Thursday, 29 August 2019

The Lifespan of a Fact - John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

I don't think I've ever read anything quite like this before! And it really can't be easily categorised. Why not? Well, I’ll tell you. John D’Agata, an author, wrote an essay for Harper's magazine concerning elevated suicide rates in Las Vegas after a young boy had thrown himself off the Stratosphere Tower. The article was rejected because of inaccuracies. However it was picked up by another magazine who assigned it to a fact checker. The fact checker, Jim Fingal clearly is a zealous and conscientious fact checker. The result is a quite astounding exchange between the writer and the fact checker which is by turns both hilarious and thought-provoking. Apparently the exchange lasted over seven years! The discussion between the two is just simply so fascinating and brings up all manner of considerations about what constitutes truth, what constitutes accuracy, what constitutes facts,  the difference between the journalist and and essayist, the morality of non fiction and the right of an ‘essayist’ to ‘write something that’s interesting to read.’

The book is arranged with the original text of John’s essay in the centre of each page and Jim’s fact checking arranged around that with black ink for those things he finds that are accurate and red for the ‘inaccuracies’ which includes the dialogue between the two of them. There is more red than black!! Fingal believes that D’Agata has sacrificed the truth and taken liberties in an effort to promote a better flow to his narrative and offer the facts more ‘creatively’ for the reader. D’Agata doesn’t see anything wrong with that. ‘Jim: It’s fake history, and its misleading. John: ….. it’s a cool story.’
‘Jim:…..all you’re really doing is imposing your own subjective feelings on an entire city. That’s not very responsible. John: I am not the first person to suggest Las Vegas is a sad place, Jim.’

The reader finds themselves ping-ponged between disbelief at the sheer pedantry of the fact checker, his insistent, relentless nitpicking and the essayist’s somewhat cavalier attitude at times towards the inaccuracies. You feel the essayist’s frustration at the pointlessness of some of Jim’s over-exacting interventions but you also open your eyes wide in shock at the poetic license the writer has taken with the actual facts.

But it makes for compulsive reading. The sarcasm from both of them is highly entertaining. ‘It’s called art, dickhead.’ But you find yourself chuckling and then you sober up quite quickly as you realise the root and the catalyst for the whole thing was the suicide of a young teen. So the ping-pong game continues with your emotions as well as your thoughts. 

There is nothing conclusive which leaves everything open ended for the reader to consider. How much leeway should a writer take when trying to put his point across? My research - (wanna fact check me, Jim?) shows that the book was first published in the US in 2012 but has remerged this year since it has been adapted into a Broadway play staring Daniel Radcliffe. If a production surfaces in the UK put me down for a ticket!

My thanks to Katya Ellis at riverrun for a copy of this zany exchange. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again!!

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The Binding - Bridget Collins

This was one of those books that seemed to be everywhere on social media both pre and post publication. People whose opinions I respected were extolling its virtues. But try as I might I wasn’t able to secure a proof! Such is the lot of a minimal reach blogger! So I had to wait for publication day and buy a copy.

It’s a fabulously imaginative book, its tendrils sneaking into the realms of magical realism and fantasy fiction. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who was reminded of the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But The Binding is not a modern setting. There’s something historic, gothic almost, about the treatment of memory and what happens when it is ‘erased’. I worry about giving too much away but sometimes it’s hard to omit salient events and still offer a credible review!

I think the reverence and love for books is an underlying thread that will excite the genuine bibliophiles amongst its readership. I confess I could almost smell the books during some of the descriptive passages. 

The ambiguity of the title was satisfying, for the reader is required to consider more than just one meaning of the word and all it conveys. That appeals to me for sometimes a title seems to be ‘just’ an identifier. It doesn’t relate to the book as a whole. When the title is inclusive with the novel it elevates the story subliminally.

There is an oblique subtlety to some of the concepts explored in the book. Certainly there are some moral issues to be explored and considerations of what kinds of knowledge are desirable or not. I want to forge some kind of comparison with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 regarding the nature of books but it’s too tenuous, though, I think. It's clever to write about the forbiddenness of books in a book. That may have some readers guiltily looking over their shoulders subconsciously! I would say that if books were ever required to bear any kind of censorship certificate then this would require an A for Animal Cruelty. I found that distressing. 

The writing is immersive and the reader is drawn along into the curious world of binding. The characters are boldly drawn, Lucian Darnay, even the name conjures a specific personality type and period, or maybe I am thinking of Dickens and Charles Darnay. And Emmett Farmer, you can visualise him just by his name! They, together with Emmett’s sister, Alta are the key players. But don’t be fooled. Not all is as it seems.  I did intuit potentially what was happening, not the precise details but I saw the flavour of where a particular part of the story was headed. I think, though, that Seredith was my favourite character and the one I’d like to be!!!

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the book, for I did. It was original and well written. Maybe because of the social media frenzy it had presented as much bigger than it actually was for me. That’s a shame because that sounds as if I’m being critical. I guess the moral of the tale is not to let social media influence your expectations. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

A Keeper - Graham Norton

I suppose it could be described as some kind of inverted prejudice when you’re in possession of a preconception that causes you to doubt the ability of someone from one profession to be able to totally nail it in another. My conditioned impression of Graham Norton was initially what drew me to this book, asking myself the question, the guy can make me laugh but can he actually write? And if he can, can he sustain it for an entire novel? Yes, he bloody well can!

A Keeper is as taut and edgy a piece of writing as you’re likely to find from even the most seasoned and prolific of novelists. You could be forgiven for thinking this to be the work of someone who’s been writing their entire life instead of appearing on television. Atmospheric and emotional it examines the damage that grief can do, in its broadest sense, how many people it can affect as the net of grief trawls wide. There’s also a lesser story though no less potent concerning parenting but it does have a bearing on the main character and her motivations and ability to consider her situation past, present and future. 

There’s a mystery with Edward Foley at the centre of it and Elizabeth seeking answers following the death of her mother Patricia. The story is told from the perspectives of both these woman so you get a kind of past/present feel. Norton’s prose flows easily proving himself  to be a consummate story teller with a sense of the dramatic. Occasional forays into more poetic expressionism decorate some of the narrative but it’s largely chapter driven with swathes of dialogue,I always find it interesting to see how a male writer deals with female characters especially if they are the main protagonist. I was convinced for the most part by Elizabeth. I was rooting for her to find out the truth. 

Norton celebrates his Irish roots, much of the action takes place in Ireland and the reader gets a sense of the wildness, land and sea, that adds to the atmosphere and unpredictability. It’s a family drama with all the ups and downs and misunderstandings you’d expect. I guess there’s an element of the melodramatic about it but it’s a story, it’s fiction, it’s allowed!

This was a library book. No matter how many proofs or books I receive I will always visit my library as regularly as I can. 

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Home Truths - Susan Lewis

This was a book from Readers First. I was drawn to it because the premise sounded interesting. The maternal bond is a powerful one and never more so than when called into question in the event of extreme circumstances. I wasn’t sure whether this was going to be a psychological thriller type book or something else as I was unfamiliar with the writer. But once I had the book I could see that I was in the hands of an experienced and prolific author who seems to be comfortable with a diversity of genres. 

After a frankly shocking opening this book then hints at a family type, chic lit potential story but in fact that’s just a guise for a chilling indictment of the flaws within our society and our systems. I don’t want to give too much away but I was reminded briefly of Ken Loach’s film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ initially.

If that sounds like a gloomy, downbeat story, yes, it is to a degree. But there is balance struck to show that there are good people in the world who selflessly strive to help others who find themselves spiralling downwards in that desperate vortex of not coping.

Angie’s life falls apart following the horrific death of her husband and the disappearance of her son. What is interesting about her character is that although she finds herself in need she is that wonderful type of person who helps everyone else who is in need. An empathic, generous soul. But what happens when the Giver needs to Take? 

There are several strands to this story that highlight several of the imperfections in our world that can distort and disrupt everyone’s lives, from the young to the old. To a degree much is predictable but perversely it needs to be predictable for the story to work as a whole. I think one of the points of the story is to show how possible it is for people who seem to be following a smooth path through life to fall down the wrong rabbit holes, not necessarily of their own doing, be they, moral, financial, exploitative or otherwise. But the story also illustrates that problems can be solved. I know this is fiction and real life ain’t always as kind but the problems in this book are all more or less solved by one way or another. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler.

Does everyone live happily ever after? That would be telling. 

Thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Rewind - Catherine Ryan Howard

I do often wonder whether there will come a time when there are just no more scenarios left to make a gripping psychological thriller. Again and again I’m pleasantly surprised by the expansive and precise imaginations of writers committing to the genre.

Rewind is intriguingly structured with a new take on multi chronologies. Here the controls of a video recording are used to indicate pasts and presents with Rewind, Fastforward, Pause, Play and Stop, all with the appropriate time counter indicator, as chapter headings. I don’t think it’s been done before and whilst, initially, I did get a little confused between what happened and when, once you adjust it’s an original device that works well .  

The basic premise is a murder caught on camera. But it wouldn’t be a psychological  thriller if it were that ‘straightforward’, would it? So throw in some flawed characters, many of whom have things to hide; an Instagram influencer who makes an ill advised journey, a young policeman whose past might influence his policing, a hard up journalist hungry for a story and ………I’d better stop here in case I give too much away.

It’s suitably creepy especially the sequences set in the Shannamore Holiday Cottages and the author steps right in and references Norman Bates before the reader gets a chance to! The atmosphere is sustained and the sense of unease surrounding Shannamore offers the reader an uncomfortable yet compelling desire to read on and on! Like many stories of this genre it’s an onion story. Layer by layer is peeled off to reveal a hard core of truth that does become obvious. although the precise details are withheld until the closing pages of the book. And you realise a whole sequence of events has been set into motion by one small inconvenience. There’s enough for the astute reader to piece together some of the events but enough detail is left and dangled like a carrot to lure us on tot the end of the book. 

I can’t see anyone being disappointed if they are are lovers of the genre. Nice one for a summer read!! 

Thanks to Readers First for a copy. 

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Blog Post for my Mum

10 years ago today I lost my Mum. Actually, no, that’s not true, I never ‘lost’ her. It was never like, ‘Whoops, where’d she go?’ She died. Don’t know the exact time but some sense drew me to her room in the early hours of that morning with an impending sense of the inevitable and I somehow knew I’d find her dead. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body, I saw my father in the hospital, but it was the first time I ‘found’ one. It’s hard to write about it and sometimes the events of those days rewind in my head endlessly. Even when I don’t want them to.

Ten years is a long time. And there’s not a day goes by when I don’t think about my Mum. She was smart and witty and kind and quirky and she loved me. She wasn’t just my Mum, she was my friend too. Sometimes I realise just what an influence she had on me, how she shaped much of the way I respond to things. 

For example, flowers. I remember clearly as a small child standing on the path in my second childhood home and my Mum showing me a yellow antirrhinum. Bunny rabbit she called it. She pressed open the petals to my amazed wonder as I clearly saw a rabbit’s mouth and teeth. I have them in my garden now , antirrhinums, several varieties of colour, but the yellow ones always get me. Sweet peas. The fragrance. Mum loved them. I grow them every year. For her. I realised that I love flowers because of my Mum. Maybe I would have anyway? But it would have taken longer. Every anniversary, festival, any excuse, really, I buy some flowers for the home and dedicate them to my Mum. I always hope that maybe, somewhere, wherever she may be, she can see them. 

London. My Mum was born in Bromley. It was geographically Kent then back in 1926 but I think it would be seen as London now. And she moved into the city when she was very young. In a street called Budge Row which no longer exists but it was a stone’s throw from Cannon Street station. Mum knew the streets of London like the back of her hand, it was her playground. She and her brother, Bobby, often played  in St. Paul's Churchyard. My sister moved to London to live back in the eighties and has never left. Something in the blood maybe? And I love going to the city. There are so many places there where I feel close to my Mum. She once said in her last years that she wondered if she’d ever see London again. My sister would have driven her but she didn’t feel up to the journey. So she didn't. And I still feel sad for her. 

And food! My Mum was an amazing cook. She won prizes for her sponges. The birthday cakes she decorated for all of us! I remember for my Dad's 50th she did a cricket pitch cake.And I remember an ET cake.... Her  shortcrust pasty was shorter than any you've ever tasted. Paul Hollywood would have had repetitive strain injury from shaking her hand if she'd ever been on Bake Off! And Masterchef! It was mid way through a series when she died and although I'd never watched the show up to that point I started. It was bit like the Stieg Larsson, she couldn't see to the end so I had to do it for her.  Dumb thing is I still watch the show! For her. I have her set of saucepans. I didn't inherit her cooking skills I hasten to add, but using them, knowing the numerous times that she had, the Xmas dinners she'd cooked etc, some days it makes me smile to hold the handles she held, others it makes me weep for the missingness of her. 

Cats. Mum was something of cat magnet. Maybe if she'd been the same with dogs I'd have been a dog person but I think I'm a cat person because of her. The first cat I remember was Whisky who left home when my sister was born. Whisk didn't like the competition for attention and went a few doors down where she lived the life of Riley with two old ladies  who spoiled her rotten. Then there was Peter. My brother named him. Petey. He lived to be 21. My Mum wrote this poem for him when he was put to sleep. It still makes me cry.

'Dear little cat, we have shared these years with such a special love.
A joy on sunny days, always my comfort on the grey ones, my best friend.
Dear little cat, such undivided loyalty and funny, warm and sweet.
You are in every corner of our home and always will be.
I feel your silky head beneath my hand, your pleasure at my touch.
Dear little cat, sleep well, with no more pain.
Remember our happy days, dear little cat.
I love you so much.

Finally, and relevant to this blog,  there was books and reading. How I wish I could share this bookish, bloggish journey with my Mum. She would have loved it and no matter how bad a blogger I am she would have been proud of me. She read to me every night when I was little. I can remember the books - Fudge the Fairy, The Enchanted Wood. She took me to the library before I could read and I remember Teddy Robinson books and begging her to read them to me with my child’s spontaneous, benign, inconsideration. So what if I had a squalling, baby sister who needed feeding!  And we continued to share books throughout our lives. I remember finding the second of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy on her bedside with her bookmark in, unfinished. Somehow I felt the need to read it for her and I read the whole trilogy finding some comfort in the strength of Lisbeth Salander. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the reader  I am  today without my Mum.

It wasn’t all roses though. I mean, I was a teenager once. And it wasn’t until I was seriously an adult that Mum and I came to understand each other better. I guess there comes a point in your life where the realisation that your parents were people before they were Mum and Dad hits you. When you begin to understand they had hopes and dreams, fears and foibles and were as flawed as the next person and didn’t always ‘get it’. I know I spent some years convinced that neither of my parents understood me in the slightest. My Mum was exceptionally self critical and beat her self up about her perceived bad parenting. But it’s not as if rearing kids comes with a book of instructions? I know that to a large degree my mum was an unfulfilled person. Her life was interrupted by a World War II bomb and I don’t believe  she ever resumed it to her own satisfaction. But she was incredibly resilient and made the best of things her whole life through. There were things she dealt with but it serves no purpose to go into detail here. I know that in her last months there were things she said that made me incredibly sad. She said that she wished she’d done more with her life and my attempts to detail all the the things she had done I knew were futile as I experience the same feelings myself!! 

When it came to her funeral I had a very strong sense that I wanted every to know how great my Mum was. And I didn’t want  a cleric, albeit a well intentioned one, who didn’t know her to speak on our behalf. So against everything in my nature I decided I would speak at her funeral and I wanted so much to convey the lively, funny person she’d been. I wrote the following for her and it somehow seems fitting to revisit it again, this ten year anniversary of her passing. But I do need to put it into context a little! My Mum was no technophobe and had a freeview box almost before they were invented! She had a laptop and a mobile phone. And a lot of the motivation for these was because she had a crush on Simon Cowell! I know!! The song Hallelujah by Alexandra Burke had won the X Factor that year and Mum had wanted to hear all the different versions. We chose k d lang’s version as the closing song at her funeral. 

Eulogy For My Mum

My Mum would be very surprised to see me standing up here today. She knows how much I dislike attention, standing up in front of people and doing a lot of talking…..

But I always told Mum I’d do anything for her, and so, Mum, I’m doing this for you today.

I know that everyone thinks their Mum is the best in the world and I know that everyone thinks their Mum is a Mum in a million. But my brother, sister and I don’t think that at all. 
We KNOW it.

My Mum lived to be 83 years 2 months and 9 days and that’s a lot of life………

  • From her childhood in London, her beloved London, the city that stayed in her heart all her life. 
  • Adolescence during the war, air raids and the blitz and the bomb that sent her from London to Southend.
  • Marriage in post war Britain, ration books and utility furniture
  • Bringing up children in the 50s and 60s.
  • Travelling in the 70s, on her first trip she went to Canada, USA, Australia, and South Africa. Mauritius and Hawaii and she loved every second.
  • The 80s bought retirement, the bowls club, Masonic and Probus lunches.
  • The 90s brought widowhood but also grandchildren.

But my Mum was never one to live in the past. She lived in the moment; She was up to date with everything, a silver surfer, a buzzy old lady who had a witty quip for most situations.

  • Like the time she failed her first driving test by going the wrong way down a one way street. “Didn’t you see the arrows?’ asked the examiner. “See the arrows?” said Mum,” I didn’t see the Indians.”
  • Or the time she was discussing the implications of her impending hip surgery with the consultant. She wanted to know what she could or couldn’t do after the op. The consultant who thought he had just another little old lady quipped,” Well you won’t be able to play rugby.” Hmm,” said Mum,” Will I be able to play the piano?” “Oh yes,” said the surgeon. “Great, said Mum” Cause I never could before.”
  • And I remember the time my niece and nephew were staying with me, Mum came over to spend some time with her grandchildren. My niece and I were popping to the shops and as we were leaving Mum yelled.”Can you get me a copy of `Heat’ magazine please? I think there’s an article about Robbie Williams.” My niece was quiet as we walked along the road and then she turned to me and said, Auntie Gill HOW old is Granny Peg?’ For it was never The Lady or The People’s Friend for my Mum. Oh no, it was Heat, Ok, Hello…….

But I don’t really need to tell you all these things, you know them, you know what a very special lady she was. And I’d like to thank you all for coming and helping us celebrate her life.

But there’s another person I would like to thank who isn’t here today. In fact he doesn’t even know of my Mum’s existence. But this man gave my Mum excitement, motivation, a focus, an anticipation and pleasure in all his activities,  Mr.Simon Cowell. Thank you.

Simon, you looked for Pop Idols, you looked for American Idols. You looked to see if Britain had Talent.  But, you know, you never looked in the right places. There was only ever one person who had the X Factor and that was my Mum.

Hallelujah Mum. We Love You.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun - Sebastien Japrisot

Translated by Helen Weaver
With an introduction by Christian House

Nicknamed the Graham Greene of France this intriguing novel confirmed that accolade for me. I had an overwhelming sense, too, of Japrisot being ahead of his time for this, surely, is a superb example of the psychological thriller, a genre so beloved today. I was amazed to learn that this was originally published in 1966! Despite the shift in society’s dynamic and our dependence on technology this story reads as fresh as if it were written today. 

As well as Graham Greene I was forcibly reminded too, of Patricia Highsmith. That powerful sense of the sliding door syndrome where one simple action can change the course of events dramatically and as a reader you will the protagonist to do what would be sensible and avoid all the kerfuffle!! But what kind of a story would you have then!! It’s so clever and that sense runs though this Japrisot gem. 

I think ‘doubt’ is the key element in the success of these stories. Doubt is put into the mind of the reader by the doubt that exudes from the mind of the protagonist. What is clever in the structure of this novel is the change from first person narrative to third person narrative for Dany our protagonist. The sense of doubt is intensified as the reader is forced to consider whether the first person narrative is the one we believe…….. or should it be the third person narrative we believe? A clever device.

Like the Thunderbird car, which is almost a character in its own right, the story journeys along like a road trip pausing at salient points along the way for a refuel of reader energy and time to consider facts before we go hurtling off again to be assaulted with more actions and diversions confusing and enthusing us to find out what the hell is going on!?

Dany is that epitome of psychological thriller ‘heroines’; a paradox of frail and flawed yet strong and certain and, along with doubt, paradox is at the heart of this genre. You feel that nearly everyone she meets is a potential risk to her equilibrium and the desire to protect her is immense. 

But where this book seems to depart slightly from the current trend in psychothrillers of narrative exposition was its penchant for the poetic and ambiguous, especially the conclusion. Printed in italics there is almost a whimsy to it that somehow satisfies the reader that Dany is okay! Skilled is the writer to make us care so much about their characters. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I am so grateful to Isabelle Flynn at Gallic Books for sending me an advance reading copy. 

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Gone - Leona Deakin

This review was originally featured in a Nudge Books blog tour slot.

What they are saying about Gone.

‘I couldn’t put it down!’ - Me

‘A real page turner!’ - Me 

‘Some dark, shady characters!’ - Me        

‘An edge of the seat thriller.’ - Me

’Some nail biting moments.’ - Me

Yep! I said all of that!! Gonna need some shelf shuffling you best selling, psycho thriller tomes ‘cause you need to make room for this little beast! No ‘girl’ this time, just Gone with a capital ‘G”! 

Okay, so this is a debut novel and as such it isn’t perfect by any means but I’m willing to forgive much for a story that had me hooked from the start. I practically read this in one sitting. So what has this got that other psycho thrillers haven’t, I hear you ask? An original premise for a start. Missing persons stories aren’t unusual and there have been some ingenious ‘takes’ but so far in my literary experience this take tops the lot. For whereas the missing persons are usually the victims, those in danger, here, the missing persons are the dangerous ones!

Talking in riddles am i? Maybe. I will struggle to avoid spoilers but I’ll have a go at letting you in on why you do need to read this audacious little number. It opens with a typical enough brief prologue suggesting a nasty little perp (but that is neatly enfolded in some of the ensuing storyline with one of the main characters  Augusta Bloom). From there the action jumps to another character and, because you think  you’ve read many thrillers like this before, you snuggle down believing you’re about to learn of a key player, a main part and you are in a way but not in the way you think you are!! Still talking in riddles am I ? Ha ha! 

Then we’re hit with the source of the tag line, ‘Your gift is the game. Dare to play?', as our new, not main, character has received a first birthday card with that rather insidious greeting inside it. Told you it was original!  This person subsequently goes missing. Then we learn that three other people have received the same because they have gone missing too and left the cards at their last known locations. Are you keeping up?

What follows is a tour de force of deductive psychological profiling and unravelling that has your mind contorting with impossible conundrums. I’ll admit I reached a point where I thought this is just going to fizzle out disappointingly because how can this level be sustained ? But it was. Okay. I’m a smart arse and I did figure out an identity and I guess it was obvious? (I’d be interested as to who found it obvious and who didn’t.) However the ingenuity was such that as a reader I still wanted to, firstly, see if I was right and secondly, see how on earth this writer dealt with the final denouement. It’s a complex plot and to a degree some suspension of belief is required but so worth it. The writing is taut and crisp for the most part. There is some evidence of what I’ve always liked to call ‘debut novel exuberance syndrome’ where some areas are too wordy. I just raced through these bits! 

There’s an good understanding of social media and the place it holds in so many lives now so the story has a very contemporary feel. There was also an interesting juxtaposition of ‘thrilly’ bits and sciencey, psychology bits which flattened out the pace to a degree but the whole experience was immersive. 

The characterisations, I reckon, owe much to the author’s background in psychology. The main character Augusta Bloom was an anomaly. A clever anomaly, for the reader is pulled in more than one direction as to her motivations. The suggestion is that this book is the first in a series and I will be most interested to see where this writer goes next with this character. Marcus was an enigma on some levels but I don’t want to give anything away, let’s just say his background suggested one type of person but the reality didn’t quite match that. So you remain intrigued by him. 

Okay, so I’m in danger of giving too much away if I carry on and I think the impact of this book is dependent on reading with few preconceptions. This is a very strong debut and I will look forward to see how this exciting writer develops. 

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Summerland - Lucy Adlington

Ostensibly a YA novel this Old Adult enjoyed it immensely. Inspired by real events it’s a slim volume that I read in one sitting. I read The Red Ribbon a while back and was keen to explore this latest offering from Ms. Adlington. Like the former book the Holocaust is not far way, so important to keep younger readers informed about one of the worst atrocities in our past history. But here the war is over and Brigitta is a child refugee relocating to England from a war ravaged Europe. 

It’s clear that Brigitta has a past and some secrets that gradually unfold throughout the story into a glorious climax that I truly didn’t see coming. It was jaw dropping moment. It’s a war story and a big house story. It’s a tale of identity and what it means. It’s also a love story on a number of levels. 

Prejudice is dealt with from perspectives of ethnicity, colour, religion and sexuality some, quite subtly done. The book captures that cusp of wartime and peace effectively as people try to return to ‘normality’ . I would suggest that much research has gone into this story yet the narrative does not present as ‘text book prose’ it has a fresh modern feel to it which should resonate with younger readers. It’s not an easy thing to pitch historical fiction at just the right level to capture a younger audience who might have difficulty relating to a past they can’t comprehend. Lucy Adlington does this very well as she tunes into parallel interests between todays youngsters and their historical counterparts. In the Red Ribbon the fashion allusions were pertinent to todays’ kids and in this book the interest in cinema and music is exploited. although of a much different era and style.

The book has an effortless, flowing style and the narrative moves purposefully along drawing its readers with it. The characters are accessible and we relate easily to Brigitta. The adults in the book are contrasts - Sophie Rover and Lady Summer are two examples. There’s plenty of younger characters as there should be in a YA book. It’s well balanced. Although not blatantly a holocaust story, it will go on my shelf with my other holocaust themed books.

My thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

After reading Alex Nye’s excellent Arguing With the Dead, an historical novel about Mary Shelley,  I was motivated to read Frankenstein again. I’m not going to offer a review as such for what can I possibly find to say that hasn’t already been said. I can reaffirm that this is a nigh on perfect example of the gothic novel. I can acknowledge how the celluloid view of Frankenstein has caused folk to make the error that the monster and his creator are one and the same, even believing that Frankenstein IS the monster. That always makes me want to urge people to read the book! I had also 'forgotten', or did I in fact ever realise, that the novel was subtitled 'The Modern Prometheus'. That resonated with me especially in the recent wake of reading Madeline Miller's Circe. But ultimately I quickly became absorbed again in the story and the quality of the writing. I can report that the experience was highly enjoyable!

But a couple of other things also occurred to me. Generally, how valuable rereading a book is. For me it’s a time issue. With so many new books being published and my shelves overflowing with books I want to read for the first time let alone a second, rereading has become something of a luxury. I don’t know how many years it is since I read Frankenstein the first time, but it is a lot! And in that time I had forgotten some things completely, certainly in terms of detail. Age does mess with your memory! I was struck by how vibrant the writing is.  I also realised how I have developed as a reader and my appreciation of style and structure,narrative,  character development, not to mention plot, have become more acute. Or is that because knowing the story I can concentrate more on those aspects of a book? Which leads me to wonder how much better a reviewer I might become if I could indulge in several readings of a book before committing and cementing my thoughts.

The other thing is how one work can enhance another. My knowledge of Mary Shelley was more basic than I realised until I came to read Arguing with the Dead! I’m always grateful for fictional representations of a notable person’s life because somehow I’m more likely to read it than a biography. This sounds perverse but often there’s such a choice I dither about making a decision and possibly end up reading none of them. But a fictional work sends me scurrying to find out more especially if there’s a concise bibliography. So now I feel a deeper understanding of Mary Shelley which fuelled my desire to read Frankenstein again and my next aim is to revisit Shelley and Byron who I have only read sporadically in last years. 

So, finally, I'm reminded of the adage that one thing leads to another. It has here in a most positive and thought provoking way! 

“a single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought” 
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays

Thursday, 15 August 2019

C’est La Vie - Pascal Garnier

This slender little volume is a fine example of the perfect novella. It’s an undemanding, quick read - I read it on a train journey - yet immensely satisfying. Kudos to the translator who has allowed none of Garnier’s subversive wit to go astray in the translation. I laughed out loud at one point much to the amusement of my fellow travellers!

There’s something almost surreal about the programme of events covered in this book. The narrator, Jeff Colombier, his son Damien and a diverse cast of characters are let loose within the pages of this book. Part of the action takes place in Lille, a city with which I am familiar, and it reminded me of the film In Bruges, another location familiar  to me, for the atmosphere and dynamic created. 

For such a slim volume a great deal happens! Some might see Colombier as going through a mid life crisis when his taste of success at age 50 sends him spiralling into a confused path of skewed hedonism. It’s a combination of irony and some ‘ouch’ moments but everything works so well within the structure of the book. 

It’s one of those clever stories where the reader is allowed to perceive what the narrator doesn’t appear to and it’s a device that’s guaranteed to lure the reader in. The characters are unique, for example,  ‘Monsieur Billot, barrister and thalidomide victim’, and whilst sometimes you wonder whether they are part of some drug crazed hallucinatory trip they certainly remain in your mind. 

It’s irreverent maybe, with some choice images, ‘The trigger trembled under my finger like a clitoris.’ but that’s what makes it such an entertaining read. This is my first taste of Garnier, but, oh, I want more!!

Thank you Isabelle at Gallic Books for an advanced reading copy. This book publishes on August 15th 2019.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Vanishing Hours - Barney Norris

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance proof of Five Rivers Meet on a Wooded Plain several years ago, Mr. Norris’s debut novel. At the conclusion of my review I opined ‘……I will be interested to see how he develops as novelist. If this first book is anything to go by then we are in for a treat.’ Regrettably I have not explored his second book, Turning for Home, …….. yet. But after reading this third most recent work, courtesy of Nudge/NewBooks Magazine, I shall seek it out. It’s a great feeling to be right! For yes, treat is the operative word. I read the first twenty or so pages of The Vanishing Hours openmouthed for it seemed  as if Mr. Norris had secretly observed my innermost thoughts! It isn’t that I have suffered exactly the same traumas as his character but so much of what she feels and thinks could mirror me

‘This is not my real life and I don’t think now that it ever will be. It’s probably time for me to accept that my real life will never happen.’

I think I want these two sentences carved on my headstone! And that was just the beginning! But  I shall not allow myself to travel the route of self absorption and subjectivity since that does not constitute an objective consideration of this book. But I would be doing a disservice not to mention how deeply the opening pages resonated with me. 

I love debut novels but I also enjoy seeing how a novelist develops in their subsequent works. I remember admiring the poetic prose from ‘Five Rivers….’ and that is another feature of the narrative style in this story. It’s expansive and evocative, allowing the reader to vicariously experience the various accounts and situations described in the book most palpably. There is a dreamlike, Kafkaesque quality to some of the sequences in the story. I’m not wishing to give anything away but the second character finds himself in a sequenced and almost dystopian time warp of diverse proportions. It’s compelling reading and you’re carried along in a crescendo of words and events that almost leave you needing to come up for air.

In contrast the female character has a less voluble, more emotive, tale to tell. In essence these two strangers meet in an hotel bar and begin to exchange their stories. If it sounds like Brief Encounter think again! Some salient details are deliberately enigmatic offering the reader an opportunity for open ended debates as to specific details, hints and suggestions but it’s sub text to a point and it’s only crucial to the plot if you want it to be! For example we know the the lady is having ‘treatment’ but we aren’t told what. I found this an interesting device because the readers’ interpretation will be dependent on their own experience and sensitivity. 

I came to a light bulb point where I believed I could see where the tale was headed. And I was correct in the broadest sense but the detail was not predictable. And the conclusion, again, hinted but did not state, of a potential optimism that was uplifting.

I found it to be a highly original story. Much of the narrative was unexpected and had that curious ability to throw the reader just a little off balance. Just two characters with their individual dialogues and I had a sense that Mr. Norris’s career as a playwright had influenced the work. I could even see an idea like this perhaps starting life as a potential two person script. It’s a compelling narrative that takes you into an other consciousness almost. In fact the book is referenced in the novel but it was like The Magic Faraway Tree - but for grown ups. 

Although it weighs in at under two hundred pages it’s a perfect example of quality not quantity. For every word counts. And there are some delightful maxims to think about.

A little lesson buried in our memories for when we are ready to learn it.’

‘This is what no one understands. You can’t judge someone whose life you haven’t lived. You can’t judge anyone, not in the end, not really. Because you never know where they’re coming from, what standards they’re holding themselves to.’

As such, a book like this is not easy to categorise if you’re wishing for a genre. Its themes are deep, although fundamentally it’s about love and all its complexities. And I suppose it is a love story, with aspects of a modern fairy tale even. But let’s throw away our need to label and define. Just go and read the book!

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Literary Explorations Contemporary Fiction and Poetry - Dr. Abhimanyu Pandey

As further evidence of my diversity this week sees me blogging a chick lit type tome, a fictionalisation of the life of Mary Shelley, an anthology of classic crime stories and now a collection of literary essays from the Anaphora Literary Press.

I responded to a Librarything Early Reviewers offer to put in a request for this. It was eformat which I loathe with a passion but somehow I felt drawn, particularly by the mention of Sylvia Plath,  so I cast caution aside. I suppose I wasn’t surprised to be successful as it didn’t strike me as having mainstream appeal. Fortunately I’m not mainstream, much of the time!! So I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read these absorbing essays.

This collection of essays were written between 2014 and 2019 by Dr. Abhimanyu Pandey who teaches as a Guest Faculty in the Department of English and MEL at the University of Allahabad. The collection comprises seven essays:-

  1. Evolution in Magical Realism
  2. The Question of Voice and Sylvia Plath
  3. The Postmodern Hero
  4. Showcasing Masculinity
  5. Narrative Skills, Language and Dialogue in Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani
  6. Culture, Language and the Post Truth World
  7. The Biographical and Autobiographical; Two Canadian Poems

The challenge for a reviewer here is to avoid, necessarily, entering into some kind of remote, monologue type discussion with the essayist but rather to offer an objective overview of what’s on offer and give the reader some idea of what they might expect should they choose to seek these essays out for themselves.

Dr. Pandey is scholarly and erudite yet his essay style is accessible and informative. Whilst some of the essay titles hint of broader aspects, ultimately Pandey seeks to compare within more narrow margins. Hence the essay on magical realism looks at two works in relative depth, Robin Gregory’s The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman and Lakshmi Raj Sharma’s The Tailor’s Needle. 
Pandey’s work is literary and he offers his viewpoints with convincing and supported arguments. 

Of greatest interest to me was the essay where Dr. Pandey considers the notion of author voice with particular reference to two poems of Sylvia Plath, Mirror and Daddy. He acknowledges the wealth of views of this subject and confines his essay to include the views of five others. He seeks to correlate these five views into some kind of whole. The premise is to consider whether an author’s voice is their own inner voice or whether it is a shift from their own personality. In essence when Plath writes about Daddy is she writing about her own father? 

The Postmodern Hero focuses on Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani. Almasy and Jas are used as examples to examine features of the hero in post modern literature. Dr. Pandey returns to Londonstani in another essay where he is examining the book not from the post modernist view but from aspects of language and vernacular. This was the only time I took issue with Dr. Pandey! He credits Malkani with coining the word ‘jackshit’ yet the word has been around since the 1970’s!! 

In Showcasing Masculinity Pandey uses The Kite Runner as his basis and turns what might be a contentious issue in today’s times into a well considered exploration of multiculturalism, looking at how the three men in the story, Baba, Amir and Hassan, are connected to Afghanistan or US multiculturalism.

Culture, Language and the Post Truth world offers a broad consideration of how culture has impacted democratic societies. 

The concluding essay looks at two poems from, again Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood. Ondaatje’s Letters and Other Worlds and Atwood’s Disembarking at Quebec. The comparison is looking at the biographical and the autobiographical. It somehow seems a fitting way to conclude this fascinating collection of literary thought.

My thanks to Librarything for the opportunity and Anna Faktorovich of the Anaphora Literary Press for a copy of this intelligent and thought provoking collection of essays. 

Monday, 12 August 2019

Deep Waters - Ed. Martin Edwards

Subtitled ‘Mysteries on the Waves’ Deep Waters is an engrossing collection of short stories from classic crime writers, lovingly curated by Martin Edwards. Linked by the common theme of water the collection offers a diversity of crime by a number of authors, some well known, Conan Doyle, C.S.Forrester, Michael Innes for example, others less so, but each story has earned its rightful place within the collection. There’s a rich variety of crime covered, from detective led tales to blackmail, murder, headless corpses and poisoned brandy glasses. Something for every crime fan to enjoy. The anthology arrangement too is satisfying and I feel that some time was spent in getting the stories in just the right order to offer optimum enjoyment fro the reader. 

As with all collections everyone will have their favourites. I particularly liked William Hope Hodgson’s Bullion. I enjoyed the originality of the premise and it’s execution with a well paced narrative. A fine example of the closed room mystery - only in this case the room is at sea!! Another favourites was R. Austin Freeman’s The Echo of a Mutiny where much of the action takes place on a lighthouse. In this story the detailed unravelling of the crime by the forensic detective Thorndyke is ingenious. If I’m not careful I’ll end up citing each story in the book or worse throwing out too many spoilers.  So I’ll limit my self to one more, Gwyn Evans The Pool of Secrets which appealed to me because, for its time, it must have been considered far fetched, yet today it seems quite plausible, that juxtaposition was fascinating. It was also another unique crime and the solving of it is simply so satisfying to read. 

There are sixteen stories in all, each prefaced by an informative introduction about the writer enabling the reader not only to place the work in some kind of chronological context but also to see its place within the development of crime writing overall. 

The short story is sometimes an overlooked genre. I’ve never quite understood why. But it is well represented by the British Library Crime Classics Collection. Within this format it offers crime fans the opportunity to experience some wonderful crime stories that might otherwise pass them by. This collection is their thirteenth themed anthology.

As ever my heartfelt and grateful thanks to British Library Publishing for a copy of this book.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Water Shall Refuse Them - Lucie McKnight Hardy

This was one of those books that seemed to be popping up everywhere on social media. Not in an overhyped, over publicised way but in a genuinely interested way. What really clinched it for me was when the publishers retweeted a photo of Margaret Atwood with a copy of the book, complete with a bookmark, suggesting it was her current read. I thought to myself, if it’s good enough for Margaret Atwood it’s good enough for me! I bought a copy.

Fiction with a sense of place is one of the first things that popped into my head. The location, ostensibly a Welsh village but a sense of the remote, the homogenous, the secluded, gives the book its faintly uneasy, claustrophobic vibe that pervades the narrative the whole way thorough. The family in the story temporarily relocate to Wales in an attempt to come to terms with an overwhelming loss but it seems the opposite result is achieved. 

There is an profuse sense of sadness, for the book examines loss and grief and the affect it has on the survivors. The reader is offered the barest of details initially of the tragedy that has befallen Nif and her family. But like an onion the layers are peeled back to reveal the truth which is shocking. You may intuit an inkling of the final denouement but it’s almost too much to contemplate! Set in 1976, the  drought of that year seemed to me to be metaphorical, nomads in a desert searching for an oasis. Each character seemed to be locked into their own depleted world and searching for that elusive relief. But because of this no one seemed really to be able to reach out to each other and offer comfort. Instead they seemed to turn to third parties, to rituals, to find some solace, some meaning, some way to untangle their twisted and troubled thoughts.

It’s book of obsession, of searching for a belief system to get you though your troubled existence. It’s very unsettling to read. I found the instances of animal cruelty unpleasant, malicious, sadistic, I hope that’s not a spoiler, but I can see why they were necessary within the narrative. I had a sense of ‘Lord of the Flies’ with  basic, feral almost, behaviours certainly from the younger characters. and I suppose it is a coming of age story to a degree. 

It’s actually hard to categorise which is always a plus for me!! There’s a sense of folklore and mystery,  of subtle horror and the neo gothic, some spiritualism and new age ideologies. It’s well paced and quirky. But it’s not an uplifting book. Sometimes the reader gets a satisfaction from reaching the truth at the conclusion of a novel but here it serves to promote a sense of disquiet and impending doom.

This is apparently the author’s first book. I say apparently because the writing showed a maturity that you don’t always find in a debut novel. In many ways it’s a strange book where the reader can’t really engage with any of the characters yet it's compelling and remains with you for some time after. Not all writers can do that with a first book. That’s enough to firmly keep Lucie McKnight Hardy on my literary radar.