Book Review: Epiphany Jones

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Epiphany Jones, by Michael Grothaus, is a book that took me so far beyond my comfort zone that I was tempted to set it aside. The challenging subject matter – child sex trafficking, pornography, and man’s ability to look the other way – left me feeling depressed and disturbed, not least because I am aware that these things happen in real life. And little is done to clamp down on the sex trade when the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous are involved. It is easier to look the other way and get on with ordinary life, easier for all except the victims.

Such a story could not work, and this one does work, if it were not tamped with humour. Unusually this humour is not fueled by women, whose feelings and behaviours are so routinely mined and mocked for men’s amusement. Rather it is the wider attitudes of society as a whole, and in particular the cult of celebrity, that are deftly unmasked. Asides are scattered throughout the horrific aspects of the tale, leading to laughter at the most improbable of situations.

The reader is taken into the dark heart of what some men will do if they think they can get away with it, how the powerful will use the vulnerable as a commodity from which personal pleasure and profit may be derived without concern for the pain this will inflict. Alongside are the conceits and foolishnesses that colour everyday life. The story is as cleverly written as it is challenging. I couldn’t set it aside because I needed to know what happened next.

The protagonist, Jerry Dresden, is a man with problems. He is addicted to porn and is plagued by people he hears and sees who do not exist. When he manages to sleep he suffers vivid, recurring nightmares. Through a friend of his parents he has been given a job at a museum which he hates.

Early on we learn that Jerry’s little sister died before she reached her teens, and that he blames himself for her death. A few years later he was a passenger in his father’s car when it hit a tree, killing the man. Jerry’s mother moved them across the country, away from Hollywood where her husband had worked in PR for a successful film producer. Jerry coped with these traumas by immersing himself in tacky television and the darker side of the internet.

The action kicks off when a young woman Jerry remembers from a dream, Epiphany Jones, ambushes his life. She frames him for theft and murder in order to blackmail him into accompanying her to Mexico. There he discovers a world controlled by violent pimps and people traffickers. Epiphany will not explain to him what she is trying to achieve, only that she is being instructed by God.

As Jerry and Epiphany travel from place to place the violence they encounter rises. The slow reveal of their backstories is as shocking as their ongoing problem with a powerful and sadistic thug named Nico. He has an empire to protect and the money to buy immunity from the law. He also has a history with Epiphany.

The denouement draws each thread together for a dramatic finale which, whilst upping the death count significantly, continues to poke fun at the foibles of a public intent on idolising their celluloid heroes and the behaviours this creates in the stars. The glitterati are as much a commodity to the Hollywood money makers as everything else these career making men encounter. The edifice they construct, built on the shallowest of foundations yet coveted by so many, brings out the basest of behaviours in their successes who consider themselves entitled to whatever they desire.

A sobering read that left me reeling, yet also a brilliant depiction of a skewed world where style matters more than substance and people are reduced to product. The writing is raw and unflinching, the story deftly put together with a depth that offers much for the reader to ponder. It has been said that good fiction’s job is to disturb the comfortable – this book is an extraordinary read that unstintingly succeeds.

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

Book Review: Freefall Into Us

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Freefall Into Us, by Tess Rosa Ruiz, is a collection of poems and short stories on lust and life. There is a lot of sex: blatant, explicit fantastical sex. Despite this I felt that there was an innocence to the writing, a lack of cynicism.

The theme running throughout the book is that a fulfilled life requires fulfilling sex; that contentment is found in orgasm, and that this is what people seek. Readers may judge for themselves how much empathy they feel with such a point of view.

The author’s use of language is energetic and assured. She holds nothing back. There is passion and depth to the pieces: explicitly described desire, anger at illness, despair in grief. There are many intimate descriptions of sexual feelings and encounters.

Within each piece, attraction is based on physical beauty which is closely followed by lust. There is an occasional suggestion of same sex fantasies, but what is explored is one on one heterosexual.

There is one poem which acknowledges that love need not equate to sex: ‘Friends’

“I have this friend.

This male friend.

You know, the one that

Holds you

When you hug?”

I felt challenged by this book, by the emotions it engendered. I also felt irritated that there seemed no recognition that attraction had more depth than sexual chemistry, that in long term relationships sex is not the be all and end all.

However, perhaps for some people it is that important. Perhaps this is the book for them.

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

Book Review – Any Human Heart

‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd is not a book to read in one sitting. It covers the life of the fictional Logan Mountstuart, a marginal author and journalist from a wealthy family, whose life is woven around a tapestry of the culturally rich and famous in the twentieth century. As a piece of literature it is deep and satisfying; as a study of the human heart I found it depressing.

The book is presented in the form of a personal journal, a device that works well given the time span and subject matter to be covered. The strength of the book lies in the authors ability to write believably as a seventeen year old school boy, an aspirational graduate, a middle aged philanderer and an elderly gentleman.

The interactions with the rich and famous are as contemptuous or gauche as the protagonists situation at the time allows. As a writer and minor art expert he is unimpressed with many in these fields who he meets when young, but will invoke their names in later life to impress those around him. He has an awe of royalty which is, perhaps, a sign of the times in which he was raised.

The book succeeds in getting under the skin of many of the varied characters created to allow the story to flow. Those who we get to follow throughout their lives develop as old friends will; some steadfast and likeable despite their flaws, others whose selfishness and egotistical tendencies increase discreditably when they age. As in life, those who appear to succeed are often not those who deserve the accolades.

The book provided much food for thought and was best enjoyed in small chunks to allow for frequent processing of information and development. It was beautifully written, evocative and offered a depth that is rare. So why do I have reservations about it?

Much as I hate to generalise about these things, I suspect it may be a man’s book. The woman were there largely for background and sex; the men seemed obsessed with their virility, their ability to obtain sexual satisfaction driving much of their decision making. For all their many accomplishments and achievements, few seemed to recognise the value of anything other than this physical fulfilment. If that is how men think, then they are considerably more shallow than I give them credit for.

Perhaps it was the fact that the hedonism of youth did not subside until old age that irritated me. Despite a period when he was content to be happily married with an adored young child, subsequent behaviour ensured that this was not a state that he could repeat. If a mistake can only be made once, after which it becomes a choice, then Logan Mountstuart chose to be foolish for much of his life.

The author created a character who was given every opportunity to succeed in life. From his public school eduction, through his time at Oxford, to his early success as a writer; his contacts allowed him to move amongst the best in his field and be regarded as an elite member of the cultural club. His inability to perpetuate these jump starts to his career must be all too common, but it was his inability to be a likeable human being that killed any sympathy I may have felt for the character. Even allowing for the hardships that he endured from time to time, he ended up with more than I felt he deserved.

I found the middle section of the book, his middle age, the hardest to read. I wonder if this is because I am middle aged and wish to think that those around me are better than that which was portrayed in this book. It is to the credit of the author that he has created such a believable set of characters and annoyed me so intensely.

I preferred the penultimate few pages to the final ending, which felt a little weak to me after such a powerful, roller coaster ride through a life lived in numerous countries on four continents amongst a cast of the great, the good and the infamous. Thanks to the recommendations that caused me to add this book to my reading list, I had high hopes for it. I was disappointed not by the quality of the writing, but by my dislike of the human heart portrayed.

The shallowness of the men in this book have left me with an emptiness inside. I hope that real men are not as typical as they have been written to appear.

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