Book Review: The Grass Below by Mark Mayes

Having read and enjoyed another of Mark Mayes’ novels, The Blue Box, I expected The Grass Below to come alive with original and stylish prose and to contain an element of fantasy or magic. But whilst the former is true, his latest novel is filled with a gritty and visceral realism that at times left me breathless.

The book tracks the story of Alex Wright, a timid dreamer of a boy raised in lower-middle class suburbia in the 70s. Mayes’ observations of the times are scarily accurate and will certainly raise a knowing smile of familiarity for readers of a certain age (me being one of them).

We soon learn that young Alex spends his time with a local gang of lads, but that he is often the butt of the joke due to being overweight and overtly shy. From the outset I felt that Alex was tolerated rather than embraced by the other boys. He is also bullied mercilessly by an older boy from a local thuggish family – and it is this sense of victimisation that forms one of the book’s overarching themes: Alex’s quest for truth and justice as a middle-aged man, single, childless and with no real career to speak of. This is the story of the worm that turned as Alex goes ‘home’ to right the wrongs of the past and to free himself of the guilt and shame and the ‘loser’ status that has always followed him.

The balance of the action is fifty-fifty between Alex the boy and Alex the man, and although there’s real darkness in the story, its telling is so vivid that – as in life – there are flashes of hilarity, too. For instance, an all-night drunken bender with the ‘old gang’ when Alex returns home will have you reading through your fingers with fascination and discomfort.

Throughout, there’s real tension and pace; I had a terrible sense of dread, whilst willing Alex on to do whatever was necessary to right the wrongs of the past. The ending is shocking and very satisfying and kept me guessing to the bitter end. The writing is immaculate and veers between anecdotal reminiscence to stream of consciousness chaos as Alex falls deeper down the rabbit hole in his search for the truth.

Overall The Grass Below is a brilliant follow up to Mark Mayes’ debut – and I personally preferred it.

 

Book Review: The Fish That Climbed A Tree by Kevin Ansbro

Where to start with the literary feast that is The Fish That Climbed a Tree? I was attracted by the reviews but wasn’t sure the book would be for me as (generally) I like to keep it real. BUT – and here’s the clever part – this fantastical tale of an orphan’s journey from young boy to adulthood was utterly believable and the characters became so real to me that I was wholly invested in them and their respective plights from the get-go.

Ansbro sets out his stall immediately, opening on the grisly murder of the Reverend Ulysses Drummond and his fragrant, butterfly-magnet wife, Florence. The pair are killed by grotesque assassins who are the stuff of nightmares and I found them utterly terrifying; yet somehow, the author manages to inject wit and humour into even the bleakest of scenes.

The couple are survived by their ten-year-old son, Henry, an awkward and high-functioning child, who gets shipped off to his grandparents’ and sent away to school. We then chart Henry’s progress as he encounters a cast of beguiling characters. Look out for benign Bertie, the loathsome Sebastian (whom readers will love to hate), the lubricious Amber and doting father-figure/landlord, Mr O’Connor.

Throughout, the violence is shocking but never gratuitous, driving the plot at a cracking pace and ensuring that the reader is rooting for Henry every step of the way. The Magical Realism aspect arises from Ulysses and his celestial friends (see entertaining cameos by Voltaire and Darwin) as he follows his son’s journey, unable to rest or play with the other angels until his son is safe.

All the characters fascinate, but it was Henry who stole my heart and I found the ending very satisfying. I loved the author’s narrative style; rich in metaphors and similes – and the way in which he wove together the astral plane of the spirit world with the earthly land of the living.

To summarise, Kevin Ansbro’s clever and multi layered third novel is a joy from first to last page. The Fish That Climbed a Tree may have been my first foray into Magical Realism, but I doubt it will be my last.

Out now on Amazon in Paperback & Kindle:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fish-That-Climbed-Tree/dp/1912014327