About & Ruby Reviews


A wandering Englishman, I've pedalled the pushbike of life until the chain fell off. Now living in rural Ireland where the natives are friendly and the weather atrocious, I write crime fiction and thrillers.

My writing is dedicated to the memory of my late Scottish grandfather Robert 'Ruby' Barnes (and that's where my pen name comes from.) You can reach me on ruby.barnes@marblecitypublishing.com


Every now and then I read a book and want to discuss it with someone, but there's just an empty room. So I write down my thoughts ...


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“Woman’s Mania for Wearing Male Attire Ends in Death.”

 A couple of years ago when I read Room by this author I was traumatised. It wasn’t a feel good book – claustrophobic but gripping. Misery lit fiction. So I was apprehensive when a colleague suggested Frog Music as my next read.

I needn’t have worried. The author’s own pre-release description of Frog Music was historical fiction based on the true story of a murdered 19th century cross-dressing frog catcher. Sufficiently far away from misery lit and weird enough to tickle my fancy, but Frog Music is much more than that teaser suggests.

1876 San Francisco is the setting – a society so different to the modern world that it completely transports the reader. The overwhelming impression is raw cosmopolitan, people flooding into a thriving city from the rest of the globe. The California gold rush is history but has left a legacy of wealth, instant gratification, disappointment and beggars. San Francisco swarms with new Americans, most notably French, Prussians and Chinese. Law and order’s grip on daily life is as tenuous as the stability of the wooden city buildings that shudder with each movement of the Earth’s crust and burn to the ground through accident or riot. Rampant smallpox adds a large dose of carpe diem to the behaviour of the residents. Donoghue paints all this perfectly.

Blanche Beunon is our narrator, a young French circus performer who has found a talent for entertainment of a more adult nature. She lives in comfort thanks to her earnings but shares a bohemian lifestyle with two male former acrobats that sinks frequently into depravity. Looking over Blanche’s shoulder, the reader is in a safer place than Room, but the plot has a train wreck trajectory from the first chapter.

This tragic story is delivered in third person, present tense but the timeline alternates either side of the blood-soaked first few pages in order to explain how things came to that fateful event and to lead to the eventual resolution of whodunnit. Once or twice I had to recap in order to be sure whereabouts the story had got to, but the delivery worked well overall.

There are very few wise people in Frog Music. With the exception of old Maria with her destroyed face, all the characters display different facets of naivety. Blanche is very worldly in her work environment and doesn’t lack confidence but she is naive in the belief that her acrobatic ménage of a lifestyle can continue once the complications of adult responsibilities ensue. The other characters are similarly in denial of their mortality and cavort with abandon in the face of disease, dishonesty and debauchery.

The catalyst to this crucible of San Francisco is Jenny Bonnet the cross-dressing frog catcher. A fascinating character, Jenny has a massive impact upon everyone in the book but (and no real spoiler here) she is killed off in the first four pages. She understands the rules of life and death better than anyone, but is no more able to avoid her own demise. Had she stayed alive throughout the book and then died towards the end it may have been unbearable. As it stands, the author breathes life into Jenny’s character and Frog Music is as much a eulogy to Jenny Bonnet as it is a journey of self-discovery for Blanche Beunon.

Witty, fast-paced and intricate, Frog Music leads the reader a merry dance. Sometimes I wanted to laugh, to cry and other times to take a long hot shower to cleanse the depraved filth of the Californian heat wave from my pores. Donoghue’s cast acts in ways that delight, titillate and infuriate but their behaviour and attitudes are logical in the final scheme of things. The many skeletons in the cupboard eventually manifest themselves, the highest impact being caused by the smallest of them, P’tit. As different as this is to Room in so many ways, the hub of Donoghue’s FrogMusic is once again a small child.


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My stablemate Jim Williams has a very eloquent turn of phrase that earned him a Booker Prize nomination for his historical novel Scherzo a few seasons back. Scherzo is a great book but I think my favourite of Jim's is The Argentinian Virgin. 


Ruby reviews The Argentinian Virgin

Judging a Book by its Cover

I was captivated by the beautiful woman on the cover of this book the moment I saw her. It’s happened to me before and I dare say it’s happened to you. We assign attributes of character without any basis in fact, but because of the way an individual appears. Through a happy accident of birth, the lucky mix of genes, what the red Hot Chili Peppers call “a perfect piece of DNA”, an individual is blessed with beauty. Facial symmetry, poise, a breadth of shoulders, slimness of waist, coupled with graceful strength or endearing fragility.

Nature’s deception, I call it. The effect may be momentary; if they open their mouth and sound like their antithesis then the bubble is burst; if their charm works when statuesque but fails in movement then they ought best to stand still. Without any contrary evidence, such beauty can be an enduring lure. I’ve been caught out more than once by appearances, giving trust and even affection to the owner, only to find that it was an accident of nature and under the alluring surface they’re just as ordinary as you or I. But sometimes, occasionally, the character matches the appearance and something wonderful is ignited for anyone who comes within range. Such a person is Tom Rensselaer in The Argentinian Virgin by Jim Williams.

Lucky Tom Rensselaer warms the sight and hearts of all who have the good fortune to meet him. He’s a product of good breeding, old money (although now lost) and perfect nature. Strong in principle, generous and loving, he cannot fail in life. But what happens when Adonis meets Aphrodite? Katerina Malipiero captivates Tom from their first encounter. She’s without guile, innocence personified, and all the more irresistible for that. The air crackles with charge whenever they are in each other’s company. He can’t withstand her attraction, any more than the powers at war can halt their own inevitable march towards doom.

Set on the French Riviera early in the Second World War, monumental events occur around the cast of Tom and the other Americans, the Malipieros and the Irish narrator, Pat. A chance encounter, infatuation, love and lust lead Tom and his Argentinian Virgin through the backwoods of occupied France, leading to a tragedy that no one can avoid.

Passionate, evocative, enthralling and emotive, The Argentinian Virgin is a warning to watch out for the skin deep.

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It’s been a long, long time since I read a science fiction novel. Maybe thirty years. The closest I’ve come to doing so was the futuristic part of My Memories of a Future Life by the same author. I knew from MMOAFL that Roz Morris was a lyrical writer and I trusted her when I requested and received an advance review copy of Lifeform Three. My consternation in realising I had picked up a dystopian novel, and that the MC Paftoo was a synthetic lifeform, only stayed with me until the end of the first page, and then I realised the magic had begun.

Lifeform Three is a totally believable, some might say inevitable, scenario. Global warming, lands lost to rising sea levels, increased urbanisation and total reliance upon interactive technology. Synthetic bods manage theme parks based upon historical artefacts. When the sun goes down, the power goes off. Except something is different about Paftoo. To paraphrase the blonde who asked “Do dogs have brains?” the reader is soon thinking “Do synthetic lifeforms have souls?”

Then things start to get creepy. Paftoo has been here before, we’ve all been here before. Groundhog Day. But there’s learning to be had, precious learning that can be tragically erased by a group “Sharing”. After a few chapters you’ll be begging the story not to put Paftoo through a Sharing.

Morris does a fantastic job attributing characters to these near identical androids. Although Paftoo is the one who breaks the rules, my favourite character is the enigmatic Tickets. Part ballerina, part nightclub bouncer, he holds the key to the story. He knows where that missing door on the cover of this book is.

Lifeform Three doesn’t give us all the answers. It leaves plenty of room for the imagination. I really didn’t want this book to end, it’s that good. The emotional involvement reminded me of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, but Lifeform Three is much more joyous and less tragic.

It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realised there’s no sex in it. None at all. If you’re looking for rampant robot sex then you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re looking for a gripping read, at times tender, uplifting and hopeful, then Lifeform Three is the one.

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Ruby reviews Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff


Here's another case of the contrary reader. Mrs R's book club chose Once Were Warriors as their book of the month and, despite it being only 198 pages, Mrs R baulked at the serious-looking cover and hesitated to get stuck in. So, rising to the unspoken challenge, I grabbed the paperback and ran off to my kennel with it, growling whenever anyone came near.

This isn't a new release - it was first published in New Zealand in 1990 and was made into a film, apparently - but was a hit at the time. I didn't research the author's background, like I usually do. I just ran headlong into the story. Looking now at the acknowledgements in the front of the book, the author thanks his editor, Richard King, for agreeing to forgo the conventions. He sure did that.

The narrative style is like a stream of consciousness, from varying viewpoints and delivered third person. That editorial flexibility allows extensive use of slang, profanity and grammatical deviations. This is deep third person, a voice that puts the reader on the shoulder of the alternate narrators without having to live inside their heads. And that's a good thing because being on the shoulders of Jake, Beth, Grace and Nig Heke is something that can be difficult to bear at times. No criticism of the writing there, just a nod to the gravity of the story.

Over a quarter of a century has passed since Alan Duff first wrote Once Were Warriors but the curses of the human condition are as real today as they were then, perhaps more so. Duff describes a long-term unemployed, geographically isolated, poorly educated, disenfranchised, underprivileged and alcohol addicted underclass in New Zealand. A once proud warrior race whose sense of identity has faded to become characterized by such icons as rugby players and an opera singer. Unless you've lived a life of complete privilege (as do the Traumbert family in this book), you will recognize the elements of despair: low self-esteem from poor education and exploited minimum wage labour, frustrations taken out on friends, family and acquaintances; job insecurity perpetuated by alcohol-fueled absenteeism; escape offered by substance abuse; bread-line poverty that spirals down into inescapable debt; gang culture that respects mindless violence and destroys family life. Now you really want to read it!

This short novel is an irresistible train wreck of a story. The author speaks from personal experience, being half Maori and half Pakeha. There is a glimmer of hope. Read Once Were Warriors, recognise the frailties of the human race, thank your lucky stars for what you have and see the positive in everyone. I'm not going to describe the plot but all I will say is I don't think Jake did it. It was Dooly.

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The Prisoner of BrendaThe Prisoner of Brenda by Colin Bateman

When you're down and weary, and you need a hand to hold ... just reach out for a Bateman book. The prisoner of Brenda will make your (face) cheeks ache from smiling and your ribs hurt from the belly laughs. Best read alone to avoid the 'just listen to this bit, just listen to this other bit' phenomena. What I took from this story is that electro-convulsive therapy is an effective, albeit temporary, treatment for hypochondria. I'm not sure if I preferred our Mystery Man with or without his hang-ups but Bateman has given me lots of new ideas for general misbehaviour. I particularly enjoyed the breaking of all the forks in Purdysburn because I agree that plastic cutlery is an abomination. Looking forward to the next Bateman.

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I must be almost the last person on the planet to read Fifty Shades of Grey. EL James has become the latest big-selling author to be maligned by readers and authors alike, as much for her writing style as for the content, so I thought I'd take a look. Well, okay, my wife got hold of a copy and I started to sneak off with it into dark corners. Here's what I found (warning - contains mild spoilers, double entendres and spanking of writers, readers and most everyone).

The most immediately noticeable thing about Fifty Shades is the first person, present tense narration. This was originally written as Twilight fan fiction, a series that uses the same intimate and claustrophobic narrative style. I'm no stranger to first person (my own first two indie novels use that style) and well aware of its limitations. A lot of readers immediately walk away from first person and those who don't like the style but persevere in hopes of BDSM mommy porn are already hard to please.

With first person narrative the reader is obliged to stay within the narrator's mind and only gets their take on things. Timelines tend to be linear, every day accounted for with a strong sense of chronology that risks becoming mundane. The first person narrator will observe, think and talk in a consistent style with a vocabulary that might feel repetitive to the reader. Think about it; we tend to use the same spoken words and thoughts on a day to day basis. Anastasia is a young thing, innocent, educated, intelligent, low in self-esteem but not isolated from the modern world. Her account of events is going to be from her perspective: naive, humorous, inquisitive, infatuated, insecure, unrequited, confused and, at times, clichéd. Despite her strong education and literary interests, she isn't going to have the life knowledge and hindsight that will enable her to eloquently describe her observations, experiences, physical feelings and emotions. Having accepted that, the FSOG story can be examined further.

The paperback copy that came into my hands was well-fingered. It had sweated in the hands of numerous ladies as they took lengthy baths to ensure a private reading away from interfering hubbies. When I had the chance to claim it for my own it was already past its prime, all floppy and wrinkled. The first few pages slipped from the spine onto the floor with a sigh. I held the remainder and tried to picture all those readers. Would the book be an anti-climax? Or had they all reached the self-gratification they had been searching for? (Compare the FSOG mommy porn content with my poor efforts and you'll see it ain't easy to avoid slipping into slapstick innuendo and double entendre!)

It was hard going. (Okay, I'll stop with that now.) The first fifty or so pages were all chick lit romance and I thought I'd made a mistake in trying FSOG. Then I remembered the first words from my wife as she had reached the first raunchy bits - "She has no gag reflex!" What could she possibly mean? I persevered. Things started to get weird. Non-disclosure agreements and contracts. Vanilla sex occurred, with a cherry on top. Things were looking bad for Anastasia in her innocence. I couldn't imagine all the previous readers of this copy (probably the entire female population of holy Catholic Ireland) had read a novel containing stuff normally only found in the red light district and live sex shows of Amsterdam.

Well, it didn't go there. It went somewhere else, far more disturbing.

Most of us are not natural leaders. We spend a lot of our work and personal lives looking for people to tell us what to do. In the majority, I think we're submissive by nature. The minority are dominant. When someone in authority directs us we, in the majority, tend to comply. That's how society works.

Take the concept into a personal relationship. If that dominant person is physically attractive, and there's an irresistible chemistry, it can lead to a relationship that appears unfair from the outside but satisfies the couple's private needs. That's what happens in FSOG. Anastasia is surprised by her own participation but justifies it with the rationale that she's really trying to convert Christian to normality. That's one hook to keep the reader going - the hope that Mr Gorgeous Perv will convert to a romantic. The other hook is a promise of hard core misbehaviour, as specified in the dreaded BDSM contract.

I did enjoy the touches of wry humour and the use of Anastasia's foxy inner goddess and insecure subconscious to explain her thought processes. Unrequited love and lust has always been a favourite topic for me. Anastasia wants Christian Control Freak to behave in a more predictable fashion and there's some irony in that. She's willing to endure physical and emotional debasement in an attempt to bring his behaviour and moods into a spectrum she can cope with. At the end of the day the subtle flaws in her character outweigh his overt perversity, as she is ultimately bent on relationship self-destruction and predictably sabotages the stairway to romance heaven every time it presents itself.

The ending leaves a void as Anastasia pricks her own balloon. Annoying, yes. A set up for the next book in the series, yes. EL James maintains the titillation and keeps her readers on the cusp of release. Yes.

Ruby Barnes is the author of The New Author, The Crucible, The Baptist and Peril

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Pick a colour (my favourite is blue). Pick a fabric (okay, silk). Sprinkle it with your favourite fragrance (mine is Light Blue by D&G, no kidding!) Draw the material to you, inhale, clutch it to your face and neck. How does it make you feel? Good, isn't it? That's how I felt while reading Blue Mercy by Orna Ross.

I somehow ended up with this book on my kindle, one of a number I'd loaded up for the summer break. Within a few pages I was hooked. The story starts with heavy baggage. Three generations of a family have reached the end of the road and the book is all about unfolding the events that led there. The main vehicle for this is the Blue Mercy Manuscript, a memoir left to the daughter when her mother dies. I'm not going to try and summarise the events of Blue Mercy. Calamitous occurrences, major life choice mistakes, dark secrets and tragic bad luck, it all happens to Mercy and her daughter Star. The mother has the benefit of hindsight as she revisits her journey from rebellious teenager to flower child, single mom and quite suddenly an old and ailing woman. She acknowledges her own weaknesses and strengths, conveys the despair of trying to raise a daughter with serious behavioural problems and carries her beauty, wherever she goes, like a deadly weapon over which she has limited control.

The contrast between Mercy and Star is acute. They're physically very different and that's important to the story. Star's bulk casts a shadow throughout and her self-loathing is palpable. Mercy is gorgeous but she hates herself for being weak willed. The two women are at irreconcilable loggerheads, putting up a united front only when three men enter their lives at different times, each leading to a different kind of disaster.

There's a twist in the tale. In fact, there are two twists. If you see them coming you're more perceptive than I was. Cruel fate indeed.

Blue Mercy is wonderfully written. Orna Ross, it turns out, is a mainstream published author turned indie. I wish, can only hope, that one day I'll be able to write like her.

There's a moral in the story of Blue Mercy. Life is not a rehearsal, this is it. You have one life, live it.

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Shell-shocked by Isihiguro's subtlety
(contains spoilers)

My wife's reading group chose this book but didn't like it. Then they had a film evening, watched the screen version and didn't like that either. Being the Contrary Mary that I am, when I saw a bargain copy of Never let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro in my local bookstore I had to grab it and read from cover to cover, trying to understand how and why it could have been Booker prize short listed. The answer is simple - it's a masterpiece of subtlety (I still don't understand why the reading group didn't like it). I do realise I'm the last person on the planet to discover this book.

Ishiguro's world only differs to reality in one respect; the ethics of cloning and transplants. This novel is all about the coming of age of three key individuals for whom that difference is material. Their innocence and fatalism had a devastating effect on me. Bred and nurtured for a purpose, these young people move towards their end and 'complete' without coercion.

Religion has no part in this tale and the time period through which events travel is contemporary. That shook me even more with music, cars and cassette tapes giving time-stamps that moved the start of this alternative reality back to post WWII. If we had emerged from that era with a different ethos, if certain attitudes to genetics and superior / inferior race had prevailed, then who knows?

I have to confess I did itch to know the nitty gritty details of being a donor, the fourth donation and completion, but this novel is all the more powerful for avoiding the specifics. Ishiguro does get painfully close to explaining when Tommy and Kathy meet Miss Emily and Madame in their search for deferral, but he recovers the enigmatic delivery style in good time.

An analogous interpretation of Never Let Me Go's fatalistic overall theme is not to be recommended unless you're in the company of great friends and good wine, and can face the possibility of life's futility.
Not a feel good book, but nevertheless a wondrous read.

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Last night my wife went off to her local book club and I was so jealous. Not for the normal reason, that her book club is in a pub and I was missing a few pints. No, because she was going to have a chance to discuss with a peer group the book they had all read. I had just finished reading Roz Morris's novel and it has left my head in a spin, with no pub full of cronies to help out.
As a musician, author and reader of literary fiction myself, this book was potentially right up my street. I know the author is a ghost writer and her blog posts are usually along the theme of music in fiction or writing advice. But what if it was crap? What if it was over-stuffed with in-your-face musical references and a writing style like a paint-by-numbers exercise?
I needn't have worried. From the first few pages I was in comfort. Then I began to experience discomfort. Not with the prose or undeniable musical influence, but a shared discomfort with the protagonist as she battled with a debilitating, lifestyle threatening malady. As the literary themes developed it became difficult to put the book (well, ebook, I read it on my kindle) down.
The main themes that came across to me in this book were threefold: how much a life can be impacted by devotion to a single pastime or occupation; the draw of mysticism and the subtle line between belief and cynicism; and the trust that we place in others through relationships.
Being a multi-tasker myself when it comes to hobbies and occupations, I often envy those who can dedicate themselves to one particular pursuit. They achieve a level of immersion and eventual expertise that unavoidably places the 'amateur' label on others less devoted. Morris exemplifies this very well in the character of Carol, yet her very way of life is under threat as the problem with her hands begins to marginalise Carol from her own society.
The overt chicanery of the hypnotist Anthony Morrish contrasts well with Carol's therapeutic experiences of Gene, and the other-worldly setting of Vellonoweth adds sinister elements reminiscent of The League of Gentlemen and The Prisoner. This balance between intrigue, mild terror and charlatanism is perfectly maintained throughout.
Carol's friendship with Jerry is a cornerstone of her life. The Gene thing is dysfunctional but Carol clearly yearns for that excitement. Both she and Gene are pretty screwed up compared to 'normal' people. She's very reluctant to give herself, he's an enigma and the whole thing goes on above a buried nuclear power station.
Metaphors abound in this story. The reader is regularly invited to take things on face value, push them away as fake or adopt a Zen approach to the Andreq future life and Vellonoweth shenanigans.
Morris presents the whole like a crossroads where each and any direction can make sense. My Memories of a Future Life is a wondrous book.

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Ruby’s review of ‘How I sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!’ by John Locke

In the last two months I’ve been devouring non-fiction as research to support my new project – a how-to book on novel writing, social media and independent epublishing. It’s been an interesting journey and my final port of call was the much talked about million selling method book by Mr Locke.
The first thing I do when considering a popular book is to browse the negative reviews. Locke’s knockers were scathing, claiming he didn’t really reveal his secrets, that his method wouldn’t work for most people and he was on an ego-trip. Then I took a look at the three star reviews (the ones that Locke himself discounts when he calculates the positive / negative review score of books). I sensed from those middling reviews that he was connecting with his readers. Not everyone felt they could emulate his approach but they began to give it credence. A sample of the higher scoring reviews showed genuine praise. So I One-clicked and slipped my few bucks into Mr Locke’s bulging pocketbook.
First impression? An avalanche of advertising, branding and hammering out credentials. Close to sales pitch overload. I’m a bit of a straight-laced Brit and pushy product placement presses the wrong buttons for me. However, in between the lines of Locke’s opening gambit, I sensed warmth and something akin to humility. So I read on.
It didn’t take long before I realised that I was in the hands of a master of rhetoric. That’s a positive super-power, when used for good. Locke’s entrepreneurial understanding of sales and marketing, coupled with that gift for rhetoric, are a powerful combination. He’s a rich man who has unsuccessfully tried to herd his ebook camels into sales heaven through the eye of a needle (or some more suitable metaphor). That was the first major learning. Money thrown at traditional product promotion won’t propel an indie author onto the best seller list.
Locke went on to describe how his writing polarises readers and that demarcation defines his market niche. I read that on the day that Peril received its first ever one-star review. The reader had found my anti-hero thriller unpalatable, where others had lauded it. There, I had polarisation.
Donovan Creed, Locke’s MC in his main series, isn’t a regular guy and the quirky story lines aren’t mainstream. Bells began to ring in my head as I compared the appeal of Creed with my Peril MC Ger Mayes. Locke has a series of Creed novels and that was where my hopeful comparison faltered (note to self – produce more!)
Then Locke went on to describe his GBL (Guaranteed Buyer List) and how these people have become personal friends who not only buy his new releases but are evangelical in spreading the word. I call them the Locked In. He explained his approach to social media and how he engages in a supportive social network where spam is anathema and everyone benefits, how he communicates personally and builds relationships. I thought of people I have met on Twitter, facebook, this blog and in chat forums. How they might have bought my book but I don’t know. How I don’t know if the 17,000 people holding ecopies of Peril even know that I’ve written and released The Baptist! I’m adept at the how-to aspects of social networking and epublishing, and I think I write a decent novel but, compared to Locke’s sleek, tight and smooth machine, my marketing is a pair of old lady’s wrinkled stockings.
All the way through the book Locke promotes his sound marketing plan but the major catalyst for his success, the trigger that set Locke’s snowball rolling down the hill, is his incredible rhetoric. He attributes the initial rush of sales to a series of blog posts that hit the sweet spot with potential readers and went viral. The resulting sales success fed into his business plan with all its carefully designed components and he leveraged the momentum to great effect as the Creed series rolled out.
If you are an indie author who understands product marketing, customer relationship management and the principles of persuasion, then you have to read Locke’s book. If you don’t understand some or any of those things then you have to read Locke’s book.
At the end I wanted to hug John Locke. And I’m not the kind of guy who does man hugs. I don’t think that many people will be able to fully replicate his method. Few have the skill set, determination and work rate that he displays, but there are nuggets in there for everyone and I’m thankful to the man for sharing. And I just bought my first Donovan Creed ebook.

Note: In August 2012 it was revealed that Locke purchased a large number of reviews for his books. Interesting to hear that and also that he said the reviews didn't have to be positive. Having a large number of reviews on Amazon could trigger the social proof influence strategy (i.e. if all these people like it then I probably will) but it's not clear how big a part this approach played in Locke's success.
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I’ve always been interested in psychology, especially abnormal psychology. Anyone who’s read Peril or The Baptist will understand. When I spotted that my local bookshop’s Minority Interest for last month was The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, I had to grab it. You can’t know too much about psychopaths in my line of work.
 Ronson is also the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats (a book that led to a very strange film with George Clooney) so I was expecting quirky humour, journalistic investigation and some genuine insights. That’s exactly what I got, with a few intriguing case studies thrown in. The 286 pages flew by.
Now that I’ve finished this book I’m left slightly perplexed. Not by the book but by the subject matter. Ronson doesn’t claim to be a clinician, he’s a journalist. He examined several attitudes towards psychology in general and psychopaths in particular.
The approach of categorising mental illness into specific codes was explored and the hazards discussed. Autism, ADD and infant bi-polar disorder were identified as diagnosis growth areas that were probably stimulated by the coding, with attendant questions about the roles of pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Ronson studied and adopted the Hare PCL-R checklist as a methodology to assess several subjects (including murderers and business leaders) for categorisation as psychopaths and, following him in his discoveries, I found myself using the same approach. He himself was at first exhilarated and then somewhat dismayed at his own jumping to conclusions based upon a few days’ training. As a wannabe amateur psychologist, I was very glad that I had read the entire book in a short space of time, narrowly avoiding the making of armchair psychiatric diagnoses of my own.
At the same time he discussed the Scientologist approach that all psychology is gobbledegook. That was a real eye-opener.
All of this was informed by interviews and meetings, sometimes a series of them, with the key players. It wasn’t a desk analysis. Ronson flew around the world to meet with pivotal individuals, past and present.
The big question is whether society is led by psychopaths. We would wish that it were led by altruists but the suggestion is that key influencers in society might otherwise be categorised as dangerous were they not in a position of power and influence. Look at a few of the twenty points of Hare’s checklist: superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative, lack of guilt. These, if not all the points on the list, seem a fairly typical recipe for any leader that has taken major corporations through major restructuring or brought a nation into a war zone. What if society is driven by psychopathic behaviour? Ronson’s book only scratches at the surface of that question but I suspect he is describing the human condition.

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As an author myself, Stephen King's novels might be considered essential reading. I'm ashamed to say this was a first for me, but it won't be the last. 

Like everyone, I've seen the film of The Green Mile. Unlike everyone, I've not heard the film as I was in denial about my hearing loss for the past two decades. All the films I've watched have been looked at and not heard, so my attention wandered. I remember the mouse resurrection and that's about it. My recollections of other King stories in film are similar - Carrie and the burning sports hall, The Shining and Jack with the axe.

There was an inertia I needed to overcome in even buying a Stephen King novel. I hate to walk with the crowd, Contrary Mary that I am. Eventually I picked up The Green Mile to complete a 3 for €10 offer in a shop in Dingle, Kerry. The title didn't even register with me at the time.

Then I opened the book, began to read, recognised the premise of large, unnatural John Coffey on death row and was hooked.

King uses Paul Edgecombe as first person narrator to great effect. The full horror of the death penalty is the overriding theme throughout. This is Death Row and execution is by electric chair so there are necessarily graphic scenes but they're gratifying without being gratuitous.

Most of the book takes place within E Block at the Cold Mountain State Penitentiary. It's claustrophobic. The sweat and tears of prisoners and guards alike flows before the reader's face and sometimes on the reader's face. Each character comes to life, and some to death, in full 3D technicolor and the story is all about their interaction. The plot is bare bones, the reader wishing that the characters would catch up with what the reader has already divined, praying for the salvation that comes for some and not for others.

Coffey's character is truly supernatural and would bring anyone close to Believing. I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed that Coffey let the gang off the hook in the end.

The wrap up in the retirement home was very moving - to find love again at the end of the road, an absolution for wrongdoing and acknowledgement of human frailty in the face of death.

Once or twice I was perplexed by the repetition at the start of new chapters but the author's afterword explains that the story was originally issued in instalments, so that's why recaps were built in.

This is the kind of book that I could read again immediately, but my wife has already swiped it out of my hand! So I'll have to go scour my bookshelves for The Shining or Carrie.

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Awfully good! The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It’s taken me several days to come back from the place that The Road took me. Oh, yes, I’ve seen the film. So there weren’t a lot of surprises. Nevertheless, I found myself as the man pushing the shopping trolley, trying to avoid cannibals and persevering in the face of fate, all for the love of a son. As a father I can completely understand that.
During the final pages of the book I found myself looking around the train carriage I was travelling in, wondering whether I could bring myself to eat any of the passengers. Not even the old lady opposite, who smelled of ham, seemed appetising. The Road had me so strongly in its grip, but I found that I was one of the good guys. I would never consume human flesh.
I think that McCarthy’s style is ideal for The Road. He eschews the punctuation that normal humans require around dialogue, mixes direct and reported speech, and joins everything together with description of setting and action that colours the canvas like a speed painter. There is just enough to set the reader thinking about what has been left unsaid and the subject matter is perfect for that minimalism. Apocalypse, infanticide, slavery, cannibalism, starvation, futility of being. It sounds grey and ashen, the devastated world that is The Road, but I want back in. Like a dream interrupted by extreme outcomes or some external stimulus, I need to get back in. The man went through so much to protect his son, a continual search for hope and safety. I was that man and I died too, but I’m praying tonight that sleep will set me back on The Road.

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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I very much enjoyed this book. It's quite an epic and five different first person narrators really bring the story to life. All my senses were constantly addressed with the headiness of the Congo.

When I reached the end of the family's time at the mission I was looking for the story to end, and felt dismayed that there were over a hundred pages still to go. Looking back now, I appreciate the full denouement that the author has provided.

Kingsolver's method of using the different female voices to tell the story is perfectly applied. We're able to understand the differing perspectives of the mother and the daughters. No doubt Kingsolver considered giving us the voice of the father, but he really isn't meant to be understood.

This book will have you counting your lucky stars that you live in comfort and re-opens a can of worms concerning the involvement of Europe and the USA in Africa.

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Not just any boy

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became really wrapped in Vikram Seth's family saga and had to get it finished before my holiday as this tome is just toooo big to carry around at 1478 pages .

At the start it was a bit challenging with so many characters rushing on-stage. I had differentiating them all from each other as they seemed to be a big bag of sons (successful or ne'er-do-well), daughters (married or unmarriagable, matriarchs and patriarchs. But something dragged me in and held me there. Perhaops it was the atmosphere of post-colonial India just coming to terms with its own societal complexities and the very effective tickling of my senses by Seth's settings.

The year or so covered by this gargantuan novel isn't exactly a day-by-day account, as there are several concurrent threads, but after three hundred pages or so (the size of a regular novel) I had a firm handle on who was doing what and how the threads were likely to intersect. I think this book just wouldn't have worked as anything less than a thousand pages.

Vikram Seth manages to avoid dramatic temptation, working very much on the personalities and their interaction. There are some events of major consequence in the final quarter but no spoilers from this reviewer. I was thrown out of the flow just once or twice, particularly when two chapters ended with a similar homo-suggestive hook that turned out to be a red herring.

A Suitable Boy was been my breakfast companion for six months. I recommend this book to anyone who has the appetite and stamina for heavy reading.


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It's Tudor time - inside the head of Thomas Cromwell

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2009 and caused quite a stir at the time for a couple of reasons. Mantel's book was derided by many as just another Tudor saga, nothing new, a docudrama of sorts. The other main objection was that it was unreadable. Some people cited the numerous characters named Thomas as causing confusion, others said that the overall cast was too broad. Together, these objections were enough to stop me rushing out and buying the book at the time. Then, two weeks ago, I happened across a copy and decided to put it to the test.
Now, I’ll be honest and say that I can’t get enough of the Tudor genre. Henry and his harem – divorced, beheaded, died – divorced, beheaded, survived. And the Reformation of the church in Britain remains a contentious topic, especially here in holy Catholic Ireland. In the last couple of years I’ve read and enjoyed a number of novels set in the period, including Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom and The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory. I might revisit my bookshelves and designate a Tudor shelf. Wolf Hall will sit proudly on it and I'm going to tell you why, but the novel has a flaw which loses one star from this reviewer. First, the good stuff.
Thomas Cromwell is the cornerstone of Mantel’s tome. Not the Roundhead fella that wreaked havoc around the place, de-feathering cavaliers, beheading kings and ruining a lot of perfectly good castles in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. That was Oliver. No, Thomas Cromwell was the guy that became Henry VIII’s right hand man.
Wolf Hall deals with the period leading up to the ecclesiastical schism between England and Rome. This might sound like dry stuff, administrative and diplomatic wranglings, but Mantel turns it into a story of relationships, everything revolving around Cromwell. She builds the fate of the country upon his character, a great structure of power rising from a man of pragmatic principles. There is violence and torture, there are executions, burnings, beheadings, but none of it is gratuitous. Physical relationships occur and are often outrageous but not explicit.
Mantel doesn’t titillate with bawdiness. She leads the reader through the same minefield (anachronism I know, but what’s the Tudor equivalent?) that Cromwell faced in order to deliver his king a divorce, a new wife and the wealth of the church. She does, however, titillate the senses with a sumptuous serving of Tudor sights, sounds, smells and tastes. To read Wolf Hall is to look through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes, to feel his frustrations and lust, to share his victories.
The narrative viewpoint is so firmly Cromwell’s that it’s almost a first person account. It took me a couple of hundred pages to realise that. Whenever Mantel refers to what ‘he’ is thinking or doing, the ‘he’ is almost invariably Cromwell, even if it is a room crowded with men. Therein lies my only negative mark for Wolf Hall. The second chapter almost had me giving up, so many male characters with similar voices in dialogue and the narrative describing what ‘he’ was thinking. I hadn’t realised that Cromwell was and would be the dominant viewpoint.
Wolf Hall left me with a lasting moral that pragmatism is the trail of breadcrumbs which leads us through the forest of life’s complexities. There was no more dangerous and confusing time in England’s history than the Reformation. Idealists found themselves turn torturer and then subsequently themselves bound to the stake as the wind of change turned and fanned the flames at their own feet. Of course, Cromwell didn’t outlive Henry and met his own sticky end, but that’s not in this book. This is a feel good story.
My parting word on Wolf Hall is that I think the title is an ingenious little device. To find out why that might be, you’ll have to read the book!


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It's such a great read, I have to share my thoughts

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It's taken me a few days to emerge from the world of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I totally understand why this book is a prize winner.

Post-colonial Africa holds a morbid fascination for me. There are several excellent non-fiction books that describe the inexorable slide of newly independent nations into despotism and chaos. Crises of the day are tattooed into our memories by media coverage, be that accurate or otherwise, but we are often left ignorant of the post-colonial devastation of Africa. Apart from the association of a country called Biafra with acute starvation, I had little memory of Nigeria's independence or Biafra's secession. I was too young (not often that I can say that these days). Genocide was a word that I associated with other places, other times. That was until I read this book. It’s such a powerful piece of writing that I feel I’ve lived through it.

Adichie’s alternating third-person viewpoint lets the reader into the strongly differing characters of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard. Kainene is something of an enigma as we never read from her viewpoint and that suits her character very well.

Ugwu brings his latent intelligence out of the humble village and grows in the relative splendour of Odenigbo’s home. He experiences lust, envy, loyalty and self-loathing as he travels through the story. A boy with a strong moral code, he does commit offences as do all the characters, but his ethics are perhaps the purest.

Richard is self-obsessed, insipid and weak-willed. He’s doomed to always be ineffectual and peripheral. The world goes mad around him as he indulges in the delusion of being an author. It takes a great deal of life tragedy for him to find backbone. Like a fly on the wall, the corruption, murder and starvation pass him by, personally, but he observes everything up close, uncomfortably so.

Olanna gently rejects the opulence of her parents’ corrupt lifestyle and opts for a more altruistic existence with the academic idealist Odenigbo. The small sacrifices that she makes snowball into a cataclysm of starvation as the country tears itself in two and then suffers forcible reunification. Her relationship with Odenigbo mirrors the fate of their homeland.

Kainene is the strongest of them all. As the others lurch from crisis to infidelity, she is the stalwart. Protected from the emotive events by a social awkwardness, she provides a focused ending to the book.

These characters are so real that I could swear I’ve met them. They’re fallible, admirable, alluring and frustrating. Each comes into their own at different times in the story.

The settings tickled my senses. Privileged Nigerian society led me into a web of decadent iniquity. I wandered through the Nigerian gardens, sniffing their blooms, tasted Ugwu’s pepper soup, and indulged in drunken intellectual rants of an evening.

During the food shortages I found myself running to the cupboard and digging out tinned goods that had been at the back of the shelf for ages. I opened a can of mystery meat and enjoyed my corned beef and mustard sandwich with the savour of someone who has been close to starvation for three years. Or was it one hundred pages? I ran a very tight kitchen for that phase of the book.

In addition to brilliant characterisation and aromatic settings, this book also deals excellently with many tricky themes such as the apparent futility of intellectual altruism, mankind’s inherent capacity for cruelty, and racism within racism (black, white, tribal).

Adichie conveys all of this with a seamless power of observation, imparting a storm of emotion and a litany of events without the reader feeling that a story has been told. This is a story that lives.


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Spread your tiny wings


Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a wonder to me. A wonder that I enjoyed it so much, bearing in mind that the pivotal event is handed, pre-announced, to the reader. The rest of the book circles around this event, delivered mostly in two narratives that move in towards it, away from it and then meeting back up at the end. I gave Testimony by Anita Shreve a low score and that followed a similar format. Why then is Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates a more enjoyable read?

I found the author’s style off-putting for the first few pages. This was the first of her books that I’ve read and the constant use of dashes for pauses and italics for emphasis nearly made me put it down. I’m glad that I didn’t. It soon became a book that I looked forward to picking up every chance I had.

Krista Diehl’s first person narrative is very touching. She recalls events over the course of several years, admitting her own naivety and showing how her intuition developed into perception during that time. Her absolute, unwavering faith in and love for her father is something that any man could only hope for. That man is on a clear path to doom and Oates tells the reader on the first page that Eddy Diehl will die in a hail of police bullets. What is gripping is the emotional turmoil the characters endure as the Diehl family is ripped apart by infidelity and false accusation. Sections of narrative are introduced e.g. a section from Eddy Diehl’s perspective during his initial police interrogation, that give valuable insight into his state of mind and the mistakes he makes.

Oates uses concentric story circles of two men, Eddy and Delray, hell-bent on self-destruction through their attraction to the ill-fated Zoe who ultimately betrays them both and leaves a poison legacy of suspicion. Outside of these two men run the stories of Eddie’s daughter, Krista, and Delray’s son, Aaron. Krista is described through her own thoughts and words. Aaron is described more in the physical sense initially. His dominant presence is tangible and Krista’s attraction to him seems terrible but logical.

As Aaron becomes older, his persona turns into Krull and this character comes to life through his actions and reflections. As he, in effect, loses his father, the character becomes more sympathetic and he moves into a similar space as Krista. Both he and she have lost their fathers and Jacky DeLucca’s confession brings them together years later. This reunification is also telegraphed early on by Oates, giving credence to what otherwise might seem an improbable turn of events.

I did have a problem with the Jacky DeLucca character. When Krista meets her for the first time, Jacky’s dialogue is very heavy and I felt like the story was being delivered through her mouth. The same with her confession at the end. She seemed too eloquent and I just wanted her to stop. It was obvious that the killer was one of Zoe’s murkier lovers and Jacky’s lengthy disclosure didn’t sound like a woman dying of liver cancer. That’s my only complaint.

To end on a high point, this has to be the first book I’ve read that ends with a sex scene and well done it is too. The requiting of eighteen years of lust is a fitting climax and it’s bittersweet. I’ll definitely try more from this author.


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Da Chen - you added colour to the grey world of Mao

Colours of the Mountain by Da Chen 4 stars

A memoir giving fascinating insight into the changes in rural China during and after Mao's reign. The story flows well and couples with the aspects of life that appear unique to western readers but were commonplace to tens of millions of Chinese. With new and breathtaking subject matter it is difficult to be objective about the writing. The irresistible rythm seemed to drop off in the last quarter and loses the fifth star from my review.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Ruby, great reviews! I think maybe we need to have you as a special guest one night at book club. I loved Half a Yellow Sun too. Still not a big fan of Never Let Me Go, though!

    NR

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Nabla! Very happy to do that but guess I would have to wear my best frock?

    ReplyDelete