Category Archives: Review

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine – Diane Williams

I am a sucker for a good cover and let us be honest Diane Williams latest collection of flash fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (which always makes me think of the Mary J Blige song Just Fine), has a rather fantastic cover indeed. So that pulled me to it in Foyles when I saw it, then the line ‘folktales that hammer like a nail gun’ in the blurb made me almost 100% sure that this was going to be the best collection of short stories I had read for a while. Hmmmm. How to put this? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

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CB Editions, paperback, 2016, short stories, 118 pages, bought by myself for myself

How to start with a review of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine when one of the main things you loved about it was the cover and you have already mentioned that? I guess I had better just simply go for it. What I was hoping to find in this collection of very (very, very) short stories was forty (yep, forty) little spiky modern fairytale and folklore like gems. As I started to read I discovered I was getting snap shots into people’s lives that felt like that the prose version of an Instagram feed, only the pictures all seemed to be out of focus, blurred or sometimes an accidental snap shot of the floor because so vague were they, I would read one and think ‘what on earth am I meant to make of that?’

The sad issue here is that the themes I felt Diane Williams was trying to write about, when I did grasp what I thought it was she was on about, are ones that I am really interested. She seems to be giving encounters of a wide and diverse group of women (I can’t remember if any are in a male narrative, though sometimes the gender of the narrator isn’t mentioned) from all walks of life at pivotal moments in their lives. The only thing is so vague and often flimsy did these snippets seem that any poignancy that Williams was trying to give, or maybe I was desperately trying to clutch to, was then lost. Take for example the opener of Head of a Naked Girl

One got an erection while driving in his car to get to her. Another got his while buying his snow blower, with her along. He’s the one who taught her how to blow him and that’s the one she reassured ‘You’re the last person I want to antagonize!’

Firstly I don’t even know if that opening paragraph makes sense, or is it just me? Anyway, what I thought I was getting here was the account of a young woman who had found herself in a profession of which she might have not intended. I was intrigued this might be a tale of how a beautiful woman couldn’t help the affect she had on men for better and for worse, from a neutral view point. We then follow some of her sexual exploits before something, unknown, goes wrong and then she ‘blamed herself – for yet another perfect day.’ Huh? What? I have no idea what I am meant to take from that. Well, apart from mild annoyance.

Now you could say that maybe I am just not one for flash fiction, however I would have to disagree somewhat there. Firstly because I have seen Val McDermid create a story from a tweet which was brilliant and also in this collection there was one very, very, very short story which I loved called The Skol which I will include below in all its entirety.

In the ocean, Mrs. Clavey decided to advance on foot at shoulder-high depth. A tiny swallow of the water coincided with her deliberation. It tasted like a cold, salted variety of her favourite payang congou tea. She didn’t intend to drink more, but she did drink – more.

I loved this. It is very vague, which I know is a criticism I have made in all the stories but here it works. I loved the fact my mind could leap of and ask loads of questions about it. Why on earth was Mrs. Clavey walking into the ocean? Was she just in the mood for a swim or did she have a more dark or sorrowful reason for walking in? Speaking of which, at the end of the story is Mrs. Clavey simply drinking the water because she likes the taste or has she gone a bit mad? Or worse still is she trying to drown herself or just drowning accidentally? Or, the fairytale part of my brain pondered is she actually a mermaid? From four lines all those thoughts. That is what I wanted in every tale.

You might also say that maybe Diane Williams writing isn’t for me. Which is fine, fine, fine, fine, fine (sorry, couldn’t help it!) we don’t like every author in the world, we can’t our heads would explode with all the books we could read; it would be bookshop/library carnage, we might never read anything again because of all the options. I think this is probably the main reason; Diane Williams possibly just isn’t for me. It isn’t her fault. It isn’t my fault. It just is what it is. Though I do want to say there are moments here and there where I just loved how she observes the little things that by saying so little say so much. One paragraph in To Revive A Person Is No Slight Thing has really stayed with me as a character describes the cracks in her marriage, well that is what I thought she was doing but who knows?

A fire had been lighted, drinks had been set out. Raw fish had been dipped into egg and bread crumbs and then sautéed. A small can of shoe polish was still out on the kitchen counter. We both like to keep out shoes clean.

Sadly though, despite a few short bursts of prose and a couple of stories that appealed to me, I was not a big fan of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine which I am quite cross about as I wanted to be. I think I need something that has some anchor in a sea of vagueness and this only really had that a couple of times for me. You can happily ignore me though Lydia Davis, Jonathan Franzen and many more authors think she is the absolute flash fiction queen. What reading this collection has taught me, delightfully, is that I enjoy flash fiction on the commute to and from work though. So if you have any recommendations of flash fiction collections I should try then do please let me know. Have you read Diane Williams? What have you made of her work?

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Filed under CB Editions, Diane Williams, Flash Fiction, Review, Short Stories

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I am quite superstitious about the first book that I read of any year. However after possibly one of my ropiest reading years back in 2016, I was feeling it even more. (Ironically I started 2016 with a brilliant book which frankly puts my superstitious theories to pot, but anyway.) So the big question came of what I should start 2017 with. I wanted something that would hook me in, be well written, have characters that delighted me be they villainous or heroic and be a little dark. Basically I wanted a book that infuses all of the elements which give me a good old book tingle.

So after much mulling I settled on Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, after all none other than Marieke Hardy had recommended it on The ABC Book Show (alas not personally over a cocktail or two) selling it in all its twisted glory. Plus I read and absolutely bloody loved Deep Water in 2015 and was smitten, before also loving Highsmith’s very different but also fantastic Carol – which I am ashamed to say I have not reviewed from last year, 2016 really was a pesky pest. So with rather a lot of pressure I opened up the first page…

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Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1960 (2016 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tussled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
He had so longed lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years.  No use bothering with details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn’t working, were a little bit worse that the daytime, that was all.

Seriously, how could anyone fail to be hooked from the opening paragraphs of This Sweet Sickness? Without meaning to come over all English Professor on you all, let us dissect that opener. A man, David, is overcome with jealousy. Instantly I am intrigued, jealousy being a fascinating and wicked subject and emotion. He lives in a dark and silent boarding house, gothic setting instantly ticked. Then comes ‘the Situation’ but what on earth is it, what on earth is going on? You simply have to read more don’t you, you can’t not. Well, I couldn’t anyway.

What transpires after this opening, and it transpires quickly so this is by no means a spoiler, is that David is in love with Annabelle. Annabelle is a woman who merely a few years ago, back in their home town, he had pondered asking to marry – and many people believed would have said yes – that is until another man asked and she said yes to him. However, despite the fact that they have a child together, it is David’s belief that Annabelle will leave her husband and their true love will soon run smooth, okay so there might be a slightly annoying child involved, but he would still have Annabelle wouldn’t he?

Yes, this is when you realise that David might be slightly unhinged, further confirmed when you realise that despite his pretty decent job, David is living economically in that slightly gothic boarding house because he has bought (and decorated, just to add another level of madness) a house for himself and Annabelle for when she sees sense and leaves everything for him. Yes, David is deluded and possibly a bit bonkers. Gripping stuff right?

The leaves fell, brown and yellow, and others turned red and clung for weeks longer. It was the first of November, and still Annabelle has not answered his letter. Should he send her another letter, or had she gotten into trouble with one letter and was Gerald now pouncing on all the mail that came in?

What I loved so much about This Sweet Sickness is also what I loved about Deep Water, though delivered just as originally whilst very differently… The way she goes inside the mind of someone who has quite possibly lost theirs. Not only is it a fascinating portrait into the mind of someone quite sick (she referred to many of her creations as her beloved little psychopaths) yet she does so in a way that humanises them and some of the deeds that they may or may not commit. As we follow David, slightly ironically following Annabelle, we feel for him even though we know what he is doing is creepy and even when he goes too far.

In a small part this is also because Annabelle quite frankly is a bit of a psycho-tease. As the novel went on I found her wet and insipid responses quite pathetic and questioned if actually it was adding some spice to her and her husband’s relationships. Anyway, I digress. If I was her I would have told him to absolutely do one, but that wouldn’t have made for novel, more a piece of flash fiction. Yet the main reason for us feeling for David when we probably (ha, definitely) shouldn’t, is that Highsmith somehow manages to make us empathise with him. After all haven’t we readers all fallen for someone who we thought loved us back but didn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all become slightly besotted with someone we shouldn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all deluded ourselves that the one doesn’t know they are the one and so we buy a house we don’t live in but decorate how we imagine the one would want us to even though they don’t know about it and might not want to live in their too? Erm… just David then. But in other ways many of the things David has done we have done too, just slightly less extremely and I think that is where Highsmith’s true power lies.

She can also write a downright gripping and addictive plot. Chapters just long enough. As sense of impending dread that gets larger as you read on. Twists coming when you least expect them. And the ear, or eye, for a great main character who is flawed, nuts and yet you can’t get enough of and even sometimes like. She also knows how to add extra meat to the bone with a thriller, the plot and the main character aren’t enough and in This Sweet Sickness that comes in the form of an interesting friendship between David, his colleague Wes and Effie, a slightly lost young woman who I loved and felt deeply sorry for, which also becomes a slightly warped and strange love triangle all of its own.

I cannot recommend This Sweet Sickness enough; it is a thriller that should be up there with so many of the infamous classics it is quite remiss that it is not. As with Deep Water, which I also urge you to read, it has all the elements of a gripping thriller whilst being a fascinating insight into the darker parts of the human psyche. I know we get into the heads of some really warped characters in crime fiction right now, but never in the way or on the same level as we do in a Highsmith, all the more eerie as we sometimes empathise with it. Simply writing this review has made me want to run and take another of the shelves.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

When I was in London back at the start of the month I popped into the Tottenham Court Road Waterstones, which is fast becoming one of my favourite bookshops, and was drawn to a table displaying a pile of books with £5 of the cost going to Oxfam if you bought it. I didn’t really need to know more than that to buy it, partly because I never really need that much of an excuse to buy a new book and also because Oxfam is a charity I believe in. The then unknown book to me was Emma-Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa and I think, having read it and cried through it twice, it might be one of the most incredible books, and most important books right now, that I have read in some time.

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Allen Lane, 2016, hardback, non fiction, 120 pages, bought by myself for myself

There are too many of them. Too many of them and I don’t know how to do this. I am an optician; I’m not a lifesaver. I’m an optician on holiday and I don’t know how to do this.

It is around this sentence that The Optician of Lampedusa begins, through Emma-Jane Kirby, to tell his tale. He is a regular man on the island of Lampedusa where he works as an optician. He is known and well liked by those on the island and likes to socialise but mainly him and his wife keep themselves to themselves and with dinners or trips away with friends. He wants a simple life, yet on one boating trip away with his friends, not too far away from home at all; their lives all change on a single morning.

When it came this time, the monstrous, tortured howl ripped through everyone like a bullet. Instinctively, the optician moved his hand to protect his face. He staggered to keep his footing on the cabin roof. What the hell was out there?
The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching. The optician felt his stomach knot. Something was roaring underneath the waves and whatever it was the optician had a gut feeling that when they found it, it would be truly terrible. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and tried to nod reassuringly at Teresa who was looking at him in horror.

What we then experience is the optician’s account of what follows when he and his friends come across a mass of people, alive and dead, after the sinking of a boat on which they were all trying to escape heading for Europe. And through the optician’s account, which I have little doubt Emma Jane Kirby deviated from at all as it seers its self into your brain, we are given an unflinching, horrifying look at what the refugee crisis is like first hand from someone who thinks of themselves as ordinary but is to many a hero. I found it hugely affecting, both the description of the awful day when they found the refugees and also what happened to them and the refugees afterwards which we follow. I don’t want to talk about what happens after because I think you need to read it all to experience it.

I have never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. Gasping, yelling, choking, screaming. Oh God, the screaming! The pitch of it! The sea boiling and writhing around them as they kicked and lashed out, clinging to each other, grabbing at pieces of the driftwood, snatching handfuls of water as they tried to clutch the tops of the breakers.

As much as this book is (rightly so) shocking, it gives the reader much food for thought on many thing. One of the most powerful things being that this is not fiction that we are reading, this was very much someone’s real life, one person in many whom have come face to face with what is going on. Emma-Jane Kirby is a journalist for BBC Radio 4’s PM show where she reported on the Mediterranean crisis and indeed focused the story on Carmine Menna, who we learn at the end (well those of us who didn’t hear the reportage – I am feeling slightly appalled at myself for having missed it) is indeed his story. So the unflinching reality is literally jaw dropping. As I said earlier it has made me cry several times on several reads of it.

It is with this in mind that I think Emma-Jane Kirby points out something very important, just how numb we become to the news. When we hear or see a story on the news, on or the front pages, we are horrified and outraged. Yet really how much do we actually do about it apart from then discuss how horrified and outraged? We slowly but surely become numb to it, and this indeed is the case with the optician himself, living life on his island knowing it is happening but in some ways becoming used to it, until it then stares him full on in the eyes.

Twenty years ago, when he could run the island’s roads effortlessly, the optician of Lampedusa would sometimes spot a scared migrant scrambling up the rocks onto his path. They had almost always been alone and would shout to him in English: ‘Where am I? Am I in Palmero? Have I reached Sicily?’
He shakes his head in disbelief. It seems a long time ago now. The Arab Spring changed everything and they never come on their own anymore. Big boatloads arrive now in a constant stream – whole families; women and children too, poor things. Only a couple of years ago the newspapers were reporting that Lampedusa now had more migrants and refugees than inhabitants! The skin on his forehead wrinkles. Best not to think too much about it really. The TV, the papers – they’re saturated with the news about migrants; it’s all they talk about. There was something else on the radio the other day about some more drowning off the coast of Sicily. Seven or eight of them, was it?

And of course we can’t all rush off and go to the places that this is happening to help out, that is not what I or this book are saying. I am after all still sat in my house on my sofa typing this after having been moved so much by the book. Yet buying the book has sent some money to help, reading the book has opened my eyes to the refugee crisis both in terms of reading it so viscerally from an eye witness, well through an eye witness through Emma-Jane Kirby, and to aspects of it I didn’t know and led me to looking at ways I can do small things to contribute. I won’t go on about those because I don’t want to preach, part of my effort is to hope some of you will read this and rush off to Waterstones to buy it before the end of the month so more of those £5 wing their way to Oxfam and the refugees who need it. (If you haven’t a Waterstones near you just get it and read it anyway.)

I guess I have kind of digressed from the book here, yet I think that The Optician of Lampedusa is the sort of book that makes you do that. The optician of Lampedusa himself did something extraordinary that saved lives, Emma-Jane Kirby reported on it and wrote the book to share the story and awareness and get other people to do the same, that is now what I want to do with this review, even if it is just one or two of you rushing off to get it. That is where a book like The Optician of Lampedusa is so important, and reminds us how powerful books and people’s stories can be in making us see the reality of things and do what we can to help.

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Filed under Allen Lane Books, Books of 2016, Emma-Jane Kirby, Non Fiction, Review

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – Jessie Greengrass

Now there is a title indeed.  One that had in fact made me pick up this debut short story collection quite some time ago, only for it to (rather shame facedly for me) linger on my shelves for all too long. However that all changed when I was asked if I would join the inaugural official shadow panel for the, speaking of titles, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016. It was the only title that I hadn’t read yet and so I went to get the copy off my shelves… only I don’t have shelves at the moment, just masses of boxes filled with books I can’t get to, so thankfully the lovely folk at the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 sent me another copy, before the shortlist was officially announced, and I promptly devoured it. What a collection it proved to be.

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John Murray, 2015, paperback, short stories, 182 pages, kindly sent by FMcM

I usually find, and this might just be me, that a collection of short stories can be really, really hard to write about. Firstly, if it is a good collection, you want to talk about every short story as if it was a novel. That after all is one of the wonders of short stories, when they are wonderful they can compete with the longest of tomes because their intense impact can have such a potent punch. Nice alliteration there Simon Savidge, ha. Secondly, collections can have a huge amount of scope. Another thing that makes them so great to read, you can go off here, there and everywhere within a collection. Marvellous. This is indeed the case with An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It though there is one familiar strand in almost every tale, loneliness.

I was lonely all through that summer, although at the time I didn’t realise how lonely. It was only later, looking back after everything was over, when the leaves were gone from the trees and when the dark in close about the library by mid afternoon, and when my work was going well again and I was happy, that I began to see how things had been, and to wonder if I might have been a little ill from it.

In pretty much every tale in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (thank goodness for copy and paste) the narrator of the tale is inherently lonely, even if they might not seem it from their circumstance. A child might be feeling lonely at home as their parents marriage cracks become all the more apparent, as in Dolphin. A man and woman might become lonely strangers in a marriage, as in The Comfort of the Dead, or in a long distance relationship, as in Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty Five Miles. Someone may become lonely and ostracised by their own manners, as in Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague. You get the gist; you can also see that Jessie Greengrass likes a good title, the two combining with most effect in The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut The Whaler, which does what it says on the tin with the addition of a brilliant penguin and albatross. See made you want to read on there didn’t I?

This might have made An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It sound like a rather depressing and difficult, relentlessly lonely, read. Not at all. Where Greengrass makes things anything but is in her settings. Some of these are physical, so tales may take us from one side of the world to the other (though interestingly I always thought I was in cold seasons, even if in potentially warmer settings) but also some of these are time. We have stories from the past, like the title tale, we also have stories from the future such as Winter, 2058. This both showing loneliness has as few boundaries as Jessie Greengrass in her imagination and ability to take the reader anywhere and everywhere.

Yet whilst the settings might be foreign or futuristic, or indeed in the depths and mists of time, the feelings we humans feel and the extraordinary in the ordinary (something long time readers of this blog will know I love) feature heavily. Raw emotion, actually better put, basic/base emotion is always at the heart of Greengrass’ tales.  We have the simple situations of day to day life like the desire to find a new job/our true vocation and a plot for escape in the brilliant All The Other Jobs. I mean come on who hasn’t sat at their desk once or twice and daydreamed of becoming a cooper (yes, I had to look it up too) or tending chickens on a Welsh Island for a while? Ok, maybe I have imagined running a zoo, but you know what I mean. There are also those times of extreme emotions, for example this paragraph in my second most favourite story On Time Travel, which is one of the most vivid depictions of grief I have read.

My father had died very suddenly and it was hard, of course, in all the usual ways, but hard also because we hadn’t ever been a happy family; ever and it was this fact even more than the fact that he was gone which trapped us, me and my mother, in the moment of his passing; and because it seemed so awful that something so obviously terrible might in some ways come as a relief, we couldn’t talk about it and, unable to talk about it, couldn’t talk about anything else either.

Greengrass can turn her hand to pretty much anything. That isn’t to say this is a perfect collection, occasionally I didn’t ‘get a story’ or some were so brief I had to re-read them and ponder them a while and re-read them again, but that can be said of many collections. Overall this is a corking collection that I think looks at life now, regardless of when the story is set, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It may be set in the past but look at how we are treating nature now, Winter, 2058 might be about weird goings on in the future but actually I thought it looked at how we are, or aren’t as I think is more apt to say, dealing with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I started to see these themes again and again, I wanted to go back to the very beginning again.

I do want to mention Winter, 2058 again and give it some special dedication because for me this was like a perfect example a ‘Simon Savidge favourite kind of short story’ – I know a special award indeed. It had absolutely everything I loved wrapped up into a mere 15 pages. It is a tale of loneliness is a very real yet very other world, has hints of fairy tale, folklore, the gothic, supernatural and alien yet is really about displacement. Oh and as I mentioned I think also about the horrors and prevalence of Alzheimer’s, but that could just be me. If I ever edited an anthology of short stories it would go straight in. Worth the cover price alone frankly. I have thought about it so much since, so much.

I was a child when the first intrusion was discovered, stumbled across by a pair of walkers in a clearing in the Forest of Dean. At first, their story was treated lightly. It was midsummer, and what they described sounded so much like a fairy tale: the odd lights and sounds between a stand of beech; the half remembered visions; confusion; and afterwards a kind of stupor, so that they became lost for a day and a night, unable to find their way out of the trees.

As you may have guessed I really, really liked this collection. I think Jessie Greengrass is clearly a very talented writer and I cannot wait to read what she writes next.

Having read The Ecliptic, Physical, Grief is the Thing With Feathers and now this I have no idea how the judges of the STPFDYWOTYA 2016 are going to choose a winner, let alone we shadow judges this Saturday. It is a corking list and you can win all four of the books on it here because I think these are books you really need on your shelves.

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Filed under Jessie Greengrass, John Murray Publishers, Review, Short Stories, Sunday Times Peter Fraser Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Sometimes you just get a gut feeling about a book don’t you? You see it in a bookshop, or hear about it somewhere and just think ‘that is probably going to be the book for me’. That was the case with Eleanor Wasserberg’s debut novel Foxlowe, a book which caught my eye with its cover (a creepy looking big house gets me every time) and then became a must read when I discovered it was about communes. So I promptly asked the publishers if I might snaffle a copy. Yet once it arrived I did that awful thing when you have I crush, I became a bit shy of it (coy some might say; sideways longing glances and smiles) and dared not pick it up in case it wasn’t all I had hoped. Thanks to a booktube buddy read with Jean, Jen, Mercedes and Brittany I finally picked it up.

9780008164089

Fourth Estate, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Tiny red beads came from the lines on my arm. Those soft scars give away like wet paper. There’s a game that helps: footsteps in the dust, twisting to match the old strides without taking any of the skin away from the Spike Walk. Another: name steps all the way to the yellow room end of the Spike Walk. Freya, Toby, Green, Egg, Pet, the Bad. I made it to the final nail and squinted at the arm. Red tears and the lines woollen hot; a crying face. I turned to Freya, her long arms wrapped around herself at the ballroom end of the Walk. She nodded, so I breathed deeper and licked some of the salt and coins taste to make it clean.
Freya spoke. – And back again, Green.

As Foxlowe starts we are thrown headfirst into the world of Green and the realm of the rambling old house of Foxlowe. Green , a young girl whose age we never really know because she doesn’t, we soon learn has done something she shouldn’t and so is undergoing ‘the Spike Walk’ a form of punishment by the commune of Foxlowe’s (self proclaimed, we discover) leading lady, Freya. Seemingly something called ‘the Bad’ from the outside world has worked its way into Green, children being more susceptible, and needs to be exorcised.

From here, through Green’s youthful and rather naive eyes, we are soon show how life within crumbling Foxlowe works; Richard and Freya being two of the Founders who have created various myths, half truths and full on falsehoods to keep both the younger (Green and October, or Toby) and older members (Ellensia, Dylan, Liberty, Pet and Egg) of ‘the Family’ away from the outside world. Green has never questioned the, often unwritten but very much felt, rules and regulations in free spirited Foxlowe, that is until Freya comes home with a new baby, Blue, who Green instantly hates with a jealous vengeance and starts to rebel against. Or has ‘the Bad’ taken her over?

It didn’t take long for Freya to see how I hated new little sister almost from the beginning. It was in the faces I gave her and the way I held her a little too rough. Then she overheard my name for her. I thought it would be the Spike Walk but instead I was Edged. Freya told the Family this one morning by tossing me the burnt part of the bread and they all saw. They all had to look away when I spoke and no one was allowed to touch me. I was alone, edging around the circles the Family made around New Thing. I snatched eye contact and accidental touch, watching and listening, haunting rooms.

After the arrival of Blue into Green’s world Wasserberg starts to turn things up a notch, the initial slightly creepy tension building and becoming more and more uneasy. At the same time the relationship between Freya and Green, who you are never sure if are real mother and daughter or not, starts to deteriorate and Green rebels. Throw in all the questions and hormones of a girl on the cusp of womanhood and you have quite the potent concoction that not even the most skilful of witches could brew up. It is here that Wasserberg then surprises us, as we lead to what we think is the dénouement, she takes us somewhere totally different years after and then asks us to work backwards. Suffice to say I loved this and not many authors can pull that trick off.

I was hooked from the first page (though the prologue did throw me a bit, just crack on after that and you’re fine) until the end, which I have to say absolutely chilled me with its final paragraph. No, I am not spoiling it by saying that, it is just fact and was also something that made me love the book all the more. That said it takes more than a full on body icy dread chilling ending to make a book a success, you have to get there first and Wasserberg had me captivated throughout.

One of the main reasons for this are the twists and turns and mysteries within Foxlowe and its characters, plus the dynamic of the internal world and the external. The other is Green’s narration, which might take you a little while to get into the rhythm of, as she writes with a mixture of hindsight, a child’s eyes and slightly skewed viewpoint. Her naivety and misinformed (or groomed, if we are being honest) mean she spots things that seem normal or minimal to her, yet we read very differently. I bloody loved this, and then there was Freya…

Freya loved rolling dough. She thwacked it onto the bench, pummelling with her fists. I gave up mine, stuck on the bench in stringy clumps, and watched her. A thick line of white ran through her black hair, which she wore twisted up in a high bun. Her long skirt was pulled down over her hips, and above it she had tied her t-shirt in a knot. Silvery lines zigzagged over her skin, around her back.
She caught me with her eyes. In the gloom of the kitchen there wasn’t a fleck of colour in them, so dark they made the whites seem to glow.

I am an absolute glutton for a villain in literature; regular readers will know how much I adore Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, you shouldn’t but you do. Freya was like that only worse, I didn’t adore her but I was grimly mesmerised by her. She is a fascinating character study of what makes a cult leader. As much as she is beguiling at her core she is a scheming, vicious (some of the things she does to the children is appalling and some readers may find deeply upsetting, be warned), manipulative, power hungry monster who uses her body and people’s need for love and acceptance to get what she wants. And she gets worse and Wasserberg’s depiction of how people can be brain washed, at any age, is pretty haunting. I loved to hate her.

As well as some of the bigger elements Wasserberg captivates you with more hidden, subtle and intricate elements. This is all because of her writing; one of the things I liked in particular was how easily I was lead into such a dark book and all its themes, no showing off. For example she doesn’t make a big song and dance of how Foxlowe crumbles at the rate Freya’s relationship with Green does, or how that also links into the crumbling of Freya’s own power and mental stability. It is all just there in the background. Oh and another big favourite things of mine, fairytale and myth are all interwoven within Foxlowe which becomes as big a character as any of the people within it.

At the end of his first week the weather turned cool, and we made a hot dinner. I dipped bread in egg, pushing it under to make it soggy. Freya took the eggshells and smashed them in her fists.
– So witches can’t use them, she said, and winked at me.

I won’t forget Foxlowe for quite some time, and not just because of that ending, which gives me the shivers every time I think of it also because it is one of those books where it’s atmosphere lingers with you. It is an engaging, uncomfortable, gripping and pretty darn chilling story of the power of manipulation and desperation to be loved. It is also a deft exploration of the psychology of brainwashing both for those doing it and those who fall prey to it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; whatever Wasserberg does next I will be rushing to read it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Eleanor Wasserberg, Fourth Estate Books, Review

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

One of the (few) books that I correctly predicted would be longlisted for the Man Booker this year was Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, having read it earlier in the year. It was a book that I had not yet managed to get around to reviewing. The reason? Well, Eileen is a book that is rather like its main protagonist and narrator; complex and puzzling. It is hard to pin down, a book that you really need to let settle, have a think about and then find other people to talk about it with before your final feelings on it come through, which after quite a few months (well seven, I read it in January, oops) they now have.

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Penguin Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by a lovely friend from the USA (also available in here in the UK from Vintage Books)

In what we can only guess is the present day, Eileen Dunlop takes us back to the 1960’s when she was not long past the cusp between girlhood and womanhood. Back then she lived with her neglectful (to put it mildly) father and worked at the local correctional facility for men. She also hints that the time she is reflecting on was also the brief lead up to when she left her hometown, ‘X-ville’ New England, a time when it seems Eileen was frankly pretty much as sick of the town as she was herself.

And back then – this was fifty years ago – I was a prude. Just look at me. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees, thick stockings. I always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go. I wasn’t a girl who turned heads. But there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance. I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst – ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world. In such a state it seemed ridiculous to call attention to myself. I rarely wore jewelry, never perfume, and I didn’t paint my nails. For a while I did wear a ring with a little ruby in it. It had belonged to my mother.

The catalyst for this change soon becomes clear to the reader. After many days dragging by in the dull and nonexistent life in the prison, where she spends most of the time fantasising about what she would like to do to Randy and vice versa, the arrival of a new face stirs things up for Eileen in almost every sense. This arrival, Rebecca, is at once alluring and also to Eileen (a lot like most of the things in her life) utterly repugnant, yet she can’t help being somewhat mesmerized.

In any case, this woman was beautiful and looked vaguely familiar in the way that all beautiful people look familiar. So within thirty seconds I’d decided she must be an idiot, have a brain like a powder puff, be bereft of any depth or darkness, have no interior life whatever. Like Doris Day, this woman must live in a charmed world of fluffy pillows and golden sunshine. So of course I hated her. I’d never come face-to-face with someone so beautiful before in my life.

It is at this point that the reader starts to realise, from the growing clues in Moshfegh’s writing, that something awful this way comes. It is also the point that we start to realise that either Eileen, Rebecca, or possibly both of them, are not quite the sort of girls that they like everyone to think they are. By this point I was of course hooked, especially as I began to realise that, whether Eileen was villain or victim in what was to come, she was a completely unreliable narrator and probably not intentionally. Eileen it seems is playing a slight cat and mouse game as she whispers in your ear with regards to all things truthful. And who doesn’t love that, especially when you have the dreadful foreboding that something truly awful, or several things, is/are going to happen as you read on?

A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness. Over the years I’ve grown to love men for this weakness. I’ve tried to respect them as people, full of feelings, fluctuating and beautiful from day to day. I have listened, soothed, wiped the tears away. But as a young woman in X-ville, I had no idea that other people – men or women – felt things as deeply as I did. I had no compassion for anyone unless his suffering allowed me to indulge in my own. My development was very stunted in this regard.

What that something is I can’t say because I don’t want it to spoil anything for you. I can say that it made my jaw drop because it came completely out of nowhere. In hindsight there were some intricate signs from Moshfegh but at the time it properly knocked my reading senses for six. Which was great, however… Yes, there is a however coming here. It was after this revelation that the whole premise of Eileen as a novel and as a character, became slightly unhinged for me (you can choose if you would like to take that as a pun or not). Let me explain why.

Moshfegh is, without a doubt, a very, very good writer. She likes to play with words and expectations as much as she likes to play with her readers. Great examples of that are the moment she hints she wanted to work in a prison because she was hoping for sexy danger, or the initial focus point for all Eileen’s fantasising being called Randy. There’s lots of these wonderful moments. Moshfegh’s writing is at its most compelling and chilling when she delicately and intricately weaves the most finely spun (by that I mean thinnest, but it is also when she is literally at her finest) of spiders webs around her readers head. This deftness is some of her most powerful writing. It is also when she is at her darkest be it in setting, character or mood which makes the uneasiness it’s most concentrated. There are some sections like below, where a few subtle lines say so more than meets the eye, particularly in the last line.

My daydreams of fingers and tongues and secret rendezvous in the back hallways of Moorehead kept my heart beating, or else I think I would have dropped dead of boredom. Thus, I lived in perpetual fantasy. And like all intelligent young women, I hid my shameful perversions under a façade of prudishness. Of course I did. It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds – look for the cleanest fingernails.

However after the revelations of what happens we seem to go from carefully crafted psychological thriller to balls out freewheeling plot wise and I think this lost me to a degree. Not enough to ruin the book for me or stop me reading or throw it across the room, just enough to make me pause and have the dark gothic spell of Moshfegh’s prose broken for me slightly. And boy was it a wickedly enchanting spell up until that point. I kept thinking of HIghsmith’s Deep Water as I read on.

Bar that slight blip, I think Eileen is a pretty brilliant debut novel. I love dark, gritty, slightly uncomfortable reads and this certainly ticks all of those boxes. It is also an utterly fascinating character portrait looking at how the way we are brought up and treated affects us, as well as what we expect from women and how society views they should behave. I have been watching BBC Three’s brilliant Fleabag recently, which might seem like a random aside, where we also have a lead character who is dark, frank, tragic, slightly sinister and not quite right, yet we can’t quite get enough of her. I will be very excited to see what Moshfegh follows this up with.

Note. A reader of the blog has asked I add a trigger warning. There are some themes of abuse and violence some may find deeply disturbing. Apologies I didn’t think of that.

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Filed under Man Booker, Ottessa Moshfegh, Penguin Books, Review, Vintage Books

Fell – Jenn Ashworth

I have been a fan of Jenn Ashworth’s for quite sometime. Ever since our lovely mutual friend Emma Jane Unsworth popped a copy of A Kind of Intimacy into my hands and said ‘read this’ I have become a huge fan of her words both in her second novel Cold Light and also the stories in the wonderful ghostly collections Curious Tales. So when a proof of her fourth novel, I have skipped the third for now, Fell arrived I was so excited I could pop. I was also nervous, would this live up to how much I had enjoyed the previous two? Fortunately for everyone involved, and for those of you yet to read it, I think that Fell might be the best book I have read by Jenn and also one of the best books that I have read this year.

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Sceptre Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Our?
Our names.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.

As the door of The Sycamores opens for the first time in years, so does Fell with the awakening of two ghosts, Netty and Jack, who used to own the property before (as they soon discover/remember) the house was left to fall to wrack and ruin. It is the return of their daughter Annette that has woken them, a begrudging return after what has seemed like decades and where plants, birds, cracks, damp and various creepy crawlies have taken over. As the ghosts of her parents watch over Annette they soon realise that their daughter is once again troubled (yes once again, well noted I will come back to it soon) and they feel, once again, that they have to protect her in some way. What then starts to unravel is not only the story of why Annette has come home after so long but also how decades before, in 1963, their lives were changed forever when Timothy Richardson became a part of their lives in the most unexpected way.

A Scottish accent. Something soft and well bred about it. A gentle voice, with a smirk to it, as Netty might say.The boy has put his tee-shirtback on, but rolled up the sleeves tight under his armpits. He’s only wearing his swimming trunks and the tee-shirt and there’s something faintly obscene about it, much more than the bare chests of his friends. It’s as if (the refreshing sensation fades along with the boys smile, the heat closing in on him again and giving him trouble marshalling his thoughts properly) he’s wearing the shirt to underline the fact that he isn’t wearing any trousers.

As the story unravels, and do not worry I am not going to give masses away, we soon learn that back in 1963 Netty had discovered she was incredibly ill. Around that time the meet Tim at a swimming pool (well lido near Morecombe Bay, which is a wonderful area to set this book) where not only does he mesmerise Jack visually in some strange way, he also does something strange to his vision which seems unbelievable, he fixes his sight. For it seems Tim has a gift for healing and with Netty being so sick and Jack desperate for help, he soon joins the other boys at their boarding house with the hope of making Netty better. Yet is Tim all that he claims to be? And if he is, is he a fallen angel or a charming devil. Jenn Ashworth beguiles the readers as much as Tim beguiles all he knows and starts to take us on a dark and magical tale from there on wards.

There is honestly so much about Fell that I loved I am going to have to try really hard to be succinct and not waffle on about its brilliance. So where to start? Well there is that fact that it is just beautifully and wonderfully written. Firstly there is the narrative, not a lot of authors could get away with writing a novel through the voice of a collective duo of ghosts a tricky device but impressive if pulled off. Netty and Jack can both go through their memories at the time, both separately and together. They are all seeing and all knowing, yet they also look back with a sense of distance and hindsight looking at the things they did and the consequences of those actions on each other and particularly with Annette as a young girl, the can also travel with Annette in the present and potentially influence the now. It is a clever trick which many an author would fail to build compellingly or believably, Ashworth does both with skill.

Then there is the story, which I have alluded to and is brilliant, where Jenn also manages to make the novel/tale riff off the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Though I won’t say any more on that in case of spoilers, so don’t go and Google it until you have read Fell I just wanted to point out another wonderful factor. However as we all know without great characters and setting a story falls apart, again nothing to worry about here. so don’t go and look it up and Ashworth’s creations Netty, Jack, Annette and Tim (even the enigma is a fully formed if tricksy) are all wonderfully drawn as are the periphery folk around them in the past and in the present; Candy, Maddy, Eve, Tom. The area of Morecombe Bay and Grange-over-Sands is also perfect for this tale. For those of you who have not been this area, once a popular place to recover from illness or have a holiday, is now a slight ghost town, nature is raw and a little dangerous, the sea isn’t really sea and it has a sense of the ‘other’ about it; all of which feeds into the whole feel and gothic sensibility of the book.

Then there are the themes, so many it is again hard not to gush endlessly about how brilliant it all is. You have the question of Timothy’s abilities, are they real or are they not, is it a gift or a curse, can we cure everyone (which is of course still a huge question today) and should we, how far will we go for the ones we love, what will we avoid telling the ones we love because we think it will hurt them, when are hope or denial good and/or bad emotions.

In her coming weeks Netty will look back and try to pinpoint the moment when she first started to believe in Timothy Richardson, a butcher’s apprentice from the city of Edinburgh.

Sickness is clearly one of the main themes of the book and it is one that chimed with me the most. Not just because I’ve recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition, thankfully not terminal and manageable with surgery and painkillers; though I can’t pretend hasn’t caused me some ‘bloody hell life can be unfair’ thoughts, which Ashworth captures wonderfully. But also because I helped care for my Gran when she was terminally ill and as much as it is a gift to be able to look after someone who is unwell, also becomes something of a curse not just because you must watch them decline but also because they can be blooming difficult, and you can totally understand why, and it can be one of the most emotionally gruelling times in all your lives. Again, Jenn captures this all too realistically, yet writes about the intricacies and rawness of all these emotions beautifully and with a sense of compassion and deftness of touch around all that darkness.

Jack glances over the paper. She’s shooting daggers with her eyes. I’m sick and you’re not, and you can go and do what you like and I have to have help to get up out of chairs and I don’t gripe about it. But this small thing. I want. I want it. I want. Sickness has made her selfish. Maybe she’s a bit grateful too. He can put his foot down, which means she can sulk and keep believing that she would have been able to drag herself across the sands if only he’d let her. She can barely get up the stairs these days.

The final theme I will mention is probably the one that has literally haunted, pun intended, me since I have read the book… The themes of haunting. Obviously from the start you have two ghosts narrating it, this is not your average ghost story though, well it is but it is also much more than that. Yes this is a novel about a haunted house, yet it isn’t the kind of ‘crash and jump, things flying around the house’ kind of haunting this is much deeper than that. The house is literally haunted by the memories and events as much as the dead and the living are haunted by them. The idea of haunted ghosts has really stuck with me as has the question that those ghosts bring to Fell; will we always be haunted by what we did or didn’t do in our pasts? It sounds on the surface like a simple question, yet the more you think about it the deeper you have to go inside yourself and your emotions to ponder it. This of course is also the perfect analogy of what Fell as a novel is all about, a darkly magical tale which has many hidden depths. It is quite, quite something and has reminded me that some of the best books we read are those we have to savour slowly and ask ourselves some of the bigger questions. I cannot recommend you read it enough. Don’t rush it, just slowly get lost in it, I promise you it is worth it.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Jenn Ashworth, Review, Sceptre Publishing