Book Reviews: Cult Bazaar, Or Of Esther And Malachi

August 7, 2020

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Cult Sister by Lesley Smailes

Forward by Marcia Barrett with Lloyd Bradley

The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price

Esther, Royal Beauty by Angela Hunt

Book Of Malachi by Tracey Farren


Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Cult Sister tells the story of one such time. In 1983, Lesley Smailes takes a gap year after school in Port Elizabeth and travels to America. She has a strong spiritual inclination and joins the Evangelist Cult. For ten years, she is a member of this secretive group, following an interpretation of the Scriptures that isolates them from society, worldly affairs and friendships outside the cult. The members live by faith alone under the strict and unforgiving control of leader Brother Evangelist. Lesley gets married, has three children, lives in camps and dilapidated houses, eats food collected from dumpsters and hitchhikes across in the United States.  Coming home to PE, she divorces her husband and starts living a “normal” life. Has she found spiritual enrichment? Were these wasted or even damaging years? Lesley does not disclose her feelings clearly, but she is now a working mother, doing a job and enjoying a happy family life. Welcome back Lesley, and thanks for sharing these ten years with us, and telling us about strange and distorted religious sentiments. – DS


Forward is the autobiography of Marcia Barrett, subtitled My Life With and Without Boney M. This is not a book I looked forward to reading, being about pop music and showbiz. However, it is far more than just the razzmatazz of a dancer and singer who makes good. It is the story of a young girl who migrated from Jamaica to London at the age of 13 to be with her mother, who made her way through school and clerical employment and into the entertainment field through her own ability, gumption and vision. The first chapters are principally about her life with Boney M, which was a happy and fulfilling time, with plenty of camaraderie, success and rewards. It is a readable account, but differs little from the experiences of other entertainers. The book came alive for me with her description of her childhood on the outskirts of Kingston. She gives us a vivid and frank account of those days, living in family communities and moving often, always because of poverty. Her father was an occasional figure in her life. Her mother left early for London. From these circumstances emerges an amazing girl, a survivor. London held no terrors for the girl. Teachers at her secondary school in Clapham recognised her abilities and leadership skills, but sadly her academic career came to an end at age 16 when she became a mother, a story which is told with frankness and without rancour. Again, she makes her way forward, qualifying at secretarial college and temping, but with an eye to something more. She broke into entertainment as a dancer, but seized the opportunity to become a vocalist.  Guts and talent took her into the mainstream and into Boney M. At age 26, she married Marcus, a musician. Their story is strong and compelling. They have faced multiple challenges, the greatest of which is recurrent cancer. Losing their home in the United States, they ultimately settle in Berlin. The book is a good read, even if the world depicted is one foreign to me. – RH


Stephen King’s output is prodigious – novels, novellas and short stories. The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams is a collection of the latter, a format that King has, to some degree, helped define with decades’ worth of award-winning tales under his belt and in his fans’ collections. Ironically, that makes it easy to take the skill and imagination in some of these stories for granted. But that complacency is alleviated by both the range of King’s ideas here – carnivorous cars, the power of the written word (to kill or to create parallel universes), a truly evil child and much more besides – and the introductions to each story from the author that give an insight into his individual process but also into the way a writer who is constantly working makes every aspect of his life part of his research. Not every story is of equal quality, but there is constant ingenuity (and violence, and darkness, and humour) and occasional profundity. In terms of single volumes, there is better work from King elsewhere, but this is definitely worth a read.


Whether you are a seasoned writer or just starting out, On Editing is a very informative book. Corner-Bryant is the founder of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, an organisation that offers a bespoke service to novelists and writers, both novices or those already published. Kathryn Price works closely with authors at all stages of the writing process in her role as Cornerstones editor-in-chief. The book consists of eight chapters on writing and two on submitting your novel. It starts with a chapter on getting started, giving some good ideas of being clear where you are going and knowing your genre. It also guides you on staying focused. The most important character in a novel is the protagonist.  The second is the bad guy, the antagonist, and the here are helpful hints about keeping each in focus and building the minor characters round them. The authors then discuss the viewpoint: do you want to write it in the first or the third person? They then get on to discussing how you make brilliant beginnings and “cracking” conclusions. Many possible purchasers read the first page of a novel before deciding whether or not to expend the money. There is then a lengthy chapter on dialogue and bringing your story to life. The authors give several descriptions of comparative dialogue, pointing out various errors. They then discuss using swearing and slang, showing that there are right ways and wrong ways of including these types of language. In the last two chapters on writing, the authors talk about practicalities of writing and also how to “show, not tell.” Finally, the authors deal with the practical aspects of submitting your novel, giving on approaching publishers and agents. As a fairly new and unpublished writer, l found this book immensely helpful and l would recommend it highly to any writers. – MH


Every year at Purim, the moving story of Esther is retold and celebrated, in probably the most fun of all the Jewish holidays. However, as with all tales that we hear often, familiarity frequently robs us of the power and risk at play within the situation that is being commemorated. In Esther, Royal Beauty, Hunt does an outstanding job of depicting Persia and particularly the city of Susa in the time of Xerxes I, also known as Ahasuerus. She brings to life the courts and palaces, deftly interweaving the history of this complex ruler, whose character seems at times so diverse that it is difficult to integrate. She is infinitesimally faithful to the Biblical narrative, as well as providing historical richness through trusted sources such as Herodotus. Through the dual narrative of Hadessa and Harbonah, the eunuch who serves the King Xerxes, one is swept up in the drama of a girl,  probably in her early teens, who is claimed and then crowned by a king almost certainly more than double her age, who then, as Queen Esther, must navigate her way through the subtleties and intrigues of palace life, and finally risk her life to try and use her position of influence to save her people, the Jews. The first in the Dangerous Beauty series, this book delivers on all fronts and will not disappoint. – KD


I was a bit wary of Book Of Malachi after Paige Nick – an acclaimed author herself, and admin of the Facebook page The Good Book Appreciation Society – wrote that she found the story so harrowing that she couldn’t get past page 50. On the other hand, though, I’d read a number of reviews commenting on the sheer brilliance and originality of the writing. I think both appraisals are accurate and fair. The storyline doesn’t sit easily– Malachi is a mute, his tongue cut out during genocidal violence that left everyone else in his village dead. So far, so uncomfortable. Now throw in Malachi’s new workplace, on board an oil rig, its location kept secret to hide the clandestine activities on board: implanting stem cells within criminals to grow new organs for deserving recipients. If you’re not feeling queasy yet, imagine what it would be like to cut the nails of Charles Manson or Idi Amin. Now, imagine that these people, with whom you’re forced to share an unbearable intimacy, are kept naked and in cages, fed through a tube and generally treated like animals. Serves them right, you might think – until you hear their stories and the context behind their actions. It’s not long before Malachi is ripped apart by the conflicting emotions he feels; emotions made more complex still by events in his own past and what he considers his culpability. As the reader, you’re sucked into these complexities, too – and this makes for still more discomfort. This is precisely why The Book of Malachi is compulsive reading. It’s the kind of book where you have to tease what you know intellectually from what you feel in your heart, so that your interaction with, and reaction to, the story becomes as engaging as the story itself. Add to that Tracey Farren’s cinematic writing style (it’s not enough that you get to read about the atrocities committed on board the oil rig; they are so vividly described that it feels as though you’re standing in front of the human subjects) and you have a book that probably best avoided until all your major deadlines are over and you have long, unbroken hours to immerse yourself in this murky world. – LW

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