Category Archives: Atlantic Books

Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas

I have ummed and ahhed for quite some time about so much this week I feel a bit worn out. The news from Orlando has been horrific and I didn’t know if I should write anything and then every time I tried to it felt slightly trite, preachy or just wrong.  Yet to say nothing as a member of the LGBT community also felt wrong. I then realised that a book I had been planning on sharing my thoughts on, Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods, unintentionally embodies all my feelings about everything that is going on in the world right now (including the awful murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the UK today) that feels bonkers, saddening, anger inducing, hypo critic, dark, bigoted and wicked with the world. It looks at them and unflinchingly points out how vile and stupid these views are; how awful people can be and asks us to reflect and learn from that. In doing so it discusses things that are not for the faint hearted and this review will be too, you have been warned.

9781782397274

Atlantic Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 330 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties. She said Best’s penis was thicker, the bigger one, but that McCartney was the more beautiful. ‘Paul’s cock was elegant,’ she liked to say.

I did pre-warn you that Christos Tsiolkas’ writing can be pretty full on, that taken from the story The Hair of the Dog, so you can’t be forgiven for being shocked. Not that you would be that shocked if you have read any of his novels for which this is often part of the course. You can be forgiven for giggling though because, as is the case with many of the stories within Merciless Gods, the can be titillating but there is always a much darker and more daunting stink in the tail of the tale, quite literally.

In the fifteen tales that form Merciless Gods we look at revenge, homophobia, racism, old age, family feuds, love as it blossoms, love turning sour, death, grief, power, weakness and so much more. We also look at how men respond around other men, which I could write about at some length however Tsiolkas’ has his most heightened power when he is talking about injustice, prejudice or bigotry. One of the stories that depicts this most powerfully is in Sticks, Stones; where a mother hears her own son say something horrific to a girl in his school year who has learning disabilities. The shame, disgust and rage that flow within her at her own son and his words surprise her and then almost take control of her.

In fact rage, and what we do with that emotion, is quite common in these stories from moments like that to seemingly insignificant arguments between a couple holidaying in NYC, in the aptly titled Tourists, as they wander around a gallery/museum which lingers and festers into something much greater. Tsiolkas wants to try and understand fear and rage and why they cause people to act in some of the ways they do (which reminds me of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, another fantastic and important book propelled by fury) from the stupid to the utterly contemptible.

The title tale of the collection looks at this in a very clever way. In Merciless Gods a group of friends after a night of solid drinking decide to play a game. Instead of truth or dare this group of friends decide to share their best revenge stories, leading to a dreadful case of competition but also revealing some of the more sinister sides of the people that the others think they know, one becoming so shocking and awful (and described so gleefully) the group can never be the same again. A no holds barred look at how unhealthy revenge and grudges can be, which is also looked at in The Disco at the End of Communism where a brother realises to late he should have forgiven and forgotten much sooner than he did.

‘I’m really sorry for your loss.’
It was the expected phrase, it came from a stranger, but she said it with unforced sincerity and they were the first words since he’d heard of Leo’s death that brought home the finality of the event. His brother was no more. From now on there would only be past.

Before I make this all sound too morbid or relentless (I would recommend reading this collection a tale at a time every so often) there is lightness in here too. Saturn Return is a wonderful story of acceptance and embracing difference between a gay man and his father, the latter who is at the end of his life. See, that sounds really sad but it is so full of hope and beautiful you’ll be weeping for both reasons. That said Tsiolkas isn’t here to bring unadulterated joy to your life, you can get some hope and the occasional giggle (appropriate or not) from the text but there is a statement and a point to me made. You have a tale like Saturn Return and then you go to the opposite end of the spectrum again with Jessica Lange in Frances which looks at the terrible ways in which internal homophobia can eat away at someone who is themselves gay. This also leads to the homophobia in general, several of these tales look at that yet one particular story in this collection embodies it and thoroughly whacks you with the impact of it on both parties.

The story that has stayed with me for quite some time and now seems all the more pertinent is Porn #1, which is the first in three stories which feature porn in some way, often opposing the message in the previous one which I found fascinating. Anyway. In this story, after the death of her estranged son, a mother discovers that he starred in gay porn. This creates a huge set of dilemmas for her. There is the fact she wants to see her son alive again, admittedly in a weird way. There is the fact that she cannot believe that her son would really do this. Then there is the bigger part of it, the internalised homophobia within herself; the stereotypes she has of gay men and how it conflicts with the love of a child she gave birth to. Potent, complicated and thought provoking indeed.

Why does this feel so pertinent with regards to Orlando? No I do not think this has happened since and no I am not saying that any of those sadly lost in such a tragedy had homophobic parents. To me the mother symbolises both society and some thoughts towards LGBT people, after all this was a homophobic attack (as well as an act of terrorism, I don’t want to get into the debate on this one – suffice to say I believe an act of terrorism is anything that creates terror and fear in people which this has) and the root of homophobia is, somewhat ironically, the fear of the unknown or the different. It’s all about the sex bit really and the love bit which incites so much hate and I think this one paragraph looks at this with unflinching brilliance. I hope you would agree?

When she returned to her armchair, the same monotonous exertions were taking place. Her disgust had disappeared. She had expected that she would find the images foul, not necessarily because they were pornographic, but because they depicted sex between men. Yes, the actors had seemed effeminate and ridiculous when they were kissing or performing oral sex on one another. But now that the older man was sodomising the younger one, frowning in concentration as he pounded away at the prostrate body spread over the desk, it seemed all too familiar. It was shockingly normal.

I think I will end on that note. I know I haven’t spoken about all of the fifteen stories; I just wanted to concentrate on some in light of what has been happening. Suffice to say that Merciless Gods is a collection designed to unsettle you with its overall reality in some way in each and every story. Sometimes we need fiction like this. Stories and books that rattle and shake us, shocking us out of our pacificity and make us act. Not to the extremity of inciting hate, which is kind of the butt of the jokes in the story, but to stand up to hatred, embrace what is different and try to understand and welcome it. That is what the power of amazing fiction can do, often all the more so when it is uncomfortable and confronting. Thank goodness then for authors like Christos Tsiolkas who want to shake us out of our reading routines now and again, forcing us to look at what’s going on rather than escaping from it through the power of such concentrated prose.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2016, Christos Tsiolkas, Review, Short Stories

Rounding Up The Reviews #4; A Bumper Crop of Book Reviews Before 2014 Ends

So in an effort to combat my blog OCD panic, I like to have reviewed everything I have read in a year and start a year a fresh, and a backlog of reviews I thought I’d do a round up of some of the books – there are more to come – that I have read and wanted to share thoughts with you about – be they good, bad or indifferent. So no waffle, just some quick(ish) book reviews today…

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1938 (2000 edition), fiction, 240 pages, bought by my good self

I like Evelyn Waugh a lot and had heard marvellous things about Scoop from all the right people, so it had been on my ‘to read at some point’ list for quite some time when Rob chose it as a classic choice for Hear Read This! a few months ago. Sadly I really, really, really didn’t like it. The tale is one of mistaken identity as William Boot, who usually writes about things such as badgers and crested grebes, is sent in place of another journalist named Boot to the African state of Ishmaelia where he is to report for The Beat on a ‘very promising little war’.

By rights this book should have been completely up my street, a satire on the industry that I worked for (and hasn’t changed) for quite some time by an author I loved. I just found it deeply dated, rather boring, nothing new and actually a little bit (to put it mildly, I hate the excuse ‘of it’s time’) racist frankly. There were a few moments that I almost enjoyed but generally I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to be over. You can hear my thoughts along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1984 (1998 edition), fiction, 368 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

I have an interesting relationship with Carter’s writing, I either think it is utterly magical and wonderful or I just think it is rather bonkers verging on silly. Sophie Fevvers is famous around the world for supposedly being either part swan, with her amazing wings, or an utter fraud. Jack Waltzer, journalist, goes to interview her and find out not realising he is about to follow Sophie on quite the journey between nineteenth-century London, St Petersberg and Siberia. I found Nights at the Circus (again another book I have been meaning to read for ages and then my old book group chose it) to be a mixture of the two the whole way through, a romp I enjoyed yet occasionally didn’t get or felt went a bit too far magically and plot wise – what was Carter on?

Overall I enjoyed it immensely for its camp bonkers moments and gothic turns and eventually succumbed to its madness. Yet having finished it, I realised I didn’t have that much to say about it, I just enjoyed it overall which makes it sound more of a damp squib than I mean it to. I felt it should be a collection of short stories about Sophie rather than an adventure with her, if that makes sense? I think I wanted something like her fairy tales and didn’t get it; maybe I need to read it again?

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1939 (2000 edition), memoir, 144 pages, borrowed from the library

Like me, you may not know Saint-Exupery for anything other than The Little Prince and not for his stories, both fiction and none, of pilots and airborne adventures. Wind Sand and Stars is a nonfiction set of accounts of some of his flights from when he started in 1926 until and just passed the time in 1936 when he crashed in the desert and somehow survived. I have to say the idea of a book about planes excites me about as much, well maybe a bit more, as a book about boats BUT having loved Julian Barnes Levels of Life and its tales of ballooning and grief I was up for something new.

On one level, pun not intended, Wind Sand and Stars is a tale of one man and his first exciting, and often death defying, trips into the air. Now I don’t like flying but I could completely understand, through his writing, how Antoine became addicted. The descriptions of the freedom and the awe it gives is rather contagious. I also found the story of the crash to be a genuinely terrifying then thrilling reading experience. Yes, there’s a but coming. The problem with the book is that it takes on this almost meta meets philosophical tone which becomes rather preachy/smug and a bit annoying, so apart from the beginning and the drama I found the book a bit ‘meh’. I wanted to like it more, honest. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

Faber & Faber, paperback, 1975 (2014 edition), short stories, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I received all of Aickman’s reissued collections unsolicited from Faber & Faber earlier in the year and thought ‘ooh these sound weird and wonderful’ and so thought they would be interesting to bring to the table for a classic choice on Hear Read This! (I know most of the books we do on there end up in round up review posts) as something different. As you will see in the next week or so 2014 has been the year of rediscovering the short story for me and so it ticked that box too being a collection of self proclaimed ‘strange stories’.

Well strange indeed they are but almost too strange. I like a ghost story, a horror story, urban legend, twisted fairy tale or just piece of bizarreness if it has a point/plot/thrill to it. All Aickman’s tales in this collection rather let me down, even the ones I rather loved like the almost-but-not-quite brilliant The Hospice, because the endings all let them down. Sadly in actuality sometimes the bonkers premise/middle (The Real Road to the Church, Niemandswasser, The Clockwatcher) just didn’t make sense and lacked punch. I felt like Aickman wanted to always be more clever, tricksy or just weird than the reader but in a way that made him feel better and doesn’t actually do anything for the reader. Each tale left me feeling cheated. Gav said this is the weird genre, I think maybe it is just not the genre for me. Glad I can say I have read them, unsure if I will read anymore unless one of you convinces me. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

Gallic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I love Jean Teule’s writing and so chose The Poisoning Angel for Hear Read This! as I thought a darkly funny book in translation would be something different. Like the brilliant, but very dark and gory Eat Him If You Like, this is based on a true story – the case of Helene Jegado who became one of the most notorious prisoners of her time and indeed in French history, we follow her journey from the time she poisons her mother…

Unlike Rob, Kate and Gavin, I really enjoyed this book. I laughed the whole way through, which I think you are meant to do, as Helene just wanders around the countryside for a few decades killing people off, not being caught by the police and no one thinking the better or inviting her in. That isn’t a complete spoiler, you know that from the blurb. There isn’t masses more to say about the book other than give it a whirl! You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

Blue Door Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 624 pages, from my own personal TBR

I read this while I was off in the authors; there are actually two of them, homeland of Sweden between two of the Camilla Lackberg novels – I truly was on a cold crime binge. It is a hard book to explain so I am stealing the blurb “Detective Inspector Joona Linna is faced with a boy who witnessed the gruesome murder of his family. He’s suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and is comatose with shock. Linna’s running out of time. The killer’s on the run and, seemingly, there are no clues. Desperate for information, Linna enlists disgraced specialist Dr Erik Maria Bark, a hypnotist who vowed never to practice again. As the hypnosis begins, a long and terrifying chain of events unfurls with reverberations far beyond Linna’s case.” This sounded just my kind of thing.

Now it is quite a doorstopper but as it started I was racing through the book. A creepy child, a scary serial killer, some hypnotism what wasn’t to love? Then I started to get, not bored exactly, a little jaded with it. You see I love a twisty book like Gone Girl or the even better (seriously) Alex and this felt like one of those initially, in fact more like Alex as it’s really quite nasty. Then the twists started to get too much, I started to get confused and lose belief in the story as I went on. I think the best crime authors have the generosity to make the reader feel clever and twist them at just the right times whilst spinning a true spiders web, this began to feel a bit like the authors were being too clever – Aickman syndrome, see above. It was a page turner, it was clever, it was twisty… It just didn’t quite get me along for the whole whirlwind ride.

Orfeo – Richard Powers

Atlantic Books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have left my thoughts on this one till last as it is the only book in this selection I didn’t finish and actually threw at a wall. I admit it started off very, very well. I liked the idea of a lonely composer calling the police when his dog dies, them discovering his home made science lab and thinking he might be a terrorist. A bit farfetched maybe, but fun. Then the writing bowled me over, I have never seen music written about so brilliantly.

The notes float and rise. They turn speech as pointless as a radio ventriloquist. Light and darkness splash over Peter at each chord change, thrill with no middleman. The pitches topple forward; they fall beat by beat into their followers, obeying an inner logic, dark and beautiful.
Another milky, troubled chord twists the boy’s belly. Several promising paths lead forward into unknown notes. But of all possible branches, the melody goes strange. One surprise leap prickles Peter’s skin. Welts bloom on his forearms. His tiny manhood stiffens with inchoate desire.
The drunken angel band sets out on a harder song. These new chords are like the woods on the hill near Peter’s grandmother’s, where his father once took them sledding. Step by step the singers stumble forward in a thicket of tangled harmonies.

So why did I throw it at the wall? Two reasons. Firstly, the writing about music is incredible… the first, second and even possibly the third time. Powers soon becomes a one trick pony as he carts this trick out over and over and over, there is almost a lyrical comparative sentence in every paragraph at one point. Clever becomes too clever and smug a theme with some of this selection of books! Secondly, remember I mentioned the farcical element, again went too far and made the story of Peter’s past seem all at odds with itself and slightly clichéd and done before. You can hear my thoughts in more detail along with Kate, Rob and Gavin here.

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So there we are the last round up of the year, well if you exclude a small catch up of books I don’t want to spoil which I will post in the next week or so! Have you read any of these books? If so what did you think of them? Would you recommend any other books by these authors?

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Filed under Angela Carter, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Atlantic Books, Blue Door Books, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Faber & Faber, Gallic Books, Lars Kepler, Penguin Classics, Review, Richard Powers, Robert Aickman, Rounding Up The Reviews, Vintage Classics

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Often it can be that the best books are those which are so well written and immersive that even though you think you might not like the book for its subject matter you enjoy it regardless, sometimes even wanting to know all about the subject matter that might have at some point made you roll your eyes. Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth book Barracuda is one such book. I am not really interested in sports and the idea of a book about any sport even swimming, despite having an almost-niece who is training to future Olympic swimming standards, turns me off. Yet for all 500 plus pages of Barracuda I was completely hooked and compelled along, so much so I ended up reading it in three or four sittings.

Atlantic Books, 2014, trade paperback, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

An initial description of Barracuda could simply be that it is a tale of an adolescent, Danny Kelly, who becomes one of the best swimmers in Australia (winning every race going and destined for the Sydney Olympics 2000) until suddenly he doesn’t. Once no longer the best so follows a very public fall from grace and the breakdown of Danny and who he believes he is which changes his life completely and Barracuda follows how he accepts this, or not as the case maybe. Failure isn’t an option until it becomes a reality. Yet Barracuda is so much more than that. It is a book about acceptance, pressure, class and I think at its heart belonging within your country, your family but most of all belonging within yourself.

He was kicking. Barracuda. Breathing in. Fierce. The water parted for him. Barracuda. Breathing out. Fast. The water shifted for him. He breathed in. Barracuda. The water obeyed him. Dangerous. He breathed out.

Tsiolkas does four pretty bloody marvellous things which make this such a compelling novel as we read on.  Firstly, he has created an incredibly interesting, complex and often unlikeable but very readable character in Danny Kelly and as importantly those around him and their relationships with him. Secondly he has constructed a book with a mystery at its heart, as we know early on that Danny has been to jail and left Australia for Scotland, which we are tantalised by and dreading and feel the need to work out the nature of. (Unlike several blogs/broadsheet reviews I am not going to give away this mystery/event.) This is added to by the structure of the book, which flits about between a narrative from the past and a narrative further in the future (pre-awful event and post-awful event if you will), and the visceral prose which are the third master stroke. The fourth is that this is also a novel exposes the, often rather ugly, underbelly of a country and the walks of life who inhabit it be they poor; like the Kelly’s, or rich; like the people who also inhabit Cunt’s College where Danny has been given a scholarship to for his gift. It is really rather epic in its scope, though as I mentioned the 500 pages rush by.

As I mentioned I found Danny incredibly fascinating and disturbing to read, yet as you read on you may not empathise with Danny but you do get an understanding of him and the fact really he is a lost person in society, almost literally a fish out of water. He comes from a working class immigrant background, yet he is thrown into the world of the ‘golden boys and girls’ and their social circle and families. Alienating himself from his friends but also his family and the sacrifices they have to make for his training. Along with all this he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as his competitive nature with Martin Taylor also becomes an obsession and something of a crush. I should here say I admired the fact that there is no big ‘coming out scene’ or anything so obvious, in fact it is never really commented on once he has a partner or even a factor then, it simply isn’t the be all and end all of Danny’s life it is just another aspect for him to sort out which I liked the reality of.

What this all creates is a lack of belonging, someone who really is lost in almost all aspects of their world. A scary place to be for anyone let alone someone going through adolescence where let’s face it no one really feels like they belong in their own body. Interestingly body obsession (too much fat, too much hair) starts to take over Danny, not only in himself but how he feels about those around him The only place Dan Kelly feels any sense of belonging is in the water, yet we understand that Danny’s belief is if you are the best, the fastest, the strongest you don’t need to belong, you are perfection and everyone should want to belong to you, bow down to you or in some cases be scared of you. If you don’t, watch out.

In the change-rooms, no one would look at him. But no one dared to mock him, no one dared say anything to him. He could just hear the murmurings behind him and around him, sensed the whispers first take form in Luke’s astonished and admiring stare. He could hear the words, Jesus, that Danny Kelly they whispered, That Danny Kelly. He’s a psycho.

With all these themes, questions and thoughts Barracuda is not the easiest of reads. I don’t mean that the writing is too lofty, literary or complex, some of the language is just rather confronting, with racial and homophobic slang throughout. The structure of the book, with its sense of mystery, also throws you occasionally as though it alternates between past and almost present there is no direct chronology; you have to put everything together at the end. Those factors along with the graphic nature of some of the scenes and unlikeable nature of the characters (which are often all too realistic) may also put some readers off but I am not sure those are the readers that Tsiolkas is after really. I think he wants to write a book which challenges readers and rewards them hugely once they have finished, contemplated and thought about it all.

 In fact books and their power and importance and how they should challenge us is also a theme in the book in a way. When Danny discovers literature, and a love of sorts, in prison he discovers Greene and ‘He understood the writer’s characters, sympathised with their weakness and cowardice, responded most to their refusal to find excuses for their failures.’ For me this is really what Christos Tsiolkas does with Barracuda. He takes a character who isn’t always likeable or reliable and who may be from the wrong side of the tracks, which most people like to hide away, and exposes them for the benefit of anyone who reads on, compellingly with warts and all. I admire Tsiolkas hugely for this novel and would highly recommend anyone who likes a read that provokes questions and disturbs – after all the best fiction should do that shouldn’t it and I think Barracuda is contemporary fiction at its finest.

For more insight into the book (if that review wasn’t long enough, ha, though I still don’t think I have done it justice) you can hear Christos and myself in conversation about Barracuda here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? I am annoyed I didn’t review The Slap after I read it a few years ago, which other books of Tsiolkas’ would you recommend? What are your thoughts on confronting books and unlikeable, yet realistic, characters?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2014, Christos Tsiolkas, Review

You Better Not Cry – Augusten Burroughs

I had completely forgotten about ‘You Better Not Cry’ until I was delving through some of my books, currently residing in a lovely garage, for my new book groups next choice and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to read it. I will admit the cover made me snigger and that was what definitely sold it to me, you want a good laugh at Christmas don’t you, especially when things start to get a little fraught over turkey’s or charades! Well if you ever think that your Christmases get stressful or strange then really you need to read this collection of tales by Augusten Burroughs to put everything into perspective.

‘You Better Not Cry’ is like a festive special of some of the memoriesof Augusten Burroughs at various points in his life. From his childhood, which you may have already read about in the brilliant ‘Running with Scissors’ – if you haven’t read it then do, to his adulthood we get a glimpse of some of the most vivid and often rather hilarious but tragic Christmas moments. Stories like when his Grandmother had to point out the difference between Santa and Jesus as a younger Augusten thought they were one and the same person (which had caused some rather confused childhood moments), to waking up during his drink filled years to find a Santa suit and a naked Santa look-a-like in his bed (which had me laughing a lot) and to the year he realised he hadn’t celebrated Christmas for a decade, well not properly.

I really enjoyed this collection it has to be said, and started to rather annoy my family members as I was croakily giggling between chocolates on the sofa during this Christmas. I loved hearing more about his drug addled mother and alcoholic father and how they tried to make Christmas perfect… and failed slightly. In some ways the fact this book was over his lifetime so far at different points made it all the more interesting, it was less concentrated that some of his other books which whilst funny can really get to you at the same point.

Most of the stories are very funny though there is always a slight tinge of sadness around each of the tales in this collection, it’s not all ‘look at how hilarious and crazy my life has been and oh how we laughed’ it has a sensitive and often poignant side too reminding you what Christmas is all about… family and loved ones, no matter how much they can sometimes be a burden. There is also one utterly heartbreaking tale which I will admit had me on the verge of tears, yet left me thinking just how lucky I am this Christmas too! 8.5/10

So if you are after a final festive read this Christmas time, or after something to savour until next Christmas then I would highly recommend you give this a whirl. I really enjoyed it and it’s another ideal pick up and put down book between the merriment and mayhem of the season. It’s also reminded me I must pick up more of Burroughs books in the New Year; I don’t know why I have left it so long.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Augusten Burroughs, Review

The Visitor – Maeve Brennan

Sometimes it’s nice to throw caution to the wind and just pick up a book completely at random from your shelves. Its one you have been meaning to read for quite some time your not sure whether you are going to like it or not but you just fancy giving it a whirl on a whim. This is what led me to reading ‘The Visitor’ by Maeve Brennan last week, and at only 80 pages long this seemed like quite an easy risk to take. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was pleasantly surprised by a rather dark and harrowing tale of families and death.

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone but when I go back to the area I grew up in I always have a huge bundle of nostalgia on arrival and so you sort of dream of going back and assuming everything would be the same, only of course it wouldn’t be would it? It’s this predicament that Anastacia King finds herself in ‘The Visitor’ when she returns to her grandmother’s house in Ireland, in which she grew up, after six years of living in Paris with her mother. Anastacia arrives in the hope of finding some family solace in her grandmother from recent events, only soon she comes to realise this will not be a long stay as her grandmother only wants this to be a visit and nothing more.

As the story unfolds we see snippets of Anastasia’s childhood, the fraught relationships between her mother and father and mother and grandmother, and soon learn as family secrets start to emerge from under the carpet just what grudges Anastasia has unwittingly had thrown upon her from her parents behaviour and how coming back brings everything to the fore. There is also a very sad tale of love lost that Brennan brings in with the only other visitor at the house Miss Kilbride, but I shall leave that one for you to discover.

Maeve Brennan weaves a heartbreaking tale (which is set around Christmas so if you haven’t read it that might be the perfect time) written in a completely melodrama free style. It could have been very easy to have scenes of high drama running throughout instead there are scenes where its what is not being said, or what is quietly being spoken, which give the book its emotional weight and that is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off I think. There is one outburst scene actually but it’s all the more powerful for the demure quietness of the book, despite all that’s going on, up to that point and the silence that follows is even more felt.

Written in the 1940’s this book was not long discovered and published swiftly. I have to admit that until I saw this book over a year ago in a charity shop for I had never heard of the author let alone the book, yet the cover and blurb (and possibly the fact it was 50p) drew me in and I am so pleased they did. I am definitely putting her other works on my Christmas list, they aren’t easy to get it seems, as any author that can do so much in so little words and pages is an author that I want to read much more of. 9/10

The ending did flummox me a little hence why this book didn’t get a full ten out of ten, if anyone has read this can you email me about the ending rather than comment as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone else! I am wondering why someone like Persephone or Virago hasn’t picked these books up; I think they would be perfect for them and their readership. So who else has read ‘The Visitor’? Has anyone read anything else by Maeve Brennan?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Maeve Brennan, Review

Purge – Sofi Oksanen

There are some books that I read where I simply want to type ‘you need to read this book’ a few hundred times instead of actually doing a review and ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen is one such book. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to go off and buy a book just on my say so and of course I shall be giving you my thoughts rather than simply copying and pasting ‘you need to read this book’ over and over again. Can you pick up any subliminal messages I might be leaving in this opening paragraph at all?

‘Purge’ is going to be rather a hard book to write about in part because of how big the story is (not in terms of pages just in terms of story and subject matter) or because some of the book is harrowing to say the least but also because to give too much away with this story, I think, would lessen the impact it could have on a reader coming to it and to do that to a book/reading experience such as this would be a disservice. Anyway let’s see how we get on.

Aliide Truu lives a slightly solitary life near woods in the Estonian countryside. One morning after waging a war with a fly, which initially you think are the only bane in her life – you’d be thinking wrong, she spots something in her garden. That something turns out to be young woman, one who is wearing expensive clothes and yet is covered in dirt and bruised, a young woman who has appeared under her tree in the dead of night, a girl Aliide knows she shouldn’t take in because you can almost feel the danger coming from her, and yet Aliide does.

Slowly but surely as Aliide spends the following day or so with the girl, Zara, both Zara’s recent horrific past (the fact this setting is the early nineties was quite shocking for me) starts to unfold as  does Aliide’s which is a past with her sister over fifty years ago which she has wiped from her brain and buried deep elsewhere. As we read on two stories unfold that look at the history of Estonia and its women, the trials they have had to face and how they endured and survived. I shall say no more on the plot other than I think this is a tale that needs to be told and therefore to be read and heard by us no matter how difficult it can get in parts.

Sofia Oksanen has written something quite amazing. It is a rare book that takes me on such an emotional journey and to such dark places and yet leaves me almost unable to put the book down. Her prose is absolutely stunning (and here I should credit Lola Rogers on a fantastic translation) and without ever being too graphic she manages to drop in enough information to let the reader work out what’s going on and yet leave enough unsaid that we create the scenes in our own minds which is often the more disturbing and effective than spelling everything out.

Her two main characters Aliide and Zara are incredible creations. One initially a rather eccentric old lady living alone becomes a kind of unsung heroine, the other a girl who dreamed of a better life and took the opportunities to get there naively and with dark consequences yet who is a survivor. These characters make what could have just become a completely harrowing book (and it’s not because there are some moments of humour here and there) a book that is really about triumph and how people can and will cope when pushed to the edge. It’s also a tale about families.

“That smile became their first game, which sprouted word by word and started to blossom mistily, yellowish, the way dead languages blossom, rustling sweetly like the needle of a gramophone, playing like voices underwater. Quiet, whispering, they grew their own language. It was their shared secret, their game. As her mother did housework, her grandmother would sit in her usual chair, and Zara would take out toys and other things or just touch an object, and Grandmother would form its name in Estonian, silently, with her lips. If the word was wrong, Zara was supposed to notice it. If she didn’t know the word, she wouldn’t get any candy, but if she caught the mistake, she always got a mouthful of sweets. Her mother didn’t like it that Grandmother gave her candy for no reason – or so she thought – but she didn’t bother to intervene beyond a disapproving sniff.”

I strongly urge people to give this book a go. I don’t think books like this come around that often and it really needs to become a success worldwide (it’s already done very well in the rest of Europe). No its not a cosy read for these darker nights but it’s a gripping story that we all need to be told and one that Sofi Oksanen tells in a rather breath taking fashion. A must, must, must read book that may leave you changed a little after the final page. 10/10

I know some of you might now say that you would like to read this but it might be too disturbing and I hope you will look past that and test yourselves. I don’t mean that in a patronising way it’s just sometimes books need to test us and take us places that we don’t want to go. So I thought I would not only ask if anyone else has read this (have you?) but also for you to name me some books which have made for uncomfortable reading in parts but been an incredible and overall almost life changing experience to read as I would love some more recommendations of books along the lines of ‘Purge’?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2010, Review, Sofi Oksanen

Red April – Santiago Roncagliolo

I would never have imagined back at the start of the year that I would end up reading a Peruvian political thriller. However it is thanks to Armen’s latest choice for the face to face book group I am in, the Riverside Readers, that I had no choice but to give the book a whirl. I was slightly worried that I would be out of my depth with this one. I threw myself in regardless though because I always like to finish a book group book, it’s a rare book that I will give up on, which one was this?

Opening ‘Red April’ and reading the first report from our protagonist Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar (quite a mouthful) I wasn’t quite sure what this book was going to be about as the cover so heavily makes you think this is going to be some highly religious book. However reading the report of a murder, by burning, you get the instant impression that this is going to be a thriller. In reality you get a little bit of both but one the whole, for me at least, you are also getting a glimpse into the cultural turbulence of Peru, something I didn’t really know that much about.

However the burnt body is the first in a series of killings during Holy Week in Ayacucho all baring striking similarities soon Felix believes he is on the trail of a serial killer which leads him into the offices of politicians, the crypts of priests, police stations and prisons and through all walks of life as he tries to solve the mystery. This of course gives Roncagliolo the perfect way of showing you how things are in Peru from girls who have to marry their rapists, the terrorism outside of the main cities and the corruption. Some could say it’s a biased view and yet you get the feeling the only sides there are out there are the bad and the worse. Back to the plot, well I don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it starts slowly but surely before building to a heady, verging on almost confusing, climax which you won’t expect – despite the fact there are quite a lot of clues from the start.

Interestingly for me one of the books weaknesses and strengths is Felix himself. From the start you know there is something not quite right about him, starting with the obsession with his dead mother (which I found both creepy and quite fascinating) the feeling of needing to be recognized for who he is and what he does. It seems to be a common theme in thrillers; your protagonist needs to be a little bit messed up, maybe a loner. Is this not at the same time therefore rather a cliché? In being the way he is I found it rather unbelievable when he starts dating a much younger girl, Edith, who becomes fairly pivotal yet the meeting and pairing is so unlikely (maybe it’s the dish of guinea pig involved) that it undermined the tale for me and niggled at me throughout.

Another thing that niggled me throughout was something that I am unsure if was the fault of an editor, the author or the translator (Edith Grossman translates this beautifully) but why on earth did we need to be introduced to Felix with his full title of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar almost every time a chapter started, or on occasion a new paragraph. It’s a small thing but again it broke the spell of the novel and began to irritate. This was a shame for me as it took me away from what was a rather gripping dark story that I wanted to get enthralled with and could never quite. I would recommend it though, it’s something different and you will learn all about Peru which makes for eye opening and sometimes shocking reading. 7/10

I am getting a little bit wary that I am using the expression ‘I have never read anything quite like this’ a lot on the blog over the last few weeks, I honestly haven’t though again in this case. I am actually seeing it as a good sign I can’t compare too many of the books I have read with others. I think it shows both through book groups and also through my reading in general I am pushing myself a little bit more and trying more out. Maybe I am fooling myself? What books have you read that have pushed you out of your comfort zone of late?

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Book Group, Review