Book Review: Water Shall Refuse Them

Water Shall Refuse

Water Shall Refuse Them, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is described as folk horror. The atmosphere created is reminiscent of  works by Naomi Booth and Andrew Michael Hurley. There are undercurrents of disturbance and suspicion manifesting in characters whose actions raise many questions that are then gradually answered. The sense of place is dark and skilfully rendered.

Set in a remote village on the Welsh borders, where many resident families have lived for generations and retain long held prejudices and superstitions, the story is narrated by sixteen year old Nif whose family are still reeling from the death of her sister, Petra. It is the summer of 1976 and the intense heat adds a layer of discomfort. Grief has driven the family from their home in London to spend a month in this small village. As outsiders, few welcome their presence.

The story opens on the outward journey and quickly introduces elements with a touch of the uncanny. Nif holds a head on her lap. Her little brother, Lorry, is bleeding. The parents are distant and distracted, neglectful of their children’s needs. The cottage they are to stay in offers only basic facilities and hasn’t been lived in for years.

Having set the scene the author then introduces other key characters: near neighbours, Janet and her teenage son, Mally; the chapel congregation; a gang of girls Nif’s age who hang out to smoke and drink together. The censorious chapel goers are quick to warn Nif’s parents that Janet and Mally should be avoided. This advice is not heeded. Janet is beautiful and charismatic, despite succumbing regularly to inebriation. Mally takes a keen interest in Nif, suggesting they have much in common. One thing they do share is a willingness to kill or maim living creatures. Descriptions of their actions in this respect are both disturbing and distressing to read.

That is not to say there is any problem with the writing. The unfolding tale is taut and well structured, a finely tuned balance between revealing how family life was before Petra died – the impact of her birth and then details of the tragic event itself – and what happens in Wales. The narrative is deeply evocative with: rancid smells, venomous characters, a hint of witchcraft, and a pervasive air of malevolence. Although Mally often takes the upper hand in decision making, ultimately he underestimates Nif and the lengths she will go to in order to avenge festering slights.

There is tension aplenty although I guessed the final reveal early. None of the characters come out of this tale well. Despite all this it is a story worth reading. Just be aware that traits described capture seriously disturbed individuals who, for reasons worth pondering, continue to exist in plain sight.   

Water Shall Refuse Them is published by Dead Ink.


Book Review: Exit Management

exit management

Exit Management, by Naomi Booth, is an expertly paced thriller that cuts to the bone. Set in London during the run up to Brexit, it focuses on a young couple intricately linked to the overpriced property market. The tension builds as they each get what they thought they wanted but at a terrible cost.

When the story opens, Lauren is living in a cheaply built studio apartment in Deptford. She moved to London five years ago, recruited at a graduate fair in Bristol by Mina, to work in HR at a financial services company. Lauren has become expert in making problematic traders redundant, ensuring that the process of their eradication from the company goes smoothly without unsettling repercussions. She aspires to be like the always immaculately groomed Mina, who took her new recruit under her wing and now advises on all aspects of her life and ambitions. Lauren budgets carefully, putting money aside each month for a deposit on her own property. For now, the flats she could afford are far from the image she has of what she deserves as her future home.

Callum still lives with his parents in a high rise flat in Croyden. It has been their home for thirty years. He works as a Curator for GuestHouse, a company that offers short term lets on luxury properties for the super-rich visiting the city. Only good looking, well groomed young men are recruited to this role. They are provided with a quality suit and trained in how to talk to the clients they will deal with. Mostly, they check on their lists of empty properties, purchased as investments, ensuring they are kept pristine and secure. Cleaning companies do the basic work before and after any occupation, but Callum must ensure requested supplies are provided and nothing is disturbed, stolen or damaged by paying guests.

Lauren and Callum bump into each other outside a beautiful property near Little Venice. It is owned by József, a Hungarian born art dealer who is in the late stages of multiple sclerosis. While József seeks treatment, his house has been placed on Callum’s list. It is his favourite property as the two men have become friends in the time they have known each other. József welcomes the younger man’s company, telling him stories from his past and educating him in art. When Lauren and Callum first meet, Lauren assumes the house belongs to Callum and immediately sets her sights on him.

What follows could be Shakespearian but with much heightened tension. Neither Callum nor Lauren wish to reveal where they really come from. Both desire the other but for different reasons. When József returns to his home with an offer for Callum, Lauren must be told the truth. The consequences of this revelation threaten to destroy them all.

The key players have back stories that go some way towards explaining why they behave as they do.

Lauren was born and raised in Dewsbury where she lived poorly and was regularly abused. She has tried to help her family there but resents what she regards as their continual neediness. She deals with her demons through coping strategies that focus on her carefully managed facade and future, learning to take care of herself because nobody else can be relied upon to do so. She worries about her little sister, Amy, but is also angry that the girl won’t help herself.

“Because hasn’t she tried? Hasn’t she tried for long enough to look after Amy? To protect her? At cost. At great fucking personal cost. Enough, enough already. Years of trying to keep her safe, and now look: she can’t take care of herself at the most basic level.”

Callum’s mother suffers from anxiety. His father believes the boy should be independent at his age. He is disappointed that a stint at university lasted barely a month. He reminds his son that his grandfather had to fend for himself from the age of fourteen.

“Cal’s problem is that he’s always been a bit on the useless side. He smokes his smokes, he plays his video games, he sleeps, he eats, he does this little job, hoovering the carpets of the rich and famous, whatever it is. Pretty boy, isn’t he? He’s anxious, you know that. He gets it from you … Snowflakes, that’s what they call them, isn’t it? This lot? Too frightened to go out into the world and make anything of themselves.”

Callum and Lauren’s unravelling is masterfully dealt with and kept within character. The denouement, while poignant, remains devoid of saccharine.

A skilfully woven, contemporary tale that lays bare the lie that hard work and focus will bring all rewards deserved. Although dark and at times bleak, this is an immersive and satisfying read.

Exit Management is published by dead ink.

Book Review: Dead Relatives

dead relatives

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is the book for the spooky season. It is a collection of thirteen short stories – eight of which have previously appeared in other publications, the remainder original to this collection. The author is expert at writing the macabre into the ordinary. The shadowed and shifting undercurrents permeate characters’ everyday interactions and behaviour.

The titular opening story is also the longest, building tension from the first page. It is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Iris, who lives with her Mammy and their two loyal servants in the crumbling family mansion. Iris has never been beyond the grounds, which she remembers were once well maintained. Set in the 1960s, the family own neither television nor radio. She learns of the outside world only from the array of ladies who periodically come to stay. Iris’s best friend is her doll, but even this must be kept hidden.

“‘Cold hands, cold heart,’ I say, which is what Mammy always says, and I smile my special smile, just for her. I want to show her Dolly. I think Nancy would like Dolly, because Dolly is a lot like me and it seems that Nancy likes me. But I remember what Mammy has said, and so I keep quiet about Dolly. Instead, I put my hand out and rest it on Nancy’s belly.”

The second story, Jutland, tells of a young family moving to the Danish island where the artist husband hopes to concentrate on his painting. The wife, Ana, is a writer, struggling to revive the novel she was forced to set aside following the birth of her second child. The couple’s firstborn has yet to speak, communicating with gestures. Ana is not happy, resentful of her husband’s demands now her role is defined as mother and milking machine.

“He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit. But me? I’m a writer. Would you like to hear about that? About the awards I have won and the reviews in the broadsheets?”

There are subtle links between individual stories, small mentions of features previously employed in the varied narratives. What runs through each tale is the unhappiness inherent in families. Some revolve around tragedies, others ingrained character traits. All are nuanced, the reader trusted to make connections.

The Pickling Jar is as shocking as it is darkly humorous, telling of a village community with competitive traditions that are seriously questionable.

Cavities is one of the shorter stories but packs a powerful punch. The lingering sadness makes it hard to blame the protagonist for her actions.

Likewise, Resting Bitch Face, provides a warning of the potential repercussions when women are badly treated. Many of these stories are not for the faint hearted.

Some of the later tales move in the direction of the supernatural rather than the macabre. Mostly these uncanny elements invade insidiously. Children in particular struggle through lack of what they long for, even those being raised by parents who care for them. Those whose lives are followed into adulthood carry with them the damage inflicted.

Wretched is set in a near future Britain and provides a timely warning about acceptance of government propaganda. Citizens are given a Value Index that determines what goods they have access to, including food. The Initiative clears the streets of undesirables, processing them to provide a compliant labour force. Even those who perceive what is being done often choose to look away for fear of social censure and personally damaging repercussions. There is a chilling recognition of the direction England could currently be heading.

The final story, The Birds of Nagasaki, details a key event in the lives of a young brother and sister. The cruelty featured is deeply upsetting despite centring on an item of clothing. The skill with which the author makes readers care is impressive.

In fact this entire collection is impressive. The writing is taut and fluid, disturbing yet compelling. The horror is subtle yet penetrating. A darkly fabulous, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: Whiteout Conditions

“I think about all that I have expected that turned out to be wrong, in the dark before sleep, remind myself the joy and love and success found by all regular people I know are not meant for me, and when I remind myself of this, I can picture the look on my face, and would prefer no one sees it.”

Whiteout Conditions, by Tariq Shah, is set over a two day road trip that old friends, Ant and Vince, take to attend the funeral of Vince’s young cousin, Ray. The narrator is Ant, who flies into his old home town, from where Vince will drive them to the wake. Ant left many years ago, something Vince appears to resent. Vince is now married with kids. Ant has no living relatives left. He has not been good at keeping in touch. He doesn’t know if he will be welcome but is drawn to funerals, claiming to find them ‘kind of fun’. Ray died in horrific circumstances – a teenager whose family have been left devastated.

Around these bones of a plot the author constructs a story of everyday violence, grief and the costs of living in its aftermath. The car journey is fraught, shadowed by sniping conversation as Ant and Vince try to process their shared backstory and the lasting hurt this has created.

“What we say never changes. How we say it reveals our age, a history invisible to the stranger’s eye, one that is never really addressed by those familiar with it.”

The writing is taut and direct with much conveyed through dialogue and memories of shared conflict. The ancient car they travel in has footwells filled with trash from takeaways. The weather travelled through is filthy – roads clogged with slush and angry traffic. All this adds to the untidy atmosphere of provocation as Vince tries to gain a handle on why Ant left, what he has been doing, and why he has returned. There is no welcome for an old friend in these pages, rather they spill over with bitterness at the hand dealt and how it has been played.

And yet the reader will be drawn in, made to feel. In gaining an understanding of Ant’s life there is growing empathy. His coping mechanisms for losses suffered can at first appear insensitive but he has always had to harden his veneer to survive. Vince has his own demons, leaving little energy for a man he feels rejected by. There may be little to admire in either of their behaviour. This does not detract from what is a compellingly told tale.

I was almost afraid to read the final few sections such was the tension built and my fear of what images would be put into my head. The denouement fits with what went before adding a forward trajectory to a disturbing act of vengeance.

A dark yet somehow moving account of lives stymied by circumstances as much as choices made. A pithy yet potent read for those undaunted by brutal reality.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Cat Step

Cat Step, by Alison Irvine, is one of those rare stories that will appeal to readers looking for a compelling thriller and also those who enjoy delving deeper into how an author uses language and form to satisfy and linger. From beginning to end there is an underlying tension. Unlike so many popular thrillers, there is no middle of the book pause to catch breath before introducing a change of direction that will allow for a twisty denouement. Cat Step remains consistent, holding attention without compromising character traits and development. The story has an intriguing plot offering much to consider. The protagonist is a tenacious, if fallible, narrator.

Set in Lennoxtown, where long time residents know everyone else’s business, the tale is told by a young mother, Liz, who is looking back on a period in her life when she and her daughter, Emily, lived there. Within the first few paragraphs it is stated that this was a time for which some explanation will be needed when Emily asks questions. Liz must decide what she will and won’t tell her child.

Liz is a dancer who, for a time, earned good money working on cruise ships. It was here that she met her partner, Robbie. She travels to Lennoxtown because his grandmother has died and his brother – who now lives in Australia – has asked Liz if she will clear the old lady’s flat and prepare it for sale. Liz had been living with her mother in London and sees the request as an opportunity to get back on her feet after a difficult few years – and to find out more about Robbie, who grew up in Lennoxtown but rarely talked about the place.

Shortly after arrival, Liz makes a decision that will draw the attention of the locals and then the police. Social Services become involved and Liz’s parenting falls under scrutiny.

Emily is not an easy child to care for. She demands her mother’s attention, throwing violent tantrums if she does not get her way. Liz wants to be a good mother but struggles to cope with a child who will not give her space even for a casual, adult conversation. Without her mother to help, Liz has no option but to cope. She sometimes makes mistakes.

The author perfectly captures the difficult aspects of parenting – the reactions and choices made in the heat of a moment that cannot be admitted to for fear of opprobrium, or worse. Liz is trying her best to make the move to Lennoxtown work, considering if it could become more permanent. She finds a nursery for Emily and then a job for herself at a sheltered housing complex. Here she meets June, who briefly becomes her friend. What Liz has yet to discover is that the residents of the town gossip freely amongst themselves but will resist opening up to her.

The facts that gradually unfold are engrossing but the strength of the story is the depiction of Liz as a struggling, single mother who is perceived – sometimes by herself – as failing. Social Services must ensure that Emily is safe and nurtured, but their involvement adds to the stresses Liz must deal with.

She may be a troubled character but Liz is no walkover and far from a fool. Is there any parent who has never taken an occasional misstep when dealing with their cantankerous offspring? Most are simply not caught in the headlights of authority, condemned by neighbours. Liz’s reactions may at times be regrettable but her situation adjures empathy.

Have I emphasised enough how well written this book is? The prose is taut and understated, flowing and effortlessly engaging. It provides a story that deals with difficult and at times worrisome behaviour, with personal grudges manifesting in overt criticism of a young woman’s behaviour. A trenchant yet always gratifying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Judderman

From the publisher’s website:

“Established in 1919, The Eden Book Society was a private publisher of horror for nearly 100 years. Presided over by the Eden family, the press passed through the generations publishing short horror novellas to a private list of subscribers. Eden books were always published under pseudonyms and, until now, have never been available to the public.

Dead Ink Books is pleased to announce that it has secured the rights to the entire Eden Book Society backlist and archives. For the first time, these books, nearly a century of unseen British horror, will be available to the public. The original authors are lost to time, but their work remains and Dead Ink will be faithfully reproducing the publications by reprinting them one year at a time.

Dead Ink hopes that you will join us as we explore the evolving fears of British society as it moved through the 20th Century and eventually entered the 21st. We will begin our reproduction with 1972, a year of exciting and original horror for the Society.

We invite you to join us as we look to unearth who wrote for the society and what connected those writings to the family itself.”


The Judderman is a shadowy creature, a liminality between cautious fear and nihilistic despair. The protagonists of this story, Gary Eider and his older brother, Danny, have spent many years seeking out the darker elements of London that go unseen by those who prefer to focus their lives on more mundane concerns. Now Danny is missing, and Gary is reading his journals looking for clues as to where his brother could be. The two men love their city but recognise the horrors that exist in the cracks, under the radar, and on the hills where the wealthy live.

“The important things to see are there and were always there, but you need the tools to see them.”

Gary’s concern for his brother is not shared by their parents, his girlfriend, Lisa, nor the cousin who bears the scars of a war that is still waging. They have never shown interest in the topics that piqued the brothers’ curiosity – London Incognita.

“Gary became fascinated – obsessed, Lisa would say – by how two people could be looking at the very same thing and have totally different experiences. If that was the case, what was reality?”

Gary goes searching for tidings of Danny amongst the mudlarks and burned-out hippies. London is changing, as has always been the case.

Clearances: “A people and a culture, told that it was no longer of any value. Fled, were pushed”

Months pass with no news from Danny or clues as to his whereabouts. Gary finds himself alone in his search, increasingly ostracised, sinking.

“Why wouldn’t they look? I figured if they chose to truly see, then they may have to do something. To act, and to change.”

The refrain of a children’s song haunts Gary. Could his brother have found the Judderman? Did the Judderman find him?

The underlying horror of the tale is not only what could lurk in the shadows but all that is ignored in plain sight. Wars have left scars that go unspoken. Racism and violence are rife. The wealthy satisfy their appetites with impunity. Some things never change.

The author turns over the rock that is London and enables the creatures festering beneath to scuttle away from the unexpected exposure. In that brief glimpse, the reader may understand how the Judderman survives. It is a warning about the risks of revealing that which few wish to see.

A story for fans of horror and contemporary folklore. A dark and compelling read.

Judderman is published by Dead Ink Books.

Book Review: Glitch

L-J is an engineer living in company owned accommodation in Hoboken, USA. For six years he worked on the national grid’s New Jersey Transmission Project until a hand injury led to him being struck off sick. He had enjoyed dangling from pylons at great heights, aspiring to be one of the linesmen who work six inches from live wires – the entire voltage running through and around them. L-J has always wanted to be a part of things, connected to the grid. Despite this, life and those he encounters wash over him. The only connection he has ever truly felt is the bond with his mother back home in England. Now she is dying.

L-J needs an operation on his hand and is offered the chance to have the procedure done in the UK where he was born and raised. He decides to return to Dunwich on the Suffolf Coast, a place he left abruptly to travel to the USA. His flight home makes headlines when it suffers a malfunction, a glitch that causes it to plummet back down to earth. As chaos erupts around him, L-J calmly reflects on his job and the people he is returning to.

“everything is already broken, everything is prone to malfunction. We spend our entire lives trying to fix things when there’s no point.”

When L-J eventually reaches London he is met by his sister, Ellen, who appears to blame him for the inconvenience of his delayed arrival. Their relationship is fractured, with a history of resentments. Ellen is married to Paul and they are worried about the financial impact of the current recession – its threat to their livelihoods. She is angry that L-J left the UK in the way he did. L-J is put out that she does not show adequate interest in and concern about the flight on which he could have died. He recalls an incident when she attacked him as a baby. Although he only knows of this through hearsay, he still harbours anger that she does not voice regret for her childish actions.

“Nobody wants to spend time examining the blips in our lives, we just hope they’ll go away, but they don’t. They remain with us, like a scar that never fades.”

L-J stays in the family home, walks along the shore, relishes the memories evoked. He sits at his mother’s hospital bedside trying to comfort her and himself. The two have always shared a closeness born of outings, art and poetry. He is her beautiful boy, reading the books she suggested as a means to retain and strengthen their connection.

“that’s the beauty of poetry, there’s nothing to understand, only something to grasp.”

“by his early teens he’d already decided that he wanted to be an engineer. Poetry, apart from serving as the living umbilical cord between him and Mother, had no other use.”

Ellen wishes to discuss practical matters and rails against her brother’s attitude and behaviour. Her priority, as she considers their mother’s imminent death, is attaining monetary security – something L-J has no interest in. He values their childhood home for visceral reasons.

This is a strangely told tale. The writing has a detached feel. The protagonist, from whose point of view it is written, is there in each moment but also in imaginings triggered by conversation or events. His musings are distracted which can be somewhat disconcerting to read.

“Everything remains just under the surface of things”

L-J’s seemingly more practical sister is living in a different reality to his. She cannot comprehend his actions, past or present, and shows her irritation. He resents her material outlook and aspects of their shared history.

In the hospital, Mother’s health continues to deteriorate. Tied to their home for this period of time, L-J looks through cupboards and drawers finding photographs and letters that fill in gaps of knowledge from the family’s past. He considers these new facts a ‘rip in the fabric of our reality’.

The glitches in L-J’s life have proved pivotal even if they did not provide what he was hoping for. It is these that he holds on to, the harness that prevents him falling from height to his demise. Whatever Ellen demands, he must find a way to cope in his own way with their mother’s death.

A story of grief and the detachment needed to survive it – the free fall suffered when connections are severed. Although not always straightforward, the reflections evoked – the understanding of human nature – linger long after the last page is turned. A poignant and original read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas

“This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin.”

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, is an attempt by the journalist author to discover the truth behind the cult like persona of a reclusive artist known as Ezra Maas. Yet what is the truth when supposed facts are changed simply by putting them into words that rely on context and interpretation? When a man affects a persona how long will it be before they become their creation? Is the artist known as Maas a man or a myth?

Ezra Maas first came to prominence as a teenager in 1960s New York. His output was inspiring and eclectic. The tales from those times were of drugs, exploitation, and a growing number of followers attending ‘happenings’ that rode the zeitgeist.

Maas then moved cities, perhaps to Europe or elsewhere in America. He met with many of the big names of the time around the world. He is remembered without detail or clarity. He eschewed photo opportunities. For decades he was revered and remained an enigma – his life itself perhaps a PR exercise or an example of performance art.

When Daniel James is commissioned by an unknown source to write the artist’s biography he approaches the task with determination.

“He’s a writer who isn’t afraid to take risks. As a journalist Daniel James took on the newspaper industry from the inside. With his fiction he played the dangerous game of putting his own life on the page. And now, as a biographer, he is exploring the very possibility of truth and attempting to unravel one of the art world’s biggest mysteries.

A news reporter for over a decade James was best known for exploring the cult of fame and contemporary culture, questioning systems of truth and authority, and exposing the hyper-reality of modern news coverage. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction his writing questioned the representation of reality through language, and our perceptions of knowledge and power.”

Seven years prior to James starting out on his investigations, Ezra Maas disappeared. Access to his background and work are strictly controlled by the powerful and litigious Maas Foundation. People have been silenced, sometimes erased. James follows a trail through: letters, interviews with the artist’s acquaintances, leads uncovered by contacts, coded messages left by Maas himself.

The biography includes: opinion pieces, published articles, transcripts, emails. What we are reading here is not all that was intended. The pages are incomplete, brought together by the anonymous curator of what remains from the original manuscript. In copious footnotes he attempts to make sense of what is described as a literary labyrinth.

How does one uncover the truth when answers to questions proliferate and contradict? This is the story of Ezra Maas. It is also the story of Daniel James.

“You assume the world, the past, is fixed and immutable, but it’s not. What if the words I am writing here, which you are reading now, are already changing things?”

How much is any person a construct? How much are they altered by each and every experience and interaction? In seeking to uncover the truth behind the legend of Ezra Maas, James faces forces that alter his perceptions. In reading this book, the reader takes the same risk.

An astonishing, mind-bending creation that defies the limitations of cliched description. Drawing on many sources from the literary canon, it will challenge understanding of how a damn fine story may be written.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink