Tag Archives: Books of 2017

Moonstone – Sjon

One of the things that I have always wanted to do with this blog, and I suppose my reading by default, is find some lesser known gems that I would love to get to more readers. Nothing against the big books that get a lot of buzz, as they can be irresistible, there is just something wonderful about finding a book that hasn’t had much buzz (or as much as I think it should) and getting it into the hands of eager readers. Moonstone by Sjon is one such book. This was a book that I discovered towards the end of last year and has become one of my favourite reads of the last several years. I loved it when I read it; the more time away from it I have had the more wonderful I think it is. Yes, one of those.

Sceptre, paperback, 2017, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Moonstone is set in the Reykjavik in 1918. Iceland is a country that is on the cusp of huge changes. Some it is aware of like the decreasing amount of coal resources , along with the eruption of the Katla volcano. Some are happening along in the background, such as the Great War. Some it is yet to know will happen, like the craze for film and cinema or something much, much darker that will change the country and its people forever, the Spanish Flu. Yet aware or not, the people of Reykjavik carry on as normal and we follow one of those people, a young man named Mani.

Mani is unaware of all these things going on in the background because as Moonstone begins it is more the day to day dramas that are at the forefront of his mind. For Mani is a young gay man who is paid for sex, which on the whole he enjoys, both the act and the money. However this is a time in which homosexuality is not something that the people of Iceland believe in and so one of his biggest thrills, and of course income, is also one of his biggest dangers.

After the boy had crawled in through the window of his hotel room and they had begun to take off their clothes, the man unfastened the artificial leg made of hardwood that was attached with a leather harness to his right thigh.
The boy had never seen such a device before and examined the leg from every angle until the man took it away from him and hung it from the foot of the bed. He drew Mani Steinn under the covers to join him:
– Moonstone.

What I found so gripping about Moonstone is firstly the story of Mani, but also the story of Iceland itself and then how the two intertwine and almost shadow the other. In many ways Iceland, and really more specifically Reykjavik, is the second biggest character in the whole book, and we follow them both as Mani has his most personally tumultuous time yet and Iceland has its most historically tumultuous time yet.

 Although, as a rule, little in the papers captures his interests – anything that happens in Iceland seems too small, while overseas events only affect him if they are grand enough to be made into films – the news in the last few days about the “Spanish Flu” has held a lurid fascination for the boy:
He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

Throughout the book there are many heart breaking moments, something I do really love in a book which I am aware makes me sounds rather like a weirdo. There is firstly the fine line between Mani’s  There is a poignant element of the cinema craze story line, which we see as Mani becomes almost as addicted to the cinema as he does to sex with men. As more films come to the city the more the religious and traditional members worry that it is a sign of the devil, leading teenagers into sexual temptation, or worse, modern thinking. This belief of evil gains all the more traction when Spanish flu hits and it becomes one of the places that causes the most contagion without anyone knowing. Imagine then how homosexuality might be treated, if cinema can cause such outrage. This is an unwritten realisation that comes to Mani creating a danger in being caught but a potential financial opportunity in the need to keep everything all the more secret. Things take a darker turn but I don’t want to spoil that for any of you.

In the Irish Times review of Moonstone Ruth McKee describes it as “Opening with a graphic scene of oral sex and closing with penetrating philosophical questions, Moonstone is quite a ride.” And she is completely right. This is a mini epic that gives and gives to the reader. Every page thrums, hums and/or brims with feelings, atmospheres, tensions and emotions. Whether it be with the wonders of cinema that fascinates the villagers or the natural awe of a volcanic eruption. Whether it be with a sexual thrust (quite literally) or with the panic and horror as a plague takes over the country.

Reykjavik has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoof-beats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of the warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants.
The doors of the shops neither open nor close – no one goes in, no one comes out – no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.
No one says good morning. No one says goodnight.

I could wax lyrical about Moonstone for much, much longer, however I feel that a succinct rave suits a succinct masterpiece. Yep, I said it, I think that this is genuinely a mini epic masterpiece. It is a book that brims with emotion, has an incredible momentum and shines a light on both a period of a (possibly grimly) fascinating period in history that I knew nothing about and also many voices that went unheard and even unseen. I wanted to go and read it all over again when I was choosing the quotes to include in this review. I also now want to read everything that Sjon has written so far and go back to Iceland and explore it all over again. Utterly fantastic, if you haven’t read it then please, please, please, please get your hands on it.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sceptre Publishing, Sjon

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

As this goes out on the blog, tonight will see the winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2017 announced. In a break with tradition on the blog, I decided that instead of telling you all about the shortlist (though I think I have reviewed all of them bar one and made video about them here too) I wanted to share my thoughts on my very favourite last. I have loved a lot on the shortlist this year but without a doubt my favourite has to be Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò which has pretty much every element of what I love in a book and held me captivated by it.

9781782119463

Canongate, hardback, 2017, fiction, 304 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the opening of Stay With Me we know that something has gone very wrong with the marriage between Yejide and her husband Akin as she writes of packing up and driving away. Where to, where from and what has happened we do not yet know but soon we are taken back a decade or two before to when the cracks began to show. The time when after much trying Yejide was finding it very difficult to get pregnant and it was becoming the constant focus of her husband and his family’s attention. (I know the below is quite a long excerpt, however I think it gives a real flavour of what comes in the novel as I am going to have to say very little as I don’t want to give too much away, which I will explain.)

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready. I was ready to listen to them tell me I must do something about my situation. I expected to hear about a new pastor I could visit; a new mountain where I could go to pray or an old herbalist in a remote village or town whom I could consult. I was armed with smiles for my lips, an appropriate sheen of tears for my eyes and sniffles for my nose. I was prepared to lock up my hairdressing salon throughout the coming week and go in search of a miracle with my mother-in-law in tow. What I was not expecting was another smiling woman in the room, a yellow woman with a blood-red mouth who grinned like a new bride.

It soon transpires that Akin and his family have been plotting a back-up plan which is to introduce a second wife into the home, Funmi, a woman who they believe will bear children and thus save the family line as well as the marriage between Akin and his first wife. Breaking away from what is socially and culturally expected of her Yejide fights back initially in a rather comic way, yet this is the beginning of an unravelling between Yejide and Akin and a downward spiral of Yejide’s already low sense of worth since the death of her own mother in childbirth.

‘What did you feed them?’ Akin shouted.
‘Bridegroom, welcome back,’ I said. I had just finished eating my dinner. I picked up the plates and headed for the kitchen.
‘You know they all have diarrhoea now? I had to park by a bush for them to shit. A bush!’ He said, following me into the kitchen.

That is where I pretty much have to stop telling you the story, and we are only a chapter or two in, because what follows is a fantastically twisting and turning tale of what happens between Yejide and Akin in the aftermath of this with Adébáyò almost turning a marriage into a thriller which I wasn’t expecting but delighted me with the way in which she accomplished it. Of course, there is a danger in me simply saying that there are plenty of twists and turns ahead may mean you will look out for them but I doubt you will spot them. I genuinely couldn’t tell what was might happen next, and there were many a gasp out loud moment and many a heart dropping moments for this reader.

I am slightly worried that comparing Stay With Me to a thriller may diminish it in some people’s eyes, they couldn’t be more wrong and not only because to accomplish the best kinds of thrillers you need to hide a tightly constructed spiders web of plot where one can’t be seen. Adébáyò does this and much, much more. Behind the domestic dramas that are going on is the drama of Nigeria in the 1980’s and all the rioting and crime that was taking over the country and adds an additional tension to the novel as well as some heart breaking and shocking scenes as the novel moves forward.

I could not imagine then that one day in Nigeria thieves would be bold enough to write letters so that victims could prepare for their attacks, that one day they would sit in living rooms after raping women and children and ask people to prepare pounded yam and egusi stew while they watched movies on VCRs that they would soon disconnect and cart away.

One of the other elements that I admired so much about the book, and yet I have seen criticised in some places, is the fact that as the book goes on you realise it isn’t always Yejide that is narrating the story. Sometimes it flits to Akin and it takes you a small while to realise and then reassess the voice you are reading. I loved this because I thought it not only highlighted the two points of view of a marriage and all that befalls it, but more cleverly is that Adébáyò asks you to stop making assumptions about how a woman might feel about marriage and parenthood and how a man might feel about marriage and parenthood. It gives you so much to think about as well as asking you to check your own assumptions of men and women, though kindly.

You might think this implies that Adébáyò creates two leading characters who merge in to one far too easily, again that isn’t that case. Adébáyò’s characters all come fully formed whether it be leading players like Yejide, Akin, Funmi, Dotun or Moomi or lesser characters like Yejide’s competitor hairdresser Iya Bolu or the hermit up the mountain. They all brim with life, laugher and more often than not secrets. I adored them, even the shadier ones. I also loved the elements of fairy tale (you know me, I love a good fairy tale or myth) that intertwine and are told throughout too. Not often yet deftly and adding certain nuances when they do.

My favourite story was the one about Oluronbi and the Iroko tree. Initially, it was difficult for me to believe the versions my stepmothers told. Their Oluronbi was a market woman who promised to give her daughter to the Iroko tree if it could help her to sell more goods than other traders in the market. At the end of the story, she lost her child to the Ikoro. I hated this version because I did not believe that anyone would trade a child for anything else. The story as my stepmothers told it made no sense to me, so I decided to create my own version.

I could frankly go on for hours about how much I loved Stay With Me, can you tell? It brims with life, humour (dark and saucy), heartache and hope. It is one of those books that just enraptures you within its pages and you find yourself thinking about those characters, situations and layers long after as well as thinking ‘what a bloody good story that was’. For me this was a dream of a novel, it will be one of my books of the year without a shadow of a doubt, and I think Adébáyò is going to be an author to watch in wonder. Go read this book.

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Filed under Ayobami Adebayo, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Canongate Publishing, Review