Book Reviews

Boundless as the Sky by Dawn Raffel

What Da Cover Says: Boundless as the Sky is a book of the invisible histories that repose beneath the cities we inhabit, and the worlds we try to build out of words. The first of its two parts, stories of real and invented cities, some ancient, some dystopian, is a response to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The second part comes together into one narrative, taking place in a single city—Chicago—on a single day in 1933. It is based closely on a true event, the arrival of a “roaring armada of goodwill” in the form of twenty-four seaplanes flown in a display of fascist power by Mussolini’s wingman Italo Balbo to Chicago’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair. These two panels of Raffel’s poetic diptych call out to each other with a mysterious and disquieting harmony, and from history and fantasy to the dangers and dark realities of the current moment with startling insight and urgency.

What I says: Before I started this book I decided to read Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino first as I had never read it and thought the first half of Raffel’s book may not have any meaning to me. I’m glad I did as it gave Calvino’s book more shape, from Raffel’s response I understood more of what was going on in the first book and I was able to get what Raffel was saying here (well maybe, I could have gone in a completely different direction than Raffel intended). It does feel like a response to Calvino, Raffel is saying how different things are now and at the same time hardly different at all, the cities we inhabit or imagine ain’t that much different to Calvino’s time, we may have climate change and social media but the people in Calvino’s cities faced their own demons too.

The second half of Raffel’s book is rather spectacular…in fact taking inspiration from Raffel herself:

spec·tacu·lar
[spɛkˈtakjʊlə]
ADJECTIVE
beautiful in a dramatic and eye-catching way:
“spectacular mountain scenery”
SIMILAR:
striking
picturesque
eye-catching
breathtaking
arresting
amazing
glorious

Raffel takes an event, Chicago’s “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, which I hadn’t heard of before and a host of real life characters and created this story based around their lives for this single day. Different writing techniques and voices creates something that feels very real, and there is a darkness just under the surface that feels dangerous, the list of how a woman should behave and the police who turn a blind eye to crimes gives you a feeling of imminent chaos. The best thing about this book for me was that real people were used and I spent quite a while on google looking them up. I also loved how this felt like a riddle and each chapter gives the reader another piece of the puzzle.

Many thanks to Sagging Meniscus for sending me a copy to review. Check out where you can buy a copy from HERE:

About the Author

Dawn Raffel is the author of five books, most recently The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. Other books include two short story collections, a novel, and a memoir. Her stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including NOON, BOMB, Conjunctions, Exquisite Pandemic, New American Writing, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Best Small Fictions, and more.

Advertisement
Book Reviews

Emergence by Guy Portman

What Da Cover Says: There’s no stopping this young sociopath.

Teenager Horatio hates his mother’s boyfriend, and there is nothing his long-suffering single mum or half-sister can do about it. The tension soon boils over into school when he attacks the class bully.

While suspended, Horatio has plenty of time to plot revenge against the man he holds responsible for all his problems. It won’t take the adventurous adolescent long to stumble across a depraved and degrading solution.

Now all he needs to do is keep deceiving the psychiatrist and wait for an opportunity to strike.

This suspenseful story will appeal to aficionados of psychological fiction and darkly humorous crime.

What I Says: What we have here is a new hero, a hero along the lines of Dexter…one who is prone to a touch of the old murder. Horatio (awesome name) is an emerging psychopath and he is the voice of this book, whilst events are happening around him we get to hear what is going on in his head and there is a proper dark humour to his thoughts. Portman has a real talent for creating methodical killers, in his previous books I have enjoyed reading about Dyson Devereux and am not disappointed by his new killer. I’ve always appreciated Portman’s sense of humour and find myself often smiling to myself when reading his books, but it does make things awkward when asked what I’m smiling at and I have to say, “this guy is so good at planning a murder, I’m picking up some great tips.”

In Emergence Horatio has to deal with a number of different bullies in his life, at first lashing out before his true self comes to light and he takes things slower, plans and plans and waits for the right moment. You don’t realise just how much the tension has been ramped up until the kill has completed and you find yourself breathing again. The ending of this book was fantastic, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time wondering if Horatio would be able to pull it off.

There is a new killer on the block, his name is Horatio and if you’re being a dick he’ll be coming for you. As expected from a Portman book this was some good wholesome fun and it’s just the beginning.

Many thanks to Guy Portman for sending me a copy to review, if you’re a fan of transgressive fiction then give this author a go.

Book Reviews

The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare by Andy Howard

What Da Cover Says: Winner of the Favourite Scottish Nature Photography Book, 2018

Among the most captivating of creatures, the mountain hare has inhabited Britain’s upland landscape since the last major ice age. Andy Howard fell in love with these shy, charming creatures at first sight. Here he introduces them both as a species precious within the great wheel of the seasons, and as individuals with their own, delightful personalities.

What I Says: I am a big fan of Andy Howard’s photography, I have read his book on otters and was very impressed but this book on Hares is some next level ****. There is a level of intimacy between the camera and subject I’ve never seen before, this wild animal has accepted Howard enough to tolerate his presence for hours on end, through all kinds of weather and at all major events of it’s life. I have to admit that I was rather jealous of him being able to get this close and capture such amazing images….that was until I read that for one image he planned for 5 months, led on the ground in the rain for hours waiting for the sun to come out just to capture that one great idea. Don’t think I could manage that, I’m one of those mega-fidgeters.

I would describe my favourite photo but there are just so many and it constantly changed with each turn of the page, instead get yourself a copy and tell me if you were able to go through the whole book without going “aaaaaawwwwww” and having to share what you see with anybody nearby…cos I wasn’t able to. The hare itself is a beautiful creature, I loved the ring around it’s eye and those super long legs when it stood up to move, and the photos of them cleaning and sleeping…turns out my weakness is yawning hares, if you are ever in a battle with me show me a photo of a hare yawning and you’ll defeat me.

This book isn’t just a collection of photos, Howard shares his knowledge of hares, how they behave, how they live and a fantastic collection of tips on how to approach them for getting that yawning photo ready for any future battles. The book is beautiful and you’ll be guaranteed to spend hours gazing at these pages.

If you are interested in getting yourself a copy then you can support your local indie bookshop by purchasing via Litalist.

Book Reviews

Three Women of Herat: Afghanistan 1973-77 by Veronica Doubleday

What Da Cover Says: In 1973, the Afghans still had a King who ruled from a palace in Kabul with his own resident court of musicians when Veronica set up home in Herat. This Afghan city sat close to the Persian frontier and was fully cognizant of its glorious history as the capital of a once vast Central Asian Empire. Veronica was not a casual traveller but a young musician married to a scholar. She was determined to make use of her time in Afghanistan and break out of the charmed circle of the expatriate academic and make real friendships with local women. The tentative story, the growth in these very different friendships, takes the reader into a rare, deep, and privileged insight into the hidden world of Afghan female society. This is more than enough to make this book remarkable, but it has an afterlife of its own. For a Communist coup, then the Russian invasion, a long guerrilla war of Resistance is followed by Civil War and the rise of the Taliban. Veronica was separated from her friends: feared the worst, sought to assist but was also aware that contact from a westerner could be lethal to them. Then a fragile peace allowed her to meet them again and pick up their stories. It is a most exceptional work, which reads like a novel.

What I Says: Wow! What a book! Doubleday takes the reader into 1970’s Afghanistan and creates a bond with three local women, she fully immerses herself into their culture and this book is about her experiences and the wonderful friendships she made. You’re bound to have an opinion on these people and their beliefs and a lot of that may come from the media, it certainly did for me, you need to ignore what you already know, pick up this book and learn from somebody’s first hand experience. The events of this book are just before the Soviet invasion and the upheaval the country has gone through since that event, the people were just getting used to tourists and even though Doubleday was an outsider she was fully embraced by these households and was treated like one of the family.

The three women who befriended Doubleday are very different from each other and each of them are experiencing a different life around the cultural rules of their religion, some have more freedoms than others. Each of the women have very strong personalities and they use those personalities to bend the rules as much as they can. Each of the women are musical and that is the basis of their bond with Doubleday who is learning to perform their style of music. I’ve been watching some of Doubleday’s performances on YouTube and it is very impressive.

There is a real tenderness to the writing, the love Doubleday shows towards these women and their families is a joy to read, she puts in a lot of effort to accept their rules on marriage and love, but there are times when a wife has no freedom at all that the anger can bubble over. Her arguments over wearing the veil or organised marriage are well balanced, she comes to understand why some women fight to keep these in place but at the same time points out how not all of the women are treated the same. With my own prejudices firmly in place I was still able to understand why they would want to keep these things. All of this happened way back in the 70’s and the country has been through more than it’s fair share of violence since then, the book is finished with a brief update on what has gone down and the efforts that Doubleday has gone through to remain in contact with her friends. Absolutely fantastic book, I felt that I had been transported and was a part of these families, one of the best books that Eland have published for sure.

Thanks to Eland Publishing for sending me this copy to review, if you wanna check it out then support the publisher by buying direct from them HERE:

Book Reviews

Newborn by Agustin Maes

What Da Cover Says: Shafts of afternoon light rained through oak and willow and eucalyptus, the boys’ small faces stippled with fine golden sunspots as though behind lacework mourning veils knitted from shadow. They stood side-by-side at the edge of a broad yawn of creek bed, eyes bound to what they had discovered there amongst sedge and blackberry and wild rye. Neither spoke. But for birdsong and the muted hum of cars along the nearby avenue it was quiet, the creek gurgling softly in its summer-thinned course. A mizzle of sunbeams shone across the water in fingernail crescents, quick lustrous flashes where an overturned shopping cart formed a mounded swell. The boys remained in fainter light, motionless beside the small still pool of an inlet shaded by the steep bank’s tangle of tree roots. Water skimmers skated over the pond’s glassy surface, the insects’ needle-thin legs dimpling the youngsters’ reflections and the reflection of the infant at their feet, its image little more than a wavering smudge. ‘Jesus, ‘ one of them whispered…

What I Says: Stunning! This is one of those books that takes you behind the scenes of a news headline, removes your personal opinions on what happened and what sort of person carried out the act and shows you the true story of the people involved. The writing is beautiful, Maes has made the most of the setting, the images of the creek bed and surrounding area almost dazzle the reader with their vividness, it makes you feel that you are there to be a witness and the ensuing tragedy feels all the more real for being closer to the story than normal.

Our main character is Bitsy and the journey she is on is a lonely one in a harsh world, no matter what she does you feel for her, she may think she is on her own but every person who picks up this book will be there with her. One of my favourite things about this book was the side characters, they may have only had a very small part to play but you get their full story including life after the book ends, a smart thing to do in my opinion as it adds a lot of depth to this novella.

This is an incredibly moving story that will leave you with a heavy heart, highly recommended.

Thanks to Whiskey Tit Books for sending me this copy to review, another top book from this fantastic publisher.

Book Reviews

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

What Da Cover Says: “Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” So begins Italo Calvino’s compilation of fragmentary urban images. As Marco tells the khan about Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” the spider-web city of Octavia, and other marvellous burgs, it may be that he is creating them all out of his imagination, or perhaps he is recreating details of his native Venice over and over again, or perhaps he is simply recounting some of the myriad possible forms a city might take.

What I Says: If you are expecting a high-brow clever analysis of this classic book, then in true Marco Polo liar-liar-pants-on-fire style….read on. Reading this is like being trapped inside a painting by Dalí, a discussion between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo transports the reader to bizarre city after bizarre city. Every word used feels like it is there to trip you up and maybe distract you from the fact Marco Polo has never travelled anywhere in his life…the evidence is there Marco Polo was born in 1254 and YET he lands at a city in a plane, hmmm that’s me suspicious. Also all these cities seem to be named after women, maybe he was looking at the wrong little black book and this was his other list of conquests.

My favourite part of this book was just how many bizarre cities Calvino was able to create, there was one where the air was replaced with earth and if you put your ear to the ground you might be able to hear a door slamming, there was another that felt like purgatory, no matter how long you walked you never made it to the actual city and were stuck in the outskirts and another where each morning everything was brand new and yesterdays stuff was thrown on the curb to go to the landfill.

It’s not all absurd fiction, each city ends with an existential question about things like “what exists outside the city walls?” and “where do all these pianos go that we dump on the curb?” It’s all very clever and had me chuckling a few times, the one bit I didn’t really understand was the chapter titles, maybe one day during a re-read when I’m proper old and wise I’ll understand…until then this was fun.

Book Reviews

London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City by Tom Chivers

What Da Cover Says: What secrets lie beneath a city?

Tom Chivers follows hidden pathways, explores lost islands and uncovers the geological mysteries that burst up through the pavement and bubble to the surface of our streets. From Roman ruins to a submerged playhouse, from an abandoned Tube station to underground rivers, Chivers leads us on a journey into the depths of the city he loves.

A lyrical interrogation of a capital city, a landscape and our connection to place, London Clay celebrates urban edgelands: in-between spaces where the natural world and the metropolis collide. Through a combination of historical research, vivid reportage and personal memoir, it will transform how you see London, and cities everywhere.

What I Says: This book must have been an incredible undertaking, so much research carried out, maps created for the purpose of knowing what is underneath London and once all that was done Chivers was able to go out and about to investigate what his research had produced. He starts off in Aldgate with an unused underground railway station and fenced in area he has seen many times and is curious as to what is behind the fence. He is not afraid to trespass and even stand in random poop, a great start to this journey. Further investigations find lost theatres, hidden rivers, vanished islands, open sewers and a whole world of forgotten places that nobody ever notices. His last trip was special, a nice conclusion to the book, a walk with his Dad to try and find an island.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book, Chivers writing is crisp and invigorating, I feel like I have been on this journey with him and have been left amazed by just how fluid London is. Built on clay and gravel with areas of peat and marshland and the soft edges of the rivers, it’s amazing it hasn’t sunk, possibly this is down to how often the buildings are replaced. Another aspect of London is it’s incredibly vast sewer system, Chivers finds above ground sections, discusses plans for improvements, finds out how quickly waste can travel across London and even ventures down into an actual sewer. Interestingly Chivers’s journey becomes more than exploring what’s under the ground, it becomes a personal journey as he remembers his childhood and becomes a father and all of this is blended with historical and present day events in the City, this was the perfect balance of personal memoir, history, geography and sewers.

Part of this book was written during lockdown and during Chivers’s one walk per day he saw a whole new side to this city he thought he knew so well, if these remote abandoned locations didn’t feel like thin places before they certainly did now. My favourite section in the book was about a group of people on a walking tour using audio recordings and a map, the whole time Chivers is taking the reader along on this tour whilst also stalking the group, I’ve done walking tours before with a guide but never one like this where you are left to your own devices, sounds like fun. This book has given me a new appreciation for London and has left me craving a day out exploring….I’m just not sure I’m brave enough.

If you wanna check out this fantastic book then you can use this A****n free link HERE:

Book Reviews

Don’t Look At Me by Charles Holdefer

What Da Cover Says: When an ex-basketball star and poetry aficionado discovers lost love letters from Emily Dickinson to an unknown Irish lover, she must confront academic conformism and risk embarrassing exposure in order to defend larger truths about American culture in a nation still divided by war.

Meet Holly Winegarten, a campus celebrity and painfully self-conscious young woman trying to come to terms with being six feet, nine inches tall. Sidelined by injury from a basketball career, she develops an affinity for literature and accidentally discovers secret correspondence by an American literary icon famed for her self-effacement. Holly learns that Emily Dickinson’s clandestine lover was an immigrant Irish workingman who served as a wartime substitute for her cherished brother, Austin. Holly’s discoveries make her the envy of academic careerists, who aren’t afraid to play dirty.

Also on Holly’s mind: the future of her own misfit brother, Honus, her relationship with her father and coach, Art, and her unexpected friendship with a reviled professor. Holly longs for intimacy in a world where appearances rule, and she must find a way to push back against a university compromised by intellectual fashions and insulated from Americans who serve in today’s foreign wars.

What I Says: I’ve got a new favourite literary character, Holly is one strong lady, at 6ft 9 she has faced a life time of being judged and laughed at and she has risen above it all, a brilliant basketball player and a genius when it comes to the writings of Emily Dickinson. Holly discovers previously unknown letters written by Dickinson and as she discovers more and more of the letters the reality for the reader blends and you start to notice similarities between Holly and Emily, the reclusive lifestyle and the same family dynamics, Emily’s brother came across as a spoilt brat and the same goes for Holly’s brother, Honus seems to be the favoured child who can do no wrong whilst Holly is constantly criticised when all she does is try to please her family….they also share the lack of luck with love. I have to admit Honus really got on my tits and I was full on team Holly.

I found Holly’s time at university interesting, the actions of the professors with all their underhanded dealings to try and stay relevant were disgusting. The lack of respect shown towards Holly made for some hard reading, just because she didn’t have that piece of paper with a qualification written on it meant she shouldn’t be taken seriously, but there was one ray of light though, a professor who had fallen from grace for being too outspoken shows Holly the respect she deserves and becomes her mentor, a top guy. I enjoyed reading as her mentor slowly gets Holly to come out of her shell and to stand up for herself and her beliefs

The writing was vibrant, Holdefer has a way of sneakily getting you to fall for a character and then he puts that character through a number of trials whilst you cheer at every success and rage at every put down. There is a light hearted humour mixed in that gives the writing a certain edge and makes you wonder if this was in fact written by Dickinson herself. Good fun, clever writing and it will inspire you to go investigate more about the mighty Emily Dickinson.

Many thanks to Sagging Meniscus for sending me this copy to review. If you want to check it out then you can get a copy from HERE:

Book Reviews

The Trees by Percival Everett

What Da Cover Says: The Trees is a page-turner that opens with a series of brutal murders in the rural town of Money, Mississippi. When a pair of detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrive, they meet expected resistance from the local sheriff, his deputy, the coroner, and a string of racist White townsfolk.

The murders present a puzzle, for at each crime scene there is a second dead body: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before.

The detectives suspect that these are killings of retribution, but soon discover that eerily similar murders are taking place all over the country. Something truly strange is afoot. As the bodies pile up, the MBI detectives seek answers from a local root doctor who has been documenting every lynching in the country for years, uncovering a history that refuses to be buried.

In this bold, provocative book, Everett takes direct aim at racism and police violence, and does so in a fast-paced style that ensures the reader can’t look away. The Trees is an enormously powerful novel of lasting importance.

What I Says: I don’t know how I can get this review past the Amazon censors because it is a book deserving of all the normal accolades but with f*****g being used as one of them prefix jobbies. This book if f*****g amazing, f*****g hilarious, f*****g glorious in it’s brutality and all in all a f*****g masterpiece!

Being one of those readers that rarely reads the blurb on a book, I usually decide on whether to read a book based on the cover or publisher (both in this case, cracking cover and published by the mighty Influx), all I knew was it was race related, I never expected this satirical apocalyptic story. The rednecks that America seems to be overrun with (the 74 million that voted for Trump for sure) are captured perfectly in this book, I have witnessed many insane rants on social media and the level of dumbness is spot on, each time one of them opened their mouth I was smiling or laughing at how ridiculous they were. The story itself was puzzling, violent murders and a disappearing dead man, just what was going on? And just like the detectives I couldn’t get my head around it. There are a great number of characters here from racist cops to the mystic Mama Z and the poor detectives from MBI who got thrown this case, you are guaranteed to cheer on the heroes and also cheer on the demise of the horrible human beings.

There is a lot to laugh at here and a lot to be shocked by and then there is one amazing chapter right in the middle…I had got comfortable with the humour and the violence and with how the book was playing out and then the reader is presented with a list, I have never ever read anything quite so chilling…it was like all the heat had been sucked out of the room…it was a list you’ll never fully comprehend, especially when you realise it is incomplete, this was such a clever piece of writing. The ending doesn’t disappoint, the pressure is well built up, right to the last line.

A thoroughly engrossing read and for once I can see why a book gets nominated for awards. Highly recommended reading.

If you want to give this book a go then support the publisher by purchasing direct from them HERE:

Book Reviews

The Wheel of the Year by Rebecca Beattie

What Da Cover Says: Rediscover nature’s cycles through the Wheel of the Year: a celebration of eight key moments within the turning seasons – from solstices to equinoxes and those midpoints in-between.

The Wheel of the Year allows its celebrants a moment to pause and still the chaos of modern life every six weeks, to observe what is happening in nature and to reflect on the turn of their own lives.

This nurturing new guide is an exploration and celebration of the Wheel of the Year – from Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain to the Spring Equinox, Midsummer, Autumn Equinox and Yule. Our expert guide, Rebecca Beattie, traces the cycles of nature and the rhythms of the seasons, exploring enchanting traditions and folklore for each celebrated moment.

This book is alive with what is happening in the nature and in ourselves, offering tools and rituals to rediscover and appreciate each seasonal festival, to pause and reflect. It will connect you to the wheel of your own life, allowing its readers to explore and chart the turning of their own seasons alongside the cycles of the natural world.

What I Says: I decided to read this book, not because I was a practising Wiccan or planning to become one but because I wanted to connect better with the natural world, I wanted to find a way to become more in sync with what is happening out there, I always feel that I’m missing out as I always witness what others did to celebrate life after the time has past. Thanks to this one I am now one switched-on-dude! I’m actually writing this review on Yule, the 21st December and this is the part of the wheel that Beattie takes us on and the first time I’ve ever recognised this date (past focus has always be 4 days later).

I’m really impressed with how this book is laid out, each section of the wheel gets a chapter, you discover what that section of the wheel means to a Wiccan and there is an impressive chunk of history weaved in with folklore and traditions, I have learnt a huge amount from this, and the focus is not just on Wicca, other religions and festivals around the world are considered too, to help you find the most comfortable way for you to celebrate. Each chapter ends with a ritual, for those wishing to fully immerse themselves in this guide, the pages before this ritual are all to prepare you for said ritual and it is in these pages where I think I fit. It’s all about discovering yourself and what’s around you, finding that balance to make you a more centred person, here Beattie shares a most interesting idea, a nature map, create a map of a nearby area and mark on it where you can find certain plants and trees and where you see wildlife, I think this is a grand idea for getting to know what’s around you.

There are lots of suggested activities, weaving a crown, baking bread and even making sloe gin. I was quite surprised to find I had already done one of the activities mentioned in this book, The Magical Miracle Box, take an old shoebox, decorate it and fill it with interesting keepsakes and beautiful things you discover on walks, this was an activity I did with both of my kids whilst being completely unaware of it’s meaning.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book and I think I now have a greater appreciation for the world around me, and as a promise to myself I shall be making bread more often and drinking plenty of sloe gin.

Thanks to Elliot & Thompson for sending me a copy of this book, hopefully I have convinced you to check it out so grab a copy from HERE: