Jess Wells is an enchantress who weaves words into a magical spell of a book that completely charmed me into believing every larger than life character and each magically real event.
There is something musical, even symphonic in the way Wells can sustain so many interwoven narratives from the first thematic opening phrases on inevitably towards the marvellous conclusion. Her writing has a rhythmic, singing quality. She can deftly sustain luxurious sentences, paragraphs and chapters; and also capture a human frailty or foible in a short, mordant turn of phrase.
Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar is a celebration of many wonderful women. The giantess Jaguar Paloma and her devastatingly beautiful friend Orietta are emblematic of contrasting aspects of being a woman. Jaguar evolves into a goddess who leads, inspires and nurtures an incongruous collection women damaged by men, religion, and war, helping them find self-confidence and joy together, even as their fortunes rise, fall and indomitably rise again. Orietta wrestles with the burden of her beauty, and the curse of being smarter than the men who would dominate her. And then there are the other marvellous characters: the tiny Hummingbird Jade and her tiny daughter Jewel, Cosimo who falls for her, the Drunken Monk and Agnes the (fallen) Nun, twins, brides, forgers, conmen, mule-skinners, Romani, a banker … In the end, despite all that has marked them, the female (and some of the male) characters, are triumphant.
If you hear the music in Keats’ words in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or if you delight in the lilting Welsh voice of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”, if the rhythms and rimes of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” sing in your memory, if you read Ursula LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” with your ears, then you will relish the richness of Jess Wells’ writing.
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Hellfire Corner, Alaric Bond’s latest nautical adventure, departs the Age of Fighting Sail where his other 13 novels are set and instead goes aboard MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) and MGBs (Motor Gun Boats) of the Coastal Forces in the English Channel during WWII. MGBs were made of wood and powered by two or three massive petrol-drinking internal combustion engines. The boats were lightly armed with half-inch Vickers and 20mm Oerlikons and their wooden hulls had no armour whatsoever.
Fast but vulnerable, MTBs and MGBs were in the main manned by men with little sea time or experience prior to the outbreak of war. Bond accurately depicts the struggle to fight both the elements and the enemy, as well as the constant need to maintain and repair the boats and their hard-pressed engines. He accurately catches the “business as usual” heroism of such men who simply got on with their dangerous and at times near suicidal jobs. Unlike novels based in the age of Nelson, these people talk like us, and Bond catches their voices.
Where the historic great sea battles wounded or killed men in horrific numbers, this Channel war at sea is intimate. Bond excels in generating suspense by depicting the randomness of combat, in which one man may live when another man beside him is killed or maimed. In Hellfire Corner, the eight men aboard MGB 95 are all fully realized characters. We feel we know the men because they are not faceless, nameless crew.
When not on sorties that typically lasted less than 24 hours, men in the Coastal Forces during WWII lived ashore in barracks, hotels or homes that were often under cannon fire from the German guns across the Channel. Their shore lives are therefore much more a part of Bond’s Hellfire Corner than are women characters in novels about the 18th Century. We meet members of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), who served ashore in communications and the detection of enemy ships and planes.
There is no single hero in Hellfire Corner, waiting to appear in a sequel. Instead, we are immersed in the unpredictability of war, where success and survival can be earned, but are always partly a matter of chance.