Book review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Refreshingly and unapologetically individual. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, set in the USA in the 1950s is a bold celebration of growing up as a lesbian, the shedding of labels and limits, life as an adventure and making it out of poverty.

Oh great, you too. So now I wear this label ‘Queer’ emblazoned across my chest. Or I could always carve a scarlet ‘L’ on my forehead. Why does everyone have to put you in a box and nail the lid on it? I don’t know what I am—polymorphous and perverse. Shit. I don’t even know if I’m white. I’m me. That’s all I am and all I want to be. Do I have to be something?

Molly Bolt is the beautiful, smart, adopted daughter of a poor family with a very strong sense of self. She shrugs off the labels people, including her mother, try to attach to her – bastard, orphan, lesbian, queer, spic, – she shrugs them off and focusses on the things she is passionate about. Molly is bold, funny and shrewd. She shines a light on prejudice and difficulty with humour and is unashamed about not fitting the mould.

I had never thought I had much in common with anybody. I had no mother, no father, no roots, no biological similarities called sisters and brothers. And for a future I didn’t want a split-level home with a station wagon, pastel refrigerator, and a houseful of blonde children evenly spaced through the years. I didn’t want to walk into the pages of McCall’s magazine and become the model housewife. I didn’t even want a husband or any man for that matter. I wanted to go my own way. That’s all I think I ever wanted, to go my own way and maybe find some love here and there. Love, but not the now and forever kind with chains around your vagina and a short circuit in your brain. I’d rather be alone.

It’s hard to believe Rubyfruit Jungle was first published in 1973 but I wish I’d known about it then — it’s so much more uplifting than The Well of Loneliness which was the first novel depicting lesbians that I read — and it was bloody depressing. I love Molly’s frank, tell it like it is boldness and that she is fully committed to just being herself in a world that wants everyone to be the same. She understands equivocally that the ‘problem’ is societies cookie cutter attitude toward what is ‘normal’.

Book review: Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone

Cherry Hinton is an investigative reporter turned cake shop owner turned private investigator in Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone. There’s b-grade celebrities, reality TV, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter in this bawdy chick lit meets crime fiction, fast paced funny novel set in Essex.

We’d spent the day slumped on the settee, only leaving it to get top-ups of drinks and crisps. I had Twitter running on my phone, Facebook on my iPad. The hot topic of conversation was who was going to get voted off that night and whether Jodrell Banks would manage to claw back her glamorous modelling career in light of having lost two stone with Big Blubbers help.

Martin was arrested and jailed for murdering contestant Kenny Thorpe on Big Blubber weight loss reality TV show but on his deathbed he wrote a letter to Kenny’s sister swearing he didn’t do it. Why would he do that if it wasn’t true? Kenny’s sister wants Cherry to find out.

I knew she didn’t believe me but the way I saw it, I was doing her a favour. Those Chavalicious girls were alright but they were a bit dull. A night down the cage fighting contest was much better option.

The reason Cherry is running her parents cake shop is that her reporting reputation was destroyed and she was dumped by her paper after being exposed (naked) going undercover on another reality TV show, Caravan of Love. This makes her the ideal candidate to investigate other reality TV contestants…

A light, quick, cozy locked room type mystery to disappear into the weird universe of reality TV with an Agatha Christie style ending. I listened to it whilst doing the gardening – the neighbours probably wondered what I was laughing at.

Book review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Heart wrenchingly sad, tender and beautiful, Honeybee is the coming of age story of Sam Watson, a fourteen year old boy with gender dysphoria on the cusp of puberty. The book opens with Sam standing on the wrong side of the railings of an overpass, driven to despair by his ‘otherness’ and the hurt and rejection that he has already been subject to because he is different in a society that cannot tolerate diversity.

It was very timely reading this book whilst the Australian Parliament argued over the so called ‘religious freedom bill’, that if passed, would favour the protection of religious people over rights of LGBTI folk – particularly trans kids and allow religious institutions to discriminate against those who do not conform to their particular principles. The bill was debated a week after one christian school had asked parents to sign an enrolment contract that referred to homosexuality as a sin – including it in a list of ‘immoral’ behaviour alongside bestiality, incest and pedophilia. The outrage that followed caused the school to withdraw the letter.

All these vitriolic shenanigans are backlash following the 2017 same sex marriage vote from a small group of the not so loving (hateful) faithful who still struggle to accept that humanity is a broad, diverse church – and that is ok. I have waxed lyrical about this before. Some people just love to hate, but fortunately a few politicians voted with their conscience resulting in the bill being shelved…for now.

…back to Honeybee. Sam grew up in poverty with a single mum he adored but who suffered from addiction issues and falling for abusive, criminal men. Sam is too gentle for this life. Whilst standing on the bridge he sees an older man, Vic, also standing on the wrong side of the railings. The meeting prevents both from following through their intentions and the two becomes friends – finding in one another a reason to keep living, and Sam finds his logical family.

Honeybee is a book about what and unaccepting society does to people who are different, and how love and acceptance can change an outsiders trajectory to one of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Here’s hoping that religious freedom bill gathers dust on the shelf until the silverfish are sated.

Honeybee has been subject to some debate over the efficacy of the story because ‘it was written by a cis man using predictable tropes’ – there is a view that writers should only write from their own experience and leave own voices to tell their stories themselves. My concern is that this limitation could result in very little on mainstream shelves about diversity, and marginal groups need allies to help drive change in mainstream hearts. Personally I was moved by Honeybee, it made me feel a lot of things and I wanted Sam to be ok, so that’s a good thing.

Book review: Freckles by Cecelia Ahern

Alegra Bird was raised on Valentia Island by her deeply eccentric father after her mother abandoned them soon after Allegra’s birth. Alegra is nicknamed Freckles (for obvious reasons) and grows up wanting to join the Garda. When that dream doesn’t eventuate, she moves to Dublin to become a parking warden and a life model and lives in a flat above a gym . She is kind of kooky and awkward. Her days revolve around a regimented routine, order, being rule observant (mostly) and the desire to find her long lost mother.

There is a guy who drives a yellow Lamborghini and never pays for parking. Freckles dutifully issues him parking tickets frequently. One day the driver confronts her and yells aggressively, ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’, implying that her five must be losers, just like her.

They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, he says, glaring at me, nostrils flaring like a wolf. Doesn’t say a lot about the company you keep, does it. That’s one, he points in Paddy’s direction. I wonder who the other four losers are in your life.

The confrontation sets Allegra obsessing about her ‘five’, she not even sure if she has five and what that says about her. She develops a determination to get the five right people into her life to shape her and her future, and help her join the dots.

But this is what happens when you come apart, the secret bits you knew about each other dissolve into nothing.

The story is told from Allegra’s point of view (free of speech quotation marks which seems to accelerate the pace) who is an endearing, flawed character. Freckles is light, funny, at times sad, but ultimately an uplifting story about human connection, friendship and self discovery.

Book review: The Outsider by Stephen King

Stephen King has published 63 novels, but The Outsider, a horror/crime fiction novel is the first one I have read. If you want to frighten yourself, this could be the book for you. One hot night whilst absorbed in the story I had to get up and close and lock all the doors after I started to get spooked. As it turns out I needn’t have bothered because the thing that had frightened me could have gotten in if it wanted to, doors locked or not.

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’

A young boy is abducted and brutally murdered in Flint City. A witness saw the local little league coach, English teacher and father of two girls drive him off in a white van, another saw him emerge from where the body was found covered in blood, a third saw him dump the van and drive away in another car…Detective Ralph Anderson swoops in mid game to arrest Terry Maitland in front of the kids, parents and Terry’s own family — the man had coached Ralph’s son as well and he’s outraged. Soon Anderson has DNA evidence and fingerprints as well — a quick resolution to a sordid tale. Or is it?

There was one rock-hard fact, as unassailable as gravity: a man could not be in two places at the same time.

Terry Maitland has an alibi. He was also caught on video, and his fingerprints found at a conference in another town when the murder was taking place.

Enter stage left, eccentric private investigator Holly Gibney to help Anderson get to the truth. I loved the character of Holly – she’s extraordinary in her ordinariness. She’s on the Autism spectrum, obsessive-compulsive and has sensory processing issues. She’s extremely intelligent and observant but her awkward, self deprecating, uncertainty make her uncomfortable in her own skin and self-conscious around others. Yet she is brave and can be relied on in a crisis.

Themes include justice triumphs over evil, loss of innocence, identity, belief and disbelief. I don’t usually read horror, but it would be fair to say the crime element and the character of Holly were major factors that kept me glued to The Outsider at every chance I got – devouring it hungrily till the end.

Book review: 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

Despite not being sure I was ready for a book set during the pandemic I was soon riveted by Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest psychological thriller 56 Days. Whilst the pandemic is not the focal point of the novel, Howard uses the unique circumstances created by the lockdown in Ireland to help drive suspense in the plot.

People think the decisions you make that change the course of your life are the big ones. Marriage proposals. House moves. Job applications. But she knows it’s the little ones, the tiny moments, that really plot the course. Moments like this.

Clare and Oliver, both new to Dublin, meet it a supermarket queue and start dating. The new lovers navigate their tentative romance deciding what to reveal to other about themselves as each begins to believe the other may be ‘the one’. When the government announces a strict two week lockdown due to the pandemic they make a decision to move in together so they can continue to explore their budding romance. No one knows they are dating.

‘We have these stories we tell ourselves—and other people—about ourselves, based on what happened to us in the past, or what we did, or decisions we made, and then they become our future just by the telling. It’s like a …’
‘Self-fulfilling prophecy? she offers.

Two detectives – DI Karl Connolly and DI Lee Riordan – are called to an exclusive apartment in Dublin to investigate a strong odour. The detectives find a decaying corpse in the shower recess and must determine whether it was an accident or foul play was involved.

Lies are spindly, unwieldy things. Delicate filaments, like bundles of nerves in the body. Easy to twist, hard to control, impossible to keep hold of.

56 Days moves back and forth in time from before the pandemic to the present to gradually reveal the stories of Oliver, Clare, DI Karl Connolly and DI Lee Riordan. The characters of Clare and Oliver are filled with the anxiety and anticipation of new love, including withholding information from one another that could throw a shadow over their budding romance. The detectives inject the good natured banter of work colleagues and humour to the story, along with a few gruesome details.

The novel is really well plotted, threaded through with a sense of dread and anticipation that something terrible could happen at any moment. Howard takes the reader to the edge of their seat repeatedly, then draws back, and story ends with an unexpected twist. I really enjoyed the audio book narrated by Alana Kerr Collins – the Irish accent adds to the telling of the story.

Book review: Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn

I’ve stayed in Ireland for another book with Anthony J Quinn’s novel Turncoat. Cold, dreary, claustrophobic — good ingredients for a thriller. Turncoat is set in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement that ended most of the violence of the Troubles in Ireland, and was a major step forward in the peace process. Quinn plays with traditional crime fictions forms — the opening is like a shoot ‘em up James Bond adventure that morphs into a mind bending locked room mystery before spinning around again with a noir like twist.

He felt hollow inside, unsure of anything, least of all his own thoughts and feelings, stumbling over his shadow, the ghost of a lonely detective who had somehow escaped his own execution.

Desmond Maguire is a catholic detective in the Northern Ireland police force. When he is framed by either the IRA or the republicans his tenuous grip on control fractures, helped along by his tendency to drink way too much — personal conflict plus in this story. He is the sole survivor of an ambush and seen as a second class citizen by his police peers and a turncoat in his own community.

The guts of the novel has a surreal and almost locked room mystery feel to it. Maguire flees on an involuntary pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Donegal after receiving a postcard that inspires him to go there believing he will find the answer to who framed him. The traditional Lough Derg three day pilgrimage only allows participants one meal of black tea or coffee, dry toast, oat cakes and water, and deprives them of sleep and footwear as they walk around the island in prayer. The longer Maguire is on the island the more paranoid he becomes.

During the worst days of the Troubles, Belfast kept its traitors out of sight, like the homeless drunks who froze to death in back alleyways, or the suicides who thew themselves off bridges into the dank Lagan waters. The bodies of spies and informers were usually transported to the border and left in ditches or covered in bin bags where they no longer posed a risk to anyone, and their deaths might not seem so terrible or pitiable.

The island is analogous to a miserable, claustrophobic locked room. The story plays with reality, showing Maguire’s undoing facilitated by the deprivations of the pilgrimage, excessive consumption of illicit alcohol, the other pilgrims fascination with him, and his anxiety that someone on the island is after him. He can’t tell the difference between truth and fiction — even in his own mind.

Quinn does a great job of bringing to life the confusion and suspicions that must have existed during those times in Ireland. Themes include religion, corruption, mistrust and betrayal – it is not an easy or light read, but the discomfort is compelling and leaves residual long after it ends.

Book review: Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Snowflake is a coming of age story set in Ireland about a young woman called Debbie who is naive, vulnerable and determined. The novel is Louise Nealon’s debut.

Debbie lives on a dairy farm in Kildare with her mentally ill mother, Maeve, who writes down dreams and takes to her bed for long stretches of time. She tells Debbie she doesn’t know who Debbie’s father is. Her mother’s younger boyfriend, James, also lives with them.

When we fall asleep, we go to a place where words dissolve and become meaningless, like rain dropping into the ocean. As soon as rain hits the ocean it is no longer called rain. As soon as a dreamer enters a dream there is no longer the dreamer. There is only the dream.

Debbie’s uncle Billy lives in a caravan out the back of the farm house. He drinks too much but he is also the constant and stability in Debbie’s life. He wants her to have more from her life than the farm. He teaches her everything he knows and pushes her to go to college, which she does, commuting to university in Dublin.

We look at the sky as though it depends on us to hold it up there

At university Debbie is befriended by Xanthe, more sophisticated and worldly than Debbie and fascinated by Debbie’s farm life.

Told in first person, present tense the story rolls through Debbie’s first eyeopening year at university. We experience her relationships with those around her and her relationship with herself. She fears she may share her mothers illness — she dreams other people’s dreams. The exploration of mental illness is handled well and sensitively with humour.

Snowflake encompasses a strong sense of both place and character from which the well paced story emerges. The title of the novel is a nod to, and attempt to take ownership of the term sometimes used to describe millennials who are often seen as oversensitive and lacking resilience.

Book review: Borkmann’s Point by Hakan Nesser

Borkmann’s Point is a Nordic noir police procedural set in the early 90s by Swedish author Hakan Nesser. Think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and you’ll get the gist of the style. The book is the second of the Van Veeteren series but can be easily read as a stand alone.

Two recent arrivals to the fishing village of Kaalbringen — an ex-con and a real estate tycoon — are murdered with an axe, and Chief inspector Van Veeteren is asked to cut short his holiday to help out on the murder investigation.

Beate Moerk sat down and put her briefcase on the sofa beside her. She was used to the question. Had expected it, in fact. People evidently had no difficulty in accepting policewomen in uniform, but coping with the fact that wearing a uniform was not a necessary part of the job seemed to be a different matter. How could a woman wear something fashionable and attractive and still carry out her police duties?

The local chief of police, Bausen is counting the days to his retirement and the rest of his team, bar one, are largely hopeless. Beate Moerk has a flair for police work, so when she disappears after a third murder, it’s down to Veeteren to solve the case.

The story is told in a steady, restrained, thoughtful pace and with a wry sense of humour. Reading Borkmann’s Point is like watching a quirky game of chess unfold.

If he’d had the ability to see into the future, if only for a few hours, it is possible that he’d have given lunch a miss without more ado. And set off for Kaalbringen as quickly as possible.

Borkmann’s Point is told through alternating points of view giving readers a deep insight into the main characters. Van Veeteren is a grouchy old cop with a predilection for doing some of his best thinking in the bath with a few bottles of brown ale and a bowl of olives. Beate is a beautiful investigator, ambivalent about her unmarried and childless state. The killer is cool and casual about stalking his victims and believes he is beyond reach and punishment — he’s just an ordinary man.

Nesser won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for Best Crime Novel in 2004 for Borkmann’s Point. After being translated and released in English, the book was also shortlisted for the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.

Book review: How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

I wrote this a week ago, but decided publishing a review of a book called How to Kill your Family on Christmas Eve was in poor taste, particularly as my dad reads this blog (for the record the thought has never crossed my mind).

Kelly decided that I was her new best friend, and worse, a trophy cellmate. At breakfast, she will bustle up to me, linking arms and whispering to me as if we are in the middle of a confidential discussion. I’ve heard her talking to the other prisoners, her voice dropping to a stage whisper, as she intimates that I’ve confessed all the details of my crime to her. She wants leverage and respect from the other girls, and if anyone can provider her with it, the Morton murderer can. It is immensely tiresome.

Grace Bernard is writing her memoir from a jail cell in Limehouse prison. She was locked up for a murder she did not commit. Her memoir confesses to murders that she did commit. By age 28 she had killed six members of her own family.

Helene was kind, but she was hardly a great intellect, and had a fairly basic level of insight. Her favourite shows were all on ITV, if that makes it at all clearer.

She was raised by a single mother who died of cancer and exhaustion when Grace was a teenager. Whilst her mother was dying Grace discovered that her father was a business tycoon and owner of a well known fashion label. He had abandoned her mother and wanted nothing to do with Grace. Grace spends her remaining teenage years plotting revenge.

How to Kill Your Family is a story of class, family, betrayal, rejection and retribution. Dark and at times brutal, yet told with a hilarious wry humour.

Kelly asks if I want to talk anything over, tilting her head in what I image she thinks is a sympathetic gesture. She knows my final appeal is due any day now, and her recent forays into group therapy seem to have convinced her that she has a bright future in counselling. I have to stifle the urge to explain that the vest therapy that Harley Street has to offer wouldn’t help me much, so I doubt that Kelly’s offer of trying to contact my inner child will suddenly fix whatever she imagines might be wrong with me. Besides the fact that Kelly is an undeniable moron, I think talking is overrated.

The character of Grace is a little reminiscent of Villanelle from Killing Eve. Grace is smart, sarcastic, cunning, meticulous, judgemental and conniving. Yet despite her psychopathic tendencies and twisted view of the world, you can’t help but like her.

A great read for when you a looking for some light-hearted dark humour.

Happy New Year, may 2022 be kind to you. See you out the other side.