Category Archives: Fiction Uncovered

The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the last seven weeks, each Wednesday, I have been sharing my thoughts with you on the winners one by one. For the final week I want to tell you all about a short story collection which completely stole my heart and which I think might just be my favourite short story collection of all time, with the possible exception of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and you all know how much I love him. Carys Davies second collection The Redemption of Galen Pike is like the finest selection of miniature fictional gems that you will want to return to again and again. It is one of those books where I want to say ‘don’t bother reading my thoughts, just go and buy it’ however it would be lovely if you stayed and found out more, or came back after you’ve whizzed to the bookshop.

9781907773716

Salt Publishing, 2014, paperback, short stories, 134 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

One of the things that I loved so much about The Redemption of Galen Pike is one of the things that makes it incredibly difficult to write about – the scope of these stories in both time and place are epic. In this collection we have; a young wife on a remote Australian settlement with an untellable secret who reluctantly invites her neighbour into her home, a Quaker spinster offering companionship to a condemned man in a Colorado jail, an office employee from Birmingham witnesses a scene that will change her life in the ice and snows of Siberia, a middle-aged alderman opens his heart to Queen Victoria during a jubilee celebration in a northern English town, a tribe in the Amazon who must follow a horrific ritual. I could go on as seriously all seventeen of these stories have absolutely nothing in common with each other.

Actually that is slightly untrue. They do have a few things in common but more in their sense of style and prose than in any themes or ideas. Firstly they are all stunningly written. Carys has a prose style which is precise and economic and yet lush and brimming all at once. In a single paragraph, and sometimes in just a single line, she can set up a situation, landscape or character which comes into your mind fully formed. This means that even when a story is a few pages, or in one particular case (Nothing Like My Nightmare) a paragraph, you are fully immersed in its world. The longer tales also manage to have an epic quality which I have never felt reading a short story before, the title tale and The Travellers being prime examples of that.

Henry Fowler’s narrow pigeon chest was lumpy and shrivelled like the map of some strange unknown country. It had a kind of raised border all around it that was ropy and pink; inside it the skin had a cooked, roasted look to it. – it was blackened and leathery and hard, like a mummy’s, or a creature that has lain for a thousand years in a forgotten bog.

What is also particularly wonderful with the whole collection is that every single story has a twist/surprise that you won’t see coming. Yes, even if like me you try and be clever once you realise this is the case you still won’t guess it. I literally gasped when I was reading The Quiet, which opens the collection, at a certain moment and then continued to as I went on. There is something really joyful and playful (without the reader ever feeling played, which is a trick to conjure in itself) in Carys writing where you know she is having a wonderful time writing these stories and therefore it becomes a contagious feeling as you read. This links in with a wonderful sense of wit that makes itself known just at the right time. Some of these tales can be rather dark (which I love) yet they all have their own sense of humour, which makes them all the more engaging and effective, throughout. These two combine wonderfully in Jubilee and The Travellers.

That said there are many truly poignant moments. Davies deals with subjects like domestic abuse, prejudice, sexuality, good and bad and much more throughout. Often there can be a moral in some of the tales, Precious particularly springs to mind, yet never does Carys bash you over the head or seem to say ‘you should think this’, she simply writes the story and leaves it to the reader whether they want to see the slightly hidden points that may be lying just under the surface.

One of the many other things that I loved was the equally underlying sense of fairytale, legend and myth in each tale. Interestingly there is very rarely any magic of the spells and curses variety, though sometimes it crops up, more often than not it is simply that there is a sensibility of these things sometimes blatant sometimes more hidden as titles like Myth, Wicked Fairy and In the Cabin in the Woods show you. Sometimes however there is just the slightest delightful nod to these things, like the mention of mummy’s, creatures, fairies and unicorns that pop a folklore or legendary image into your mind whilst keeping the tale completely set in reality be it the present or the past. It is marvellous.

One fat hand had flown to the Queen’s throat; her pouchy eyes were wide with wonder, as if Arthur had just pulled back a heavy curtain and revealed a unicorn, or a talking mirror, or proof of some other astonishing legend.
‘Good heavens, Mr Pritt,’ she whispered.

It is really hard to say anything else about The Redemption of Galen Pike other than ‘I utterly adored it go and read it’. It is simply a stunning collection of stories. So go on, off you pop, get a copy. You will not regret it I promise you.

If you would like to hear Carys talking in more detail about the collection and short stories in general you can hear her in conversation with little old me over on You Wrote The Book. If you have read this collection I would love to hear your thoughts, I would also like to know if any of you have read her debut collection Some New Ambush, which I need to get my hands on as soon as I can. Anyway, that is it for me and my Fiction Uncovered judging for 2015 and I have to say I feel quite sad it is all over. I have absolutely loved the experience from the reading to the discussions with my lovely fellow judges. Hopefully we have found some wonderful reads, like this one which I would not have discovered otherwise, for you to go and read and love as much as we all did.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Carys Davies, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Salt Publishing

Significance – Jo Mazelis

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shame which has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

I would love to know if any of you have read Significance and what you thought of it. I would also be really keen to hear if you have read any of Jo Mazelis (who also writes as Jo Hughes) other works for there are lots of them, short stories, novels and non-fiction, do let me know.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Jo Mazelis, Review, Seren Books

Mother Island – Bethan Roberts

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last four weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Bethan Robert’s Mother Island which I think manages to combine both a thriller and a family drama to create a wonderful suburban noir novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 320 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

What is it like to have someone steal your child from you and what it is like to steal a child from someone, are the two questions at the heart of Bethan Roberts fourth novel Mother Island. When Nula decides she needs to go back to work, in part because she is going stir crazy stuck indoors with her son Samuel, and get a nanny she is faced with the question of who can she trust with her child. Fate it seems has the perfect solution when her cousin Maggie, who has recently dropped out of Oxford, offers to take the role. What could be safer than being with family right? Well wrong, fate it seems can be a cruel thing. Within months of becoming Samuel’s nanny Maggie’s bond with the child becomes something deeper that becomes all consuming, and so she abducts him. I should stipulate here that you know this is going to happen from the very first line, what you don’t know is that Bethan Roberts has more secrets coming than first meet the eye.

Blood and sweat. So much of child-rearing is blood and sweat, she thinks, and she can clearly imagine the way Samuel’s back will be sodden with sweat from Maggie’s car seat, wherever they are, because Maggie has not taken his sheepskin with her. It is this, more than anything, that makes Nula worry about her son’s safety. Because Maggie isn’t the kind of person who would be thoughtless enough just to forget to call. Nula knows her cousin can be a little – strange is too strong a word. Odd. Eccentric, perhaps. Isolated, maybe. Yet with Samuel she has been such a careful, caring person.

It could be very easy for a novelist to simply tell the story of Maggie’s kidnapping of Samuel and then follow her journey into hiding with him and have you wondering if Nula will ever get her son back. Bethan Roberts does this AND she adds in a second plot into the novel as we head back to Maggie and Nula’s youth and the summers that they spent on the welsh island of Anglesey. These were summers of secrets, of sexual awakenings, of jealousies, of friendship and completion. One summer in particular changing the dynamic between them, they think they have both forgotten but clearly all these years later, they haven’t.

If those two secret laden plots weren’t enough, there is more. I love a book with layers and Mother Island is a book that has lots and lots of hidden depths going on below its surface. The most obvious theme in the novel is that of motherhood. Nula thought that she would be the perfect mother and is discovering that it isn’t as natural as they make out in books and on the telly. Maggie always thought she would have children and so far, until she steals one, she hasn’t. But what makes a good mother? This novel also looks at the great Mummy ‘good’, Nanny ‘bad’ theory which has been raging on for sometimes. It also looks at the differing relationships children have with their nannies over their parents which can be a tricky one (I know I was a ‘manny’ for a year for my aunty) which can prove a complicated beast with jealousies and differing ideas of childcare forming.

There are many women, after all, who have killed their own children. Up to half the women in Broadmoor have killed their own children. She had read that somewhere once, and now cannot stop thinking about it. Who were they, these women? Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Did they wake up one June morning, the street almost silent apart from the rumble of an approaching rubbish truck, and find their children gone? Was there a moment of uncertainty? Did they, like her, not quite know if they had brought this about themselves?

What I thought Roberts did incredibly, and what really sets this apart from many literary thrillers (for that is what I would definitely call Mother Island) is the depth into which she goes into these two women’s characters and the psychology behind the facades they are both showing to the world. Nula outwardly seems like a woman having the perfect life; loving husband, great job, gorgeous child. However we learn she is a women who is clearly going through some kind of post natal depression and is wracked with jealousies and riddled with insecurities. Likewise to the outside world Maggie whilst seeming slightly aloof and somewhat a loner would be described as a lovely young woman who has got a little lost from life, people just don’t realise how lost. We get intricate insights, and understanding into both of their world views inwards and outwards. This is all the more compelling when we see one of them go from being a good person to one who does something bad.

The other theme of the book, for me, was families and how we do and don’t connect with them. In their childhood Nula and Maggie both make deep connections with the other’s closest relations (I mentioned the jealousy earlier) and they judge the others families in varying degrees. Most interestingly for me with Mother Island was the relationship of cousins which is not looked at enough in fiction in my experience and yet is a fascinating relationship. Cousins tend to be like special extra siblings when you are young yet also have that distance which can lead to those familial friendships fading as you grow older and further apart. You are related by blood but if you aren’t put together on family holidays, weddings or funerals would you really bond normally?

In some books where there are alternating stories between past and present one will hold your interest more, not so here. In the present we have the thrills of what will happen, in the past we want to know just what on earth happened. Here I have to mention what I loved particularly in the past storyline was both the dubious character of Uncle Ralph and the vivid way in which Anglesey is described. I will say no more.

Anglesey was all this. The trembling trees. The stars of garlic flowers in spring. The glimpse of the Menai Strait through the leaves as she walked down the lane at Llanidan. The tide right up to the boathouse, the water blue and full. Mudflats appearing and disappearing. The sounds of sheep and birds and boats and the scream of the white peacock in the old chapel-house garden.

All in all, with its superb prose, twisted secret ridden plots, its sense of place, atmosphere and brilliant characterisation (especially psychologically) Bethan Roberts’ Mother Island is a brilliant mix of literary thriller meets family drama. We have abducted babies, familial jealousies and childhood secrets combining in a prime example of suburban noir. I read it in two sittings the first time and got even more out of it the second time, it is one of those kind of books. I would highly recommend you give it a read.

Have you read Mother Island and if so what did you make of it? It has reminded me how much I love Bethan Roberts’ writing, I adored My Policeman so much, and I am very much looking forward to reading The Pools and The Good Plain Cook which I have copies of and will be reading very soon – have you read any of those yet?

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Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Vintage Books

The Offering – Grace McCleen

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last three weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Grace McCleen’s strange, alluring and unsettling novel The Offering an insightful and disturbing novel of madness.

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 264 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

There has been a great deal of talk here recently about an event concerning myself and Dr Lucas, which took place from what I can gather in the Platnauer Room some two weeks ago. I presently find myself in the quiet room while Dr Hudson, who has taken over my care in Dr Lucas’s absence, devises an appropriate plan. I said to Dr Hudson: ‘I do hope that whatever happened will not prevent my release from Letham Park, something Dr Lucas talked about on many occasions.’
That was when Dr Hudson stared at me.

I am a huge fan of books which hook you in with a mystery from the start. Grace McCleen’s third novel The Offering does just that as within a few paragraphs we know that something has happened between Madeline and her previous Dr Lucas, we know it is bad, we just have no idea what it is or how bad it might be. We’re instantly interested and intrigued. This ratchets up a notch when we discover that Madeline is not in a hospital but an asylum where she is now in isolation, it ratchets up again when we discover she has been there for twenty years since she was discovered walking along a road with amnesia. We now of course not only feel the need to know about the incident with Dr Lucas, we are also desperate to discover what happened in her childhood despite the very early sense that this is not going to be a comfortable discovery.

I don’t want to say much more about the premise because this is one of those books that needs to be read and discovered rather than have anything given away. I can say that as the book goes on McCleen makes it as gothic, twisty and strange as you would hope from a novel of this kind. It has something of the ‘sensation novel’ about it yet cleverly you cannot work out for the life of you when it is set, there are cars but that is as much as we know adding a slight dreamlike or nightmarish feel as and when Madeline goes through highs and lows. It also interestingly made me occasionally feel slightly disorientated, never lost or confused, as if I had been sedated as Madeline often is – having been sedated (I wasn’t in an asylum) it brought that strange sense of being slightly distant and at odds with everything, yet feel fairly compos mentis, right back.

‘Who are you?’ my father said.
‘Who are you?’ the man replied, and his milky gaze passed over all three of us.
‘We’re just looking around,’ my father said, after a moment.
‘Ah, you’re the new folk moving in,’ said the fellow. ‘He’ll not like it, I can tell you. He won’t like it a bit.’
‘What are you talking about?’ my father said.
‘Him who was here before!’
I caught a whiff of urine on the afternoon breeze, sweet, acrid, animal.
‘The place hasn’t been occupied for years,’ my father said.
‘That’s right,’ said the man. ‘But he’s still here, he’ll never leave!’

As Madeline is forced to look back at her past, no spoilers I promise, she is forced to look at her memories and work out what she remembers right, what she misremembers and what she remembers yet may have misinterpreted. This is something that it is fairly hard for us to do at the best of times, come on can you remember what you were doing on this date exactly twenty years ago, it gets all the more complicated when part of your brain is trying to repress or hide things as a way of self preservation or denial. The Offering  also takes a very blunt and direct look at how we deal with people with mental illness and particularly the questions around treatment and medicines and if they help or hinder leaving the reader to decide for themselves.

If I am making this book sound really dark, intense, creepy and a bit gloomy that is because it is and unapologetically so, yet McCleen doesn’t make this relentless. There are moments of great joy in Madeline’s past as her parents and her find a new home that have that almost golden sheen that you have of particular moments. (I say that though actually I have no memories before the age of ten due to something that happened in my childhood, but moments after that that instantly make me happy have that glow.) She also finds, if slightly darkly or bitter sweetly, moments of humour while Madeline is in the asylum which will make you laugh and then make you feel sorry for those involved.

Today began as a particularly dreary one here at Letham Park, the sun hidden behind banks of cloud, neither cold nor hot, dark nor light. Eugene wet himself; Pam ate clay and had to have her stomach pumped; Margaret taught me a new stitch; Robyn’s parents arrived to take her out for the day; Alice made Mary cry; nothing out of the ordinary at all.

I have often said on the blog that comedy when written well can be a powerful device to highlight the dark and almost create a heightened emotive response which is how McCleen uses it with much effect. Her writing though is marvellous throughout; the plot is tightly twisted and slowly revealed, the book feels uneasy and disorientating yet never confusing, the atmospheres are rife and while the setting and time are an enigma the sense of place and the landscapes appear vividly in your mind. The Offering is quite unlike anything I have read in some time, I recommend you give it a whirl.

Have any of you read The Offering and if so what did you make of it? Have you read either of Grace’s previous novels, and if so what were your thoughts? I have her debut The Land of Decoration on the TBR as I will definitely be reading more of Grace’s novels.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Grace McCleen, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last two weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is David Whitehouse’s utterly brilliant Mobile Library which is one of those books that charms you so much and whose characters you become so attached to you hug it to you afterwards, like you were ten again.

9781447274728

Picador Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered (I am tempted to have this cover made into some kind of tattoo design!)

Bobby Nusku is a twelve year old unhappy in the world that he is living. His mother has disappeared, he has tried to catalogue as much of her life as he can in a box of artefacts he keeps hidden, his father has met a new woman and both of them either spend the time ignoring Bobby, telling him off or being drunk. If that wasn’t bad enough his best friend, and protector from school bullies, Sunny has had to move away after a failed attempt to turn himself into the first human-cyborg. After witnessing an act of bullying on someone else, Rosa, he tries to pay for his cowardice by befriending her and in doing so comes to meet her mother Vera, and before long they all decide to escape their lives, quite literally, in a mobile library.

In case you are thinking ‘oh Simon, you rotten spoil sport, you have given everything away’ I actually haven’t. Once on the road and off on the adventures of their lives so far, for good and bad reasons, much happens and they meet many people and get into various scrapes along the way. Also, Mobile Library actually begins somewhere towards its end and so we back pedal and then head towards a literal cliff-hanger we know is coming. Though we don’t know what happens after it, ooh that David Whitehouse is a teaser.

‘Are we in trouble?’ Bobby asked?
‘No,’ Val said, ‘not anymore.’
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the oceans ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.

I will say no more on the plot bar the fact that it involves camping in woods, creepy old mansions, an escaped convict and an abandoned zoo. The reason I mention all these things is because they were all things I loved in books as ‘a youth’ and of course still do, so there was a lovely nostalgic feeling as I was reading. There is no doubt that this is Whitehouse’s intention as actually the book takes on many tropes of the fairytales (for me the Ladybird Classics) that I would say 90% of us read or had read to us when we were small. Bobby himself, though admittedly without the ugly stepsisters or his parents giving a monkey’s how dirty the house is, is rather a Cinderella figure in some ways, Val his fairy godmother and the Mobile Library his pumpkin… though the story doesn’t follow the path of Cinderella you can see other nods to fairytale as you go, especially towards the very end.

One thing the book doesn’t have is magic, well at least not of the wands, spells, eye of newt or enchanted spinning wheel (or steering wheel, see what I did there – sorry!) kind. There are two other kinds of magic in it, love and friendship. Now any of you who think I have been kidnapped by some hippy commune bear with me. Love is something we cannot explain, there is no science behind it, there is no logic and the same applies to friendship, these invisible bonds tie us together for some unknown rhyme or reason. That is a magic of sorts and we take it far too much for granted which was something I felt strongly after finishing the book.

The theme of friendship also links onto the other major theme of the book which is what makes a family. The stereotypical family of 2.4 children and indeed the ‘nuclear’ family (whatever that meant, it sounds horrid) can no longer be defined so easily. I know this all too well with two half brothers, two half sisters and two step sisters – I know think of the Christmases’! Not only that though more and more people are creating family through friendships, I am Uncle (Sugabear in some cases) to a lot of my friends children because there are certain friends who you feel are more your family than your own family. Whitehouse looks at this through a group of people who couldn’t be more different and yet somehow – no spoilers – become a family of sorts. People who either have difficult or awkward family relationships or feel they have no real family at all.

These days she looked forward to visiting the doctor. As cold as his hands were, small talk was a welcome respite from the otherwise lengthy nothingness. Sometimes she considered faking symptoms, just to feel that rough chill against her body and talk about the changing weather.

Having read Whitehouse’s previous novel Bed, which shamefully I loved but haven’t reviewed, it is interesting to see that his theme of outsiders in society is still there. Interestingly I think Mobile Library is like a polar opposite look at these ‘underdogs’ because whereas in Bed the act of someone going to bed forever is about dropping out of society due to a lack of hope, here we have people desperate for love and belonging. Even when ‘Sometimes,’ she said to nobody in particular, ‘I worry that life is just the journey between toilets.’ there is a glimmer of hope and potential which may be fulfilled at some point. Isn’t that the essence of every great fairytale?

Yes, I am back to fairy tales again. Speaking of which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Mobile Library is also a book about the power and wonder of books. I need say no more, brilliant…

‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so the things that happen in them will happen to you.’
‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’  

I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.

If you would like to hear  David talking about Mobile Library in more detail you can hear him chatting with me on Fiction Uncovered FM and he will also be on You Wrote The Book next week, again with me but quite a different chat. Who else has read Mobile Library and what did you think of it? Which other books about books and grown up fairy tales have you loved? I always want more recommendations of those.

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Filed under Books of 2015, David Whitehouse, Fiction Uncovered, Picador Books, Review

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next eight weeks I am going to be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. First up is Susan Barker’s stunning third novel The Incarnations which in just under 500 pages takes you on an epic journey from China in 2008, to five points in its history, going as far back as AD 632 and tells of two souls destined to keep meeting. Intrigued? You should be…

9781784160005

Transworld Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 477 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Beijing, 2008 and taxi driver Wang has started to receive mysterious and strange letters from someone who claims to have known Wang and been a part of his world not only in this life but also in five other previous lives throughout China’s dynasties. Worryingly this stranger seems to have a detailed view about his life in the present, not only where he lives with his wife and daughter, but also some of the secrets that Wang has been trying to keep hidden. As Wang reads through the letters and the many supposed lives he has already lived, his life in the here and now starts to change and unravel all at once. This may be a horrendous time for Wang yet it is a wonderful time for us readers as we get sent into China’s many pasts, and the stories that are revealed there, and also have the added thrill of following Wang as he tries to discover the (actually very creepy) ‘Watcher’ and just what it is that they want.

I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

What is quite hard to describe unless you have read the book yourself (and then it is still quite tricky) is how many wonderful layers Barker creates in The Incarnations. We have Beijing in 2008 as it gears up to the Olympics, where Wang and his family live a hand to mouth existence despite his father and (deliciously wicked) step mother living in the lap of luxury not far away, another layer being the mystery as to why Wang has shunned their life and indeed has a tempestuous relationship with them. We also have the layers of Wang’s past from his childhood, teens, twenties and early thirties and some of the stories he has kept hidden from those he loves as well as he can. The way this all unfolds creates a fascinating view of modern China and various parts of its society, from the noodle bars on the streets to the luxury penthouses above.

If that wasn’t a fictional feast enough we have the addition five layers of time periods over 1,000 years of China’s history, where in each we get a very different story and so try and work out how the two souls the Watcher claims to be themselves and Wang will find each other. We have peasants and sorceresses in the Tang Dynasty, AD 632; two escapees in the desert during the Jin Dynasty, 1213; a group of the Emperor’s tortured and mutilated concubines in the Ming Dynasty, 1542; sailors and pirates in the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and a group of reactionary school girls in the People’s Republic of China, 1966. I told you it was a feast, and if you think this all sounds terribly confusing  I promise you it’s not, its crafted brilliantly, you’ll gulp it all down and be enamoured with every new cast of characters you meet whatever their intentions and tales.

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, remove the silver-domed plate lids and carry them away. What a feast! The Emperor licks his lips and points at a dish of noodles. The Eunuch Food-taster cries, ‘Appraising the viands!’ and pincers some dangling threads of noodles with his chopsticks. The Eunuch Food-taster nibbles, nods that the noodles are unpoisoned, and the Emperor proceeds to eat. Concubine What’s Her Name hovers out of eye shot, at the shoulder of His Majesty’s fox-fur-trimmed robes. Concubine Meek and Timid. Oh how ashamed of her I am. But to behave in any other manner is to provoke his wrath. To dine with the Emperor Jiajing is not to eat oneself but to stand beside him, encouraging him and praising him for every mouthful he masticates. A sip of elk-horn and deer-penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, O Emperor of Ten Thousand Years!’

What is incredible is that in each of the periods of China’s history we visit we are completely engulfed, so vivid is Barker’s description. It takes a considerable amount of work for any author to build a modern world or a single historical one, let alone a modern one and five more in the past that are each fully formed and capture you in their detail. Through her prose Barker treats you to the smells, tastes, voices and senses of that time; from the food that they eat, the clothes they wear and the sex they have (this is a very sensual book in many ways) to the politics of the time or in many cases the dictatorships. I was completely bowled over by this and revelled in the descriptions that we are treated to, be it the darker sides of life in each time or the more titillating.

‘Impoliteness!’ she scolds. ‘One mustn’t spit the Jade Liquor as though it scalds the tongue. One must swallow and smile.’ After twenty years of whoredom, Madam Plum Blossom’s knowledge is as boundless as the sea. ‘Men have all sorts of peccadilloes,’ she tells me. ‘Some men like to Penetrate the Red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the Jade Watering Spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called Pushing the Boat Upstream.’

That paragraph not only shows that what I said about there being sex in the book is true, it also highlights how playful, funny and entertaining The Incarnations often is. Sex is not in the book simply for the sake of it however. It is often used to highlight characters behaviour, as a powerful tool or weapon when needed or most importantly to discuss sexuality. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the novels main themes, as is the metaphor of sexuality being or equalling freedom for many. Sexuality also links in with one of the other main themes of the novel which is love in all its forms. From familial to passionate, from friendship to that fine line of hatred and of course the question of soul mates.

Early in The Incarnations we are told that ‘History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck… But you pretend not to hear.’  I find the idea of how history and past lives, be they linked to ours or not (to our knowledge at least) can form us even in ways we aren’t aware of in the slightest. I think you would be hard pushed to find a book that looks at this idea in depth in a more wonderfully written or inventive way; especially one with such a sense of gusto, adventure and storytelling.

I was mesmerised by The Incarnations and loved it from start to finish. Barkers’ writing has a sense of darkness, comedy, history and adventure whilst also being a thought provoking, intelligent and sophisticated novel too. It is also one of those brilliant instances where it completely transfixes you in a fictional world and then provides you with an urge to go and read more. I now want to go off and not only read Susan Barker’s earlier two novels, I also want to dig out some Murakami (did I mention there were grooms turned into chickens and ghosts in this book?) and go and find lots of books on China’s history. If you have been pondering what to read next, look no further than this book.

Has anyone else read The Incarnations or indeed any of Susan’s earlier novels? I would love to hear your thoughts on them if so. I would also love any recommendations on (entertaining and insightful) books on China’s history too please thank you very much.

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Filed under Black Swan Books, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Susan Barker, Transworld Publishing

On the Radio, Whoa, Oh, Oh, On the Radio…

Just over a week ago, which seems such a long time ago now weirdly, I had the pleasure of doing something I have always dreamed of… Live Radio. (If any of you are thinking ‘well he’s got the face for radio’ you are very mean and naughty, ha!) Last Sunday afternoon Fiction Uncovered took over Resonance FM and took to the airwaves and I got to be one of hosts and also interviewed on a few sessions. Weirdly I found being interviewed much tougher than doing the interviews. Anyway I thought you guys might want to listen in to some of the interviews, discussions and debates that took place…

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First up myself and my fellow judge, who has become a really good mate, Matt Bates were interviewed about judging the prize by Matt Thorne. We talked about the process of reading, judging, whittling down to the longlist and the final eight giving you a bit of insight into those titles too. We also talked about the state of British fiction and bookshops which Matt, being the buyer for WHSmith Travel stores in stations and airports, had some fascinating insight into. You can hear it here.

Next Matt Bates stayed on air to interview Susan Barker about her wonderful Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Incarnations, which I will be reviewing very soon. Listen here.

I was then in the host seat, and got to say the immortal words you dream of ‘and that was a song by…’, to interview David Whitehouse about his Fiction Uncovered winning novel The Mobile Library which is the best fairytale for adults I have read in quite some time AND a must read if you love books, which of course you all do.

Nikki Bedi chaired a really interesting and topical debate with Danuta Kean, Nikesh Shulka and Naomi Frisby (who blogs at Writes of Woman) about diversity in publishing and proved a fascinating discussion which I only heard snippets of so need to listen into myself for the full chat.

I then came back on air to chat to Lavie Tidhar about his brilliant, harrowing and thought provoking Fiction Uncovered novel A Man Lies Dreaming where we discussed how humour can be used both to combat and highlight the horrors of history, or in this case and alternative history.

Where do great writers live and the importance of landscape was the next discussion as Matt Thorne hosted a chat with Catherine Hall, Alex Wheatle and Luke Brown. I love books about the English countryside as you know and was busy with a sandwich and bag of crisps while they were recording so will be catching up with this one very soon.

I was back being grilled again by Matt Thorne, along with Naomi Frisby about the state of reviewing, blogging and social media and how books and writers are, or sometimes aren’t, excelling in the digital world. I almost got myself in trouble twice in this part of the show, but I think Naomi and I did a good job in talking about the blogosphere and the digital world.

The penultimate discussion was with Sophie Rochester and Rosa Anderson who co-founded Fiction Uncovered about five years of the prize. Again I missed this one as I was having a coffee so will be catching up with this one very soon.

Finally Matt Thorne was joined by Bethan Roberts to discuss her Fiction Uncovered winning novel Mother Island which I think is a brilliant suburban thriller and family drama which I will share my thoughts on soon. Listen to them discussing it here.

So there you have it, a good few hours of bookish chatter, discussion and debate for your listening tackle. I am not sure when they will go on iTunes and be podcasts but you can play these sneakily with your headphones on at your desks in work. Oh go on, we all do it… Oh. Just me then. Whoops.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Random Savidgeness