Friday, 5 February 2021

Ruby Reviews Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The pandemic has led to excessive home consumption of many things. In our house it’s books (well, maybe one or two other things as well, but we did manage a dry January). I’ve been gorging on crime fiction series and particularly Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch books, read in order. Last week I had to stop myself and consume something else. On the top bookshelf I found an abandoned cast-off from a friend who every couple of years buys a bunch of books with good intentions, never reads them and gives them away. It was Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

Mrs R had started and given up with Elmet. That can be both a good and a bad sign. Bad if she’s given up because a book is poorly written, good if she’s stopped reading because it’s weird. I like weird.

Elmet is weird. I didn’t like the book title – it reminded me of a popular brand of ladies’ hairspray. (I don’t use hairspray, honest.) I didn’t like the cover – it looked too literary or something. Having now read Elmet, I like the title and the cover, because they remind me of the book’s world. Don’t get me wrong, Elmet isn’t a fantasy world. It’s more Wasp Factory than fantasy, except it has no wasps and no (Wasp Factory spoiler) mutilation of private parts. There is some mutilation though. Patrick McGrath’s Spider also springs to mind.

The title is almost coincidental as the ancient kingdom of Elmet is barely referenced. It does indicate that the family at the centre of the story lives in their own world, on the fringe of regular society and by their own rules. The seven foot tall Daddy figure is a prize fighter moving through an unorthodox life of financial reward for controlled violence, a strong personal code and immense love for his two children. Think Tyson Fury but without modern appliances. This is an underworld of ne’er do wells, the trials and tribulations of the underprivileged, and the abuse of power by the privileged who reign over their vassals as modern day kings. The main villain is named Mr Price (which has humorous connotations here in Ireland as it’s the name of a discount retail chain, but that can’t be helped).

Daddy’s teenage son Daniel is the narrative voice and there are occasional flashes forward as the now itinerant Daniel wanders the land, looking for his absent sister Cathy. There has clearly been some kind of happening leading to this and the main story describes that. The author’s touch is light enough that it doesn’t disturb the reading.

I once knew (online) a British Gypsy (and he would have described himself as such) who had won his west country cottage and land in a fist fight in a pub car park. He lived in a world of cash and his own society’s rules, and died tragically young. The world of Elmet does exist, albeit the setting for the book is north east England. Apart from the narrative telling us so, the dialogue is skilfully localised, again without disturbing the reading. I would say, though, there are some extensive stretches of dialogue where the speaker’s words start to read and sound like narrative. That would be my only criticism.

Fiona Mozley paints the world of Daddy, Daniel and Cathy in vivid colours. I lived for two days in their house in the woods, emerging occasionally into the day and night reality of the masked Covid world, feeling like an outsider and desperate to get back into Elmet. Mozley manages to bring everything alive without making me wish I knew more about types of plants and trees, which is usually the problem when an author goes all green on you. The characters are also fully alive and distinct. Daddy, Daniel and Cathy are three very different peas from the same pod. They are each interesting individuals in different ways. The life they choose to live is very different to most people but they have to interact with society and its issues of poverty, substance abuse, crime and mental health. Elmet is one of those books I regretted finishing. A strange kind of escapism that, for a couple of days at least, made me vow to resume my life as a fighter (I was never very good), to arm my household against villains (no arms available, no villains in sight) and to fully enjoy everything the natural world has to offer (within a 5km radius of my home for exercise purposes only). Highly recommended.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Meat as a source of Zombification



The idea first came to me in a pub in Kilkenny. After a pint or several in Bridie’s Bar and General Store, we martial arts types were swapping war stories about previous jobs when Sean the ginger ninja (name cleverly disguised to protect the innocent) started to talk about his time in the local abattoir.… Continue reading

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Genesis of Zombies

Where did they come from, these zombies that plague us here on the Western edge of Europe? Was Brexit any kind of a cure? The R.A. Barnes zombie series is based upon scientific fact (honest) and personal experience (double honest). Trust me, I'm a doctor. To better understand the rise of Ireland's zombies - where and why they came about, the science behind their genesis, how they breed, why they eat meat from birth and their preference for sausages - I'm sharing a series of informative posts on my Ruby Barnes Books website. Starting with why the katana (Japanese Samurai sword) is the ideal zombie apocalypse weapon

Meanwhile, back in the land of normality, this blogspot will mostly be sharing Ruby's reviews of books of all genres, recently read.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Ruby Reviews The Color Purple by Alice Walker


2020, a year of many facets, many colours, many seasons. Covid-19 lockdown caused a reading frenzy in our house – online ordering (even from the local bookshop), the excitement of packages arriving every few days, author series collections reaching completeness on the bookshelves, stacked double deep. With the writing of a couple of crime fiction novels in progress, I mostly concentrated on the Connollys (John and Michael of Bosch and Charlie Parker fame, or is it the other way round, I can never remember) and the Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. I started with the first and worked my way through, noticing the style changes as the author developed and found their stride (more about that another time).

Eventually the new title well ran dry, lockdown eased and the spending had to stop. So I turned to the bookshelves and considered novels I had read before. Something less plot-oriented. John Irving perhaps? Mrs R thrust The Color Purple into my hand. ‘Read this, it’s topical,’ she said. Well, I’m as liberal as the next nearly sixty-year-old white European, but I didn’t want my reading trend influenced by world events. I like being in my own little bubble. But purple, now purple is my favourite colour.

I put off the task and read The Water Method Man by John Irving. I couldn’t believe that book was nearly as old as Mrs R. Meanwhile, The Color Purple mysteriously migrated upstairs and onto my bedside table. It seemed it was mandatory. With trepidation, feelings of right-on with BLM and a medium to strong dislike of Whoopi Goldberg, I began to read. First written in 1983, this was the 2017 edition. It started with a letter by the author explaining how she had some issues with the 1985 film, how it failed to get across some of the characters and the story. “Thank the Goddess there is a book,” she said. I was liking Alice Walker already.

There are two things about the written style of The Color Purple that would generally put me off. The first is it’s written entirely in the form of letters by the narrator to God, to the narrator’s sister and occasional by the sister back to the narrator. This raises various point-of-view challenges and requires reported speech to avoid a monologue. The other key point is the narrative is written in a vernacular language aiming to replicate the black deep south in the early twentieth century. Normally, I find even a few passages of a character speaking in the vernacular to be tiresome and it’s not an easy feat for an author to pull off. For these two reasons I did hesitate with the first few chapters, but the main character Celie soon had my interest and I was there, fighting her corner against adversity.

This novel isn’t, in the main, about racism. There are occasions when the extreme early twentieth century prejudice against people of colour in the U.S.A. and the issue of white privilege arise, particular in the case of what happens to a particularly strong character named Sofia. What this book is about is the abuse of power by one individual over another and the sexual stereotypes from which people struggle to break free. Celie, the main character and most times narrator, suffers abuse in just about every way possible. Her father figure commits three atrocities in short order by fathering her children, giving those children away and then committing Celie to a loveless, forlorn marriage. This is no spoiler, as it’s already plain to read on the book’s back cover, but it sets the tone for what Celie must endure.

Celie isn’t the only character who has to deal with adversity. Almost everyone is touched by physical abuse, deprivation and infidelity. Most all both commit and are victims of these actions. Celie’s own assertion to her stepson that he should beat obedience into his new wife is a causal factor in the twisted track that Harpo’s and Sofia’s lives follow. Yet through it all, there is a tone of optimism. When someone decides they have had enough, they somehow find the strength and courage to walk away. This is mixed with a strange permissiveness in the society of these characters who accept that wives and husbands may come and go, and that a wife forced into a loveless marriage may in fact prefer a woman as bed companion. At no point does the intolerance of behaviour lead to a point of no return. How realistic this is I cannot say, but it does serve to avoid total tragedy.

The Color Purple takes the reader through the seasons of life in a society that differs enormously to today. It commences perhaps a hundred years ago and the refreshing lack of modernity allows the reader to focus on the characters. Alice Walker fully fleshes out each actor and they are as real to me as if it were a filmed documentary. The book is full of love – unrequited, realised, denied, surprising, enduring, everyone gets a dose at some point. I saw each person suffer their trials of life and emerge a sometimes very changed person. At no point did this challenge belief and that’s a testament to Walker’s skill as a writer. The two points I mentioned above, about the use of letters for narrative and vernacular language, are very skilfully executed. I have no idea of the authenticity of the language but rarely did I have any problem understanding what the characters wrote or said. It feels very real, just like the way a person without good education will write a letter, using the same slang and mispronunciation as their spoken words. The point-of-view, timeline and tenses, and monologue challenges of communicating an entire novel by letters were all handled masterfully. Only now, writing this review, do I understand just what a great novel this is, and I’m so glad to have read it again.

2nd October 2020


Sunday, 7 July 2019

Ruby Reviews 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 bu Paul Auster

A few months ago a friend gifted us a couple of books. She’s not a regular reader and thought she ought to try and be one, so she had bought some Booker Prize shortlisted titles in hardback. It may have been a New Year’s resolution or something, and like so many of those it fizzled out pretty quickly. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster subsequently appeared on our shelf. I was just coming off a strict diet of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, by way of style research (did I mention I have a new Ger Mayes crime novel coming out myself soon?) and thought a bit of highbrow reading was in order, after all of Parker’s killing and mayhem. However, Lincoln in the Bardo defeated me within the first dozen pages. Clever as the delivery method might be in that book, I couldn’t stomach it. So I turned to the huge 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

Inside the front of the hardback jacket cover, 4 3 2 1 lets the reader know what they’re taking on. Archie Ferguson is the MC and the book follows four alternative life paths from 1947 through to the late 1960s. Chapters are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and so on to signify which of the four Fergusons are on call and the initial 1.0 sets the background with the Russian √©migr√© Jewish grandfather, his son Stanley and Ferguson’s mother, Rose. The parental characters also develop different life paths and are a constant feature of the book through flashback and forward. As a reader, I’m not a strong advocate of too much flashback and I dislike foreshadowing, but the author manages to use both techniques without being too invasive. Even when the certain death of some characters is foreshadowed, Auster somehow acquires the reader’s permission to do so. Perhaps that is because, knowing an individual is about to be killed off in life path A, the reader rests assured that the same individual is likely to endure in life path B, C or D. The discomfort of losing a character to which the reader has built an attachment is diminished, as they’re only one part dead.

I had thought it would be difficult to follow the four separate life paths of Ferguson. There were a few times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was in 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I didn’t succumb to the temptation of turning back to previous chapters. Instead, I trusted the author to provide enough clues and hooks to keep me on track, and Auster manages that well. As a reader, it was an enjoyable experience. As an author, I wondered how much technical work had gone into writing the book. Did he write four different 250 page novels? Did he plot all the details and timelines in advance? Were checks made to ensure the reader would intuitively know which of the four life paths were being read?

Paul Auster’s style put me in mind of John Irving, albeit with less acerbic wit. Auster’s coming of age story is threaded through with the emotional and physical rollercoasters that the first quarter-century of a life might contain. Love, abuse, disaster, romance, tragedy, sex, crime, friendship, racism, violence, success, failure, in all their shapes and colours. With Irving, the MC’s life story sometimes takes a route other than that which the reader might have preferred. With Auster’s 4 3 2 1 there is a choice of routes. The reader isn’t trapped in lengthy observation of a single trajectory. I could have eaten a little more humour than 4 3 2 1 contained, but that’s just a matter of taste. The twist in the tail, however, is quite deliciously logical.