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!
Regular readers (for there are a few!) might remember that I made a few pledges in my manifesto for 2021. One of those pledges was to keep buying books from independent publishers. I chose this beauty from Gallery Beggar in January. Like a full roast dinner I wasn’t put off by it’s size and woofed down all 300 pages in a couple of days.
Paul Ewan has created the fictitious Francis Plug and tells the tale of learning about how authors behave in public through Plug’s eyes. On the front cover The New Statesman declare it “a comic masterpiece”, and I’m not going to argue. From quite early on I found myself irritating my wife as I burst out laughing. Francis Plug isn’t so much a car crash waiting to happen, as constantly in the middle of one. On more than one occasion I found myself looking away from the page cringing as it became apparent what inappropriate questions Plug was about to ask.
Ewan pulls off a neat trick – quite early into the book I was living the story, I’d forgotten that Plug was a creation. He attends literary events, armed with a copy of each author’s Booker Prize winning novel and attempts to get them signed whilst observing the writers’ behaviour, attire and manner. All of this is research for the book he’s writing, How To Be A Public Author. Which, of course, is the book you are reading. Even though it is fictitious. For me, Paul Ewan has been fiendishly clever in making Plug believable – there are pictures of dedications to Francis Plug at the start of each chapter and Plug’s behaviour plays little tricks with the narrative in relation to each author. Or rather Ewan does.
He attends some events as a genuine ticket holder, others he simply waits outside for the signing and others still he enters through devious and dubious means. The same goes for the books themselves, although I won’t spoil this brilliant little twist for you.
For sure it is a literary tale, there are anecdotes about 25 or more Booker Prize Winning authors, but the joke never tires because it is different every time. Parallel to Plug’s literary journey is the disintegration of the rest of his life. There are moments of poignant beauty alongside the humorous carnage. Plug is a lost and lonely soul and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him as his work and meagre domestic life start unravelling. The drink is never far away as he battles his own self-destruction. The ultimate goal is to culminate his research at the actual Booker Prize ceremony leaving him both able to complete the book and also prepare himself for when he is awarded the prize himself. He is happily deluding himself that this is a given.
Written in a such a way that I couldn’t help but march forward from chapter to chapter. Plug notices some charmingly obscure details in each of the surroundings he finds himself. He takes these little details and creates new behaviours for himself. Peeling stickers off the books on supermarket shelves to decorate the trolley handle, whilst adorning the books with labels he’s taken off the fruit. Maybe it’s just my humour, but those quirky anecdotes kept me smiling throughout the book.
My lovely wife Nicky has just started reading Wolf Hall and so I had to share with her Plug’s challenge that maybe Hilary Mantel had made up the name of the town where she lived, Budleigh Salterton, in order to throw people off the scent. A quite lovely scene.
Now that I’m working harder at my own writing I can only imagine the years which have gone into creating such a richly detailed tome, whilst retaining the light hearted romp through the literary world.
There is a sequel. It will soon be joining my ‘to be read’ pile.
If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading have a gander here. Or for more reviews, why not feast your eyes here.