Category Archives: Bloomsbury Publishing

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Isn’t it funny how our minds work? Well, what I really mean is… isn’t it daft how my mind works? Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing had been one of the most talked about books last year, winning the National Book Award and being praised by waves of people, some of whom I trust the opinions very much. In fact I was sent a signed American edition before the buzz from two lovely, lovely bookish friends out there. All this talk though made me somewhat wary, this book was going to have a lot to prove just based around all the buzz, before I even started it. It was also my mother’s favourite to win the Women’s Prize, which I how I ended up getting to it much quicker than I might have otherwise because of my silly wariness.

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the Womens Prize

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see the black knife slid into the belt of his pants, I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate  innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today is my birthday.

In a book which starts with a death, ends with a death and has death almost literally floating around it you need some delight. Jojo is that delight, despite his circumstances. As we meet him on his thirteenth birthday, about to help his grandfather with some slaughtering, he is soon to learn that he will be taking the long journey with his mother Leonie, her friend, and his sister Kayla, to pick up his father Michael who is shortly to be released from jail. And so the road trip which becomes most of the novel starts. For me the road trip is not really what the essence of this novel is about. It is about family, history, love and hope. Oh and the aforementioned death, more on that later.

What is family? What is the definition of a parent? The latter being something I am rather fascinated by at the moment. Jojo, nor his sister, have the best of relationships or bonds with their parents, their mother being a distanced and difficult woman and their father having been mainly absent. His grandparents filling the parental role for Jojo, despite his grandmother being sick, and he in turn for his own sister, bonds his mother resents. These bonds being built all the tighter and her exclusion all the bigger because of these resentments, her behaviours and ways of dealing with them. How is it to be excluded from your own family, or just not feel part of it, seems to be where Leonie is coming from.

Jojo is the hope and joy of Sing, Unburied, Sing his mother Leonie is at the polar end of the spectrum of emotions. Under many an author Leonie would almost become a caricature of the evil mother. However, whilst continuously unlikeable, Ward creates a character who will make you question how you judge or understand someone (as I mentioned in my review of Home Fire) and their mindset. She is not maternal, but that is not what makes her so dislikeable, not being maternal is not a crime, it can be misunderstood though, or people can have preconceived ideas around it. What makes her so dislikeable is her addictions, to a man and to a substance. Leonie is a drug addict, she got pregnant by a white boy at the age of 17, a white boy who then went to prison on more than one occasion and leaving her with more than one child and an addiction before she was twenty. When high she tries to play the role of mother, when on a comedown her own understanding of why she isn’t the ‘perfect mother’ become a complex ball of rage only heightened when she sees the love between others that she is no part of.

“I’m tired of this shit,” I say. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe because I’m tired of driving, tired of the road stretching before me endlessly, Michael always at the opposite end of it, no matter how far I go, how far I drive. Maybe because part of me wanted her to leap for me, to smear orange vomit over the front of my shirt as her little tan body sought mine, always sought mine, our hearts separated by the thin cages of our ribs, exhaling and inhaling, our blood in sync. Maybe because I want her to burrow in to me for succor instead of her brother. Maybe because Jojo doesn’t even look at me, all his attention on the body in his arms, the little person he is trying to soothe, and  my attention is everywhere. Even now, my devotion: inconstant.

History is another huge part of Sing, Unburied, Sing, both family history and also some of the darkest parts of America’s history. Pop, despite his positivity and aura, is often lost in memories of a time in the past which he will half tell in stories to Jojo, a tale that comes more to the fore and we piece more and more together upon the arrival of Richie. A ghost.

The boy is River’s. I know it. I smelled him as soon as he entered the fields, as soon as the little red dented car swerved into the parking lot. The grass trilling and moaning all around, when I followed the scent to him, the dark, curly-haired boy in the backseat. Even if he didn’t carry the scent of leaves disintegrating to mud at the bottom of a river, the aroma of the bowl of the bayou, heavy with water and sediment and skeletons of small dead creatures, crab, fish, snakes and shrimp, I would still know he is River’s by the look of him. The sharp nose. The eyes as dark as swamp bottom. The way his bones run straight and true as River’s: indomitable as cypress. He is River’s child.

Yes, a ghost, and he isn’t the only one. Two relatives of this dysfunctional, or disfunctioning, family also form part of the story. And before I lose any of you who might be groaning at a ghostly twist, it really works. Richie not only is part of their families history, he is a manifestation of the family history and indeed the ugly history of the South and one whose legacy is often felt but never seen almost buried under the carpet yet who Jojo can see but can’t work out. Given however, another family member, only appears to Leonie when she is high, is he a manifestation or simply a hallucination of guilt and what she isn’t dealing with and what she might hide. It is hard to say more without giving any spoilers away.

These ghosts also become a literal symbol of death floating around the family, it’s history and also our one and only certainty in a world that often seems so uncertain. It looks at those dabbling with death through their actions, those who died innocently from the actions of others and those facing death because it comes to us all. Yet what Ward is clear to point out is that even in the hardest and darkest of times, love lives on and through that, no matter what we might face, we can always have and build on hope.

I couldn’t bear her being a ghost. Couldn’t take her sitting in the kitchen, invisible. Couldn’t take seeing Pop walk around her without touching her cheek, without bending to kiss her on the neck. Couldn’t bear to see Leonie sit on her without seeing, light up a cigarette, blow smoke rings in the warm, still air. Michael stealing her whisks and spatulas to cook in one of the sheds.
“It’s like walking through a door, Jojo.”

So, to round off, I am going to add to the buzz around Sing, Unburied, Sing as I thought it was a wonderful and moving tale. I can struggle on occasion with magical realism, I think I always try and analyse it too much rather than just let it take me away which Jojo and Richie did. It is a book that in some ways turns a road trip story on its head but really turns a family drama on its head and asks what it means to be a family and how family histories, told or hidden, can shape us in ways we least expect and that some of our darkest moments can become some of our most defining; sometimes for the bad but with hope mainly for the good.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2018, Jesmyn Ward, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

As I am sure you will know by now Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. For the second (or is it third) year in a row I have enjoyed reading the whole longlist, which I plan on doing again with my mother next year as something a bit different. I think will be lots of fun and also quite eye opening as when we agree, we really agree, and when we don’t we really don’t as we discovered in a pub in Conwy talking about some of this year’s books last week. One of the books that we both agreed was wonderful was this novel, which my mother had actually read way ahead of me when it was up for the Costa’s.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 2018, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by Womens Prize

It is almost too easy to start talking about this book and mentioning the, well documented, fact that Home Fire is the retelling of Sophocles’ play Antigone, which I guess I have kind of done. I would like to park that for the rest of my thoughts as I think to do that may alienate anyone who doesn’t know the story. Which you don’t need to if you haven’t and also gives too much away. I had and teh ripples of my previous knowledge were sometimes felt though in many ways they added to the incredible tension building and sense of unease which Shamsie uses to create such a compelling read that you won’t forget it in a hurry. The ending will literally… well, suffice to say it will haunt you for quite some time.

However, Home Fire in its essence is a tale of three siblings, Isma and her twin sister and brother Aneeka and Parvais whose relationships, after the death of their mother, start to literally and emotionally fracture. Isma feeling, admittedly with a small pang of guilt, free from her family for the first time goes off to America to study. Parvais seeking to find out more about their mysterious father, who we the reader know became a Jihadist, and Anneka seemingly trying to keep the family together and safe as much as she ca whilst falling in love with the Home Secretary’s son, not the perfect match especially as the complexities of the novel move on. It is also in many ways what is it like to be London born of Pakistani descent in the UK right now, whether you have taken your families religion or not.

A man entered the office, carrying Isma’s passport, laptop and phone. She allowed herself to hope, but he sat down, gestured for her to do the same, and placed a voice recorder between them.
‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

The crux of the novel centres around Parvaiz. Whether he is at the forefront of the novel or not, the foreshadowing of his situation the reverberations afterwards are interwoven throughout every page whether it is his voice we are hearing or one of the other narrators be it Isma, Aneeka, Eamonn, Lone or himself. It is his search to find out more about his father, after the death of his mother and what he perceives as abandonment by his elder sister, which eventually leads him to the world of radicalisation himself.

It is this section of the novel that I found to be the most difficult to read and yet the most thought provoking. As we follow Parvaiz and his sense of loss, questions and feeling lost, we understand how someone could then harness that for their own horrific means. Here I felt Shamsie does two things that I have found incredibly trusting and powerful in two of the other Women’s Prize shortlisted books. As with Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, we become groomed as the characters are, not literally but yet as you read you can fully see and almost experience how this could happen. As with Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing we are taken into mindset of a deeply troubled character and asked to try and understand the thoughts in their head that are so alien to us. It is incredibly potent reading; cloying and claustrophobic whilst making you question what you would do if that were you, could you genuinely not end up in the same situation?

He’d grown up knowing that his father was a shameful secret, one that must be kept from the world outside or else posters would appear on the Preston Road with the line DO YOU KNOW WHO YOUR NEIGHBOURS ARE? and rocks would be thrown through windows and he and his sisters wouldn’t receive invitations to the homes of their classmates and no girl would ever say yes to him. The secrecy had lived inside the house, too. His mother and Isma both carried around an anger towards Adil Pasha too immense for words, and as for Aneeka – her complete lack of feeling or curiosity about their father had been the first definite sign that he and his twin were two, not one. His grandmother alone had wanted to talk about the absence in their lives; part of their closeness came from how sometimes she would call him into her room and whisper stories about the high-spirited, good-looking, laughing-eyed boy she’d raised. But the stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became.

Whilst the subject of radicalisation is at the heart of Home Fire, there is also much more going on around that. Through Isma we see how difference is perceived by the US, which is of ever growing concern. Aneeka’s love affair takes us right into the heart of British politics and it’s confused and conflicting current state. There is also an interesting, and often subtle, look at religion and how everyone can take their holy words and perceive them in a way which works for them but would be read completely differently by someone else. In many ways it is this very thing which is at the epicentre of most of the conflict of today.

 ‘You know the Quran tells us to enjoy sex as one of God’s blessings?’ Hira said.
‘Within marriage!’
‘We all have our versions of selective reading when it comes to the Holy Book.’

Home Fire is one of the most haunting and thought provoking books that I have read in a long while. It is also a book that will subtly unsettle you in all the right ways and not just because of THAT ending. Kamila Shamsie does something incredible with this novel and her characters, you are not asked to judge them, you are asked to comprehend them and how each one of them might end up in the situation that they do. It is confronting, compelling and makes you want to delve deeper into the intricacies of one of the most controversial and troubling topics of our world today. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2018, Kamila Shamsie, Review, Women's Prize for Fiction

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

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller

When I was first sent Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ as a very early unsolicited advance proof copy last summer I swiftly passed it onto my mother. You see she is a classicist and indeed teaches classics, as well as English literature, so I knew she would love it. I also assumed being about the Greek gods, myths and legends it would therefore not be mine. I am sure my mother’s passion for the subject is contagious for her students but as her own child it occasionally got a bit much. I think it was the 12 endless hours in Pompeii during my bolshie early teens, when I was so bored I had the biggest sulk ever (even a rather rude painting my mother dragged us to find didn’t have the desired effect of cheering me up) that could have put me off. Or maybe it was getting 100% in my Classics exam at the school my mother taught at and having the mickey taken out of me that was the final straw? Either way I completely shut the subject out of my life. Hence why I thought ‘The Song of Achilles’ would be highly unlikely to win me over. Yet I heard Michael Kindness rave about it on Books on the Nightstand, it then got longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, and so I read it. I didn’t expect it to be a book that would reinvigorate my love for classics again or have me sobbing like a baby…

9781408821985

Bloomsbury Publishing, hardback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (but borrowed from the library as gave my Mum the one was sent, oops)

No doubt you will know the name Achilles whether you have read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer or not (and I haven’t) and indeed will probably have heard the tale of the Trojan War. That said, whether you have or not doesn’t actually matter because with ‘The Song of Achilles’ Madeline Miller retells you the tale but in doing so gives it a new perspective from one of the most unsung heroes of the tale itself, Patroclus.

Born a rather frail specimen, in fact somewhat an embarrassment to his father Menoetius (one of the Argonauts no less), he is involved in a terrible incident that sees him banished to Phthia, the land of King Peleus, he soon becomes a very unlikely friend to Peleus’ son Achilles, who he couldn’t be less like. It is from here, and through Patroclus, that Miller brings us the tale of the Trojan War and all its adventure, it’s also here that she gives us a love story too. It is both the adventure and this love story that makes us read on.

Though it is never officially stated in The Iliad, it is believed, and inferred, by many that Patroclus was not just simply Achilles’ closest confident and right hand man but that they also became lovers. It is this dynamic of their youthful friendship that gives the book its sense of adventure and the love story what gives the novel its emotional punch. I don’t normally love a love story, but I really loved this one. I can’t quite put my finger on how, which is probably why it works so well, Miller creates such a believable and touching relationship between these two men starting from pre-pubescent friendship that becomes post teenage love because she does it so deftly but you’ll be rooting for them, even though we soon learn the gods have stated a prophecy which isn’t going to reach a happy conclusion for anyone concerned. Have a tissue ready, seriously.

‘After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still.  At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half-seconds, that the line of our gaze connected , were the only moment in my day when I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop in my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.’

Now here I must mention the Gods and the mythic creatures that do appear in the book. Some people choose not to mention them in modern twists on classics but I was relieved to see Miller was keeping them in (I mean why wouldn’t you as they make up so much of these old legends). That said, I knew that if she didn’t make them ring true, or make me conjure them in such a way as I believed in the unbelievable (a small ask) then she would have lost me. I needn’t have feared, as soon as Achilles mother Thetis appeared on the page I was sold hook, line and sinker.

‘The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon.  She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.’

It simply gets better and better from here on in. What was truly wonderful, and this is just a personal thing I guess, was how it made me want to go back to all the Greek and Roman myths and legends that my mother used to tell me and re-read them. It sort of brought out a passion for these tales that I had long forgotten. I actually cheered when Chiron the Centaur appeared on the stage, seriously I was so excited, ‘a centaur!’, and found myself smiling as I remembered the names and the tales of other characters mentioned in the novel.

‘At night we lay on the soft grass in front of the cave, and Chiron showed us the constellations, telling their stories – Andromeda, cowering before the sea monster’s jaws, and  Perseus poised to rescue her; the immortal horse Pegasus, aloft on his wings, born from the severed head of Medusa. He told us too of Heracles, his labours, and the madness that took him. In its grip he had not recognised his wife and children, and had killed them for enemies.’

I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. It’s now made me want to read ‘The Iliad’ (watch out for a read-a-long with Michael Kindness and I in due course) which I would never have thought of reading before. I also want to dust off my copy of ‘The Greek Myths’, dig out Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and get my hands on David Malouf’s ‘The Ransom’ too. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?

Have you read this and if so what did you make of it? What novels based on Greek Legends, or reworking them, have you read and would recommend? Oh and, Madeline Miller will be on the blog tomorrow, as will the chance to win some copies of this marvellous book. In the meantime thoughts and recommendations most welcome.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Madeline Miller, Review

The Tent – Margaret Atwood

Sometimes you need to turn to a favourite author don’t you? One author who I always feel I can turn to is Margaret Atwood. I actually think that a love for Margaret Atwood is something that lives and breathes in my DNA; my Gran loves her, my mother loves her and if you read this blog regularly you will know that I love her too. I wasn’t in the mood for one of her tomes, though I did consider reading ‘Alias Grace’ or giving ‘The Robber Bride’ a second chance (why didn’t I love that book?) and so I thought, having had success with ‘Murder in the Dark’ and ‘Good Bones’, I would give another of her fictional essay collections, ‘The Tent’ a whirl.

Bloomsbury Publishing, paperback, 2007, fiction, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

Collections such as ‘The Tent’ are always really difficult to review as they are a delightful hotchpotch of snippets of an author’s work that aren’t quite long enough to be a short story collection. In fact this collection is brimming with a whopping thirty-five mini works. Mind you what could be better than almost forty pieces of Margaret Atwood’s brainstorming and idea’s? Nothing frankly, if we are being honest! If you haven’t read any Atwood then this is actually a rather wonderful collection of hers to start with as you really do get a flavour of what a versatile author she is.

One such short I must highlight straight away is ‘Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon’. Here Atwood takes a couple and greats a basic story and then turns it on its head, with varying twists, styles and genres and giving them different names like ‘Worm Zero’, ‘Spongedeath’ and ‘Beetleplunge’. It’s fascinating example of how an author might randomly have a stab at a novel and then make errors and changes as they go, whilst also just being a very entertaining read.

‘The Tent’ is set into three parts and I could try and feign some academic understanding of why the tales are in the parts they are, and indeed the order they are. Instead, actually, I just enjoyed them. ‘Orphan Stories’ made me laugh as I too have often wondered why on earth most stories have an orphan at their heart, its wry and dark but also a little moving and to do that in five pages is very clever. ‘Voice’ is a very clever analogy of why we were given a voice and the good and bad we can do with it. There’s almost a fable element to it.

My very favourite of the stories all had rather magical and fairytale like elements to them. ‘Chicken Little Goes Too Far’ is a hilarious modern take on the old fable, I am imagining that this might just be the sort of stories she writes in ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ which I really must read. It’s the original mini tales that I loved the most of all. ‘It’s Not Easy Being Half Divine’ and ‘Salome Was A Dancer’ both are very modern tales yet they read in that way you loved as a child at bedtime. I think ‘Winter’s Tales’ is one of the funniest modern fairytales I have read, how could you not love a story that starts with…

‘Once upon a time, you say, there were germs with horns. They lived in the toilet and could only be defeated by gallons and gallons of bleach. You could commit suicide by drinking this bleach, and some women did.’

You weren’t expecting that were you? Some of these fictional essays are also rather political. Atwood is becoming better and better known for her worldy wise views and there are elements of this side of her nature in ‘Warlords’, ‘Resources of the Ikranians’ and title story ‘The Tent’. They never preach, there is just a steering of direction and undertone, but not enough to alienate should you not agree with them, and of course I do. If that wasn’t enough there are also poems in the forms of ‘The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins’ and ‘Bring Back Mom: An Invocation’ plus some of Atwood’s own illustrations too.

‘The Tent’ was just the sort of read you need from a voice, or narrator, that you know well. It also reminded me that whilst I love almost everything that Margaret Atwood writes I don’t always understand it. I can come away a little confused and yet having enjoyed the experience. Oddly that said I would urge people who haven’t tried Atwood before to give this a whirl, it is a really good way of experiencing all the types of ways she writes.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Margaret Atwood, Review, Short Stories

Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

There are those rare books that come into your life and once finished you feel a little bereft because they were so good. Lucy Wood’s debut collection of short stories ‘Diving Belles’ is one such book, in fact I loved it so much I had to ration it out to the point I was only reading one or two stories a week. I simply didn’t want to it end. Now of course I want you all to have that experience. So even if you think you don’t like magical books, short story collections or maybe shy away from modern fiction, please, please read on or you might miss out on an absolute reading gem.

Bloomsbury Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, short stories, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Diving Belles’ is a collection of stories that it would be easy to describe as fairytales for adults, that very statement may of course put people off, and while it is a book that finds the myths and legends of the Cornish coast seeping into every page of it there is so much more to it than that. Of course writing about a whole collection is always difficult (made doubly so when you loved every single one in the book) as you could end up giving too much away on each story or end up writing something as long as the collection itself.

The main theme with the book is that each story has a magical and rather other worldly element to it. Be they tales of old grandma’s living in caves by the sea in ‘Beachcombing’ or tales of awkward first love and teenage hormones in ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ Lucy Wood manages to merge the modern with the magical, you feel like you know the world you are taken into and yet there is something so ‘other’ about it you are never quite sure. Actually the last tale in the collection, ‘Some Drolls Are Like That Some Drolls Are Like This’ sums up the whole collection as a man gives a tour round a Cornish village to tourists who want to hear of the old tales and yet as he tries to tell them he finds the modern world steps in or the magical elements simply cannot be explained and struggle to come off the tongue to this pair of outsiders.

There are two particularly deft things that Lucy Wood does with ‘Diving Belles’. Firstly she gives a nod to the fairytales of old, we have children visiting their grandma’s with gifts, people being lead into woods following a tempting trail in ‘Magpies’ and we have mermaids, talking creatures, the seas and snow to which fairytales lend themselves, or maybe work best alongside. The second thing is that she looks at human emotions and adds a magical element to try and explain them. In the aforementioned ‘The Giant’s Boneyard’ teenagers growing pains are given a literal yet magical twist. In ‘The Wishing Tree’ we have elements of magic in a tale about the unspoken acknowledgement between a mother and daughter about something awful. ‘Light’s In Other Peoples Houses’ uses the arrival of ghost of a ship wrecker in a new home to have our narrator look at her past, long buried. A grown up daughter must come to turns with her mother and fathers separation and how they have moved on, even if one of them seems to have met someone from another world, and accept it for herself in ‘Of Mothers and Little People’.

In every story the writing is so beautiful that you are completely engulfed and lost in the world that Lucy Wood has created for you. They can be achingly sad one moment and laugh out loud funny the next, there is never a sense of melancholy and yet you are often incredibly moved. It therefore makes any favourites really difficult to spot, and indeed to find the perfect example of her writing. However I did have a few particular standouts.

‘Diving Belles’, the opening and title story, is the tale of a woman, called Iris, and the grief of her husbands disappearance. Everyone, including herself, knows that he has been taken by the mermaids but it is something unspoken in the village, it is the way it is, and yet in her desperation to see him after ‘seventeen thousand, six hundred and thirty two’ nights she sees the local woman Demelza who runs ‘Diving Belles’ a company just for the women in the town in the same predicament. What Iris discovers will have you misty eyed, but I shall say no more. ‘Countless Stones’ tells of Rita, a woman who from time to time knows she must become part of a stone circle, sometimes for weeks sometimes for months though not yet for years, and Wood really gets you into the head of someone who is resigned to this and how it affects her having a normal life. It is just stunning. I love witches and wizards, have since I was a child, and so that’s probably why ‘Blue Moon’ was a huge success with me. What would happen if witches and wizards ended up in an old people’s home? What awful things could they do if ‘the kitchen runs out of ketchup or they miss their favourite programme on the telly’ (here is a prime example of Wood’s wonderful tongue in cheek humour and her mix of the modern with the magical), you read on and find out and also discover a touching tale of old age.

The standout story for me had to be ‘Notes from the House Spirits’. Here we are given decades and decades of the dwellers of an unnamed house from the perspective of the house itself, or at least the essence of the house all in under twenty pages. Some people the house likes, some it doesn’t, but not only do I know that every time I pass an empty house from now on I will think of this tale and feel for the building, I am also left wondering if my house likes me? Seriously, it is that effective and is some of the most original, exciting and simply brilliant prose I have read in some time.

‘It’s always the same – feet, feet, feet and dirt on the carpet and now everything is being moved, now everything is being changed. There is noise and there is more noise and then there is the worst thing: walls have been taken away and a door. Now there is a gap where the door was and there is a bigger room instead of two rooms and one less room where the wall was before. We have been rearranged. We hide behind the curtain poles and under the loose tiles in the kitchen. Things have been changed and things have been taken away. We are not sure. We are not sure at all. We have been rearranged. It is not what we expected to happen. How can you take away a wall or a door and not expect the whole house to fall down? How hasn’t the whole house fallen down already? We cower, covering our heads, waiting for it to happen.

It hasn’t happened yet.’

I urge all of you to go out and read ‘Diving Belles’. I don’t think I have been this excited or captivated by a debut author, or indeed a well known one, in quite some time (actually Eowyn Ivey’s ‘The Snow Child’ had this effect). It’s the sort of book that really makes reading come alive and re-ignites or invigorates the joy of reading to anyone no matter how little or how much you read. I should really stop enthusing now shouldn’t I? It might seem a little obvious to say that this is easily my book of the year and will be a collection I return to again and again but it’s true. I know what I will be buying everyone for their birthdays this year or just randomly as a treat.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2012, Lucy Wood, Review, Short Stories

The Book Boy – Joanna Trollope

I wonder if I can explain why I have not read any Joanna Trollope before without implying that I am some kind of book snob. I suppose it’s simply fair enough, and true enough, to say that I have never really fancied them. In my head, with a mixture of the covers and things I have heard along the way, I have imagined she is rather twee and upper class and I just wouldn’t like them. Sometimes though the title of a book will make you give an author a try and when I saw ‘The Book Boy’ at the library, and saw it was one of the ‘quick reads’ initiative title I thought ‘oh why not?’

Bloomsbury Books, paperback, 2006, fiction, 95 pages, borrowed from the library

Alice is a thirty-eight year old woman stuck in a rut. She is her entire families doormat. Her husband Ed domineers over her with a certain edge of the dark and fearful in anything he does, her son Craig seems to be following his example (and has started hanging out with an unsavoury new friend) and Becky, her daughter and possible ally, thinks she is stupid. All this seems to emanate from the fact that Alice cannot read, something she has always wanted to do, and its something that no one speaks of and yet everyone knows. It also seems to be what people, including Alice herself, us to hold her back.

I feel forgotten, Alice though. Forgotten.
 ‘Mum!’ Craig yelled.
Like, Alice thought, something that fell down the back of the sofa. And got lost. That’s what I feel like.

Of course from the premise of the book we know that this is about to change, what we don’t know is how. I will say that help comes in the least expected guise; I will leave it at that. Through the relationships she has outside the house, mainly with her friend Liz (who has a very funny moment when she becomes a spy) and the Chandra family whose corner shops she cleans, we learn just how closed a life she leads and one which is clearly making her deeply unhappy. This is not a melancholy novella however, in fact it is very much one of hope.

This is a piece of fiction of less than 100 pages which gives a very clear insight into the life of its main character. Alice and her situation are fully fleshed out and though the other characters, including her family, aren’t fleshed out so well they are really there in order to act awfully and show us just how dreary Alice’s life is. Its how she got there and the fact that she initially seems to simply accept that this is her lot in life which proves deeply affecting and through provoking.

How much of the world do we miss if we are unable to read? How do people judge those who can’t? How would our lives be hindered by it and in what ways? These are all the questions that Joanna Trollope looks at, and I was impressed by how much I felt in so little pages. It reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to read and how much it benefits my life, not only in the fact I can read little gems like this, but in the everyday things which we completely forget about and take for granted.

It’s interesting that whilst I enjoyed this example of Joanna Trollope’s work I am not sure if I would read any more. I liked this book because of the story it was telling rather than who was telling it if that makes sense? It was a book you could read for an hour and pop away, would I fare so well with something longer? Is there some underlying subconscious snobbery in me? Maybe I am wrong, maybe another Joanna Trollope would be right up my street, or maybe it was nice to read her once and that’s enough? We all have an encounter with an author like this now and again don’t we? Anyone got any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Joanna Trollope, Review

Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

There was quite a lot of furore when the Man Booker longlist came out wasn’t there? First up there was all the titles we hadn’t heard of, then there was the fact the big names were missing, and then there was debate over which titles should definitely not be on the list. ‘Pigeon English’, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman, seemed to be the novel that became the particular scapegoat in all this and so, along with the fact it was one of my ‘Reading With Authors’ choices with Naomi Wood, it became the one I most wanted to read first in part to see what all the fuss was about.

Bloomsbury, Fiction, 2011, 263 pages, sent by publishers

There is an underlying issue with ‘reviewing’ a novel like ‘Pigeon English’ and daring to critique it. It almost makes you wonder should you dare to because the subject matter is a delicate one, in the main it seems that Stephen Kelman took the story of school boy Damiloa Taylor’s death and wrote a fictional response about/to it. ‘Pigeon English is told by eleven year old Harrison Opuku, a young man who is also an immigrant from Ghana now living on one of the tower block council estates in London. This is an area of street gangs, poverty and violence; in fact the novel opens with the death of a school boy who Harrison sort of knew.  

“Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy. I could bring him alive in that way. It happened before, where I used to live there was a chief who brought his son back like that. It was a long time ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t work this time.”

Writing in a child’s narrative has become something of trend in modern contemporary writing, long before ‘Room’ we had ‘What Was Lost’ (and indeed the theme of child detective comes up in this book as Harrison and his best friend decide to hunt the killer), it is also a hard act to balance when on a tough subject. Can you hold the reader’s belief? Does the narrative ring true? Does the simplicity of the voice dilute the events that are happening? Sadly, for me at least, whilst I loved Harrison’s view on life, which often made me laugh out loud, it took away the impact of the novel. When you are spending time in the company of this lively witty young man you are also left missing a lot. I never felt I got to know any of the other characters deeply, the other school kids like X-Fire (pronounced Cross Fire) or Killa became almost like cartoon caricatures, his sister and mother has no real back story other than one being the matriarch and the other a bit of a pain. I also felt like there was a whole back story in Ghana I simply didn’t know enough about. Oh and I haven’t even started on the talking pigeon, something I didn’t think was needed or added anything other than making me a bit cross.

I’m aware this sounds harsh, and indeed there are many things that make this book highly readable. Harrison’s voice rings true and is a delight, it’s a novel very much ‘of the time’ and I it was highly readable – almost too readable for its topic. I wanted Stephen Kelman to give me more though, I wanted the wonderful ‘council estate whodunit’ thread to be more of a story rather than a game/accidental thread/plot device, I wanted to know much more about his mother and what was going on with Ghana. There was a certain vagueness, or maybe it was simply too closed in a horizon which children can have, for me and that turned what could have been a fantastic book into a good one but one that didn’t pack any emotional punch for me. If you have read this book then you will know it should have hit home harder all the way through but especially at the ending.

“You could see lighter burns on Miquita’s hands all shiny like wax. They weren’t even for a good reason like Auntie Sonia’s burns, they were just a trick. Killa only made them so Miquita would admire him. I even felt sorry for him then. I didn’t even have to burn Poppy to make her admire me, I only had to make her laugh. Somebody should tell him, laughing is the best way to make them admire you. It’s even easier than burning.”

All that said I would recommend ‘Pigeon English’ but maybe not so much for the adult market, and here I think Bloomsbury have missed a bit of a trick. This is a book with a wonderful child’s voice that should be being pushed into schools and aimed at a young adult market. In that setting, and with that audience, I honestly think this book would have an incredible impact. I would also recommend this as a good ‘book group’ novel, it’s a great one for discussion. Not just for its subject matter, but also for the joys and pitfalls of the child narrator in fiction.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? I feel a bit like I am being ‘bah-humbug’ about it, but I did enjoy reading it, and whenever I did pick it up I certainly read it quickly. I just felt something was missing amongst all the signs of promise. I will certainly read Stephen Kelman’s next novel. You can see a discussion between Naomi Wood and myself about ‘Pigeon English’ here, be warned there was almost a fig roll fight so watch for any low flying biscuits.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Man Booker, Review, Stephen Kelman