Category Archives: Quercus Publishing

Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

When lots of people tell you over a very small space of time that you simply have to read a book you should listen. This was the case with Louise O’Neill’s debut novel Only Ever Yours, which won the inaugural YA Book Prize earlier this year. I think four if not five very esteemed people I was on several panels with at a conference raved about it endlessly in the space of one and a half days. So naturally I had to pick it up at the nearest bookshop I fell into on the way back to the train station. I started it on said train and suddenly the 5 hour journey had absolutely flown by and I was left looking like something that should be left in lost luggage (a bit battered and worn out) when I got to Liverpool. Yes, Only Ever Yours is one of those books that grabs you and simply will not let go… even now, months later.

9781848664159

Quercus Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 400 pages, bought by me for me

I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy go lucky.
The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.
Except for me.

From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up.

It is in the interior of one of these schools/factories/compounds that we join frieda and isabel who have been friends since they can remember (no my spell check hasn’t backfired, these girls – or the eves as they are called – have no capital letter at the start of their names because they are lesser and need to know it from the off) who now at sixteen enter their final and defining year when they will be introduced to boys for the first time. These teenage boys will define the girls roles in society based in some part by how they interact with them, which is a tricky beast as we discover, though mainly on their looks which have to be perfection. So the pressure is on and the claws are out, this is the year when their lives will change and no one wants to be less than a companion.

The screen snaps back into a mirror. S41 Delicate Iced Chocco hair. #66 Chindia Tellow eyes. That’s me. That’s what people see when they look at me. I peel off my nightdress and throw it into a trapdoor implanted in the wall underneath the vanity table. The cupboard opens, beeping loudly until I step in, the steel trap closing like a greedy mouth around me.
‘You have gained weight.’ The voice fills the cupboard. ‘You are now 118.8 pounds. I will recommend in your weekly report that you are to take extra kcal blockers until your weight stabilizes between 115 and 118 pounds.’ 

It is a grimly fascinating yet ultimately plain disturbing setting and plot that Louise O’Neill creates. Here is a world where everything is wrong with you if you are less than perfect, even the slightest blemish can ruin you. This of course breeds elitism to the point where it isn’t just weight or height that distinguish, so do race and even when you first menstruate. This is a world where the ideal is to be two dimensional, what do you need the third for after all when all you need to do is look pretty, be able to hold a simple conversation and have male babies every few years? Yet of course by being human, even if manufactured, these girls have feelings, insecurities (which are to be encouraged), fears, jealousies, bitterness and rage. None is particularly likeable, but I imagine I would be a Grade A bitch in such a situation, it is survival of the fittest and prettiest after all so even your closest friends are a threat.

‘Nice? Nice? NICE?’ megan shouts. I try to shush her but she is beyond reason.
‘Yes. You’re nice,’ agyness lies again, looking perplexed at this reaction.
‘Who cares about nice?’
‘I do. I think personality matters.’
‘Are you brain dead? Personality does NOT matter. All that matters is being pretty, you…’ she stammers with rage, ‘you feminist.’ There’s a horrified gasp. ‘Well, it’s true,’ she says defiantly. ‘Being pretty is all that matters.’

In a book like Only Ever Yours there is almost too much to talk about, though this is not a bad thing. I haven’t even started on the whole ‘sex as a powerful weapon vs. weapon of self destruction’ part of the book which I found fascinating – when the girls are given alone time in what seems to be a broom cupboard with the boys – or the way she discusses cyber bullying. However I am worried that anyone who hasn’t read the book yet and hears about all this might be worried it is all too much or all too preachy. I don’t think it is either. I think O’Neill holds back in some aspects; it could be grimmer, it could have had a lot more in it, yet less is more and the fact that O’Neill holds back to a degree, whilst writing a ripping yarn that doesn’t let you put it down, makes it all the more sinister because it is all the more possible. Well, I say possible, this is happening in the world now. I found this also stopped it from being preachy, it is a book designed to make you think and that it does in abounds, praise be.

There were also two things that had particularly stuck me by the end also. Firstly was the fact that O’Neill keeps the world in which the reader enters very confined. It doesn’t really matter that the world has gone to hell outside the four walls we remain in because actually the truly terrifying stuff is happening within them. This is all the more scary because we see the world doing it now. Girls (and the attention is shifting to boys now) are judged on their looks, size, gait etc now by the media and society as I type this, it makes the horror of O’Neill’s world close in on you all the more. Secondly what I think was a master stroke was that O’Neill gives us a group of girls whip are designed to compete with each other, almost in their DNA by default, their bid for freedom means they must one up or destroy their friends, so why do we (women and men) do it so often when we have so many options and so much more freedom than mere generations ago. Remember what I told you about it making you think on.

Then if that all wasn’t enough, there is the ending! I won’t give it away but I will say that it delivered a wallop that was almost winding, yet made your head snap and then realise how powerful it was in its brutal brilliance. Louise O’Neill, if you ever read this, I think you are an utter marvel for this book. So pertinent, so engaging, so important, so well written – I hope this book is now stocked in every school possible, it should be on the curriculum. It is certainly going to be high up on my list of books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Louise O'Neill, Quercus Publishing, Review

The Cook – Wayne Macauley

Living with a trained chef, it seems that an interest in all things foodie has become part of my life through osmosis. Actually, let’s rephrase that. Living with a trained chef the technical side of cooking, flavours and presentation has become part of my life through osmosis. I have always taken a possibly slightly beyond healthy interest in food and experience fine dining when I can. Note – living with a chef means I am never allowed to cook, or if I do it is always wrong (yes you can even stir a stir fry wrong, apparently). So books with a foodie slant have an interest to this household and having not read one for a while and it being Kimbofo’s ANZ Literature Month it seemed the perfect time to read Wayne Macauley’s The Cook.

Quercus Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Zac is a young offender who, after having committed an act of violence, is given the option of either going into a young offenders institute or of joining Cook School, an initiative set up by a celebrity Head Chef who wants to do good for the community and also quite possibly for his own PR. Here Zac learns all the trick of the trade, from slaughtering to sautéing, of cooking under the eyes of Sous Chef Fabian and occasionally the Head Chef himself. Zac soon gets a taste (sorry) for the world of cooking and as he watches the life the Head Chef lives, and the delights celebrity can bring, Zac decides that is the life for him and he will do anything to achieve it.

Head Chef stopped stalking the bench. It was a bit religious he had his arms out palms up his wedding ring was huge. You have been chosen he said each and every one of you it could have been anyone but of all the young people wandering the suburbs wasting their lives you and only you have been chosen. Do not waste this opportunity. You have a kitchen the envy of a Michelin-star restaurant the best teaching talent in the country fresh produce at your door it is up to you to use these resources and not waste them. Remember you are flying the flag for good taste gentlemen. If you are not prepared to aim higher and higher again I suggest you take your supermarket chops and go and eat them with the dogs.

Initially you could be fooled into thinking that The Cook is simply a satire on the cooking world and all the cookery shows, from Masterchef to the recent show Taste with Nigella and co, and at first glance it is. As we learn, grimly fascinated as the descriptions are quite full on, how you slaughter various animals after having reared them in fancy ways to make the most of your meat. We also learn how the finest chefs make everything top line with basic ingredients and maximum price, you know what I mean; mushroom foam, a piece of pork the size of an iPod mini with the tiniest stokes of sauce surrounding it. And also how the upper classes will happily pay through their noses for it. Highlighted all the more when Zac becomes an ‘in house’ chef.

Yet The Cook is actually so much more than that. At it’s very (cold, dark) heart this is a book about class, something I am learning Australian authors are very interested in. We watch as Zac watches the upper classes and all the while Macauley is saying ‘look how outrageous this is’. What I think Macauley then does which is very clever is break this, possibly subliminally, is then have it running into three strands. Firstly we see how the upper classes are not always based on the money people actually have and also the fall from grace when recession hits both at the Head Chef’s idyllic school and then in the rich suburbs of the cities.

Secondly, through Zac, we look at how this affects the younger people of today who are striving to find (let alone make) a place in this world when even the most privileged are struggling, even if it is behind closed doors. Zac was from the wrong streets before he became a wrong’en and therefore he has to work harder and harder and harder in order work against the preconceptions people will have of him, even the preconception of himself. Macauley creates a fascinating psychology being Zac as a boy who believes himself lower than the low and who may want the trappings of fame if he can’t become part of the elite then he can at least aim to be the highest of the lowest of the low, if that makes sense.

I don’t want to work for a boss who props me up just above drowning I want to work for a customer who knows I am below them and who knows that I know. This is my shame it is a shame I want to be proud of. The money is elsewhere it’s always been elsewhere that is the truth of our lives someone else is holding the string dangling it in front of our eyes do we jump like dogs for a treat or do we flatten our ears say I’m your dog you’re my master give him shame out of every pour make him feel so big and special that he can’t help dropping something down for you. It’s not up to us to change them our job is to lick their boots kiss their arses let them make the money they’re the ones who know how to and let’s be thankful for what trickles down.

This means that thirdly we look at the question ‘is there actually power in servitude?’ This is not something that is answered in The Cook instead it is a question that hangs in the air, or just behind the dining room doors. We are to go away and think about it and with the sudden dark twist, which should not be given away because when it happens its brilliant, at the end there is no doubt you will be thinking about it long after you have read it.

However, some of you may not get there because I occasionally struggled. You see Macauley’s cleverest trick with The Cook is also something that I occasionally found hard to work with and that was Zac himself as our narrator. Let me explain. Zac’s narration is initially very monotone whilst having the verbals. Everything comes out at once, Macauley doing this by having not a single comma (no not a one) in the book at all. He is also slightly cold, I couldn’t decide if this was some condition, lack of education or just his personality. This occasionally becomes slightly overbearing and so I needed to have a bit of space with him now and again. Yet his voice does change slowly over time and having continued I was fascinated as he goes from determined to delude to desperate. I was very glad I persevered.

I think that The Cook is a rather fascinating book, relatively small, utterly brimming full of themes and ideas. Macauley’s creation of Zac and his ways of narration are a risk that pays off with an ending that I will be left thinking about for quite some time. Less a satire for me and more an unabashed and often confronting look at society, the class divide and the future for those who are young and sometimes make mistakes and the messages of aspiration that we are sending them. Well worth a read.

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixWho else has read this and what did you think of it? Have you read any of Macauley’s other books, which I don’t think have crossed the water here yet, and if so what did you make of them? You can see other reviews of the book from ANZ Lit Lovers, FarmlaneBooks, The First Tuesday Book Club and Kim of Reading Matters. Kim has recommended the book to me many a time and so it only seemed right that I read it for her ANZ Literature Month this May. For more info on that head here. Back to The Cook… I do like a book with a dark little heart and one that builds and builds giving a final twist, can you recommend any others in that sort of style?

 

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Filed under Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Wayne Macauley

The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I have noticed a pattern forming. Whenever I think I have got my list of books for the year sorted I will suddenly read one or two books that completely change that. One such book has been Sarah Pinborough’s latest The Language of Dying, a novella which I knew very let about, read, and was completely blown away by – and I don’t say that often.

Quercus Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 131 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In The Language of Dying Sarah Pinborough creates a frank and unflinching look at death and how it affects those who are dying and those around the dying. Through an internal monologue, or internal dialogue maybe, of a woman as she looks after and cares for her father, who is dying of cancer, on the last night of his life. As she sits watching the minutes slowly tick by she thinks back over her family’s life, and her life, as a whole and the events over the recent months and weeks. It seems as her father has deteriorated, the links within her family to her siblings have done the same. She also occasionally peers behind the curtains as if waiting for something, but what?

There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses’ skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They’ve taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowly creating an unwilling meaning.
Cheyne-Stoking.
Terminal agitation.

It is hard to put into words just how wonderful this book is, but I will try. First of all there is the writing which is just stunning throughout. I am a huge admirer of authors who can use a sentence to express what many others would take a page and Pinborough is such an author. The whole books prose is short and sharp. Told by a daughter who is so drained and tired that there is a sense of distance to it, there is also a huge amount of emotion and atmosphere. I haven’t experienced that duality in a narrative before I don’t think and it is all the more effecting.

Secondly, I thought Pinborough painted a fractured (and ever increasingly so) family wonderfully. Some of our narrators siblings only appear every so often in the book and yet they, and their flaws, are all there fully formed. As are their reactions to the slow dying of their father, some of them facing it bravely and others falling apart or simply wanting to avoid it. The pressure put on the family during such a time and how old wounds or rifts open is done all too realistically.

Having myself cared for my seventy one year old Gran after she was diagnosed with a terminal tumour and been with her as much as I could, including the whole seemingly never-ending week leading up to her death and being with her when she died, I also had a huge personal reaction to this book. It could have gone either way actually, I could have found it too raw or possibly a saccharine version of events depending on how Pinborough wrote it – she goes for raw. It was actually very raw yet also incredibly cathartic. My jaw almost hit the floor on many occasion as I found myself thinking ‘has Sarah been in my head?’ From the mundane aspects of it, the thickening drinks, the never ending nights, the Cheyne-Stoking, to the incredible emotions you go through from disbelief, to the guilt you feel when you love the person so much but you are so tired and so wrought you just want it all to be over, the things you wish you had said. It is all here, along with the grim reality that someone dying is nothing like you could imagine. This book felt like it had been written for me to read right now.

Standing in the kitchen, I wonder at death. You look so sick. You’ve given up. You haven’t drunk anything. I think this should surely be enough to make death take over. I am wrong of course. You have so much more dying to do yet. You have to become so much less before you go. The doctor is, in fact, spot on. One week. Maybe a little less. The body fights, you know?
Now I do.

Pinborough does take one possible risk with the book, and indeed one which I was worried would break the spell of the book for me personally, and that is when she introduces something ‘other’ and fantastical into the text. That said people who have read much of her work probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid to it anyway. I won’t say what it is, as I want you to all go and get this book right now, I will say that I thought it was actually a wonderful addition to the book and came in just when you needed a change from the grim reality of the situation.

As you can probably guess I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

If I ever meet Sarah she should be forewarned I may give her the biggest hug and weep on her shoulder for writing this book. Anyway… Who else has read The Language of Dying? Which other of Pinborough’s books have you read? (I will be over on No Cloaks Allowed in a week or so discussing her marvellous reworking of three fairytales.) Which books have you read that you felt were written specifically for you at a time when you needed them, and what were they?

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Filed under Books of 2013, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sarah Pinborough

The Ghost Hunters – Neil Spring

As a younger reader one of the sorts of books I would most commonly take out from the library would be collections of real life tales of the supernatural. Ghosts, monsters, spontaneous human combustion etc all fascinated me. Years on I am still really interested in the paranormal and ghostly goings on to the point of having spent a few nights in some haunted locations both in the UK and abroad – not something I do every weekend mind, though actually I would quite like to. Anyway, one of my favourite tales as a youngster, and subsequently since, has been of Borley Rectory which many have said was the most haunted house in all of Britain until it burnt down in 1939. Neil Spring’s debut novel ‘The Ghost Hunters’ focuses on some of the facts of the case to make a story of one of its most famous investigators, Harry Price.

9781780879758

Quercus Books, 2013, paperback, fiction, 522 pages, bought by myself for myself

On a January evening of 1926 Sarah Grey is dragged by her mother Frances to witness the infamous Harry Price as he tests the powers of a spiritualist medium at 16 Queensbury Place. It is a night that causes a stir from spiritualists none other than Arthur Conan Doyle as the audience witness Harry debunking this medium in front of everyone. Some people are disappointed, some shocked and appalled, Sarah herself is intrigued despite herself.  So when after meeting Harry Price he offers her a job she accepts, much to the consternation of her mother, friends and even initially herself, and becomes his secretary and medium testing and ghost hunting assistant.

Eventually this leads them to the mystery of the Borley Rectory. A house that has become famous amongst the British public after Vernon Wall writes about it. It is a building seemingly teeming with activity; bells ring by themselves, writing appears on the wall, pebbles and small objects fly across rooms and in the grounds there has often been seen a spectral carriage and horses along with a nun, The Dark Woman of Borley, who many believe has left a curse on the place. As they investigate Sarah is made to question what she believes could be real and what might be supernatural, what could be a hoax and who can be trusted, even Harry Price himself.

Recollections of the past sixteen months at Price’s side flicked through my mind, a montage of uncanny memories: the sun glaring on us at the Colosseum in Rome; damp, frigid mornings on the banks of Loch Ness; the teenage girl we encountered in Berlin who made knives and forks stick to her flesh as magnets grip metal. I doubted anyone in London had experienced a more thrilling, more adventurous or more peculiar year. There was no one more mysterious than Harry Price.

I have to say that I don’t think I have read a book, and this is almost 550 pages, so quickly in quite some time. Part of this is because I am so fascinated by Borley, and indeed Harry Price, and ghosts and also because Neil Spring writes a really gripping yarn which I became completely lost in and fascinated as the twists and turns, and spooky goings on, compelled me further and further into a world of the haunted and the hoaxers.

Spring does some great things with this novel. Firstly there is the way that he mixes the facts in with the fiction. As ‘The Ghost Hunters’ goes one and Sarah tells her tale we are treated to historical footnotes including which books or newspapers that quotes are taken from, cleverly not by Neil Spring but by Dr Robert Caxton who is reading Sarah’s tale, which of course makes it all the more believable and fascinating. He also does a really marvellous job of creating Harry Price who by all accounts was a very complex and rather shadowy character which Spring vividly evokes.

My only slight problems with the book were firstly that in some ways I wanted there to be less of it and in other ways I wanted there to be more of it and also in the relationship between Sarah and Harry. I won’t give away anything but I do want to explain why. Firstly as the book goes on Spring plays a brilliant game of twisting the perspective for the reader. We think that Harry wants to prove ghosts exist, then we don’t, then we do, then we don’t, then we do, etc. This makes for compelling reading yet occasionally I did think that maybe there was a twist too many and this started to make the whole book feel melodramatic. I like a lot of twists, an author has to gage when one twist is one too many because then it starts to stretch the world they have created to the point of snapping. In doing this, no spoilers, I began to be a bit annoyed with Sarah as she is clever and feisty at the start of the book but she seemed to become a bit passive.

Borley Rectory

I would have forsaken some of these twists to have had more details of the other investigations that Sarah writes of with Harry Price. Part of this is because I just wanted more, part of it was because focusing only on Borley we occasionally have lots going on for weeks then a year or two of nothing which we gloss over which means in a way we miss out on Sarah and Harry’s more mundane times which would focus on their relationship. This of course leads me to the second slight quibble I had with the book as I never believed the relationship to the extent we need to for the story to come to its conclusion, which will make sense when you have read it, I didn’t by it especially not in the circumstances it initially happens. I shall say no more though for fear of ruining anything, but it troubled me a little and broke the spell slightly.

The pepper pot, which stood on the table before us, was trembling. I had never seen anything so peculiar. And as if this were not enough to startle us, a glass of white wine that had been poured for Price just minutes earlier turned an inky black.

However there was so much that I really like about this book I forgave it these two things. The atmosphere is brilliantly created, the twists and turns keep coming, the historical elements of the times are really interestingly explored, it is often brilliantly chilling and it has a great sense of mystery and adventure to it. Also Spring clearly loves this subject and the enthusiasm for it is infectious. I had the feeling that Spring might have been the other kid who took out the real life ghost tales books which meant I had to take them back or couldn’t get a copy of. I don’t know much about Spring but I don’t think he was borrowing books from Marlborough library in Wiltshire when I was. Wouldn’t it be strange if he was, spooky indeed.

I would clearly highly recommend ‘The Ghost Hunters’ if you want a brilliantly dark and thrilling tale to read during the dark autumn evenings then this will be perfect. I would also recommend it if you like historical novels as this is a tale seeped in history, and facts, and shows a very different side of what was going on in London and its surrounding areas between the wars, with an unusual and enjoyable twist. I am rather hoping that we might get some more of the adventures that Sarah eludes she and Harry went on in the future as I am sure I would find them as entertaining and fascinating as this one.

Who else has read ‘The Ghost Hunters’ and what did you make of it? Do you know of any other true life tales of the supernatural that have been turned into brilliant books of fiction? If anyone knows of any novels about Winchester Mystery House then I would be delighted, it is another of my favourite spooky places. Oh and any non-fiction recommendations of books about ghosts would be most welcome, though the bibliography in ‘The Ghost Hunters’ has given me much to hunt down.

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Filed under Neil Spring, Quercus Publishing, Review

In The Dutch Mountains – Cees Nooteboom

Before I go any further I think that Cees Nooteboom may have the best name for an author ever. There, now that’s out of the way we may move on as usual, well possibly after saying Cees Nooteboom again a few more time to ourselves, see it is an amazing name. In the latest post during my week ‘going Dutch’ with you all (friends will note I may have been going Dutch on the blog but alas not in the real world, sorry) we take a look at an author who is often described as ‘one of the best living Dutch authors, Cees Nooteboom, and his recently reissued novella aptly named ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Maclehose Press, 1984 (2013 edition), paperback, translated by Adrienne Dixon, 159 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I should state that any book which starts with ‘Once upon a time there was…’ is going to most likely become a firm favourite with me, fairytales are not something that I have grown out of though I will admit I do now prefer the full ‘uncut’ originals to the Disney versions. So the signs were good from the very start of ‘In The Dutch Mountains’ and got even better when I discovered that not only was this going to be a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’ it is also a book that looks at what makes a fairytale and the nature of writing one.

In the heat of the summer a road inspector sits in an empty classroom and writes. Inspired by one of the years he spent inspecting the roads from the North to the South of the Netherlands he is inspired to retell the tale of ‘The Snow Queen’ only set in a more current climate and one that shows the harsh differences of the same country in its northern and southern divides. He tells the tale of two circus children, perfect beyond compare, who become lovers and marry until the interest in circuses wanes and who must seek stardom in some other way. Reality TV could be the answer but it is short lives and so they must descend to the darker side of the country and indeed the land of the woman many call the Snow Queen.

As Alfonso, our narrator and also third person in many ways, writes on he simply cannot stop himself from interweaving himself and his thoughts, as a road inspector who also writes, about the world of books, writing and literature into the narrative thread himself. Thus creating a really interesting mixture tale and tale telling and also a sense of oral storytelling yet via print on the page, it is very cleverly delivered so that, as could easily be the case, it never gets on your nerves or really interrupts the flow of the actual story, on the whole.

As we have been formed by the conventions of European literary culture, there is little scope for an individual writer to exercise his imagination; the terminology has been fixed ever since writing began. Lucia’s hair was, of course, golden. (Like honyseime, the fat of the honey, as someone in the South was to say later.) She had clear blue eyes like a summer sky, her lips were red as cherries, her teeth as white as milk. Anyone who tries to think of other words is mad.

As the book went on I found myself thoroughly enjoying Alfonso (well Nooteboom) and his modern twist on the famous fairytale and also hoping that every page or two he would pop in with a few comments. Towards the end I have to admit there were a couple of occasions that this didn’t work quite as well. At one point when he went on about God and religion for a little too long and I frowned and that really jarred with me. In another Alfonso ends up having a conversation with Plato, Christian Anderson which threw me completely though in the context, and in hindsight, I rather liked.

What is so marvellous about this book is it a case of ‘meta-fiction’ where a story is told, the story behind the story and the telling of it is told and a conversation between the author, or in this cases authors, and reader all plays out in one go simultaneously. It is the first time that this very cunning trick has worked so effectively on me and actually made me want more. The discussion about fairytales, their history, their rules and them vs. myths was so fascinating and so brilliantly done I was hoping Nooteboom, no Alfonso sorry, would decide at the end to retell another so we could natter about it further… in my head, which makes this all sound very weird but is what happens.

‘In The Dutch Mountains’ not only reminded me of why I love a fairy tale but also why I love them…

As soon as you have said “once upon a time”, you have created an extratemporal and extraterritorial reality in which anything is possible. A free-for-all. The characters travel by wild goose or reindeer.

I think it is that sense of endless possibility and escapism that sums up not only what I love about fairytales but what I love about reading. No, I know you might not find characters travelling by reindeer or wild goose in a book by every book you pick up, yet the excitement of experience something ‘other’ is always there when you open the first page. It is rare a book makes you talk to the author, metaphorically and in a one way conversion, about this yet somehow as if by magic that is what Nooteboom does when you go on a journey with him and Alfonso ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Have a gander at Stu of Winstons Dad Blog for more thoughts on the book. Who else has read this and what did you make of it? Are you a Nooteboom (I can’t get enough of that surname) and if so which other of his novels would you recommend? What are your thoughts about meta-fiction and those narrators who interject and discuss things with the reader, does it work for you or simply put you off?

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Filed under Cees Nooteboom, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

If ever a recently published book was going to be read by me on the title alone then it would be ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ throw in the gorgeous cover and it seemed that its fate was sealed. I love a book about books or about libraries and so from the title alone I was hoping this was what it would be about, though of course you shouldn’t always judge a book by its title should you? Fortunately not only was this very much a book about books and libraries it was also an unusual and quirky book that gave me much more than I was initially expecting.

*** MacLehose Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, translated Sian Reynolds, kindly sent by the publisher

If you were a librarian, working in the basement section, you might be a little disconcerted upon finding a random stranger sleeping in your section after having been locked in overnight. This is not the case in ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ as our unnamed protagonist sees this as a chance to get much off her chest, it seems she has been waiting for this moment for quite some time and has no plans on letting this opportunity go to waste. So starts a monologue which covers her thoughts on libraries and books, some of the history of France, the state of society today and indeed an unrequited love that she has for a young man who comes to the history section every day.

I think it might be the ‘mono’ in monologue that always makes me think they are going to be rather dull, or just a rant about the state of things. I shouldn’t think this as I have read and listened to many of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ and interestingly Sophie Divry’s debut novel reminded me of them a little, especially the lonely woman who rambles on being at the heart of it. ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ is, in a way, rather a rant and it does have a lot to say about the state of the modern world, mainly libraries as a resource and what on earth is happening to the book in society, yet it does so with as much a sense of humour as it can whilst also being incredibly impassioned about books and their importance.

“Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it’s comforting. You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.”

Our unnamed protagonist is one of the reasons that the book becomes so much more than just a tirade on the importance of literature, as is the way that she talks to the person she finds asleep in section 900 – 910, who of course becomes us. She lives a very solitary life, surrounded by books she might be yet she is clearly very lonely with it. She looks at everything with an arched eye and occasionally I thought there was a much darker undertone to her character. Divry wonderfully takes us on a journey of a character as in some moments we feel sorry for her, sometimes concerned for her (and her mental state) and then we laugh with her and even sometimes as her, just as the person who has been captive all night in the library does.

My only slight quibble with the book was not the fact that you never understood why the listener kept listening, as I felt they were like me and simply couldn’t tear themselves away watching this woman unravelling, yet the character and the idea behind the book slightly contradicted themselves. On the one hand this is a book about the importance of libraries and books, yet the protagonist has clearly been driven mad surrounding herself with them day in day out through her job. Maybe I am over thinking it though?

I would definitely recommend every book lover give ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ a whirl, at a mere 92 pages you can devour it in a single sitting. I also think, aside from all the book love which makes it a joy to read for the booklover in anyone, it is an intense and grimly fascinating portrayal and explanation of character. I was left wondering what might be on the horizon for this woman, thank goodness no one mentioned the K***** word to her that is for sure – the results could be horrific. With a short quirky debut like this I am very much looking forward to seeing what Sophie Divry comes up with next, be it a darkly epic masterpiece or another short tale I will definitely be reading it.

Who else has read ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ and what did you make of it? Does anyone else get drawn to any book with ‘book’ or ‘library’ in the title like I do?

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Filed under Books About Books, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sophie Divry

Bereft – Chris Womersley

Sometimes a book arrives here unsolicited and just reaches out to me. It is likely that I haven’t heard anything about it prior to its arrival and yet it just tempts me to read it. This is what happened with ‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley, it arrived and the cover seemed to constantly catch my eye and call out to me (I am wondering if this is because it looks a little like Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’ which you know I adored). The quote from Evie Wyld, ‘I hammered through Bereft in a day; I didn’t want to be away from it’, was the final clincher especially after the success I had with her recommendation of ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan. It is interesting that its arrival made me think of these two books because in some ways it is of their ilk. It also fitted in perfectly with Kim’s Australian Literature Month, it all seemed aligned.

Quercus Books, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 264 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The year is 1919 and Quinn Walker is returning to his hometown of Flint in New South Wales after fighting in WWI. This is not going to be some happy emotional family reunion as the reason Quinn left was that ten years earlier he was found seeming to have raped and murdered his sister, he fled. His return seems timely as Australia is in the grips of the Spanish flu epidemic, in fact many believe it is the end of the world, and when the end is nigh you have very little to lose.  Now returning, undecided if he will face his accusers or not without proof it wasn’t him, sheltering in the hills around Flint he meets Sadie a young girl living in secret like him and as these two outsiders form a bond of friendship they both realise her present and his past are more linked than either of them could have imagined.

I am aware that the last line in that paragraph above is a little bit clichéd and sounds rather melodramatic, yet in essence that is how the plot goes, it isn’t a melodramatic book however and that is what holds me back from giving it the ‘gothic’ label that I have seen in reviews since finishing the book and mulling it over. It does have elements of the gothic but despite the nature of the tale it tells this novel is rather quiet and understated until it leads to its climax. It has also been labelled as a crime novel and in some ways it is, there is a mystery at the heart of the book and yet it is never a whodunit, in fact that aspect of the book is really bubbling away in the background as we look at the effects of war and epidemic on people at the time.

It is this combination that I think makes this book such a brilliant read. You have the war and its effects, and in many ways the understated element of the horrors we read of and see in Quinn himself are the reasons they hit home, a country and its people believing the world may be ending, you even get some séances in Victorian London thrown in and yet it never feels too much, nothing seems out of place. Its historical, thrilling, has some magical elements (in fact while I loved the séance and how that worked into the story, there was an animal sacrifice that I just didn’t see the rhyme or reason for, small quibble) and most importantly is beautifully written. It’s understated but highlights the drama of the time; it’s to the point yet descriptive and wonderfully builds the brooding atmosphere and heat before the storm, a metaphoric aspect if ever there was one and one which again made me think of ‘The Proof of Love’, it’s writing that quietly holds you and takes you away to a calm darkness.

‘That night, Quinn lay back, snuggled into the curve his shoulders had made in the pine needles and stared up at the darkness. The moon hove into view. The forest spoke in its secret tongue, and if he turned his head and pressed his ear to the ground he fancied he might hear the millions of dead rustling in their mass, unmarked graves on the far side of the world. Sarah had always claimed to understand the language of animals and trees, the growls of possums and wallabies. But what of the dead?’

Since finishing the book I have been off finding out more about it and the author. It seems this book was pretty much long listed for every book award in Australia last year and I can certainly see why. ‘Bereft’ is one of those books that is set very much in its time and yet asks you to look back and put the pieces together. I like this effect in books as it makes me feel a little bit clever. It also makes this book nicely merge the divide between literary and thriller in many ways. The prose it beautiful, the characters fully drawn, there is also a mystery at its heart giving it that page turning quality, yet never at the expense of any of its other winning factors. It also covers a very interesting period in a countries history I knew nothing about yet came away with the atmosphere still lingering with me long after finishing the book. Highly recommended.

I am really glad I read this book, I have instantly started wondering if its eligible for a certain award this year but wouldn’t want to jinx it, it is only January after all. I am saddened to see that you can’t get his debut novel ‘The Low Road’ in the UK as yet, as I would definitely like to read more of his work. Has anyone else read that? Who else has read this one? I would love to know if readers in Australia have heard as much about this book as I imagine you might.

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I read this book as part of Australian Literature Month,    which runs throughout January 2012. The idea is to simply read as  many   novels as I can by writers from my homeland and to encourage  others to   do the same. Anyone can take part. All you need to do is  read an   Australian book or  two, post about Australian literature on  your own   blog or simply engage  in the conversation on this blog. If  you don’t   have a blog, don’t worry —  you just need to be willing  to  read   something by an Australian writer  and maybe comment on other   people’s   posts. You can find out more here.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Chris Womersley, Quercus Publishing, Review