Category Archives: Mantle Books

Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

Why is it that families can be so fascinating to us in fiction? Is it because we all think our families are absolutely mental? Is it because we can’t choose them yet (I find sometimes rather annoyingly) we have this strange bond with them? Is it because in this modern forward thinking age the idea of a ‘normal family’ (with divorces, step parents, deaths, adoption, disowning) of two point four children simply doesn’t exist and the evolvement of it is strangely fascinating? I could go on, but I won’t – just in case my family are reading this. Family saga’s, though I don’t really like the word saga, especially the dysfunctional kind can make for great reading, such is the case with Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel ‘Almost English’.

Mantle Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 392 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marina is sixteen. She has decided to leave the comforts of her comprehensive and her family home in favour of boarding school, a place she believes will be brimming with adventure, midnight feasts, independence, boys and dare she admit it sex. What more could she need. It also means escaping her mother, Laura, and her crazy Hungarian great aunts and Grandmother, Rozsi. However boarding school is not what she expected it to be, she isn’t popular, she isn’t cool and she isn’t on the young men’s radars at all. In fact she is a bit of a loner and a seen as a bit of a geek. She is miserable.

Admittedly I am not known as a fan of the ‘coming of age story’ yet ‘Almost English’ is in many ways such a tale. Though it is just as a coming of age tale of a young girl, it is also a coming of age story for a mother in her mid forties, as Laura is also miserable too sleeping on her in laws couch, her husband having left one day, in a dead end job and having a very unfulfilling and unexciting affair. Laura is also miserable. It was the duality of this in ‘Almost English’ that I found really interesting and indeed one of the things that I liked the most about it, though truth be told there is lots and lots to like here.

As the book goes on we see how as a teenager Marina is struggling to work out just who she is and what she is made of. Also, after meeting the Viney family, Marina is looking at what she might be aspiring to be. She sees adulthood as being the most thrilling time ever, yet we see through Laura (and of course adding our own life experience into the mix) that adult life is just as hard, in fact sometimes all the harder. There is also, as an adult reader, a strange sense of nostalgia and hindsight which makes you feel all the more empathy with Marina as she bumbles, rather awkwardly, through her sixteenth year and the romanticism in her life wanes slightly.

She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge her life will be over. And, unbeknownst to anyone at Combe, she lives with old people in a little bit of darkest Hungary, like a maiden in a fairy story. Or a troll.

In case I am making the book sound like it is depressing, it honestly isn’t. One of the things I really liked about the book was Charlotte Mendelson’s sense of humour throughout. Marina’s clumsiness and general teenage angst will make us laugh in hindsight, we have all been there. Importantly Mendelson knows just when to put a laugh in, when the book gets a little dark we get a titter, never a guffaw, to lighten the tension. This also works the other way will ‘the crazy Hungarian oldsters’, as Charlotte calls them, often provide a laugh yet as we read on their background story is a rather tragic one. Throughout the balance is just right, you will laugh out loud but it doesn’t descend in farce, the bleakness and black humour complement each other, laughter sometimes making a dark turn all the darker.

To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading glasses on a chain, worn wedding ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eye-brows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted, but consider the cheekbones underneath; you think she forgives easily? Think again.

‘Almost English’ is also a book brimming with issues (depression, cancer, desertion, class, race) without ever becoming an ‘issue based book’, again this is a hard thing to pull off but Mendelson deftly combines these elements as she does the humour, nothing feels forced and even when another dramatic twist ensues it’s not melodramatic. I am wondering if Charlotte Mendelson should take up tightrope walking as her sense of balance is spot on.

Most importantly for me though was the writing. Not just the story telling (we all love a good story) and the characters, or indeed the late 1980’s atmosphere, but the prose. In almost every paragraph there was a turn of phrase, a characteristic, moment or just a sentence that loved, be it snigger inducing or thought provoking. It is one of those books.

What does madness feel like? Can you develop it quite discreetly on the bus home from Oxford Street, carrying mothballs? Can it be normal to cry in a department store toilet, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine? Somebody must know.

The best way I can describe ‘Almost English’ is that it is a human book. It looks at people and how crazy, selfish, funny, heartbreaking we can all be. It is also a novel that will take you back to those awkward school days and emotions and hopefully make you smile with a certain nostalgic affection whilst also inwardly squirming. It is also a novel where you will leave and breathe alongside the characters and their highs and lows. I thoroughly recommend giving this a whirl. I shall soon be off to head to Mendelson’s earliest works for more.

You can hear me talking about ‘Almost English’ in more detail with Charlotte on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. It might be one of my favourite author interviews yet.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Charlotte Mendelson, Man Booker, Mantle Books, Picador Books, Review

White Heat – M.J. McGrath

If you are looking for something a little bit different in your crime novels then you couldn’t go wrong with ‘White Heat’ by M.J. McGrath. I admit that I don’t think I would have heard of this novel or its author unless it had been recommended by Val McDermid, who also kindly invited M.J. McGrath as her guest for tonight’s Bookmarked. But then again I am not yet a crime buff, even if I am working on it. What is it then that makes Melanie McGrath’s, for that is her full name, crime fiction so different?

Mantle Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 381 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Crime novels should be chilling shouldn’t they? Well ‘White Heat’ is chilling in more ways than just the murder, or murders, at the heart of it. The setting is the snowy and ice laden landscapes of the Canadian Artic and in every scene there is a sense of the coldness and almost other worldliness of which the characters of this novel inhabit. Our protagonist is hunting guide (which I have to say almost put me off her) and part time teacher Edie Kiglatuk, she might not be a detective but she’s inquisitive an observant, and you might say has a little too much time on her hands.

The book starts on one of Edie’s trips which suddenly goes horribly wrong when one of the men, Feliz Wagner, on the outing gets shot and, being stuck in the middle of the snowy barren land during a slight storm, dies before he can get to hospital despite all the efforts of Edie and her step-son Joe. You would think that a police enquiry would follow, but this is not the case in a place like Autisaq where the elders (seemingly lead by Edie’s ex-brother in law) decide what’s the outcome is and they don’t want trouble or the hunting tourism affected and so the death is labeled accidental. However Edie isn’t happy, in part through guilt as she doesn’t say much at the hearing, with the verdict and so decides more needs to be done and contacts Derek Palliser, a police man from nearby, who she once worked with unofficially before.

“His case illustrated precisely why the elders preffered not to involve police unless they had to. Almost everyone in Autisaq, including Johnnies own parents, thought it would have been more humane to deal with him the Innuit way; take him up to the mountains and, when he was least expecting it, push him off a cliff. No one said this to the then Constable Palliser, of course, but he’d picked it up anyway. His insistence on bringing the case to trial had made him enemies.”

It’s this conflict of modern vs. the old way which adds to the books point of difference (sorry rather a business like word there) alongside the setting of the book and the inclusion of Inuit lifestyles and sets it apart from a lot of the crime fiction I have been reading. It comes as no surprise to know that Melanie McGrath has written several non-fiction books (including ‘The Long Exile’ which I now really want to read) which have focused on the Inuit lifestyle, and her passion/interest in this shines through as you read on. It added a certain something to the proceedings as the novel went on, and I found myself chilled in more ways than one.

Edie is also a great character. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that she hunted, but then she is doing the job so her step-son can do and study nursing – her ex husband isn’t supportive particularly even though he invites himself round at the drop of a hat. I admit when I read that Edie was an ex-drinker I did think ‘oh dear this could be another detective with a drink issue cliché’ but actually it’s more a background to the character and the situation than anything else. Edie has a certain drive too which you just can’t help respecting and liking.

I am certainly glad I was pointed in the direction of ‘White Heat’ and am thrilled to learn that this is the first in what is going to be a series of Edie’s unofficial investigations, she’s a character to watch from an author I hope we will be hearing a lot more about. If you want a crime with a bit of a twist then give this a whirl, I really enjoyed it… if you can enjoy a good crime.

M.J. McGrath will be at tonight’s ‘Bookmarked’ with Val McDermid at Manchester’s Waterstones Deansgate with me hosting, you can find more information here, it would be a crime to miss it.

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Filed under M.J. McGrath, Mantle Books, Pan MacMillan, Review