Category Archives: Salt Publishing

Some New Ambush – Carys Davies

The first book of the year to me is always an important one. I used to pick them willy nilly and then would have willy nilly reading years, as it were. In the last few years I have got wiser and so now take a bit of time deciding which book to read. I chose Carys Davies’ debut collection Some New Ambush because I hoped it would fit the bill of what I want in the reading year ahead. I want to read corking writing, marvellous stories and things that are a little quirky which might be lesser known. Oh and I really want to read quite a few beloved authors back lists this year too, and last year with The Redemption of Galen Pike Carys immediately was sent into that category. So I opened Some New Ambush and promptly devoured it in a day.

9781844713417

Salt Publishing, 2007, paperback, short stories, 110 pages, bought by myself for myself

It is very difficult to try and categorise Some New Ambush because with every story Carys Davies takes you somewhere totally different. We might be in a bookstore cafe in America, and then off to a small welsh town. We might head to an island where everything is red or we may take a wander in an airport on the outskirts of London. In a similar vein time varies as much as place sometimes we are in a magical land and time; like the island of red in Red Rose, we may be off with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins visiting an asylum; as we do in The Visitors or we could be in the present day in a school possibly just down the road; as with Historia Calamitatum Mearum or we may be in a story that could take place in any time. There is no boundaries to where these stories may lead to, which is wonderful, no story is anything like the others.

There are however some similarities with the stories and some themes. In the latter case, in all fifteen of Carys Davies stories something is lost. What is really, really difficult though to do is try and explain this in a way which will not give anything away as with every tale of Davies’ there is always an element of surprise somewhere and I defy you to be able to see any of them coming. It might be a friendship or it might be hope. So where was I? Oh yet loss and losing things, this seems to be a theme in every one of the tales in Some New Ambush. It might be a friendship or it might be your dry cleaning. It might be a bracelet, it could be a child. It could be love, it could be hope.

I always hoped it wasn’t someone old who took Bobby. He was afraid of old people. He’d look at the yellow whites of their eyes and their ugly teeth and the shiny brown skin on their hands and then push his face into Lily’s skirts and hide. He was afraid of old people and dogs and witches, though he was very fond indeed of fairy tales and I always thought it likely that he was lured away, not with the offer of sweets or a drive in a nice car, but with the promise of a story.

If this sounds all a bit maudlin, fret not for one of the things that I love most about Carys Davies’ writing is that there is always humour within, some of it might be pretty dark but the humour is there all the same. There is also always the sense of the fairy tale and the magical within the stories too, without these ever really being fairy tales, well with the exception of Rose Red I suppose which feels more like a fable. Instead I think Carys leaves in a hint of the magical and more often that not she pays homage to fairy tales, which were really the first short stories, and then twists them in a modern more ‘natural’ way. Tales like Pied Piper, Waking the Princess, Ugly Sister and Gingerbread Boy may have names of fairytales past or nod to them yet the magic that Carys is celebrating really is the everyday and it works wonderfully. Even in other stories like The Captain’s Daughter when you think you are getting a fairy tale or something supernatural a surprise will come along and give you something quite different. Those surprises again, how I love them as they are always better than what you could imagine.

These days he seems worse. He appears frightened now, when I leave the room, a look of startled alarm freezes his features. There are times when we are out in the street when he truly does not seem to know where he is, and if I let go of his arm for two seconds to go and post a letter, or to go and get the Pay & Display sticker for the car, I come back to find him standing next to it, apparently bewildered and afraid, anxiously toeing the gravel with the point of his shoe. One day in the kitchen a while ago he was making one of his Bakewell tarts and he couldn’t remember what an egg was.
Then last Thursday morning, he came downstairs without his hand.

Just as it is hard to talk about any of these stories in depth for fear of spoiling them, as obviously you are all going to go and get your hands on them straight away, it is also very hard to pick favourites when a collection such as this one is so strong. Naturally I loved going to an asylum with Wilkie Collins and (to a lesser extent, ha) Charles Dickens in The Visitors. Opener Hwang is a wonderful tale of two friends regular meeting and bitching about their scary dry cleaner, which soon becomes a very upsetting and then darkly funny tale of revenge. Monday Diary might just break your heart as a boy discusses why his mother calls him a gift from god. Historia Calamitatum Mearum is a tale of a feud between a latin teacher and a technology teacher, which looks at history vs modernisation in a very witty way. Ugly Sister is a tale of two sisters who have become inseperable, now living together in their older years still trying to get men and taking it in turns to win them with a twist you will not see coming and possibly another one after that. Metamorphosis starts as a tale of mild stalking in a library that leads to madness. See I could go on.

That said, Pied Piper did completely blow me away, which is honestly saying something when you love every single story out of a whopping fifteen. A woman who has been unable to have children finds a baby abandoned in the sand dunes on her birthday whilst taking one of her regular trips out to see the sea. As there is no one there and as the baby needs care she takes it. Back in her village everyone, from her husband to her neighbours, each knows the baby isn’t hers and they keep up the pretence for years and then something happens that changes the life of everyone in that village. I can’t say what, or really say much more, but it completely shocked me, broke me and left me unable to do anything except make a strong cup of sweet tea before I could go on. It is an absolutely amazing short story and does in ten pages what some novels don’t manage to achieve in 400.

As you might have guessed I simply adored Some New Ambush. Having read this and The Redemption of Galen Pike there is no dout that Carys Davies is my favourite writer of short stories. She can create a character in a single sentence, build complete worlds in a mere paragraph and create entire lives in mere pages. She is just wonderful. I am only sad there isn’t a new collection on the horizon, though I have heard one is being worked on thank goodness. If you haven’t read her work then please, please, please do. What a start to my reading year, the only worry now is if anything else can live up to this?

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Filed under Books of 2016, Carys Davies, Review, Salt Publishing, Short Stories

The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

I am a thirty three year old man and I ruddy love a fairytale. There I have said it. I think that at the heart of every create story is the spark of a fairytale, the whole thing with fairytales is after all that anything is possible and when you open any book and enter into its world that is the feeling you should have. No, not every story has magic in it but by taking you away somewhere isn’t every story technically creating its own magic, yes even those gory crime novels. Anyway, I have gone a little off topic; suffice to say I love fairytales and so Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Stories has been a book I have meant to read for a very, very long time.

9781907773754

Salt Publishing, 2014, paperback, fiction/fairytales, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The more I loved him, the heavier my heart felt. Until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter with a shotgun pellet, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to.

It is really hard to summarise a collection of tales like The Rental Heart, partly because there are twenty of them and partly because they are all so varied and each one creates its own world so intricately that I want to surmise each one, but that would spoil it for potential future readers so I won’t. What I will say is that they are all in some way about love, lust or loss, or the emotions in-between and around those three states.  They are all also wonderfully magical and escapist and yet when you read them the world they inhabit is not too far from our own there is just the potential and acceptance that magic and bizarre things can happen be they good or be they bad.

Ladies build paper men in the night to fight their loneliness or buy coin operated boys to the envy of others. Young girls dare to find wicked witches and then fall in love with them. Men take finding a father figure too far. Love and lust reach an epiphany at the end of the world. People eat light bulbs. People fall in love but need to buy a new heart each time they do it. These and many other wondrous, puzzling and magical things happen in the worlds that Kirsty Logan so beautifully creates.

Because it is going to end, and everything I have is not enough. I need another soul, another set of guts to feel this. Maybe her body merging with mine will be the grace I need.
In school they taught us about the Big Bang: the universe expanding out from a dense primordial heat. They didn’t tell us that eventually it was all going to contract back again. For a month I’d been planning to tell her that I needed more space, some time to myself. Then they announced that the world was crashing in on our heads, and now all I want is to get inside her.

Logan’s writing is just gorgeous. She has an ability to conjure up so much in a single sentence or two that it is no wonder that these short stories, no matter how short, come with fully formed worlds with pasts, presents and futures (well with the exception of the apocalyptic The Last 3,600 Seconds, though what comes after the end of the world, probably something with Logan). In a single line or two someone can fall apart or fall in love. She smelled of rain and revolution. I fell. I also loved the originality that I found within all the stories of The Rental Heart even if shades of tales before or genres we know are encountered, there is always something different. In the latter case stories that have a steam punk edge, such as Coin-Operated Boys, also have something fresh and vibrant about them.

Many of the stories that I loved the most were ones which in some way feature an original fairytale that then gets Logan-ised and twisted in a new way, generally more gothic yet often modern too. Underskirts is like a tale of a female Bluebeard, which I adored for its gossipy nature and sauce. Tiger Palace is a wonderful riff on Beauty and the Beast which I shall say no more about for fear of spoiling. There are also tales like All The Better To Eat You With and Matryoska that take tales you know and love and spin them a little more, a heady hint of the new with a sprinkling of nostalgia. However Sleeping Beauty is the tale retold that I found the most brilliant (in terms of what it says and its power) and indeed the most disturbing and Logan turns it into a tale of sexual abuse, not many people could craft a tale like Logan does in this one. There are other tales which hold this particularly dark heart,

Daniel first kisses his brother in a town where no one knows them, a no-account place that’s barely even a town, just some buildings clustered around a highway: a smoky bar, an empty motel, a convenience store that only sells candy and condoms and beer. The nearest gas station is twenty miles away. The nearest bus station is fifty.

Yes some of these tales will shock as much as many of them will tantalise and titillate. This leads on to the many themes and layers of all the tales within the collection of The Rental Heart. In many ways it is a collection of very feminist tales (this is not a criticism, but you know me you’ll know that) and the twists that it takes on tales we know tend to highlight either a woman’s power or her vulnerability in all sorts of different ways, as I said there’s twenty tales here so it is hard to wrap them all up easily and I don’t want to. One of the most wonderful ones is Momma Grows A Diamond which looks at girls being flowers until they come of age and turn to jewels, after all a diamond is harder to damage than a flower – as I said, many layers in these stories.

Naturally in conjuncture with that both gender and sexuality are also predominant themes too. Wonderfully, more often than not, you cannot tell the gender of the person telling the tale and so if they fall in love with a woman or man they too could be a woman or a man. Love is just love after all, in all its queerest of ways. Logan celebrates this, hoorah for that!

One tale in particular stands out in this corking collection for me. (There is always one isn’t there, no matter how brilliant a collection.) Una and Coll are not Friends completely and utterly stole my heart. It is the tale of two young people who both stand out, well you would if one of you had antlers and the other had the tail of a tiger, and so people assume that because they are both different they should get on. Well they don’t, at first, and we follow how that relationship builds and turns out. I know, I know, no spoilers but if it doesn’t choke you up or make you beam then there is no hope for you, or heart in you.

Many, many people told me how much I would love The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and they were all completely right. It is one of those collections that I will return to and simply pick a tale at random and know I will be lost with a whole world after a few sentences. It is also a collection that has grown on me more and more since I read it, with certain stories lingering in my mind long after. I am now very eager to get to The Gracekeepers (of which the initial idea is in The Gracekeeper in this collection interestingly) and her new collection A Portable Shelter which I treated myself to earlier this year. Treat yourself to this collection if you haven’t already, it is a collection of wonder and brilliance even at its darkest.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Fairy Tales, Kirsty Logan, Review, Salt Publishing

The Good Son – Paul McVeigh

When the Guardian called for votes for their Not The Booker nominations there were two books I simply had to put forward. One was the brilliant All Involved by Ryan Gattis (as someone had already nominated the equally brilliant A Little Life) and the other was a book with a character that I will never forget, Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son, which stars – there is no other word for it than stars – Mickey Donnelly.

9781784630232

Salt Publishing, 2015, paperback, fiction, 244 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If I told you that you should really read a book set during the Troubles in Ireland which throws in poverty, religion, sexuality and violence, both domestic and political, you would probably look at me in horror, which is why The Good Son is such a brilliant book. It has all of those elements in their unflinching rawness and yet with Mickey’s voice and cheeky sense of humour McVeigh gives us an image of an incredibly difficult and fractured time in some sort of rainbow technicolor whilst with a very black and white viewpoint. It is something I have not experienced before and I thought it was marvellous. It also gives us hope.

I was born the day the Troubles started.
‘Wasn’t I, Ma?’ says me.
‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that. I almost feel sorry for him. I spy a dirty, big love bite on his neck and store this ammunition to defend myself against future attacks.

And so we are straight into the narrative of Mickey Donnelly a young boy growing up in Belfast during a time of much turbulence as he is at that age, just before secondary school, when he is full of questions and hormones… oh and there are all the troubles on going in the background. That might sound throwaway yet to Mickey his main concerns are the fact that his family have no money, his Da is a violent drunk so his Ma and little sister Wee Maggie need protecting, everyone calls him gay and it looks like he won’t be going to the secondary school he dreamed of (which symbolises future escape) with his best friend.

 I think McVeign does many wonderful things with The Good Son and first and foremost of these is the character that he has created with Mickey. I am not a fan of child protagonists in fiction, I tend to find them precocious and a bit too clever (which tends to happen when you can see the authors viewpoint or purpose in their behaviour) for their own good. I adored Mickey. He is funny, rude, antagonistic, kind and hopeful. He is at once wiser than his years, due to some of his experiences at home and in the streets, whilst also often being naive. He thinks he knows everything about the world yet we the reader (as fully fledged adults, well I try) see everything around him in a different light and context. It is a real skill to get this just right and I think McVeigh does this effortlessly. His emotions are contagious too, when he is happy we are jubilant, when he is confused we are concerned, when he is defeated we are distraught.

Sorry, Mammy, I’m always going to be on my own until I get away to America.
‘Somewhere over the rainbow,
Way up high…’
Somewhere over the Atlantic away from our street and everybody in it.

McVeigh excels in the use of light and shade within his writing. As I mentioned with Mickey he uses his joy and his defeat to an incredibly emotive effect with Mickey. McVeigh does this in other ways too, humour being one of them. The Good Son can be wickedly funny which, when the bad things happen, also makes the darker moments all the more so. From one moment we are in a world of the musicals of Doris Day (any book with Doris Day gets a seal of approval from me, as it would have my Gran) to the bullying in the streets or worse the violence which broods in the background throughout.

This device I also found incredibly powerful. Whilst many novels of the Troubles would make them the main focus and give you them in all their rawest and most shocking detail, I think McVeigh gives you something far more clever and intricate. A young lad growing up at the time Mickey does would, as Mickey is, be used to it and so it is not the be all and end all of his thoughts. This of course leads us into a false sense of security so when things like the night time raids or the murder and bombing in the street happen it gives us all the more of a sense of shock, some of these parts of the novel are really harrowing reading. Yet often more striking are the random smaller moments in which we are reminded the streets the kids are playing in are territory of war, I found these truly chilling.

In the shop window, there’s an IRA poster. A man’s face. Eyes starin’ at you, frownin’. A bodyless hand covers his mouth. Loose Talk Costs Lives it says. You have to be careful all the time. Keep your mouth shut. I move and it’s like the eyes follow me, same as the 3D Jesus picture in Aunt Kathleen’s.

It is with this deft approach that McVeigh also looks at subjects such as religion and sexuality. Some authors might be rather heavy handed with their approach to these and whack you around the head with them at any given opportunity. McVeigh lets them bubble and simmer in the background, they become part of the story rather than the reason for it. This is a technique many, many authors should be taking on board. McVeigh also uses this restraint in his prose, no word is wasted, no sentence unplanned – and believe me he is a sucker for a brilliant final sentence in ever chapter that makes you constantly say ‘oh just one more chapter then’.

I could go on and on. I could talk about the wonderful relationship that Mickey has with his mother and sister, the way I felt his brother and father are almost visions of what Mickey’s life might be, how much I loved the sense of unsentimental hope thorough out. See I could go on and on. And I haven’t even hinted at the ending which will leave you lingering on it long after you have finished it. What a tease I am. What I shall say to round up is simply that McVeigh has created something incredibly special with this book and its protagonist.

If you would like to hear more about The Good Son then you can hear Paul McVeigh chatting with me on You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read The Good Son and did you love it, and Mickey, as much as I did?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Paul McVeigh, Review, Salt Publishing

The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies

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

9781907773716

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He Wants – Alison Moore

There are some books that leave you feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. I know it sounds implausible, such a dichotomy of emotions, yet these books are often the ones that leave us feeling the most enriched by the experience. Alison Moore’s He Wants is such a book.

9781907773815

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2014, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Lewis is a man who seems to be stuck in a rut. He is at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age. He goes and looks after his father, Lawrence, at the old people’s home and yet his daughter, Ruth, comes round every morning to look after him and deliver soup that he actually doesn’t want. He has recently retired as his role as an RE (religious education) teacher yet having been widowed sometime a go he has no one to share his retirement with, just time and his own thoughts. He spends most of his days at home apart from when he goes to visit his second favourite pub, and that is probably how he will go on spending it. What Lewis isn’t expecting is a blast from the past, in the form of an old friend Sydney, to turn up one day and Lewis’ comfortable, if boring from the outside, life is shaken up.

As we follow Lewis through his day to day existence, often veering off on one of his nostalgic moments, we build a picture very much of the everyman. It is not that Lewis has not had dreams and desires, or that he has failed to accomplish many of them. It is more that Lewis is a man who has been happy in the village he was brought up in, happy to following his father’s footsteps to be a teacher, happy to fall in love and marry a good woman and just live the life he leads. No matter how conventional. It is not that he is ineffectual, he has just been happy with his lot and has never questioned otherwise. Suddenly seventy or so years have gone by and life has been perfectly fine and good, is that not enough? As he spends his time thinking about the past, the choices he has made, what could of been and also about the future and what may or may not lay ahead, should he have lived life a little more on the edge of his seat, has he wasted time?

When the school recruited a new librarian who was a single lady of Lewis’ age, Lewis became a big reader of whatever classics the library carried. As he returned each of these books at the end of the loan period, he attempted to discuss them with her, but each time, Edie, eyeing the Austen, the Eliot, the Woolf, would say, ‘I haven’t read it. It’s not my sort of thing.’
On their first date, they did not talk about books; they talked about food, what they had or had not eaten in their lives. ‘I’ve never had beef Wellington,’ said Edie. ‘I’ve never had black pudding,’ said Lewis.
When Lewis and Edie had been courting for a year, Lewis’s father asked if he planned to marry Edie. He asked again, many times, over the years, saying to Lewis, ‘What are you waiting for?’ They had been a couple for seven years before Lewis finally got around to proposing. After a three-year engagement, they married in the summer of 1977.

This is where the main theme of the book comes to the fore. All the different versions we have of ‘want’ in our lives. All the things we have wanted in the past, the things we didn’t want but somehow got, the things we wanted to ask for but were too shy or scared, the things we thought we wanted but actually didn’t, what we want for and from others, the things we want to forget, the things we want right now at this moment, the things we want for the future. Moore wonderfully describes all these things as Lewis assesses his life, even by the chapter titles throughout like ‘He does not want soup’, ‘When he was a child, he wanted to go to the moon’, ‘He wants a time machine’. All these thoughts and wants are covered by Moore in under two hundred pages, it is quite marvellous.

Aging and the world moving on around us while we stop and contemplate or just stop full stop, is also another major aspect of the novel. Lewis sees with his own eyes that once Edie died the world just carried on around him and without her, how can that be? As I mentioned before he is also at the end of middle age yet not quite on the cusp of old age, looking after yet being looked after too. Yet what defines old age, do we really have to pop to the shop and only buy beige when we hit a certain birthday? I loved this aspect of the novel which often adds a real sense of emotion, as we see Lawrence’s decline in the home, and yet some hilarious moments as Lewis tries to grapple with the real world.

When the computer is ready, Lewis opens up his email, finding new messages in bold. Someone he knows – a friend of his or someone he’s acquainted with – keeps sending him pictures, but Ruth says he mustn’t open them, he mustn’t look. ‘That’s not a friend,’ she says. One email says he is due thousands of pounds, but there is a link he must click on to claim the money, and he daren’t. ‘Incompetent in love,’ says another. He does not want cheap Viagra or SuperViagra; he does not want bigger, harder, longer-lasting erections. He does not want a nineteen-year-old Russian girl or an Australian virgin who wants to talk. He doesn’t not want a replica Rolex watch or a fake Gucci handbag.

He Wants is also a book which both makes the reader work with it. Moore doesn’t think we are stupid, she wants us to be a part of it all and form our own opinions as we fill in the gaps. The way in which He Wants is constructed is neither linear, nor is it a case of alternating between the present and the past. Each chapter hops skips and jumps between different parts of Lewis’s life until towards the end when we have built up the picture, little clues being handed to us here and there, and can work out where it’s all going? Or do we? As with The Lighthouse you might get a surprise or two as you read on.

It almost seems lazy to compare He Wants with The Lighthouse further, as they are very different novels in many, many ways. Yet Moore’s writing does some of the same marvellous things in both. Firstly the wonderful ‘did I really just read that?’ moments where something really shocking or revealing will happen in the middle of what seems such a pedestrian (which sounds so wrong as the story and writing are anything but pedestrian, but you know what I mean) memory or seemingly insignificant act. We have to read back to believe our eyes. She works wonderfully with the everyday and making it darker and edgier whilst all the more realistic at once. She also might just leave you to go off and work it all out; I will elaborate no further as I do not want to spoil what is just a wonderful and brilliant reading experience.

He Wants will easily be one of my books of the year. Alison Moore’s writing is so deft in so many ways it is hard to try and do it justice, or without spoiling any of the many delights, twists/surprises and ‘did I just actually read that then?’ moments which the novel has in store. So I will reiterate what I said at the start, He Wants left me feeling both completely uplifted and utterly devastated, all at once. It is a perfect example of the sort of book I want to be reading. I loved it.

If you would like to hear more about the book, you can her myself and Alison Moore on this episode of You Wrote The Book. Have you read The Lighthouse or He Wants and if so what did you think? I am very much looking forward to reading Alison’s short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, in the non too distant future.

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2014, Review, Salt Publishing, You Wrote The Book!

Magda – Meike Ziervogel

Two of the biggest powers that books can have are to make us think outside our usual periphery or be a spring board to discovering more about subjects we think we know. Some books can do both, they are a rarity though. Magda, the debut novel from Meike Ziervogel, is one such book which gave me both a different outlook on something I thought I had made my mind up about and left me desperate to find out more when challenged. It is the sort of book where I simply want to write ‘you have to read this book’ and leave it at that so you all do, yet it is also one that is designed to be talked about and the questions it raises be discussed.

Salt Publishing, 2013, paperback, 113 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect from Magda before I read it. I was a little trepidatious, as I would imagine other readers may be, because I knew it was about Magda Goebbels and knowing of her relationship with the Nazi’s, Hitler and, of course, because of what she did to her children.

All these facts flashed through my head, but one thing that I believe strongly is that some books should confront us and make us face the darker aspects of life. After all, if we brush things under the carpet eternally how can we deal with things, change things and most importantly not let certain events repeat in the future. It is questions like that which a book like Magda asks; in this case can we understand a woman who is depicted as the ultimate monster, a Nazi and a child killer?

The first issue I think a book like Magda brings up the fact that there is a lot of stigma, for obvious reasons, towards anything that tries to humanise or explain someone who was a Nazi. There is that worry of ‘what will people think of me if I empathise with a character like that?’ Yet we never think about that when we enter the realms of a crime novel do we? I have read many a novel where I follow a psychopath as they kill at will before, hopefully, they caught. I have enjoyed them but this has never made me question if I am a psychopath. Because the character is completely fictional it is ok, if the character is real and known as a villain then it is a whole different matter. When I discussed Magda with Meike one of the things she said she would worry about having written it was that people might think her a Nazi, just as she did when she wrote of her Grandfather’s in the Guardian. That is how potent and raw the subject still is.

Whilst I don’t think a reader will ever empathise with Magda, I myself didn’t, I do think that you will begin to possibly understand why she might have become the person she did, especially when you come to the ‘speculative’ section which I thought was a brilliant piece of writing in terms of Magda’s possible psychology.  There is a question mark as to Magda’s motives behind joining the Nazi’s but some people joined them because they thought it would end the world problems as they saw them. I don’t agree with what they thought, and what they did it was horrific, yet I found Meike’s novella made me look at her and the Nazi movement from a very different aspect and I admired the bravery Meike has in trying to explain Magda’s story in as unbiased a way as possible. She is never quite a monster nor simply a woman doing what she thought was right, we get something in the middle. Meike fictionally tries to look at the reasoning behind her actions and creates a complex woman who was the product of her emotional and sometimes very difficult past and also the political climate of her country and generation.

Now I must talk about the prose, I do feel for Meike because before anyone (myself included) discusses the prose, characterisations etc invariably they have to defend the book for its subject matter, which isn’t just about the Nazi’s. Anyway, I loved the style in which Meike has written Magda. At 113 pages we don’t get her life story in full, or indeed in chronological order, we get snapshots of Magda’s life, the young girl in the convent, the background behind that, her first marriage and her rise in society leading to meeting Hitler and the events after that.

This is where Meike throws in another masterstroke. Magda is told through three different narratives, interestingly (I have just noticed now) none are from the point of view of Magda herself. We have Magda’s mother, Augusta, who tells of her childhood and how she first came into contact with the Nazi movement and who clearly had a very difficult relationship with her daughter. Plus Magda’s eldest daughter, Helga, who describes the time in the bunker in diary form – reminding me of Anne Frank and then making me think how these two girls found themselves in the most horrendous situations through no fault of their own, that really made me think and was incredibly emotional to read. These narratives highlight Meike’s other main theme in the book, mother and daughter relationships. For the rest of the book we have an omnipresent narrator so we never look at the world quite through Magda’s eyes which I found very interesting, it was as if Meike did need a certain amount of distance from her.

One of the loveliest moments of my life was when Magda came to me and said she wanted to train for domestic service rather than continue studying. I’d had my doubts, you see, that she’d ever be a respectable person, what with her head having been turned, twisted really, round and round and round like in a vice, so that it was perched there on her long thin neck, looking down on everybody, especially her own flesh and blood, her own mother. With those cold… those ice-cold eyes. But he put her back on the straight and narrow, didn’t he?

After initially reading Magda I was hugely impressed by it and thought it a very brave and often uncomfortable tale but one which needs to be so. Since then the book has lingered with me and my admiration of what Meike has done has grown and grown. It has made me ask myself a lot of questions about perceptions and how we look at and deal with history. It has also seen me go off and read other books, such as Laurent Binet’s HHhH (review coming soon), and documentaries and films, such as Downfall, which look at these horrendous events yet with more impartiality. A book which does that is one we should all be reading, so find a copy. It has been one of my reading experiences of the year.

If you would like to hear Meike Ziervogel in discussion with me about Magda then do head here. It is a fascinating discussion even if I say so myself – left me with even more to think about!

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Filed under Books of 2013, Meike Ziervogel, Review, Salt Publishing

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

I really should listen to people more and stop making assumptions so quickly, I really should. One book that has certainly highlighted this recently has been reading Alison Moore’s debut novel ‘The Lighthouse’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. I had assumed that with a lighthouse on the cover it would be about the sea and boats, which it isn’t but I don’t read blurbs so I just assumed it would be. Then I heard it was a ‘walking book’ and as a child who went on too many walking holidays (sorry Gran, I do think of them more fondly now) that put me off too. However Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes raved about it to me when we recorded a Man Booker special of The Readers and now, having finished it, I am kicking myself for having not read it sooner.

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2012, fiction, 184 pages, borrowed from the library

Futh, which I admit I initially found such an unusual name it bothered me to start with and slightly distracted me, is a man who has decided to take himself off on his first holiday alone walking in the German countryside. As we meet him on the ferry we learn that he has recently become separated and in some nostalgic way has done what he and his father did when his mother left and head to Germany for a break of sorts. It is this almost circular and mirroring of the past and the present that we see more and more of as ‘The Lighthouse’ goes on. As Futh walks in the days that follow certain things mainly scents, as he is a chemist who creates artificial scents which I couldn’t help think was inspired by the fact the only thing of his mothers he had was a perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse, remind him of the past and memories start to come back that he can’t quite figure out, yet as the reader we can which I thought Moore had planned rather intricately.

Now I am aware that I have fallen into the trap of making this book sound like it is a ‘walking book’ and actually it is so much more and that is where the second strand of the novel comes from in alternating chapters. Ester is a rather unhappy landlady of a B&B in Germany called Hellhaus (which is German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh comes to stay. Her husband, Bernard, no longer seems interested in her and so finds herself sleeping with single men who stay at the hotel, and who will have her, in a way of getting her husband’s attention. This works but not in the way she hopes, his reaction is of a darker jealousy which cleverly creates a sense of unease and dread in the reader for all concerned.

“In the past, she always used beds she had already changed, but since receiving complaints about the sheets, she makes sure to use rooms not yet cleaned. Or she uses rooms whose occupants are out for the day, brushing off and straightening up the bedding afterwards, and sometimes, while she is there, browsing the contents of drawers and suitcases, picking up perfumes and lipsticks, testing them on herself. If guests ever notice their possessions, these small items, going missing, they rarely say anything.”

Both the characters of Ester and Futh are polar opposites yet they have similarities and are so fascinating they make you read on. She appears from the outside a little cold, sexually dominant and manipulative; you learn how she went for Bernard when she was originally dating his brother etc. Yet really ester is a woman who fell in love with a man who became bored of her and she became bored of her life, she wanted romance and indeed still collects and reads Mills and Boons, the promise they offer consoled with drinking gin during the day. Futh on the other hand is one of those people who seem to amble through life a little bit confused and is often overlooked, misunderstood or finds himself misunderstanding the world around him. I did love the fact that wherever he stays he has to work out an exit of safety, hence why he doesn’t like planes. He is someone who goes under the radar possibly because he is actually a bit boring. It is this ambling nature and of not understanding or being understood which makes the ending of the book all the more horrifying, but I won’t say more on that subject.

“He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios in which his exit is blocked by a fire or a psychopath. This began, he thinks, when he was in his twenties and living in an attic flat. His Aunt Frieda, worrying about stair fires and burglars, gave him a rope ladder. It seems important he should always know a way out.”

Another thing I really admired and found rather enthralling was the circular feel to ‘The Lighthouse’, something which the title seems to allude to right there and indeed the quoted paragraph above does too. Themes of how history repeats itself, with Futh’s mother (also called Angela) leaving his father for being boring, and then his wife does the very same thing. The very walk itself he goes in is circular, the bottle in his pocket is a lighthouse, Esters hotel has the name, the place Futh saw his father hit his mother and ended their relationship was on a walk to a lighthouse etc. Occasionally these fall into symmetries and seem a tad too much, the fact Ester dated one brother then another and Futh’s wife might have had an affair with his estranged step brother, or the fact Futh creates scents and carries an empty bottle of his mothers and Ester collecting perfume bottles seemed one too far but because the book is so, so good I ended up overlooking it, even if it did seem to be one connection that was thrown in for the plot a little.

I think ‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the most accomplished debut novels that I have read in quite some time, and indeed is one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It is a book that says so much and is brimming with themes and ideas in fewer than two hundred pages. It has shades of dark and light, there is some real humour at Futh’s expense making the darker undertones all the darker, the unease build throughout and the ending all the more upsetting. I had to keep re-reading the last few chapters. I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl and am thrilled that the Man Booker judges chose this over some more famous names or I might have missed out.

Who else has read ‘The Lighthouse’ and what did you think? Have you ever been put off a book by its cover and/or what you have assumed about it or thought the subject matter wouldn’t be your thing (I am also thinking of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ here) only to love it and wish you had read it sooner? Oh and you can read Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes thoughts here and also Kim of Reading Matters here as it was Trevor who said I should read it and Kim’s review that made me get this from the library!

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Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2012, Man Booker, Review, Salt Publishing