Category Archives: The Friday project

Rounding Up The Reviews #5; A Trio of Graphic Novels

A series of posts I introduced last year was the ‘Rounding Up The Reviews’ posts because sometimes (particularly this year with judging) you read more books than you have time to write about, or you read some books which you don’t feel you can write 800+ words about. This isn’t to do any of them a disservice, why do I instantly need to feel defensive, because you still want to mention them so a round up post seems the perfect idea. I will have a few of these over the next few weeks and months.

First up are a trio of graphic novels (The Pillbox by David Hughes, The Art of Flying by Antonio Altarriba & Kim, Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson) which I have read over the past few months. Graphic novels are not something I have really been ‘down’ with, yet in the last few years I have read some corkers and so am trying to read much more of them. What I am learning, as you will see below, is that all as with all art forms certain things are my taste and certain things aren’t even though I enjoy them all.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2015, fiction, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Pillbox by David Hughes is a ghost story set on a summer holiday on the British coast. Jack is pretty much left to his own devices with his dog over the summer and on one of his adventures along the shoreline he discovers a pillbox (look out base) used in the Second World War and meets Keith a strange boy who Jack wants to befriend. What follows is a tale both of self discovery in the present and also of abuse and injustice from the past.

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Now I have to say this book still has me pondering what I think of it. In part that is because of the story and in part it is because of the artwork. In terms of story it all feels slightly dreamlike and nightmarish in the fact that it is bonkers (a woolly mammoth turns up occasionally) yet also slightly confusing. If I am being 100% honest it felt a bit like a work in progress which wasn’t quite fully formed. Interestingly I found this reflected in Hughes artwork as some of the pages are half drawn where others are (like above) intricately and beautifully drawn.

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I personally didn’t love the artwork yet I was mesmerised in a slightly haunted way by it, it captured my attention whilst also making me want to look away – a lot like some of the upsetting parts of the book as you read on. I loved how he uses colours around the emotions and feelings going on in the book when no one is speaking though. So I am conflicted between thinking this book wasn’t for me at all, yet also founding it deeply affecting and disturbing and won’t forget it in a hurry. Creepy and odd.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2015, graphic novel, translated by Adrian West, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Art of Flying was originally released in its homeland of Spain in 2009 yet has taken quite some time to translate (by Adrian West) and to come out here in the UK. It is a tricky book to describe as it is not a memoir but more a memoir of Altarriba’s father who committed suicide at the age of 90. Altarriba tries to imagine his father’s life from what he knows of it and in doing so creates the story of a man who grew up in Aragon, a poor town in Spain, who fought in the army during the Civil War and the defected, and on it goes leading up to his death. It is a fascinating story of a man’s life and gives a real insight into some of Spain’s history which I knew very little about.

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There is a but coming though. As wonderful as I thought it was I often felt this really wanted to actually be a novel. There is so much speech and so much scene setting in words that occasionally I felt both like I was being lectured on the history and also not being allowed to let the pictures do their work and Kim’s imagery is stunning. I loved how Kim makes the artwork match the popular comic strips of that time that were fashionable, I also think he does a lot with a palette of black, white and grey’s.

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The overload of text though creates, possibly intentionally, a claustrophobic feeling in the book, along with slight eye strain as the text is sometimes tiny. Subsequently it really slowed me down, which was distracting as there is a sense of adventure and detection in the book I just couldn’t quite get in the rhythm of it. I ended up reading a part; there are four, a day which I found really worked. An interesting read, not quite my cup of tea as I think I would have preferred it either just in text or just in pictures. Lots of people would love this though.

The Friday Project, paperback, 2015, graphic novel, 252 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Last but certainly not least is Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson, which was adapted into the film We Are The Best! which is apparently something of a cult movie. Never Goodnight is the story of three friends over the space of a month (December 1982) in Sweden after they decide to become punks and set up a band. Now I have to say this premise did not thrill me but the imagery appealed and so I gave it a whirl…

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I really enjoyed this. I thought Moodysson created a really intricate and insightful world not only of three young girls (and their friendships, rivalries, first loves and dreams) but also a look into the culture of the time and both the punk movement and where feminism was, or wasn’t as they keep getting called a girl band to their horror, at that time.  There is teenage angst, there is troubled homelife’s, there is a sense of history to it in a weird way, there are also some odd moments that didn’t seem to be relevant to the plot but promoted different life style choices, kind of…

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The artwork really suits the tones of the book as it is simply black and white yet also jovial and cartoonish. I was just charmed by it, all the more so because I didn’t expect to be.

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So that is your lot for now, I will be rounding up some novels in the next few weeks. I hope you liked this quick round up post, as always let me know if you have read any of the books and what your thoughts on them were. I would also love more graphic novel recommendations. You can see the ones I have read so far here (book covers will be reuploaded soon, not sure what has happened there).

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Filed under Antonio Altarriba, Coco Moodysson, David Hughes, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, The Friday project

With a Zero at Its Heart – Charles Lambert

If I was to mention to you a book written in 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words in length then your thoughts may go several ways. Some of you may think it sounds pretentious, some of you may think it sounds too clever and a gimmick, some of you may think it sounds like an author testing their craft and being experimental leading to amazing results. The latter of you would be right, the book I am describing is Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart which I had the pleasure of living with for a while recently and was rather sad to leave.

The Friday Project, paperback, 2014, fiction/non-fiction (you decide), 150 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I can’t decide if With a Zero at Its Heart is a novel or a memoir. I can’t decide if it matters. I have decided that with each chapter being made up of ten concise short bursts of recollection around a theme that it lingers somewhere delightfully between the two. I have also decided it is going to be quite a mission to do it justice and explain just how wonderfully it evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it.

What is so clever about With a Zero at Its Heart is the way that the novel is constructed. I don’t just mean the 24 chapters with 10 paragraphs all of 120 characters, though this makes for a very condensed work and intensifies the gamut of emotions (joy, sorrow, love, loss, the works) throughout. Initially because every paragraph in every themed chapter is from a different point in the narrator/authors life you worry that you are disconnected. Soon you feel completely opposite as the more you read the more you connect these snippets and short stories from a life into the wider whole story. For example we follow, on and off, the huge story that is the experience of the death of his parents, we also follow smaller stories like a bunch of cleaned bottles which clearly are a vivid part of his memory and have a tale to tell. There is something joyous in the celebration and companionship of the bigger and smaller stories all interweaving.

He’s waiting for his father to get home, standing on the sofa beside the bay window that looks out onto the street. When the car comes round the corner he waves and jumps up and down. His father drives past the window and beneath the arch that leads into the yard, then storms into the house. He’s furious. He walks across the room and grabs the arm of his son, who’s still on the sofa, and pulls him off until the boy is half-standing, half-crouching on the floor. His father slaps him round the back of the head. By the time his mother comes in they’re both shaking. That sofa’s new, his father says. He must think I’m made of money.

It is in a way a collection of 240, I think I have done the maths right there, moments that in themselves are a small story and world within the bigger universe of a person’s memory. Here also the themes in each chapter come in to play. The titles are wonderful, with a sense of the serious and the fun, like ‘Language or Death and Cucumbers’, ‘Money Or Brown Sauce Sandwiches’ or ‘Correspondence or Coterminous with the Cat’. Yet what is fascinating is that as we read about subject like death, money, sex, and the body we see how the relevance of those words and indeed those objects change as his life progresses. The first paragraph/memory/story being the earliest and then they come nearer to the future.

It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. As I mentioned the condensing of it has a real intensity which will sit with you throughout. It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.

His favourite aunt gives him a typewriter. The first thing he writes is a story about people who gather in a room above a shop to invoke the devil. When they hear the clatter of cloven hooves on the stairs the story ends, but the typewriter continues to tap out words, and then paragraphs, and then pages until the floor is covered. He picks them up and places them in a box as fast as they come, and then a second box, and then a third. There is no end to it. I am nothing more than a channel, he whispers to himself, and the typewriter pauses for a moment and then, on a new sheet, types the word Possession.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved With a Zero at Its Heart. I found it deeply touching and moving in its subject and prose, and also exciting for its form. It is one of those wonderful books which tests you slightly as a reader, plays with you (in a good way) and then grabs hold of you and takes you over. It is a relatively short book yet one that I was reading both in gulps and then having a break to let all the stories settle and the bigger picture slowly but surely form. It is in essence the story of a life in 24 chapters and is quite unlike anything I have read before. Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.

I am definitely going to have to head to more of Charles Lambert’s back catalogue as it is rare that an author can write a book with such an unusual form and make something so emotive and compelling. The last time I came across such books were Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the slightly shorter – in all senses – and teeny bit more gimmicky (if I am being honest, though I liked it a lot)  The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan. I have to say though, Lambert’s has a much heftier emotional punch than either, and you know how much I love Mr Rhodes! Have any of you read any of Charles Lambert’s novels and if so which should I head to next? Which other original and ‘experimental’ books have you tried and been rather bowled over by and why?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Charles Lambert, Review, The Friday project

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I am a huge fan of the Fiction Uncovered prize. Any initiative that promotes books I am likely to get behind, what I particularly love about Fiction Uncovered though is that it aims to promote marvellous books by British authors that for some unknown reason haven’t had the coverage or exposure that they should. Oh and if that wasn’t enough, so far, I have yet to meet a Fiction Uncovered title I haven’t liked. Niven Govinden’s ‘Black Bread White Beer’ (which has also been longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize, though I didn’t know this at the time of reading it) was one of the titles I had been meaning to read for a while and so popped straight on the bedside table.

The Friday Project, 2013, paperback, fiction, 183 pages, sent by Fiction Uncovered & the publisher

‘Black Bread White Beer’ is a novel set within a single day. As it opens Amal, our protagonist and our eyes and opinions, is sat in a park contemplating nothing and everything all at once. His wife Claud is in hospital after having a miscarriage and Amal is feeling at a loss with the world and with his marriage. Terrible personal events change the way we think and our perspective on life and it is this situation Amal and Claud find themselves in as they try and cope with what has happened and each other’s reactions, both visual and hidden, to it.

What I most admired about ‘Black Beer White Bread’ was Govinden’s ability to encapsulate so much into a relatively short novel, and so deftly and beautifully. Throughout the novel Amal and Claud’s marriage is revealed and we are often reminded that we don’t always like the people that we love all the time and that we don’t always marry the people that we think we have. Marriage can change you (take it from one who knows) and the other person and despite all those fairytales we are told they don’t always mean a happy ever after. Ladybird Books and Disney forget to remind people of the everyday minutiae that follow any honeymoon period, Govinden doesn’t.  What happens when the sex wears off or becomes a perfunctory act? What follows then?

Govinden wonderfully, and heartbreakingly, also looks at the fact that no matter how well we know a person we never really know what they are thinking and never can. As Amal arrives to discover that Claud is waiting in the reception having discharged herself he is both furious at himself, for not having been there earlier ready to protect her, and also at Claud for having done so and therefore excluding him from hearing what the doctors said as if Amal himself doesn’t matter. The couple are not only undergoing a time of great tension, they are at odds with each other – and then Claud announces they are going to see her mother and father, who they mustn’t tell. The word ‘awkward’ doesn’t begin to cover the car journey there or what unravels on their arrival.

As if not content at all that fodder ‘Black Bread White Beer’ also looks at other themes. As we meet Claud’s parents, and indeed on the way as we get flashbacks throughout the couple’s relationship, divides between Amal and Claud’s backgrounds. Class; Claud’s family being rather well to do middle and Amal’s working class backgrounds, religion; Amal’s conversation – to the horror of his family – to Claud’s lax Catholicism, race; involving an incident in a tea shop and lifestyle; the divide between urban and countryside, are all looked at. It is also the first book I have read that deals with the pressures that I think befalls people in their thirties (and as I near thirty two I have some notion of these) and the expectation of what they ‘should be doing’ by that age.

Some books, especially the more compact ones, would struggle with all these themes (oh I forgot to throw in the theme of ‘blame’) or make them all melodramatic and give as much ‘show’ as they would ‘tell’ but not in the case of ‘Black Bread White Beer’. Every word and sparse sentence is made to do its work. Every character in this book lives and breathes, each one is flawed and (on more than one occasion) rather unlikeable yet that is what makes them so interesting to read about and, dependent on how the words in books enter your brain, watch.  It is a book that looks at humans, their hopes, dreams, foibles and dark thoughts and heads not to the black and white, as the title would suggest, but the grey areas in between. Highly recommended reading.

Note: You can also hear Niven in conversation with me about ‘Black Bread White Beer’ and more on this episode of You Wrote The Book.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Niven Govinden, Review, The Friday project