Category Archives: Pushkin Press

Whispers Through A Megaphone – Rachel Elliott

One of the things that I always enjoy about any prize longlist is that invariably it introduces me to a lot of books that I have either never heard of you have only seen and pondered on. Rachel Elliott’s debut Whispers Through A Megaphone is a book that I saw promoted quite a lot in Foyles earlier in the year and almost bought (because when a hardback is half price you want to buy it regardless) and then again had a mental dalliance with when my boss was reading it and raving about it. Then the Baileys longlist popped it straight into my reading path…

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ONE (Pushkin Press), 2015, hardback, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Whispers Through A Megaphone is initially a tale of two halves and two people. First we encounter Miriam Delaney, a thirty-five year old woman who has not left her house for three years. Well she hasn’t gone further than a few feet of it, thanks to the help of her best friend, Fenella who does her shopping, and her neighbour, Boo who takes her bins down the drive and onto the street. That really is the interaction at its maximum between Miriam and the outside world. But why?

It’s three years today since Miriam last stepped out of this house.
No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But to step out into the street? No chance. Risk collision and a potentially catastrophic exchange with a stranger? You must be joking. Not after what happened. Not after what she did. Inside the cutesy slipper-heads of two West Highland terriers, her feet have paced the rooms of 7 Beckford Gardens, a three bed semi with a white cuckoo clock, brown and orange carpets, a life size cut out of Neil Armstrong.

That ‘why’ becomes the main focus point of Miriam’s story and as we read on we learn that her mother might have been a little bit crazy, well she did get caught cleaning the school by the Headmaster in nothing but socks and shoes which then starts a long affair, yet Elliott cleverly and teasingly lets us know that there is much more going on her as we discover letters to a Grandmother and a more recent incident for which Miriam feels much shame and fear. This becomes in many ways the main propulsion of the book, or at least it did for me. But I mentioned there is initially another main character and that is Ralph Swoon, a happily married part time psychiatrist and father of two.

Blow me. He almost Googled this phrase once, to discover its origins, but decided against it when he imagined the kind of sites that might pop up. He tried not to utter these words, especially when working with female clients, but saying blow me was something he inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom. Frank Swoon had been famous for his buttocks. Women wolf-whistled as he walked down the street. “Oh you do make me swoon, Mr Swoon, Just look at those cheeks.” It was the kind of compliment a man would have been slapped for.

Yet something is bubbling away underneath his home life too, something which we soon discover leads him to simply walking out on his family, mainly after a fight with his wife Sadie, and going and living in a hut in the woods, just off the local park. You can probably guess what is coming, Miriam and Ralph are going to meet, the question is are their timelines the same and if so might these two strangers help each other or, as I thought because I am quite dark, could their meeting be the awful event in Miriams recent past. You will of course have to read the book to find out, I know I am a rotter doing that to you aren’t I?

What I can say as the book goes on is that I interestingly found that whilst the novel is herding you into believing that Ralph is the second of the main characters I think Rachel Elliott’s focus was more firmly on his wife Sadie who really becomes the catalyst of Ralph leaving after which point I think she gets a lot more airtime, or wordage to be correct, than Ralph as we discover the secret that she has been keeping from herself and everyone else for quite some time. As her story gains momentum, Ralphs lessen though the effects upon him become stronger. I know that is terribly vague but once you have read the book you will see what I mean. This caused me a couple of slight problems with the book.

Joe squeezed Stanley’s bottom, which made his voice rise at the end of the sentence. His mother didn’t notice. She probably wouldn’t notice if the high note turned into a whole song from Annie, with Stanley singing as loudly as he could about the sun coming out tomorrow. She wouldn’t notice if Joe gave him a blow job right there in the middle of the kitchen. She was tweeting, pouring Prosecco, muttering about whether she had bought enough sausages. His mother the great multitasker, always in her own world, always oblivious.

I wouldn’t describe Sadie as oblivious, I would describe her as completely and utterly self centred. As we are treated to her Twitter feed/life where she tries to create a persona of who she aspires to be, one that is a bit more interesting, a bit more irreverent. This worked and didn’t work for me, personally I loathe tweets in books as a rule almost as much as talking horses, yet at the same time we see there is a huge insecurity with her. The only issue with this is that occasionally Sadie is either the butt of other characters jokes, boringly dislikeable at moments or she becomes rather overdramatized and farcical, by the end I was a little bit frustrated with her overzealous storyline and Ralph’s slightly ineffectual one. Not that it ever got so bad I wanted to skip their sections, it just seemed a bit too monster and victim, in fact some of the funniest moments of the novel centre around Sadie. And boy is this book funny.

What I really loved about Rachel Elliott’s writing was her eye for the detail of people’s mannerisms. There were probably a paragraph or two every ten or so pages where I would cackle loudly, and was grateful I spent a day (I wanted to devour it) when I was feeling a bit under the weather on the sofa with it as it cheered me up and saved me the embarrassment of openly giggling to myself on public transport. There are some truly gorgeous set pieces of mini stories within the main one that show just how ridiculous we can all be, especially when we are wrapped up in our on dramas. Elliott beautifully catches these moments and it brings her characters fully to life.

It was these moments that made Ralph and Sadie’s domestic strife so utterly readable. I do have to say though that Whispers Through A Megaphone is both in practice and literally a book of two halves. For me they were great writing but the part of the novel I will remember the most, and indeed the key to it all, is Miriam and indeed her story, as I mentioned that propels you to read more and more and more. It is also the part of the book that I connected with the most and actually wanted much, much more of her story and her mother Frances, especially when everything unravels and is revealed towards the end in an incredibly powerful and shattering chapter you probably won’t see coming. Whispers Through A Megaphone is an enjoyable, intriguing, witty and human debut novel and I am very much looking forward to what Rachel Elliott does next.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, ONE Books, Pushkin Press, Rachel Elliott, Review

The Story of Antigone – Ali Smith

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had the urge to return to my classicist roots, well genes if such things are in the blood which I feel they might be, and was working out how to do it. I plumped for the option of heading to a retelling by a favourite author and whilst I had Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad I decided to go for one I didn’t own by another author I love dearly too. Any excuse for a new book, I can’t lie. This was a book I had no idea existed until I saw Jen Campbell mention a while back, when doing a video on Ali Smith’s works. It was The Story of Antigone. So I promptly bought a copy and proceeded to read it in one big wonderful gulp one night after work. (I so need more books I can do that with, it’s quite the feeling to come home from work and somehow devour a whole book!)

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Pushkin Press, paperback, 2015, fiction, illustrated byLaura Paoletti, 100 pages, bought by myself for myself

Ali Smith sets herself no easy challenge in adapting the story of Antigone for a new audience, which this book is part of an initiative to do, because it is both complex and part of a the greek myths which tend to have glimmers of what could be bigger stories within the one epic. Antigone, a young Theban princess, has not long lost her father (King Oedipus) and now her brother Polynices has just been killed in battle. Polynices has been declared a traitor by the new King, King Creon, and so his body must remain outside, uncovered and open to the elements, to be eaten by crows. Should anyone dare to try and bury him they will be found and stoned to death. Funnily enough this is what Antigone wants to do, despite her sisters best efforts to beg her to leave Polynices and save themselves. Yet if you are facing death anyway what is there to lose?

In many ways the story of Antigone is actually a story that is really part of the story before it, and after it, if you know what I mean. I know you could say this of most books; however it is particularly so here. Many authors would struggle to set it up as a tale in its own right, though many have tried, Ali Smith seems to do this effortlessly. One of the instant ways in which she does this is to tell it through the voice (and eyes) of a crow. One of those crows that is probably going to get to chow down on Polynices at some point if Antigone doesn’t get there first.

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This works brilliantly. Firstly, despite my disdain for talking animals in fiction, who doesn’t like a talking crow? By their nature crows are a little bit sinister and somewhat untrustworthy and unpredictable by nature. Therefore being the perfect sarcastic and unreliable narrator who will appeal to readers of all ages. The crow is also, obviously, not human which also adds a distance to the story that is unfolding below. This to me makes the story at once all the more macabre and gory, because every Greek myth tends to be and crows delight on the bloody bits, and also oddly all the less disturbing as it takes away the human fear of death (which this story is all about) yet observes the human emotion of grief and makes the human need for power and control seem a bit daft frankly. In Smith’s hands the crow really is the perfect narrator.

“So,” the crow said. “What happened then was this. First his mother/wife killed herself, didn’t she, for ‘shame’. For ‘scandal’. And what did King Oedipus do then, for goodness sake? He put his hands in his own head and he took out his own eyes! And off he went, wandering the world like an old tramp, not a king at all. Typical still-alive stuff. His two sons. The big brothers of those two girls we just saw arguing, decided they’d share being king instead. The guess what happened? Go on. Guess.”

What I also really loved about crow and his voice (apart from the very witty interview he gives Ali Smith at the end about why she wrote the book, very meta and very entertaining) is that you are completely captivated. You also leave The Story of Antigone wanting to read a whole heap more around it. The way crow introduces the context of the story inside the story before and the story after (oh here I go again, making it sound all complicated unintentionally) hints at these othetr wonderful tales and leaves you desperate for more, as you can see above. I wanted crows version of the tale of Oedipus in more detail, maybe Ali Smith could just come back and adapt them all in a series all of her own?

Before I round off I do need to mention the gorgeous illustrations throughout by Laura Paoletti. As Smith does with the text, Paoletti again takes the old elements of the ancient classic and gives it a modern twist. I felt the pictures were at once contemporary and yet harked back to the wall paintings that you see when visiting a collection of Greek works in a museum or adorning the walls of a Greek ruin where they have survived. I thought this was a fantastic and apt addition to the book.

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The Story of Antigone was the perfect way back into the world of the ancient classics and myths and legends that I have been hankering after of late. It has left me most keen to go away and find more adaptations but also head back to the real thing. My mother, who is a classicist and who I saw last weekend, has told me I need to seek out a really good translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so if any of you know of a great edition of that please let me know. A new translation of The Iliad has arrived this week, so I am wondering if may that is where I will head next, though it does look rather daunting. What do you think, just dive in? I also really want to try the other Pushkin ‘Save the Story‘ titles too, The Story of Gilgamesh by Yiyun Li particularly appeals.

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Filed under Ali Smith, Pushkin Press, Review

Letter From An Unknown Woman – Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig is an author I have seen many people rave about and yet have always felt that, for some unknown reason, his work might be a little too high brow for me and I wouldn’t enjoy it. It was with trepidation that I started Letter From An Unknown Woman, a collection of four of his works, when it was chosen for Hear Read This. Well if all of Zweig’s writing is like this I have been a fool to have not read him for so long, I discovered his writing is wonderful and was somewhat spellbound by this collection.

Pushkin Press, paperback, 2013 (originally 1922, 1911, 1982 & 1900) , short stories, translated by Anthea Bell, 208 pages, bought by myself for myself

I have called Letter From An Unknown Woman a collection of Zweig’s works rather than a short story collection as the title story really verges on the length of a novella, and at the opposite end of the spectrum (and indeed the book) Forgotten Dreams is barely ten pages long, both A Story Told in Twilight and The Debt Paid Late are roughly the same length. Yet one thing can be said for Zweig, that no matter how long or short his works are the prose is simply gorgeous, the stories take you in directions you don’t expect and each one has an emotional intelligence and range that will have you feeling like you have read a novel rather than something much shorter. In this collection they all also tend to look at lost loves from a state of hindsight, which can make them all the more mysterious, powerful, romanticised or bittersweet.

My child died yesterday — for three days and three nights I wrestled with death for that tender little life, I sat for forty hours at his bedside while the influenza racked his poor, hot body with fever. I put cool compresses on his forehead, I held his restless little hands day and night. On the third evening I collapsed. My eyes would not stay open any longer; I was unaware of it when they closed. I slept, sitting on my hard chair, for three or four hours, and in that time death took him. Now the sweet boy lies there in his narrow child’s bed, just as he died; only his eyes have been closed, his clever, dark eyes, and his hands are folded over his white shirt, while four candles burn at the four corners of his bed. I dare not look, I dare not stir from my chair, for when the candles flicker shadows flit over his face and his closed mouth, and then it seems as if his features were moving, so that I might think he was not dead after all, and will wake up and say something loving and childish to me in his clear voice. But I know that he is dead, I will arm myself against hope and further disappointment, I will not look at him again. I know it is true, I know my child died yesterday — so now all I have in the world is you, you who know nothing about me, you who are now amusing yourself without a care in the world, dallying with things and with people. I have only you, who never knew me, and whom I have always loved.

The whole opening paragraph of Letter From an Unknown Woman, and indeed the first paragraph in the collection, could in itself be flash fiction. Zweig instantly pulls us into the mind, through the pen, of a woman who is writing to a famous author, only known as ‘R’, which happens to arrive on his birthday. As R reads on we are given the vivid account of a woman who not only knew him and loved him yet who he has no memories of at all. You might think you know where this is going, you would be wrong.

This is one of the things that I loved most about his writing throughout, you never get what you think you are even when you try and second guess it with that knowledge. For example in the case of the mysterious letter writer we start learning about her love of his words as a young woman and then how she became infatuated and indeed believed they were destined to be together. Naturally we think ‘okay, crazy obsessive fan’ yet as the letter carries on we start to have our opinion completely altered and a very different story emerges. It’s beautiful, melancholic and also incredibly poignant in the very last paragraph, I defy you not be moved by it.

As I mentioned earlier this happens in all the tales in this collection. In Forgotten Dreams a man meets a woman he was in love with once again, you think you know what is coming and you don’t. The Debt Paid Late tells of a woman who taking some mountain air, after looking after her grandchildren for quite some time who had scarlet fever, where in a cafe she spots an actor she was infatuated with as a young girl, a time when she allowed herself to be led astray. The actor is now a withered old man and a town joke, how this affects the woman may not be how you think. I am teasing you terribly, but I really want you to go and read this collection.

I have left A Story Told in Twilight last simply because it was my favourite. Here a man recalls a time in his not so distant past when he was holidaying at a castle in Scotland staying with a well to do family, friends of his family. One night, just at twilight, a woman comes out of nowhere taking him by surprise and kissing him, this happens yet again and again each time so fast and so suddenly he never realises which of the ladies in the house it might be. He naturally becomes besotted and so must find his true love, you can of course expect twists and turns. I loved this one because it is the most gothic and the most fairy tale of the whole collection and those are two of my very favourite things. There is of course the mystery and the comical errors that our narrator makes to find out who this mystery mistress is.

I don’t remember just how I came to know this story. All I do know is that I was sitting here for a long time early this afternoon, reading a book, then putting it down again, drowsing in my dreams, perhaps sleeping lightly. And suddenly I saw figures stealing past the walls, and I could hear what they were saying and look into their lives.

The other things I loved about this collection were how much about writing they all are. We have people reaching back and telling stories to themselves and those they know. Two of the stories are told through letters, one of the main characters is an author, it seems the power of words resides behind each tale embedded in Zweig’s own prose, which I must say is stunningly translated by Anthea Bell. I also loved how it looks at hindsight and how we can romanticise things from the past or suddenly see how foolish we were.

If I was being super critical I would say that I would probably have put the short stories in reverse order as I think this would build the collections themes and power as you read a long. I also think it would mean you read the weaker of the tales first (which is still very good but seems slightly flimsy, though it was his first, at the end after the others) then enjoy The Debt Paid Late before being completely blown away by A Story Told in Twilight and then Letter From an Unknown Woman which I think are now two of my favourite short stories that I’ve read had the pleasure of reading so far. If I was ever in a position to have curate a collection of short stories published they would both be housed in it. If this is just a taste of the power and beauty of Zweig’s prose then I think we have a fabulous journey of stories ahead of us. If you have yet to read him then do.

If you would like to hear more opinions on Letters From an Unknown Woman then do listen to myself, Gav of Cwtch Books and Rob and Kate from Adventures With Words on Hear Read This here. Have you read this collection and if so what did you think? Have you seen the film of Letter From an Unknown Woman, it has Joan Fontaine who played the second Mrs De Winter in Hitchcock’s brilliant adaptation of Rebecca so I now really want to see it. Which other Stefan Zweig stories, collections or novels have you read as I think I am going to have to get my mitts on many more of them?

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Filed under Pushkin Press, Review, Short Stories, Stefan Zweig

Barcelona Shadows – Marc Pastor

The Barcelona of 1911 is a dark, dangerous and gothic place. Its streets are filled with filth, sickness, poverty and crime. One of the men fighting crime is Inspector Moises Corvo whose latest case is to try and hunt down a monster that is abducting and killing children, draining them of their blood. The problems he face are the fact that this killer somehow evades him at every turn and also that with the children being those of the prostitutes and the penniless of the lower classes, most of his seniors either refuse to see it as being a problem or believe that it is actually happening at all. Yet Corvo is determined to catch the killer, even if it leads him to the depths of Barcelona’s underbelly and to the depths of what humans can do.

Pushkin Press, paperback, 2014, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

There were a few things I instantly found captivating about this book, and instantly stood out to me. First was the narration, which I won’t give away because when you realise who it is you do a really ‘oh, oh really’ and it hooks you in a little more. I can give away the fact, and the second thing I really liked about it, that the book is based on the true series of crimes caused by the real-life Enriqueta Marti who indeed killed children or abducted them for paedophiles and became one of Spain’s most famous killers ‘the Vampire of Barcelona’. This isn’t a spoiler as we the reader know this from the start while Corvo doesn’t, yet we follow them both in time, even passing each other in the street which was the third element I really liked instantly from this book.

Before we go much further on let me vent some of my issues with the book, though there were only a couple, before I look at the positives. One aspect was, and I feel dreadful saying this, the translation which I think gave the book a strange distance and slightly clunky feeling, I also felt (which I haven’t noticed in other translated books often) as if I knew I wasn’t reading this in its original language, that I was missing something be it a connotation or just a little bit of its soul. The other aspect was that every so often the book, rather like its main character Moises, seemed a little over confident in itself. On occasion it seemed to feel it was as worthy of, if not better than, one of the original Victorian crime stories. Now this might have been the style and been designed to make the modern reader see the author was aware of the homage, for me it was a little annoying on occasion.

“Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, is even worse than Holmes. Holmes at least, is seen through Watson and Watson’s got a constantly crafty streak, even though Holmes is a bully and treats him like shit. Ma’am, out of the way, goddamnit, do you know how late it is?” he scolds. “Dupin is a some sort of crime-solving machine who’s never set foot on the street. I’d like to see him out in the real world, off the page, where all the murderers aren’t stupid monkeys.”
“There must be one that you like…”
“Lestrade. I like Lestrade. A Scotland Yard detective who does his job even though Holmes insists on humiliating him.”
“Moises, you read too much.”

It isn’t the normal way I would start a review but I wanted to get that out of the way because it has somewhat clouded my overall memory of the book and is the initial remaining feeling I had. Yet when I think about it more all of the brilliant part of the books slowly come for the for and remind me that when Pastor is on form he does have some right to potentially be a little cocky, though he might not be his character might have rubbed me up the wrong way a little too much slagging off my hero Sherlock Holmes. Who can say?

Pastor is very good at both restraint and knowing when there is just enough of a certain tension or mood within his story without it getting a little too much. For example within Barcelona Shadows there are some pretty vile characters and walks of life and they do some pretty horrible things. However even though we know these people are wicked and evil, there are moments when even when we think something awful is coming it spring at you suddenly, speedily and then is gone making it both more shocking and also giving you a real ‘did I actually read that’ moment without the reader ever feeling a voyeur or complicit, just stunned. He also knows just when to give the book a swift injection of dark humour which lightens the moments a few pages before. I liked this sense of a little light within the shade, or vice versa, very much.

Luckily for the detective, the smell of rotting corpse is so strong it drowns out the scent of shady intentions and sex for money, and Conxita is left to think that her husband has only been seeing cadavers and criminals. Conxita is a bit thick, but she doesn’t know it, so she’s happy.

I also liked the brooding atmosphere of the book throughout. Along with the narration, which I am still not giving away, the book really envelops you in the dark streets and underbelly of a city at that time. Indeed Barcelona is in some ways a character all of itself, and one which Pastor seems to have a wonderful fondness for and often describes quite poetically.

Barcelona is an old lady with a battered soul, who has been left by a thousand lovers but refuses to admit it. Every time she grows, she looks in the mirror, sees herself changed and renews all her blood until it’s almost at boiling point. Like a butterfly’s cocoon, she finally bursts. Distrust becomes the first phase of gestation: no one is sure that he whom they’ve lived with for years, whom they’ve considered a neighbour, isn’t now an enemy.

It seemed a fait accompli that I would love Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows; I love a gothic novel, I love a crime novel, I love Barcelona and I find fictional accounts of unusual or lesser known factual happenings really interesting. As it was I really enjoyed it and found it gripping at the beginning and thrilling as it whirls towards its dramatic and actually incredibly gut wrenching and emotional ending. Yet I was let down somewhere in the middle through both a slight lack of connection with the text and the main character as I mentioned earlier. I was actually briefly tempted to get a ‘learn Spanish’ set of mp3s (I have always wanted to learn Spanish anyway) so I could read the book in its original, that is how sure I was I should love it. I would still be very interested to read some of Marc Pastor’s other novels as when he blends the horror, gothic and atmosphere just right it gives you the proper shivers and shocks.

Has anyone else read Barcelona Shadows and if so what did you make of it? I might be asking something bonkers but if anyone out there has read it in the original Spanish and the English translation I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you any recommendations for any other unusual and quirky thrillers out there?

For more thoughts on the book head over to Hear Read This where you can hear myself, Gavin of Gav Reads and Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words discussing it in more detail.

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Filed under Marc Pastor, Pushkin Press, Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Sometimes a book takes you completely unawares. You have no expectations with it at all and it beguiles and then completely charms the pants off you, or maybe that should be charms the dust jackets off you? This was the case with The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I had no real prior knowledge of it other than I wanted to read it, when Kate chose it for December’s edition of Hear Read This. My only real thought was that it might be about books, it is and brilliantly bonkers and bookish all the way through.

Pushkin Press, 2014, paperback, fiction, 345 pages, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, kindly sent by the publisher

I am going to do something that I never do with a book, I am going to steal the blurb from the back of The Rabbit Back Literature Society because I simply would not be able to sum it up any better and indeed would over complicate it and put you off if I tried. So here it is. Only very special people are chosen by children’s author Laura White to join ‘The Society’, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips. But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, ‘The Game’? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura’s winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light…

She wasn’t thrilled. Not at all.
She’d wanted to do literary-historical research that might bring to light a few smallish skeletons – secret relationships, homosexuality, that sort of thing. Pleasant little scandals. Murder victims weren’t the sort of thing she’d been hoping to dig up.
Amateur detectives in fiction always annoyed Ella. They were so unrealistic. She didn’t intend to be the Rabbit Back version of Miss Marple or a cheap Baker Street knock-off, and she really didn’t like the idea of making the tabloids. That was no way to advance an academic career.

I have to say I was completely charmed by The Rabbit Back Literature Society from the start. From the moment we first met Ella as she describes herself; academic, unable to have children, with good lips and something artistic in the colour of her nipples, I knew I was going to be reading something that didn’t really fit into a mold or genre, rather breaking out of it instead. That is the kind of book this is and as we follow Ella – as she tries to work out just what on earth is going on with this secret writers society, the strange changing books in the library and the mysterious society member who has vanished – we discover a book that straddles over all the genres and then straddles them all riding them like a crazy pony. It’s contagious, look what it is doing to me as I write about it. Some of you might be put off because of this, normally I would, yet it works.

The novel is a crime novel, there is a mystery, or indeed two, as it unravels. It is a fantasy novel, with the atmosphere that anything could happen in the land of Rabbit Back; people vanishing in a whirlwind of snow, gnomes in the gardens attacking the gardeners etc. It is a comedy, I have not laughed as loudly at a book in sometime, generally because the giggles are quite dirty flirty ones from the accidental pornographic advent calendars the local children get by mistake a few pages in, onwards. It is a gothic ghost story. It is also a sinister thriller that will have you turning the pages. At its heart though it is a beautifully written literary love letter to, well, literature.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society really celebrates everything there is about reading, writing, readers and authors. It looks at how important escapism is, at how everyone can read a book differently (even without the endings changing as they do here) and how we use stories to cope with difficult things, or tell ourselves/create stories to make things better. It looks at authors and shows how writing is in its own way a kind of magical power, yet at the same time these people are all just very ordinary and shouldn’t be treated as anything special, even if some of them think they should. It is really all about the power of stories and storytellers, and what those writers can do with their powers, be it the bad or be it the good. (This is where ‘The Game’ and ‘Spilling’ is so brilliant, but I won’t spoil it!) It is about the power of words really.

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black and make you fatter or thinner by ten kilos or so, whatever comes to me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of your eyes, perhaps this left one, into a glass eye.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”
Winter smiled.
“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident?”
She gave a shrill laugh. “You are truly awful!” she said. “I’m not telling you anything now, or I might end up in your next novel.”
Winter gave a slight bow.
“That is your right. It would no doubt put you in much less danger of being used. But I may never the less steal your way of moving, the expressions on your face! Perhaps I’ll even take that way you have of smiling with your mouth open, your little tongue peeking out now and then between your teeth to see what’s happening in the world. And those freckles that start on the bridge of your nose  and continue all the way down between your breasts, that’s a detail that might come in handy in a piece I am writing at the moment.”
The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

I really, really, really enjoyed (and loved a little bit) The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It isn’t the perfect book, on occasion the book goes off on tangents it never comes back to in its weird and wonderful way yet I didn’t care because I just bloody loved reading every single page of it. If you could get an amalgamation of all the types of rollercoaster’s and then converted them into a book, I think you would get this one. It sounds an odd analogy I admit, I think it is one Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen would appreciate though. I really hope that Pushkin Press are planning on translating all his books and bringing them to many more readers.

For more of my thoughts along with Kate and Gavin (Rob was sick) you can hear the latest episode of Hear Read This here. Anyone else read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, if so what did you make of it? I have a feeling it could be a marmite book, though if you love books and everything booky I can’t see how you couldn’t love it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, Pushkin Press, Review

Bonita Avenue – Peter Buwalda

Feeling a little rusty at the old reviewing, and having a pile of nineteen books I have read and not yet reviewed, I wasn’t sure where to start. Then the realisation that it was father’s day answered my quandary instantly as Peter Buwalda’s debut, and recently translated to English, novel Bonita Avenue is an epic tale of one family centring around the father figure at its head, Siem Sigerius. Decision made I realised I had set myself quite the book to get my reviewing fingers limbered up with as Bonita Avenue is one of those books that is so crammed with themes, insights and questions that I would say it is a book almost impossible to wholly cover, I will try however.

Pushkin Press, trade paperback, 2014, fiction, 538 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the outside Siem Sigerius looks to have it all. He is a renowned genius, he is happily married with two wonderful and successful daughters, a brilliant career and is so well liked that when (very near the start of the book) he is photographed naked people seem to respect him even more for being ‘a real person’. Yet as we all know, and in the case of Bonita Avenue soon discover, there is always much more going on than might meet the eye. Yes, as we read on we discover the affair from which his marriage was born, what Siem is spending his nights doing on the internet and also why he keeps his own son a secret, if you are worried that I have spoiled anything there are plenty more secrets left to discover.

If you are thinking ‘oh another family saga’ I can assure you, as someone who has read a few, that Buwalda has written something quite different here. Admittedly as you start to read Bonita Avenue and Aaron Bever describes how he meets his girlfriend Joni’s parents, her father or step-father of course being Siem, you could think this is your average family fare. Soon, in fact just a few pages later, we find ourselves several years down the line as Aaron sits on a train and discovers Joni’s mother is sitting opposite him and looking at him with the contempt he feels he deserves. Everything has changed but how and why? These are the questions Buwalda starts off making the reader ponder with a sense of mystery before asking them all about their own thoughts on adultery, mental illness, porn, the sex industry, death and murder.

If that wasn’t enough, and the book is 530+ pages so there is plenty of time for all these themes and ponderings, Buwalda does something that I thought was rather genius. He sets Bonita Avenue in the very real town of Enschede and around the time that the horrific Vuuwerkramp, or fireworks disaster, occurred when a firework factory caught light and exploded killing 23 people, injuring 947 and destroying over 400 buildings. As this huge disaster goes on Bulwalda has it playing in the background, very effectively, yet keeps the focus on the miniature disasters going on in the foreground of this family. It is a very brave and clever move and one that Buwalda executes beautifully juxtaposing the two.

For two days he’s been wandering aimlessly and awkwardly through his own house; he’s been caught unawares by the unexpected takeover of his home, Joni’s weeping about her injured friend, that phone call from Wilbert, the sooty smell emitting from the lacerated, smouldering city – everything permeates his farmhouse. Fate has turned it into a country estate from a second-rate Agatha Christie. Crammed together now, of all times.

Now I have to admit Bonita Avenue is not instantly the easiest book to read, but then some of the best books aren’t and need a lot of work. The prose is taught and punchy yet the delivery is more complex. For a start time shifts in a paragraph or a sentence and occasionally you feel slightly confused as you catch up with your narrators stream of conscious thought. Secondly sometimes you aren’t aware who your narrator is or where in the books chronology they are. There are only three narrators; Siem, Aaron and Joni and soon enough you find the rhythm and differences in their voices. However thirdly, they aren’t always that likeable. Aaron clearly has some kind of psychological issues making him unpredictable, obsessional and in his relationship with Jodi a fawning erratic paranoid mess. Joni is also an intriguing if rather icy character. She is ruthless, knows what she wants and will really do pretty much anything to get it, she is also narcissistic yet someone completely in denial. Even Siem himself is a bundle of contradictions, but then aren’t we all. He is highly successful yet incredibly insecure and often self-pitying, he is moralistic and yet a complete hypocrite. All three characters are flawed yet real, unreliable but very readable. Buwalda is now clearly just showing off. Ha!

The vexing vacuum fills itself with self-doubt, it just happens. Isn’t he being overly self-righteous? Sometimes he thinks it downright stupid to equate that internet site with prostitution, it’s just not the same thing; these are the moments he considers himself a narrow-minded old fart, but a minute later the taboo takes his breath away again, he almost wants to scream with misery, and he treats himself and his wife to another phoney email. Then, again: am I being too uptight? Am I not the one who’s a moral and ethical stuck-in-the-mud? A frightened, sexless man?

As I mentioned earlier this is really a book about one man and his efforts to be the best man, father, husband, person that he can be. Through the three characters we see how well, or not as the case may be, he manages this and also how the actions of one person no matter how big or how small can affect those close around them and those on their periphery. For all this, and all the themes and questions that it asks, I think Bonita Avenue is an incredibly original take on the epic family saga and something of a contemporary masterpiece.

If you love a novel where the shiniest of veneers is about to crack and fracture then boy oh boy you will enjoy Bonita Avenue no end. Yes, you need to work at it and it does show a rather ugly side to families and human nature and yet while it illustrates this side of life it also strangely celebrates it too. After all, aren’t we all flawed, don’t we all make mistakes and have secrets we hide? I saw a review that claimed Buwalda as being the Dutch Jonathan Franzen. I can’t comment on that not having read him yet as I read along I kept thinking of Christos Tsiolkas, not because their writing or style is the same but because they beautifully write about the nasty side of people and society and make the grim strangely glorious.

Highly, highly recommended reading and if you can think of any other books in this vein I would love to hear about them. I would also love to know if you have read Bonita Avenue and what you made of it?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Peter Buwalda, Pushkin Press, Review