Category Archives: Canongate Publishing

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

As this goes out on the blog, tonight will see the winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 announced. In a break with tradition on the blog, I decided that instead of telling you all about the shortlist (though I think I have reviewed all of them bar one and made video about them here too) I wanted to share my thoughts on my very favourite last. I have loved a lot on the shortlist this year but without a doubt my favourite has to be Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò which has pretty much every element of what I love in a book and held me captivated by it.

9781782119463

Canongate, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the opening of Stay With Me we know that something has gone very wrong with the marriage between Yejide and her husband Akin as she writes of packing up and driving away. Where to, where from and what has happened we do not yet know but soon we are taken back a decade or two before to when the cracks began to show. The time when after much trying Yejide was finding it very difficult to get pregnant and it was becoming the constant focus of her husband and his family’s attention. (I know the below is quite a long excerpt, however I think it gives a real flavour of what comes in the novel as I am going to have to say very little as I don’t want to give too much away, which I will explain.)

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

It soon transpires that Akin and his family have been plotting a back-up plan which is to introduce a second wife into the home, Funmi, a woman who they believe will bear children and thus save the family line as well as the marriage between Akin and his first wife. Breaking away from what is socially and culturally expected of her Yejide fights back initially in a rather comic way, yet this is the beginning of an unravelling between Yejide and Akin and a downward spiral of Yejide’s already low sense of worth since the death of her own mother in childbirth.

‘What did you feed them?’ Akin shouted.
‘Bridegroom, welcome back,’ I said. I had just finished eating my dinner. I picked up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
‘You know they all have diarrhoea now? I had to park by a bush for them to shit. A bush!’ He said, following me into the kitchen.

That is where I pretty much have to stop telling you the story, and we are only a chapter or two in, because what follows is a fantastically twisting and turning tale of what happens between Yejide and Akin in the aftermath of this with Adébáyò almost turning a marriage into a thriller which I wasn’t expecting but delighted me with the way in which she accomplished it. Of course, there is a danger in me simply saying that there are plenty of twists and turns ahead may mean you will look out for them but I doubt you will spot them. I genuinely couldn’t tell what was might happen next, and there were many a gasp out loud moment and many a heart dropping moments for this reader.

I am slightly worried that comparing Stay With Me to a thriller may diminish it in some people’s eyes, they couldn’t be more wrong and not only because to accomplish the best kinds of thrillers you need to hide a tightly constructed spiders web of plot where one can’t be seen. Adébáyò does this and much, much more. Behind the domestic dramas that are going on is the drama of Nigeria in the 1980’s and all the rioting and crime that was taking over the country and adds an additional tension to the novel as well as some heart breaking and shocking scenes as the novel moves forward.

I could not imagine then that one day in Nigeria thieves would be bold enough to write letters so that victims could prepare for their attacks, that one day they would sit in living rooms after raping women and children and ask people to prepare pounded yam and egusi stew while they watched movies on VCRs that they would soon disconnect and cart away.

One of the other elements that I admired so much about the book, and yet I have seen criticised in some places, is the fact that as the book goes on you realise it isn’t always Yejide that is narrating the story. Sometimes it flits to Akin and it takes you a small while to realise and then reassess the voice you are reading. I loved this because I thought it not only highlighted the two points of view of a marriage and all that befalls it, but more cleverly is that Adébáyò asks you to stop making assumptions about how a woman might feel about marriage and parenthood and how a man might feel about marriage and parenthood. It gives you so much to think about as well as asking you to check your own assumptions of men and women, though kindly.

You might think this implies that Adébáyò creates two leading characters who merge in to one far too easily, again that isn’t that case. Adébáyò’s characters all come fully formed whether it be leading players like Yejide, Akin, Funmi, Dotun or Moomi or lesser characters like Yejide’s competitor hairdresser Iya Bolu or the hermit up the mountain. They all brim with life, laugher and more often than not secrets. I adored them, even the shadier ones. I also loved the elements of fairy tale (you know me, I love a good fairy tale or myth) that intertwine and are told throughout too. Not often yet deftly and adding certain nuances when they do.

My favourite story was the one about Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. Initially, it was difficult for me to believe the versions my stepmothers told. Their Oluronbi was a market woman who promised to give her daughter to the Iroko tree if it could help her to sell more goods than other traders in the market. At the end of the story, she lost her child to the Ikoro. I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else. The story as my stepmothers told it made no sense to me, so I decided to create my own version.

I could frankly go on for hours about how much I loved Stay With Me, can you tell? It brims with life, humour (dark and saucy), heartache and hope. It is one of those books that just enraptures you within its pages and you find yourself thinking about those characters, situations and layers long after as well as thinking ‘what a bloody good story that was’. For me this was a dream of a novel, it will be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt, and I think Adébáyò is going to be an author to watch in wonder. Go read this book.

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Filed under Ayobami Adebayo, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Canongate Publishing, Review

One Life – Kate Grenville

I have often believed that some of the most interesting stories can come not from the rich and famous but from those people in our families past. I have the tale of my Great Great Aunt who after burying her husband returned to his grave sometime later to discover his mistress had been buried with him. We all have those family stories don’t we? Kate Grenville has many such a tale in her family, however it is the story of her mother Nance Russell that she has focused on (though we also get some other family tales) who, as we come to learn reading One Life, was a remarkable woman in many ways who lived through some of Australia’s most interesting historical times, yet to those who met her may have simply appeared to be a suburban housewife.

Canongate Books, hardback, 2015, non-fiction, 254 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Kate Grenville’s tale of her mother Nance starts from the first memory that Nance had of crying loudly and too much as she was put under her father’s arm. We start from the very beginning, and technically a little before her birth thanks to Grenville’s preface, as we join Nance at her home of Rothsay with her mother Dolly, her father Albert and her brothers Frank and Max. Yet this is not going to be home for long, and indeed this becomes a theme in Nance’s childhood, as soon the family up sticks and move, again and again and again, sometimes with her parents or a parent or sometimes shipped off to a relative or friend.

With the backdrop of the Australian Depression of the 1930’s we follow Nance’s childhood as she makes her way through school and soon come to see that Nance is going to become a woman of firsts as she studies pharmacy, graduates and becomes a pharmacist something quite unheard of at the time. And this is before she even falls in love or meets her husband and her life takes on multiple trajectories as she takes on multiple roles as lover, wife, mother and career woman. I don’t want to say too much more because part of discovering where Nance’s life goes is part of the charm of One Life, though it charmed me in plenty of ways.

It is very hard as you read One Life to remember that this is all based on fact, and indeed Kate had the help of many conversations with her mother before she died and the memoirs Nance had started. This is in part because of the way Nance’s life developed from that childhood I mentioned and onto being a successful career woman and quite amazing wife and mother at home. It is also because Nance is such a wonderful character; you can really imagine having a good laugh with her over a cup of tea. Yet whilst Grenville injects all the love and respect she had for Nance into her writing of her, we aren’t given a saint. As we discover Nance had flaws and some naughtier shenanigans in her life, we are given the portrait of a woman whole. I adored her and the way Grenville wrote about her from every angle.

Another thing that makes you forget that it is real is the backdrop that Nance’s life had in terms of Australia’s history, and Australia very much feels like a character in the book all of its own as we travel around it and see it go through bad times and good. We have the big events like the Depression and of course the World Wars, the latter which initially seems like a distant issue until her brother Frank enrols and ends up in a prisoner of war camp, which of course took me right back to Richard Flanagan’s very much fictional but all too real The Narrow Road To The Deep North. So you have these massive things happening in the background affecting Nance’s life.

Nance has seen the little man with the moustache on the newsreels, standing at his stone pulpit, his arm pumping up and down, haranguing great crowds that seemed like machines, line after line of people in the same uniforms thrusting their arms in the air. But it was on the other side of the world and in another language. It was serious but not personal. It was Britain’s war. The man with the moustache was frightening but he was also a bit ridiculous.

You also have the smaller yet equally significant domestic changes. We go through era’s where women are allowed to study and even graduate, we follow the sexual freedom and liberation that came from contraception, we watch as women could work and even set up by themselves breaking the shackles of society. We also learn how man, and some older generations of women (Nance’s mother Dolly is utterly fascinating) reacted to that both in good and bad ways. These small domestic shifts I found as interesting, if not more, than the big parts of history as I knew much less about them.

Leaving the doctors with the little beige box in her handbag, Nance thought, mine is the first generation of women, in the history of the world, to have any choice about children. All those millions of women who were nothing but baby-machines. So many of them must have been like me, wanting it both ways. Children, of course, but a life of their own too.

Grenville’s writing is wonderful; if you have read any of her novels you will know this already. Nance and her family come to life and walk off the pages. She celebrates the ordinary and the stories of the everyday. She builds the world of Australia through those times fully without hitting us over the head with research and yet highlighting important events big and small. What she also does which I think is very clever is that she highlights the plight of women at the start of the 1900’s, the struggle for change and how changes as it comes affects everyone, without ever taking a moral high ground or bashing men of the time for the society that they were also born into through no fault of their own. I mean if they behave badly then they are fair game, but not all of them did, a lot but not all. There is just great warmth, generosity and passion with this book that is really hard to try and encompass in words.

No book Nance had ever read described burned dinners or messed children. None had even mentioned trivial domestic details, let alone been exact about them.
The night Ken brought the new novel home for her she burned their own dinner, reading in the kitchen, so engrossed that she didn’t smell the potatoes until they were almost alight. At Mrs Lippincote’s was about the world she knew: the invisible armies of disregarded mothers and housewives. Elizabeth Taylor proved what Nance had always known, that the quiet domestic dramas of women’s lives might be invisible to men, but they mattered just as much.

I have chosen that final quote as I think (without having read At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I now desperately want to) that Kate Grenville does something in One Life which Elizabeth Taylor was trying to do with her writing. Not only does she write about some of the forgotten voices and the underdogs in society, she also writes about the domestic and the working class and celebrates them. In giving us the voice of her mother, Nance Russell, she gives voice to a generation of women who are often left unheard and yet who once known about should be the role model’s we should be championing to future generations. I cannot recommend you discovering Nance Russell’s story enough.

If you would like to hear Kate Grenville talking about One Life, you can hear her chatting to me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book – which is back!

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Filed under Books of 2015, Canongate Publishing, Kate Grenville, Non Fiction, Review

The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall

When I first got a review copy of Steven Hall’s debut novel The Raw Shark Texts back in 2007 there was one thing that put me off, I heard it had a conceptual shark in it and at that time in my life I just thought ‘nah!’ Well more fool me because after having read it as one of Rob’s choices on Hear Read This! I have to admit is one of the most entertaining and thought provoking books I have read in some time, one that also takes you on an adventure and feels like a ripping good yarn too. If you are still worried/put off by the conceptual shark leave thoughts of it to one side (those who have read the book will see what I did there) and let me expand on it…

Canongate Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 448 pages, bought especially for Hear Read This!

As The Raw Shark Texts opens we join a man who has no memories of where he is or why he came to be there. We soon learn, as he does, that he is Eric Sanderson and that the Eric Sanderson he was before (bear with me) has left him some hints and clues as to figure out what has happened, the first being to see Dr Randle both Eric’s therapist. As we may have guessed it appears that Eric has been through a terrible trauma of the death of his girlfriend Clio on a holiday, is this what has caused Eric’s memory loss? It turns out no, it is part of it, but actually what has taken Eric’s memory is something much, much worse.

Slowly, slowly-slowly, the world began to reappear in sickly greens and thumping purples and after maybe a minute, it steadied itself into a shaky-solid kind of balance. I wiped my eyes on my jeans and gave into a last scratchy cough before rubbing out the rest of the tears. Okay. Just breathe, we’re okay. I had no idea who or where I was.

Now if you are thinking that the ‘old amnesiac at the start of a book routine’ has become a little tired or obvious then you might be right, many authors do it. However this amnesia, in the hands of Hall, is a way of creating the start of a much deeper, more intricate and clever mystery which lies at the depths of the book, oh along with a monstrous shark which lives in the ether and is made out of words but if catches you steals all your memories before killing you. Nothing to fear then Eric… From here we follow Eric, and his cat Ian (more of him later because he is brilliant) and through a random meeting the beautiful Scout, as they go in search of the Un-Space Exploration Committee and Dr Trey Fidorous who Eric Sanderson 1.0 thinks will be able to help Eric Sanderson 2.0. Seriously bear with this guys, it feels like you are on a real adventure whilst also making your mind do a work out with the puzzles Eric must solve and the themes the book brings up.

The animal hunting you is a Ludovician. It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect. This may sound like madness, but it isn’t. Life is tenacious and determined. The streams, currents and rivers of human knowledge, experience and communication which have grown throughout our short history are now a vast, rich and bountiful environment. Why should we expect these flows to be sterile?

I have to admit initially I struggled with this concept, so I completely understand if you are thinking all this is barking mad. However I was already intrigued enough (and so smitten with Ian the cat) that I couldn’t resist carrying on and then I saw the genius behind this monster that Hall has created. Ludovician’s are one of many such sharks which are created by the throwaway comments, thoughts, texts etc that we humans have on a daily basis. To confuse it you must surround yourself with words be they written or spoken and in a brilliant moment we also learn that the worst ones died out when Latin stopped being spoken. There is also the nod it gives, and ‘back story if you will, to dementia and Alzheimer’s. So clever, such a geek out on the power of words. Yes, this is a book about books and languages at its heart as well as being one about love and loss – the Ludovician also seemed to me a metaphor for grief a feeling that chases you and gets you when you least expect it.

It is also a huge homage to some of the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s. We have the obvious link to Jaws and I have seen someone somewhere describe it as The Matrix with books. It was this and the adventure element that reminded me very much of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, another book I wasn’t expecting to be completely engrossed in and compelled by, but I was. Shows I should leave my pre-‘conceptual’-conceptions at the door doesn’t it?

What makes it different from other intelligent literary thrillers (sounds like I am creating a new genre but you know what I mean) I hear you ask, and you would be right to because there are some of them about. In part it is the themes I mentioned which add layers to the book and also it is Hall’s sense of humour and fun which, whilst some of the characters occasionally feel slightly two dimensional, transpires at its best with Ian the cat. I haven’t read such a realistic and scene stealing (yet – thankfully – never talking) creature for quite some time. For me it was Ian the themes of loss, the thoughts on the power of words, and, once I got my head around it, the idea of a conceptual thought shark that makes this a thriller with heart and multi-layered concepts.

I knew at some point I’d have to make it up to the cat after our incident earlier in the day. I also knew that when Ian saw we had a new travelling companion he was unlikely to be in a happy or forgiving mood. I could already picture the thundery disgust and disappointment all over his big flat ginger face.

Thinking about it The Raw Shark Texts is also a book about making every word you use matter, and the Steven Hall does just that. He also makes one of those tricky books which once you have read it you find really difficult to explain. If you love books and words and are prepared to let an author take you completely outside your comfort zone (so basically a ‘reader’) then I highly recommend you give this a try. It is an intelligent ‘conceptual’ thriller if ever there was one, and brilliantly written, crafted and plotted at that. Who knew that a 50-page flipbook section of an approaching shark could genuinely scare me?

If you would like to hear more thoughts on The Raw Shark Texts then do head to this episode of Hear Read This! where Rob, Kate, Gavin and I discuss it. Also, as always, if you have read it then let me know your thoughts on how you found it, if you loved it, what you made of the concept and how on earth they are going to make a movie of it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Canongate Publishing, Review, Steven Hall

Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth

What do we want to do when we grow up? When should we really grow up and become, erm, grown-ups and settle down? Who makes us choose either way and should we conform to any of this? Do our friends change as we do, can the best and truest of friendships last the test of time and these changes? Do we ever really know who we want? Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel, Animals, looks at all these questions and gives a current, eye opening, honest and often very funny insight into women in their late twenties and early thirties.

Canongate Books, trade paperback, 2014, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together and spend most of that time living together, apart from when they have to go to that pesky place called work (though Tyler doesn’t really need to unlike Laura who is while she writes her debut novelBacon), getting off their faces together – be it drink, drugs or preferably a bit of both – and having a rather wild time. However change is in the air. No, not since Tyler went and got a cat called Zuzu who hates Laura, since Laura got engaged and then worse still her fiancé, Jim, went and performed the cardinal sin of becoming a teetotaller. Now to add to the many hangovers, after the many crazy nights out, Laura has a headache hanging over her life as she must decide whether she really still wants to be an ‘any time and all night party girl’, or head for domesticity and listen to that ticking biological clock. Before any of you go making the mistake of thinking this sounds like a noughties Bridget Jones or chick-lit it is far from either, in fact Caitlin Moran has described it as ‘Withnail with girls’ as we are given a frank and no holds barred insight into what single, and engaged, ladies like to get up to before someone puts a ring on it.

You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move. I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which one was it with you?’

If we happen to be in, or over, our thirties then we all go through this stage at some point in our lives whatever gender or sexuality we are. It’s that eternal question we seem to be asked from a young age that we rebel against, the ‘what do you want to be when you’re a grown up?’ question that may possibly make us wince, which fortunately gets mistaken for a tight smile, or want to kill the person asking, covering those thoughts up with a false smile. Yet it is the question we are asked most as youths and then find ourselves annoyingly asking when we get older. Unsworth gives us three (Laura, Jim and Tyler) people’s reactions to that process with much insight and from all angles. Marvellous.

One of the other things that is marvellous is Unsworth’s writing. In Animals she manages to tread the thin lines of laugh out loud funny and incredibly dark. She also manages to do something quite a lot of writers fail at which is to make a book very funny without ever falling into the territory of a farce. These girls are having fun, even if they regret it the next morning sometimes, and that comes through in the writing. They are also firmly centred in reality, you have seen these girls on the streets of an evening, heard them laughing, seen them swaying drunkenly and sometimes making a tit, possibly literally, out of themselves.

She also, most importantly, writes some truly brilliant sentences such as… Oh. Give me a glance between two lovers on any day and I will show you a hundred heartbreaks and reconciliations, a thousand tallies and trump cards. Or… I felt it, then: a tremor down my spine; a cold spot at the back of the courtyard. A cat lying in the shade, flicking a caught bird with its claw over and over and over.

Unsworth also uses the darkly humorous to highlight some themes which also make the book all the more realistic and layered. I have mentioned the theme of friendship and the sense of needing to decide when to be a grown-up which we all face. With Laura and Tyler though she is also looking at how the modern world is for women and what the deal with feminism is right now. Is it to not have children and do what you like regardless of the labels of ‘crazy cat lady’ or ‘spinster’? Is it to be a wife and mother? Do you have to choose? Can you have it all? Does it matter either way? All big questions, all looked out without any feeling that Unsworth wanting to impart which is right or which is wrong, exploring all angles with two strong female leads, who may happen to be a tiny bit messed up, but aren’t we all?

Jeannie Johnson. Who’d once accidentally set her own pubes ablaze standing naked on a candlelit dinner table. She’d out spectacled us all. Now where is she? Spouting clichés, in stirrups.

Animals is a very clever book. It is an entertaining, occasionally frankly filthy, giggle and smirk inducing romp which also raises an eye to what life is like for women (though actually for all of us) as we grow up, try to become grown-ups (or try not to) and the choices and decisions we have to make as we evolve. It is a book which never takes itself too seriously, whilst being written brilliantly, yet by its very nature highlights some serious modern conundrums we all go through. As I said, clever, deftly done, wonderfully written and immensely readable.

If you want to know more about Animals you can hear Emma and I having a chat about the book (Emma even telling me off a bit) over a pint on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read Animals and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Emma Jane Unsworth, Review

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness

One of the books I was most excited about for 2013, even before the year started properly, was Patrick Ness’ novel ‘The Crane Wife’. I was a huge fan of ‘A Monster Calls’, my sister is the biggest fan of the Chaos Walking Trilogy, and when I heard that it had magical and fairytale elements to it, well, it was a done deal. We all know how much I love an adult, though not in a fifty shades way, fairytale don’t we? Yet once the book arrived I started to worry, would the book be everything that I imagined (we all imagine what an author has written in a book from time to time don’t we?) or had I subconsciously overhyped the book in my head?

***** Canongate Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One perfectly average night George is awakened by a strange sound, something between a cry and a crash. Initially thinking that it is his bladder he soon realises that the noise is coming from outside and on investigating he discovers a huge injured crane in his garden. Half thinking it a dream George manages to help the crane which then flies off and life seems to go back to normal. Yet a soon a woman, Kumiko, arrives at George’s printing shop and Georges fortunes, and the lives of those around him start to change. Will these changes be for the better though and why does this mysterious and remarkable woman seem so intent on helping George, what motives might she have? You will of course have to read the book to find all that out as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. However I think I can talk about the book a little more without spoilers, firstly the characters.

I know it is a real cliché, but sometimes they are hard to avoid, saying that an author’s characters have walked right off the page, yet in ‘The Crane Wife’ that is exactly what they did do. George is initially the main protagonist of the novel and what I loved about him, and indeed what I thought Patrick Ness did marvellously, was that he was a very good man yet not a really middle of the road man who bored the pants of you, even if that is how his ex-wife might have felt about him – in fact I think she says he is just too safe. Genuinely good characters are easy enough to make likeable, not so easy to make interesting though. Ness manages this by giving us insight into various points and events in his life and background. He is middle of the road but you just really like him and want to get to know him better, without him ever becoming ineffectual or dislikeably (not a word, I know) likeable.

“The crane, for its part, seemed to have already given up on him, to have already judged him, as so many others had, as a pleasant enough man, but lacking that certain something, that extra little ingredient to be truly worth investing in. It was a mistake women often seemed to make.”

Patrick Ness also makes the characters around George incredibly interesting, almost show stealing. Obviously we have the mysterious enigma that is Kumiko, we also have George’s daughter Amanda who not only did I love but occasionally wondered if Mr Ness had somehow been inside my head and stolen some of my thoughts. I have a feeling a lot of readers will feel like this about Amanda, she may well become one of my favourite characters in fiction. Amanda is one of those people who find themselves at odds with life; she finds it all a bit awkward.  You know when you go to a party and people are sharing jokes and you someone tells a joke that is either a bit too graphic, a bit dirty or a bit unsavoury (yet you know every other bugger at the table is desperate to laugh deep down but daren’t) that is very much Amanda. Subsequently she has found it hard to keep friends, illustrated with a time when she says something shocking about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ which had me laughing for ages, and indeed has a failed marriage behind her though she does have a lovely son from it. She also finds that this being at odds makes her angry, very angry. I loved her, mainly for her flaws, because she was a really honest character and I completely empathised with her. We have all been Amanda at some point.

‘Oh, sweetheart, I don’t even know why you’re crying now, but please –‘
‘Because I don’t understand how people talk to each other, Dad. I try, but I just blunder on in and knock over the china and spit in the soup and break all these rules that no one will even tell me –‘

It is the same with some of the more minor characters in the book. George’s brilliant, yet completely useless and rather lazy, assistant Mehmet and Amanda’s frenemy Rachel are wonderfully drawn and you will feel you have definitely met them before. Even characters who appear in one page stayed with me long after they were gone, one of George’s teachers and an old lady especially. This of course all down to Ness’ writing which I have loved before but the love seemed to runneth over with ‘The Crane Wife’. I loved the brooding and mysterious atmosphere of the novel, the characters obviously but also the way the book seemed so magical and so everyday all at once in that way that only some authors can get. Here I am thinking of the lovefest which I had with Graham Joyce’s writing in ‘Some Kind of Fairy Tale’, if you loved that you will love this. The first chapter of the book made me cry through the sheer joy of the prose from the opening paragraph on.

“What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.”

If I had to pick a fault, and it is a small one, then for me it would oddly be the way that the original fairytale of ‘The Crane Wife’, though written by Ness, was interjected in sections through the book. It was interesting to see Ness write in a different style, it’s very sparse and is done in an almost confusing state of magical realism, yet whilst I understood it was to give us a sense of foreboding at what might be coming it broke the story of George, Kumiko and Amanda a little. Not enough to really bother me, but it was something I noticed even though I enjoyed these sections when I came to them.

Overall I absolutely adored ‘The Crane Wife’. It made me cry at the start, possibly at the end and a few time, with laughter, through the middle. It has been a good few weeks since I read the book now and I still find myself pondering what has happened to the characters since, always the sign of a good read, and the writing just blew me away.  Patrick Ness says in this book that “A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.” I hope this story grows to be a huge success as it certainly deserves to be read and loved.

I know it only came out yesterday but on the off chance have any of you had a chance to read ‘The Crane Wife’ and if so what did you think? If you fancy hearing more about the book you can listen to a discussion with Patrick and myself on ‘You Wrote The Book!’ just so you know. Which other of Patrick Ness’ books have you read and loved? I need to read the Chaos Waling Trilogy don’t I (don’t you dare tell my sister I haven’t yet as she has said I must for ages), though first I think I am going to get my mitts on Patrick’s first two books. Has anyone read those?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Canongate Publishing, Patrick Ness, Review

Marry Me – Dan Rhodes

Fret not, this is not some random post where I declare my love for Dan Rhodes and ask for his hand, though I have been a big fan of his for years and years I wouldn’t go that far. However ‘Marry Me’ is the title of Dan Rhodes latest collection of short stories, which seemed the perfect antidote for having had a real book slump after the torture experience of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. I needed something that would make reading a joy and get me thinking and that is just what ‘Marry Me’ did.

**** Canongate Books, hardback, 2013, fiction, 158 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The theme in all the short tales in ‘Marry Me’ are, rather unsurprisingly from the title, all based around marriage. Be these tales of people who are thinking of getting married, getting married, having just been married or ending their marriage the whole gambit is covered here. You have couples getting married through true love, guilt, accident and people getting out of it for the same reason.

Describing them like that makes them sound like they are all going to be rather dark and cynical, and whilst there are a good few dark little twisted tales (part of the reason I am a fan of Rhodes writing so much) here there are also some that are incredibly raw and also rather sentimental and tender too even if it is not initially obvious.

Science

You would think in a collection of 79 oh-so-short stories there might be some kind of repetitive nature. I will admit that on occasion there were a few that opened with ‘when my fiancé died…’ and there were lots of cheating spouses and husbands who thought everything was fine when it really wasn’t yet the book is brimming with variety. ‘Perfect’ shows the lengths that people will go to for the most special, better than anyone else’s, of days. ’Androids’ takes the theme of, erm, themed weddings to a very dark (but I laughed so, so hard) conclusion. ‘Her Old Self’ shows you should never marry someone because you think you are doing them a favour or out of guilt. There was even a hint of a different genre, science fiction, in ‘Cold’ where a woman gets sick of her husband interfering with the plans she asks him to be cryogenically frozen for a few weeks to let her get on with.

Stick

What I always admire with Dan Rhodes work is how he likes to contradict himself and throw the reader completely. Here he does this by being super critical of marriage, despite the fact the book is dedicated to ‘wife features’, on the one hand and then suddenly giving you a quirky cute tale that you weren’t expecting. This is always the case in both his novels and his short stories. With his short stories like these, and many of the tales in his previous collection Anthropology, which at the longest can be a page and a half and at their shortest a few sentences (flash fiction really) it is like his brilliance is concentrated. He can create a situation and atmosphere in a paragraph a whole character in a sentence, it is quite mind-bogglingly clever. They are also overall darkly funny, you’ll laugh when you normally wouldn’t.

Hat

I would heartily recommend anyone and everyone give ‘Marry Me’ ago. You might not want to buy it for someone you love, they might not get the way it’s meant, but if you love literature, language and the way that words can work at their most concentrated (and because you like to be entertained and made to laugh) then you should definitely give this a whirl. I would highly recommend it, like I would all the books of Rhodes that I have read.

I have just realised that Dan Rhodes should really be in my Hall of Fame, as I have read and liked so much of his work, but I am going to save that for when I have read ‘This is Life’ which has been on my TBR for far too long and I have been saving to read for a rainy day. Who else has read Dan Rhodes and what do you think of his work?

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Dan Rhodes, Review, Short Stories

The Haunted Book – Jeremy Dyson

As a child I can remember that when I first was allowed to choose books for myself from the library the ones that came home with me would be of a spooky variety. I seem to remember ploughing through ‘The Illustrated Book of Ghosts’, ‘The World’s Greatest Mysteries’ and the like at a phenomenal rate. I seem to remember anything about spontaneous human combustion, Spring Heeled Jack and ghosts would have my interest and to be truthful that hasn’t really stopped. I am a smidgen obsessed with Most Haunted, having all the DVDs, love horror movies and have a small (read actually quite big) shelf of non-fiction books in the bedroom. So when I received ‘The Haunted Book’ by Jeremy Dyson, who wrote the show ‘Ghost Stories’ which petrified me at the theatre, I put all other books to one side and curled up on the sofa with it straight away.

Canongate Books, hardback, 2012, non-fiction/fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘The Haunted Book’ is one of those books where the author, who happens to also be its narrator in part, keeps talking directly to the reader. For example as we read the introduction to the book Dyson tells us how as a child he was fascinated by true and fictional ghostly tales and then how as an adult he is contacted by a journalist, Aiden Fox, who has come across some modern stories and would like an author to create fictional accounts for a book. So we follow Dyson as, after a few doubts, he goes to some much lesser known haunted places (tunnels under Manchester, nuclear bunkers, disused psychiatric hospitals etc) to research the area and indeed retell the tales.

I really liked this mix of these possible ghostly tales with Dyson’s thoughts on the people and the places intermingling, it worked for me and I was very much torn as to whether this was fact or fiction. Something he keeps you guessing for quite some time. The stories themselves are all wonderfully eerie, so much so that ‘Kitson from Nealon’, the tale of a sex-with-strangers addict who moves into a new home to have some really creepy, yet minor, things happen within, actually gave me the full on creeps and I had to stop reading it in bed.

Then ‘The Haunted Book’ takes an unusual twist as Dyson suddenly comes upon a book, called ‘This Book is Haunted’ which contains another book ‘A Book of Hauntings’ inside it both with ghostly tales from the 1960’s and 70’s and Edwardian times – the latter of course still being deemed the period in which ghost stories really were in their element. And it is here that a slight quibble for me arrived, however as I don’t want to ruin this for anyone and don’t know how to do that magical thing where you make the text disappear until it’s highlighted, here is a warning…

IF YOU DON’T WANT ANYTHING SPOILED FOR YOU THEN DON’T READ THE NEXT PARAGRAPH NO MATTER HOW MUCH THIS SENTENCE MIGHT MAKE YOU WANT TO. DON’T. OK?

It is here that you very much realise the book is a fiction, which I admit as I was so spellbound and love ghost stories so much was slightly disappointed by, yet because Dyson’s writing is so brilliant you don’t mind. I thought he captured the atmosphere and history of the ghost stories in these era’s wonderfully. Yet the narrative from him vanished at this point and I really liked that so I felt slightly saddened again despite how much I was enjoying it. My next quibble though was the final section of the book, which is all in black pages with white writing. In case any naughty people are still reading who haven’t read the book yet and might do all I will say is that I got what Dyson was trying to do and I appreciated it, but I didn’t ‘get’ it in a way because it seemed to dispel all the work he had put in. I think this ending will be a Marmite one for readers. After an initial slight peeved moment or two from me he just about got away with it because of everything that had gone before. There, that is all I will say. Email me if you want to discuss it further.

NOW YOU MAY CARRY ON READING AS I CONCLUDE MY SPOILER FREE THOUGHTS ON ‘THE HAUNTED BOOK’. APOLOGIES FOR SHOUTING BUT IF I SPOILT THIS YOU WOULD BE VERY CROSS.

‘The Haunted Book’ is a really difficult book to say too much more about really, because it is one of those books where nothing is what it seems and where there is a very clever game being played all the way through. This makes it sound like a book which is not to be trusted, and I don’t mean it like that, it is more it’s a book that is filled with unease in part because of the stories within and also because you feel like the rug is going to be pulled out from under your feet at any moment. It’s like the bookish version of walking through a haunted house at a fairground, there could be something lurking around every corner and you just have to tell yourself ‘it’s not real is it?’ I enjoyed this book rather a lot and if you like spooky goings on and ghostly tales, or the League of Gentlemen, then I imagine you will too.

Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? (Beware of spoilers in the comments.) Did any of you have a grim fascination as a child with all this sort of stuff? What is your favourite ‘true’ ghost story or collection of ‘true’ ghost stories? I feel I might want to add more to my collection.

P.S You can hear Jeremy on this week’s spooky episode of The Readers and see the brilliantly spooky trailer for ‘The Haunted Book’ here.

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Filed under Canongate Publishing, Jeremy Dyson, Review