Everyone is a Moon

Sawney Hatton

.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everyone is a Moon – Strange Stories: Sawney Hatton, Dark Park Publishing

Oh yes indeed, what very strange stories!

So what can I say?

  1. The man can write.  (As my friends know, I am inclined to forgive the devil as long as he punctuates correctly, knows the exact moment to finish a sentence and generally has a fetching turn of phrase; this capacity for forgiveness was often called upon as I read this interesting work.  )
  2.  He is sometimes very funny.  I laughed out loud in a couple of the stories – though the devil does generally get the funniest lines in life, so the man has an unfair advantage. 
  3. This isn’t a book to give your Aunty Mary or the children.  Personally I would caution against giving it to anyone. (I’m sorry Mr Hatton – I dare say you arranged your book tour at this time in the hope that people would then buy your book for their friends at Christmas.) Please think twice, dear reader.  It’s all very well to enjoy this book yourself, but would you really want you friends to know you enjoyed it? Or would you like to be friends with anyone who did? Seriously?
  4. It’s not the most revolting, distasteful, shocking and shamefully dehumanising thing I’ve reviewed this year. (That would be the Mississippi Department of Health Annual Report into conditions in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. At least Mr Hatton’s book is fiction.)
  5. Oh yes, and it has a gorgeous cover.

Look folks, you’ve got to understand I’m scraping the barrel here, because some of you reading this might be my friends, and I really don’t (see point 3 above) want you to think ill of me for having rather liked this book.

Some of these stories really are pretty vile, and I wish I hadn’t read them.  Other reviewers picked out the one about the fluffy thing.  (OK that was grim, but hey, the creature came out OK in the end, and at least the story ensured that everyone looked up Marie Provost on Wikipedia, so it was, at least, educational.  If you liked this story – but of course I’m sure you didn’t – you could google ‘Post mortem injuries inflicted by golden hamster’ and please have a nice evening.)  No. The one that got to me most was the tasteful evocation of a misspent adolescence, complete with a fantasy that I really wish this author had kept to himself. It didn’t help that this piece was written as a perfectly judged facsimile of one of those meandering memoirs of old friends and youthful exploits that so many people like to put together to impress their younger relatives. Which meant that I really did (actually I still do – there is bluff and double bluff involved here) believe that he was writing the treasured moments of his own adolescence. A bit tough, therefore, when I saw in the preface (shouldn’t have left that till last, I guess) that this story is a reflection on the adolescent development of a serial killer – which leaves some questions unanswered in my mind. (I’m certainly not inviting Mr Hatton for Christmas.)

Oh! I know what I can say!  This is a very intelligent book of horror stories.  And despite a few lapses, it’s not, actually, particularly gory. (Excuse me, don’t raise your eyebrows like that. Unless you’re Bob van Laerhoven, it’s not attractive. Yes, I do dark and difficult: I have quite a high threshold).  It’s certainly not one of those tedious books that thinks it can invoke horror simply by piling on more and more blood, more and more dismemberment. Whatever.  The shocking thing about those sorts of books is that the horror of gore is transient; as any surgeon or butcher’s assistant can tell you, after the first few (I-think-I-might-faint) encounters, they develop a bit of a ‘seen one seen them all’ air to them.  There is nothing ‘seen one seen them all’ about this book.  Each of the stories is entirely unique, and each of them weaves its magic in a different way, disturbs in a different way.  This author understands that less is more: the unsaid is louder than the said. So he writes with a delicious economy and finishes his stories before you are ready. (Yessssss! That’s the art of it.)  There are two very different depictions of marital loss and loneliness – poignant, both of them, if you really think about  them.  There are a couple of explorations of religious conviction, both of which made me laugh, but also made me question some previously unconsidered truths. There are two stories about the creation of art, one cynical the other chillingly innocent.  (Does this author do everything in pairs?)

So I’m not inviting Mr Hatton for Christmas, but I’m glad I’ve met him again. (OK, it’s confession time: it’s better to own up than have some overzealous reader call me out for not declaring).  Yes, I’ve read something by this author before, and I’ve even reviewed it. So I can’t pretend that I didn’t know what was coming.  OK. Hands up. I admit it. I rather like this author.

But I’m only saying this once, and if you think ill of me for this, well you’d better put your Christmas present in the bin unopened.

Everyone is a Moon – Strange Stories: Sawney Hatton, Dark Park Publishing

Review by De Gevallene

.

Subscribe to the Hard Hat Book Site


This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. I bought the book myself.

The Speed of Life

James Victor Jordan

“OK, so you’re a rocket scientist. That don’t impress me much” (Shania Twain)

“OK, so you’re a rocket scientist, a shaman, and a future Booker Winner. I guess I’m a little impressed” (De Gevallene)

.

The Speed of Life, James Victor Jordan, Turning Leaf Books

I’m glad that I’m sufficiently bloody minded that having got such a bargain (paying just .99c for a kindle of this beautiful book!) I was determined to finish it even though it annoyed me quite a lot from the start.

It’s an impressively good book.

True, it seems rather too anxious to let you know this.  The substance of the book is sandwiched between an introduction comprising several pages of adulation from important admirers and closing acknowledgments name-checking a raft of similar luminaries. Winners of literary awards.  A nobel prize winning scientist.  A whole slew of professors.  OK. OK. Got it. 

And the story itself pressed quite a few of my “irritation” buttons. Descriptions of fancy clothes : fictitious people in expensively branded textiles. (I don’t care). New-age metaphysics : native American mysticism portentously mashed up with quantum mechanics. (Very on trend. Still annoying). Books where the handful of working class characters are mainly criminals and everyone else has a fancy job title.  (Well!)

But I glossed over that lot (yep, I’m the brave kind of woman who can cope with the squeak of chalk on blackboard and not even leave the room screaming).  I did try for a while to skim the book, but I can’t pretend that worked.  (If you skip two sentences you find that you’ve moved to a different point of view, in a scene happening decades earlier or later, with an entirely different set of people, and possibly in a different dimension, and it might or might not be critical to the plot.)  So I got a grip and read it to the end, through a couple of days and a couple of nights.

What I found when I did so was an exquisite exploration of the interconnectedness of human experience, beneath the invisible surface of everything – our lives endlessly bound up with those of strangers. And a thoughtful, open-minded writer, intelligently exploring questions about free will, about the possibility of relationship if there is no free will, about consciousness, about where we have come from, where we are going.  All the while building a clever crime story to a deeply satisfying denouement.

Throughout this is a project of elusive fragility – through the beautiful, mystifyingly connected illustrations that punctuate each part of the book, through snatches of dialogue, through scenes that seem out of place, out of time.  It is a book written as dreams are written – tangential, familiar, strange.  A question from the book, that I copied down as I read it: “After all, what is consciousness if not a dialog between the past, the present, and the future?  What are memories and dreams if not an expression of the speed of life?”

At that moment I was awe struck.  I knew I loved this book.

It was a tough weekend though, with this guy pinning me down and making me read every word. Later I might decide that I had Stockholm Syndrome.  In that case I’ll have to make do with being happy that I read the book before my friends did, since I rather predict that it’s heading for a Booker Prize. (Even if it’s only short listed, I’ll be one up on anyone who tries to bluff about it from the gush on Twitter. I hope my friends will be impressed.)

Everyone likes to impress occasionally.

Review by De Gevallene

.

Subscribe to the Hard Hat Book Site


This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour

Review: Crackle and Fire, Russ Colchamiro

Crackle and Fire, Russ Colchamiro, Crazy 8 Press

This very readable little book is billed as a science fiction detective story.  Ha!

OK. Here’s the scenario.  For a long time the world (OK, the universe) has been reasonably led and controlled by a broadly benign oligarchy of rich and powerful beings, “The Minders”. These beings live in their very own dimension (“Eternity”) which looks (to judge by the descriptions) more or less like California, by which I mean rather richer than here in Europe and with lots more weapons, classier technology, and more colourful skies, but otherwise pretty familiar.  

OK, so it seems that the Minders haven’t been managing quite perfectly and some unfortunate infighting and corruption have been leading to some governance glitches, but they’re doing OK.  Really. Yes, they’re the good guys. True, they do interfere pretty cynically in the rest of the universe, (mostly from a distance, with a great deal of secrecy and abuse of superpowers), but anyway, they feel entitled to, because really they own the universe (don’t they?) and from their perspective the rest of the universe is pretty backward and lame, so it ought to be grateful.  (Hmm. Feeling like I know this scenario.) 

Well, where the story picks up, this off-world paradise is unfortunately going pretty pear-shaped and it seems likely that the rest of the universe is going to feel the aftershocks.  Or get destroyed as collateral. There’s a conspicuous amount of climate degradation going on (represented in this case by disorderly planets and moons and galaxies, and the sky changing colour, and unexpected blackouts… you get the idea).  And the population of paradise is definitely going astray. Not realizing that the established and well intentioned people who’ve always been in charge before are really the good guys and were doing their best, the misguided populace is letting a load of crazy conspiracy theorists persuade them that they really don’t need the nanny state (sorry, “the Minders”) at all, and that they’d be better off without it. 

Just then – well blow me down! – along comes a deranged, narcissistic, power-crazy demagogue who hates the Minders with a vengeance because they’re better than him, and he’s more than ready to commit whatever crimes it takes in order to get control, whip up the crowd, channel the conspiracy theories and throw away the old world order for his own self-aggrandisement. (Oh what a thing to happen!)

All this leads to a lot of adventures for those (including our trusty heroine, Angela) who would really rather the world went back to how it was.  However flakey the old order was, the alternative now unfolding is very much worse.  And with the Narcissist setting light to most of the oil that there is in the universe and paradise going up in flames, (the writing must be pretty vivid you know, because I could swear I’d seen this on the TV recently…) they certainly aren’t wrong.

Let’s just be glad that it’s just a novel, eh?  How we love science fiction in difficult times: all so far away and fanciful. And this story reads well, carries you along. It’s kinda neat. Ends on a bit of cliffhanger though. Wonder how it’s all going to turn out….

(Good luck with the election, Mr Colchamiro.  All of us down here on Earth, by which I mean Europe, are seriously rooting for the Minders.)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Follow the Hard Hat Book Site

Ask for a review – see ‘About’ page for criteria

.dddddd

This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. I was happy to purchase the book myself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Russ Colchamiro




Russ Colchamiro is the author of the rollicking space adventure, Crossline, the zany SF/F backpacking comedy series Finders Keepers: The Definitive Edition, Genius de Milo, and Astropalooza, and is editor of the SF anthology Love, Murder & Mayhem, all with Crazy 8 Press.
 
Russ lives in New Jersey with his wife, two ninjas, and crazy dog Simon, who may in fact be an alien himself. Russ has also contributed to several other anthologies, including Tales of the Crimson Keep, Pangaea, Altered States of the Union, Camelot 13, TV Gods 2, They Keep Killing Glenn, Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Camelot 13, and Brave New Girls.
 
He is now working on the first novel in a new series featuring his hardboiled private eye Angela Hardwicke, and the first of three collaborative novella projects.

Review: A Dying Wish (Razor, book 1)

A Dying Wish – Razor book one, by Henry Roi, paperback, e-book, audiobook (narrated by: Jamal West)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You may in these pages have seen me refer to “boys’ books”, invariably, I have to confess, in a righteously dismissive tone.  I mean to refer to books whose gratification comes from fighting and motor vehicles and weapons and sex, generally mixed unhealthily together, and without much concern for any moral or psychological or political context.  Bam bam bam, I’m the winner.  Vroom vroom, you can’t catch me.  And a certain amount of ah ah aaaah…. Well, enough said.  I’m a literary woman, I tell you, I have no time for such nonsense.

It was pretty clear from the start that this was going to be a “boys’ book”. After all, it starts with a fist-fight so gratuitously unrelated to the plot that I have to conclude that the author just likes writing fist fights.  Outrageous.  Next we get the motorbike, whose indulgently sensuous depiction leaves no doubt that the author very much likes these too.  Followed by a girl-on-girl fight scene so shamelessly relished that I can offer no commentary, and thence to a predictable moment of ah-ah-aaah involving one of these pugilistic young ladies….  A boys’ book in pure culture, so if I had any backbone I’d have switched off the audio straight away, and focused my mind on something worthy.  

I didn’t.

The seduction here was the audiobook format.  An audiobook is so wonderfully free of guilt, since it’s quite compatible with simultaneous creditable endeavours.  I could switch it on without committing myself to indolence.  I could have weeded the garden while listening to it.  Or hung out the washing.  Or painted the hall.  I didn’t actually do any of those things of course, but hey, I could have done.  At any moment I could have got off the sofa and I swear I was about to several times. 

It was the author’s fault that I didn’t. I got distracted by the minor characters.  I had been warned in advance, and on excellent authority, that the eponymous hero of this work was ‘a bit of an asshole’ (excuse this vulgar quotation, but the vulgarity rather ‘nails it’, as I believe young people say these days) whereas the other characters were worth a second look.  And so it was. 

There is Blondie, Razor’s girlfriend – an excellent amateur boxer and an engineer to boot (not to mention an author and a slightly-retired criminal) who I feel should have done a bit more to keep her asshole Romeo in order, but who none the less acquits herself rather well throughout the book.  Playing opposite her there’s Anastasia, aka the “Girl Beast”, a professional boxer, career woman and prisoner-on-the-run, towards whom I felt a most curious affection, almost as if I’d met her somewhere else, in some other life, though my memory is short, particularly when I’m embarrassed.  And there’s her geeky boyfriend, Julian, all skinny limbs and muscular brain, and their powerful minder Bobby and lurking in the shadows behind them, the gentle spectre of a honorable trainer, now sadly departed, whose dying wish is the pretext for all the shenanigans.

They seemed to be good people.  I liked them.  I liked the dynamics between them and (I hesitate to say this) I even liked the romp of a story whereby they tackle the local bad-guy gang, whose overweening ambitions are disrupting the local criminal economy.  Oh it’s a bad story, true, and politically incorrect in ways I can’t begin to reflect upon, but it made me smile and (in the increasingly frequent moments when I wasn’t thinking that I really should turn on Radio Four and calm myself with Women’s Hour or the Moral Maze) I found myself getting quite carried away by the cut and thrust of the conflict and the exuberance of the narrative.  Could it be that I felt my own biceps twitching for a bit of Bam bam bam?  That I found myself revving that bike a bit myself for a bit of vroom vroom vroom? That I even… no I won’t go there. That wouldn’t be seemly.

Yes, it was fun.  And even the hero, who I was quite determined to dislike, seemed a little less of a discredited bodypart by the end.  After all, he really does respect his clever girlfriend, and he’s faithful to her too, despite a number of temptations.  And he concedes without rancor that Anastasia – a girl for heavens sake! – is actually a better boxer than him, and possibly, just possibly, that Julian is smarter.  He even (and I’m not talking about any of his many fistfights) has a moment of heroism. Self-sacrifice almost.  Perhaps – oh reader, I’m sorry to say this, and I fear the author may hate me for it – perhaps he’s really, underneath all that asshole stuff, a bit of a sweetie.

 I can claim no moral virtue in this book, but after it I felt much amused and decidedly invigorated.  And these are dark times, and they certainly call for a bit of that.  And it’s an audiobook, remember.  You can still take a stab at the washing up or at deadheading the roses – but at least switch off Woman’s Hour and forget the Moral Maze. Maybe even you deserve a boys’ book sometimes.  (Or maybe you don’t, but your secret’s safe with me).


A Dying Wish – Razor book one, Henry Roi, published by Next Chapter with audiobook by Audible , narrated by: Jamal West

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Follow the Hard Hat Book Site

Ask for a review – see ‘About’ page for criteria

.dddddd

This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. I purchased the audiobook through Audible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Henry Roi

Henry Roi is an author, publicist, and teacher.  He has been writing crime and horror since he was a teenager and worked for several publishing houses as an editor and publicist before setting up Henry Roi PR in 2018 and Blackthorn Book Tours in 2019. He has also worked with many independent authors as an editor and mentor.

As well as A Dying Wish, his published works include the other two volumes of the Razor Trilogy, A Long Ride and Criminals, and also With Her Fists.

Henry was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and still finds his inspiration in its places and people. As a GED tutor and fitness instructor, working both face to face and online, he is an advocate of adult education in all its forms. His many campaigning and personal interests include tattoo art, prison reform and automotive mechanics. If you’re not lucky enough to catch him fishing round the Biloxi Lighthouse or teaching martial arts in your local gym, he can usually be found on Twitter or Facebook, under Henry Roi PR.

Matthew Cox – Of Myth and Shadow

.

Matthew Cox – Of Myth and Shadow, Zero Press

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Look, readers, I’m not reviewing this for myself, I’m reviewing it for a friend, OK?  Blackthorn Book Tours gave me a copy in exchange for an honest review, so what could I do? 

Elves?  Dragons? Talking animals?  Grand sweeps of quasi-politics in a faux-mediaeval world, where characters wih strange names and no laptops talk portentously about swords and magic?  Really?  I haven’t done these things since I read Tolkein and CS Lewis as a kid, and I wasn’t planning to restart. Let alone on a book that is 1500 pages long, dammit!  And to compromise me further, this is a book that includes girls with green eyes, and at least one sexy bloke with a finely chiselled jaw, and if you read this blog’s mission statement you’ll know that I Don’t Do Those Sorts of Books

So to bring you this review I’ve had to dig deep for my IED (I mean Inner Elf-Daughter, not that other thing) who I eventually unearthed from some fantasy about a Rolls Royce motorbike, where I’d repurposed her as a figurine. I think she may have been quite grateful for the rescue, because when I told her to read this book for me, she set about it immediately, even though she’s a bit flakey now and needs glasses.  She did remark that it would have been nice to have an audio book. (I wished that too – this  is a tale that would have worked rather well in that medium and then she could have shelled my entire season’s bean-crop or done something else productive whilst preparing this review. As it was she was no use to anyone for best part of a week.)

 So this is the IED’s review.  I have to report, sheepishly, that she rather loved this book.

This is a book which pretty much achieves its towering ambitions.  It takes you on a journey through a world that it builds in meticulous detail, through peoples and troubles and dreams and impossibilities, and makes you actually mind about them.  It carries you high and low through immense landscapes and immense breadth of story, giving a sense of space and vaster possibilities than you previously knew. But it also  takes you into the tiny, jewelled detail of individual hearts, making you laugh and cry and hold your breath.

Throughout, the book is driven by the author’s skills at making characters – there were many stand-out figures in this book, young and old, elvish, part-elvish and human, good and bad – and all of them came fully realised, with lives and motivations that seemed solid and real, even in this world of smoke and mirrors.  As each of them appeared, I felt I came to know them, absorb them, understand them – even when I didn’t like them.  Sadly, for my fading abilities, there were rather too many of these very real characters – from chapter to chapter I forgot their foreign names, confused their faces sometimes, (oh dear, all elves look the same to me once my eyelids start to droop, so you should probably no-platform me as species-ist)  so I couldn’t always remember where I met them before or whether I could trust them.  But forgive me.  I’m old now. This happens to me in the real world too these days, so I can’t blame the author.

There is a plot to this book, which drives it on through its many pages, but a lot of the time one is lost in the detail of the moment and the bigger journey of the book gets obscured by more immediate challenges and details and all those interesting characters. Actually I would have liked a bit more plot to hold onto – perhaps, a tighter, cleverer structure, with more mind-bending twists, and possibly (dare I say it?) a little bit shorter and less all encompassing…  But this is an epic quest-book so I shouldn’t complain – it is Myth and Shadow after all, not Mulder and Scully.  And compared to the endless rambling of The Lord of the Rings (never mind the pointless broken-back quest of The Hobbit) this novel was as tight and well woven as a Gordian knot. 

Thinking of genre, the least appealing aspect of this book was its counter-genre deployment of sex, which generally left me pretty queasy.  Now I don’t mean sensuality – there could hardly be a more sensuous genre than this one. No, I mean the mechanics of bulging erections and grunting and crotches and entering her. The author of course is writing for a modern audience and perhaps he feels he has to add this sort of stuff or nobody will bother to read it.  But this makes me suspect that he might have missed the point.  There are lots of genres where some thrilling crotch-action provides a welcome break, but this isn’t one of them.  Doesn’t he see that at its very core, this genre is about symbolism and sublimination?  What does he suppose all those journeys are about? All that yearning? All those alien creatures? Even those swords for heaven’s sake!  Who needs the vulgar spelling out of it?  Would a Georgia O’Keefe lily or skyscraper be more alluring with some porno-genitals pasted at that place where imagination kicks in?  I don’t think so.

Georgia O’Keeffe, flowers and skyscrapers

But I’ll forgive him that error. Matthew Cox is a terrific writer and to judge by the number of books with his name on, he must have been writing teenage fiction since his cradle.  One can see this long apprenticeship in the deftness of his characters and the fluidity of his world-building. But this book is a knight’s move away from that previous writing.  He is finding his place in a rather new terrtory, and later books will tell us if he makes a go of it.

Meanwhile readers – and I say this from my heart – a spirit who has lived for a long time shelling beans in the dark may be refreshed by this book.

Matthew Cox – Of Myth and Shadow, Zero Press

Follow the Hard Hat Book Site

.

Book Blurb:

Aegaan is a vast and righteous kingdom, yet darkness gathers in the distant corners of the realm. Elven raids on small towns have inflamed racial tensions with humans, pushing distrust to hatred and the brink of war.

Anrael wanders the woods alone until a chance meeting tempts him to set aside his contempt for those who scorn his half-elven blood.

When Kylie, a naive elf terrified of humans, is thrust among them against her will, she begins to question her mother’s tales of dread.

Having lost everything dear to him, the bandit king Jhelan lives only to seek challenge in battle… until he finds himself willing to die protecting that which he hates the most.

The diabolical mystique of the dark elves cloaks L’an Thal’Sara in protection, but the cruelest lie she tells is to herself.

Thaelwyn, a virtuous knight, sets out to discover the source of the Elves’ aggression, but faces a much greater test within his mind.

Beneath the chaos, minions of the Destroyer search for their promised leader, a child possessing power beyond their years. If the innocent falls to darkness, a kingdom rife with hatred will surely crumble.

Purchase links: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07WNYMDCQ  https://www.amazon.com/Myth-Shadow-Cox-S-Matthew/dp/1950738116/  (let me know if you need non-US links)

 Author Bio

Originally from South Amboy NJ, Matthew has been creating science fiction and fantasy worlds for most of his reasoning life. Since 1996, he has developed the “Divergent Fates” world in which Division Zero, Virtual Immortality, The Awakened Series, The Harmony Paradox, the Prophet of the Badlands series, and the Daughter of Mars series take place.

His books span adult, young-adult, and middle-grade fiction in multiple genres, predominantly science fiction, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, and fantasy.

Matthew is an avid gamer, a recovered WoW addict, developer of two custom tabletop RPG systems, and a fan of anime, British humour, and intellectual science fiction that questions the nature of humanity, reality, life, and what might happen after it.

He is also fond of cats, presently living with two: Loki and Dorian.

Social Media Links:

Tell Me a Story, Babushka, by Carola Schmidt

Holodomor.  Голодомо́р. Derived from морити голодом, ‘to murder by starvation’.

When I put this website together not so very long ago (I was certainly old enough to know better) I described it as celebrating difficult and dangerous writing.

I went on to say (fending off a few battalions from the army of authors who want reviews), I won’t be reviewing stories about wistful heroines with wide grey eyes or handsome heroes with finely chiselled features . I probably won’t be reviewing children’s books. Then I added, as an afterthought, because I thought it was rather quaint, though children’s interests are often darker than we think, so you could always try me… 

How naïve.  How patronising. As if children were not as much touched as I am by the difficult and the dangerous. As if their dark interests are no more than a surprising curiosity. And as if, to survive, they did not need dark stories as much as I do myself.

Tell Me a Story Babushka, with its sweet illustrations and gentle colours is a five minute read for an adult like myself, who has suffered very little, all things considered.  But it’s not written for me. It is a story for little children about surviving terrible times.

It touches on one terrible time, but the story is universal.

Holodomor, an epoch in the recent history of Ukraine and Soviet Union, is generally described as a man-made famine. Its human roots are clear, though its driving motives are disputed. Under Soviet rule, peasant farms in the Ukraine were being forcibly taken over by large state collectives. Peasant farmers  who resisted collectivisation, as many Ukrainians did,  were transported to Siberia without means of survival.  The remaining farmers were required to plant novel crops – beet and cotton – as well as the usual grain.

Harvest were poor and such grain as was harvested was transported to Soviet cities, as a sanction for failing to meet targets, leaving nothing for rural families.  All personal food was requisitioned by the state; hoarders – even children trying to collect wild food from the countryside – were executed. By the end, there was no food in the Ukraine. People ate grass, leaves, pets, tree-bark.  Millions starved – perhaps as many as were killed in the Holocaust.  Starvation is a slow process, but by the end the bodies of starved people lay in the streets, rotted in houses: the starving have no energy for conducting burials. Some were eaten.

Some choose to see this famine as an unintended consequence of poor central decisions, poor management, neglect. It is more widely accepted, however, that it was really a genocide, carried out by the Soviet government in 1932 and 1933, against the people of Ukraine as a punishment for their nationalism and resistance to collectivisation.  Cock-up or conspiracy make little difference to the starving, however, especially children. 

Tell me a story Babushka is presented as a tale told to a little girl by her grandmother, her babushka, a refugee survivor of Holodomor.  It describes in simple, accessible terms, a little of what happened to the grandmother and her family. Hunger, resistance, the arrival of terrifying strangers, deportation to Siberia, the threat of death, rescue of the children, flight by train across unknown countries, arrival in an unknown world, orphaned. 

Most refugees bring almost nothing to their new country except memories, some ragged clothes, and if they are lucky a few poignant, precious mementos. For the little girl, it is a Matryoshka, a little set of wooden dolls, one inside the other, nothing else.

The story is told from the safety of distance, of time, in an adopted country which has been good to the little girl. Now an old lady, warm and comfortable and baking bread, she tells the story to her granddaughter.

This is the story of one place one time.  But all over the world there are children who have witnessed trauma, shared in it. Those who survive terrible times are permanently marked by it.  Research into the families of holocaust survivors demonstrates that the impact of such horror scars personal development across the generations.  “The research emphasizes the transference of emotions, fears, and loss through conscious and unconscious processes that inform the construction of descendant identity… psychiatric and psychological studies of first-generation descendants described children of survivors as suffering from nightmares, guilt, depression, fear of death, sadness, and the presence of intrusive images.” 

Often in an attempt to protect the children – even those who may remember the trauma but certainly those in subsequent generations – the terrible events are not spoken of.  But in the attempt to silence them, to erase them, to protect the next generation , they become subject of “deep emotional silences”.  These silences do not protect. They give no space for recovery, but preserve and transmit the untold story, through unnamed feelings and emotions that permeate the emotional climate of the survivor household, not just for the children of survivors, but onward through generations.

A better strategy, it appears, is to tell stories.  Research suggests that the telling of stories about terrible times, without taking away the trauma or banishing its effects, does better for the children and grandchildren of those who survive.  It gives space for survival to be celebrated at the same time as tragedy is acknowledged.  Stories are a point from which broken worlds can be reframed if not recovered. 

Perhaps all this sounds as if Tell Me A Story Babushka – so clearly part of this tradition of telling stories about terrible times – will be a heavy or sad or frightening book.  It isn’t.  Although some of the scenes are frightening, they are framed by the comforting presence of the grandmother, beautifully illustrated with her shawls around her, giving her an appearance as rounded and comforting as the wooden dolls she brought with her.  She is making bread.  She is surrounded by her family.  The frightening reds and blacks of the scenes of terror are counterposed by the soft kindly hues of the children’s ragged clothes, and by the bright certainty of the little doll, itself a symbol of continuity, of worlds nesting inside each other, of new lives opening up.

This little book confronts the horror of societal trauma, but also, quite gently and matter-of-factly, the possibility of moving on, of personal renewal.  There will be children who have experienced war or flight or hunger or displacement to whom it will particularly speak.  There will be others descended from those who have had such experiences, and who know these events from family stories or have sensed them without understanding, in the gaps of unspoken silences.  But stories like this are not only for them.  All children have contact, at least tangentially, with the possibility of disaster, and many of them worry about it.  Sooner or later all children realise that their parents will not live forever, that there are bad people, that bad things happen, that the world is not wholly safe.  Offering the platitudes of reassurance will often be kindly and helpful, but we also need to help children to face the terrors of the world, to understand that losses can be bitterly real but that survival is possible.

When I drafted my About page, along with my rather dismissive comment about children’s books, I also wrote ‘I want to use these pages to celebrate dangerous writing in any genre: writing that challenges, that goes to dark or unexpected places, that doesn’t repeat the familiar platitudes’.  I think perhaps this innocent little book, with its cute childish images and its five minutes worth of text, meets my brief rather better than others I have reviewed more recreationally.  

I am humbled by this brave little book.  Every children’s library or school classroom should have books like this. 


Carola Schmidt, Tell Me A Story Babushka is available on Amazon as an e-book or paperpack

Carola Schmidt is of Ukrainian descent and lives in Brazil. She is a paediatric oncology pharmacist and has also written scholarly articles and several books for children being treated for cancers.

Henry Roi – With Her Fists

Henry Roi was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and still finds his inspiration in its places and people.  

As a GED tutor and fitness instructor, working both face to face and online, he is an advocate of adult education in all its forms. His many campaigning and personal interests include tattoo art, prison reform and automotive mechanics.

He currently works in publishing, as an editor and publicist.  He particularly focuses on promoting talented indie writers – arranging reviews, delivering media campaigns, and running blog tours.

If you’re not lucky enough to catch him fishing round the Biloxi Lighthouse or teaching martial arts in your local gym, he can usually be found on Twitter or Facebook, under Henry Roi PR.

From start to rip-roaring finish, With Her Fists is a vibrant rule-breaker of a novel that picks you up by your ankles, swings you round and takes you to all sorts of places you never planned to go.  (I don’t think Henry Roi much cares whether you go through the book kicking-and-screaming or laughing-and-crying.  About that, he’ll let you take your choice, but once you start he’s not going to give you any choice about finishing.)

But suppose it were possible to read the beginning and skip to the end – a fairly standard ploy for world-weary book reviewers.  The story opens with a bungled operation by a pair of seriously corrupt police officers, leading to a massive, deliberate miscarriage of justice which lands our innocent protagonists in prison.  And three-hundred pages later it ends triumphantly enough – I don’t do spoilers so I won’t say more than that.  Employing that trusted technique, you could suppose this was a lengthy but otherwise fairly standard piece of crime writing.  Clearly the author writes well.  The mood is engulfing, the settings credible.  It’s professionally done and if only you had time you’d be happy to read it.  So dash off a vague review and give it four stars on Amazon….

With Her Fists isn’t a book that allows the reviewer to do that, so I can assure you that I’ve taken the whole ride.  As a result, I’m in a position to warn you: this is definitely five stars but it isn’t standard crime writing.  I want to tell you what it is, but I can’t write a sentence long enough.  It’s a rollercoaster of an action thriller.  It’s a slow, intensely written story about the impact of separation on marriage and motherhood.  It’s a fight-novel – a romp with wrapped fists and blood and heroic injuries, and occasional moments of shameless magical realism.  It’s a serious polemic about the American prison system.  It’s a book about female friendship.  It’s a nostalgic recollection of a time and place.  It includes a couple of episodes of gory horror and (very differently) some moments of realistic pain and loss.  Above all, it’s an exuberant celebration of an extraordinary central character. Actually, however, it’s quite a few other things as well….  If you want your novels predictable and fixed-in-genre, With Her Fists might not be for you.  (That’s not how I want my novels, so for me the unexpected angles were delectable, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

No one could review With Her Fists without dwelling on the central character, Clarice.  I have to declare an interest at this point. I have utterly fallen in love with her.  So I may not be quite objective here.  I want to be her.  Since I can’t be her, I want her to fall in love with me back, though it’s very clear that she’s never going to.  And since I can neither be her nor have her, at the very least I want her part in the novel to go on forever.  But even that turned out impossible (it’s a long book but not long enough), so it seems that the best I can hope for is a glorious string of sequels….  Perhaps, perhaps…..  So what should I say about her? (Maybe not too much: you might fall for her too, and I don’t need the competition.)   We meet her first at a boxing ring – she is a professional boxer, at the poignant moment of the preparation for her final fight, before a well-planned retirement into the relative obscurity of wifehood and motherhood and running a couple of businesses.  In this opening encounter, as elsewhere in the novel, Roi exquisitely captures the complex chemistry of the fight: I’ve never been a fighter but afterwards I felt that I had been there, felt it.  As things turn out, she doesn’t quite give up the fighting, so there are further chances to dip into this experience, but the senses in which Clarice is ‘a fighter’ soon become much more complex and nuanced.  And she has other talents.  She’s an artist – of both conventional media and tattooing, and at the start of the novel she runs a successful mechanic shop.  She’s feisty certainly, and clearly exceptional, but I’m pleased to say that she’s no comic-book superhero.  She’s flawed and fallible and funny.  Her propensity to smart-ass gets her into trouble. She’s sometimes needy and vulnerable.  She has bad days – and as she starts her journey through prison there is plenty of scope for those.  She isn’t even reliably beautiful.  She grows hair where she doesn’t want it.  Prison uniform looks no better on her than it does on real women.  She loses a front tooth and for several chapters afterwards has a grin like a hag.  She’s no Lara Croft. 

Which leads, in a way, to a puzzle in this book.  It’s written (if you can believe the picture on the cover) by a man – and by the look of him, a cheerfully ‘he-him-his’ sort of man, at that.   This authorship seemed unlikely.  Clarice doesn’t read like a male fantasy.  Her honed body is a visceral presence at the heart of the narrative, but there is no attempt to objectify her sexually.  Her physical triumphs seem to be written from the inside out.  Her vulnerabilities aren’t  glamorised.  Her injuries are painful and messy; her prison bra is uncomfortable.   And the author seems almost indifferent to her external appearance – there are none of those lingering quasi-masturbatory passages about silky skin or pert breasts or the usual (oh-give-us-a-break!) green eyes.   (Actually, this absence of description led to a disconcerting moment in the latter part of the book, when it finally dawned on me that Clarice is meant to be a white women, quite undoing  the image I’d created myself).   But more than that, she doesn’t have the psychology of a woman written by a man.  As with most of the women I know, her femininity is secure but compellingly complex  –  quite unlike the parodies in most male crime novels.  I did toy with the idea that perhaps the author was some George Eliot figure and playing a game that shouldn’t, these days, be necessary.   I went so far as to seek an interview, supposing this might flush out the truth, and I could tease the author wickedly.  Henry Roi declined my invitation.  So instead I spoke to some authors who know him – he runs an established literary PR agency and his clients were happy to wax lyrical about him.  But my delicate enquiries about his gender were met only with amusement. So I have it on good authority – unless his friends are well-drilled and having a good laugh  – that the author of my heroine is indeed quite solidly a bloke.  Should this worry me?  I don’t know.  Actually I find it rather engaging.  Perhaps there’s hope yet for the other sex.  After all, I’d never query a woman for writing a man.

Enough about Clarice (I could go on a lot longer, so don’t tempt me).  Although Clarice is the pivotal figure and the primary reason why the book won’t let you go, there is a veritable world of interesting characters in With Her Fists, and Clarice’s relationship with each of them is effortlessly drawn.  There are several I want to meet again – her clever, nerdish and loyal husband (who becomes increasingly solid and interesting as the book progresses); her cell mate Patty; Helen the enigmatic trustee who sells stolen medical supplies…  Even the less attractive figures – like the gruesome Officer Portsmouth – seem worth another outing.   It’s also full of places that don’t fade from the memory.  I’ve seen European prisons –  the two prisons in With Her Fists are nothing like those, but this is the USA, where criminal justice is always said to be more brutal, and I’m perfectly ready to believe in Roi’s depictions.  I’m also ready to believe in Roi’s Biloxi and the countryside around it: there is a cinematic quality to his writing: I am sure I would know these places again if I saw them in the world.

I feel the need (if only to demonstrate that I have not been completely addled by my response to the central character) to add some or other clever critical point about this novel. None springs to mind, so I’ll make some boring ones instead.  It’s raw in places.  There were occasional moments when Clarice slipped from three to two dimensions and I wanted to flesh her out again.  I don’t do horror, so those bits didn’t please me.  But if I read it again – and I don’t doubt that I will  – there’s nothing in this book that I’d want to skip or skim over.  There are certainly some feel-good moments that I’ll be looking forward to revisiting, and knowing the ending will make the middle less painful.  But I think, second time round, I’ll let myself think longer about the deeper moments of the book, and its darker subtext: the aspects of the book that qualify it for a blog about difficult and dangerous writing.  Clarice and her family begin in a place of respectability.  They may be unusual, but they are law abiding, complacent, upright citizens.  By the end of the book they are not these things.  The reader is carried with them through a transformation that is bleak and inexorable.  Roi demonstrates – with a lightness of touch that belies its seriousness – the cruel one-way street down which convicted felons (whether rightly or wrongly convicted) are obliged to walk.  All of them are victims of a criminal justice system that is often corrupt and always dehumanising.  Despite their innocence, Clarice and her family are changed by this.  For them – as for everyone in that system – there may be no way back.

..

With Her Fists; Henry Roi; Publisher: Terminal Velocity – A Next Chapter Imprint.

The Hard Hat Book Site