Twitter is my only ‘go-to’ place for a bit of a social media fix having deactivated my Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn (whatever that was) accounts, and this is where I picked up the Flamingo vibe. As I write, the book is heading for another reprint, and deservedly so. I have to be honest, I took a while to get around to ordering, but when I did I decided to go all-in with Bearded Badger – Gummerson’s novel plus 5 splendid chapbooks of cutting edge poetry, most with a regional bent around Badger’s native Derbyshire.
Anyway, I distract myself, I was here to review the novel.
It is indeed, as it says in the title, set over a week at the Flamingo Hotel. The hotel has kept its name despite us soon finding out that the actual flamingos met a grizzly end on the nearby motorway. The cover and title might tease you into thinking that this is set in some classic American freeway motel with cool tunes on the jukebox and even cooler visitors. It’s not. The Flamingo Hotel is firmly ensconced in a faceless, nameless grubby town and sits perilously close to a motorway. And its visitors, not to mention staff, are a disparate and sometimes desperate bunch to say the least.
It’s hilarious. Let’s get that straight. The number of bums and penises which feature, either as methods of transmitted Morse Code or being, willingly or otherwise, manhandled is startling. The book will, honestly, have you snorting with laughter. The author dishes up a feast of non-stop revelry mixed with relentless drudgery. Our main character (who remains nameless throughout) is either drifting into fantasy worlds where he will become hugely successful and popular or attempting to find fun and adventure to see him through his long days as a kitchen porter.
The pace is furious, almost told as a stream of consciousness. Occasionally I folded the book onto my lap to draw breath, or cringe in embarrassment. The collection of players in the story are wildly diverse and offer the protagonist an assortment of distractions, both real and imagined, from his day to day life.
Amongst the frivolity and cheeky narrative there is a genuine coming of age tale unfolding too. Being told in the second person had me, as the reader, checking myself for any of the traits as the book prods you incessantly with “you will”, “you have”, “you are” narration. I love it for that.
That narration is hardly chronological, but all distractions into the actual past, or imagined future, are set within the context of the seven days. It is chaotic, but feels just right to be so. Different moments in each day evoke memories or prompt visions, often in frankly bizarre and unlikely passages. Quirky doesn’t quite capture just how ‘off the wall’ the book is in places. It is a fast read, there are no pauses for reflection, our character’s life barrels from one scene to the next without dwelling on any point.
Beneath the seemingly light-hearted and sometimes frivolous telling of the story, we are slowly learning about the sad and distressing past which might explain some of the behaviour and how the character is maybe in denial about what he actually desires from the world, or indeed from the people, around him.
My advice to readers looking for something fresh, lively, as well as tongue in cheek could do worse than check out this great book. But also, as I have learned to do, look beyond the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones, there is some brilliant work happening out there which all deserves its moment in the limelight.
My beautiful wife Nicky is always surprising me with new challenges. Let’s learn to swim – and then tackle a 2.5 challenge across Weymouth Bay. We run marathons – let’s try and run 100. Let’s cycle the length of France (she’s already a Lands End to John O’Groats veteran) So it’s hardly surprising that these challenges have now extended to books!
Let’s read the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and pick our own winners.
And so a cardboard box duly arrived and we treasured that ‘new books’ aroma as we teased this gorgeous collection out into the light.
The Women’s Prize originated as The Orange Prize, after the male dominance of book awards reached the ridiculous stage of there being no women on The Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Please check out the story of the Women’s Prize and the great work they do year round beyond the headline prize.
This year’s judges include Bernadine Evaristo and Elizabeth Day, have a listen to what they are looking for in a winning novel.
Here’s the thing, I briefly started reviewing books I’d been given – kindly passed to me by authors or publicists. I find that so, so hard; so I have stopped signing up for ‘free’ books. I couldn’t stand the guilt or the pressure to ‘enjoy’ a book before I wrote about it. With the Women’s Prize challenge that Nicky and I have taken on, we have ordered and paid for the books which feels much more comfortable when it comes to appraising them. Which is handy, because I sadly haven’t loved all six of these.
I created a score card for the books – marking them out of ten for things like originality, emotional impact and whether I would hunt out other work by that author.
So. In reverse order……
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood. (DNF!) If I don’t enjoy a book, or worse, I abandon reading it, I am in no doubt that says as much about me as it does the book. I suppose I still see reading as an escape from the random scroll of doom of social media. This book is told via a social media ‘timeline’. The random nature of the posts show a narrative unfolding amongst the chaos. I’m afraid I read the first 20 or so pages a couple of times and then had a nosey at the prize’s reading guide. By this point I was confused and frustrated and moved on. I know I should embrace challenging themes and forms, but I really was struggling!
TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyashi. (42/90) A poignant and dark study of immigrant reality in America. A very sad story in many ways – a tale of family and loyalty as well as addiction and the frailty of friendships. I found it a restless read as I squirmed at the exposure of an addicts deterioration and the depression of our protagonist’s mother. Gifty, the story’s main character is obsessively working on mice in her laboratory, hoping to explain the brain process of her own brother’s addiction. All the time her mother is cocooned at home sinking deeper into her gloom. The book tackles many issues, including the racism and rejection of ‘other’ in small American communities, and I can see how it has found it’s place amongst the potential winners of this fine literary prize.
HOW THE ONE ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones. (54/90) It never ceases to amaze me when I look up an author after reading their book and see the words ‘debut novel’. This is a powerhouse of a book – far beyond ordinary achievements of the average debutant. The main character, Lala, is trapped in a violent and controlling marriage and the book doesn’t flinch from the painful reality of such a life. Set in the ironically titled Paradise on the Caribbean island, Barbados, we get a full exposure of life below the glossy images in the holiday brochures. The book starts with a horrific murder and carries on from there. Cherie Jones holds the reader just out of reach and I couldn’t help but turn the pages despite slightly dreading what might come next. There’s no doubt the author is an extraordinary talent; the book may not have quite impressed me the way the following three have, but it is a masterclass in characterisation and controlling a wild narrative.
PIRENESI by Susanna Clarke. (59/90) Here we go. A fantasy novel. A flippin’ fantasy novel. Obviously I would just skim read this and cast it aside as slightly bonkers. Except I absolutely loved it. Sure the setting takes some getting used to for those who like their novels set on the streets of Sheffield or in the grimy apartments of hidden New York. Once I got my head around the endless halls and gothic statues which dominate the story. The main character, known as Piranesi after being given the name by the ‘Other’, methodically maps the statues and the waters which ebb and flo around them. These, at least to start with, are the only characters. They meet weekly and quite early on I found myself suspicious of the ‘other’ and willing Piranesi to be less trusting and more questioning. The writing is exquisite and I couldn’t help but feel myself entering this strange world of legend, an underground complex with its tidal flooding and bones of previous lives. I can’t say too much, the whole book is a slow reveal. The main character is a fabulous study of an innocent mind living in isolation followed by a slow drip of realisation as the truth of his surroundings become apparent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this won.
UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller. (72/90) What a beautiful book this is. The cover is simply gorgeous. I nervously turned to page one hoping not to find the contents an anti climax. Far from it, this is a belting story. So many of the characters in all of this short list are living tough and almost unthinkable lives. Here, middle aged twins, brother and sister, suddenly find themselves marooned in a life they barely understand. They had lived with their mother until she passed away at home (an episode not without its dark humour in the telling) and left them ill equipped to sustain their existence. A whole barrage of history related to the land on which their cottage sits and the land owner himself reveals itself as the twins’ world starts to implode. Julius, who is more wild and adventurous and his twin sister, Jeanie, are as frustrating as they are endearing to watch. Their inability, or in some cases, refusal, to accept or engage with the help that is available had been pleading with them! Claire Fuller writes this so elegantly and her portrayal of the existential crisis endured in the twins’ simple country life is mesmerising. There’s a cracking, slowly revealed story here, don’t think for one minute it is all contemplative puddle gazing. An impressive tale of country life, family and the secrets they hold. Should it win? Well, for me it is this or:
THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. (75/90) Using my highly scientific scoring method, Brit Bennet just pips Claire Fuller to be my pick for the Women’s Prize. This book too features twins and they are also from a strange and remote town. There the similarity ends. The twins in Bennet’s epic novel are from the (fictitious) town of Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is populated by ‘light’ but black folk. The town’s population would “never be white” but are also determined “to never be treated like Negroes”. Two teenage twins, girls, Desiree and Stella, find themselves hemmed in by the oppressive way of living in the town and run away to find a new life. The are quite different in their outlook and they find themselves forging different paths. Stella almost accidently discovers that she can pass as ‘white’ and is soon pushing this lie to forge a new identity and existence. It covers intense friendships, appalling relationships, loss, the deep history of racism and the pull and push of racism. The supporting cast are a colourful bunch and they each had me along for the ride; performing queens, a bounty hunter, a spoiled teenager rebelling against her privilege as well as the ever present townsfolk back in Mallard. The writing is pitch perfect, the ambitious writer in me was drooling over relentlessly beautiful sentences. Should it win? Yup (although my heart can’t let go of Unsettled Ground!)
A debut novel. A bloomin’ debut. Such power and emotion in his first book. Take a bow Paul Mendez.
Now. Be warned.
It is a bit rude in places. Ok, it’s pretty feckin’ graphic. Those of a sensitive nature might find their eyes watering in the early stages. The full force created by the urges of the young man at the centre of this story are quite openly exposed. Mendez writes with an ferocious passion. The story deserves every bit of the raw sex which sets the scene early in the book.
Before that though, the book begins 50 years earlier with a young Jamaican couple (from the Windrush generation) struggling to come to terms with their decision to move from the Caribbean Island to the Midlands of England. They are, of course, linked to the story which follows. This sets a bleak backdrop of racism and forgotten dreams and gives context to the rest of the book.
Jesse, a young black man, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, finds his life in the Black Country capitulating and ends up fleeing to London where he finds he can use his youthful black body for financial gain. His journey to this point is delivered with a series of necessarily blunt blows within the narration. A white step father is kept from getting close to Jesse by a mother who shows nothing but resentment and disappointment towards her son.
I believe Rainbow Milk is closely personal to Mendez and his delivery of both the rough physical moments, the heart-breaking cries for help as well as Jesse’s many cringe worthy and naïve moments is so exquisitely poised. And the issues at play are voiced with such force that I struggled to get my head around this being a debut!
The crushing isolation felt by Jesse as he becomes increasingly desperate to express himself both emotionally and physically leads to him mistakenly seeking sexual attention from a fellow young Witness. This leads to his removal from the Jehovah’s Witness fellowship and cements the estrangement from his mother and step father. It also sets the scene for him fleeing to London.
He suffers at the hands of some of the men he encounters but also finds the sexual joy he imagined with others. Amongst the one night stands, quick and quickly forgotten fucks in toilet cubicles, gradually a love story unfolds. After a particularly rough customer, Jesse finds himself needing to quickly understand the risks still at play of AIDS.
The drinking, the drugs and the debauchery are just as full on as the sex, until a near tragedy slowly brings him together with a man, Owen, who seems to truly love him. Paul Mendez gives us hope amongst the chaos and is maybe saying there is a way to navigate this life if we have faith in ourselves. Jesse battles an abusive childhood, religious oppression, relentless racism and homophobia as well as rejection, loneliness and terrifying health scares.
The musical references are fabulous, Jesse finding solace and motivation in some of the great R’nB and soul greats, as well as cutting edge contemporary artists. Through Owen, the man who he falls in love with, he discovers the music of Joy Division and Public Image Limited and finds himself deeply entranced (helped by the drug use naturally) by some of the sounds from my era!
Mendez had me rooting for Jesse throughout and plenty of tears were shed along the way.
A riveting, heart wrenching and ferocious read which manages to caress the senses as well as battering them.
I’m saying nothing more, you’ll have to read it to find out for yourselves!
PS: The title isn’t referring to what I thought it was….
Here we go. Having been humbled by the prose, the depth, the power and the sheer beauty of this book, I’m struggling to find sentences worthy of describing it.
Colson Whitehead’s 2016, Purlitzer Prize winning novel is just tremendous. Why? I shall try and explain.
Firstly, it is exquisitely crafted. There isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. My novel writing ambitions (and indeed, my efforts to date) feel like the surface of a puddle after delving into the oceans of depth on offer here. And that’s before we start on the extraordinary story. This is the second Colson Whitehead book I’ve read, and they have both been magnificent. (The other being The Nickel Boys)
The story is exquisite. Taking the metaphor of The Underground Railroad to mean so much more than just a series of safe houses runaway slaves might use for shelter. In the book, set in the first half of the nineteenth century, there really is a secret underground railway. There are engineers and conductors, each with their own reasons for taking the risk on behalf of the slaves. It is a bright and inventive take on one of the darkest times in history.
I found it scary that even within a few hundred pages I could start to become anaesthetised to the horrors of slavery and the casual murder enjoyed in some of the southern states particularly. The author doesn’t push any parallel with the racism of today, but as a reader, these were never far from my mind. In fact, Whitehead delves further back into history to highlight the massacre of Native Americans rather than labour any contemporary (or indeed populist) narrative. I keep saying it, this book is terrific in ways I’d never thought of.
It is so powerful, honestly. So powerful without seemingly trying to be. The main character Cora finds herself anew in each of the states into which the railroad deposits her. She has followed her mother’s footsteps (or so she thinks, but no plot spoilers). The narrative seems to gather poignancy as the book draws to a close with some breathtakingly, heart breaking moments of realisation.
Cora’s escape from the plantation in the deepest south is far from smooth and throughout the book, literally from start to finish, she suffers unimaginable pain and loss. She really is our hero, and her strength is solid. I could not fail to be inspired to look for everything positive in my own life by her seemingly natural ability to push on.
Colson Whitehead graphically portrays each state’s methods of dealing with “the negro problem” and doesn’t hold back with the horrific imagery. Yes, it is a bruising read, but somehow sublime in its telling. I lost count of the number of times I said to Nicky (my gorgeous wife and fellow member of our two person book club), “I bloody love this book”!
I am left enriched and moved and felt I’d travelled an uncomfortable and torrid journey from Africa, through the deep south into the faintest of promised lands further north.
As I write this in April 2021, I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards, as a (human) race, in so many ways. I hope that if the time came to be counted, I would be brave enough to become a conductor on The Underground Railroad. This will never be my history. I am in the utterly privileged position to say that. BUT, I feel even more privileged to have Colson Whitehead show me THIS history.
It isn’t my place to say whether a book is ‘good’ or not. From day one of this blog I’ve set out to only review books I’ve enjoyed. My challenge is to find the words to show you (assuming there is a ‘you’ out there) just what it is I’ve enjoyed about the book.
My reading (and reviewing) runs parallel to my own writing ambitions. The more I read, the more ambitious I become. And the more ambitious, challenging or obscure the books I read are, the more I want to challenge myself with my own writing.
All of which brings to Gods Without Men. A book which slowed me down. A book which had me turning back to double check where I was, who was who. There’s a lot going on! But, I loved it, I feel enriched for spending a week consumed with it.
And here’s why:
As the book progresses we follow the story of a young New York couple, Jaz and Lisa. They are in the Mojave desert on a break with their profoundly autistic son, Raj. Theirs is a tortured marriage and the events in the desert find them struggling to cling on to anything resembling normality. The chapters devoted to this narrative are dispersed throughout the book and on a simple level tell a compelling drama of a son who disappears amid the confusion of a seemingly failed partnership. But don’t be fooled, there is so, so much more to explore.
The book is about place. There is a three pronged rock in the desert which hosts most of the stories appearing in the book. Chapters jump between years and combine imagined legends of coyote and 18th century mystery. A rock star hiding from his band, an airline pilot creating an outpost eatery, scientologists and a cult of dubious legitimacy using the three pronged rocks to communicate with extra terrestrial life.
Keeping up? You will be flicking back to check you’ve got the right character in your mind!
The writing style is textured and lyrical, no bouncing along, page turning formula here. As the book progressed, I delved deeper into every sentence and found myself absorbed by the mood of the book. I couldn’t have read it any quicker, I’d have missed it.
The narrative of Jaz and Lisa is pained. The public (and media) reaction to the disappearance of Raj felt as uncomfortable as I felt when the McCann family were so cruelly scrutinised when their daughter Madeleine disappeared. Jaz and Lisa’s circumstances are further complicated by her Jewish heritage and his Punjab roots. These cultures clash and at their worst, the racist undertones they have towards each other are barely disguised. It’s not a ‘feel good’ book, but it’s a bloody marvellous read.
After finishing Gods Without Men I closed it in my lap and just took a few minutes to absorb what I’d just witnessed. I’ve followed it by starting J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (which won the Mann Booker Prize in 1999). Coetzee’s work feels lighter and more traditional in its story telling by comparison. This contrast is pleasing on the eye and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on Disgrace. I’m enjoying varying the styles I read and Hari Kunzru certainly varies the pace and style, sometimes from chapter to chapter. Regular readers will remember I enjoyed his equally ‘literary’ White Tears.
For now though, I’ll recommend Gods Without Men, particularly for those of you wanting to delve into the possibilities of the unknown, question folklore and legend and revel in the ‘hippie’ style commune living which is certainly not portrayed as the idyll of a ’60s myth. Not only that, there’s a painful and frustrating love story running through the mystery of the disappearance of the child. It’s a fully loaded tome!
I really like David Baddiel. His television comedy work was my era. He made me laugh hard back in the day. As a social media user, his wit and comical observations shine through to this day. I was drawn to this book for other reasons though. As I try and read far and wide and learn more about ethnic minorities and their cultures, Baddiel’s voice is strong in guiding me. His extraordinary BBC documentary, Confronting Holocaust Denial left me reeling at the depths of antisemitism exposed.
Jews Don’t Count rummages amongst celebrities, politicians and us, the general public, exposing the hypocrisy in our current world of virtue signalling, identity politics and ‘gotcha’ social media campaigns. It might be true that minorities are thankfully championed and supported in the public domain far more than when I was a young man, yet, as David Baddiel shows, Jews are largely (and glaringly) omitted from the agenda of the anti-racists.
It is a tough and uncomfortable lesson which Baddiel delivers in this short but mightily powerful book. At around 150 pages, it still finds room to pin down every riposte from even the most ignorant and bigoted view points. I saw somewhere this book described as a ‘polemic’. I’m struggling with that as the author’s case building and arguments really do leave no room for doubt as to the experience of Jews.
Baddiel is a great writer and such a persuasive and informative voice. Not that I would want to, but I couldn’t find any counter narratives within my own understanding or beliefs to any of the many cases studies employed here. I would consider myself to be progressive and anti-racist, not to mention left-leaning when it comes to politics. Have I ever been guilty of the dismissive, lazy racism (in the form of antisemitism) which Baddiel points to here? I hope not. But, I’ll be making sure I take my better understanding into the future. I thank Jews Don’t Count for this.
The book is crisp and cutting as well as beautifully elegant in its delivery. Remarkably, Baddiel rarely drifts into raw anger, but is constantly firm and refreshingly open. We shouldn’t need reminding that the Nazi’s (and Communists) feared and hated Jews. Both spread the image of a monied and powerful group who aren’t to be trusted. The modern day left and progressives seem to use the perceived wealth and whiteness of Jews to justify excluding them from the anti-racist and anti-persecution agendas.
Baddiel (very much leaning to the left himself), shows time after time again how Jews are portrayed in political campaigns, literature, the press and in the rest of the media, as being the white, privileged and capitalist enemies of progression. Worse though, Jews are too often subjected to physical, verbal and emotional racist abuse. Racism is not acceptable, full stop, a stand we must all take.
I read this pacey and urgent text in a day and feel enriched by the experience. From football terrace chants to comedy, the racism experienced by Jews simply would not be accepted were other minorities to be similarly abused. I am left with a determination to speak up with more force and confidence and to be brave enough to challenge those of my peers who seem to have (and what a horrible and dismissive phrase this is) a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to antisemitism.
The arguments made in Jews Don’t Count aren’t just powerful, they are essential, but you really need to read this book to understand just how powerful. It is not for me, from my actual position of white, middle class privilege to make this case, but it is for me to urge you to read the book.
Coincidently, I read Jews Don’t Count directly after reading A Meal In Winter, a powerful, pocket sized novella which has The Holocaust and antisemitism at its heart. I recommend both.
This small book set me on a journey of discovery. I’d not heard of the author until I listened to the book being discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The program is a rich source of reading suggestions and often encourages me to delve further into less commercial areas of literature. I was fascinated by the debate about this book and immediately added it to my wish list.
It is a small book (a ‘novella’ perhaps) and as such is a quick read. What it lacks in thickness is more than made up for by its depth. It challenged me to pause and consider again just how war plays out for those in the middle of it. The story is set in the depths of a Polish winter during World War II. We see a brief snapshot of the war for three German soldiers. The book’s narrator is one of the three and he delivers an almost monotone account despite the most awful circumstances surrounding their roles in Poland.
The three are desperate to avoid the “work” which is carried out at the German base. This work, it turns out is the most horrific imaginable, acting as executioners to the Jews who have been captured and brought back. They convince a commanding officer to instead use them to go out into the freezing wilderness to find Jews and bring them back to base. To their inevitable fate. It is chilling. And breathtakingly awful.
The whole story is made so much more grizzly by the matter of fact way the Germans talk about their roles. This is a translation from Mingarelli’s native French (Un Repas En Hiver) by Sam Taylor. Sadly I don’t read in any other language than my own native tongue, because I’d be intrigued to know if the sparsity felt the same in French. For me the tone conveys a numbing and a weariness in the soldiers. They had been part of a gruesome Europe wide crusade and the sheer magnitude of The Holocaust seems to have sanitised their minds to the task. Their humanity remains only tenuously intact, although they aren’t portrayed as out-and-out monsters.
The Jew they capture is hiding out alone, cold, hungry and filthy. The three soldiers find he offers no resistance as they begin their freezing journey back to base. On the way, they hole up in a derelict cottage. They need shelter and warmth as the night approaches. They are spooked by a local Polish man who mysteriously joins them. The animosities are large in the small building, but the Germans nervously accept his presence.
The Pole is hateful and hostile to the Jew and our soldiers find themselves protecting him from the extreme anti-sematic attitude of the unwelcome visitor. Like I say, the narration implies an ambivalence towards the Jew – whilst they don’t seem to care about his fate, they certainly wouldn’t let the Pole dictate the options for him. Despite the light touch of the narration, I formed a very clear mental image of the cottage, right down to the distances between the characters and the nature of the shadows cast by the light from the fire they light. I’d be a happy man if I could write such detail without needing to resort to gushing and descriptive prose. It is, in my opinion, a beautifully written book.
Mingarelli published A Meal In Winter in 2012 (this translation followed in 2013) and was nominated for some prestigious awards. There are some big questions for the reader here. Who did I feel sympathy for as the group of four prepared and ate a meal (after an unspoken debate about whether to allow the Jew his share) with their collective, and meagre, supplies? The answer is obvious, or it should be, and the powerful emotions which rose in me serve as timely reminders to never forget.
In a clever and hinted at sub-plot, there is a mortal fate awaiting one of the three. It is striking that his worries are more about whether his own son will grow up to be a smoker, for example, than the horror about to be dealt to their captive if they carry out the mission to deliver him to base.
Without having a common language between them, the Germans, the Pole and the Jew play out their moral and desperate choices through their actions and gestures. It is truly remarkable to witness this interplay between the five of them through Mingarelli’s prose and the spaces within it.
A quick read which left me reeling. I’m now two and a half books later still getting flashbacks to A Meal In Winter.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, reading books is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Unless, I suppose, if you only read one author in one genre of fiction.
So, with Nicky having given The Motel Life an “It’s…… o…..k…” I thought I’d find out for myself. Some books have a build up – this was featured on Radio 4’s A Good Read and Benjamin Myers (one of my absolute favourite authors) described Willy Vlautin as one of (if not the) best American novelist around.
What is all the fuss about?
I’ll tell you, The Motel Life is a novel about life. About two brothers living on the margins of society. About rolling with the punches but also about being defeated by the punches. About loyalty, family, responsibility. About opportunity, but mostly about the lack of it. About guilt and a deep sense of right and wrong. About finding (or not finding) love. About pain.
Two brothers, surviving on the scraps thrown to them, go on the run after an error of judgement leads to a fatal accident. They then rummage through the mess of small town America. Our narrator, Frank, and his elder brother Jerry Lee (along with the dog they acquire along the way) bounce off a small cast of characters. They are far from simple, but their story is told with an uncomplicated delivery.
Vlautin’s prose is personal, crisp and percussive – I could feel the rhythm of the story pulling me through the pages. I’m no American cultural expert, but The Motel Life could be an early Springsteen album. Jerry Lee drives the narrative – cracking the top off another beer and facing each challenge without a dramatic build up – and is a comfort to his brother as their luck deteriorates and a boost when good fortune comes their way. He also did that for me as a reader, Vlautin (through Jerry Lee) explores a persistent but fragile humanity which I felt obliged to believe in and left me needing to root for the brothers despite their desperate, poverty stricken cause.
Day to day life is often complicated for ‘normal’ people and Willy Vlautin demonstrates this with these naive but strangely determined brothers. I suppose you could call it Americana (it just wouldn’t fit set in my small town here in the UK) and for me it is an understated gem.
I absolutely loved it.
To see what else I’ve been reading, have a click here or for more reviews here.
The sticker on the front of Angie Cruz’s 3rd novel informs me that it was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020. Have a look, it is in fine company. I’m proud to have matured enough as a reader to no longer naively believe these female author’s books are aimed solely at women readers. Sometimes publishers can mislead with the colour schemes or cover art but, for me, a book is a book.
So what did I find when I turned back the cover to start Dominicana. Nicky (my gorgeous lady) had already had a great time getting lost in this book, so she was looking forward to seeing how I enjoyed it.
From the outset the story feels personal. Cruz drew on the experiences of her own Mother and other families to inform and inspire the tale. A fifteen year old girl in the Dominican Republic is found she is left with no choice but to say yes to a marriage proposal and head to New York. Ana, the main character, is hardly taken with Juan (her now husband), nor indeed with the prospect of life in New York, but she is fulfilling her whole family’s dream of immigration.
From the off, Angie Cruz shows Ana’s voice as tender and innocent to the greater world. The writing is crisp, direct and has a marvellous dark humour bubbling underneath it. Ana sees her sister fall in love and has her heart (and body) set on a tender local boy who seems set on loving her. These moments are dealt with brevity but also left me with a deep understanding of Ana’s heart as she prepares to leave.
The story of Ana’s life in New York, her marriage and her encounters as she finds her way is riveting. For a reader like me who enjoys a modern New York story it is a revealing insight into how the racial make up of the city evolved. it is set to the back drop of a civil war back home in the Dominican Republic and the aftermath of the killing of Malcom X which happened in the very street where Ana ends up living.
The story is intimate and at times torturous, a marriage of agreement played out in a city coming to terms with its changing demographic. The pains and betrayals are so cleverly portrayed through Ana’s eyes. I kept having to remind myself that those eyes were a mere 15 years old.
Beyond the small victories and defeats of Ana’s day to day existence in the 6th floor apartment lie the greater issues of family, of loyalty and of the lengths people will go to at the expense of others’ feelings. The story is set some 56 years ago but feels vibrant, fresh and important.
That Cruz has delved so deep into her own family’s history comes through in the narration, and the dialogue. Every word, every thought and emotion, are all so delicately paced in the text. I don’t doubt, as absorbed as I was in the book, I wore a slightly furrowed brow as Ana’s world became occasionally unbearable.
A fine book made even better for me (as an aspiring novelist) by the thorough list of acknowledgements and the history offered in the back. These give a great insight into the amount of work which goes into producing such a belting piece of fiction.
Honestly, have a read.
If you’ve enjoyed my review of Dominicana, why not spread the word?
The response of a good friend on Facebook after I shared my review of the beautiful Donal Ryan novel, Strange Flowers. I imagine the last year has seen many people choosing to add Kindle or other e-book downloads to their To-Be-Read collections. Like so many high street businesses, book shops have struggled with months of closed doors over the last year. With readers unable to get to choose books in the flesh, it is hardly surprising that book downloads are so popular.
That’s not the whole story though, Nielson Bookscan, who provide data to the book industry are reporting rises of over 5% in both volume and value of book sales in 2020. Heart warming to think so many are turning to the written word for comfort – however they decide to enjoy it.
Having regularly sacrificed clothes, and much in the way of holiday paraphernalia, in order to take a healthy pile of books on our adventures – without smashing the weight limit in our suitcase – we can certainly see the attraction of a hand held device with a thousand books inside!
Ultimately, it’s just not for us though. Nicky (my beautiful and beautifully bookish lady wife) has dabbled with a Kindle as a sort of ‘reserve’ if she ran out of books. Actually, I owned one too for a while, but I can honestly say I never read a book on it. No, we are suckers for the feel of a book (embossed covers are almost erotic are they not?) Oh, and the smell of a new ink on paper….
On our last pre-pandemic adventure, we took a Megabus to that there London town and visited Foyles on Charring Cross Road. Oh we revelled in the cathedral like sensation of walking through those doors and just drinking in the potential of a billion words or more. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for Nicky. As a young woman, finding her feet in the city, she spent many an hour running her hand along shelf after shelf of magic in the historic book shop.
We enjoyed our time in that amazing paradise of literature so much, we did the same on day two!
Yup. We do like a book shop. And we do like a book. We are both trying hard to replicate it online, but that sensation of choosing a book after randomly pulling it from the shelves is hard to match – being drawn in by the blurb, the cover and the first page of a book by an author unknown to me is one of reading’s great adventures.
I wonder when we might next find ourselves walking through the doors of a bookshop?
Various ‘lockdown’s and restrictions as well as shielding advice and caution has led us to add to our supplies via the internet over the last ten months or so. We try and support actual book shops rather than that well known internet giant with its gazillionaire owner. We’ve ordered from the two most well known stores (Foyles and Waterstones) as well as independent retailers and, in some cases, directly from small publishers.
In fact, I pledged in my 2021 Manifesto to keep supporting the smaller stores and publishers wherever possible. The thrill of opening a parcel of books, the pent up fresh paper aroma as the books are pulled from their wrapping, it’s all part of the joy of reading for us.
There are so many ways to get your reading material. Kindle and other e-readers are a brilliant resource and if that’s your bag, read on my friends. If the purse strings are tight, once we venture out again, there are also some great second hand books stores around. Some even remodelled themselves to keep people supplied during 2020 and even more are adding online and telephone ordering to their menu. I enjoyed a great bundle of second hand nonfiction from The Old Curiosity Bookshop back in the summer and I know they have expanded their online offerings in this lockdown.
Once they are open again, libraries are still a wonderful and free resource in the community. We have really enjoyed getting our grandchildren to immerse themselves in books and discovery. The librarians are very patient and so encouraging with the little ones. Have a search locally, some libraries are doing click’n’collect services during the current lockdown.
An internet friend I’ve made through social media reading and writing groups, Gerard Nugent, has his debut novel published this very week. Sadly for me, who no longer even owns an e-reader, it is currently only available in that form. I will give it plug here and patiently wait for it to materialise in paper and ink.