Thursday, 11 November 2021

Dunfords Travels Everywheres- William Melvin Kelley

I’m editing this post already. Not because I have read the book again but because I had an exchange on social media with William Melvin Kelley’s daughter. How incredible is that?! And she offered such a fantastic insight into approaching the book that I asked her if she would mind if I quoted her in full. She agreed. What she says is absolutely brilliant and spot-on. So I’m thrilled to add it to this post.

 My father was excited when I started Ulysses because it was his favorite book. I got maybe 12 pages in—and it was a wrap. Dunfords tho… it’s not something you read once and understand. But it wasn’t intended to be. It’s meant to be read the way you’d listen to a sax solo by Charlie Parker or Lester Young. There’s a theme stated. And then there are riffs. Sometimes those riffs go WAY out, but they are always on beat, and the chords supporting the solo are ever present. You take flight… sometimes you’ll hear a phrase borrowed from another piece or song. It’ll make you laugh because you recognize it’s a joke. You continue listening and wondering where these notes will end up, and then you hear the piano or bass and realize “oh, we’re back at the bridge to the song.” Then maybe the drummer has a solo… but then the whole band comes back and brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Dunfords is like that. Over the past two years as I was helping prepare the illustrations for these new editions, I would just randomly read a chapter. And after awhile you begin to FEEL the meaning of what’s going on without needing to know EXACTLY what’s being said. It’s taken me 20 years to appreciate Dunfords 😂 and I grew up with the book. But it’s gotten to be my favorite.’

 It was with a sense of sadness that I picked up this final novel of William Melvin Kelley. Why sadness? Because it’s the last. And whilst I know I can read them all again whenever I want there is that new jar of coffee feeling when you pick up a book by one of your favourite writers.  I began this knowing that once I’ve read it there will be nothing new to read from “the lost giant of American literature“.

This is like nothing of Kelley’s I’ve read before. I guess the reader is prepared for what lies ahead to an extent by quotes from James Joyce and the title echoing a phrase from Finnegan’s Wake and I will confess now that sometimes I didn’t understand what he was writing. I found the best way to extract the meaning was to read the book aloud in the sequences containing, what I’ll call ‘creative vocabulary’!  This vocabulary and intonation whilst redolent of James Joyce also reminded me of Stanley Unwin! The wordplay is astonishingly clever. It’s witty and incisive. I would’ve expected no less from Kelley. But I’d also have to say it’s a challenging and sometimes difficult read compared with Kelly’s previous works. But so fascinating and so creative. And I will confess I was trying to read and review it ready for publication day. But it’s a book to be re-read, savoured and lingered over. And that I will do. That being said there are elements in the early chapters of the novel that are the pure Kelley that I’ve grown to know and love in terms of themes,  narrative style and story structure and characterisations. The sense of continuity that runs through all of Kelley’s works has characters such as Chig Dunford and Carlyle Bedlow making their appearance in this book too. In fact the story really looks at Chig’s rediscovery of himself as a black American and contrasts him with Carlyle. 

At the moment it’s not my favourite Kelley book and I can’t believe I can even bring myself to write that about someone who I have on a pedestal! But I don’t believe it’s a book to be read and cast aside. I think it’s a book to be explored slowly and deliberately and the rewards will be immense. To quote Kelley  ‘If You’re Woke,You Dig It’. I may even return to this review and update it in the future.

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at riverrun for a gifted copy.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Learwife - J R Thorp


Somehow I think Shakespeare would heartily approve of this novel. It is erudite and literate. It is expansive and poetic. The prose actually demands that you read great swathes of it aloud for it is full of consonants that roll around your tongue giving meaning and illumination to the thoughts and feelings of that most mysterious of queens, King Lear‘s wife.

I suppose the big question is whether you need to be familiar with Shakespeare’s play to benefit fully from this book. I guess not. It’s a long time since I read the play and I didn't feel in any way disadvantaged.  For the narrator, who is not named until the concluding pages, is ignorant of the action that takes place within the play. she exists outside of that. It is the characters, Lear, the daughters, Kent and the Fool that figure in ‘our’ narrative, rather than the events of the play.

In some ways the novel could be an extended monologue of almost Shakespearean proportions as Learwife expresses the depths of her emotion at the treatment and the life she’s been forced to lead since Lear exiled her to a nunnery. All of her energies and reason are dedicated to trying to understand what happened and why.

This is a book I took many days to read not because I didn't enjoy it, quite the reverse, I was astounded by the depth and quality of the writing and the need to savour the experience. At times it seems that the plot or sequence of events were secondary to the writing itself so the book can be experienced on different levels. There is a story, of course there is! It seems to feed off some of the conundrums explored in Shakespeare’s play but the narrative also abounds with the most palpable and potent imagery. The Bard was never far from my thoughts, I have to admit, and indeed, in the concluding passages I found myself thinking of Ophelia.

It is at heart a feminist novel, I feel, the ‘action’ takes place in a nunnery and the dynamics between all the women is explored and examined, particularly with the choice that Learwife has to make after an exceptional event disrupts the equilibrium of the order.

We never stray far from historical fiction as Learwife recounts her life as Queen, her two marriages, her children and what might have led to the exiled state she finds herself in. The portrayal is solid and believable.

But mostly I think it falls into the literary fiction genre. It’s complex writing, breathtaking in places. My only negative thought is that it might be over long. I can see that readers who prefer a character or plot driven narrative might find it slow. But over all as a debut novel I was mightily impressed and I wouldn't be surprised to see this on some award long or shortlists in the future.
My thanks to Canongate books for a gifted proof. 

The Swift and The Harrier - Minette Walters

 This is a gripping and absorbing historical fiction novel from the erstwhile Queen of crime, Minette Walters. But I think she could now be called the Queen of historical fiction! This latest novel takes a departure from her previous two historical novels and focuses on the Civil War - Cavaliers and the Roundheads as we learnt it at school! But it’s more than “just“ a Civil War novel.

In it Ms Walters looks at the lives of women in the 17th century. Central to the narrative is Jayne Swift, a physician. An extremely unusual position for a woman in those times. In terms of the war Jayne remains neutral and her desire is to treat anyone in need of help which ever side they happen to be on. Whilst Jayne is the cement that glues the narrative together there are other characters who regularly impose themselves on the reader, in most cases quite favourably, but sometimes not! As for the title? Clearly Jane is the Swift but who is the Harrier? I’ll say this of him, he’s a man of many parts. But I’m giving nothing away. Watch out for Lady Alice, too, she is a fascinating and formidable character.

Minette Walters knows how to tell a story. An easy flowing narrative progresses at just the right pace. Scene is set very early on and the passage of war, which is seldom fast, is conveyed through a slower mid book narrative and the end of the book gathers momentum as the ends are all tied up. Characterisations that make us want to get to know these people, their lives, what makes them tick. Jayne is not exactly unpredictable but you can’t always second-guess her. She is courageous, intelligent and certainly flies the flag for women of her age and intellect. You just can’t help warming to her. Plenty of action, social comment, historical comment and maybe a hint of romance? My lips are sealed.

But as well as enjoying an engrossing story I learnt a hell of a lot about a period in history that I barely remember from my scant childhood history lessons. I feel better informed now. And I think the research was detailed and very plausible. So much so that I feel readers who might not instantly cite historical fiction as a favourite genre might well enjoy this book. Geographically too I felt that the author has a great deal of affection for Dorset and its surrounding environs.

My thanks to Readers First for a gifted copy.


Friday, 29 October 2021

The House of Whispers - Anna Kent

 ‘“Best“ friend returns to toxic friendship after falling out’ could hardly be considered a genre! But there have been enough of them over the years so I was initially underwhelmed when I came across the House of Whispers. But this has a twist in it that I didn’t see coming till I was fast approaching the conclusion. A twist that turned the story into a psychological tour de force as Abby and Grace explore old memories and routines.

It’s a chilling read at times and it has what I like to call the Patricia Highsmith effect where the normal and mundane are out of sync, off centre and creates a deep unease in the reader as the story spirals to its shocking conclusion.

Thematically it’s a tale of obsession and guilt. Our empathy is guided very much toward Abi, rather than Grace. Abi seems so vulnerable, almost a cliche of the tortured artist feverishly creating to exorcise the demons within. But the true nature of these demons is revealed bit by bit as the truth emerges. I was momentarily prompted to think Dorian Gray as Abi worked on her suite of portraits but the comparison lost impetus as the story progressed.

Some well drawn characters populate the novel, Abi’s well-intentioned and concerned husband, Rohan, his almost overbearing mother, Meena, and indeed the rest of his family but it’s always Abi and Grace who take centre stage. I suppose one could also include the house as another character for it does impose the hints and suggestions of its past on the story. 

The structure of the narrative draws the reader in from the beginning transcript of an interview with Abi’s husband. Right away I was thinking, Who is Abigail, what has she done? Is it a police interview, a lawyer interview, a medical interview? An opening like that can’t fail to peak your curiosity. The transcripts occur from time to time throughout the rest of the narrative still not giving anything away as to who might be conducting the interviews. Very clever.

It would be a disservice to give too much of the story away because it relies on the shock twists to work and I refuse to be Miss Spoiler 2021 but that makes it hard to review. Suffice to say a tense and heavy atmosphere is created and sustained throughout. There’s a lot of emotion in the book too particularly where Abi is concerned. Some of the action is also a little unsettling and upsetting. 

If I might be a little contrary I would’ve preferred the last chapter to have been omitted! To say why would require me to give more detail about the actual plot and I’m unwilling to do so but the preceding shocker would to my mind be a great place to end the book! 

My thanks to NB magazine for a gifted proof.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Letters of Note - compiled by Shaun Usher


 One of the many things I loved about this collection was the presentation. Each entry had some background information and circumstances of the individual correspondents, the printed text of the letter and in many cases a photograph of the actual document which is as close as you can get to beholding the original, without the inconvenience of those very fetching white gloves! And it’s absolutely fascinating. To see the Queen offering an American president her recipe for drop scones was somehow so uplifting!  And even if some of the “participants ” were unfamiliar to me the letters were just as interesting as the famous names I knew and revered. It’s a book I’ve been dipping in and out of since I was lucky enough to receive a gifted copy from Canongate books.

In an age where letter writing has sadly declined digital messaging seems to be the way in which we prefer to communicate. Or maybe prefer is not the right word, it seems to be a convenient way to communicate and for some people it’s the only way. So I think a book like this is so refreshing because it’s not just interesting sociologically and historically it’s also saying, hey letter writing is important. Paper trails are important. I cannot see a future where anybody is going to offer up a comparable collection of emails or WhatsApp chats. 

The first thing I did was scan the table of contents to see if any of my “favourites” were included in this collection. I’m happy to say they were. Highlight for me was one of my literary heroes, Jack Kerouac, writing to Marlon Brando! The collection boasts an eclectic mix of people from all stations in life. The emphasis, I guess, is about how interesting the letters are, how quirky and offbeat some of them are and how pertinent, thought-provoking and intelligent many of them are. In that sense it doesn’t matter whether our epistolary activists are “famous“ or not! There’s even a letter written in China in about AD 856. But in case you’re worrying that it’s all going to be “old “stuff! Fear not. People like Tom Hanks and Nick Cave feature. I would say there’s something for everyone here, and for me, it’s not a book I’m going to put away on a bookshelf it’s a book I’m going to have around me to dip into and marvel at the ‘ancient art’ of letter writing. Bring it back. And thank you, Shaun Usher, for what I think must be an absolute labour of love. I understand Mr. Usher has compiled several collections arranged thematically, love, music etc,  which I intend to explore.

Friday, 22 October 2021

Piranesi - Susannah Clarke


I guess this may be a marmite book. For readers who prefer the realist approach to literature this may be too challenging. For those with expansive imaginations it is sublime and surreal. Does it help to know that Piranesi was an 18th century Italian archaeologist, artist and architect? Possibly not. But subtle and nuanced cultural allusions populate the novel. Or they did for me! Narnia was conjured, quite obviously I think! And I can remember feeling that if Kafka were writing today this is the kind of book he would be producing. Lo and behold there was a reference to “The Castle” , not directly alluding to the Kafka novel, but that was my interpretation. I was reminded too of Erin Morgenstern and the Starless Sea, and in some of the descriptions of the statues, the halls, the birds, visions of Gormenghast entered my head. I started to look for these allusions. For example, what did each statue mean? We’re the names relevant? Did Raphael refer to the healing angel? But I had to stop. I felt I was trying to interpret too much from the novel. When all it was asking me to do, really, was to read it!  

It’s a story, yes. But I found it so much more, so multilayered. Allegorical. Considerations as to the notion of freedom, which always interest me, are dominant. Also the nature of isolation and solitude. The creation of an alternate reality has to be plausible. And whilst that may sound like a paradox it isn’t. When you find yourself completely immersed in the world and picturing this world as you hope the author imagined you know you’re reading fantasy fiction of quality.

It’s detailed and precise writing. Ponderous almost in places but when you realise the nature of Piranesi’s existence and the limits of his world it couldn’t be more fitting. The descriptions are incredibly visual. I wonder whether it will ever be filmed! I can picture it clearly in my head. The characters are relatively few which serves to emphasise the nature of solitude.

Piranesi, himself, is such an appealing character. There is an intrinsic calm and gentleness to him that offers the reader an almost meditative experience as you read the book. His meticulous and ordered approach in logging his life in his journals offers a curious kind of reassurance. His belief in the inherent goodness of The House, his reverence for life, and past lives, is touching. The contrast between his character and The Other further cements the reader’s loyalty to Piranesi. The adherence to his rituals almost suggest that he might be somewhere on the spectrum but he needed to follow them in order to survive. And he seems to have such a belief in the goodness of others. That was challenged certainly as the novel gathers momentum but I’m loathe to offer spoilers. This is oft quoted from the book - 

““The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

 - so I don’t see that as a spoiler but it comes more from the essence of Piranesi than from the world he’s describing. And I found something quasi religious, spiritual almost about it rather than some of kind of a epigram. So  - the beauty of the book is immeasurable. 😉 

It’s a book to return to I think for I can’t get the sense of allusion out of my head. I want to go back and make copious notes much in the manner of Piranesi’s journals. And it is as if by so doing I will be able to extract some deeper insights, some fundamental truths from the narrative. They may or may not be there. Sometimes I feel I’m in danger of trying to extricate too much from the book! But, arguably, is that the mark of a good book?

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

The Writer’s Cats - Muriel Barbery and Maria Guitart

 There was something incredibly satisfying about discovering that one of my favourite writers loves cats. Why? Because I love cats too. But I think it’s also something to do with the relationship that exists between cats and writers that offers validity for my intrinsic belief in this writer, Muriel Barbery. For me if a writer loves cats then they must be a good writer! It is a statement without substantiation, I know, for if I extrapolate it back it means that because I love cats then I must be a good writer. Sadly, I’m not.

This volume presents as deceptively simple on the surface, A cute little picture book about cats with some amusing cartoonlike drawings? Oh, look again. Delve a little deeper. Especially if you are a writer. For you will find the most acute and perceptive observations about the nature of writers. Okay, I hear you ask, so what have cats got to do with it? The entire book is narrated by a cat! One of the author’s four Chartreux cats, Kirin. Kirin introduces us to the other three cats, Ocha, Mizu, and Petrus but she also allows us a glimpse into the life and work of the writer.

The premise of the book is that the cats are actually literary consultants! They use their feline wiles to approve or disapprove of portions of the author’s manuscripts. It’s an absolute delight. It’s witty and clever. It reveals a high level of the author’s self-awareness. But it also highlights so many of those traits that writers possess - restlessness, doubt and denial. The cats call them afflictions but I do believe that without them much would not be written!

I’m in danger of revealing too much perhaps and it would be a shame because one of the delights of this book is discovering that each page is an absolute gem. From a literary sense, certainly,  but of course the book would be incomplete without the wonderful drawings by Maria Guitart. I am inclined to suggest that she too is a cat lover for with startling simplicity she has caught whiskered expressions and angles of tails that any lover and observer of cats will recognise and smile at.

There is an elegance to the book, (no hedgehogs though😉) that celebrate the wisdom, the sagacity and the sheer beingness of cats alongside the nature of writing and books, and certainly in this instance, the fusion of all of those that allows Muriel Barbery to produce the stunning work that she does.

I’m absolutely besotted with this book. It’s a delight to turn each page. It’s the perfect book for cat lovers and for writers. 

My thanks to Gallic books for a gifted copy.