Category Archives: Faber & Faber

Sugar Money – Jane Harris

One of the books that I have been most looking forward to, for quite some time, is Jane Harris’ Sugar Money. I was a huge fan of Harris’ debut The Observations pre-blog, in fact I believe it was one of the books that got me back into reading after Rebecca and Miss Marple, I remember my Gran buying it for me in Scarthin books. Anyway, I digress, long suffering standing readers of this blog will know that back in 2011 I then fell head over heels with Harris’s second novel Gillespie & I; a book which I genuinely felt like had been written for me and me alone. I know that sounds like I have an ego the size of a small continent but we all have those books don’t we, ones which seem like the author rooted through the ‘favourite things’ sections of the bookish corner in our brains? To cut a lot of waffle from me short, after two such reading hits with me how would I get on with her third novel…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2017, fiction, 390 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cleophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stated his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cleophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars; a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a mosquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cleophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.

I was so tempted to simply leave the paragraph above with the words ‘how could you not read a book after you have read that’ and left that as my review, as really what more do you need to know? Yet a wonderful book like Sugar Money It is a paragraph brimming with everything I love, fantastic vivid prose, you both know the character of the narrator and Father Cleophas in mere sentences and it also brims with the past, the present and a potentially concerning future. It is funny and yet there are horrors hidden in the spaces between the charming tone. It is actually a paragraph that surmises everything that is so brilliant in Harris’ writing, atmosphere and characterisation as well as what you can expect from the rest of the book. But hang about, I have started waxing lyrical already and not even told you what Sugar Money is about so let’s rewind.

The year is 1765 and Lucien and his older brother Emile have been instructed to perform a mission for Father Cleophas who wants them to smuggle 42 slaves from the island of Grenada, where the brothers themselves once lived, back to him in Martinique where he feels they belong as he believes that these slaves have been stolen from the French by the British, or at least that is what he says. Anyway, this is not a mission that either of the brothers can say no to for they are slaves themselves and so a boat is sorted and soon they set sale. Lucien, our narrator, sees this both as a huge adventure and also as a way of seeing some of the people he just about remembers from Martinique. Emile however can only see the hard realities of what lies ahead and what seems and impossible task. Through his interactions with Lucien we get the sense there is much the younger brother doesn’t know and the first prickles of dread appear in our minds, we as readers catching Lucien’s sense of excitement whilst picking up Emile’s forewarnings that this will be anything but a tale of daring do.

I don’t want to give too much more of the story away because an adventure, which I do think this novel is albeit a rather harrowing one which had me in physical tears at the end, when you know what is coming isn’t going to have the effect that Harris clearly intends this book too. I will say that when we get to Grenada the brooding atmosphere that has been lingering at the edges builds and builds as you read on. There are some utterly gut wrenching scenes of how the slaves were treated, which Harris doesn’t flinch away from and show us how horrendously these people were treated and then she also cleverly reminds us that Emile and Lucien are slaves themselves and not two free young men on a rescue mission, they just undergo slightly less horrific lives as slaves themselves, which is a complete mind f**k in itself again. Yet this also calls out to the here and now, how often have we heard people say ‘well, we have made steps forward so that is ok, there is still hope?’ You are reading a ripping yarn but follow the threads and the undercurrents and there is much for us to ponder within the prose.

In case I am making this sound like too dark and harrowing tale, Harris interweaves the story of Sugar Money with humour which invariably comes from its cast of utterly fantastic characters. There are many things that I have loved in both Jane’s previous novels The Observations and Gillespie and I; unforgettable characters is one of them (atmosphere and sense of place another which are also in abundance in this novel) be they characters who appear for a page or two or the main narrators themselves. In the latter case Lucien is a welcome addition to Harris’ wonderful leads, the bawdy Bessie Buckley and the beguiling Harriet Baxter. He is cheeky, he breaks the rules and heads off on his own when he shouldn’t and his internal dialogue and perceptions have us hooked, and often horrified, by his side.

Unlike Bessie and Harriet, who were lone narrators if that makes sense, here we have the brotherly bond and banter of Emile, who frankly I fell head over heels in love with. He might seem an older bossy brother to Lucien but through the moments Lucien describes, without picking up on himself, we find a man who cares deeply for his brother, his former lover (a wonderful and moving additional strand in the book I won’t spoil) and yet one who knows the darkness of the world and just wants to do what is right or failing that what is best. If you do not fall for him then there is no hope for you and we simply can’t be friends.

‘But who is this with you, Emile?’
Chevallier forced a laugh.
‘You must recognise him?’
The old woman cast her eye over me, her mouth downturn. Then she took a step back.
‘Ha! Just like his mother – big ugly lips and skinny face.’
Well, that was nonsense for my mother was known for her beauty and I would have said as much except Emile shot me a warning glance.
Anqelique sat down and took up her pipe. The firelight threw flickering shadows across her face. Sharp creases ran from the corners of her nose to the ends of her lips. The skin below her eyes look puffy. She was old and lame. Nevertheless, she was still tough as old turtle, for true.

Yet what makes Sugar Money all the more powerful is also the cast of characters around these two. Be they the duplicitous Father Cleophas, the delightful Celeste, the villainous Dr Bryant or the matriarchal Angelique, to name just a few, these characters come to us brimming with life, with their own spectrum of perspectives stories to tell. It is with this collection of characters that we see how people can keep on going in times of adversity or simply times of utter horror and also how people keep hope in their hearts which adds to the emotional impact of a book such as this.

As you can see I could probably carry on singing the praises of Sugar Money for quite some time so, I shall simply round off by saying that if you want a tale of adventure and daring do, filled with wonderful characters, that makes you think and explores a period of history you may not know of (oh and I should say this book is based on a true story) that will leave you heartbroken yet with a sense of hope then this is a book you should be rushing out to get right now or what the tumpty-tum are you playing at?

You can get Sugar Money here if you would like, you can also see Jane and myself in conversation about this wonderful novel and both her others at Chester Literature Festival on November 19th tickets here. End of shameless self promotion in italics. 

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Filed under Books of 2017, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

Black Water – Louise Doughty

Back in May of 2014 I read Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and was, I think it is fair to say, pretty caught up in it and its brilliance. It was one of those wonderful thrillers that packs and extra punch with all the themes it talks about amongst the main propelling action. In the case of Apple Tree Yard it was the cracks in families lives, the sexual desires of women (some not all) as well as a woman’s fall from grace – lots of things packed in. So I was very, very, very excited about the arrival of Black Water the follow up (not in a sequel or series sense) to it when I was at a Faber event in the Spring, where I also met Louise who was lovely. The thing with highly anticipated novels though is that I then get nervous about them and/or save them for a rainy day. However the lovely folk at Dead Good Books asked me if I would review it, a shorter version of this post is here, and so I pulled it off the shelves and set to devouring it.

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Faber & Faber, hardback, 2016, fiction, 345 pages, kindly given at an event by the publisher

John Harper is a man waiting to die. Each night he lies in wait for the men with machetes that he believes are coming to kill him. The question we have as a reader is of course ‘but why’? Why does a man spend his days in a small hut in the middle of the nowhere in Bali? Why does he avoid people as much as he can, and seem instantly suspicious of any one he does meet? Why would people want to kill him? What on earth did he do? These are just some of the mysteries that lie deep in the heart of Black Water from the opening chapter, and there are more as the reader carries on.

A picture came to him, black water, long strands of hair, clinging like seaweed across his wrist; he dismissed the picture. Instead, he played the game of pressing at the bubbles of air beneath the t-shirt until they formed smaller bubbles, mobile beneath the thin material. Then he was impatient with the game and held the whole t-shirt down, crushing it between his fists. It was like drowning a kitten.

Early on things shift somewhat when, on a rare trip into the nearby town, he meets Rita and after a night of sex that they both feel is inevitable Harper starts to look back at how he has ended up in this situation; paranoid, isolated, aloof. It is difficult to go much further into the plot for fear of spoilers, however what I can say is that what unravels is not what you might be expecting. We are given the story of a man’s life from his difficult birth, literally – it is really traumatic, then through his unusual upbringing and onto his eventual part in the Jakarta riots of the 1960’s and the effect that has on his life afterwards. Only we don’t get this in order, course not where would the fun be in that, we get it in fits and starts, dribs and drabs, not always in order and not always with the whole truth until right at the very end.

It was the unexpected aspects of Black Water that I found fascinating and the most compelling, often grimly so, giving extra weight to the novel. I previously had no idea what happened in Jakarta during 1965 and was horrified at the extent at which killings and riots were carried out which I found quite shocking. Doughty cleverly manages to give insight into both viewpoints on either side of the communist divide, there is one particularly emotional seen in which she discusses how friends, and neighbours could turn to foes merely to save their own live. How does that leave someone afterwards, where on the spectrum of morals does it fall to save your families lives at the expense of another?

Nina glanced at Poppa and Poppa said, ‘We’re not the usual household here, Nicholaas. Michael Junior’s mother died when he was around your age. Nina came into our lives about a year later, and she’s been the best wife and mother we could have hoped for.’
‘Even though, legally speaking, I’m neither,’ Nina said with a smile that seemed resigned but not particularly unhappy. ‘Well not quite yet.’
‘Soon though…’ said Poppa firmly, looking over his glasses at her and beaming, before turning to Harper and adding, ‘Nina’s mother was from Salvador. She’s Catholic,’ as if that explained everything.

What I also thought was brilliantly done was the discussion of family and race. As Harper and his mother Anika end up in America they become part of a family who are anything but conventional and brimming with love. I thought these sections of the book were wonderful especially as they show how the things that people go through in their childhood can so easily, and Doughty doesn’t mind putting her characters through the ringer.

The only slight critique I have of the novel is that occasionally when I was in Jakarta I was secretly hankering to go and see Harpers nuclear family (or whatever the awful  term is) be it in America or off in Europe with his mother. In the latter case particularly I feel there is a whole book waiting in the wings all about Harper’s mother Anika which I would rush out to read the instant it came out because I found her story, even though it is a tiny piece of Black Water’s jigsaw puzzle, really fascinating and also tragic in a whole different way. This small critique is actually a sign of how great Doughty’s writing is, she can create pivotal plot points with peripheral characters who come fully formed and seem desperate to tell you their story too.

For readers, like me, who loved Apple Tree Yard there is the same delicious mounting tension, along with much intrigue, as a lead character slowly reveals their story – and who doesn’t love that – yet this is a very different kind of book. With Black Water Doughty uses the tropes and pace of a thriller to look intricately at race, grief, what makes a family a family, communism, historical events and the disparity of social classes as well as those between Asia and the rest of the world. That is quite something and sure to please Doughty’s many fans as well as bringing her many more.

Have you read Black Water and/or Apple Tree Yard and if so what did you make of them, as always I would love your thoughts and a natter about the book in the comments below. Apologies there has been a drought of reviews of late, I will be rectifying this over the next few weeks.

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Louise Doughty, Review

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

It seems that the spirit of my holiday in Cyprus has not only stayed with me through Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection which started there and only recently finished (because I wanted it to last forever) this week. Also, for some unknown reason, my review of Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat which I thought I posted after I got back has been sat in my drafts for four months. Oops. As regular passersby to this blog will know I hate flying and needed a book that would have me hooked at 30,000 feet. So I grabbed this debut novel as from what I had heard it was a thriller meets Little Red Riding Hood and would keep my nerves at bay and hold my attention for the four hour flight, which indeed it did. So with a quick tweak of the introduction which you are now reading (how ‘Meta’ that feels) here are my thoughts, just a little later than intended.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, paperback, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘There’s been nothing for weeks,’ said Paul eventually. ‘No new leads, nothing.’
‘I know.’
Leads – those invisible wires that could take us to her. Or Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. The wind seemed to have scattered them and time snipped them off. He was right, there’d been nothing.

For anyone who has had children, or has looked after them, the biggest fear when you take them anywhere for a day out is that you will lose them. Hamer plays on this instinct early on in The Girl With The Red Coat when, and I hope this isn’t giving too much away, Beth takes her daughter, Carmel, on a day out and loses her in a maze. The sense of foreboding, unease, tension and fear that Hamer builds up in Beth as she searches madly for her daughter is palpable, I was utterly tense (far more than I was about being on the plane whilst reading it) for what felt like forever though was actually only a few pages. This is the power of Hamer’s writing and yet it is a mere foreshadowing of what she puts you through when Carmel is abducted by a man mere months later at a storytelling festival, the aftermath of which becomes the crux of the novel.

The Girl in the Red Coat is, quite literally in two ways, a book of two halves. Firstly there is the way that it is told. Chapters alternate, though sometimes one voice will take over for a few chapters, between Beth and Carmel from the very start. On the one hand we get the mothers view of her fears for her child when there isn’t any danger, the situation that she and her daughter have found themselves before she goes missing, then the horrors, followed by the dreadful sense of loss (and clinging to hope) when she is gone. How do you carry on?

Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.

We then also get the complete opposite perspective from Carmel. She is clearly angry and unsure why her parents have split up, which Beth relates to us, before she goes missing. She is also finding her mother’s protective nature cloying and annoying until, she believes, her mother has had an accident and the grandfather she has never met comes to her aide. We then follow her on the journey that he takes her which, without giving too much away, takes her to a crumbling old house before heading off to another land and what can only be described as a cult. I shall say no more on the plot, however as it goes on Carmel starts to get a sense that something isn’t right and we follow her as she questions things and the repercussions of those questions.

I lean back feeling sleepy and trying not to be. All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an absolutely packed novel. One of the many reasons I love reading debuts are that they do tend to be buzzing with ideas and this one certainly is. Here there are tropes and the themes in as much abundance as there are plot twists along the way. As you read on it becomes a mix of thriller and fairytale which is what I was really hoping it was going to be from what I had heard prior to picking it up. You know I love a good fairytale, and indeed a good thriller, so I loved the nods to fairytales as you read on; the title of the book, the crumbling castle Beth is taken to, the evil ogre (who never becomes pantomime which I appreciated, he is just an odious scary but very real villain) you just worry and wonder if there will be a fairytale ending?

Occasionally I did find there was a bit too much going on, which leads to the second reason that for me this was a book of two halves. The first half for me was some brilliant writing of apprehension, brooding tension and nerves. The second half, once we go abroad, whilst still oddly fascinating felt much less real to me. You are probably all incredulously thinking ‘but what fairytales feel real?’ and you would be right yet this isn’t a fairytale all over, it is also a contemporary drama and a thriller/mystery. It was also the section when Carmel’s ‘sensitivity’, which is hinted at in the first half, comes to the fore. I can’t discuss this more here for fear of spoilers again, but maybe in the comments below. The only way I can describe it is like two very different books had suddenly been merged together in the middle. Once I was in the swing of the second half of the book I was off again, it was just a slight jarring on that initial switch, the spell being broken briefly in between.

Whilst I did have a few quibbles here and there, they didn’t stop my overall enjoyment of the novel and indeed the aforementioned plane journey quite literally flew by. I then finished it off the next morning at the hotel before breakfast, so it was quite literally a two sitting read. This is because of Hamer’s writing, which is wonderful and I found particularly strong through Beth’s eyes where the tensions and the emotions of the novel lay for me. (This is probably because I don’t tend to like children narrators and nothing to do with the drawing of Carmel’s character.) Hamer can certainly create an intriguing cast of characters and spin a good yarn. The Girl in the Red Coat is an unusual and brimming debut, I will be intrigued and look forward to whatever she writes next.

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Kate Hamer, 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

Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Max Porter

It has been brilliant having a good old sort out of books wherever they may be shelved, or indeed hiding, in the house as it has reminded me of the books I have to look forward to and also the ones that I have loved and the ones that I have loved and haven’t written about yet. One of the books which has probably made both the biggest impression on me, whilst reading and in the pondering it has left me with since, has to be Max Porter’s debut Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Such an impression did it leave on me (and so many thoughts did it bring) I had to read it twice within a short space of time.

Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Once upon a time there were two boys who purposefully misremembered things about their father. It made them feel better if ever they forgot things about their mother.

It is no surprise that from the title of a novel such as Grief is the Thing with Feathers the subject is going to be, you guessed it, grief. Whilst the idea of members of a family coming to terms with the passing of a loved one and the effect this has on them might not be the newest of subjects, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a book that describes the varying emotions of grief in such an honest and fractured way. We see grief through the eyes of the three people in the house, a father and two sons, as they try to come to a way of understanding the loss that now surrounds them and the blank unknown of what lies ahead. Into this space appears Crow an unwelcome guest who is both helpful and hindering and who will stay put until these three no longer need him.

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

What or who Crow is changes on the page as often as it will in the readers mind. Is this actually a crow that has just happened upon the scent of loss and wants to do some good? Should we judge him on his dark and pointed exterior for the trickster we see? Is Crow a manifestation of a husband’s way of dealing with the emptiness that invades every thought or is the manifestation of the two boys missing their mother? Is it a father’s madness taking on the form of his slight obsession with the poet Ted Hughes* as some sort of coping mechanism and/or breakdown? Is he an entire emotion come to life filling every piece of emptiness in these three’s house and worlds post death? Could Crow be all of these things? It is up to the reader to make up their own mind.

One of the reasons that I was so gripped/intrigued/horrified by Grief is the Thing with Feathers was the character of Crow, who is a riddle in himself and a puzzle you want to solve. I was also completely captivated by the writing. I felt whilst reading that I was under some kind of spell in the way it mixes the reality of grief, and the horror of it, with a slightly giddy yet unnerving sense of the fairytale or the supernatural. There’s a raw modern narrative and a very quintessentially gothic essence to it which I also loved. It also feels in many ways like an essay to grief that is also a poem, the language is wonderful even when it seems utterly bizarre, you are hooked.

Look at that, look, did I not, oi, stab it. Good book, funny bodies, open door, slam door, spit this, lick that, lift, oi, look, stop it.

The main thing that I really loved (if that is the right word) about this book however was the depiction of grief. I always have huge admiration for writers who tackle the difficult or the ugly things in life and, no matter how hard it might be to write or to read, embrace them and give us them with their full honesty, unflinchingly. As I mentioned when I read Cathy Rentzenbrink’s The Last Act of Love, grief is something which we really do not like to talk about and yet we all face and when we do we really need someone to talk about it with. Max Porter has created a novel which does this with a rage and a beauty that moved me so much.

Without sounding too daft, as I read this book I felt like I was going through grief again, in a strange way both for this fictional family that I have never met (because they don’t exist Simon) and for anyone I have lost in my life. On one page I would be slightly confused, the next I would be laughing like a drain, the following I would be howling and then there were those particular brutal bittersweet moments where we mourn everything we have lost and celebrate everything that we had, those memories which break our hearts but remind us of the wonder of love and the people we love or have loved.

The house becomes a physical encyclopaedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principle difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

So to put it simply, I think that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a rather exceptional book. It is one which puts you through the ringer, leaving you distraught and then hopeful. It is the sort of book you rush through once and then have to go back through and read slowly taking all the intricacies in and then pondering over it all afterwards. It resonated with me and affected me, which is all I ever hope for from a book – one of my books of the year.

*Oh, before I go I should mention the Ted Hughes connection which I have seen has caused some discussion over the interweb with many a bookish sort. If any of you are wondering if you need to have an appreciation of Ted Hughes and his Crow in particular my answer would be no… Because I have read very little Hughes and I had no idea that the Crow collection existed. Before you call me a heathen (possibly too late) I can say that having read Grief is The Thing With Feathers I have got a copy waiting for me at the bookshop to pick up on pay day. So not only did the book affect me greatly, it also got me heading for a poetry collection which is not my normal bag at all. What can I say? Something about the soul of this book resonated with me that I want to find out more around it, even though it is fiction. Yes, this book is that good, not that I needed to tell you again.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Faber & Faber, Max Porter, Review

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

I know, I know, I know. It is shocking that someone who claims to love books has missed out on some of the classics, both modern and ‘classic’ classic as I call them, we can’t read everything after all can we? Though to be fair one of the reasons that I have finally ended up reading it now was because no one else at my new book club, made up of some of my new Liverpool friends who all love books though possibly not as religiously as me, had ever read it before and so we decided that we should.

Faber & Faber, 1954 (2011 edition), paperback, fiction, 140 pages, bought by my good self

In an unknown time, and for reasons that are only ever hinted at (mainly for a crash or air strike in some unnamed war), a group of boys end up stranded on a desert island in the middle of nowhere with no sign of adult life. These boys, of all ages,. With Ralph, through the help of his sidekick Piggy, and alongside Jack and Simon as the leader the boys must somehow try and survive and create their own society. Yet as time goes on and the initial joy of a land free of parents and full of adventure starts to lose its charm, fractions form and rumours of something dark and terrifying inhabiting the land, sea or sky above them things start to take an ever darker turn.

I know lots and lots of people have read The Lord of the Flies and so it would be easy just to ramble on and on about it and give everything away BUT that said there are some people who haven’t read it and I want to be mindful of them, especially when three people ruined it for me, two on twitter and one on GoodReads. So I am going to do my best not to give too much away and focus on the initial plot and mystically hint at one or two other things. I may nod at the ending, because it had a real effect on what I thought of the book overall, but I will warn you of that when it comes and it won’t have a single spoiler in it. Promise. So, the book…

Firstly I have to say I was hooked by it, enjoyed almost seems the wrong word as it unravels. I found the ambiguity of what had happened intriguing from the start, and indeed the whole way through, and found the boys reaction to it all utterly believable just as I did as the book gets darker and darker. I was with the boys as they got over, rather quickly but you may well do at that age, the terror of what had happened, the jubilation and confusion of surviving and then the illation of having a place of paradise as your playground.

Having been a young boy once back in the distant past, I could imagine how I would have behaved. I was instantly utterly charmed by Piggy, the slightly plump boy who doesn’t want to be called Piggy and then of course does, with his glasses and his brains and yet not really a boy who looks like a leader. (One of the things we asked ourselves at book group was who we would be – hands up I am a Piggy, as it were.) I could remember the Ralph’s of the world who sort of just ended up being athletic and the leader by sheer happenstance, every bloody time how did they do it, and the Jack’s who were head boy material, if not the head boy, and who craved leadership and popularity like I would have been craving another Crunchie bar. I could also see how fun would need to become survival and work, and invariably be easier to be fun until the nights came and along with it the terrors imagined or otherwise.

All this is captured effortlessly by Golding, as is the decent into fractions that follow and humans do as humans would in that situation as uncomfortable and confronting as that might be. I have to say I didn’t expect what is now deemed to be a children’s classic too to be quite so brutal and uncompromising. There may be sunshine and sandy beaches but the sense of impending doom as the novel goes on, and what happens as it weaves its way along and onto the end, is quite horrifying and I spent quite a lot of the book feeling very tense. It got to me. I think part of that is how Golding makes the atmosphere, environment and nature of the island take over the characters in the book in all the different ways, I haven’t seen this so skilfully done in many books.

The silence of the forest was more oppressive than the heat, and at this hour of the day there was not even the whine of insects. Only when Jack himself roused a gaudy bird from a primitive nest of sticks was the silence shattered and echoes set ringing by a harsh cry that seemed to come out of the abyss of ages. Jack himself shrank at this cry with a hiss of indrawn breath; and for a minute became less a hunter than a furtive thing, ape-like among the tangle of trees. Then the trial, the frustration, claimed him again and he searched the ground avidly. By the bole of a vast tree that grew pale flowers on a grey trunk he checked, closed his eyes, and once more drew in the warm air; and this time his breath came short, there was even a passing pallor in his face, and then the surge of blood again.

Though some naughty people had spoiled one major element of the book I was surprised on two occasions and genuinely horrified on two others. Golding does something very clever which I love in good books (without bloody precious kids narrating it) where we have two levels in how we read some of the situations. Ralph, Piggy, Simon and Jack all read events that unfollow with a child’s mind, as adults we see the full picture and often this only adds more tension and fear as you read. As I mentioned I was tense and genuinely fearful as the book went on both for the kids and those poor pigs who had been living in such peace.

Now I have to mention the ending. I won’t say what happens but if you haven’t read the book skip to the next paragraph anyway. I mention the ending specifically because it took the book from a solid five out of five down to a four. We go from high drama to such a sudden and ultimately disappointing, if slightly appeasing and teeny bit redemptive, ending that I felt really cheated.  I certainly thought that as Golding was so determined to have this ending, it being so sudden and coming from nowhere it made you wonder why, the book should have ended exactly a paragraph before it did. Another thing we all agreed on in book group.

I am really pleased that I have finally read Lord of the Flies and spent time lost on that desert island with those boys. It is a fascinating, if rather grim, portrayal of both a world if children ruled and how human nature unfolds. That might sound grand but can you see it unravelling any other way than Golding describes, isn’t that is what is so powerful about the book? What is also so impressive is that in 60 years this book hasn’t dated at all. If you haven’t read it then do, and if you are teaching it at school please teach it well and don’t beat kids over the head with it all (just enough to get them thinking and passing their exams) because there is much to get from reading it. I will certainly be reading more Golding.

They wouldn't have had these delights on the island... we did at Book Group!

They wouldn’t have had these delights on the island… we did at Book Group!

I should add, as illustrated by the image above, it is also a brilliant book group book with much to discuss. If you fancy discussing it in the comments below then we can go for it, so do comment as I would love to chat about it all over again if you have read it. If you haven’t read it, go read it and then pop back later!

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Review, William Golding

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

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

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

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

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

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

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

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

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

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

Wind Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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

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

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

Cold Hand in Mine – Robert Aickman

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

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

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

The Poisoning Angel – Jean Teule

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

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

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

The Hypnotist – Lars Kepler

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

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

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

Orfeo – Richard Powers

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

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

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

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

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

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