run. In Emmerdale or Brookside a couple of decades ago, and particularly in EastEnders in the late 1980s, the tabloid press had that winning blend of salivating/becoming enraged at the idea of gay men and lesbians in popular entertainment. Do you think this progress is a boon to the stories we see in Riding In Cars With Girls, or a hindrance?

EJ: Maybe the true measure of progress is I feel free to say I'm thoroughly unimpressed by Bill in Doctor Who, and mildly cynical about the showrunners' motivation in creating the role. If they want to impress me, they need to cast Ellen Page as the next Doctor. Unless they can swing a return for Matt Smith, because I'm Eleventh Doctor for life.

To return to your question, I find it hard to think of it in either way - a boon or a hindrance. If I'm anything, artistically, I'm one very small teeny-tiny part of the same progression in society. When I was young and first discovering who I might be, I found some strength and inspiration in books by authors such as Val McDermid, Mary Wings, and Barbara Wilson. It's marvellous that today's me can get the same and more simply by turning on a show like Supergirl, or pretty much any of Shonda Rhimes' mega shows.

Of course, as you imply in your next question, we all have to resist the current pushback by the tiny-minded tyrants of the world, be they in a mega-church, the White House, or next door.

PB: The book’s retinue of destructive, abusive and ultimately useless males seems prescient in terms of today’s geopolitical climate. If I’m being kind I’ll exclude Theresa May from that. Do you see any redemption for men in your fiction?

EJ: No. All men are contemptible bastards.

More seriously, the political climate in Texas has been years ahead of what's happening now on a national and global scale. Yay Texas. And yes, it has definitely inspired much of my writing. But I do write sympathetic male characters from time to time. For example, I've written a YA fantasy – unpublished, Percy Jackson meets Lord of the Rings - which has a teenage boy as its hero. And there are many decent men in my Trumpocalypse saga, Burning Down The House. But when you're writing about the more extreme problems faced by girls and women - abuse, trafficking, domestic violence - it’s often hard to find a positive role for a man. And when you have hate-filled fascist theocrats and their enablers abusing us on a global political scale, it’s often hard to want to.

One thing I will never do is write a Taken - great though it was, not to mention successful - where a big strong man comes along to rescue the poor ickle girl. That's not in my blood.

PB: Perhaps this is a two-part question. If you took a road trip with Donald Trump, what car would you drive, where would you go, what is the top song on your playlist, and what would you do when you get there?

EJ: Since the so-called president is such a fan of white supremacists, I'd like to introduce him to the grand old Texas tradition of chaining a man and dragging him for miles behind your truck. If that’ not technically a roadtrip, then my car would need restraints and a very effective gag. We'd drive to the Grand Canyon, and full-on Thelma-and-Louise it into eternity. With Pence, McConnell, and Rupert Murdoch in the trunk. Or maybe I could use the bus from Speed? Think of the fun we could have filling all those seats.

I honestly can’t imagine Trump or any of those people ever enjoying music - although on second thoughts, I could maybe see Trump as a Jagger wannabe - so I’d handcraft a mix to show them what they've been missing, and we'd go over the edge to “Oh Bondage Up Yours”.

Incidentally, if the FBI is watching, at this point I'd like to make it clear that I'm exercising my first amendment right to indulge in poetic self-expression, and not actually threatening your leaker-in-chief. Or anyone else for that matter. Unlike so many of the evil orangutan's rabid fans, I don't even have a gun and if I did, I'd be more of a danger to myself than to the most corrupt, dangerous, and yet ridiculous man in the world. But, you know, her emails.

PB: Tell us about what’s current for you, and what’s next.

EJ: Jail time probably. Failing that, I'm writing fantasies. I've finished a Gamesy-Thronesy novel which is probably the darkest thing I've ever written, and I'm starting out on something which might turn out to be a New Adult Urban Fantasy, whatever that means. Crime. Magic. The Bible. Modern London. The End of the World. Let’s say it’s Modesty Blaise’s daughter meets Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon and kicks the shit out of him.

Read the review of Riding in Cars with Girls here.


by Evangeline Jennings
360 pages, Starshy

Review by Pat Black

I’m picturing a garish front cover to a dimestore paperback, perhaps from the early 1960s. It features a beautiful, voluptuous woman. She has her back to us, but with a half-turn at the hip and shoulder, the better to give her figure some depth. You know this pose.

She has long, glossy black hair, with a bluish Superman sheen. Her eyeshadow might be a little on the thick side, but it complements her green eyes - gypsy eyes - and she may have held the record for the world’s pointiest bra before Madonna bust it on her Blonde Ambition tour. Her long legs are braced, and her posture is defensive, like she might reverse-kick you in the throat if you get too close, if your eye is a little too glad. And it is; and she would.

In the foreground, of course, there’s a private eye, with a brow, a jawbone and a stare, eyebrows like old razor wounds, all simple, hard angles like a baby’s building blocks. He’s wearing a hat and a grub-yellow mac, and he might be smoking a cigarette. But the perspective isn’t what it seems. He’s not hiding in the shadows, watching her. Those proportions are correct (M. Hooper, Amity Island, 1975). He’s not checking the woman out from the shadows. She towers overhead, spotlit, a good head above Centrepoint, and she is preparing to step on him, with clear-eyed contempt.

There’s a car on this cover, of course. Something sleek; something sharp like a stiletto; something lethal.

Riding In Cars With Girls is a collection of short stories and novellas from Evangeline Jennings, whose work formed a quadrant of the Cars And Girls anthology. The stories share a similar flavour to that collection – noir as they come, violent, often startlingly erotic, but with a feminist slant that takes them out of the shucks-guffaw irony that occasionally blights crime stories - something we have Quentin Tarantino to thank or blame for.

The stories are all named after classic or well-known cars, often with a bit of muscle to them and plenty of wild horses under the bonnet.

We start with “Firebird”, as in Firebird Trans Am. It sees a glamorous woman driving the titular vehicle into a dusty dead-end town, a place dried to tinder and surrounded by a rapidly encroaching forest fire. Dorothy drinks, while our writer-narrator-barwoman pores. Dorothy fascinates the woman behind the bar, and there’s a suggestion that this fascination could turn into something more combustible, so much so that they both lament the fact that they’re straight.

Dorothy is too hot to handle for some of the swamp-dwelling locals, and a tragedy is set in motion which ends in fire, counterbalanced by cold, hard revenge.

“Escort” is a two-hander, swapping between tough cop Bex and Ruthie, a sex worker on the run who has shagged a Mafia don to death. This one runs through a blizzard of bullets as the two women’s paths cross, and double-cross. At first it’s a cat and mouse story, compelling in its way. You think you’ve seen this movie before – until it turns into something else. It becomes a love story that evoked Elmore Leonard’s Out Of Sight, as well as Sarah Waters’ work. Credit, also, for a brave, brutal finale.

“911” sees Nikki and Alex taking on another controlling male, with one as an avenging angel for the other. After taking revenge on Goran, a drug-dealing, nightclub-dwelling sleazebag, the pair drive in their Porsche through Scandinavia and then further south into Germany, always faster than their pursuers. Alex is a man trapped in a woman’s body, one of a number of nods towards protagonists who don’t usually top the bill in classic noir thrillers, and indeed usually only appear in them if there’s a contrived freak aspect – disabled people, gay people, trans people.

Wendy, one of the main characters in “Audi”, is deaf and suffering from fibromyalgia and anxiety – but if you’re thinking that equals vulnerability, forget it. She shoots an office worker taking a cigarette break outside his office, putting “a hole where his heart would be if he was a human being”, before blowing “a plume of smoke away with her fingertips”. 

Wendy and the narrator of “Audi” are competing in an illegal road race, the Scumball Rally, a global re-imagining of the Cannonball Run. As well as winning the race, the girls are looking to settle a few scores along the way. Cars are stolen; bad guys get zapped. Bullets and dames; cars and criminals. Noir but not.

The thing that stuck out for me was how these two girls have the males in the story wrapped around their fingers – fingers which Wendy uses to cheerfully insult them before, during and after their expiration. The two lovers have a substantial online following eating out of their hands; the act of removing their tops on a webcam is tantamount to landing a million fishes, gasping and thrashing their last on deck. The fact that the girls are barely out of school is another weapon to be turned against sleazebags who think they’re predators, until they’re prey. Sex is how men are manipulated, controlled, duped and defeated. Every single time, they stumble into the trap. They don’t have a prayer.

I have interacted with Evangeline Jennings, but I don’t know her. Occasionally I’ve wondered if she was one person, or several. Once or twice I’ve become convinced she’s a man masquerading as a woman. (A word of warning to any online flirts out there: you just never know who’s on the other end of the wiring, until you know. I’ve seen a few star-struck readers go weak at the knees over someone of the same sex without realising it, with tragicomic - but mainly comic - consequences.) This story convinced me that she was a woman, for sure, gleefully sending up genre and gender conventions, happy to take seldom-driven routes. But I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this. Even if I met someone called Evangeline Jennings in person, I wouldn’t be totally sure that I was meeting the author. This is good.

“Transam”, the shortest piece in the book, sees a woman chasing her husband’s killer. The killer, Katie, has stolen the husband’s car, which is fitted with a tracking device. Our narrator is on a collision course with Katie, but identities and loyalties are blurred by the end.

Another component of many of these stories: families can f*ck you up.

We close with “Crown Victoria”, which featured in Cars And Girls. It is the book’s most transgressive story. Again, ostensibly it’s a revenge tale targeting rapists and abusers, but for large parts it’s an exploration of a BDSM relationship between two extremely damaged people. The blood and bullets in this story seems almost incidental.

Riding In Cars With Girls delivers on every promise the pulp fiction genre can make, but does so in a sly, subversive way. Sometimes you think you’re reading a story about gangsters and contract killers, only to discover it’s actually a tender love story. The movie Bound might be the closest equivalent I can think of.

Jennings clearly relishes crime writing, but she’s attuned to weirder frequencies, obscure wavelengths. This is a trip well worth taking. As for where it’ll stop – who knows?

Read the author interview here.

May 14, 2017


Country Matters on Booksquawk

by John Lewis-Stempel
304 pages, Black Swan

*Review of the audio version, read by David Thorpe*

Review by Pat Black

It’s a hard life being a farmer, but you would never know it from reading Meadowland. John Lewis-Stempel’s year-in-the-life of his own field makes it sound like a dream, a fantasy of a life lived close to the land.

Following a full calendar year from January-December, the author follows in the footsteps of thousands of years’ worth of farmer-poets, and quotes liberally from many of them as he examines English national history through the prism of one square field.
The book is subtitled The Private Life of an English Field - but it’s almost a Welsh field, a mile or so away from the border in Herefordshire, in lee of the Black Hills. Isn’t there something about that name? The Black Hills.

Lewis-Stempel examines every creature that passes through his domain, whether furred, feathered, scaled or wriggling. He also looks at the land itself, the people who work on it, and – crucially – write about it. I loved one statistic about the staggering number of earthworms there are beneath us, and how they help sustain even the biggest predators in Britain, such as the fox and badger.

The practise of Wassailing was new to me, but it sounded like my kind of party – hallooing, gathering round a big fire, and getting plenty of cider down you. I think we used to have something similar back on my home estate, a thousand years ago, though presumably with more drugs and violence.

Lewis-Stempel is open about shooting for the pot, and is keenly aware of the tension between someone who loves and observes the land and its creatures, and our powerful need to consume them. He has clear demarcations between what he can and can’t shoot. He says he may be the only person in the world to have taken part in a hunt on horseback, and also been a hunt saboteur. His quotes from Blake on the price that may ultimately be paid for taking the life of any creature are a chilling counterpoint to his bluff, benevolent prose.

The book is not without incident and farce. One chilling moment strikes when Lewis-Stempel fears that his little daughter has been eaten by pigs, but is instead cuddled in with them under the sun. There’s an even stranger part during Midsummer Night, when some of the animals in his barn are taken by some unknowable impulse to stage their own ritual dance.

Lewis-Stempel rarely passes up a chance to anthropomorphise the creatures of his field, but he also mounts a robust defence of this practise. Are we not all beasts? He asks. And are animals incapable of feeling anything beyond brute sensation? There’s lots of evidence to show that they are. If we exclude the idea that animals cannot have any sensations or experiences, which is plainly false, then surely these sensations have an equivalent in our cognition, if not an exact replica?

There’s plenty of compassion for the critters under his control – the death of a prize cow comes across as particularly sad, near the end, though it did kind of remind me of that scene in Me, Myself And Irene where Jim Carrey’s character tries to put a similar beast out of its misery. I was moved by the moments when he uncovers tiny baby voles, and makes an attempt to cover them – or comes across the gory handiwork of the beautiful raptors he’s been admiring moments beforehand as they swoop overhead.

My favourite part, though, was where Lewis-Stempel’s tractor suffers a broken blade. Seeing an opportunity, he sharpens an ancient scythe, and mows his meadow old-style. He didn’t have to explain the kind of hell this would wreak on one’s back, but it’s a game effort by the man. He rails against incursions by modern technology, and hits out at some tractor cabs having computers and heaters inside, helping to place the man at one more remove from his ancient duties on the land.

Ach, I dunno about that. It sounds the business to me – feet up, rolling up and down the field, listening to the dawn chorus, watching the sky swallow the stars.

Meadowland is a delight, and I can’t tell you how much it cheered me up on the commute to and from work, hemmed in by concrete, chrome and arseholes, as my car continues to fart toxins into the air twice a day and hasten our collective demise. Meadowland is an idyll, but it’s nice to think about a better, more wholesome life, even if it’s no more than a fantasy existing in my own head. This book won loads of awards, and I can see why. As part of the modern canon of British nature writing, there are few books to match it. 

April 16, 2017


Country Matters on Booksquawk

by Roger Deakin
416 pages, Penguin

Review by Pat Black

The blossom’s out, the sap is high, and so am I. It’s time to don the tweed, slip on the thigh-high wellingtons, keep the Savlon handy and tiptoe through the cider bottles with some great British nature writing.

A couple of years ago, I fell helplessly in love with Roger Deakin. His wild swimming masterpiece, Waterlog, was a charming, engaging book - an exercise in fraternity, nature, literature and English dottiness. I was held fast in its current. It was my favourite read of 2015, and if the Folio Society was to bring out a ruinously expensive illustrated hardback edition and slipcase, I’d dive right in.

Adding to the charm is the man himself – an affable dreamer, seemingly unconcerned by the world of commerce and brute competition, a lover of newts – so cruelly stolen from us by cancer only a few years after making a splash in the literary world. Like watching Bowie videos on YouTube, he is as close as we get to a real ghost – thrillingly present in his art, chillingly absent in reality.

Even Walnut Tree Farm, the arboreal idyll in which he so happily shared bed and board with mother nature, is gone now – sold up, redeveloped, and possibly unrecognisable (understandably so – sorry mate, but f*** having a flock of birds in yer loft).

As well as being a compelling writer, Waterlog’s author had a compelling existence. He lived a wizardly life, swimming in his own moat every morning, then poring over ancient maps and scrolls for remote ponds to dunk in. He might have been the first human to ever swim in some of those plashy glades. You expect him to sit down to tea on giant toadstools; you imagine trees sprouting from the floor in his front room, talking rooks cawing at him from the branches. You expect him to write on parchment with a quill. You picture him high-fiving squirrels and supping pints alongside centaurs down the local pub - surely called The Green Dragon, and run by an ogre and his wife. He might ride a gryphon there and back. Well, I imagine all this, anyway.  

Seldom if ever have I wanted to go back to the start of a book and start reading again after the final page was turned, as I did with Waterlog.

The same was true of Wildwood – but for different reasons.  

This is a difficult thing to write. Wildwood bored me. Some of it was like watching trees grow.

This wasn’t the case right away. I had a wee holiday last year in the middle of a forest. Wildwood had joined my to-be-read pile the Christmas before; the circumstances were irresistible. I got through the first 90 or so pages on one blessed morning in the rarity of absolute solitude, sat outside the cabin in the early May sunshine. Pheasants padded through the trees, safe for the moment from being blasted to oblivion by shotgun or car grille.

I took my time, savouring the book, and I needed to do so. It was quite heavy going, but not unpleasant – a challenge, not a slog, like approaching the summit of a mountain. It was scholarly rather than brisk. But I was in the right setting, and the right frame of mind.

I came back from holiday. I set it on the bedside table, the bookmark lodged at page 90.

Wildwood book barely moved from its berth for nearly a year. When I shifted it for a house move, I made a clean spot. Once we’d moved, I put it back in the same place. I forced myself to get back into it in March of this year. One full ring grew inside the trees before the last page was turned.

I felt a sense of grief when I towelled myself off after Waterlog; but I felt only exhaustion at the end of Wildwood. I rarely get a chance to sit down with a book these days, and others nudged ahead of it, brash, insistent pupils sucking up the teacher’s attention. I literally dusted off the book more than once. I could barely get through a chapter before turning the light off. Something had gone wrong.

It’s billed as a journey through trees, and I suppose it is. But it’s unstructured, and it focuses too much on using wood to build, or create art from. Some of it is like reading a real-time description of a guy building a table and chairs. I’d liken it to a garden allowed to grow wild, but that at least can be interesting. Untidy things usually arrest the attention. Wildwood frequently doesn’t. I found large parts of it a painful struggle, like cramming for a long-dreaded exam.

Much of this book is dull. Like the sound my head might make upon contact with a two-by-four of solid oak.

This is my failing, as a reader, as a person, and maybe, as a man. Writing too dense in detail can turn me off. But I’m also a hugely impractical guy. You get a certain type of person whose soul stirs when they contemplate building sheds, redecorating rooms, stripping down engines, and watching James May build Airfix Spitfires. The sort of person who might take time to stop and appreciate a bridge, and know who built it, or how many rivets were used in its construction. The kind of person who, in hearing the car roar when they floor the pedal, doesn’t focus so much on the rapidly unfurling road and the wind shrieking in chorus with the music, but what’s going on inside the engine, the churning axle, the pressing plates and spinning cogs, all laid out before them in explosive 3D, their own internal Haynes Manual.

I am not one of those sorts of people. They might absolutely love Wildwood.

Practical matters annoy me. In this, I’m a familial aberration. My dad and my two brothers worked on the tools – oily hands, calluses you could take a blowtorch to, able to tell the calibre of fittings down to the millimetre by sight, possessed of the ability to have copper wiring twined, latticed and hung as if by telekinesis, and dexterity with screwdrivers and spanners to rival that freak at school who could finish a Rubik’s cube in 10 seconds. It isn’t me. To this day, screws slither out from between my sausage fingers and laugh as they roll under the furniture. In my frustration at an angle not sitting right, or a nail splitting the edge of the wood, I go beyond simple swearing and start to speak in tongues. Neighbours knock the door and ask if everything’s okay.

Something went wrong. It is a failing. If the apocalypse comes I’ll need to develop other skills in double-time or we’ll all die. I wish I was a bit more practical, but I’ve probably lived more than half my life now and I must admit I’m not, and maybe never will be. It’s a source of disappointment.

A bit like calculus, it isn’t that I don’t grasp it, or can’t do it - it’s just that I’d rather not. Ask me to put up a fence, and I can (and in fact I have). I’d just rather be doing other stuff. In considering building flat-pack furniture, I do it, but only after a lot of sighing. Anything more complex than fitting slot A into B is more often done badly than not.

If I ever want to make my missus laugh, I tell her the truth of the matter: I’m not a builder, baby. I’m not a farmer either.

I’m a killer.

Show me a castle and I imagine a siege, boiling oil, clashing swords, and perhaps dragons. Show Roger Deakin a castle, and I suspect he’d wonder how he could construct battlements and a drawbridge along the edge of his moat; or if he could perhaps steal some of the loose stonework and use it to build a sauna with an ergonomically pristine wood-fired boiler requiring no gas or electricity.

Roger does actually consider making this contraption in the course of Wildwood.

Perhaps fuelled by my desire to propel the book to its conclusion, like shoving a length of timber into a sawblade, I picked up the pace near the end. I was rewarded; Wildwood takes off, right after Roger does, away from England’s sleepy hollows in search of the motherlode of apple trees in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and one or two other places in need of an emergency aid drop of vowels. This provided the kind of action and adventure which drenched Waterlog, and whose absence leaves us pawing along the desert in Wildwood.

Here was my dearest Roger again – off-road, meeting people living simple rustic lives, marvelling at the simplicity of their lives, lived in harmony with nature instead of destroying it. Roger is very much at home in this peaceable, Zen state. He speaks of a moment of communion with a beekeeper out in the middle of nowhere, a guy who speaks not a word of English, and yet Roger knows he has met something of a soul-mate, someone he could form a lifelong friendship with. He is left with a deep sadness when he says goodbye, knowing their paths will never cross again.

I was reminded of a similar meeting during a trip to Peru years ago, an author and local character I had an uproariously boozy afternoon with during a guided tour. “I shall not forget you, my friend!” he told me. The feeling was mutual.

But this section is all too brief. Back on Ent Time with Treebeard, there’s lots of splicing, coppicing and grafting, and appreciations of humanity’s interaction with wood – how it became a vital part of building civilisation, and how it remains a labour of love to this day, a compact between structure, Euclidian geometry and wild nature.

Roger turns things out in his workshop and even considers the sawdust as he blows it away. I sorta get that. I’ve always been fascinated by timber warehouses; something to do with the epic space, the smell of the wood. He wonders about the trees and bushes encircling his property, at some length (in both senses). And he speaks to artists who work with wood, from the UK to Australia and back. They turn living trees into monuments, they collect and reshape driftwood from the beach, they get busy with planes and chisels and hammers and whatnot, and there we go, another day done, lights out, zzz.

More than once I confronted an ugly truth: these are people with lots and lots of money, and lots and lots of spare time. There’s a big chink in the armour of the English eccentric and the sweet art they make, a petty point, but one worth making: it takes serious money to be a gentleman itinerant. Like it or not, you have to buy yourself out of the rat race.

As well as outlining my lack of practical skills, Wildwood also exposes a gap in my education. I love nature, I love looking at it, I love being in it, I love interacting with it, I love writing about it, and I love reading about it. But if you sent me a link to one of those clickbait quizzes identifying trees and their leaves, I’d score about 21/100 (matching my Higher Maths prelim percentage, December 1992). Botanical ignorance is a grave disadvantage when you read this book. Roger blithely witters on about walnut this, oak that, and for pages at a time he might as well have been talking about cycads, krynoids, the Thing From Another World, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, whatever.

What this book repeatedly nailed down – angrily, burying the metal into the trembling pine, and at a f****** angle – was that I am ignorant, and I need to educate myself, about trees for a start. One is waving at me out the window as I type, and I couldn’t tell you anything about it except that it’s green. Pine… willow… sycamore… birch… yeah, I could spot those. After that, I’m chapping. You better knock, on wood. I hear John Cleese saying, “The larch,” and see a slide flipping over, but I do not laugh. It’s a terrible irony that I love British nature writing yet know so little about it, like Jesus earning a living as a carpenter before being nailed to some shoddy woodwork. My next book on this subject will be the Collins Guide To British Trees. I’m going to sit down with it, I’m going to study it, and damn it, I’m going to learn it.

I’ll go back to Wildwood. I’ve failed, not Roger. I want to say sorry to him. It’s a beautifully-written book by a lovely bloke, who was cleverer than I will ever be. I feel a bit like I’ve been invited to tea by that nice quiet boy in class, and he’s showed me his collection of acorns, and I’ve sniggered. Maybe I’ve even given him heat for it, back in class, among the wolves.

One day I hope to be sat before a log fire, cracking open my ancient copy of Wildwood, and starting again at the proper pace in the proper setting, in the old age Roger was so unfairly denied.

For now, I’ll struggle on, at many things. We can’t all be craftsmen, more’s the pity.