Book Review: Nothing Special

Nothing Special

“The world kept telling us we had never been so free, but it was only when I was with Shelley, alive with her excitement, in her dream that had taken her across the country on a bus, that I believed it.”

Nothing Special, by Nicole Flattery, is narrated by Mae who, in the late 1960s, when she was seventeen years old, dropped out of school to work as a typist for the artist Andy Warhol. Her job was to transcribe audio recordings held on a series of cassette tapes that captured disturbing conversations between Warhol’s acolytes. The resulting text was to form the basis of a book the artist planned to release under his name. Although invested in what she regarded as a potentially life changing experience, Mae was not to know just how affecting being immersed in this decadent and depraved unfettered lifestyle would be. She may have existed on the periphery of all that went on around the artist – in his New York City studio and at a series of parties – but through what she heard on the tapes she got to know intimate details of key players, and how Warhol treated those he used in the name of his art.

The book opens when Mae is well into middle age, regularly visiting her elderly mother in a care facility. The timeline then jumps back to her teenage years when they lived in a small apartment with Mikey, not her father but still a kindly presence. Mae was desperate to escape what she felt were the confines of a life with few prospects. She did not wish to live in the way her mother seemed to accept.

When Mae had a falling out with her best friend, Maud, it proved the catalyst for change. A sexual encounter led to a meeting with a doctor and from there to the studio where Warhol made his art. Like many young people her age, Mae longed to reinvent herself. Not a carefully groomed beauty, she enjoyed watching the people who came and went through the cold, loft space. Many of the girls were from wealthy families, eager to climb on the coat-tails of an ascending if notorious celebrity. Virtue, amongst this cohort, was considered passé.

“They were all uniformly attractive, in a forgettable way.”

Mae befriends Shelley who is also transcribing the tapes. She is much taken by Shelley’s background and apparent deliberate refusal to embrace the fashions of the day. They socialise. They work together. The are changed by what they must listen to for so many hours every day.

“They weren’t having fun anymore. The tape recorder, always on, always taking and taking and taking. And my job, to record their suffering.”

The story being told is a slow burn but what is revealed in the opening chapters proves key in what is to come. The structure has a somewhat breathless quality, scenes running into each other, their impact only becoming obvious later. Characters project their versions of other people into their relationships and then suffer when the scales fall away and understanding filters through hopeful glaze.

Both Mae and Shelley are skilfully developed – outsiders yet participants in a world held in awe, gradually discovering the damage it causes. They seek a personal chimera but in the end must live with unanticipated knowledge – gained and then cannot be changed.

None of this requires undue exposition in the telling. The author creates layers but leaves it to reader how much they wish to unpeel. There is economy in what is shared yet still the tale has captivating depth. Threads may be tied by the end but so many questions over how life choices are made – of the impact of random encounters – will linger.

A complex yet easily digestible skewering of artistic lifestyle and ambition. Inventive and original, Flattery’s precise and percipient prose pulses with wit and bewitchment.

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


Book Review: The Weighing of the Heart

The Weighing of the Heart, by Paul Tudor Owen, has undercurrents of romance, crime thriller, and dark mystery, yet it defies the conventions of each of these genres. The author’s deft touch in presenting his protagonist’s thoughts and actions encourages questions about reasoning and veracity – glimpses into the shadows of mostly ordinary behaviour.

The story opens with a statement I disagreed with – something that turned out to be a valid reaction.

“Sooner or later, everybody comes to New York”

Thus we are introduced to Nick Braeburn, a self-centred yet apparently likeable English artist who has made his home in America. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend, Hannah. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances he is offered a compact room in the well located home of wealthy sisters, Marie and Rose Peacock. Nick is looking back on this period of his life, narrating what happened. The voice employed is vaguely regretful.

The elderly but socially lively Peacock sisters own a number of properties in the city. One of their tenants is another artist, Lydia, who rents a tiny apartment next to the Peacocks’ generous space. Lydia has recently separated from her husband, Hector. The sisters view this development with regret.

Early on Nick explains why he came to New York City.

“What appealed to me about New York was what appealed to me about art itself – it was a place where I could pretend that the gloomy half-light of my hometown, the exhausted indistinguishable streets stretching out endlessly into the void, had quite simply never existed; where I could decide who I was and who I wanted to be and nobody would ever be able to challenge it.”

To reinvent himself in this way requires funds which he sets out to acquire by whatever means necessary. Although capable of empathy – he intuits when he breaks simple if unspecified house rules – he appears to lack certain moral boundaries. If an opportunity presents itself he has no scruples about following through to gain personal advantage.

Nick observes Lydia as she goes about her day to day activities and, over time, they become friends. Growing more at home in the sisters’ apartment, occasional behaviours he briefly mentions appear out of kilter. Casual actions raise questions but so slight as to leave a residue of doubt that something may be amiss. Was I looking for intrigue where none existed?

Lydia meets Hannah; Nick meets Hector; Lydia is offered opportunities in her artistic career. Warnings flash briefly as jealousy raises its ugly head.

The art created by both Nick and Lydia is inspired by stories and beliefs from Ancient Egypt. These affect Nick particularly. He looks out for his ba and is calmed by his scarab. He is disturbed by the appearance of bees – the tears of a king.

Nick’s behaviour remains elusive despite his good fortune in so many areas.

The various threads and suggestions are woven together with just enough occasional background to provide explanation. The taut prose and skillfully employed metaphors add to the lure and tension.

Cleverly constructed and hard to put down, this was an intriguing and satisfying read. I will be recommending it widely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press.

Book Review: This Brutal House

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a book appears that teaches me of a culture I had been unaware existed, perhaps because it has never been referred to by the tribe I mix with – proof of the echo chambers in which we often inadvertently live. This Brutal House introduced me to Voguing – a ‘style of dance or performance that arose from Harlem ballroom cultures, as danced by African-American and Latino drag queens and gay men, from the early 1960s’ (source: Wikipedia). The story is based in New York City and features people who compete in Vogue Balls for money and kudos amongst peers.

Opening on the steps of City Hall, five elders and mothers are beginning a silent protest at the inaction of the authorities in locating their children who have gone missing.

“it should not only be pageant queens whose faces grace the back of milk cartons but girls who are trapped inside the bodies of boys; those who break out of their incarceration by wearing make-up, boys who like boys”

Within City Hall is an employee, Teddy, who lived with the mothers for a number of years. Through his access to official records he now knows more about what happened to some of his missing siblings. He has not shared these truths with the mothers, wishing to protect them as they once offered him a home.

The mothers are not blood mothers but rather men who take in children needing shelter and who they may then enter in the Vogue Balls. Additional funds are raised by offering sexual favours. Although groomed by the mothers, the children are willing participants. Those who do not wish to dress up in drag and dance can help out in cloakrooms or take on other supporting roles. The children live with the mothers having been rejected elsewhere.

“They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood. Most were loved, even if they were seldom heard.”

Teddy is assigned by his employer to keep an eye on the growing protest. He is long used to looking out for the mothers’ practical wellbeing.

“Teddy, with better penmanship and turn of phrase, who could reply to the electric company and the rent control board in the language they wanted rather than the guttural tongue by which we were raised.”

The reader is offered glimpses of what is happening and why the situation has been created and then escalates.

“We are unwanted noise, not to be seen or heard”

“The city deems us rodents”

The story unfolds from the points of view of the mothers, the children, various City employees and, most of all, Teddy. He is well aware of the corruption that exists in government and aims to use it to the mothers’ advantage. He observes potential threats and suggests to his colleagues that visible support could be publicly advantageous. He walks the political tightrope carefully.

“When did our police force augment into a military mindset, after funds allowed purchase of the first armour-plated SUV, or the second?”

The chapters told from Teddy’s point of view provide interesting background to life in his mothers’ apartment where, as a boy, he was smitten by one of the now missing children.

“He knows that if Sherry had stayed around she would have moved on of her own volition, her attention mercurial, his dissatisfaction, ancestral and chronic. He would always be unable to mend what needed to be mended.”

When the police respond to reports of the missing, they question the children’s provenance and nature of relationships – why boys have been taken in by older men.

Underscoring the narrative is the question of what is being offered and what taken. Choices are made but by those whose circumstances lead to limited options.

The mothers regard their actions as philanthropic, at least on the surface.

“By nature we are crowd-pleasers, craving the approval of our own, wishing the children to be schooled in our ways, independent, but cut from our cloth. How else can any of the old ways survive?”

Within the various houses that the Vogue mothers run there is a hankering after baubles and couture which are regarded as signifiers of beauty at the balls. The children are trained in how to walk provocatively, dance and strike a pose. They seek attention and validation. The mothers compete to train the child who will win for their house. They beat and berate. I pondered how such behaviour differed from coercion applied by blood families to bring perceived honour above individuals being themselves.

On the steps of City Hall, the protesters seek support and acceptance by a mainstream that struggles to see beyond men wearing wigs, dresses and make-up.

As points of view shift each character is presented as both an emotive and rounded person with issues and sensitivities and then as a derided facsimile whose vision remains blinkered. No easy answers are provided to offset what are often flawed decisions. Family – blood and adopted – are shown to be as culpable as individuals, and government.

Two of the chapters are set at the Vogue Balls. The structure of these is repetitive and tiring to read but succeeds in getting across the intensity of the occasions.

The writing elsewhere is stiletto sharp yet with almost poetic insight in places, although some of Teddy’s later streams of thought may have benefitted from more succinctness.

Any Cop?: A layered tale with a poignant turning point that demonstrates how misunderstood most people are, even by themselves.

“They speak as children sending their parents away, only to wait anxiously at the door once the thrill of the first few nights has worn off. Willing mischief, but knowing they’ll tire of it.”

“Something crumbles in the knowledge that you are no longer needed”


Jackie Law