Category Archives: William Heinemann Books

A Line Made By Walking – Sara Baume

This week I have had a small break in my Costa submissions reading due to some logistics and so could read what I fancied for five days. I can’t really talk too much about Costa and how it works and the like I don’t think, though I am hoping to talk about some of the wonderful books which may not make our shortlist later in the year somehow, we will see. Anyway, I had the freedom to pick up anything I liked and so I went for A Line Made By Walking which has been calling me for a while partly because it has a fox on the cover and partly because it was on the shortlist for The Goldsmith’s Prize which celebrates daring writing and ‘fiction at its most novel’. Or as I see it quirky books that push the boundaries of writing and prose in some way, I was just in the mood for quirky and so in I went.

William Heinemann, hardback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Walt Disney lied to me. The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience. Most days I make it too dark without anybody seeing me at all. Or at least anybody human.
I’ve been here in my grandmother’s bungalow a full three weeks now. All on my own. Except for the creatures.

Frankie, a young woman in her mid-twenties has left the big city for the safety of her familial homeland. However rather than live with her parents she has ended up temporarily staying in her recently deceased grandmothers house where in a mixture of depression and general lethargy towards life she spends slightly less time lying on the carpet pondering anything and everything than she did in the bright lights. Her mind wanders from items on the news (the Malaysian plane that disappeared), the paintings and sculptures she learnt about as she studied art and also nature, from deranged penguins who send themselves on suicide missions to the animals bouncing around at the end of the garden… or even some of the dead ones all whilst she tries to work out what everything means and where she fits in with it.

You might be thinking that this is really depressing and bleak, a pretentious novel about someone’s quarter life crisis or simply that this sounds really wanky; especially when I add that each of the dead animals becomes a chapter title in the book as well as being included as a slightly macabre image for you to ponder between a pair of paragraphs. If I told you Frankie tests herself on subjects dealt with by art, possibly to test her own feelings around those themes herself, from goldfish (Works about Goldfish, I test myself; I think and think. I can’t come up with a single one.) to death, then you might think this was even more pretentious twaddle. Yet she does. In many other authors hands this book would have annoyed the hell out of me by page twenty but under the creativity and instruction of Sara Baume I absolutely bloody loved this book.

I think one of the initial things that warmed me to the book so much was how relatable Frankie is as a character. Okay sometimes you do want to tell her to get a grip but there were so many times reading this book where I thought ‘ooh I have felt that’. Yes, once or twice in my life I have simply laid on a carpet for a few hours when I could have been doing something spectacular, or even just proactive, and thought about nothing much. Yes, there have been times when going to the supermarket simply feels like a hurdle and frankly you don’t want to make a meal for one you just want to curl up in bed with a chocolate bar (in fact those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I still occasionally fall asleep with a chocolate bar on special drunken occasions, but I am a grown-up I am allowed, don’t judge me). Frankie does all these things as she goes through those first awkward stages of being fully independent, sometimes the first try or two don’t work out. You have to start again. Oh, and something they forget to tell you at school is that sometimes being an adult is shit.

There was a Lidl a few streets away but I hated Lidl; it reminded me of the dole queue, only with vegetables. I’d pick up a basket from the doorway of the posh one and drift the aisles. I’d stand perfectly still and stare at an item for an uncomfortable length of time. Several other customers would come and go in the minutes it took me to remember whether I had any honey left, whether I prefer my tuna in oil or brine, whether or not I am able to tolerate wheat. Eventually I’d make it to the checkouts with a few random products sliding from side to side in my basket, and then at home again I’d lie on my floor for a couple of hours before going to bed with a bar of chocolate – something slightly revolting like a Double Decker or a Toffee Crisp – because only the slightly revolting chocolate bars were evocative of childhood.

Yet adulthood and that phase between being mildly independent to fully independent is actually just the first layer of Frankie’s situation, not to make her sound like an onion. It becomes clear as we read on that Frankie is suffering from some kind of depression. This isn’t just someone being a bit lazy and over dramatic as we initially think, though often these moments add a dark bittersweet comedy often without feeling at the expense of anyone who is going through this themselves. This is someone who is lost, lonely, overly worried at life and not quite able to communicate with those around her in the way that she would like, in fact often she can’t even see when other people are trying to reach out to her, particularly her parents.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘How are you, then? Your mother’s woeful fucking worried.’
My father doesn’t really want to talk about my feelings. That would be excruciating for both of us. He only wants me to tell him that I am okay, so he can return to my mother and tell her there is no need to worry.
‘I’m okay,’ I say. ‘There’s no need to worry.’

Somewhat unintentionally though, once away from the city and indeed her family and taking her loneliness to an extreme two things start to help her start sorting all the things going on in her mind. The first is nature, as I mentioned alive and dead which on the one hand sends her often to look at moments in her childhood which seem minimal but have actually had a more profound (or rippling) effect than would first seem and make so much sense in the context of the relationships she has in her adult life. Oh how we are formed by those, well, informative years. Cliched but so true.

When I was little I had a friend called Georgina who lived a quarter mile up the road. For her sixth birthday, she got a white rabbit and named it Snowball. For roughly a fortnight, Snowball lived in a pretty timer hutch on the back lawn, fortressed by a wire mess run. Then one morning, Georgina went out to find a jagged hole in the mesh and the rabbit gone. Her mother told her this wasn’t the horrific tragedy it appeared; Snowball had simply made the decision to go and live in the fields with her wild friends instead. Georgina passed this story on to me in the playground, and I passed it on to my sister, and she laughed and declared it a load of crap.
Now it seems she was wrong to be so cynical so young.

As she discovers several deceased animals she starts her own project to photograph those she finds dead, no animals are allowed to be killed by herself (though there is one heart breaking section of the book where she does have to and is a hugely emotional moment for her – and the reader – but is written utterly beautifully and is also a kind of catalyst for her) and start her own kind of artistic project. It also helps her deal with grief and see things at more of a distance/in clearer focus through a lense. Art is also something which she uses to ‘test herself’ as she tries to look at art when it depicts an item, feeling or situation that helps her to analyse herself. Two in particular I think relate to and reflect upon varying states of her feelings…

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Crows, 1980… An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking. A murder of crows between the stalks and the sky as though they are departing or have just been disturbed.

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass.

Again, this should have put me off as books about art do as much for me about books about music. Bar a few exceptions (Jessie Burton’s The Muse is one which I really must review) I find it very difficult to conjure a painting just like I can’t conjure music for the written word, yet here with Baume’s prose and Frankie’s outlook and the way she analyses these works I oddly could. It shouldn’t have worked but it did and it has – though this could also be partly due to becoming a Tate member as well a recent trip to the Guggenheim in Bilbao wandering galleries on my own– made me think about art in a way that I don’t often and one which is summed up beautifully in the book. Even still, art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.

I could go on about some smaller but equally brilliant parts of the book; how well it deals with loneliness and feeling lost, the mother and daughter relationship and its complexities and unspoken moments, the way Baume looks at the news and how much fear and worry it can add to our lives, the sense of worry and slight dread you feel for Frankie and the completely unexpected and yet so right ending, the random facts Frankie learns that mean so much without you realising and I will also be using in conversations in the future, etc., etc. I should really wrap this up though…

So, I shall just end this by saying that I urge you to read A Line Made By Walking. It was a risky pick when my brain was somewhat frazzled and it is quite out of my comfort zone in terms of topics but I loved it, possibly all the more for executing it so well and making me think so much. I will certainly be heading to Baume’s debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither in the future, as well as some of the other Goldsmiths Prize 2017 shortlist. It has also reminded me how I need to try more quirky/novel books, so do get recommending me some.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sarah Baume, The Goldsmiths Prize, William Heinemann Books

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff

I mentioned a week or so ago that I have decided to try and get involved, unofficially, with the Tournament of Books this year. The title, and indeed the author, that I have heard the most positive murmurs about both her in the UK and when I was in the US was Lauren Groff and Fates and Furies. I knew nothing other than the fact that lots of people I trust love her writing and this book and so I went into it completely blind with no idea of what to expect from the plot or the prose which can sometimes be the best way in. What unfolded was a book which I enjoyed very much indeed and has grown on me all the more since I read it.

9781785150142

One of the things that has always bothered me most, and left me with some sleepless nights, is the fact that you can never really know exactly what someone else is thinking ever. Be it your family, friends or your partner. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel that looks at this conundrum thorough both sets of eyes in a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde seem like the perfect couple, in fact when they meet in their early twenties at a party everyone looks on as two of the most beautiful people first set eyes on each other and Lotto proposes on the spot. They soon become the envy of their friends, she the mysterious intellect who no one really knows and he the well known promising actor and loaded lothario who pretty much sleeps with whoever he wishes.

Despite many people, including their closest friends, thinking that this marriage will end before it has even started Lotto and Mathilde create a marriage that not only lasts after the initial honeymoon period but can weather any storm be it disinheritance, poverty, depression, unemployment you name it. Mathilde has tamed Lotto; Lotto has captured the mystery that is Mathilde. This is the version we are given in the first half of the book as we see the relationship through the eyes of Lotto, along with the history of his life up to the point he meet Mathilde. The question is will his perception be the same as Mathilde’s as we switch to her point of view in the second half, what secrets (good and bad) do they have from each other; do they really know each other?

He touched her hand. He bent down on one knee and shouted up, “Marry me!” And she didn’t know what to do; she laughed and looked down at him, and said “No!”
In the story he told of this – spun at so many parties, so many dinners, she listening with her smile, her head cocked, laughing slightly – she said, “Sure.” She never corrected him, not once. Why not let him live with his illusion? It made him happy. She loved making him happy. Sure! It wasn’t true, not for another two weeks when she would marry him, but it did no harm.

I thought Fates and Furies was a fascinating read for many reasons; the problem is how to tell you about them all without giving anything away. Often with a story told from two sides you feel that the author is with one character more than the other, or one character is the good one and the other will be the bad. Come on, it’s true. Not so with Fates and Furies as we discover both characters are flawed, both have faults and flaws as they do generosity and kindness, both come off the page fully formed, both are often oblivious to little things going on with the other, both are equals in the eye of the author and therefore the reader. Groff then treats us readers into hear both sides and so feeling a mixture of spectator/voyeur, confident and accomplice to everything that follows. You also feel at once clever, shocked and emotionally torn when you figure everything out just when Groff wants you to. All this I found particularly refreshing and rewarding reading.

I also think that whilst the tale of the secrets of a marriage is nothing new, the way that Groff deals with it all is from a new stance. At one point you very much feel that Groff gives you her thoughts on fiction and what she wants to do with it through Mathilde. She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off. I won’t say it was quite like a bomb, however the way in which Groff delivers Fates and Furies is quite unusual, and you just have to work at it sometimes. This is no bad thing and actually I think this is why it has stayed with me and grown on me since.

Sometimes the perspective of the narrative will shift in Lotto or Mathilde’s narrative, not to the other person in the marriage but to an ominous third person or indeed one of their many ‘friends’ or relatives, it might only be for a sentence or a paragraph and it’s done with such a deft sleight of hand you don’t notice until a little while after. As Lotto becomes a famous playwright some of the sections are summed up with the title of the play, an excerpt of it, a review or glimpse of the writing process which mirrors or says something about the place the marriage is at. In one part of the book we jump from month to month or year to year from party to party to get a glimpse of where Lotto, Mathilde and those around them are at. Nothing is done randomly here, Groff always has a reason, and you just don’t instantly see it. You could string together the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.

Not only is Groff quite something stylistically, which makes the book a challenge but over all a joy to read, her prose is wonderful. In a sentence she can set the scene within a few words or lines. Sunset. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto. She also has an incredible ability to make things so vivid so effortlessly that sometime you forget that the memories are of the characters rather than your own for the emotions they evoke. The place smelled of her, talcum and roses. Dust a soft gray skin over the chintz and Lladro. Also mildew, the sea’s armpit stink.

Another aspect that I thought was great was that fairytale and myth, in particular Greek tragedy, play a huge part in Fates and Furies resonating and rippling through the book. Mermaids, witches and goblins are often referenced or show up in some way, soon turning out to be nothing magical at all, linking into the whole idea of facades and the fantasies we build in our heads versus the reality, just as Lotto and Mathilde seem the perfect fairytale romance. The Greek tragedy elements (apt as I will be surrounded by Greek ruins when this goes live) appear both in the plays that Lotto chooses to adapt and then Mathilde’s storyline as it unfolds, hints of which lie in the title of the novel. I loved all this; some might even say I revelled in it.

There were a few niggles along the way that I should mention. I found the first half of the book overly long, whilst I understood why after finishing the novel I actually think Lotto’s story could have been a third of the book and Mathilde’s two thirds and remained just as visceral, intricate and poignant when all becomes clear. Two literary tropes which I am never keen on, even with writing as wonderful as Groff’s, touched a slight nerve; the writing about the cultural world and theatre and art was a tad overegged as was the poor rich boy who fails then becomes famous, but these get on my nerves as tropes in general and in the hands of other authors would have severely ticked me off rather than slightly bothering me. Also on occasion the switch in style would throw me, only to then reward me a little later on so I soon forgave it. Oh and I could have done with a little more fury towards the end, only a sprinkling more in the direction of one character who you will undoubtedly love to hate as much as I did. These were minor moments though within a fantastically large and larger than life (and all the better for being both) novel.

I would highly recommend Fates and Furies. It is a novel that intricately and intelligently looks at how you can only hazard a guess at what people are thinking or only hope that those closest to you are telling you what they really feel or are experiencing in their heads/lives and yet you’ll never really know. The story and characters are compelling, the style exciting, the prose second to none and the questions around secrets, when they are bad and when they work for the good, really thought provoking. It will also punch you in your emotional weak points, make you laugh and remind you to cherish what you have and be honest with those you love.

See, it just keeps on growing and growing on me the more I think about it. I have to hunt down Lauren Groff’s other books, any suggestions on where to start next? I would also love your thoughts on Fates and Furies if, or once, you have read it.

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Filed under Lauren Groff, Review, William Heinemann Books

Jawbone Lake – Ray Robinson

Finally, time to catch up with writing some reviews of some of the books I have managed to get through while work has been bonkers. I thought I would start with one of the books I read at the beginning of the year and one of the releases in 2014 I was also most looking forward to, Jawbone Lake by Ray Robinson. Having been a huge fan of Forgetting Zoe I was looking forward to entering another possibly rather dark world of Robinson’s creation, even more so as I knew a lot of it was set in the Peak District which is my home turf and where I spent more of last year than I did at my new adoptive home in Liverpool.

William Heinemann, hardback, 2014, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Joe Arms receives a call over New Year and learns that his father, CJ, has been in some kind of accident. On leaving London and returning to the Ravenstor in the Peak District he finds that his father somehow lost control driving and veered off a bridge into the frozen lake nicknamed ‘Jawbone Lake’. Unbeknownst to Joe, but not to the reader, local girl Rabbit witnessed the incident on a stroll and saw not only that it wasn’t an accident but indeed that there was a man there who has seen her. Here the strands spilt very cleverly as we follow Joe as he discovers more about his father’s past as things come to light after his death and also follow Rabbit as she copes with and tries to forget everything she has seen.

The term ‘literary thriller’ seems to be a fairly new one and is one which has been used by those who have read Jawbone Lake and I am about to join them. For the first hundred or so pages, clichéd as I know this will sound, I simply could not stop reading the book (I was on a train to London and the two hours flew by) as I was completely hooked by both the prose and the mystery at the books heart. I found the relationship between Joe and CJ, which becomes established by small glimpses into the past really interesting to watch unravel. It was the same with Rabbits situation, which I don’t want to give too much away of, with her aunt and after a dark time in her recent past plus all she has to deal with. They are also interesting lead characters with interesting ticks and quirks, for example Joe with his desertion of the north and Rabbit with her obsession with numbers as a coping mechanism.

He had become The Man Who Stared Out of Windows, a bored, thirty-five-year-old software designer, watching doughy faced office workers making their way between the tall buildings outside, envisaging what their lives were like, wondering if theirs could possibly be as thankless as his.

To make this as fair a review as possible I do have to admit that I did have one issue with the book, not to the point of it being ruined or not liking it, yet it is one that probably wouldn’t bother many of you it’s just something I don’t like as a subject in books. Without giving any spoilers away I will say that I have an issue with any books, thrillers or otherwise, that go into any of these elements (so which this one does you will have to read and find out, clever eh?) gangsters, hit men, drug dealing, money laundering or business fraud. They simply don’t do anything for me and illicit a big groan before I invariably put the book down.

In all fairness when one or two of any of these possible outcomes (see, still not giving anything away) came up I did feel slightly disappointed yet to Ray’s credit I carried on in ground that would normally completely turn me off. This was because of a) his writing and b) the world he had created in the Peak District which for me was where the heart of the story lay, and where my interest as a reader was focused because they were bloody marvellous.

He went over to the window and watched the snow fleck the valley. In the distance, the white peak of High Tor looked vivid in the fading light. Snow lay heavy across the rectangles of higgledy-piggledy rooftops descending into the valley below. Cars progressed beneath the orange stars of street lights, familiar constellations snaking between the mass of hill, tor, fell.

Being from that area I am sure that knowing the area makes me bond with a book all the more yet (as when I read Edward Hogan’s wonderful The Hunger Trace) Robinson really captures the atmosphere of the Peak District which is at once incredibly beautiful and also dangerous and ominous. This ripples through the book and often informs the mood over the characters even if they don’t know it. I loved all this. There is a modern gothic nature to all of this, along with an earthy element that works wonders for me and I think Robinson is brilliant at. I also loved tales of the uninhabited quarries and underwater villages (both real, both part of the landscapes history and folk lore) that he picked up on. More than that I loved the life of the people. I could have read endless pages with Rabbit at work in the ice-cream factory and trips ‘down t’pub’. There was something so real about it all that it chimed with me.

Jawbone Lake nicely picks up on the term ‘it’s grim up north’ (or ‘oop north’ as we Derbyshire folk might say) and delivers a deliciously dark literary thriller overall. Personally I could have done without the trips to Spain and to Hastings as it is in Derbyshire where the magic of the prose, characters and atmosphere really meet. It has reminded me that I really need to get to Robinson’s back list of books while I await whatever he comes up with next.

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Filed under Ray Robinson, Review, William Heinemann Books

The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan

In the last few years I have become increasingly aware that blurbs can be a funny thing, sometimes they exaggerate and occasionally they just completely portray a different story from the book you actually read (though to be fair this could be the way in which you read the blurb I suppose). So in the last few years I have given up in the main. However there are times when a list of books is released and you have to find out more about the individual titles, this was the case when I first heard of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel ‘The Panopticon’ when it was announced as one of the Waterstones 11 last year. It sounded quite unlike any novel I had heard of with a fifteen year old ‘counter-culture outlaw’ who finds herself in The Panopticon escaping from ‘the experiment’. When we chose the title for The Readers Book Club this month I was looking forward to trying my hand at what promised to be my first delving into a sci-fi dystopian novel in some time, only it’s not a sci-fi dystopian novel, it is something quite different from that.

**** William Heinemann, hardback, 2012, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At fifteen years of age Anais Hendricks is someone who society has already given up on. As we meet her she has finally been found by the police who swiftly take her to The Panopticon, a home for severe young offenders, where she arrives covered in blood and with the suspicion of having put a policewoman into a coma.

From here we learn more about her current situation, her past home which may have lead her into the world of drugs, underage sex and crime (though many believe she is simply bad through and through, no further explanation needed). We also learn how Anais believes that she is being watched by ‘the experiment’, faceless beings who look human yet have no noses and remain nondescript, who she believes created her on a petri-dish just to see how many awful things a human can undertake.

Jenni Fagan asks a lot from her reader from the start of ‘The Panopticon’– and in doing so takes a lot of risks. The book is filled with swearing, violence, drug taking and underage sex from pretty early on (and it gets darker from here on in). You also find yourself, or this reader did anyway, not quite sure if you like Anais and if in fact she might just be a bad person through and through. Yet Fagan’s gamble pays off if you bear with it, a few chapters in and not only did I like and empathise with Anais but I enjoyed spending time with her. I found one minute she would make me laugh, then say something which would almost break your heart.

“…Also, there is the second time that you have stolen a minibus from outside Rowntree High School, but this time you,’ the woman scrolls her pen down the report in front of her, ‘drove it into a wall?’
‘I drove it intae the wall both times.’
‘Something was different the second time, Miss Hendricks?’
She raises her eyebrows, stops, like she is asking a pub-quiz question. The other three panel members look to see what I’m gonnae say.
‘The second time it was on fire,’ I respond after a minute.
‘Correct.’
Brilliant. A correct answer. What do I win? The woman’s running her eye up and down the charges again, looking for something. I hate. This chair. Their faces. That shite gold clock on the wall.”

She is a real conundrum. One moment she dreams of a quite life in Paris, the next she wants to kick someone’s head in, one minute she is reading a book about the supernatural with a naivety that is younger than her years, the next she is telling you about her last drug binge. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator and yet you cannot help but warm to her. Fagan plays a top trump here with the fact that Anais lets no-one into her life, apart from us the readers, which I found a really cleverly written aspect of the book.

 “Open my book, it’s mostly vampire stories just now, before that it was witches. I could handle being a vampire, an evil one with mansions everywhere. I’d fly, and read minds, and drink blood, until I could hear wee bats being born right across the other side of the world. I hear other people’s thoughts when I’m tripping, ay. I dinnae really know if it is thoughts actually, maybe it’s just voices. They urnay my thoughts – I know that much. It’s like tuning into a radio frequency that’s always there, but when you’re tripping you cannae tune it back out. I get voices in my head that urnay mine, and I see faces no-one else sees, but mostly it’s just when I am tripping, so I mustn’t be totally mental in the head yet.”

So what of ‘the experiment’, because after all this was what had intrigued me so much about the book and what I was hoping to be delved into. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t in the book as much as I was expecting or indeed would have liked. In fact if it hadn’t been for Anais, her narrative and her story, the book probably would have really disappointed me a little bit. Occasionally a sense of these mysterious men and the plan that Anais thinks they have for her appear on the periphery or are referred to, along with the rumour that Anais’ mother was only seen once smashing through a window of an asylum – where she promptly gave birth and escaped again – on a winged cat, yet I thought Fagan could have gotten away with doing it a lot more, making the reader question Anais’ reality and sense of reliability, even more.*

 “I dinnae say I’ll volunteer to help some old lady with her shopping, and her cleaning, and if I’m really fucking lucky she’ll take me under her wing and get tae like me and feed me apple pie and gin – and tell me her stories about the good old days. Those urnay the things I say.”

 As I mentioned, had Anais and her story not been the whole story, and therefore what made an impressive and thought provoking book (you cannot call a book like this ‘enjoyable’), then I might have been a tad disappointed by ‘The Panopticon’. However as it was I was bowled over by it. It is a confronting and occasionally horrifying novel that will make you feel as deeply uncomfortable as it will make you laugh – and that is all down to the strength of Jenni Fagan’s writing and the heroine that she creates. It is also a book that leaves you with a huge question but one I think I should leave those of you who go on to read it, and I do think you should, to discover and try and answer for themselves, I myself am still thinking about it all.

*Interestingly when recording The Readers Book Club on ‘The Panopticon’ last week with two sci-fi fans I was amazed to see that they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway.  they didn’t think the experiment was real, where as I (the ‘literary’ head) completely did. But I think you are meant to question this throughout anyway. You can listen to that discussion here.

Who else has read ‘The Panopticon’ and what did you make of it? Would you call it ‘literary’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘magical realism’ or, as I think, ‘gothic’? Does it even matter? Which other books have you read that had a blurb that didn’t quite match the book that you ended up reading? Are you like me and find you tend to ignore blurbs on the whole?

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Filed under Jenni Fagan, Review, William Heinemann Books

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

I really try to tone down and contain the amount of times I say ‘oh I’ve read the most amazing book, you must read it’ either on this blog or out in the real world. One such book is ‘The Borrower’ by Rebecca Makkai which after finishing I wanted to almost scream ‘read this now’ to everyone I passed. This feeling can fade but several weeks on I am now going to urge you all to ‘get this book now’.

William Heinemann, trade paperback, 2011, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I would imagine that if I mentioned the words ‘road trip’ in context with a setting of a book it might put some people off. In fact it would probably put me off if I heard that same description. Yet ‘The Borrower’ is a road trip upon which ten year old Ian and his local librarian Lucy find themselves on after they accidentally kidnap each other. Sounds bonkers (current favourite word) doesn’t it, but it’s just brilliant.

Lucy, as she likes to remind herself and us, is not your typical librarian. In fact she’s an accidental one in a small town called Hannibal. As the person in charge of the children’s section she meets ten year old Ian, a bookaholic and slightly precocious boy who everyone believes is ‘already on his way up the yellow brick road’. It’s his melodramatic nature and bookish addiction (which also reminded me of me aged ten, and now at twenty nine, ha) that leads his parents to believe the same, something which won’t do and their religious views won’t permit, so they start to send him to classes that stop people being, or possibly being gay. When Lucy learns of this and Ian runs away, to the library, the pair become caught up in a mutual kidnapping and running away drama that spirals further and further out of control.

This also a book about books and anyone who enjoys reading them. It’s this love of books that makes this unlikely duo become such friends, add in Lucy’s outrage when Ian’s mum comes with a list of books he can’t read and demands books with ‘the breath of god in them’. It also made me really nostalgic of the books I loved as a kid and those precious visits to the library.

‘Somewhere on Route 80: “Let’s talk about books.”
“That’s a great idea. Okay, books. What’s the next thing you want to read?”
“Well I think I want to read The Hobbit. This one guy, Michael, in this class I go to, he said it was very good. Have you ever read it?”
“You haven’t read The Hobbit?” I practically screamed at him, missing my chance to talk about his “class”. Of course he hadn’t read it, I realized. He wasn’t allowed to read books with wizards. Not real wizards, at least. Oz the Great and Terrible was probably only acceptable for being a humbug. I said “Once we’re back in Hannibal, I’ll check it out for you.” But I really couldn’t envisage a scenario anymore when both of us would be back in Hannibal and I’d still have my job and Ian would gallop down the steps everyday to see me. “So you said your friends name was Michael. Is he your age?”
“Yeah. But that’s not really what I meant by talking about books. I mean fun stuff, like if you go to heaven and it turns out that one of the things you can do there is you can be anyone in any book, whenever you want to, but you can only choose one person, who would you pick?”‘

Rebecca Makkai is certainly a big fan of books of all genres, this adds to her prose and not just in the words and descriptions she uses but also the style. We have a letters and one of Ian’s short stories interspersed in some chapters, there are also chapters in the style of other books such as ‘Choose Your Own Fiasco’ where Lucy gives you her current scenario and you have to decide for her by going to ‘number three or go to number five’ like those quest books I used to read. It’s a really inventive way of writing the book, there is even a table or two in there, and adding another dimension to the whole experience of reading, in some books this doesn’t work, in this one it did.

I could go on and on, in fact how have I missed the story of Russia’s history which is part of the book through Lucy’s father? Instead I will simply, yet strongly, suggest you read ‘The Borrower’ it’s a funny, moving and thoroughly enjoyable book and one which is going straight into my top five of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Rebecca Makkai, Review, William Heinemann Books

Forgetting Zoe – Ray Robinson

Fictional stories of child abductions have become more prevalent in books in the last few years, as has the device of writing from children’s perspectives in these novels (such as in ‘Room’) or in other ‘current topics’ (I am thinking of ‘Pigeon English’ which I have just started) its almost become it’s own genre in a way. Well, I think so. With this in mind I went into reading ‘Forgetting Zoe’ by Ray Robinson with a mixture of ‘oh here we go again’ along with ‘go on, impress me, do something different’.

Cornestone Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On Friday October the 8th 1999 a ten year old girl by the name of Zoe Neilsen suddenly vanishes on the way to school. This shocks the inhabitants of the small island, just off Newfoundland, is immense, it’s a place where people leave their doors unlocked and trust their neighbours. The people it doesn’t come as a shock to are the readers of this book, as for 50 pages leading up to this we have been given an insight into the twisted and disturbing childhood of Thurman Hayes, the man who we soon to discover, with an all too familiar feeling of history repeating itself, has abducted her. Zoe has become one of those children who ‘disappear at a mile a minute’ in fact Zoe is now in a bunker 4000 miles from home.

“Zoe knew that she was below ground and no one would hear her but she still screamed for help, her knuckles a scabby pulp from punching walls. The machine breathed into the room, its constant whine and rattling niggling her. This was the first week in captivity, an animal in a cage waiting to be fed and watered, for the man to reappear. Or were there more than one?”

I found the way Robinson put us first in the mind of Thurman Hayes was a particularly clever move, it throws the reader off as they watch the victim of child abuse become the abuser. (Unless of course you read the blurb, I hadn’t thankfully, which gives away practically the whole storyline. Publishers, why do you do this?) The fact you feel for him when he lives with such a tyrant as one parent, and complete denial ridden doormat of another, makes the sudden change throw you out of step. Robinson has pulled the rug from under your feet.

“Father beating him because he wet the bed into his teens. It made the wetting worse, his lisp worse. Father’s looming presence.”

The other perspective in the novel is that of Ingrid, Zoe’s mother. This is written utterly, and heartbreakingly, beautifully. Ingrid is a single mother who takes her daughter for granted, until that fateful day. From the moment that the loss of her daughter becomes a reality, as first there is denial, we watch a women unravel as her world crumbles. The past comes to haunt her, the press turn against her (as the parents always become suspects) from sympathy to suspicion and we watch from the sidelines. It’s incredibly well done, you will occasionally dislike Ingrid but you will always empathise with her. In fact it’s the flaws in all the characters that make them so real.

One of the most effective things about Ray Robinson’s prose is that he puts you in the mindset of Zoe, her mother and her captor without ever writing them in first person. There’s almost a sense of him wanting you to feel what they are going through, but at the same time making the reader feel safe – yet still shocked and disturbed – without ever making it too real. I am probably not explaining that very well, you read the book experiencing it yet at a level which doesn’t sicken you; you’re concerned, shocked and occasionally horrified by the grimness of the story but also slightly at a distance. There is also the fact that Zoe, as a character, is never patronised which could be so easy in a book like this when you give voice to a ten year old.

‘Forgetting Zoe’ is very different from the stories of its ilk which I have read in the last couple of years. It’s darker and grittier, and yet strangely never gets bogged down in this despite how much awful stuff happens over the pages to both Zoe and those affected by her sudden and random vanishing. What Robinson does, which I think is all the more uncomfortable and poignant, with his third novel is give voice not just to the captured, but also to the captor and the captives relations.

Big thanks to ‘Fiction Uncovered’ for highlighting this book. It’s not an ‘easy-read’ by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an incredible one, and one I will probably be babbling on about to anyone and everyone who will give a disturbing read a chance. I feel like I have been missing a trick missing Ray Robinson’s writing until now, I may have to read some more of his work.

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Filed under Ray Robinson, Review, William Heinemann Books

Tinkers – Paul Harding

I can’t lie to any of you… the reason that I sat down to read ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding was because of the stunning cover! It simply makes you want to read it. There is of course that other small factor of a ‘Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’ with this book that makes it of interest. Not that I really know what I should be getting with a Pulitzer Prize winning book. In fact I had to have a look back at previous winners I had read and what a mixed bunch they were. The immense ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, the utterly excellent ‘The Road’, the really rather good ‘Breathing Lessons’, the not half bad ‘Empire Falls’ and the prose filled ‘Gilead’ that I wasn’t sure I would like. Which category would ‘Tinkers’, the latest winner of the prize, find itself in?

‘Tinkers’ is an interesting little book (in many ways made me think of previous Pulitzer winner ‘Gilead’) in fact it almost verges on novella over novel and its nearly 200 pages but they aren’t all that big. I couldn’t tell initially if this book was really going to grate on me to start with. First off the book opens as a dying man, George, as he hallucinates that his house is falling down on him soon followed by the clouds and the sky. An interesting opening but one that I will admit had me confused and the initial confusion didn’t stop there are by a break in paragraphs you are drawn into the life of Georges father, Howard, a ‘tinker’ or a man of odd jobs or a pedlar, here and there with no warning of whose life you have stepped into quite when and where. Interweave these two tales with excerpts of a textbook on watches George owns and some notes on all things nature (which I am still not sure who wrote exactly) and eventually you have the tale of a dying man, his father and the childhood he had in the woodlands of Maine.

This isn’t really a book for those people who love plot because really there isn’t one. There are snippets of two lives and how they interconnected and in some ways how they didn’t. There is the occasional tale within the tale and one in particular of Howard and a hermit, which reads like a fable, is possibly one of my favourite mini-stories in a story of the year so far. The book definitely makes you think. In fact Harding’s debut novel is probably one of the most emotional books that I have read in quite some time, when I wasn’t a little lost (which is why this book fell short a little for me, but I will re-read it one day). It looks at life, it looks at death and in a strange way all that lies in between.

Harding’s prose is stunning; there is absolutely no other word for it. If you want a book that reads like the finest poetry without the rhyming or rhythm then this is definitely a book for you. I am in fact wondering if it’s the spell that Harding’s writing casts over the reader that makes it so difficult to put it down, though you do need a break now and again as it gets quite heavy emotionally, for a book that has no page turning plot I didn’t half get drawn in and read the book in a few sittings. I can’t say it was my favourite book of the year so far but it’s possibly one of the best, if not the best, examples of the written word and what it can do that I have seen if that makes sense? It’s certainly had an effect on me and I will definitely be reading Harding’s next novel.

A book that will: either bore you silly with its prose, if you are looking for a big plot, or haunt you with it and subtley leave you thinking. It was thethe latter of the two for me. 8/10

I am not going to do any suggestions for this book as its quite unlike anything I have read before, I want to compare it to ‘Gilead’ but that seems a little bit of a lazy comparison for some reason. Who else has read ‘Tinkers’? Whose been wanting too since it won the Pulitzer? Why is it winning an award can make a book we have never heard of or possibly not been that bothered about reading a must read? More thoughts on book prizes and awards tomorrow…

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Filed under Paul Harding, Review, William Heinemann Books