Tag Archives: Fiction Uncovered

Farewell 2015, Hello 2016 (and Reading Resolutions)

I have to say both book wise and in the real world (notice how I put the real world second, it is so inferior to books, ha) I think that 2015 might have been one of the best years that I have had in a while. Yes okay, so I had the worst reading slump in the history of ever but there was so much else that was brilliant.

I got to judge Fiction Uncovered (one of my favourite prizes) with some wonderful people and found eight fabulous winners, and many more corkers along the way. I worked with New Writing North and took part in some great events in Newcastle and Ikley (meeting more wonderful people) and mentoring some brilliant young writers, bloggers and journalists before being the inaugural blogger for Durham Book Festival where I hung out with more lovely people. I left a job that was making me miserable with the worst boss in the world and moved to a lovely one where I am working on projects I love, two future and slightly secret ones will be VERY book based, with really lovely people. I stayed at the hotel in The Shard. I read some amazing books and one of the most affecting books of my reading life and then met the author, Hanya Yanagihara, afterwards. I worked on one of the Green Carnation Prize’s strongest years with the wonderful folk at Foyles and a corking judging panel AND got to meet (my future husband) Marlon James in the flesh. I got to chat to lots of authors and all of you lovely lot on here, twitter, podcasts etc about lots of brilliant books and made some wonderful new friends online and in real life. And then there was my road trip with Thomas around America and meeting, you guessed it, lots of wonderful people on that trip especially at Booktopia Petoskey, which was probably one of the highlights of the year. Blimey, that is quite a lot. Catches breath. It was a very good year. All this happened in some way or another thanks to this blog and thanks to books and lovely bookish folk.

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So 2016 has a lot to live up to doesn’t it? I have no real idea what it will hold, which I think it rather exciting. I do have some aims though and have fingers in lots of pies working on lots of projects and one huge one which I am hoping might come to fruition but who knows? I can say reading wise it has already started brilliantly and I am already on book two of the year. I guess I like the idea of the year being open to anything and everything and don’t want to put too much pressure (just the right amount) on myself, which leads to my reading resolutions.

Now my resolutions for 2016 off blog are ‘to do lots of different things and lots of things differently’ and ‘stop bloody procrastinating’. The latter is self explanatory and anyone who knows me will attest this is good self aware advice. The former is a bit vaguer, basically I think we all need to shake things up sometimes, so let us see how I get on. For the blog I have decided, it came to me whilst whatsapping Nina the other day (hairdresser to the literary greats, and me) and it is relatively simple, like me, It is this… 2016 is going to be the year of foraging for quirky books.

Yes, I am just going to see where reading, bookshops, bookish chat on social media and the like just takes me for a year. No pressure, just see where it all goes and what adventures I go on through the pages. The blog will reflect this, it will just carry on being a diary of sorts of my thoughts on books as I read them and other bookish musings that come up as I go along and talking with you lot about them. Okay, that is a second resolution – I will be much, much better at commenting.

So that is it. Simple. 2016 is going to be the year of foraging for quirky books. And I will comment much more. Nothing earth shattering, nothing too challenging or outrageous. Just reading, pondering and talking to you lot about it. Unless I end up judging another book prize in which case it might all go out the window, that isn’t currently on my horizon… Yet!

What about you all? What resolutions both bookish and not bookish have you made for 2016?

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Filed under Random Savidgeness

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.

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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

Significance – Jo Mazelis

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 next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shame which has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

I would love to know if any of you have read Significance and what you thought of it. I would also be really keen to hear if you have read any of Jo Mazelis (who also writes as Jo Hughes) other works for there are lots of them, short stories, novels and non-fiction, do let me know.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Jo Mazelis, Review, Seren Books

Mother Island – Bethan Roberts

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 next few weeks (and indeed last four weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Bethan Robert’s Mother Island which I think manages to combine both a thriller and a family drama to create a wonderful suburban noir novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 320 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

What is it like to have someone steal your child from you and what it is like to steal a child from someone, are the two questions at the heart of Bethan Roberts fourth novel Mother Island. When Nula decides she needs to go back to work, in part because she is going stir crazy stuck indoors with her son Samuel, and get a nanny she is faced with the question of who can she trust with her child. Fate it seems has the perfect solution when her cousin Maggie, who has recently dropped out of Oxford, offers to take the role. What could be safer than being with family right? Well wrong, fate it seems can be a cruel thing. Within months of becoming Samuel’s nanny Maggie’s bond with the child becomes something deeper that becomes all consuming, and so she abducts him. I should stipulate here that you know this is going to happen from the very first line, what you don’t know is that Bethan Roberts has more secrets coming than first meet the eye.

Blood and sweat. So much of child-rearing is blood and sweat, she thinks, and she can clearly imagine the way Samuel’s back will be sodden with sweat from Maggie’s car seat, wherever they are, because Maggie has not taken his sheepskin with her. It is this, more than anything, that makes Nula worry about her son’s safety. Because Maggie isn’t the kind of person who would be thoughtless enough just to forget to call. Nula knows her cousin can be a little – strange is too strong a word. Odd. Eccentric, perhaps. Isolated, maybe. Yet with Samuel she has been such a careful, caring person.

It could be very easy for a novelist to simply tell the story of Maggie’s kidnapping of Samuel and then follow her journey into hiding with him and have you wondering if Nula will ever get her son back. Bethan Roberts does this AND she adds in a second plot into the novel as we head back to Maggie and Nula’s youth and the summers that they spent on the welsh island of Anglesey. These were summers of secrets, of sexual awakenings, of jealousies, of friendship and completion. One summer in particular changing the dynamic between them, they think they have both forgotten but clearly all these years later, they haven’t.

If those two secret laden plots weren’t enough, there is more. I love a book with layers and Mother Island is a book that has lots and lots of hidden depths going on below its surface. The most obvious theme in the novel is that of motherhood. Nula thought that she would be the perfect mother and is discovering that it isn’t as natural as they make out in books and on the telly. Maggie always thought she would have children and so far, until she steals one, she hasn’t. But what makes a good mother? This novel also looks at the great Mummy ‘good’, Nanny ‘bad’ theory which has been raging on for sometimes. It also looks at the differing relationships children have with their nannies over their parents which can be a tricky one (I know I was a ‘manny’ for a year for my aunty) which can prove a complicated beast with jealousies and differing ideas of childcare forming.

There are many women, after all, who have killed their own children. Up to half the women in Broadmoor have killed their own children. She had read that somewhere once, and now cannot stop thinking about it. Who were they, these women? Why didn’t anyone talk about them? Did they wake up one June morning, the street almost silent apart from the rumble of an approaching rubbish truck, and find their children gone? Was there a moment of uncertainty? Did they, like her, not quite know if they had brought this about themselves?

What I thought Roberts did incredibly, and what really sets this apart from many literary thrillers (for that is what I would definitely call Mother Island) is the depth into which she goes into these two women’s characters and the psychology behind the facades they are both showing to the world. Nula outwardly seems like a woman having the perfect life; loving husband, great job, gorgeous child. However we learn she is a women who is clearly going through some kind of post natal depression and is wracked with jealousies and riddled with insecurities. Likewise to the outside world Maggie whilst seeming slightly aloof and somewhat a loner would be described as a lovely young woman who has got a little lost from life, people just don’t realise how lost. We get intricate insights, and understanding into both of their world views inwards and outwards. This is all the more compelling when we see one of them go from being a good person to one who does something bad.

The other theme of the book, for me, was families and how we do and don’t connect with them. In their childhood Nula and Maggie both make deep connections with the other’s closest relations (I mentioned the jealousy earlier) and they judge the others families in varying degrees. Most interestingly for me with Mother Island was the relationship of cousins which is not looked at enough in fiction in my experience and yet is a fascinating relationship. Cousins tend to be like special extra siblings when you are young yet also have that distance which can lead to those familial friendships fading as you grow older and further apart. You are related by blood but if you aren’t put together on family holidays, weddings or funerals would you really bond normally?

In some books where there are alternating stories between past and present one will hold your interest more, not so here. In the present we have the thrills of what will happen, in the past we want to know just what on earth happened. Here I have to mention what I loved particularly in the past storyline was both the dubious character of Uncle Ralph and the vivid way in which Anglesey is described. I will say no more.

Anglesey was all this. The trembling trees. The stars of garlic flowers in spring. The glimpse of the Menai Strait through the leaves as she walked down the lane at Llanidan. The tide right up to the boathouse, the water blue and full. Mudflats appearing and disappearing. The sounds of sheep and birds and boats and the scream of the white peacock in the old chapel-house garden.

All in all, with its superb prose, twisted secret ridden plots, its sense of place, atmosphere and brilliant characterisation (especially psychologically) Bethan Roberts’ Mother Island is a brilliant mix of literary thriller meets family drama. We have abducted babies, familial jealousies and childhood secrets combining in a prime example of suburban noir. I read it in two sittings the first time and got even more out of it the second time, it is one of those kind of books. I would highly recommend you give it a read.

Have you read Mother Island and if so what did you make of it? It has reminded me how much I love Bethan Roberts’ writing, I adored My Policeman so much, and I am very much looking forward to reading The Pools and The Good Plain Cook which I have copies of and will be reading very soon – have you read any of those yet?

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Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Vintage Books

The Offering – Grace McCleen

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 next few weeks (and indeed last three weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is Grace McCleen’s strange, alluring and unsettling novel The Offering an insightful and disturbing novel of madness.

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 264 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

There has been a great deal of talk here recently about an event concerning myself and Dr Lucas, which took place from what I can gather in the Platnauer Room some two weeks ago. I presently find myself in the quiet room while Dr Hudson, who has taken over my care in Dr Lucas’s absence, devises an appropriate plan. I said to Dr Hudson: ‘I do hope that whatever happened will not prevent my release from Letham Park, something Dr Lucas talked about on many occasions.’
That was when Dr Hudson stared at me.

I am a huge fan of books which hook you in with a mystery from the start. Grace McCleen’s third novel The Offering does just that as within a few paragraphs we know that something has happened between Madeline and her previous Dr Lucas, we know it is bad, we just have no idea what it is or how bad it might be. We’re instantly interested and intrigued. This ratchets up a notch when we discover that Madeline is not in a hospital but an asylum where she is now in isolation, it ratchets up again when we discover she has been there for twenty years since she was discovered walking along a road with amnesia. We now of course not only feel the need to know about the incident with Dr Lucas, we are also desperate to discover what happened in her childhood despite the very early sense that this is not going to be a comfortable discovery.

I don’t want to say much more about the premise because this is one of those books that needs to be read and discovered rather than have anything given away. I can say that as the book goes on McCleen makes it as gothic, twisty and strange as you would hope from a novel of this kind. It has something of the ‘sensation novel’ about it yet cleverly you cannot work out for the life of you when it is set, there are cars but that is as much as we know adding a slight dreamlike or nightmarish feel as and when Madeline goes through highs and lows. It also interestingly made me occasionally feel slightly disorientated, never lost or confused, as if I had been sedated as Madeline often is – having been sedated (I wasn’t in an asylum) it brought that strange sense of being slightly distant and at odds with everything, yet feel fairly compos mentis, right back.

‘Who are you?’ my father said.
‘Who are you?’ the man replied, and his milky gaze passed over all three of us.
‘We’re just looking around,’ my father said, after a moment.
‘Ah, you’re the new folk moving in,’ said the fellow. ‘He’ll not like it, I can tell you. He won’t like it a bit.’
‘What are you talking about?’ my father said.
‘Him who was here before!’
I caught a whiff of urine on the afternoon breeze, sweet, acrid, animal.
‘The place hasn’t been occupied for years,’ my father said.
‘That’s right,’ said the man. ‘But he’s still here, he’ll never leave!’

As Madeline is forced to look back at her past, no spoilers I promise, she is forced to look at her memories and work out what she remembers right, what she misremembers and what she remembers yet may have misinterpreted. This is something that it is fairly hard for us to do at the best of times, come on can you remember what you were doing on this date exactly twenty years ago, it gets all the more complicated when part of your brain is trying to repress or hide things as a way of self preservation or denial. The Offering  also takes a very blunt and direct look at how we deal with people with mental illness and particularly the questions around treatment and medicines and if they help or hinder leaving the reader to decide for themselves.

If I am making this book sound really dark, intense, creepy and a bit gloomy that is because it is and unapologetically so, yet McCleen doesn’t make this relentless. There are moments of great joy in Madeline’s past as her parents and her find a new home that have that almost golden sheen that you have of particular moments. (I say that though actually I have no memories before the age of ten due to something that happened in my childhood, but moments after that that instantly make me happy have that glow.) She also finds, if slightly darkly or bitter sweetly, moments of humour while Madeline is in the asylum which will make you laugh and then make you feel sorry for those involved.

Today began as a particularly dreary one here at Letham Park, the sun hidden behind banks of cloud, neither cold nor hot, dark nor light. Eugene wet himself; Pam ate clay and had to have her stomach pumped; Margaret taught me a new stitch; Robyn’s parents arrived to take her out for the day; Alice made Mary cry; nothing out of the ordinary at all.

I have often said on the blog that comedy when written well can be a powerful device to highlight the dark and almost create a heightened emotive response which is how McCleen uses it with much effect. Her writing though is marvellous throughout; the plot is tightly twisted and slowly revealed, the book feels uneasy and disorientating yet never confusing, the atmospheres are rife and while the setting and time are an enigma the sense of place and the landscapes appear vividly in your mind. The Offering is quite unlike anything I have read in some time, I recommend you give it a whirl.

Have any of you read The Offering and if so what did you make of it? Have you read either of Grace’s previous novels, and if so what were your thoughts? I have her debut The Land of Decoration on the TBR as I will definitely be reading more of Grace’s novels.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Grace McCleen, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse

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 next few weeks (and indeed last two weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is David Whitehouse’s utterly brilliant Mobile Library which is one of those books that charms you so much and whose characters you become so attached to you hug it to you afterwards, like you were ten again.

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Picador Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered (I am tempted to have this cover made into some kind of tattoo design!)

Bobby Nusku is a twelve year old unhappy in the world that he is living. His mother has disappeared, he has tried to catalogue as much of her life as he can in a box of artefacts he keeps hidden, his father has met a new woman and both of them either spend the time ignoring Bobby, telling him off or being drunk. If that wasn’t bad enough his best friend, and protector from school bullies, Sunny has had to move away after a failed attempt to turn himself into the first human-cyborg. After witnessing an act of bullying on someone else, Rosa, he tries to pay for his cowardice by befriending her and in doing so comes to meet her mother Vera, and before long they all decide to escape their lives, quite literally, in a mobile library.

In case you are thinking ‘oh Simon, you rotten spoil sport, you have given everything away’ I actually haven’t. Once on the road and off on the adventures of their lives so far, for good and bad reasons, much happens and they meet many people and get into various scrapes along the way. Also, Mobile Library actually begins somewhere towards its end and so we back pedal and then head towards a literal cliff-hanger we know is coming. Though we don’t know what happens after it, ooh that David Whitehouse is a teaser.

‘Are we in trouble?’ Bobby asked?
‘No,’ Val said, ‘not anymore.’
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the oceans ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.

I will say no more on the plot bar the fact that it involves camping in woods, creepy old mansions, an escaped convict and an abandoned zoo. The reason I mention all these things is because they were all things I loved in books as ‘a youth’ and of course still do, so there was a lovely nostalgic feeling as I was reading. There is no doubt that this is Whitehouse’s intention as actually the book takes on many tropes of the fairytales (for me the Ladybird Classics) that I would say 90% of us read or had read to us when we were small. Bobby himself, though admittedly without the ugly stepsisters or his parents giving a monkey’s how dirty the house is, is rather a Cinderella figure in some ways, Val his fairy godmother and the Mobile Library his pumpkin… though the story doesn’t follow the path of Cinderella you can see other nods to fairytale as you go, especially towards the very end.

One thing the book doesn’t have is magic, well at least not of the wands, spells, eye of newt or enchanted spinning wheel (or steering wheel, see what I did there – sorry!) kind. There are two other kinds of magic in it, love and friendship. Now any of you who think I have been kidnapped by some hippy commune bear with me. Love is something we cannot explain, there is no science behind it, there is no logic and the same applies to friendship, these invisible bonds tie us together for some unknown rhyme or reason. That is a magic of sorts and we take it far too much for granted which was something I felt strongly after finishing the book.

The theme of friendship also links onto the other major theme of the book which is what makes a family. The stereotypical family of 2.4 children and indeed the ‘nuclear’ family (whatever that meant, it sounds horrid) can no longer be defined so easily. I know this all too well with two half brothers, two half sisters and two step sisters – I know think of the Christmases’! Not only that though more and more people are creating family through friendships, I am Uncle (Sugabear in some cases) to a lot of my friends children because there are certain friends who you feel are more your family than your own family. Whitehouse looks at this through a group of people who couldn’t be more different and yet somehow – no spoilers – become a family of sorts. People who either have difficult or awkward family relationships or feel they have no real family at all.

These days she looked forward to visiting the doctor. As cold as his hands were, small talk was a welcome respite from the otherwise lengthy nothingness. Sometimes she considered faking symptoms, just to feel that rough chill against her body and talk about the changing weather.

Having read Whitehouse’s previous novel Bed, which shamefully I loved but haven’t reviewed, it is interesting to see that his theme of outsiders in society is still there. Interestingly I think Mobile Library is like a polar opposite look at these ‘underdogs’ because whereas in Bed the act of someone going to bed forever is about dropping out of society due to a lack of hope, here we have people desperate for love and belonging. Even when ‘Sometimes,’ she said to nobody in particular, ‘I worry that life is just the journey between toilets.’ there is a glimmer of hope and potential which may be fulfilled at some point. Isn’t that the essence of every great fairytale?

Yes, I am back to fairy tales again. Speaking of which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Mobile Library is also a book about the power and wonder of books. I need say no more, brilliant…

‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so the things that happen in them will happen to you.’
‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’  

I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.

If you would like to hear  David talking about Mobile Library in more detail you can hear him chatting with me on Fiction Uncovered FM and he will also be on You Wrote The Book next week, again with me but quite a different chat. Who else has read Mobile Library and what did you think of it? Which other books about books and grown up fairy tales have you loved? I always want more recommendations of those.

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Filed under Books of 2015, David Whitehouse, Fiction Uncovered, Picador Books, Review

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

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 next few weeks, and indeed last week, I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. This week it is Lavie Tidhar’s pulp meets alternate history tale A Man Lies Dreaming, which manages to be both a fast paced thriller and a confronting and thought provoking discussion on the prejudice suffered by Jews in the anti-Semitic movement that may still have happened whoever won the Second World War.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 288 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

As A Man Lies Dreaming opens we are greeted by the diary entries of a private detective named Wolf in London, November 1939 as he describes his latest mission to find a missing woman given to him by, as he says in the very first line, a woman with the face of an intelligent Jewess. Yes, from the off we are given a lead character who is a bit of a bigot, to put it mildly. We are then thrown all the more as we realise that not only is Wolf a rather alternative version of any detective we would want to meet (let alone hire, but his client is desperate) but the London we find ourselves in is a completely alternate one. For a start Oswald Mosley is standing for election and overseas the Nazi’s are not the ruling power, Germany is now a communist country, though still a threat in a very different way.

As we follow Wolf as he takes on the case we are taken deeper and deeper into and under these mean and grimy streets into a world of prostitution and a world where all those who dreamt of dictatorship of Germany, and the world, have now fled and are ruling mini domains in the streets of Soho where not only are people going missing, someone is starting to murder prostitutes and carving swastikas into their bodies; a case which will soon get closer and closer to the one Wolf is looking into.

In Berwick Street the whores were busy at their trade. The watcher in the dark had seen the detective exit his office and speak to the young German whore and to the coloured one, and seen him leave, but he remained behind. He had time. All the time in the world. He eyed the whores.

Yet this is not the only strand of A Man Lies Dreaming for after every few chapters of Wolf’s journey we are sent to somewhere quite different and somewhere horrendously real, Auschwitz. Here in one of the biggest concentration camps during the Second World War, where we know thousands of atrocities were committed, we join Shomer. Shomer was a writer of pulp and noir crimes before he found himself encamped in his horrific surrounds with hundreds of other people. When the world for him there gets too much, which as we read on we get the full comprehension of, he retreats to his slumber and a tale of a villainous dictator who has become a detective on the streets of London. This is both his coping mechanism and way of surviving from day to day no idea if today or tomorrow could be his last.

There is only now, no past, no future, there is only Auschwitz, an island floating on the Polish ground. The dead rise in black ash into the sky, day and night the ovens burn, day and night the trains come laden. And Shomer’s mind retreats into itself, the way it had when he was still a man. For he had been a writer of shund, of pulp, for Haynt and other publishers. He had made his living with his hands, at his desk, writing lies for money.

I found this construction of the novel interesting and also incredibly effective. Firstly there is this sense that Shomer is in the real world dreaming of another world where he can wreak revenge on those who have put him here. Wolf gets sexually abused in an S&M club, tortured not long later and (much worse for his ego) publically humiliated at several social events both over the failure his political and writing careers, the latter seeming to wound him most as many feel he was a one hit wonder. Yet at the same time there is a sense that the alternate Communist lead west could be the ‘reality’ and that horrifyingly Auschwitz is still happening somewhere else just not run by the regime we know. This creates a whole onslaught of concerning if fascinating thoughts in our heads.

The other way in which this is so effective is that, without this sounding weird or offensive, he makes The Holocaust more bite size and digestible while all this other noir adventure and goes on around it. This may sound like it is diluting those holocaust sections or making light of them, it is quite the opposite. Yes there is an irony throughout the novel, yet irony can be quite powerful, as can some of the humour in the utterly horrific – though to clarify this doesn’t happen in the holocaust sections but in the London ones the dark and disturbing can have some darkly funny moments especially as Wolf gets put through the ringer which Tidhar does with quite some zeal. I also think humour can often be used in a very effective way in order to highlight the darkest moments and provide contrast (and some light relief when things get very grim) and heighten the effect which I think A Man Lies Dreaming is a prime example of.

In creating an alternate version of the past, and indeed using many well known names and faces of the day not only do we feel slightly clever for recognising them (when we do, the Mitford’s, Ian Fleming etc) we also see how things could have been horrific in different ways. This again doesn’t detract from how awful things were in the Second World War, rather it highlights the fact that prejudice can poison all forms of society all over the world regardless, and sometimes because of or in spite of, of political agenda’s or historical acts. This is one of the novels lasting thoughts, or at least it was for me.

Not looking he bumped into something soft and full that smelled of expensive perfume. A squeal of delight followed and a familiar female voice said, ‘Wolfy!’
He raised his head and found himself staring directly into the adoring eyes of Unity Mitford.
‘Valkyrie?’ he said. He had always used her middle name.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she said, laughing.
Wolf winced. He found he could not draw away from her, his eyes kept searching that sweet, smooth face, the full red lips, the mischievous eyes. She had not changed. Her delicate perfume tickled his nostrils. ‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said.

What I think Lavie Tidhar does with A Man Lies Dreaming is make an immensely readable book about the unreadable. He mixes hardboiled noir; dystopia and magical realism to create a dark and thought provoking novel, sure to compel the reader whilst making them face the darker sides of humanity. It is a book about war, power, politics, sex and religion whilst being a page turning thriller which gives a new and usual twist on tales of World War II and The Holocaust which manages to entertain and then slap you round the face with reality. I think it is one of the most visceral novels I have read in some time and one which weeks and months later I am still thinking about with a thrill and a shudder, it is quite brilliant. I urge you to read it.

You can hear Lavie and I talking about A Man Lies Dreaming on the Fiction Uncovered FM catch up shows here. I would love to hear from other people who have read A Man Lies Dreaming and what you thought of it. I would also love to know if you have read any of his other novels such as Osama or The Violent Century, or indeed any of his other works – lots to discover from an author who I think we should all be reading much more of.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hodder & Stoughton, Lavie Tidhar, Review