I’ve taken a short break from horror to review Stripped to the Bone: portraits of Syrian Women by Ghada Alatrash, a short story collection peppered with beautiful poetry, and set for the most part in Syria.
“Set between war-torn Syria and the West, Stripped to the Bone explores issues of identity, love, strife, courage and resilience in seven fictional portraits of Syrian women. Syrian-Canadian author and translator Ghada Alatrash is a Doctoral Student at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. One of her goals is to amplify the voices of the marginalized through her writings. She translated and published a collection of Arabic poems in English, entitled So that the Poem Remains.”
Stripped to the Bone opens with the natural yearnings of Zahrah, a single woman ageing and in need of a husband, who fills her heart with Hollywood movies to escape her edge of survival existence in a war zone. Then there’s the story of Reem and Mayyada, two women both unjustly imprisoned and forced to endure torture and rape. Here the abuse of a zealot brother is juxtaposed with the almost faceless and arbitrary violence of the prison officers, Alatrash making observations relevant to all women everywhere.
In Stripped to the Bone ancient traditions are portrayed alongside modern values and lifestyles as Syrian women hold on to what is precious and beautiful while adapting to modern ways. In ‘Hanaan and Salaam’ the author tackles homophobia, in ‘Lama’ multicultural relationships, as those Syrians who have fled their homeland adapt to their new lives.
Written in gentle, ironic and often sensual prose, this collection oozes intimacy. Alatrash infuses her stories with pride and anguish, pride in her culture and anguish over the cruelties meted out in the name of God and country. But above all, Alatrash is concerned with the unjust war Syria endures, a civil war with all too powerful interested parties, a proxy war involving America, Russia and Saudi Arabia and their various allies: a bloodbath. In this collection, the geopolitics of Syria forms a translucent backdrop, Alatrash leaving it to the reader to educate themselves if they wish. Of concern for the author is the impact all of the various injustices have had on women’s lives.
In ‘Um Jaad’, a story of a Syrian woman travelling to visit her sister in Homs who has just lost her little boy, Alatrash writes:
“More deafening than the screams was the silence of the world.” It was her sister “Who lived the pain of the atrocities erasing Syrians off the map.”
Interwoven in stories that invite reflection and at times confront the reader with harsh and horrifying realities, is beautiful verse, verse that depicts the Syrian soul, verse to savour and revisit time and again.
Stripped to the Bone is a questioning and intelligent book, at once romantic, poignant and passionate. A huge sadness pervades the collection, a sense of loss of culture, of heritage and of all that is meaningful and valuable and important in women’s lives. The reader will take away the thought that what continues to happen in Syria should never have begun. Timely and significant, Stripped to the Bone is a must read for anyone wanting to understand Syria from within, from the perspective of the everyday domestic lives of its women.
I can’t describe what sort of taste was left in my mouth after reading James H Longmore’s …and Then You Die, a novel that marks my entry into the genre of bizarro, where absurdism and satire meet the weird and grotesque. If you find the concept of bizarro off-putting, then …and Then You Die is not a book for you! But you’d be missing out on an extraordinarily visceral cultural experience.
“Following a drunken, hedonistic night out on the town in New Orleans, successful businesswoman and sexual deviant Claire Jepson accidentally soils herself in her expensive car. The resulting excrement comes to life as a terrifying, sardonic fecal spirit and not only dishes out a particularly gruesome death to Claire’s unfaithful, gold digging fiancé, but also thwarts a kidnap/murder plot by her employees and introduces Claire to a world of depraved pleasures beyond even her depraved imagination.
A year later, the errant spirit has spiraled wildly out of control with its insatiable appetite for perverted sex and human flesh and has destroyed both Claire’s business and life.
To her horror, Claire then discovers that the fecal spirit plans to consume her unborn child in order to attain immortality and she must return to the seedy underbelly of the Big Easy where her nightmare began in a heart-pounding race against time to confront the spirit’s creator; a high priest of a most ancient and deadly order, who is the only one who can put a stop to the spirit’s murderous intentions.
A wicked, fast-paced story laced with tongue-in-cheek, dark humor and which is at the same time incredibly erotic and stomach churning; definitely not one to be read whilst eating!”
Take heed of that last comment!
I consumed, no I devoured …and Then You Die, an off-the-wall tale laced with hilarity and an astonishing wit. Longmore does not mince his words, confronting the reader at every turn with the utterly detestable, lifting up the toilet lid on the excrement most prefer to flush away, and bringing it to life in quasi-human form.
…and Then You Die is a sexy, earthy romp of the most deviant order. In protagonist Claire Jepson, a dot com businesswoman, Longmore makes a not so subtle comment on the debauched perversions of the moneyed classes. Through the protagonist’s initial accidental soiling, Longmore brings to life the shit pile. In an extraordinarily detailed expose, …and Then You Die goes on to explore in depth and in breadth every aspect of living shit.
Longmore’s pacing is excellent, the action never wanes, plot twists driving the tale into greater depths of degradation arriving on cue. The narrative contains a solid, four to the floor rhythm, a forward driving pulse that makes …and Then You Die a delight to read. The author’s wit shines from every page, right down to his shit-in-the-bag entity that morphs into an antagonist with a voice like Russell Brand. Ever since Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the main character wakes up to find he is a giant bug, authors have played with the grotesque in the paranormal. Longmore has penned a work of excellence, both in the quality of writing and in his ability to sustain a work that pivots on a single metaphor: shit.
…and Then You Die will appeal to lovers of dark comedy. Be warned! This is not a story for those with refined sensibilities easily offended by in-your-face revulsion. Think kinky and twisted Iain Banks.
Continuing my horror novel reviews, I’m delighted to share my thoughts on J.P. Willie’s Blood in the Woods. Horror fiction comes in many forms and this is a novel with broad appeal far beyond horror fans.
“For Jody, growing up in the late eighties and early nineties in the small Louisiana town of Hammond with his best friend Jack was filled with wonderful childhood memories. Time spent playing in the woods, shooting pellet guns, blowing up mailboxes, fighting at school and upon the dawning of interest in the fairer sex, their carefree lives typical of children with few responsibilities and no worries beyond the next pop-quiz or getting to second base. As they grow older together and experience the joys and pains of life, love, family and friendship, they uncover a grim secret that their home town has kept, and through little more than an innocent, idle curiosity, Jody and Jack stumble upon something horrific in the woods and their lives quickly take a most sinister and dangerous turn as they find themselves hunted by an unspeakable evil…”
Blood in the Woods takes the reader into the back blocks of southern of America, God-abiding territory, and devil worship and dark rituals lie at the heart of the narrative, pulsing a backbeat. The prologue not only sets up the story to come, it demonstrates the longevity of the evil taking place in the woods around Hammond, secret practices that have been going on for decades.
The story opens with the narrator, a veteran recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan, coming to terms with his past. Through the lens of a man examining his childhood, Blood in the Woods is as much a meditation on boyhood and coming of age as it is a tale of terror. The narration is warm, conversational, the narrator self-effacing. Jody and his friend Jack love to run amok, inventing games and having adventures and always in trouble. Yet their escapades are innocent, and deep down they are both good kids, and the reader cannot help but be charmed by them. Willie’s storytelling reminds me of Tobias Wolff’s in This Boy’s Life, especially in the early parts of the novel, and to begin with the narration has the flavour of memoir. Little wonder, as Blood in the Woods is based on truth.
To Willie’s credit, his account of the sorts of evil practices going on in Hammond and its surrounds is measured and balanced. Through the eyes of both Jody’s grandfather, Jerry, and a fast-food cook come Satanist, the author is at pains to explain that not all cults and not all who worship Satan are evil and do bad things. Making this point early in the story, and reinforcing it later, serves to offset prejudice and ignorance, enlightening the reader without labouring the point.
Entertaining and chilling in equal measure, Blood in the Woods is an earthy and believable story, one laced with social realism. The story has soul, it lives and breathes. The horror simmers in the background, popping up now and then over the backyard fence with ever increasing intensity, until it breaks out in a gripping, breathtaking finale.
Without doubt, Blood in the Woods is a novel that deserves a wider audience. Sometimes genre labels shackle a book, especially when many readers are spooked by the very word ‘horror’. If that is you, don’t be put off! You’ll be missing out on a highly entertaining read!
When I decided to review Biddy Trott, a gothic novella by Donna Maria McCarthy, I had no idea what I was in for. I haven’t read gothic fiction in a long while and I certainly didn’t anticipate coming across a work as much subtle as it is absurd, as much vivid as it is dark and dense, a work profoundly evocative and masterful in its execution. An accidental find I made as I walk the path of dark fiction.
It was a discovery that led me to ponder many things. So I invited Donna Maria McCarthy to chat with me about gothic fiction, as I prepare to write my debut in the genre, and am immersed in studying the form. I hope you enjoy reading my questions and Donna’s answers.
I often wonder what leads a writer into the dark side and what compels them to stay there. You’ve been writing gothic literature for many years now. What are your thoughts on the matter? What makes you write dark fiction?
For myself (this is no way a board stroke) I cannot say any one thing compelled me or altered my mind from the age of reason until now. I know many authors have either personal tragedy or adversity fuelling their fires but I cannot say that I have – at least nothing that occurred to me in the first instance as Gothic Horror even from a very young age inspired me. I say Horror but would say that my first love came from Alice in Wonderland, which although a strange observation – I find quite dark and a little Gothic. Obviously life enriches us all and whether it is through pain or pleasure we all become more rounded individuals – and how we pluck inspiration from within or draw on experience is in no way an indication of personal character at least for my mind. I had someone recently ask me how I managed to write such horrors – it was eye opening as she was truly astounded by it – I simply replied that anyone’s imagination on close inspection might be held up to critique and that authors are a brave and honest breed. I’m not sure she liked it but I’m not sure I enjoyed what she inferred.
I believe you are right. I think nothing reveals the whole human mind (and not our best face, the one we like to project on the world) better that dark fiction. In this sense, authors of dark fiction are laying themselves bare. Before I started writing horror, I had no idea how broad the genre is and how many different kinds of horror fiction there are. Gothic fiction is special. It pre-dates the horror genre by centuries. Who are your favourite Gothic authors? Who have been your biggest influences?
Hopefully I don’t sound boring but on leaving school (where early classics were hardly touched upon) I became bewitched by the following – not only their more famous works but by everything they wrote:
Robert Louis Stevenson
There are many more and more contemporary ones too.
An impressive list! I currently live in Australia, where a form of Gothic literature has emerged, one rooted in bleak settings and dark Colonial history. I wonder if Gothic is the right label for such works, and no doubt purists would bristle at the broadening of the definition. Yet if we narrow the term Gothic to stories set in creepy old ancient houses on the edges of cliffs, things start to look stale and old. What do you think makes a work worthy of the title Gothic?
That’s a great point and I’m not sure I can answer it! People have always referred to me as very soulful and Gothic and called my writing this with no prompt. I have to be honest, I never picked up a book because it was Gothic and I never intend to write that way, so the question has befuddled me. It’s incredibly perceptive too as I have been thinking on it recently. If I had to answer I would say that which distinguishes Gothic Horror from other types of Horror is the ability to portray or find beauty in the most gruelling or desperate text. To find terror divine and wish to drink it in as opposed to wanting to turn the page to find a hero or something that will numb you from what you have just read.
An ample answer that has given me much to think about. Just as there are many kinds of horror novels, a diverse range of fiction comes under Gothic umbrella. Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley and the Brontes were the forerunners. Now, Gothic includes everything from Elizabeth Kosova’s The Historian which is comparatively light in tone, to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, both dark and disturbing. Then there are works like your own Biddy Trott, which are darker still. What motivated you to write a work as pithy and dark as Biddy Trott and does it exemplify the sort of Gothic fiction you write?
I am never sure why any one book that I write comes out so dark; I usually get inspired by one word – whether somebody speaks it or I read it in a different way to how I usually would. When I read I want to eat up the page – devour it like forbidden fruits and maybe that’s why I write such full text. The only analogy I can give you is that when I write it’s lustful to me and I never feel so alive – many times there are so many words that I can’t type quickly enough and this infuriates me. I’m always at that eureka point and so eternally frustrated too.
And yes, all my works are of this tone and I believe I can say, always shall be.
You’ve subverted some Gothic stereotypes in Biddy Trott. Particularly the damsel in distress. Do you think modern Gothic is more about subversion than it is mood building?
I love this observation and yes, modern Gothic Horror is edgy and has had to be, and sometimes offending people’s principles or upending their pre conceptions is kind of wonderful – a bit of a feast. However Gothic has always stretched people’s tolerance in my opinion, and this is maybe why I enjoy it so much. In a homogenised world where everything blends so as we are all acceptable to each other, Gothic Horror stands alone offering no excuses, only a demand that you read, enjoy and are touched, even if you are ashamed to say it.
I think Gothic is a porous genre in the sense that many works have one foot in and the other out, and could be classified as thrillers or romance or horror, or plain literary fiction. How does as writer ensure they have both feet in the genre?
Great question though I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer as I am rooted thoroughly in Gothic Horror with no wish or need to venture out. So maybe that is the answer? Maybe feeling 100% at home somewhere stops you straying and makes your writing pure.
I’m embarking on my first Gothic novel. I think I have always had a sense of Gothic in me, and long ago I identified my muse –she who must be obeyed — as a barefooted, wild-haired young woman in a red ball gown. She’s rooted in the nineteenth century. I call her Scarlet and she’s untameable. What is your relationship with your creativity? How does it affect your life?
Isobel, I’m already fascinated! I have a very dark muse, and if Scarlet speaks to you then maybe this is where you have always belonged? You obviously have a passion for the genre and write such beautiful text. My relationship with my creativity is that I am completely dominated by it – don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy that part and it’s what makes me me, but I am in no way master of my imagination. In fact I do believe no one is, for then surely we wouldn’t enjoy it or be transported.
What advice and tips do you have for Gothic novices like me? Should I adhere to the strictures of plot and motif? Should I experiment? Or be subversive?
I would be yourself and loyal to only you. Whatever you create is what was meant to be and if you are impassioned as you so obviously are then what an absolute treat!
Basically in a word – FEAST!
Where are you heading next in your writing?
I’m writing a series of novellas to accompany Biddy Trott. Although these aren’t follow on works. And I’m writing a Gothic Horror novel at the same time.
Sounds like you have your work cut out for the foreseeable. I look forward with relish to reading what comes next. Donna Maria McCarthy, thank you very much for participating in this conversation!
What an incredible start to 2018! I have just signed a publishing deal with Odyssey Books for La Mareta, a cosy mystery crime novel set on Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain. La Mareta is the sequel to The Drago Tree and continues my literary love affair with the islands that captured my heart long ago.
Big thanks to Michelle Lovi, publisher at Odyssey Books, for believing in my work and for travelling to the island with me in 2016 to assist me with the research. We had a fascinating time and we both adored the gorgeous farmhouse we rented in Maguez. The front door opened onto a volcano! That house is one of the primary settings in La Mareta. Many thanks to the owners for restoring it so beautifully.
La Mareta will be out in April. Plenty of time to catch on its predecessor, The Drago Tree, if you haven’t already. Available at –
You pour your heart and soul into a work, slave away for a year, maybe two, and if you are very lucky, a publisher sees merit in it. Then you hope that readers will as well. Sometimes your book finds its way into the hands of the perfect reader. This is one of those times. I am so grateful to receive this review of A Perfect Square.
“When pianist Ginny Smith moves back to her mother’s house in Sassafras after her breakup with the degenerate Garth, synaesthetic and eccentric artist Harriet Brassington-Smythe is beside herself and contrives a creative collaboration to lift her daughter’s spirits: an exhibition of paintings and songs. Ginny reluctantly agrees.
Mother and daughter struggle to agree on the elements of the collaborative effort, and as Ginny tries to prise the truth of her father’s disappearance from a tight-lipped Harriet, both are launched into their own inner worlds of dreams, speculations and remembering.
Meanwhile, another mother and artist, Judith, alone in a house on the moors, reflects on her own troubled past and that of her wayward daughter, Madeleine.
Set amid the fern glades and towering forests of the Dandenong ranges east of Melbourne, and on England’s Devon moors, A Perfect Square is a work of remarkable depth and insight.”
Some books haunt you. You rarely know this will happen when you are reading them – the sensation creeps up on you after the last page. With A Perfect Square there was a moment as I read where my heart dropped and I knew this book would stay with me. It is the story of two mother-daughter relationships, one in Australia and one in England. The parallels and connections are unveiled slowly, like a spider’s web slowly but artfully woven. Blackthorn uses words beautifully to create settings and lives so real that I felt I was in the room, a silent and at times uncomfortable observer.
Harriet is a menopausal artist whose daughter, Ginny, returns home after a relationship breakup. Her decision to challenge Ginny to co-create an exhibition of art and music in order to shake her out of her depression has unforeseen consequences for both of them. At the same time Ginny’s quest to find her father unlocks secrets that might have been better left in the shadows. On the other side of the world, Judith struggles with her relationship with her daughter Madeleine, as she faces her own creative demons.
On another level A Perfect Square is an exploration of the truth and meaning of art and the nature of creativity. Blackthorn is an exceptionally skilful writer, not only at the technical level (characterisation, description, structure and so on) but at the thematic level. As she writes about the power of art, she evokes a range of emotional responses in the reader. The beautiful language in the book inspired me to create, while at one point I felt heart pounding anxiety and at the end, when I realised how few pages were left, I felt bereft because I didn’t want to leave the characters whose lives I had become absorbed in. The descriptions of art and the creative process are a reminder that there is much more below the surface than we often notice.
I don’t keep many books any more because I’ve run out of shelf space, but this is one that I will keep and return to. A marvellous work. (you can find Rachel here http://www.rachel-nightingale.info/
I have a lifelong passion for all the Arts, and especially visual art. I like to buy artworks when I can afford them, and I often include art and artists in my writing. So it was no stretch on my part to decide to run a series of artist spotlights. Here’s my first!
I’m delighted to welcome Gabrielle Powell onto my blog. Gabrielle lives on the far south coast of New South Wales, Australia. I’ve long been in admiration of her work and also her values and vision. I’ve often wondered what makes an artist tick, so I asked Gabrielle some questions.
What was the initial spark that turned you to pursue the creative arts? What drives you to keep going?
I grew up in a creative family where things were made all the time. It was a gift and skill to be able to make things with your hands. There didn’t seem another option For me but to follow the arts and go to art school and gain a degree in Visual Arts. Little did I know that I also had other skills! I guess with the arts – once an artist always an artist – sometimes I don’t make anything but there is always a pull back – a yearning to create. Making things is soothing, contemplative, resolving issues as you go and provides a unique space to just be you and zone out!
Do you have a preferred medium?
I have tried everything! Started with weaving and ceramics then leather work and printmaking, stained glass and drawing – I like variety!! Basket making and ceramics are favourites at the moment.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
I guess I have always had a love for indigenous arts and find their simple practice and skill inspiring. It all started when I was about 15 and a friend gave me a gourd from Africa – she was actually born in Malawi as I found out when I travelled there! I have pursued connections with indigenous people and their culture all my life as I find it very interesting and I want to know more.
I am also passionate about recycling others’ waste at the moment. Making up-cycled unique things. I’ve always loved second-hand things and going to the tip! So now I use waste to create things.
Do you have a purpose behind your creations?
Most of my work is for a purpose – my creations are useful. After spending 4 years at art school creating “art” pieces I just want my work to be useful and practical. I want my creations to be enjoyed and hopefully worn out! Most of my pieces are strong sturdy and built to last!!!
You’ve travelled a lot. How have your journeys affected your art?
Travel brings a whole new perspective to life so it also changes what and how you make things. I guess I bring home new techniques and ideas and from Africa colour! Everything I take in comes out in my work even if it’s not deliberate. I just made some colourful design plates which surprisingly had an African feel !
I know you went to Malawi in 2017. What drew you there and what did you take home with you at the end?
I wanted to try something different and get out of Bega. I found People of the Sun on line. They were taking on interns and I had long service leave so I jumped in and emailed them. They were keen to have me support the artisans and assist with quality control and packing working alongside the artisans and preparing a manual. I gained a lot on a personal level – new connections, new experiences, new ideas and the gift of colour in such a dry hard landscape was awesome. Prior to this I used a very limited colour palette.
Will you go back?
I would love to go back for sure. I have made connections there and it would be a different experience if was able to go back. I am open to any possibilities and have continued having conversations with the owner and manager.
What are you working on now?
I have just completed an exhibition at spiral gallery Fired+Wired with Daniel Lafferty. So back to making again. I am making some more design plates. I have booked in for a display at the Lazy Lizard Gallery, Cobargo, New South Wales, in April school holidays so some plates for that exhibition might be good.
What does the future hold? Any new projects in the pipeline?
I have quite a few open doors at the moment – not sure which direction I want to go.. I am currently working on an arts health project with south east arts. This is a very creative and inspiring 12 month position bringing art to health environments.
So I’m working until mid-year and then leaving things open to see where my path leads – believing things happen to me for a reason and a purpose. Looking forward to 2018 to see what unfolds. And of course always Saving for more travel!
Gabrielle, thanks so much for chatting!
The Far South Coast is lucky to have Gabrielle Powell living in their midst. But if you like her work, fear not, for she is also exceptionally good at wrapping her wares for posting!