Category Archives: Bloomsbury Publishing

Hotel – Joanna Walsh

I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was a new series of books in town which I was lusting after, Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. A series that intrigued me from its contents, nonfiction-cum-essays-cum-memoir (it seemed from what I gathered), as well as the covers which I just lusted after. When one of the series authors, Joanna Walsh, offered to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves – you can see hers here – it was simply a matter of time till I picked Hotel up, which I did in Foyles a few weeks ago. Any excuse to have a mooch in a book shop, any…

9781628924732

Bloomsbury, 2015, paperback, non-fiction/memoir, 178 pages, bought by myself for myself

There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels.
Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was a time I did not live. During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave. There’s no place like home, and as home hardly seemed to qualify as a place any more, I began to look for something elsewhere.

Hotel initially looks at the period in Joanna Walsh’s life when she was reviewing hotels for an up and coming website. This was also the time in her life that she was leaving her husband and the end of her marriage, naturally these two events converge and it is her that what follows trickles from and merges with another strand, Freud – but wait I have ended up a little ahead of myself. As Joanna contemplates her life back home away from home, in somewhere that tries to be a home yet never really can be (stay with me), she starts to look at hotel life from a new angle and also home life.

I found this a really fascinating look at hotels, in part because it is the total opposite of mine. I absolutely love a hotel. I could, and this is no word of a lie, be resident in them for a year or two and (as long as there were bookshops around) live quite happily. Think of that life of anonymity, of having fresh sheets everyday and a long hot bath to soak in for hours, well in the few hotels that seem to have baths now anyway. A chance to escape life and the daily chores, sign me up. Yet when your home life is anything but routine and you are anything but in it you can suddenly seem how alien and false the world of a hotel can be.

The hotel offers other overpriced toys:  “erotic” chocolates, jelly-flavoured condoms. As well as the “nostress” you can buy incense and “calming” bubble bath. The hotel sells you misbehaviour, then something to deal with the fallout, both in candy colours. There’s a pointed notice in the bathroom: “If you would like to take away a souvenir, our robes are for sale at reception.” The hotel mistrusts me. I am not surprised. There’s no right or wrong here. Despite the bedside drawer’s insistent Bible, the usual moral standards do not apply. This is my holiday, my treat. I’ve come for what I’m owed, and more.  The disappointments of my life may revenge themselves in petty larceny, but, even then, will I get what I’ve paid for?

So I was enthralled by the hotel element yet the honesty of Joanna’s writing about the breakup of her marriage is where the power of Hotel really lay for me personally. For me this year has been a year of reading, and in many ways discovering, some brutally honest writing which I am coming to respect greatly when the authors of such words write them unflinchingly and with an unflatteringly yet admirable rawness. Walsh does this here. She looks at how it feels when love has faded, she look s at the flaws of both parties, she writes about the emptiness and loneliness and also the odd liberation mixed with fear. It was during these segments that I found her at her most visceral.

Now that I no longer have you, I no longer have the kind of loneliness in which to wait for you. I no longer have to wait, but I have not yet developed the leisure to read a book. It is a different kind of loneliness. Perhaps, at first, it is worse.

Now then, I mentioned Freud earlier didn’t I? And he does indeed appear in Hotel with one of his patients Dora. And so does Oscar Wilde as do the Marx Brothers, Katherine Mansfield, Martin Heidegger, Greta Garbo and Mae West. How and why? Well I can answer the how, as the books second part (which is really all of it) is called Fragments from a Hysterical Suitcase which links to Freud.  I am slightly more confused on the why though I know I enjoyed the end result. You see the form of Hotel is one of the things that makes it so quirky, so unusual and also the kind of book you have to pay attention to and just go along with all at once. You’ll find yourself in Joanna’s head then suddenly the patient in Freud’s chair, or find Katherine Mansfield (I loved all the sections with her in, I really must read some of her work) in some kind of conversation with Mae West, or Odysseus being compared to Trip Advisor all via Walsh’s ponderings and meanderings. It is bonkers, yet somehow it works.

I haven’t mentioned style yet the way the book is formed is rather brilliant, each chapter almost having its own form or character. You have some chapters which are set in a particular hotel (the final chapter goes through 26 hotels), one told through a tour of a hotel from the lobby to the en suite of the bedroom and everywhere in between, one told through the free postcards that you sometimes get alongside a pen, one in diary form and so and so on. Experimental and rather original, if sometimes a little self conscious but it would be hard not to be with all this going on.

All in all Hotel is a very unusual work and one which you don’t come around too often and when you do they either excel or fall flat on their own faces. Books which intertwine an authors personal life, along with some essay like moments and twist in figures from history and their theories and philosophies can go either way. Yet along with Julian Barnes Levels of Life and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (which I will be discussing later this week) I think Joanna Walsh creates something rather special with Hotel. It isn’t going to be for everyone, it is rather more abstract and fractured than its contemporaries than I mention above, yet for those who give it a whirl there are many rewards, from the insight into hotels from another angle to the raw and moving insight of a broken marriage.

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At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

I am sure I have mentioned more than once or twice that I love books set in the British countryside. I mean I love books set all over the world; from India to Australia, Japan to Brazil and everywhere in between, as part of the joy of reading is that you can experience the entire world through the pages of a book. Yet for me there is also something really interesting about reading a world you already know (for I was brought up in many different parts of the British countryside) as seen through other peoples eyes be it the authors or the characters they populate their books with. It was this that made me so eager to read At Hawthorn Time when I first heard about it, from the cover alone it screams this is a book about nature and the countryside. Sold.

9781408859049

Bloomsbury Circus, 2015, hardback, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The end is the beginning is the end in the case of Melissa Harrison’s second novel At Hawthorn Time, as we witness the results of a car crash when the novel opens. What we are left wondering, and of course to find out, is who was in each of the cars and who the bystander is observing it all on the outskirts of the small village of Lodeshill somewhere in the wilds of the British Midlands. You might now be thinking ‘hang on is this some high octane mystery about a collision… you said it was about the countryside’ well I wasn’t fibbing, that is what we get as we read on.

I have mentioned before my issues with books that start with a bang and then settle down before sadly proceeding to peter out and become somewhat exhausted by themselves and the pressure the author put on them to start with. At Hawthorn Time is not one of these novels. What unfolds as we read on is a book that grips you not with bangs and whistles, instead grabbing you with its beautiful writing, its characters and its theme of human nature vs. the natural world itself, the latter which is struggling in part because we simply take for granted what we see before our eyes and almost become immune to, tending to forget and starting to forfeit. Whilst this is not the case with all but one of the four main characters, it is these characters integrations with nature that reminds us of what we are missing out on by not being as focused or grateful for the little things as we should be.

Howard and Kitty are recent incomers to Lodeshill, moving into the village for the start of their retiring years mainly because Kitty wants to head back out into the countryside despite the fact, much to Howards annoyance, that she isn’t originally from there. We soon realise that one of the couple hopes this will reignite their relationship and the other is there to reignite their creativity and to move further away from some of the secrets they hold. Jamie is a young man who has lived his whole life in Lodeshill, as have many generations of his family, and yet who yearns to get away from it as much as he feels completely tied to it. He knows the folk lore of the area, can tell you all the different types of trees and yet spends his days in a windowless distribution centre on the edge of the village day dreaming of upgrading the car he is remodelling and races down the quiet straight roads at night. Finally we have Jack, a nomad and a wanderer; who has dropped out of society for a simpler and more natural way of life, working when he needs to and sleeping the fields and forests as he goes.

Through all four of these characters Harrison looks at the different ways in which human nature and nature itself work together and against each other. For Howard and Kitty instead of lessening the divide between them it almost magnifies it. One it seems is much more cut out for the city than the countryside. While it reignites the creative spark in ones heart, it bores the other to death. One wants to go out to the forest and take all the nature in, the other wants to just go to the pub. This is a path well trodden in fiction, film and on the radio and I must say that Harrison both keeps you with them by writing their story in a way that is both filled with humour yet is also slowly more and more tragic as we read on, had this not been the case I might have been occasionally waiting for Jamie or Jack to stroll onto the page.

The swallows that nested in the eaves of Manor Lodge bore the same genes as the ones who had built the first mud cups there nearly 150 years before; the swallows at the rectory went back even further. Every April they arrived in the village from Africa, lining up like musical notes on the telephone wires and swooping for beakfuls of mud on the banks of the dew pond on Culverkeys Farm to repair their nests. When they first moved in Howard complained about them shitting on the Audi, but Kitty said they brought happiness to a home. Now they just parked the cars a little further from the side wall.

It is with Jaime and Jack that I found the themes more powerful and where the heart of At Hawthorn Time and strength of Harrison’s writing really lies. Both their sections had me completely lost within them. Jack is a man who is so much in love with nature he has gone back to the natural world without becoming feral. Yet considering his wants to be so at peace with the world society (on the whole) seems to either see this exclusion of all the trappings of modern life as something other, something weird or even something dangerous and sinister. You could understand why he would rather spend his time out with the trees and wildlife than with people who don’t understand him, judge him. or fear him. I found this fascinating. I also loved Jack and wanted to adopt him – even if he just wanted to live in my shed.

I found Jamie’s situation equally as intriguing and complex. Here is a young lad who loves everything about the place he grew up, the childhood he had and the people he spent it with. However as he grows older and discovers there is a world outside that is both petrifying and exciting, also tempting. How he deals with those two extremes and elements, the pressure from family and work whilst also wanting to be his own person and not be swayed rang so true to me. Do you dare to go out in the world and possibly change for good or for bad, or do you stay where you are and appreciate your lot or become embittered by it. This and the conflict of the old and the new is something that seems to be on the minds of some of the other characters in the book as we go forward and is what brings to the fore the whole theme of forgetting and forfeiting the wonders of the natural world all around us.

‘I mean , if you collected together all the mischievous fairies, black dogs and, I don’t know, haunted houses from all over the country, you’d soon see they’re all of a type – just ways of explaining what was unexplainable back then. Fortunately,’ he continued, turning to Chris with a grin, ‘we have science now.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Dad. It must have been amazing growing up in those times: there’d be a story attached to every cave, every rock, every tree. It wouldn’t be, you know, there are some trees -’ Chris waved an arm at the general view – ‘and we know everything there is to know about them, though hardly anyone actually bothers to learn their names, It would be a case of, this tree, this oak tree, has a wicked witch in it, this willow tree is magic -’

I found At Hawthorn Time a really interesting, engaging and beautifully written novel. Harrison’s writing of the natural world is just gorgeous, making the divide between nature writing and fictional storytelling become wonderfully blurred. A scene can become a standout moment with just the addition of a bumble bee going about its daily life while all the human drama is unfolding in front of it without it even noticing. I have never seen this done in quite such a subtle and effective way before. I also think Jack is going to stay with me as one of my favourite characters of the year. I look forward to whatever Harrison chooses to write next and will certainly be heading to her debut Clay in the not too distant future.

Who else has read At Hawthorn Time and what did you make of it? Have you read Clay as I would love thoughts on that too. Also do let me know of any books you love which feature the English countryside heavily. You can see my thoughts on some great books featuring the British landscape I wrote for Fiction Uncovered here. Maybe it is time I did a top ten novels about the British countryside (if I haven’t already) or books featuring nature, what do you think?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Melissa Harrison, Review

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie

I mentioned a while ago that I had a small backlog of book reviews, which is fortunate as I can’t really talk to you about what I am reading at the moment. One book is Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel A God in Every Stone which has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which I read last year. Why have I held of reviewing it until the shortlisted nudge? Well, A God in Every Stone is one of those books that is epic for its size in both its stories scope and indeed the themes that are held within. This is a readers dream, it is also blooming hard work for a reviewer, here goes…

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There are three strands within A God in Every Stone. The book opens with us in the Persian empire in the company of Scylax, an explorer in the fifth-century BCE, this is a very brief snippet before we are thrown into 1914 and the first of the two major strands, but don’t forget old Scylax, as we join Vivian Rose Spencer as she joins a Turkish archaeologist, Tahsin Bey, at a dig in Labraunda. Tahsin has been in her life for many years as a friend of her father and used to often tell her stories of Scylax when she was a young girl, inspiring her love of adventure, archaeology, history and the stories of the past and its people. As they work together an additional bond is built yet soon the First World War begins and are separated when Vivian is sent back to London to serve as a VAD.

The second main strand is that of two brothers living in Peshwar, Najeeb (who is an utter joy to read and instantly became my favourite character) and Qayyum. Qayyum has been a soldier for the British forces, and is returning after having been kept in Brighton to recover from some injuries. He returns to find his home city a changed place, having left the battle fields he returns to a city that seems to be on the very edge of unrest and potential catastrophe. How do these all interweave, well that would be telling I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I am not going to tell you, you need to read the book.

If this all makes it sound like A God in Every Stone is rather confusing and disorientating, it honestly isn’t. This is a novel where characters, and most importantly really history, interweave and intertwine creating a wonderful tapestry of interconnecting lives. Now I worry I have made it sound twee and this book is anything but that; there is one huge twist in the novel that I didn’t see coming and hit me with an emotional wallop that actually made me gasp, as the book leads to its conclusion on The Street of Storytellers it depicts one of the biggest atrocities in Peshwar’s history, yet one that is little known or spoken of outside of the country.

The book is also teeming with themes one being history. Regular visitors will know that my mother is a classics teacher who would love to do archaeology and dragged me round Pompeii for a day when I was younger, so when I started reading about archaeological digs a bit of me went back to that day and winced. However the story of a woman in that setting in the male dominated pre-war era is a really interesting one and Vivian is quite the forward thinking woman who fights against stereotypes often through some very awkward situations with men who want to tame her, women who hate her – oh and the secret service wanting to hire her. It is little gems like that, based on fact, that give the book added dimensions and Shamsie is very good at giving every character some kind of additional story without it feeling forced or that she wants to bash you over the head with all the research she has done.

How can I explain how it feels to hold an ancient object and feel yourself linked to everyone through whose hand it passed. All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth – how can you stay immune to them? Every day here in Taxila I dig up a new story. And, yes, I am grateful to the English for putting this spade in my hands and allowing me to know my own history. But to you history is something to be made, not studied, so how can you understand?

Shamsie takes a very interesting look at history in the novel. She looks at how we see events before something life changing occurs, how we see it during and how we think of it afterwards both instantly and in hindsight. All of the characters do this be it on a small or large scale. Shamsie also looks at how history is not actually something solely from the past, it is also something from the future because we are building it every second, every minute and indeed as we think our future actions through.

I know the stories of men from twenty-five hundred years ago, but I’ll never know what happens to you.

Another large theme in A God in Every Stone is the importance of story; how stories become history, how history becomes a story. She also looks at the power of stories and storytelling, be they the ones we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones that we will never know. In fact really you could say that this novel is the embodiment of how we can learn through stories, be they fictional or factual, and how we use those stories of the past to build the stories of the future.

I still don’t feel like I have really done A God in Every Stone justice, thought I felt the same after reading Burnt Shadows (you can see the review but bear in mind it was written long ago and made me wince a little as I read it) which is also a deceptive epic for its 300 pages too. It is just one of those tricky yet marvellous books that are very hard to write about if you haven’t read them and experienced them. Experienced is the right word actually because having come away from this novel I really felt I had lived, lost and loved alongside all the characters and what they went through. Suffice to say I think you should stop reading this and go and read Shamsie instead.

If you would like to find out more about A God in Every Stone, you can hear Kamila talking about it (far more eloquently than I can write about it) in conversation with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read it and what were your thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kamila Shamsie, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Rook – Jane Rusbridge

One of the kinds of books I love to read the most (although I have only discovered in the last few years this is the case) are ones set in the British countryside. I am rather bored by books set in London, admittedly less so if they happen to be somewhere between 1850 and 1910. Whilst I know modern London is full of all walks of life, which is marvellous to read about, head out of the capital for a few hours and in the towns and villages some of the best stories can be found. This is one of the reasons I finally picked up Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook which I had heard would be right up my street for this very reason. In towns and villages secrets are much harder to keep buried.

Bloomsbury, paperback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, borrowed from the library

Nora has fled from a love affair gone wrong and the international circuit of touring with her cello, back to her childhood home of Creek House in Bosham, Sussex to teach the locals. Whilst old childhood friends have welcomed her back the same cannot be said for her mother Ada. However things look set to change in Bosham as a TV documentary company, run by the suave Jonny, want to write about the possible body of King Cnut’s daughter buried below the church, along with the possibility of King Harold himself. Yet as a medieval secret of the town is about to be unburied after so long, so could be the secrets Nora and Ada have kept from each other.

Mother daughter relationships, along with all dysfunctional family set ups, are a prime subject for fiction. Nora and Ada’s estranged relationship puzzles and perplexes whilst it also intrigues; just what secrets have both women kept from each other, why did the death of Brian (Ada’s husband) along with Felicity (Nora’s sister) leaving the UK make them more estranged and not bring them together? How long can two women stay in the same place avoiding each other, one with her box of memories (and lots of cocktails, which seem a coping mechanism for getting older as well as keeping secrets locked away), the other with her cello and adopted Rook called, erm, Rook before the cracks finally fracture?

As we read on it is not only the secrets hidden under the floor boards of the local church that mirror Nora and Ada’s struggle with their own histories, the landscape also mirrors them too. It could actually be said that the main character in Rook is Sussex itself, its atmosphere comes out of every page and is often a metaphor for what is going on inside the characters heads.

The mud at low tide is alive with soft-lipped sucks and pops, the creek shrunk to a ribbon in the distance. Nora’s wellingtons slop around her calves as she steps from one hump of eel grass to another, arms spread to counterbalance any slip of the silt. Far off by the sluice gate twenty or thirty swans are clustered, startling white against the bladder-wrack and mud. Every limpid arch of neck and fan of wing displays an orchestrated grace, reminding Nora of her mother.

Occasionally though the sense of place and its relationship with the plot can cloud things. Dangers of flooding, the muddy coastline, the danger of private farmlands, etc are all wonderfully evoked – the prose in Rook is stunning – yet sometimes at the cost of explanations. I would sometimes be unsure if I was with Nora or with Ada, and occasionally we have gone into a flashback in the change of a paragraph which needs to be re-read before you realise what Rusbridge has done. I also on occasion found myself wishing that Rusbridge had written in the voice of Nora or Ada or alternated between the two of them. This may have lost some of the admirable subtleties Rusbridge allows the reader to expand upon themselves, but with all the mysteries Nora and Ada are harbouring themselves and from each other, they are prone to being slight enigma’s themselves. I interestingly found I knew Rook the most as a character and was fascinated learning all about how intelligent these birds are. I used to have a pet duck (super brainy birds) I now want a pet Rook, have I ever mentioned that before I was a book spotter I was a bird watcher? Anyway…

As I mentioned above, I love a book which has a real sense of place and in particular those which look at the British countryside. Therefore Rook couldn’t really be more ideal. Through Nora’s return to Bosham we have that sense we all know of nostalgia mixed with terror and edginess that going back to your hometown can bring. Through Jonny, who is a bit of a so and so, we see the attitudes to ‘the outsider’ which no matter how many times people say is a mentality that doesn’t exist in this forward thinking day and age, does. It is the sense of the atmosphere and nature of Sussex along with the definition of what makes a community (both the good and the bad) which seems to be at the very heart of Rook.

Around the polished table are people she has known since childhood. Miss Macleod is there, head down, reading something. Ted, who, now his son has taken over the day-to-day running of Manor Farm, has time on his hands so sits on many committees and is governor of the village primary school. George gives her a nod, jowls wobbling like wattles. Patricia, Ted’s wife and locally famous for her bridge suppers, flutters her fingers in a wave. Steve, the vicar, gives her a wink, and points to the empty chair beside him. A single father of three, Steve is not what most people expect in a vicar.

Using a ‘natural’ metaphor, which seems apt for this book particularly, I would compare Rook to a small brook (or a creek, all the more apt with Creek House) which slowly meanders to a larger stream which twists and turns into a river which builds up speed before it roars out to the sea. As we read on the pace, urgency and rawness become quicker and louder. I didn’t see the ending coming at all and it hits hard. In many ways Rook is a book about secrets and coping, or indeed not, with what life throws at us and how it changes our relationships with those around us. It is also a love letter to Sussex where Jane Rusbridge lives. It is beautifully written novel from an author I think more of us should be reading.

Who else has read Rook and what did you make of it? Have any of you read Jane’s debut The Devil’s Music as I am keen to give that a whirl. Oh and don’t forget you can find out more about Jane and have a nosey through her bookshelves on the latest Other People’s Bookshelves here.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Jane Rusbridge, Review

The Light of Amsterdam – David Park

I have decided that this week we are going Dutch. Either the authors will be Dutch or the books will set in Dutch places. What is the inspiration behind this? Well, since you asked so nicely and weren’t forced into this way of thinking by me at all, I had the joy of going to Amsterdam back in July for work and whilst I was there I did my usual trick of reading a few books set there or by authors who lived there. The first of these was ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ by David Park which seemed perfect choice because of its plot (more shortly) and also because it was also one of the Fiction Uncovered 2012 selection, and I haven’t read one of their choices that I haven’t liked yet.

Bloomsbury Books, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is a novel that weaves the stories of three pairs of tourists coming to the city for a long weekend (at one point as they were flying to Amsterdam in the book as I was doing the same thing at the actual time) and how their lives change over that weekend. As I typed that I, for the first time, suddenly saw how clichéd that sounds, but honestly ditch that opinion because David Parks does do something quite marvellous with that plot device.

Alan, whose career as an art lecturer seems to be going down the pan as fast as his marriage recently did, decides to take his teenage son Jack on a father son bonding weekend whilst making a pilgrimage of his youth. Jack takes his wife Marion, who thinks Jack is desperate to have an affair no longer seeing her as a sexual being, for a birthday treat and to get them away from their garden centre before the pre-Christmas madness. Karen, the cleaner in both an office and old people’s home, is there on a hen weekend which would be her ideal of hell anyway but is made worse by the fact that the bride to be is her own daughter. We then follow all three pairs as they pass each other in the street, or randomly bump into each other, as the weekend unfolds.

At first I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ at all. As the book opens we are in Alan’s head as he watches the final journey of George Best after his funeral and I was slightly worried we were about to endure the narrative of some middle aged football fan. As Alan went on to discuss his affair, the end of his marriage, how bored he was in his job, how difficult his teenage son was, etc and I was thinking ‘bugger, have I got to unpack my luggage in public to find another book’ yet there was something in the writing and the characterisation Parks had that kept me going and I am really, really glad I did because his characters are superb.

Call it the ‘nosey parker’ in me but I love books about people, regular ordinary people. People who you could pass in the street, fictional people you have met the characteristics of in people you have spent time with. They aren’t remarkable, they just get on and David Park has these characters spot on and develops them fully before the plane has left the runway and we get their back stories. Alan is simply a disappointed middle aged man, who feels like (partly through his own actions which is always worse) that his life has taken a wrong turn. Karen is a woman who got pregnant very young but has built a life for her daughter and herself no matter how tough it has been or how much she has had to sacrifice nor how menial the jobs she has to do in order to make ends meet. Marion is a woman who has a successful marriage, business and yet somewhere inside her feels all this is too good to be true, something has to give and will it be her husband, tipped over the edge when he buys her membership to a gym. It was Marion who I have to say I found the most intriguing, especially when you discover what she has planned on their weekend away.

“When the girls had finished their coffee he told them he’d drive them home. She was glad that he didn’t offer them any more wine and that he hadn’t drunk any more. When he went off to fetch the smoke alarms and his toolbox she looked at the bottle and was momentarily tempted to finish it off after everyone had gone but tried to strengthen her resolution to dedicate herself, if not to abstinence, then at least moderation. The girls left by the kitchen door to go and fetch their coats. She heard them chatting in Polish as they walked out into the floodlit corridor. Standing at the glass she looked at how harsh the light bleached Anka’s hair almost white. For some reason she thought they looked like prisoners making their way back to their cells for the night. She felt sorry for them in their struggle to make a better life. She didn’t think she could be as brave, told herself that she had never been brave, so this thing that she was planning to do seemed like it belonged to someone else and she wondered if she could find the strength to see it through.”

Even though I found Marion the most intriguing, I loved all of the characters the more I got to know them and as the stories developed. When I alternated between them as I read on I didn’t find myself mourning the last narrator or rushing onto the next one. I also admired Park for his sense of giving them some personal mini drama’s once in Amsterdam without every pushing the story lines too far and turning it into some farce or melodrama. The characters have issues, they address the issues, some overcome the issues, some don’t, the world goes on as it does in real life and I really liked that quality with the book. My only slight niggle was that I felt it ended a teeny bit too neatly overall, yet because I liked the characters so much I was almost glad of it and to be fair Park doesn’t make the most obvious thing that could happen end up happening. You will know what I mean if you have read the book or once you do, which I recommend.

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is one of those great novels about the stories real people tell, the ones that you overhear snippets of on the bus/train/cafe and want to know more. It is three tales of people who you could quite easily pass in the street, and it celebrates the little understated drama’s that we have ourselves every so often. Those life events that aren’t huge and all encompassing, but that change us slightly or make us see our lives differently. If the characters are doing that you can’t help but do that yourself a little bit, whilst also looking around you and thinking ‘I wonder what that person sat over there’s life is like?’

Who else has read ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ and what did you make of it? Have any of you read any of David Park’s other novels? I have heard this one was something a bit different for him so I am pondering if I would like his previous books or not so would love your thoughts, as always. Tomorrow we are off for a little wander round Amsterdam…

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, David Park, Fiction Uncovered, Review

Maggie & Me – Damian Barr

Back at the start of last year one of the lovely publicists at Bloomsbury told me, with great certainty and authority, that they were publishing Damian Barr’s memoir and that I was going to ‘adore it’. In my usual contrary-Mary style I said something like ‘oh really’ with eyebrow cocked. Well Alice, who also told me I would love ‘The Song of Achilles’ and ‘Diving Belles’, you were right again with ‘Maggie and Me’ and in hindsight you really should have bet me a tenner that I would have loved it, in fact in the future you really must bet me that, plus interest. Anyway…

*****, Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2013, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Maggie & Me’ is Damian Barr’s memoir, mainly of his youth – though we do get to know more about him now thanks to the last chapter epilogue. It is the sort of book that I have pondered since reading if it would have been easier to have written as fiction. Why? Well, Damian’s childhood is one that came littered with difficulties, a broken home life, not much money and people around him who took advantage of that an abused him. One thing is for certain though; this is no misery memoir, not by a long shot.

‘We watch the news for our revision and it’s always strikers chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out”!’ Except for John we all join in. But it doesn’t quite feel right – hating her just helps me fit in. I don’t need to stand out anymore: six foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots, bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoats. Plus I get free school dinners and I’m gay.”

I do feel that ‘Maggie and Me’ is a book that you need to know as little about as possible in order to get the most from it. There were several times when I was genuinely horrified by what I was reading, yet never (and this is mainly thanks to Damian and the generosity he provides, possibly through hindsight) did I start to judge anyone, it is like Damian is saying ‘here is my life, this is what happened, take from it what you will’. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him, though I did at times (sorry). What I felt he really wanted, and it is what I got from the book, was that through his story, and in people reading it and passing it on, he hopes he might help other younger people in that position or older ones who had been through it.

I am worried I have made it sound like it is the misery memoir that I state it’s not, because honestly it isn’t. Despite the hard home life and lack of money and the coming to terms with his sexuality whilst the epidemic of Aids had arisen, there is always a shred of hope or escapism which keeps him going. As much as I was horrified and moved, like all the best reads I also found myself laughing out loud. This either came in the form of the wonderful Granny Mac, who Maggie Smith is destined to play at some point I feel sure, and her wonderful sayings like “Wit’s fur yae disnae go by yae.” or from many of the family members when they react to the people or situations around them.

‘Bottle blonde’, she huffs, furiously bleaching the inside of a teapot that we’ll all taste later. ‘Pound Shop Dolly Parton. Midden. Hoor’s handbag,’ she curses into the suds before shooshing me for asking what a ‘hoor’ is?’

‘Maggie and Me’ is also very much a book about books and how they can save someone and provide a huge sanctuary for someone. Interestingly (well I think it is) myself and my Granny Savidge were talking about how books and reading, which is by its nature a lonely pastime, has made us so many friends. This is what books did for Damian along with providing a huge amount of escape for him, intriguingly he had a taste for horror which one wonders might have been because they showed a more horrible world than his own could be at times.

‘Somehow he’s managed to smuggle new horror books out of Newarthill Library – our junior cards don’t permit Stephen King, James Herbert or Dean Koontz. But here they all are. I’d never dare but Mark would. We take turns reading out loud. Particularly gory bits get read at least twice. Pennywise the Clown smiles his big red gash and boils our blood for candyfloss. Cujo is off the leash. Red-eyed rats swarm around our feet, their filthy fur tickling our ankles before they shred our shins.’

Interestingly as I was reading Damian’s memoir I was also thinking of Kerry Hudson’s ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’ and is like a fictional naughty little sister of ‘Maggie & Me’. I kind of like the idea of just having them next to one another on my shelves, companions to recommend to everyone, though as I like my books alphabetised the idea is abhorrent in reality. Like Hudson’s wonderful book, with ‘Maggie and Me’ I found a background which really evoked mine to me again. Whilst I was never abused we didn’t have much money (I remember water on my cereal when we couldn’t get milk), I wasn’t particularly popular and was the last person to get picked for games (until I started forging my own notes, ‘bad knee’) and always felt somewhat apart and so turned to books. I wish the younger Damian and the younger me had been friends really, or at least geeky book and boy loving penpals.

Anyway, back on track away from the waffling, as you may have hazarded a guess I really loved ‘Maggie and Me’. I related to it – something that only happens to your very core or bones once or twice in a blue reading moon – and empathised with it. It was the sort of book my younger self was crying out for someone to put in my hands. I can only hope some lovely relatives, librarians, teachers or other influential bods make sure this is passed on to both the younger generation, especially those who call rubbish things ‘gay’, and to everyone they know really. Books like this help make being different both more acceptable and understandable, we need them.

Who else has read ‘Maggie and Me’ and what did you think of it? In a way I have a feeling it’s like Augusten Burroughs book, which is high flattery indeed as I love those, and hopefully will get the attention that ‘Running With Scissors’ had, or indeed Edmund White’s memoirs or Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’. I am waffling again. What other books about being a ‘child of Thatcher’ do you know as I would like to seek more out?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2013, Damian Barr, Non Fiction, Review

The Lagoon – Janet Frame

Spending time with Gran is having an interesting effect on my reading. Firstly, as I mentioned yesterday, I am doing a lot less as either we are sat nattering away, there are one hundred and one jobs to do or she wants to go off gallivanting here, there and everywhere. (I didn’t think you could gallivant with a quad stick or in a wheel chair but Gran is proving me wrong.) We were talking the other day about any authors we wished we had read and haven’t as yet and the first one that popped into my head was Janet Frame. Unlike some of the more obvious authors (mainly all the classic canon ones, okay, okay already) she is one that is little known really and yet people whose opinions I trust, in this case Stella Duffy, Dovegreyreader and a lovely New Zealand friend on GoodReads, have raved about her and so I had picked her up debut collection, ‘The Lagoon’, up at the library on a recent trip. Well I have been dipping in and out of the twenty four short stories in this collection between dashing about and what a collection it is.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 1951 (1997 edition), fiction, short stories, 189 pages, borrowed from the library

With a collection of any short stories it is really difficult to write about them as a collection. With a collection like ‘The Lagoon’, where there are twenty four stories to cover and they are all pretty fantastic it is even harder. So I am going to try and cover both the moods and tones of the collection and also which of the stories really stood out for me. First of all, and this is really what links all the stories the most obviously, I just want to say that I utterly adore Janet Frame’s writing style. It is really quite unlike anything I have read before as it has this sort of dream-like, or indeed nightmare-like, quality to it. It manages to be quite spare, sparse and matter of fact whilst being rather surreal.

It is poetic but not to the point of being precious, and she has a way of repeating phrases in each story which rather than being irritating actually make the points of the tale resound again and again, highlighting what she wants to say. Sometimes this will simply be a line in a story, or indeed like in the title tale ‘The Lagoon’ the first paragraph is also the last, not word for word yet almost slightly. It’s effective and also feels like Frame is catching you out or checking you are concentrating.

“At low tide there is no lagoon. Only a stretch of dirty grey sand. I remember we used to skim thin white stones over the water and catch tiddlers in the little creek nearby and make sand castles. This is my castle, we said, you be Father I’ll be Mother and we’ll live here and catch crabs and tiddlers forever…”

The dream like and nightmare like states of this collection are really mirrored in its two main tones/moods. The whole collection has a nostalgic and melancholic feel to it but sometimes of a very happy note and others an incredibly sad one. Loss is featured throughout, be it loss of a person, loss of security, loss of self or even a loss of the mind itself. The latter linking into the fact that Janet Frame was indeed sectioned and this very collection winning an award saved her from having a lobotomy which had been booked imminently. ‘The Bedjacket’ (which made me cry), ‘Snap-Dragons’ and ‘The Park’ all highlight asylums and mental illness in such a blunt raw and eye opening, and also psychological way, they left me almost speechless. The openness of this is quite unnerving and raw, yet all the more compelling and emotional. You could tell these stories were coming from the heart.

Most of the stories are told in a child’s narrative or from written from the perspective of someone very young. I am quite picky with child narration, sometimes it can feel a little forced, took knowing or too naïve, in the case of Frame’s tales in the collection where she uses the device (which is most of them actually) she gets the voice spot on, something I think is a tricky craft in itself. She also gets the relationship between siblings as youngsters just right too.

“Myrtle came home from down south full of secret smiles and giggles. Vincent, she said. Vincent this and Vincent that. Sometimes letters came and I who was Myrtle’s confidante had the privilege of curling up on the end of the bed and saying, read us that bit over again, read us the bit you missed out last time.”

Having gone off and found out more about her, always a good sign when I do this with a new to me author, and look up her other works etc did lead me to pondering just how autobiographical some of these tales are. As I mentioned Frame spent quite some time in an asylum and this is reflected in some of the stories. I also discovered that both her elder sisters drowned, in separate incidents, and some of the tales are concerning young death and water is an element that appears throughout this collection too.

I am so glad I have read ‘The Lagoon’ and been introduced to a new author such as Janet Frame whose writing and prose has really resonated with me. She is also one of those authors I love who writes about the smallest, most miniature, of things and makes a story from it. It’s more observational than plot driven, but in the right hands and written like this almost every tale is like a small emotional epic situation unfolding. There is no question that I will most definitely be reading more of her work in the future and I would strongly urge you to dip your toes into ‘The Lagoon’ and you could find a wonderful new to you author too.

Who else out there has read Janet Frame and what did you think? I would love recommendations of the other works of hers that I should read, what would you recommend next?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Janet Frame, Review, Short Stories