Category Archives: Books of 2016

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

I am probably quite the stuck record when it comes to this, but hey ho my blog my rules and foibles, but when an author I love has a new book out I get excited and I get nervous. The latter tends to win in the reading part of my brain and so I put off reading the book because I am scared it might not be as amazing as I want it to be. Pessimism, another foible of mine. In the case of Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Gustav Sonata I couldn’t have been more wrong as I think this might be my favourite novel of hers yet.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland , at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.

As The Gustav Sonata opens we are instantly thrown into the slightly claustrophobic and cloying world of Gustav Perle. Living alone with his mother, after the death of his father which no one ever talks about, he lives a sheltered life where his mother struggles to make ends meet. Whilst his father his absent his presence is anything but, yet it must not be discussed or questioned. Without realising it Gustav is living quite an unhappy life until he befriends a boy new to the neighbourhood, Anton. As Anton and his mysterious background come into Gustav’s life so do the questions that he has never asked or even contemplated.

One or two of the apartment residents arrived in the courtyard and stopped to smile at the two boys dancing around the old cherry tree. Later, when Anton had gone home, Emilie said, ‘I suppose there may not be any cherry trees in Bern. It’s unlikely, but one can’t say for sure. Perhaps he had never seen one before?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gustav.
‘I think he’s a nice boy,’ said Emilie, ‘but of course he is a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’ asked Gustav,
‘Ah,’ said Emilie. ‘The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’

Anton therefore in many ways brings as much lightness as he does darkness into Gustav’s life, something Tremain keeps bringing up and we see repeating throughout. On the one hand he has the kind of friendship he has always dreamed of, certainly the opposite to one with one of his neighbours sons. He also, through Anton’s parents and situation gets introduced to a world unlike any he has known, here the conflicts come in. He lives on the breadline while Anton lives a life of spoils, Anton is set to be a prodigal pianist whilst Gustav has never been given any drive or belief, Anton’s family are loving and caring to him while Emilie is somewhat cold and unstable. These contrasts naturally cause Gustav some internal turmoil.

Here is one of the main strengths of Tremain’s writing and the novel. Facades, which is really what lies at the heart of The Gustav Sonata, the facades we create for ourselves and for others. Gustav sees Anton’s life as perfect, yet Tremain shows us as readers that this is not always the case. This is always something that I love in fiction, where we get to know more than the characters and what lies around them, yet Tremain makes it anything but predictable, again something I have always loved in her writing since I started reading her work a few years ago. I am fanboying aren’t I? I don’t even care, it’s all true.

‘Won’t your parents think this is odd? They might not want us to play here.’
‘We won’t tell them,’ said Anton.
‘Where will they think we are?’
‘Just “exploring”. On holidays, when she doesn’t want me around, my mother’s always saying “Why don’t you go exploring, Anton?” We’ll tell them we’re building a camp in the forest. And anyway, they’ll be fucking.’
‘What’s fucking?’
‘It’s what they like to do on holiday. They go to bed and take their clothes off and kiss and scream things out, It’s called fucking.’

Moments like this in the novel are ones where Rose Tremain does so much with so little. Reading this part of the book as adults we see that actually Anton’s parents are not living the perfect life that he or Gustav believe, they are actually there to try to save their marriage. We also see, without spoilers, that Tremain cleverly creates several analogies as the boys’ adventure in the atmosphere of the Alps foreign climbs. When you have read the book you will know what I mean. From a character level, we also get to see how much Gustav looks up to Anton and how truly shielded from the world he is and how soon the two embrace freedom to the full. It is here that something happens which has effects that ripple throughout the book and of which I will say no more or you will not be weeping at the end of the book like I was, with a mix of sadness and utter joy.

Yet The Gustav Sonata is not just about Gustav. There is a second story with the pages of this book which reveals itself within the second part, of three, in the novel. This is the story of Gustav’s father Erich and how he meets Emilie and what happens in the lead up to his absence in the house. That said though, this being Rose Tremain it isn’t that simple and the full reveal doesn’t come until a point you least expect it. Moving on, for fear of spoilers as this is a twisty wonderful book, there is once again layers to this second story which take us in directions we least expect and see characters again doing this we may personally fathom but boy are they interesting to read. It also highlights again how the history of our families and what has gone before us can shape both our personalities and upbringing even when we don’t ourselves see it as children. Something I personally find really fascinating.

Tremain remains like Switzerland throughout, neutral. Don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for her characters or the situations which they find themselves in, good or bad. It is this neutrality – which I think is always in her work and is one of the things that I like so much about it – that leaves the reader to place their emotions and their own moral compass, you have to ask ‘well what would I do?’ and ‘how would I feel in those circumstances in that time in that society?’ All of this only makes the novel all the more powerful and the readers emotional investment all the greater. And like I said this book had me an emotional mess by the end, as all the best books do.

If you hadn’t guessed, I loved The Gustav Sonata. I read it at the very end of last year and it was just what I needed, a novel that reminded me why I read and the power of a great book. I also think it is my favourite of all the Rose Tremain novels and short stories I have read since I have started reading her work, which my Gran told me to do when she was terminally ill as she was sure Tremain is an author I ‘would get’ or vice versa. I find it very odd that she won’t read this book, anyway before I get all emotional about that and the book… Suffice to say I think that if you haven’t read it yet then I strongly urge you to. It is one of the best novels I have read in some time.

If you haven’t got yourself a copy then you can here. I have no idea how the Bailey’s judges are going to choose a winner between this and The Essex Serpent which were both two of my books of last year. That said I am now reading the whole longlist and having read a few of the first chapters of some of them it is looking like a really strong longlist. Have any of you read The Gustav Sonata and if so what did you think? What about Rose Tremain’s other novels and collections?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2016, Review, Rose Tremain, Vintage Books

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

When I was in London back at the start of the month I popped into the Tottenham Court Road Waterstones, which is fast becoming one of my favourite bookshops, and was drawn to a table displaying a pile of books with £5 of the cost going to Oxfam if you bought it. I didn’t really need to know more than that to buy it, partly because I never really need that much of an excuse to buy a new book and also because Oxfam is a charity I believe in. The then unknown book to me was Emma-Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa and I think, having read it and cried through it twice, it might be one of the most incredible books, and most important books right now, that I have read in some time.

9780241295281

Allen Lane, 2016, hardback, non fiction, 120 pages, bought by myself for myself

There are too many of them. Too many of them and I don’t know how to do this. I am an optician; I’m not a lifesaver. I’m an optician on holiday and I don’t know how to do this.

It is around this sentence that The Optician of Lampedusa begins, through Emma-Jane Kirby, to tell his tale. He is a regular man on the island of Lampedusa where he works as an optician. He is known and well liked by those on the island and likes to socialise but mainly him and his wife keep themselves to themselves and with dinners or trips away with friends. He wants a simple life, yet on one boating trip away with his friends, not too far away from home at all; their lives all change on a single morning.

When it came this time, the monstrous, tortured howl ripped through everyone like a bullet. Instinctively, the optician moved his hand to protect his face. He staggered to keep his footing on the cabin roof. What the hell was out there?
The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching. The optician felt his stomach knot. Something was roaring underneath the waves and whatever it was the optician had a gut feeling that when they found it, it would be truly terrible. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and tried to nod reassuringly at Teresa who was looking at him in horror.

What we then experience is the optician’s account of what follows when he and his friends come across a mass of people, alive and dead, after the sinking of a boat on which they were all trying to escape heading for Europe. And through the optician’s account, which I have little doubt Emma Jane Kirby deviated from at all as it seers its self into your brain, we are given an unflinching, horrifying look at what the refugee crisis is like first hand from someone who thinks of themselves as ordinary but is to many a hero. I found it hugely affecting, both the description of the awful day when they found the refugees and also what happened to them and the refugees afterwards which we follow. I don’t want to talk about what happens after because I think you need to read it all to experience it.

I have never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. Gasping, yelling, choking, screaming. Oh God, the screaming! The pitch of it! The sea boiling and writhing around them as they kicked and lashed out, clinging to each other, grabbing at pieces of the driftwood, snatching handfuls of water as they tried to clutch the tops of the breakers.

As much as this book is (rightly so) shocking, it gives the reader much food for thought on many thing. One of the most powerful things being that this is not fiction that we are reading, this was very much someone’s real life, one person in many whom have come face to face with what is going on. Emma-Jane Kirby is a journalist for BBC Radio 4’s PM show where she reported on the Mediterranean crisis and indeed focused the story on Carmine Menna, who we learn at the end (well those of us who didn’t hear the reportage – I am feeling slightly appalled at myself for having missed it) is indeed his story. So the unflinching reality is literally jaw dropping. As I said earlier it has made me cry several times on several reads of it.

It is with this in mind that I think Emma-Jane Kirby points out something very important, just how numb we become to the news. When we hear or see a story on the news, on or the front pages, we are horrified and outraged. Yet really how much do we actually do about it apart from then discuss how horrified and outraged? We slowly but surely become numb to it, and this indeed is the case with the optician himself, living life on his island knowing it is happening but in some ways becoming used to it, until it then stares him full on in the eyes.

Twenty years ago, when he could run the island’s roads effortlessly, the optician of Lampedusa would sometimes spot a scared migrant scrambling up the rocks onto his path. They had almost always been alone and would shout to him in English: ‘Where am I? Am I in Palmero? Have I reached Sicily?’
He shakes his head in disbelief. It seems a long time ago now. The Arab Spring changed everything and they never come on their own anymore. Big boatloads arrive now in a constant stream – whole families; women and children too, poor things. Only a couple of years ago the newspapers were reporting that Lampedusa now had more migrants and refugees than inhabitants! The skin on his forehead wrinkles. Best not to think too much about it really. The TV, the papers – they’re saturated with the news about migrants; it’s all they talk about. There was something else on the radio the other day about some more drowning off the coast of Sicily. Seven or eight of them, was it?

And of course we can’t all rush off and go to the places that this is happening to help out, that is not what I or this book are saying. I am after all still sat in my house on my sofa typing this after having been moved so much by the book. Yet buying the book has sent some money to help, reading the book has opened my eyes to the refugee crisis both in terms of reading it so viscerally from an eye witness, well through an eye witness through Emma-Jane Kirby, and to aspects of it I didn’t know and led me to looking at ways I can do small things to contribute. I won’t go on about those because I don’t want to preach, part of my effort is to hope some of you will read this and rush off to Waterstones to buy it before the end of the month so more of those £5 wing their way to Oxfam and the refugees who need it. (If you haven’t a Waterstones near you just get it and read it anyway.)

I guess I have kind of digressed from the book here, yet I think that The Optician of Lampedusa is the sort of book that makes you do that. The optician of Lampedusa himself did something extraordinary that saved lives, Emma-Jane Kirby reported on it and wrote the book to share the story and awareness and get other people to do the same, that is now what I want to do with this review, even if it is just one or two of you rushing off to get it. That is where a book like The Optician of Lampedusa is so important, and reminds us how powerful books and people’s stories can be in making us see the reality of things and do what we can to help.

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Filed under Allen Lane Books, Books of 2016, Emma-Jane Kirby, Non Fiction, Review

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Sometimes you just get a gut feeling about a book don’t you? You see it in a bookshop, or hear about it somewhere and just think ‘that is probably going to be the book for me’. That was the case with Eleanor Wasserberg’s debut novel Foxlowe, a book which caught my eye with its cover (a creepy looking big house gets me every time) and then became a must read when I discovered it was about communes. So I promptly asked the publishers if I might snaffle a copy. Yet once it arrived I did that awful thing when you have I crush, I became a bit shy of it (coy some might say; sideways longing glances and smiles) and dared not pick it up in case it wasn’t all I had hoped. Thanks to a booktube buddy read with Jean, Jen, Mercedes and Brittany I finally picked it up.

9780008164089

Fourth Estate, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Tiny red beads came from the lines on my arm. Those soft scars give away like wet paper. There’s a game that helps: footsteps in the dust, twisting to match the old strides without taking any of the skin away from the Spike Walk. Another: name steps all the way to the yellow room end of the Spike Walk. Freya, Toby, Green, Egg, Pet, the Bad. I made it to the final nail and squinted at the arm. Red tears and the lines woollen hot; a crying face. I turned to Freya, her long arms wrapped around herself at the ballroom end of the Walk. She nodded, so I breathed deeper and licked some of the salt and coins taste to make it clean.
Freya spoke. – And back again, Green.

As Foxlowe starts we are thrown headfirst into the world of Green and the realm of the rambling old house of Foxlowe. Green , a young girl whose age we never really know because she doesn’t, we soon learn has done something she shouldn’t and so is undergoing ‘the Spike Walk’ a form of punishment by the commune of Foxlowe’s (self proclaimed, we discover) leading lady, Freya. Seemingly something called ‘the Bad’ from the outside world has worked its way into Green, children being more susceptible, and needs to be exorcised.

From here, through Green’s youthful and rather naive eyes, we are soon show how life within crumbling Foxlowe works; Richard and Freya being two of the Founders who have created various myths, half truths and full on falsehoods to keep both the younger (Green and October, or Toby) and older members (Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg) of ‘the Family’ away from the outside world. Green has never questioned the, often unwritten but very much felt, rules and regulations in free spirited Foxlowe, that is until Freya comes home with a new baby, Blue, who Green instantly hates with a jealous vengeance and starts to rebel against. Or has ‘the Bad’ taken her over?

It didn’t take long for Freya to see how I hated new little sister almost from the beginning. It was in the faces I gave her and the way I held her a little too rough. Then she overheard my name for her. I thought it would be the Spike Walk but instead I was Edged. Freya told the Family this one morning by tossing me the burnt part of the bread and they all saw. They all had to look away when I spoke and no one was allowed to touch me. I was alone, edging around the circles the Family made around New Thing. I snatched eye contact and accidental touch, watching and listening, haunting rooms.

After the arrival of Blue into Green’s world Wasserberg starts to turn things up a notch, the initial slightly creepy tension building and becoming more and more uneasy. At the same time the relationship between Freya and Green, who you are never sure if are real mother and daughter or not, starts to deteriorate and Green rebels. Throw in all the questions and hormones of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and you have quite the potent concoction that not even the most skilful of witches could brew up. It is here that Wasserberg then surprises us, as we lead to what we think is the dénouement, she takes us somewhere totally different years after and then asks us to work backwards. Suffice to say I loved this and not many authors can pull that trick off.

I was hooked from the first page (though the prologue did throw me a bit, just crack on after that and you’re fine) until the end, which I have to say absolutely chilled me with its final paragraph. No, I am not spoiling it by saying that, it is just fact and was also something that made me love the book all the more. That said it takes more than a full on body icy dread chilling ending to make a book a success, you have to get there first and Wasserberg had me captivated throughout.

One of the main reasons for this are the twists and turns and mysteries within Foxlowe and its characters, plus the dynamic of the internal world and the external. The other is Green’s narration, which might take you a little while to get into the rhythm of, as she writes with a mixture of hindsight, a child’s eyes and slightly skewed viewpoint. Her naivety and misinformed (or groomed, if we are being honest) mean she spots things that seem normal or minimal to her, yet we read very differently. I bloody loved this, and then there was Freya…

Freya loved rolling dough. She thwacked it onto the bench, pummelling with her fists. I gave up mine, stuck on the bench in stringy clumps, and watched her. A thick line of white ran through her black hair, which she wore twisted up in a high bun. Her long skirt was pulled down over her hips, and above it she had tied her t-shirt in a knot. Silvery lines zigzagged over her skin, around her back.
She caught me with her eyes. In the gloom of the kitchen there wasn’t a fleck of colour in them, so dark they made the whites seem to glow.

I am an absolute glutton for a villain in literature; regular readers will know how much I adore Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, you shouldn’t but you do. Freya was like that only worse, I didn’t adore her but I was grimly mesmerised by her. She is a fascinating character study of what makes a cult leader. As much as she is beguiling at her core she is a scheming, vicious (some of the things she does to the children is appalling and some readers may find deeply upsetting, be warned), manipulative, power hungry monster who uses her body and people’s need for love and acceptance to get what she wants. And she gets worse and Wasserberg’s depiction of how people can be brain washed, at any age, is pretty haunting. I loved to hate her.

As well as some of the bigger elements Wasserberg captivates you with more hidden, subtle and intricate elements. This is all because of her writing; one of the things I liked in particular was how easily I was lead into such a dark book and all its themes, no showing off. For example she doesn’t make a big song and dance of how Foxlowe crumbles at the rate Freya’s relationship with Green does, or how that also links into the crumbling of Freya’s own power and mental stability. It is all just there in the background. Oh and another big favourite things of mine, fairytale and myth are all interwoven within Foxlowe which becomes as big a character as any of the people within it.

At the end of his first week the weather turned cool, and we made a hot dinner. I dipped bread in egg, pushing it under to make it soggy. Freya took the eggshells and smashed them in her fists.
– So witches can’t use them, she said, and winked at me.

I won’t forget Foxlowe for quite some time, and not just because of that ending, which gives me the shivers every time I think of it also because it is one of those books where it’s atmosphere lingers with you. It is an engaging, uncomfortable, gripping and pretty darn chilling story of the power of manipulation and desperation to be loved. It is also a deft exploration of the psychology of brainwashing both for those doing it and those who fall prey to it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; whatever Wasserberg does next I will be rushing to read it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Eleanor Wasserberg, Fourth Estate Books, Review

Fell – Jenn Ashworth

I have been a fan of Jenn Ashworth’s for quite sometime. Ever since our lovely mutual friend Emma Jane Unsworth popped a copy of A Kind of Intimacy into my hands and said ‘read this’ I have become a huge fan of her words both in her second novel Cold Light and also the stories in the wonderful ghostly collections Curious Tales. So when a proof of her fourth novel, I have skipped the third for now, Fell arrived I was so excited I could pop. I was also nervous, would this live up to how much I had enjoyed the previous two? Fortunately for everyone involved, and for those of you yet to read it, I think that Fell might be the best book I have read by Jenn and also one of the best books that I have read this year.

9781473630604

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Our?
Our names.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.

As the door of The Sycamores opens for the first time in years, so does Fell with the awakening of two ghosts, Netty and Jack, who used to own the property before (as they soon discover/remember) the house was left to fall to wrack and ruin. It is the return of their daughter Annette that has woken them, a begrudging return after what has seemed like decades and where plants, birds, cracks, damp and various creepy crawlies have taken over. As the ghosts of her parents watch over Annette they soon realise that their daughter is once again troubled (yes once again, well noted I will come back to it soon) and they feel, once again, that they have to protect her in some way. What then starts to unravel is not only the story of why Annette has come home after so long but also how decades before, in 1963, their lives were changed forever when Timothy Richardson became a part of their lives in the most unexpected way.

A Scottish accent. Something soft and well bred about it. A gentle voice, with a smirk to it, as Netty might say.The boy has put his tee-shirtback on, but rolled up the sleeves tight under his armpits. He’s only wearing his swimming trunks and the tee-shirt and there’s something faintly obscene about it, much more than the bare chests of his friends. It’s as if (the refreshing sensation fades along with the boys smile, the heat closing in on him again and giving him trouble marshalling his thoughts properly) he’s wearing the shirt to underline the fact that he isn’t wearing any trousers.

As the story unravels, and do not worry I am not going to give masses away, we soon learn that back in 1963 Netty had discovered she was incredibly ill. Around that time the meet Tim at a swimming pool (well lido near Morecombe Bay, which is a wonderful area to set this book) where not only does he mesmerise Jack visually in some strange way, he also does something strange to his vision which seems unbelievable, he fixes his sight. For it seems Tim has a gift for healing and with Netty being so sick and Jack desperate for help, he soon joins the other boys at their boarding house with the hope of making Netty better. Yet is Tim all that he claims to be? And if he is, is he a fallen angel or a charming devil. Jenn Ashworth beguiles the readers as much as Tim beguiles all he knows and starts to take us on a dark and magical tale from there on wards.

There is honestly so much about Fell that I loved I am going to have to try really hard to be succinct and not waffle on about its brilliance. So where to start? Well there is that fact that it is just beautifully and wonderfully written. Firstly there is the narrative, not a lot of authors could get away with writing a novel through the voice of a collective duo of ghosts a tricky device but impressive if pulled off. Netty and Jack can both go through their memories at the time, both separately and together. They are all seeing and all knowing, yet they also look back with a sense of distance and hindsight looking at the things they did and the consequences of those actions on each other and particularly with Annette as a young girl, the can also travel with Annette in the present and potentially influence the now. It is a clever trick which many an author would fail to build compellingly or believably, Ashworth does both with skill.

Then there is the story, which I have alluded to and is brilliant, where Jenn also manages to make the novel/tale riff off the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Though I won’t say any more on that in case of spoilers, so don’t go and Google it until you have read Fell I just wanted to point out another wonderful factor. However as we all know without great characters and setting a story falls apart, again nothing to worry about here. so don’t go and look it up and Ashworth’s creations Netty, Jack, Annette and Tim (even the enigma is a fully formed if tricksy) are all wonderfully drawn as are the periphery folk around them in the past and in the present; Candy, Maddy, Eve, Tom. The area of Morecombe Bay and Grange-over-Sands is also perfect for this tale. For those of you who have not been this area, once a popular place to recover from illness or have a holiday, is now a slight ghost town, nature is raw and a little dangerous, the sea isn’t really sea and it has a sense of the ‘other’ about it; all of which feeds into the whole feel and gothic sensibility of the book.

Then there are the themes, so many it is again hard not to gush endlessly about how brilliant it all is. You have the question of Timothy’s abilities, are they real or are they not, is it a gift or a curse, can we cure everyone (which is of course still a huge question today) and should we, how far will we go for the ones we love, what will we avoid telling the ones we love because we think it will hurt them, when are hope or denial good and/or bad emotions.

In her coming weeks Netty will look back and try to pinpoint the moment when she first started to believe in Timothy Richardson, a butcher’s apprentice from the city of Edinburgh.

Sickness is clearly one of the main themes of the book and it is one that chimed with me the most. Not just because I’ve recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition, thankfully not terminal and manageable with surgery and painkillers; though I can’t pretend hasn’t caused me some ‘bloody hell life can be unfair’ thoughts, which Ashworth captures wonderfully. But also because I helped care for my Gran when she was terminally ill and as much as it is a gift to be able to look after someone who is unwell, also becomes something of a curse not just because you must watch them decline but also because they can be blooming difficult, and you can totally understand why, and it can be one of the most emotionally gruelling times in all your lives. Again, Jenn captures this all too realistically, yet writes about the intricacies and rawness of all these emotions beautifully and with a sense of compassion and deftness of touch around all that darkness.

Jack glances over the paper. She’s shooting daggers with her eyes. I’m sick and you’re not, and you can go and do what you like and I have to have help to get up out of chairs and I don’t gripe about it. But this small thing. I want. I want it. I want. Sickness has made her selfish. Maybe she’s a bit grateful too. He can put his foot down, which means she can sulk and keep believing that she would have been able to drag herself across the sands if only he’d let her. She can barely get up the stairs these days.

The final theme I will mention is probably the one that has literally haunted, pun intended, me since I have read the book… The themes of haunting. Obviously from the start you have two ghosts narrating it, this is not your average ghost story though, well it is but it is also much more than that. Yes this is a novel about a haunted house, yet it isn’t the kind of ‘crash and jump, things flying around the house’ kind of haunting this is much deeper than that. The house is literally haunted by the memories and events as much as the dead and the living are haunted by them. The idea of haunted ghosts has really stuck with me as has the question that those ghosts bring to Fell; will we always be haunted by what we did or didn’t do in our pasts? It sounds on the surface like a simple question, yet the more you think about it the deeper you have to go inside yourself and your emotions to ponder it. This of course is also the perfect analogy of what Fell as a novel is all about, a darkly magical tale which has many hidden depths. It is quite, quite something and has reminded me that some of the best books we read are those we have to savour slowly and ask ourselves some of the bigger questions. I cannot recommend you read it enough. Don’t rush it, just slowly get lost in it, I promise you it is worth it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Stan and Nan – Sarah Lippett

I wasn’t going to mention the anniversary of Granny Savidge Reads death this year. Not because I don’t think about her every day, I still go to call her after I have read a particularly brilliant book, I just think there is a point you have to move on a little. It seemed that she had other ideas in a random way as on the anniversary I had this bizarre hankering to read Sarah Lippett’s debut graphic novel Stan and Nan. Turns out this was a tale of grandparents and northern families that made me weep for all the right reasons.

9780224102537

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2016, fiction, 96 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The simplest way to explain the premise of Stan and Nan is to simply say that it is Sarah Lippett’s telling of her maternal grandparent’s story and stories. Whilst true, that doesn’t seem to quite cut it for me as this graphic novel packs a wallop in so many ways. However let’s concentrate on the story for now…

In the first part of the book ‘Stan’ Lippett gives us an insight into the life of her grandfather, a man she never knew as he died before she was born. Yet Stan is a man who was always a presence in the house in part because of the photos of him around the house but mainly because of her nana’s stories about him and their lives together. It is through these stories that Lippett builds the full narrative of how a young working class man, who wanted to study art yet due to circumstance had to become an office clerk (albeit in a pottery) before joining the fire service in Wolverhampton where he meets Sarah’s Nan and their family history begins as they go on to have children. But I don’t want to spoil the rest of Stan and Nan’s story because I really want you all to go and read it.

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In the second part of the book ‘Nan’ we follow Sarah’s grandma’s history backwards from her funeral to the point when she was widowed. I won’t say what happens here, other than that in her widowhood it seems Joyce is determined to become the best grandmother ever, suffice to say that Sarah captures all the emotions they feel towards their Nan completely in both her illustrations and the words which she uses simply and effectively. Effectively to the point where it made me cry both for Sarah’s Nan and my gran.

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This is because you cannot but help get caught up in Stan and Nan. You cannot help but compare the love Sarah has for Nan and her family with the one that you have with yours, however dysfunctional or crazy they are. It also reminds us to find out more about the history of ourselves and our families background and how we should find out these stories, and social histories, and treasure and capture them. Here again Stan and Nan really chimed with me with the stories of the working classes of the north, my families roots. I think it would chime with anyone regardless though.

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Suffice to say I bloody loved Stan and Nan. It made me smile, it made me cry (happy and sad tears), it made me think and remember. It just did all those wonderful things that the best books can. It also celebrates the every man and the wonderful stories that made the ordinary seem so extraordinary, something long term readers of this blog will know I adore. So if you can get your mitts on it, it is a real joy to spend your time with, I will be reading it again and again.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review, Sarah Lippett

This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

For those long enduring (is that the right word, it sounds a little painful which I hope reading this blog isn’t) followers of Savidge Reads, you will know that one of the authors I hold in very high esteem is Maggie O’Farrell. I was actually introduced to Maggie one summer when I was staying with my Gran in my hometown of Matlock and we spent a week reading, pottering around bookshops and having cream tea. I ran out of books I had brought and she popped The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox into my hands and didn’t hear a peep out of me for the rest of the day until dinner. From then on I have loved everyone of the books she has published since and I think her latest, This Must Be The Place, might be my favourite of her novels yet because its bloody brilliant.

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Tinder Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 496 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In essence This Must Be The Place is the novel of a marriage. Admittedly if that was how the book had been sold to me I admit, well if it wasn’t written by Maggie O’Farrell, I would have possibly rolled my eyes and muttered ‘oh how original’ under my breathe. For let us be honest books about marriage are hardly original are they? Yet here I do think that Maggie O’Farrell gives us something in the ‘marriage plot’ genre that is quirklily unusual, delightfully original and is also completely and utterly wonderful. But I should really tell you some more about the book shouldn’t I, though admittedly it is hard because there is a little mystery that I don’t want to give away. I shall do my best…

As the novel opens we meet Daniel as he watches a man, who he thinks is a photographer, watching his house. That is until his wife, Claudette, comes around the corner brandishing a gun (with one of their children firmly on her arm) and putting the fear of god into the man who has come into the middle of the Irish countryside where they reside together. However this is not really the start of their story, in fact we soon discover that we are somewhere in the middle of the story of Daniel and Claudette and as we read on we are thrown in all different directions in and around their marriage before and after this moment.

If that makes things sound like they are going to be all over the place, complicatedly time hopping here there and everywhere fret not. What Maggie O’Farrell does is give the reader a wonderful kaleidoscope like set of patchwork pieces of stories that we stitch together as we read before making a wonderful huge patchwork quilt we can luxuriate in. Yes we do go off into many different timeframes, never really in order and we do head off into different countries and different people’s heads, which you would think would distance us from the main story, oddly it makes us closer to it and see it from all these different angles. In fact really it becomes a patchwork of a couples life, the lives around them and the way we sometimes have a butterfly effect on each other, a small act of kindness we think insignificant becomes something huge and life changing to someone else, a moment of foolishness by someone else can lead to a life altering event for someone else, etc. I found this really fascinating as it looks at people’s lives from the inside and the outside, something we forget to do from time to time.

Anyway, the older, longer sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars and asked her mother, who was sitting in the chair opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside of it.
Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she had said something that made Marithe cry. She’d said: Probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, the idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.

You may also think so many different narrators and perspectives might also make the novel and it’s characters a little gimmicky or two dimensional, in some authors hands that would be the case but not in this instance. O’Farrell creates a large cast of characters who come fully formed with some wonderful insights into Daniel and Claudette as well as their own stories which add to the reading experience. Somehow in a book that is just under 500 pages (O’Farrell’s longest) she covers adoption, cultural clashes, celebrity, infidelity, art and culture, nuclear families, love, death, grief, loss, illness, gun crime, separation, marriage, fate, co-dependency vs. independence and more, the list goes on and on. It is remarkable and shows the vibrancy and diversity of everything we human beings go through. It celebrates people and their lives, each time you meet a new character you become fully absorbed in them. One of the standouts for me was one of Daniel’s children Niall whose story of having eczema will stay with me for a long, long time. I genuinely felt what he felt.

Niall feels his eyes fill, feels the burn take hold. His hands spring upright of their own accord and begin to tear at his neck in a sawing motion, back and forth, across the skin of his throat. The feel of it is an exquisite, forebidden, torturing release. Yes, he tells himself, you are scratching, you are, even though you shouldn’t, but how good it is, how amazing, but how dreadful it will be when he stops, if he stops, if he can ever end it.

If it wasn’t for the fact that we come back to Daniel and Claudette for a chapter or two between the other alternating voices you might feel this was really a collection of interweaving short stories based around anecdotes passed between a cast of people who appear and reappear, but then isn’t that what our lives are really built on anyway? It shows though that Maggie O’Farrell is really experimenting and pushing the boundaries on her writing and as I hinted at in the introduction I do think this might be her most accomplished novels. Though accomplished makes it sound like I am going to give her a ‘well done’ sticker for good behaviour rather than the truth which is that she exceeded all my expectations and showed me what wonders the novel can do.

I loved how she played with form. In one chapter we go through an auction catalogue of some of Claudette’s possessions (I know I have avoided talking about Claudette and Daniel specifically but seriously, I don’t want to spoil their secrets and the events that become the heart of the novel, it is a huge part of its brilliance) from her twenties. One is told through an interview with an ex spouse. Another, one of my favourites, is told by someone who loves footnotes; their real story being revealed through the footnotes they interweave in their own narrative. She also plays with giving the reader more insight than the characters have, she might kill off a character in a mere line that we the reader get and yet no one else will pick up on until it happens many years later for them. She may send the story off before the main characters are even born, it is never gimmicky and always deftly done. There is no showing off, just some really stunning writing such as the below which is just a mere part of the book and shows you what she can do in a paragraph.

She doesn’t know it at the time but she will think about this moment again and again, the two of the standing on the steps of the subway station, a boy between them, a pool of blood at their feet, trains arriving and departing above their heads. She will play it over and over in her head, almost every day, for the rest of her life. When she lies in the bedroom of her apartment with only hours to live, her daughters bickering in the kitchen, her husband in the front room, weeping or raging, her son asleep in the chair next to her, she will think of it again and know it is perhaps for the last time. After this, she thinks, it will only live in the head of one person, and when he dies, it will be gone.

I could go on much, much more though I won’t because really I just want you to go and pick up This Must Be The Place because I think it is fantastic and quite a special book indeed. I have loved Maggie O’Farrell’s writing for such a long time and this just affirmed her as one of my favourite living authors, I am so, so excited about what she might do next. The only downside for me is that my Gran never got to read this, so I can’t chat about it with her which made me feel much more emotional than I was expecting. I have got a copy for my Mum though, which will be her first novel by Maggie O’Farrell so I am spreading the love, as I hope I will do to any of you who have yet to read her work. If you have, and indeed if you have read This Must Be The Place, I would love to have a good old natter with you about it.

Oh and if you would like to see Maggie talking about the book without spoilers, I got her to answer ten tenuous questions about it here.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie O'Farrell, Review, Tinder Press

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

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Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell

Since visiting America twice in as many years (I am feeling American trips might have to become an annual thing) I have been intrigued by the books that they have over there that we don’t, yet, in Britain. I have recently got quite the habit for ordering these from overseas. One such book I was incredibly tempted by was What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell after seeing it discussed a lot over the water, particularly by Hanya Yanagihara, in January – it seems Camilla at Picador must be psychic for the UK proof arrived at just about that time and so I devoured it, in a single sitting, as I was completely spellbound by it…

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Picador Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 204 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely.

I am a huge fan of characters who remain enigmas whilst telling their stories and with What Belongs To You Garth Greenwell has brought us not one but two characters who both remain mysterious yet compelling throughout his debut novel, which is in many ways ode to obsession. As the novel opens we follow our unnamed narrator, a middle aged American teacher now living in Bulgaria, as he goes cruising for sex in the toilets underneath the National Palace of Culture. It is here that he meets Mitko, a young rent boy who very quickly, through an act of temptation and then rejection, becomes like a drug for our protagonist. We then follow the two characters as their relationship, which twists, turns and redefines itself, develops and watch how it affects both men.

There is so much that is brilliant about this unflinching novel of lust, loneliness and desperation. Greenwell gives What Belongs To You a compelling thriller like feel as plays both with us and our perceptions making us constantly question if this is love, obsession, lust or something more sinister. What becomes all the more intriguing is  that as we read on, without giving away any spoilers, Greenwell flips the notion of who is the predator and who is the prey, is it the older man or the younger and why?

If this study of obsession and lust wasn’t enough there is also much more going on in the background behind what is in many ways a two man show, affair seemed too pun filled a term. There are also the stories of these two men and why they ended up in that restroom. The novel is set into three sections the first spiralling from that first meeting with Mitko and how sexual obsession and power begins. The second section then takes a very different turn as our protagonist gets a letter from home that takes him back to his youth and the relationship he has had with his family particularly with his father.

My father spoke in a different tone now, almost with a different voice, the voice of his own childhood, I thought, thick with the dirt he usually tried to conceal. So you like little boys, that voice said, the voice almost of instinct, the voice of the look he had given me once and of what had once fouled the air. As young as I was, I knew what he said was absurd, I was myself a little boy, what could he be accusing me of, though now I think it was his only understanding of what I could be, the person I was was lost in it. But it didn’t matter that it was absurd, I was already crying, I was a mess of tears, and when my mother started to come toward me I motioned her away, turning my back on her. I was ashamed of my tears, I would hardly breathe, and it was all I could do to say to him But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say.

This section of the book proves incredibly emotive, it is also a fascinating portrayal and indeed insight into some of the thoughts, experiences and horrors that gay men often (not always, but often) go through at some point in their life. It is a time of judgement, rejection, fear, lack of hope and being seen as something other, something dangerous to be feared. No one likes to be different, or maybe I should say no one likes the repercussions of being different, yet when you are you have no choice but to go through whatever that difference throws at you. To steal from the title you have to own ‘what belongs to you’ though it isn’t always easy and it shapes you, as we see it does through our unnamed narrators eyes. You wonder if this is the reason he has left his life in America behind and start to look at how it forms his relationships in his present.

The same can be said for Mitko who returns, literally with a knock on the door on a random night, several years later, our narrator still under some kind of sexual spell and vice versa, though in this section we see it isn’t just the sexual power and side Mitko wants, there is more, both good and bad. For fear of spoilers, again, I will say no more other than that here is where Bulgaria’s history comes into play as we look at how it is not just a home but also class, chance, looks and money all have a bearing on what can make a god and what can also destroy one.

I was shocked by the difference between their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me; not only was his tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair full and light brown, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in a class at the prestigious school where I teach. It was hardly possible that they could be the same person, this preposterous teenager and the man beside me, or that so short a time could have made such a difference, and I found myself looking repeatedly at the screen and then at Mitko, wondering which face was the truer face, and how it had been lost or gained.

The set up of the book and its parts, which feel like acts on a stage, as well as Mitko’s story that made me wonder if Greenwell meant for this to me a modern Greek tragedy, only set in Bulgaria. Whatever the case it shows how Greenwell brings in so many brilliant tropes of literature; for there is a thriller like quality alongside a poetic sensibility too, all entwining to create something that feels unlike anything that you have read before. I also loved how Greenwell plays with expectations; making the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly, making sex completely unsexy and then making moments you wouldn’t expect seemingly drip with desire. You wouldn’t think you could describe an opening scene set in an underground toilet as evocative and sensual but with Garth’s prose it is just that. Add to this the compelling lead characters and their stories, underlying tensions and atmospheres and you have a heady concoction.

As you might have guessed I could rave to you all about Garth Greenwell’s debut novel for quite some time. What Belongs To You is concentrated brilliance, a short novel that packs an emotive and thought provoking punch. I urge you all to read it, I think it will prove to be one of many readers stand out books of the year, it will certainly be one of mine.

If you would like to hear more about the novel from the author, as well as discussion on unreliable narrators, queer literature and much, much more do hear over to the latest episode of You Wrote The Book where Garth kindly joins me in conversation, it’ll make you want to read the book if you haven’t or love it all the more if you have, even if I do say so myself. Who else has read What Belongs to You and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2016, Garth Greenwell, Picador Books, Review

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Some books simply come into your subconscious awareness without you seemingly noticing. I had seen various tweets, articles and the like all talking about Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts but it was an article in The Pool that suddenly made me desperate to read it. I think that same article, and the background bubble and buzz around the book, also sparked the interest in quite a few people at the same time as spookily I spoke to two people on a single day who had also bought it on the same day and from the same bookshop in London, spooky.

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Melville House UK, 2016, paperback, memoir/non fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.

If the description of Maggie Nelson’s autobiographical The Argonauts had simply been described as a woman’s journey falling in love and having a baby, it is unlikely that I would have read it. Do not get me wrong, I think women having babies is a real miracle (I seriously considered becoming a midwife six years ago) however there is something about the falling in love and trying to have a baby story that feels a bit done. This could not be further from the truth in the case of The Argonauts, so thank goodness the aforementioned article in The Pool said ‘her extraordinary book about queer family-making’ because this is a subject that I do not think has been written about or discussed enough, certainly not in the amazing way in which Nelson delivers (pun not intended) this book of bite sized thoughts, feelings, moments, questions and observations which form a work that will leave your head buzzing with ideas, information and avenues to question and explore. Oh yes, it is one of those kinds of books.

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special – a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.

With The Argonauts Maggie Nelson shares with us her relationship with her partner Harry and her pregnancy with their son Iggy. At the time that Maggie was pregnant and going through all sorts of changes so was Harry as he was undergoing the hormones, medication and some of the surgery of his transition. They were both also transitioning in their relationship, from that instant attraction and initial lustful sex life to marriage, which neither of them ever thought they would do, and onto becoming a family, not just with their own child but with Harry’s son from a previous relationship. This time of great (in happiness, scale and scope) change brings with it all sorts of questions for Maggie but also many memories of her own childhood and her preconceived notions of what makes a marriage, a family, a spouse and a mother. It is these conversations with, and notes to, herself that make up the book; these also make for some of the most brilliant writing you will come across in quite some time.

What I think I liked the most about the book initially was Nelson’s frankness, which only gets more frank as she writes on. In fact almost nothing is off limits. This is not in some wild and wacky, also known as really annoying, memoirs that hope to tantalise and shock you with its direct look at LGBT issues, feminism, literature, death, love, lust, stalking, families, sex. This is a writer who is putting their life out there not to make yours better, though it very well might, but to get a conversation going and one that seriously needs to be had about all sorts of things that you didn’t even realise you wanted to talk about, and still might not (the fisting, ha) but most importantly some of the things that you really, really do. Like queer families and what it is really like to be a part of one as well as the transgender conversation which seems to be going on everywhere but feels a little safe and mainstream (overall, not completely) rather than frank and unflinching, which Nelson brings you unabashed whilst at the same time with heart, humanity, warmth, experience and intelligence.

What I liked most overall about the book was Nelson’s intellect. What I loved about it doubly is that she doesn’t expect you to be as intellectual as she is (thank goodness in my case) or that her thoughts are the be all and end all on the subject. Though when I say subjects there are so many subjects covered in The Argonauts it is pretty much impossible to write them all down, hence why I haven’t as I also really, really want you to go and read the bloody book, but if I can I will explain why her intellect and thoughts appealed to me so much.

Books teach us all sorts, often unwittingly, which is part and parcel of what makes them such marvellous things. With The Argonauts I felt like someone had, painlessly, taken the top of my skull off and was filling my brain with light and ideas and thoughts and conversations that my whole head started to buzz and tingle in a most pleasant way. That may sound like I had one too many lemsips when I was ill last week but it is true. As Maggie starts on the sound board of her pregnancy, Harry’s transitioning and their new family, we fly off in all directions and look at all sorts of things, with quotes from all sorts of brainiac’s who Nelson also makes so understandable. We follow all the directions her brain sparks off into. We have some incredibly heartbreaking moments like Harry’s mother’s death, all the times that they don’t get pregnant, the creepy stalker. We have all the happy ones, Iggy’s birth (told in glorious frankness), the first moments of a great love, all the hope. What we always come back to, and what everything boils down to is kindness, openness, respect and love. That is what this book really taught me.

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

I have kind of said everything and nothing about The Argonauts here. I think overall though this is a good thing because a) I can never do justice to a book like this b) I just want you all to go and read it so you too can have the experience and the ‘I just need to put down this book and have a little think’ moments and then come back and talk to me about it. Which is Nelson’s agenda here fully accomplished frankly; as this is a book that starts a conversation that we all need to be having, openly and unapologetically. So come on, go and read it then let’s talk…

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Filed under Books of 2016, Maggie Nelson, Melville House UK, Memoir, Non Fiction, Review

Sweet Home – Carys Bray

Having had one of the worst bouts of flu in years over the last week, hence the silence, the one thing that would have made it bearable would have reading. As I seemed to become allergic to light this was not possible until yesterday when I promptly devoured Cary Bray’s short story collection Sweet Home (which I discovered through Jen Campbell) and it proved the perfect reading prescription. Short captivating tales with a hint of magical that entertained me and allowed me to doze between each or every other tale and have slightly surreal and magical dreams that matched the books contents. This was a huge relief to me, for the last week while I have been (seriously) sweating, sneezing, coughing or having an occasional woe is me weep, all I have been dreaming about it giving politicians a tour or a very grey office block, seriously, on repeat. So as I said, this collection was the perfect short series of bursts of escapism.

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Windmill Books, 2016, paperback, short stories, 180 pages, bought by myself for myself

When it comes to short stories I tend to have two types that I really love, make that three. First there is the fairytale; be it a classic, a modern retelling or something completely new. Secondly I like short stories that have a twist you don’t see coming or pack a hefty punch when you least expect it. Thirdly I like a bittersweet tale that encompasses a whole novel in mere pages, I want it all – love, grief, happiness, devastation. In her debut collection Sweet Home, which was published in 2012 by Salt (and annoyingly I missed) and has now been republished by Windmill, Carys Bray delivers all three of these things that I love, sometimes all at once.

It is always difficult to summarise a collection, something I say in every single review I do of one I know, yet there are certain themes which Bray seems to be studying and exploring the intricacies with Sweet Home. The first, funnily enough, is ‘the home’. Through the collection what constitutes a home, what makes a happy one and if home really is where the heart is, are all looked at. In the story Wooden Mum, Bray cleverly looks at the role and respect a mother feels she is shown through the ways her children play with a dolls house and the wooden family within it. It is also the main point of the title story which looks at a woman who buys a piece of forest and building a house made from sugar and sweets…

Of course no one accused the woman of being a witch. But she was foreign. Her words percolated up the tunnel of her throat, espresso-thick and strong. Bad weather had eroded her face. Some believed that the sun had crisped her skin into coriaceous pleats. Others blamed the chaw of a wintery climate. No one knew where she had come from, though lots of people privately thought that perhaps she ought to go back.

This leads us nicely into the element of fairytale that runs through the book. In most stories there is mention of one or comparisons of one. It is probably the retelling of Hansel and Gretel in Sweet Home or in The Ice Baby, a wonderful and quite literally heartbreaking tale of a couple who are desperate to have a child and so far have been unable to. There is also the dystopic fairytale, if such a thing exists, The Baby Aisle where the busy working mum or dad can simply pick up a child in a supermarket, they even have reduced ones, it isn’t specified but I think you could probably get club card points with them too. This really is the second main theme and topic of Sweet Home, children and childhood. In stories like The Countdown, Bed Rest and the incredibly unsettling Just In Case, we find parents who have either lost children, are panicking about losing children or are looking at certain periods of worry in their own childhood’s. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is Scaling Never which is told through the eyes of a young boys as he deals with his own, along with his families, grief after the death of his sister Issy…

The house is full of sadness. It’s packed into every crevice and corner like snow. There are bottomless drifts of it beside Issy’s Cinderella beanbag in the lounge. The sadness gives Jacob the shivers and he takes refuge in the garden. Like the house, it is higgledy and unkempt. The lawn is scuffed and threadbare in places like a grassy doormat that’s felt too many feet.

For those of you who know of Carys Bray’s incredibly well received and read debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, this is where I am guessing the story originated and it has certainly left me with a real hankering to get to that novel very soon. Grief and death soon become clear preoccupations for Bray as much as birth, this also links into health and in many of the stories someone is ill be it bed rest for a child to come, a simple bug, Alzheimer’s or cancer. The latter are the case in two of my favourites tales, which sounds odd considering the subject matter. My Burglar made me want to cry as our protagonist goes around her house telling us, and her daughter, that she is sure she is being burgled or the most random items. Then there is what I think is the collections knock out story, Under Covers.

Carol’s bra is spread-eagled in the hedge like a monstrous, albino bat. The wind has blown it off the washing line and tossed it onto the wispy fingertips of the leylandii, where it reclines in a sprawl of wire, hooks and corralling lace. Despite her best efforts, she can’t reach it. Her washing basket is full of dry laundry. She has removed the pegs from the line and placed them in their little bag. But she can’t go back indoors until she has retrieved the fugitive bra. People might see it.

What follows here is the tale of Carol, her husband, and the two girls watching from the upstairs window and it is just so beautifully told and intricately woven. We see the story of the change in a marriage as an older woman tries to find her bra and thinks of all the things it stands for, from a healthy sex life to a healthy life and the two giggling teenagers who have their whole lives, and love lives, ahead of them. If it doesn’t choke you up and have you thinking long and hard about everything then you have no heart – there I have said it!

It is a testament to Bray’s writing that all these subject matters are dealt with in a way that is  honest, unflinching and confronting, yet told in a warm, emotive and tender way even when at their most bittersweet. Bray also does that thing I love so much, she makes the ordinary seem extraordinary and, particularly in the case of On The Way Home where we flit from person to person down a street, she finds the magical in the tales of everyday folk. I think Sweet Home is a wonderful, wonderful collection. I shall be heading to Cary Bray’s novels very soon indeed.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Bray, Review, Short Stories, Windmill Books

Ruby – Cynthia Bond

When the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist came out a few weeks ago Cynthia Bond’s Ruby was not one that I had heard of before. Those of you reading this in America might be looking aghast, or possibly even shouting ‘what?’ at the screen as I know it has been a bit of a hit, especially after Oprah chose it for her book club. Having now read it I am pretty sure that it is going to get read and discussed by many more people over this side of the ocean…

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Two Roads Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and by the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.
She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of kegs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm.

From the opening of Ruby Cynthia Bond instantly submerges us into Liberty Township where Ruby Bell is very much the outsider in her own hometown. So much the outsider that she now lives in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the nearby woods. She has become ostracized and of course as readers we want to know why. Whilst most of the town laugh and jeer at her one man, Ephram Jennings, sees Ruby with different eyes and we soon learn he has been smitten with her since childhood. He too is seen somewhat as an outsider yet to a much lesser extent thanks to being somewhat shrouded by his sister Celia, who has followed in their Reverend father’s footsteps becoming quite the feared God fearing woman, who does not approve of Ruby at all.

You might be thinking that this is therefore going to be some great love story set against the odds. In some ways it could be seen as that and yet, as Cynthia Bond soon shows us, there are many dark corners, secrets and layers of both Ruby the character and indeed Ruby the book. And as Ephram goes in the woods to give her White Lay Angel Cake as an offering of love and acceptance, after being scared in town and dropping her bread in her own urine, he discovers that there may be something else darker in the piney woods with Ruby, and not just her memories, though something just as sinister and something that has been following Ruby since childhood.

That night, when the Dybou slid into Ruby’s bedroom, it stopped at the door. It seemed to grow larger. The air became electric. Spider cracks spread across the panes. Instead of reaching for Ruby, the Dybou lifted above her, the whole of the ceiling in shadow, then it dropped down upon the new spirit sleeping within her.
In seconds the girl was gone, inside the creature, screaming, terror flashing in her clear eyes, small arms reaching for Ruby, as the Dybou slithered across the floor.  

If you are wondering what a Dybou is, and why would you not be, without giving too much away it is an evil spirit that feeds off other spirits and can take over the body of humans. Some might say it is the spirit entity of the devil. Yes, this is where Ruby takes on a rather strange turn as it becomes more and more magically surreal. Interestingly though I found it became all the more powerful and effecting for it. As we read on we both succumb to the world in which Ruby inhabits, learn why it has come to pass that she is so filled with these demons and spirits and why her childhood in Liberty Township and then her horrendous time in New York might have driven her to the depths of madness, if she is mad? If this had been written by many another writer I would have probably put this book down very quickly, with Cynthia Bond at the helm I was mesmerised both in horror and in hope for Ruby’s possible salvation by Ephram deep in those piney woods.

The piney woods were full of sound. Trees cracking and falling to their death; the knell of axes echoing into green; the mewl of baby hawks waiting for Mama’s catch. Bull frogs and barn owls. The call of crows and the purring of doves. The screams of a Black man. The slowing of a heart. All captured, hushed and held under the colossal fur of pine and oak, magnolia, hickory and sweet gum. Needles and capillary branches interlaced to make an enormous net, so that whatever rose, never broke through to sky. The woods held stories too, and emotions of objects; a tear of sleeve, bits of hair, long-buried bones, lost buttons. But mostly, the piney woods hoarded sound.  

As we delve deeper into the stories from the piney woods and Ruby’s story you should be warned, there are some very dark and uncomfortable scenes ahead and some are not for the faint of heart of those easily upset. However, if you can read through them Ruby is an incredibly moving, magical and menacing read that you will feel like you have experienced long after the final page. Bond looks at sexual and domestic abuse, Satanism and the supernatural, interracial racism, legends and myths, sexuality, family secrets and love. All this based in reality, in fact some of the novel is based on Cynthia Bond’s own experiences, with an infusion of magical realism. I know; that is quite a heady concoction. Ruby is one of those books that will leave you as haunted as its characters. That is where its power lies.

Ruby is one of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlisted novels that I am giving away here

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Cynthia Bond, Review, Two Roads Books

The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

I have mentioned before how some books you instantly fall in love with and know are for you as you get that elusive feeling of the book tingle. Something I haven’t written about, and probably should, is when you start a book slightly unsure and then it coaxes you and surprises you as you completely fall in love with it and end up hugging it (yes, hugging it) afterwards. The latter was very much the case with Julia Rochester’s debut novel The House at the Edge of the World, which I will be very much surprised if it doesn’t become one of my books of the year even though it is barely April.

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Penguin Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff. It was a stupid way to die. There was a good moon. There was no wind. There was no excuse. He was pissing into the chine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.

As The House at the Edge of the World opens we are drawn into the world twins Morwenna and Corwin one night they will never forget, well they were all asleep but you know what I mean, when their father is last seen, by a drunk friend, falling off a cliff into the depths below. A night when everything changes, or a night where everything gets a little more surreal afterwards for Morwenna and Corwin don’t live in a typical 2.4 children family. Their grandfather, Matthew, spends hours and hours hidden away in a room painting a map of a land that symbolises where they live, their family and the stories of both. Their mother seems to have suddenly been freed by the death of her husband, yet resentful left in a house she feels she was never really wanted in.

This all unfolds within the first few chapters, however initially I wasn’t sure I was going to get through the first few pages as the writing was throwing me slightly, as was the narrator. There is something quite surreal as this novel starts in the fact that everything feels a little bit surreal and a little bit, well, drunk. Having had this feeling with Sarah Perry’s debut After Me Comes The Flood and being thoroughly rewarded for my perseverance I, well, persevered. Then there came Morwenna as a narrator, spiky, sarchastic and pretty much disliked by everyone she meets, don’t get me wrong I love a dislikeable character but she along with the style of the book were throwing me around a bit and testing me… But I like to be tested and sure enough she won me over, which I imagined if she was real and knew would really piss her off, ha.

That morning the heat had sparked a rush on Slush Puppies at the Sea View Cafe and we ran out of electric blue, which upset people. ‘It’s all the same shit,’ I told my customers. ‘They’re not flavours, they’re just different combinations of chemicals. The virulent green tastes almost exactly the same and is just as bad for you.’
My boss took me aside and said, ‘Morwenna, you are a bad tempered, foul-mouthed little smart arse and the only reason I’m not firing you is that it is the end of the season anyway.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ I said to my customers, chastened. ‘But we’re out of raspberry.’

Anyway back to the story. Things settle somewhat after their fathers death and soon enough Morwenna and Corwin are spending more time away from the family home, yet always it calls to them and draws them back. Seventeen years after their fathers death Corwin starts to question that fateful night and as the twins start digging into their families past they discover a family, a map and a crumbling house brimming with secrets all infused with the urban legends and myths of the land in which they were born. Well I was pretty much hooked from then on and became more and more so the more I read and the more quirky and mysterious it all became.

One of the many things that I think Julia Rochester does fantastically well with this book is set it very much in the now and yet somehow make it feel timeless and also slightly other worldly. Morwenna ends up living in London after leaving home, yet because bar a few work colleagues and a boyfriend she reluctantly meets she seems out of time with the city and a bit of a ghost living in it. When she goes back home most people dislike her and her friendship group have dispersed and so again she becomes some kind of loner, almost a harbinger of something. This makes her both a fascinating and interestingly frank and vulnerable narrator who also has an agenda and scores to settle which brings in the question of her reliability. All of which I love in a novel and the way Rochester did this felt really unique.

The other aspect that gives The House at the Edge of the World this wonderful sense of otherness is the interwoven tales of otherness. As we read on we are told of tales of mermaid sittings, demons roaming the valleys, things that live in the woods, the devil himself and also those people who seem a bit other and out of kilter with the world. Those people who are part of society yet seem so very different, those people who fascinate some or bring fear to others. Like an old lady who might look like a witch, or a Crab Man…

The Crab Man looked like Matthew’s idea of Long John Silver, but without the peg-leg or the parrot. Instead, his props were the crabs that rattled about in the metal bucket at the kitchen door. Laughing saltily, he would take a couple out of the bucket, one in each hand, and, with a leathery leer, wave them in Matthew’s face. Snippety-snap went the terrifying crab claws within an inch of Matthew’s nose. They smelt of fish-water and engine oil.

What adds to all this is the sense of mystery and the fact that at its heart this is also a family drama. Actually I want to turn that around and say… THIS is how you write a family drama. I like a family drama as much as the next reader yet sometimes they can be a bit staid. With otherworldly maps, demons and hints of the supernatural, unsolved family mysteries and legends all whirled into the mix of relations who love and loathe each other, Julia Rochester has created something quite, quite brilliant and I think rather unique. I cannot say better than that this book in some way cast a spell over me which I had no idea was coming. In fact you could say The House at the Edge of the World was the perfect unexpected tale of the unexpected. I hugged it after I closed the final page, superb.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Julia Rochester, Penguin Books, Review

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

When I read Petina Gappah’s debut short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, back in 2010 I was pretty much bowled over by it. Somehow I missed her debut novel coming out last year and so was thrilled when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, which as you know I am reading all twenty of. Thrilled. As soon as I managed to get my hands on it I sat and read it straight away and was rewarded from its opening paragraphs until its conclusion.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 276 pages, borrowed from the library then kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

Memory sits in her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe having been convicted of murder waiting for an appeal, or if that fails potentially waiting for her death. As she sits and waits she starts to write, in notebooks given to her by a well known journalist, the story of how she came to be in the cell. From growing up in a family where her siblings kept dying through tragedies until the point where she watched her parents give her away in exchange for money to a white man named Lloyd. The man many believe that she murdered.

I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder’, said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’

I am a sucker for a novel where you are pretty sure an injustice has been done and you follow the victim of the injustice as they tell their tale and you get the real story. The Book of Memory is one such book, yet it is also very different and unique from others of its type. Memory herself is a really intriguing narrator and also potentially (one of my favourite things) a really unreliable narrator. We know what children’s, erm, memories can be like and sometimes a story that you were told can become part of your memory history in some way, you didn’t witness but you think or are certain you did. There is also the fact that many people who have committed murders claim their innocence, so why should we believe her? This tension runs wonderfully through three quarters of the book, I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Yet there is more to Memory’s story than that and as we read on into her childhood, the main one being that Memory was born albino. This brings in a whole new set of elements to the novel. There is the fact that during Memory’s childhood and beyond Zimbabwe is trying to get its independence from the ‘white’ ownership. Memory is African yet in some ways she is seen as a white person, however what also comes into play and in many ways is far, far worse for her is that being albino she is seen as being supernatural and by default dangerous, untrustworthy and scary.

I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.

Whilst there is time when this helps, she gets left alone from prison trouble for the most part, overall this is the most defining thing in her life, being ostracised at school, her own mother believing her a curse and then in time, when she studies in Britain, being seen as some sort of sexual predilection to the wrong kind of men initially. I found all this utterly fascinating, whilst often heartbreaking, to read.

Before I get to another highlight, which was the way Gappah plots and reveals various things as she goes, I wanted to share another couple of elements to the book which I enjoyed very much, the prison element. When Memory starts to talk about the other women that she is in prison with there comes a warmth and a element of comedy that I wasn’t expecting in the novel and liked all the more for it. In an odd way, and I mean this as a form of praise, I was reminded of Orange is the New Black as these women share their stories with each other (some very funny, some truly shocking yet told in a clever understated way) and form a camaraderie of sorts which Memory has not experienced before. Even the guards on occasion show a kind side.

What I also thought was rather marvellously done by Gappah was to show how crazy things in Zimbabwe, and indeed many parts of Africa, around the time in which The Book of Memory is set. We don’t have specific dates yet we know this is fairly recent and taking that in to account the fact that myths and magic were so prevalent and used as propaganda I found incredibly bizarre to read. It also gives Gappah another chance to show the very real danger to everyone’s lives was also so absurd, whilst also once again adding a certain humour to the novel, through hindsight which also comes with a bittersweet note of the reality of it.

I watched the news, stunned at the mix of bare-faced lies and superstition presented as fact. A convicted murderer who had been pardoned was declared a national hero. A house was blown up by witchcraft in Chitungwiza. A goblin was stealing women’s underwear in Gokwe. The adverts were all in celebration of the ruling party: I gazed in amused disbelief at the most unlikely figures ever to grace a football field, three big-bottomed women from the city’s oldest and most chaotic township, dancing on a football field in ruling party ‘team colours’. They shook their thighs of thunder as they sang in praise of the ruling party. They danced to the beat of their own oppression.

Finally, as I could go on for ages about this book, I have to mention just how brilliantly plotted I thought Gappah made this novel. There are seemingly throwaway moments which have a deeper resonance later on. She teases you that there are more secrets than meet the eye that will only be revealed just when she wants them to be and then have you puzzling how they affect everything else. She also cleverly uses Memory and indeed memories themselves to show you your prejudices, your assumptive second guessing and how nothing is every clear cut. Can you tell I really, really, really, really enjoyed The Book of Memory? I strongly recommend it.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review