Friday, 7 December 2012

The Whirling Girl by Barbara Lambert

Clare is a very damaged young woman, whose life has been a web of lies and disguises.  She is a flawed, multi-dimensional heroine, feisty, maddening, but also likeable. Clare has become famous as the author of a book of unusual botanical paintings made on a trip to the Amazon, but there is a mystery surrounding it which Clare is reluctant to talk about.

When the story begins, Clare’s uncle, whom she hasn’t seen for years, has recently died and left his property in Tuscany to her, rather than to his wife, who is bitter and angry.  Clare is stunned by the bequest, but she travels to Italy to talk to the lawyers, taking her uncle’s ashes with her as instructed.

Her uncle’s house is in the heart of Etruscan territory and Clare is soon caught up in an archaeological intrigue which seems to have been part of her uncles’s legacy.  And there are two men trying to claim her attention, both of whom have dubious motives.   Clare has no idea who she can trust and her instincts are to trust no one.

I enjoyed reading this from the moment I opened the book - Barbara Lambert’s prose is rewarding and her handling of a complex plot very sure-footed.  I love archaeology and have spent hours crawling around in Etruscan tombs, so I enjoyed the detail.   In Italy it is quite normal to have an Etruscan tomb in your back garden - or to fall into one while walking your dog in the woods.  They lurk behind screens of vegetation or appear disguised as animal sheds or store-rooms cut into the rock.  This is one we stumbled into in the woods near Orvieto last January.
For anyone who has lived in Italy Clare’s story, the machinations of a corrupt bureaucracy, and the subtle ambiguities of motive that affect everyday life, are all totally believable.

The Whirling Girl is an excellent novel, soaked in Italian sunshine and Tuscan wine - jewel bright with antiquities and rare botanical specimens.  I also liked the way the author closes the story - there are no neat happy endings in real life - only more possibilities, and so it is for Clare. A very satisfying read.

Barbara is talking about how she found the idea for the novel over on my main blog today.

At the moment The Whirling Girl is only available in paperback, but it's hoped that the E-edition will be out soon.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Stone in a Landslide: Maria Barbal

Peirene Press specialises in novellas translated from a variety of European languages - this one was written in Catalan and tells the story of Conxa - brought up in a remote village in Spain before the Spanish Civil war changed everything.  It’s a story of a particular kind of innocence that provides no protection against the world of complex national politics.  ‘War,’ Conxa writes ‘is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright.  And I was barefoot with my children......’ 

Peirene Press gives us access to literature not usually available in English, written in very different literary traditions - and that’s why I like them so much.  They aren’t manufactured in a literary world dominated by media marketing gurus and the creative writing factories of Britain and the USA.  Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and is a Catalan classic.

It belongs to a much gentler tradition of oral story-telling.  It’s a memoir of a life lived with no big events other than birth, marriage, sickness and death and no narrative hooks other than the desire to know what happens to the shy compliant girl, forced to leave her home because there isn’t enough food to go round. In the early years of the twentieth century, when peasant communities across Europe were still isolated and impoverished, Conxa is sent to live with a childless aunt.

All the bewilderment of someone who has never been out of sight of their home at any time in their life is conjured up in the novel as Conxa is taken to a nearby village to be handed over to her aunt and Uncle.  Because travel can only be afforded on foot, Conxa knows that she will rarely see her parents or brothers and sisters again.

Conxa has been brought up to obey - to keep quiet - not to have an opinion.  Fortunately her uncle and aunt are kindly and she is allowed to marry the man she falls in love with.  Her delight is in the landscape, in the daily tasks of feeding animals, fetching in the hay, cooking food for her family - she has no interest in politics and is happy to believe the priests who tell her that it is God’s will that everyone keeps their allotted places.  But for her husband Jaume, it’s different.  The world Conxa lives in is about to be changed and she has only her own courage and integrity to carry her through.

Other Peirene Press titles I’ve enjoyed:

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul
The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg
Maybe This Time - Alois Hotschnig

Friday, 30 November 2012

Sarah Hall: The Beautiful Indifference

This is a collection of prize-winning, much applauded stories.  They certainly gleam - sharp-edged, flawlessly designed -  ‘showing’ as perfectly as video clips, the language deliberately challenging, the situations diverse.  But, for me, there is something so self-consciously intended about them, it takes away some of the pleasure of reading. 

But then I think, if I were not another writer, would I be aware of the puppeteer pulling the strings?  As a writer you read differently.  Sarah Hall’s writing is always excellent, honed and polished to shine brightly. But these stories lack some essential emotional quality that would take them from the exceptional into the category of brilliant. After thinking about it for some time, I realise that one of  my main problems with them was that the voice of the young woman in each story is very similar - all the stories could be spoken by the same woman. And I can't get away from the fact that the stories leave me rather cold.  In fact, feeling exactly like the title story ‘a beautiful indifference’.

There are two outstanding stories.  The first is Vuotjarvi, where a young couple stay in a borrowed house beside a remote lake and ecstasy turns to tragedy.  The suspense is compelling.  The other story that stands out is She Murdered Mortal He (first published in Granta), an interior monologue, set in a remote African location, where a young couple are again on holiday.  The story is unsettling, and one is never sure of exactly what has happened, or what the roles of each individual are exactly.

Butcher’s Perfume is set in my own home territory, and I know the templates of the characters - real people she has caught on the page, like pinned butterflies.

One of the most beautiful stories (The Nightlong River) is about two young women set in some fictional past or future and their relationship.  That, for me was one of the most successful - the title story less so.

These stories are interesting as examples of modern short fiction - they’ve been described as ‘dazzling’ and they are, but I don’t want to be just dazzled, I also want to feel the warmth of the light.  For me the very best contemporary short fiction writers are still David Malouf, Alice Munro, and Ali Smith. But Sarah Hall isn’t far behind.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is not a biography.  It is exactly what it says in the subtitle on the cover ‘The working life of Herbert Allingham’.  I read it because I’m a fan of his daughter, the crime writer Margery Allingham, and I was fascinated to learn about her family background.  I hadn’t known that her father (in fact her whole family) worked in the popular literature industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Allingham was born into it.

Julia Jones (no relation!) inherited the Allingham family archive when Herbert’s youngest daughter, Joyce, died, and Julia has also written a biography of Margery - soon also to be released as an e-book. The archive has proved to be a wonderful resource - a unique collection of documents giving us a window onto the world of ephemeral popular literature - the soap operas of our great grandparents’ generations.

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory  is a fascinating account of the growth, flowering and diminishing of mass-market literary culture - the penny and half-penny illustrated weekly papers that my grandmother used to refer to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but read all the same. Most of the titles have now vanished, but Tit-Bits was still around when I was a child and my mother was still reading Women’s Weekly and My Weekly (in their modern transformations) when she died a few years ago.

This book tells a big part of the social history of Britain - how the weekly papers with their serials and stories both reflected and influenced a sector of society. They often had titles such as ‘A Woman Scorned’, or ‘A Mother Cast Out’, and plots that resemble silent movie classics like ‘The Perils of Pauline’. Like modern day soap operas, they were unashamedly formulaic with every episode ending on a cliff-hanger. Rags to Riches stories were very popular.  Uneducated boys from homes of unimaginable poverty, with dead-end jobs in factories, women who spent their lives in household drudgery, read them or had them read to them.  The periodicals were even sent to the front during the first world war to brighten the lives of the ‘Tommys’. 

Julia Jones clearly describes how changing social conditions - divorce, feminism, education etc, changed the content that Herbert Allingham scribbled every week for 50 years until he died.  He was as much a factory or industrial worker as any of those who bought the papers.  There are no holidays when you have three children to feed and educate and you’re paid by the yard.  There was no welfare state.

Although Herbert’s work was published in almost all the periodicals throughout this time, his name rarely appeared - the authors of serial fiction were usually anonymous.  This seems rather cruel.  Cruel too that Allingham, unlike his daughter, never had the chance to see his fiction between the covers of a book. 

His personal life seems to have been sometimes quite bleak - his wife Em is described as a ‘cough drop’ - a bit of an acquired taste.  She appears neurotic and wilful and her daughter Margery obviously had a difficult relationship with her.  But Em too, was often part of the Fiction Factory - helping Allingham write some of his serials, writing stories of her own. A strange, possibly unrequited, love affair with a doctor resulted in a complete breakdown.  Allingham wrote through it all, producing his 10,000 words a week whatever calamity was taking place at home.

So, at least I now know the context that framed Margery Allingham’s development as a writer.  She described herself once as her ‘father’s apprentice’.  He helped her all he could, though he didn’t always understand her different gifts.

This is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated with frames from the ‘penny papers’ and it will please those with an academic interest in the history of popular culture as well as the casual reader interested in social history and biography. The paperback is expensive, though it’s a bargain when you think of the research that has gone into it and the amount of information it provides, but the E-book is affordable on Amazon at 7.99.  Hurrah for E-books!!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Light Between Oceans: M.L. Stedman

I bought this book because it had good write-ups and I liked the first couple of pages I sampled.  the beginning is a really good example of how to start a book and hook the reader in.  The descriptions of the remote island off the coast of Australia, the sea and the lighthouse were to die for - it really tapped into that romantic childhood fantasy about living on a lighthouse and being a lighthouse keeper (yes, I know I'm a girl!!!)

But it was the reading on that I found difficult.  I found it quite an upsetting book to read and found myself skipping chunks - big chunks  - because I needed to know what happened but I couldn't bear to read about it.  There are some books that just tap into deep emotions and they're not always ones you want to experience.  I'm not going to say more because I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't yet read it.

Briefly - Tom, a returning hero from World War One, becomes a lighthouse keeper and meets his wife Isobel, a small town girl, and takes her out to Janus Island where things don't exactly go to plan.  Then, one day, a boat washes up onshore containing a dead man and a live baby.....  The moral and ethical decisions that the couple make have repercussions no one anticipates.

The novel is beautifully written, but is also somewhat uneven, as you'd expect from a first book, and I found some of the plot elements stretched my credibility at times.  But it's a very clever and impressive piece of writing.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Asko Sahlberg: The Brothers

I’ve been a convert to Peirene Press’s editions of contemporary European fiction since I read The Murder of Halland by Danish author Pia Juul, and the short stories of Austrian Alois HotschnigThe Brothers comes from Finland and is by Asko Sahlberg, one of the country’s best poets and prose writers, but very little known in England. The book blurb was terse and very brief, but when I read it, I knew I wanted to read the book:
      ‘Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.’

It all begins with a horse - Henrik ‘was a man born to understand horses’.  As a young boy, working his father’s estate, Henrik sees a young colt in a neighbour’s field and knows immediately that he wants it.  It’s a big, ugly, beast of a horse, which has‘the burning eyes of a wolf or a lion, or maybe the Beast of the Book of Revelation’, but there’s a definite, uncanny, connection between boy and colt.

Henrik works five years to get the money to pay for the horse, but in the end he is cheated out of it, as he is cheated of the woman he loves.  He leaves the house in anger and despair to fight for the Russian Emperor, in the war over Finland, while his brother fights on the Swedish side. Henrik hopes to find a new identity in Russia:  ‘In St Petersburg, I thought I could strip off this nation like a torn shirt, but it was not that easy.’  There is too much unfinished business at home, particularly the enmity between the brothers.

When Henrik returns, his presence causes ripples of fear and unease in the house. As the Farmhand remarks, ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat....’  Henrik’s father is dead, his brother Erik now manages the estate and his mother, ‘the Old Mistress’ is in charge of the house. Henrik has little regard for her either, commenting, ‘I might as well pay my respects to the whore of Babylon.’  

We are inside each character’s head in turn and this gives the narrative a certain intensity, but also a claustrophobic feeling, as if you are in an Ibsen drama, inhabiting one character after the other, playing them all.  It took a little getting used to, but in the end I thought it was very effective, and the language is as economical as poetry.

Henrik has returned home at a critical moment.  His brother Erik is mysteriously absent, Anna, Erik’s wife, believes he is having an affair.  Henrik’s mother has taken to drink and the destitute cousin, Mauri, who lives with them as a kind of superior servant, is behaving oddly.  Only the Farmhand is what he has always been.  Although Henrik treats him with contempt, he is also aware that ‘he is the only one of us who is free from the sin of lying and thus he is innocent’.  The atmosphere inside the isolated farmhouse is tense with mutual distrust and dislike.

The novel builds to a very satisfying climax, which I didn’t expect.  Because you see every character from every other character’s perspective, you begin to have a detailed picture of each person and a cumulative knowledge of what is about to happen.

It’s wonderful to get these glimpses into what is going on in European literature at the moment.  What is published in England these days seems mostly to look across the Atlantic to America.  In Europe there are different traditions of story-telling and much more experimental writing.  I suppose the nearest I’ve read recently would be The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt - that’s definitely in the European tradition, and about the same length.  I’ve got a couple more Peirene Press books on the virtual bookshelf, but I’m saving them for a treat!  Peirene Press have the added advantage that their e-books are very attractively priced in relation to the paper back.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Linda Gillard: The Glass Guardian

I don’t normally buy paranormal fiction, though I read the 'Turn of the Screw' at university and last year very much enjoyed Dee Weaver’s indie published novel ‘The Winter House’.  So I wondered how I’d feel about Linda Gillard’s new novel ‘The Glass Guardian’.  The ingredients intrigued me - a musical mystery, a concealed stained glass window, a first world war journal, and a love affair with a ghost, all set in a magnificent, dilapidated house on the Isle of Skye.

Ruth Travers, a TV gardening presenter, has been recently bereaved, losing her lover, her father and her beloved Aunt Janet within the space of a year.  Living alone on the island in the house she has inherited from her Aunt - a famous classical composer - Ruth believes she may be losing her mind when things begin to go bump in the night and a strange red-headed figure in a kilt begins to materialise in the shrubbery.

‘For a start, [ghosts] don’t exist. Obviously.  And even if they did, you aren’t the kind of sad weirdo who’d see one. Ghosts only happen to attention-seeking fantasists with over-active imaginations’.   Ruth is a very normal woman who doesn’t seem to fit any of the categories she mentions, although her life has been so disrupted by grief, if does cross the reader’s mind that she might not be the best person to make an assessment.  Can her judgement be relied on?

There are two other, rather more substantial, men in Ruth’s life; the first is her childhood friend Tom who has been working as a gardener for her Aunt Janet. Tom is single, muscular, and not only attractive, but attracted to Ruth.  Then there is a persistent Canadian musicologist, anxious to look at her Aunt’s papers and resolve an old mystery regarding one of her most famous compositions.  But it’s the ‘phantom lover’ who occupies Ruth’s thoughts, to the point of obsession.

This novel sits firmly in a genre I didn’t even know existed, which is listed on the internet as ‘Adult Paranormal Romance’.  The contents of books in this category are pretty much what the label implies - adult romance with paranormal elements.  I had a quick skip through some examples and quickly realised that, although the Glass Guardian fits the description of the genre, it is much, much better written than most - as you’d expect from an author whose books are described on Amazon as ‘Women’s Literary Fiction’.

Linda Gillard knows how to write a page-turner.  Among her novels House of Silence is still my favourite, though I also loved Untying the Knot.  Many of her readers have liked the Glass Guardian more than her other novels, but I wouldn’t go as far as that.  I’m a complete cynic when it comes to the paranormal - there’s always a knot of cold logic in the centre of my brain that won’t suspend its disbelief, however much I’m enjoying the tale.  But enjoy it I did, in spite of my scepticism.  I wanted to stand in the garden facing the sea and feel the wind blowing in from the Atlantic and glimpse the mountains at my back.  I wanted to be in that kitchen with its warm Aga, a glass of Talisker in my hand, and a very attractive piece of Scottish talent doing the washing up.

The author has already anticipated readers’ reservations - as one of the characters remarks: ‘I used to be more sceptical myself, when I was young and not easily impressed, but I have a clever little sister who’s a particle physicist. Believe me, by the time you’ve had String Theory explained to you, ghosts seem really quite mundane and the existence of time travel only a matter of - well, time.’

I finished reading the novel on a ferry, at night, in the middle of the north sea, and I thought how rare it is to find an author whose books you can trust to be a reliably good read without being the same novel written over and over again.  I have to agree with a fellow reviewer  who wrote that ‘Linda Gillard writes convincingly and authentically about emotions and relationships, creating believable female characters and attractive male leads, incorporating serious elements, and humour, as well as always delivering a highly readable, compelling storyline that keeps me engrossed.’   I still haven’t read 'A Lifetime Burning' or 'Emotional Geology', so it’s back to the Kindle store.  I’m a quick reader, so I hope she has more in the publishing pipeline!

This review first appeared as the Hallowe'en choice on the Indie E-Book Review which features independently published e-books.  The Glass Guardian is my October E-book of the month.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Lighthouse: Alison Moore

It's good to see a small press like Salt up there with the juggernauts, and good to see a debut author in the Booker Prize shortlists.  I'm a great fan of Salt, which publishes some quality writing - short fiction and poetry - so I pounced on this novel straight away.  It's short, under 200 pages, so makes a change from the bloated tomes around at the moment.

The central character of The Lighthouse, Futh, whose grandparents were German, is setting out on a walking holiday in Germany after his wife has left him.  The breakdown of his marriage, slowly revealed through the pages of the novel, parallels the failure of his own parents' relationship which culminated in his mother leaving both of them, without ever making contact again.  Futh is clearly emotionally damaged by this.  His wife has the same name as his mother - 'Angela' - and is prone to telling him "I'm not your mother!"

The novel is as tightly structured as a poem - returning neatly to  its starting point - as circular as the walk Futh is embarking on. There is a strong sense of foreboding, as Futh is befriended by an odd man on the ferry who hitches a lift part of the way and insists on inviting Futh to his mother's house.

At the first hotel Futh meets Ester, a sexually predatory, middle-aged woman with a violent husband.  He barely exchanges a word with her, but something inevitable begins to unfold that involves all the characters.  Margaret Drabble described the book as  'A serious novel with a distinctive and unsettling atmosphere', and it is.

The Lighthouse of the title is a metaphor - central to the novel, but it is also the name of the hotel 'Hellhaus', and the silver casing of Futh's mother's perfume vial which he carries with him like talisman.   Some have criticised the novel for being a bit heavy-handed with metaphors and symbols - too structured in the parallels it creates, but I didn't mind that.  The mechanisms made it feel like a long short story, and - as Nicholas Royle had a hand in the editing - that shouldn't be a surprise.

The writing is clean and spare - not a word too many and the characters are drawn with considerable complexity.  Ester could simply have been a blowsy blonde and Futh a boring sociopath, but they weren't.  Even if the Lighthouse doesn't win the Booker Prize, Alison Moore is an author to watch.  I gave it four stars on Goodreads, not five because it didn't have that 'wow' factor for me - I admired it, a lot, but I didn't love it.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Michelle McGrane: A Suitable Girl

A Suitable Girl was published by Pindrop Press in 2010, but I've only just caught up with it.  Now I regret not reading it sooner.  This is a wonderful collection that displays a breadth of technique across a range of very different poems.   There's a sci-fi sequence 'Lunar Postcards', prose poems that can also be poetic flash fiction, a series of moving elegies to the poet's father,  lyrical poems that sing, and muscular poems that celebrate language.  There's a sensuality in all the poems, (I loved 'Thirteen Ways with Figs') and they all tell stories.  The words are rich and powerful, creating strong visual effects. 

This is from the story of an Irish sailor-woman:

'Through flags of smoke, a square-rigged galley, its blackjack flapping as corsairs swarmed aboard. Snugging the stock into my shoulder, I picked out a flinty crag of a man bawling like the divil hisself and assailing my lads with a boarding axe.'

And in 'The Recalcitrant Muse':
'Sunlight blisters through moth-eaten curtains.
In her mildewed apartment high above the city,
the Muse stumbles out of bed, stubs her toe
in the kitchen as she fumbles for a cigarette,
reheats last night's coffee and loneliness....

'Frangipani Night' is one of my favourite poems because it conjures Africa for me - excessive, sensual, cruel.  The boiling of a live lobster, a moth immolating itself in a candle flame, fruit bats and baobab trees, the decomposing blossoms of the frangipani - whose cloying smell always reminds me of death.

'We sit in silence gazing into darkness,
a coconut shell of shredded seafood
and a bottle of cheap Malagasy rum between us.
The frangipani blossoms strewn on the table
have started to wither, brown at the edges,
spotting a trail of milky sap
across our makeshift tablecloth.'

Michelle is particularly good at taking us back in time.  She takes us along the corpse road in Ireland, or out to sea in 'Terra Marique Potens'.  We sit with Mary Shelley watching the gulf of La Spezia for the glimpse of a sail, and with the Tsarina Alexandra at Ipatiev, oblivious of her imminent execution.  We observe Marie Antoinette aged fourteen, stripped for inspection as she becomes the Dauphine of France.  The range of characters includes Bertha Mason, Madame Bovary, an African mother - and not a suitable girl in sight. In fact, the women are all quite feisty!

Half the Secret

you could never have accused me of being pretty.
I was what they called handsome
like a favoured brood mare or wolfhound bitch.

Renowned, I could outrun every girl on the island
and most of the boys.  I could swim like the wild salmon
and shoot a birch knot at thirty paces.

I could clad a byre-house with wattle and daub
and midwife a milch cow.  I could till and tend herb-beds
and haul turf from the hillsides.

Only once did I long for golden hair, when
Cuán Ó Ruadháin danced with Mairéad Ó Riain  
on the eve of the Midsummer Fair.

For me, a good poem is one that doesn't give up everything at first reading, but has more layers to be unpacked at the next visit.  These are good poems.

A Suitable Girl  © Michelle McGrane, Pindrop Press, 2010.

Also check out Michelle's wonderful poetry review site 'Peony Moon'.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture: Catherine Czerkawska

This collection of three stories should win a prize just for the title!  The action of the title story takes place in Italy, where a young couple with a very new baby are on holiday and visiting a small museum in Tuscany.  The mother suddenly becomes aware that the world is a dangerous, frightening place now that she has another, vulnerable, life to care for.  Her relationships with the baby and with her husband - changed forever by maternity - are unfolded with great subtlety and skill.

Breathe is a lovely account of a relationship with an elderly relative and shared memories of a place that is gradually being demolished.

In The Butterfly Bowl, Debbie inherits a Chinese bowl from her great-great-grandfather.  It’s plain and white but, when filled with water, reveals a beautiful secret.  When a man enters Debbie’s life, the bowl becomes the object of contention and the success or destruction of their relationship pivots around the bowl.

The stories in this collection are quiet and beautifully written.  Catherine Czerkawska is an award-winning playwright and accomplished novelist.  I loved her novel The Curiosity Cabinet   and the Polish family saga based partly on her own family history -  The Amber Heart.  Another novel, Bird of Passage,  has also had rave reviews.  The stories in A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture aren’t ground breaking experimental fiction, just human experiences and relationships portrayed with empathy and considerable style.  If you like contemporary short fiction, by authors such as Polly Sampson (Perfect Lives) or Helen Simpson then you’ll enjoy this book.

Catherine blogs here.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus

I thought I was going to love this book, but found that not enough was going on to keep my attention, and the beautiful writing by itself couldn't compel me to keep on reading.  I skipped quite a lot to get to the end.

I think that a lot of books are ruined by hype and The Night Circus might be one of them.  How you feel about a book is the difference between your expectations and what you find.  I certainly expected a lot more and so was disappointed.  If it hadn’t been hyped, I probably would have enjoyed it more.

I read all the rave reviews, downloaded a sample, liked the sample and bought the book on Kindle.  It's beautifully written, intricately plotted - the word 'exquisite' comes to mind - and it's got some original ideas.  But ...... I quickly became bored.  Not a great deal happens.  The magical duel didn't really involve me as it should and I didn't care about the characters enough to want to know how they turned out. It was all rather precious and somehow distant.  Angela Carter this is not.

If this book hadn't been hyped so much, I probably would have been kinder.  I would have said - fantastic new author, interesting idea, really good writing - watch this space!  But now I wonder whether Erin Morgenstern will be damaged by having too much heaped on her in too short a time. If she's the good writer I think she is, she will survive this and write other fantastic novels.  My worry is that the publishers will just want her to produce more of the same.

If you love fantasy and magical realism, and you don't expect too much, you will enjoy this book very much.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Maybe This Time: Alois Hotschnig

Peirene Press specialise in slim books, translated from a variety of European authors they think we should know more about.  I've read a couple now and I'm hooked. It's so refreshing to get away from the cloned literature churned out by the American and UK mainstream publishers.

The stories in Maybe This Time are weird.  Perhaps if you managed to cross Raymond Carver with Kafka you might get close.  These are dark stories of obsession and illusion.  Alois Hotschnig does disturbed states of mind really well and these stories will take you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way.  I read them twice before I really managed to penetrate all the layers that are there.  The prose is spare - not a word extra - and it's very subtle.  There are nuances of meaning I only got on the second reading. 

The title story  'Maybe This time'  is dominated by the absent member of the family. The narrator tells us about his/her parents 'One of them always used to stay at home. For as long as I can remember they've never left the house together, and for some time now they haven't even left separately, fearing that Walter might come and they wouldn't be here.'  It examines family ties and the price that has to be paid for evading them. 

Unreliable narrators are a given.  You can't trust anyone.  In 'The Beginning of Something' the protagonist is unable to wake from what he thinks is a dream, walking through familiar yet unfamiliar rooms where nothing, even notes written the night before, can be relied on to tell the truth.  The reader inhabits his delusional consciousness with the same precarious grasp of reality and feels the ground shifting beneath them as they read - treading literary quicksand.

Hotschnig is good at the surreal.  In another story (Then a Door opens and Swings Shut) there are rooms full of macabre dolls 'old and new, clothed and naked ... young, middle-aged and old', and among them the protagonist finds one that is just like himself.  

Another story 'You don't know them, they're strangers', is the most surreal of all. The narrator arrives at the door of a flat believing that he is arriving for the first time, but it seems that this is his home, his neighbours know him well and he is shown photographs of himself from earlier times.  He goes out for a drink with a man he claims not to know.  'From the first sentence, it was clear that this man also took him for the person his neighbours believed him to be.  After a while the stranger was as familiar to him as if they had been childhood friends'.

In the morning he sets off for the office at an unknown location;  and again everyone greets him as familiar, though he believes it is his first day.  'He sat at a desk he sensed was his desk, but he was far from certain'.  But in the evening the neighbours greet him as if he's just arrived, a new name is on his flat door and there are different things inside it, although the identity card looks just like him.  A woman calls for him and tells him they are splitting up.  This goes on for some time.  'Every morning he left his flat and was recognised, even if not as the person he thought he was at the time.'

In the end he learns to adapt, to accept that everyone perceives him as someone different and that he simply has to be that person. 'Without disguising himself, he went around disguised, if not from others then simply from himself.'

Maybe This Time is another excellent read from Peirene Press which you can buy in paperback, but it’s on Kindle for only 99p - at last a publisher who knows the value of e-books! I’ve got my eyes on The Brothers, a dark tale from Finland, next!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Sophie Nicholls: The Dress

Today I'm reviewing over at the Indie E-Book Review website and The Dress is my July E-book of the Month, a romantic novel (in the best sense) from a Salt-published poet who proves that Ewan Morrison in the Guardian is wrong, wrong, wrong.  There is some good stuff out there. (And there's quite a heated spat going on if you look in the comments after the article and at the Guardian's Facebook page - JA Konrath, Authors Electric and others taking EM on with no holds barred!).

But back to The Dress and my review:-

'Reading about an independently published novel by a first-time novelist who makes it to the top of the Amazon best-sellers’ list sounds like a fairy tale.  But this isn’t the much discussed Amanda Hocking, this is UK author Sophie Nicholls, whose novel, The Dress, has been an E-book sensation.  It isn’t sci-fi, or fantasy, or crime, or erotica, or any of the other ‘fashionable’ genres at the moment - just straight-forward fiction likely to appeal to a predominantly female audience right across the age spectrum.  

Of course, as it implies in the title, ‘It all began with a dress....’   Read more ......

I will be interviewing Sophie Nicholls to find our how she did it on the Authors Electric blogspot on August 5th. The answers to my questions were a surprise and very interesting.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Brain Turner: Here Bullet and Phantom Noise

Brian Turner served as a US soldier in the middle east and in the Bosnian war in Yugoslavia.   Everything in these poems he has seen, heard or felt.   Here Bullet comes from his active service, Phantom Noise from the trauma of trying to reintegrate into civilian life afterwards.
The poet puts in front of us Wilfred Owen’s ‘pity of war’ as well as Yeats’ ‘terrible beauty’ with the minimum of words and economical imagery.  There is no hyperbole, no gratuitous violence, pathos or horror just for effect.  Brian Turner lets us enter an unimaginable world where human beings are stretched beyond their limits of endurance, where extremes are ‘normal’.   The horror is never condoned. They are trained to kill, but Turner gives a warning in a poem called  Sadiq -

‘It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequence
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists my friend,
it should break your heart to kill’

For me one of the highlights of this collection was the prose poem ‘Last Night’s Dream’ dedicated to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love and war.  The poem records the catastrophic result of any kind of love or union between two opposed cultures, however much it may be longed for by individuals.  Though it also seems to be saying that it is only through love that true understanding can be achieved.

‘In the dream she kisses Arabic into my skin and I understand every word of it, I transcribe it backwards into cuneiform and stone, I rename the arteries and veins for every river and wadi from Dohuk north to Basra south, I feel for this geography of pleasure, my tongue is a marker that writes even in the rain, even in salt and sweat, and I write with it now, over every curve and turn of her body.

In his dream they fuse together and their explosive love-making destroys everything around them.  ‘As we kiss on, long into the denouement of skin and fire, where medevac helicopters fly in the dark caverns of our lungs in search of the wounded, and we breathe them one to another, a deep rotorwash of pain and bandages.’

There are graphic images from war of slowness, hours and hours of waiting and watching, keyed up for action.  
‘And the hours pass the way helicopters
hover above the palm groves
or the way Fiorillo reads letters from his wife
with a red lens flashlight, down in the troop hold.’

In Night in Blue the soldier is leaving Iraq and finds language inadequate to express what he has experienced.

‘At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight.......

I have no words to speak of war. ....

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

Turner's poetry stands with the poetry of other middle eastern poets - Iraqi or Palestinian - it goes beyond politics, articulating what war does to people - physically and mentally.  It asks the question why?  Points out the idiocy of it all, the pointless destruction.

There are beautiful, sensual descriptions of the middle eastern landscape:-

‘Cowbirds rest in the groves of date palms,
whole flocks of them, white as flowers
blossoming into wings when the wind rises up.’

I haven't read war poetry in the English language as powerful as Turner's since I read Wilfred Owen.
As one reviewer put it: the poems ‘leave the reader to draw conclusions or moral lessons. Here, Bullet is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war, regardless of political affiliation.’

More importantly for me, all the poems reference arabic poets and the long tradition of poetry in the middle east, with quotations and epigraphs, Brian Turner fitting his own work alongside theirs in a way that makes conflict between the east and west appear obscene.

Phantom Noise allows us to experience what it feels like to come back to the ordinary lives of ordinary people, in a place of relative safety.  The world of shopping malls and relationships, where every nail becomes a pin from a weapon, every car hides a bomb, the street a booby trap.  The woman in bed with you faces away from you to avoid the war video running in your eyes as you look at her.

Returning soldiers who have seen and done the unspeakable, carry the war inside them like an invisible wound.  The film of it plays and replays in their heads.  Post traumatic stress syndrome isn’t an illness, it’s an alteration of the personality, changing the way the world is seen and experienced.  Brian Turner writes from within it, with supreme intelligence.  If the reader was a fibre optic probe inside the soldier’s brain, we couldn’t have a view more graphic than this.

Personally, I think Here Bullet is the better of the two collections, but it was Phantom Noise that was short-listed for the TS Eliot prize.   Both collections are published by Bloodaxe and are also available on E-platforms. 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Peirene Press - Pia Juul: The Murder of Halland

I like something a bit different to read, and the big mainstream publishers seem so often to just churn out the same-old, same-old, stuff.   So I often trawl the internet for some of the smaller presses, the so-called 'boutique' publishers, like Salt and Granta.  I've just discovered Peirene Press, who publish short novels and novellas of contemporary European fiction in translation.

I've just read 'The Murder of Halland' by Danish author and poet Pia Juul.  It's technically crime fiction, in that the central character Halland is shot in the opening pages, but it's the emotional life of his wife Bess that is the focus of the book rather than a search to find out who committed the crime. In fact at the end of the book I was not much wiser than I was at the beginning, but it was a very interesting journey.

'Pia Juul .... dismantles the rules of an entire genre', the cover blurb promises.  And she does.   This is literary fiction of a very high calibre.  The story is narrated in the first person by Bess herself, and she is a very unstable, unreliable, narrator - dealing with all the baggage of broken relationships - an abandoned daughter she grieves for, an ex-husband who has never forgiven her for leaving.  She doesn't understand her own emotions, locks uncomfortable things away in drawers and boxes.  Things she now has to confront.
Why did Halland have a strange set of keys in his pocket?  Why had all his papers been removed from the house?  Where was he going when he was killed?  Pia Juul gives us exploration rather than answers.

There's a very interesting video of Pia Juul talking about the novel and her work generally - if you can just ignore the irritating interviewer!
I'm currently devouring a book of Austrian short stories from Peirene ('Maybe This Time' by Alois Hotschnig).  The press is a fantastic find - you can take out a subscription and they send you a book every four months, but I'm still tracking through the back list and fancy a book called 'The Brothers' by Finnish author Asko Sahlberg next.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Sue Gee: Last Fling

Salt are rapidly establishing a reputation for publishing fine writing - particularly poetry and short stories.   Sue Gee has written a number of excellent, best-selling novels for Hodder Headline  (Reading in Bed serialised by the BBC, The Mysteries of Glass long-listed for the Orange prize)  but it's Salt who have published her collection of short stories.   I really like Sue Gee's writing and so I delved happily into the twelve stories that make up Last Fling.  They are very, very good - each one reads like the beginning of a novel and I would have gone on and on reading if there had been more.  

If there's a theme to this collection, it's loneliness - the solitary person, only children, single parents, women who have never married, men whose wives have left them, business men alone in a foreign city. As one of the characters remarks: 'being single is an art. It is, like a marriage, something to work at'. These solitary people feel different, even from other solitary people. One of them observes: 'Jenny didn't seem single', she had 'the air of a woman who knew how to live with someone, should she ever choose to.'

Sue Gee was until recently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and is currently teaching for the new Faber Academy - a fast-track scheme for creative writing students.  She really knows how to establish a setting and fill in character within the first paragraphs, and then give each story the depth of a novel. She has a light touch - she never tells too much - and this is a collection of excellent, traditional, short stories - some of the best I've read in a long time.  The title story 'Last Fling', about a gifted musician suffering from cancer, is still with me, turning itself over and over in my head. 

The Kindle edition of this was, at £6.17 at the top of my price range, but small publishers can't discount in the way that the big ones can and - as I feel Salt are worth supporting - I paid up with the certain knowledge that whatever I bought from them would be worth it.  The collection is available in paperback at a similar price.   I'm also delighted to find out that she has a new novel out this year provisionally titled 'The Tiger of Tulsipore'.  More great reading!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Robert Bringhurst: The Tree of Meaning

A Story as Sharp as a Knife was the first book of Robert Bringhurst’s that I read and I found it so interesting I began to look around for others.   The Tree of Meaning is a collection of essays, which were given as lectures on the subjects of language, mind and ecology.  Margaret Atwood wrote that ‘it’s one of those works that rearranges the inside of your head - a profound mediation on the nature of oral poetry and myth, and on the habits of thought and feeling that inform them.’   It’s also about how we use language to make sense of the world, and how we can learn the language of the universe and develop a sustainable relationship with it. 

Robert Bringhurst is known for his work on the mythology and literature of the Haida nation.   When challenged about why he spends so much time learning and researching ‘extinct’ languages, he responds that they are of great practical value to us.  ‘They are the legacy, after all, of peoples who knew how to live in this land for thousands of years without wrecking it.’

Like fossils in rock, these languages tell us a lot about ourselves as well as the people who used them and are a cautionary tale for the present. ‘A language is a life-form, like a species of plant or animal.  Once extinct, it is gone forever.  And as each one dies, the intellectual gene pool of the human species shrinks.’  We lose knowledge that can’t be replaced; we lose diversity and progress further and further towards monoculture.  ‘The structure of meaning,’ Bringhurst asserts, ‘is polyphonic’ - the more voices we lose, the nearer we get to monotony.   A culture is an ecosystem - ‘the community we create for one another’ that enables us to function as a human organism.

He refers to the colonial policies that have led to the mass extinction of languages and cultures.  Bringhurst thinks that the greatest danger to the planet is ‘those who think the world belongs to them’ rather than those who think they belong to the world.  Cultures are still being wiped out and Bringhurst cites the recent Bosnian war ‘where a tradition of oral, epic poetry survived from Homer’s time ....... now, at this moment, the villages in which those poets lived are rubble and mass graves.’

He homes in on our increasing numbers and the flawed logic of consumerism - ‘endlessly increasing material wealth for an endlessly increasing number of humans is a suicidal dream’.  I have to agree with him, particularly when he identifies the moment it all went wrong - the moment when commerce changed from a public service meeting the needs of the community, to a predator, creating needs and strengthening demands ‘turning them into addictions which cause material goods to turn into drugs’.   He doesn’t claim to have answers, but he asks questions and thinks around them in an intelligent way.
But he’s best on language and poetry.  All language, he reminds us, is metaphor - standing in for the thing itself.  What makes a poem?  In poetry ‘it is not the text that counts.  However remarkable this text may be, its poetic quality depends on its author having known how to keep alive in it the light of what is beyond language.’  And he’s very good on metaphor.   ‘In every tuneful metaphor, an interval is sounded.  It is heard in the mind’s eye, or the mind’s ear ..... Two disjunct constituents of reality are evoked, on top of one another, like two bells rung at once.  The interval is the simultaneous consonance and difference between them.’

Simone Weil wrote that the purpose of works of art ‘is to testify, after the fashion of blossoming apple trees and stars.’  Poetry, Bringhurst adds, ‘is the thinking of things’.  Though this resonates with me at an emotional level, I’m not entirely sure what he means by it in plain words. It made me think of Rilke’s lines from the Duino Elegies:

Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House,
Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window, -
possibly: Pillar, Tower?... but for saying, remember,
oh, for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.
A tree has its own truth, a plant or a rock, or a star - anything we say about them can only be at second hand - though as a writer I try to get as close as I can to Rilke’s intense ‘saying’.   Stories and poems grow like trees from the roots of our language - as human beings we crave them.  These are what Robert Bringhurst calls the ‘trees of meaning’, trees that embody the whole history of our culture and take their place in the forest of cultures that have grown during the lifetime of human existence on the planet.  Every tree that is cut down impoverishes our literature and our lives.

According to Bringhurst, the original text is the world itself, a text that we, in our urban, consumer-driven citadels, are increasingly unable to interpret, even as our scientific knowledge of it grows.  The general message of the book is that if we don’t see ourselves as part of the ecology - the forest - of the whole planet, if we continue to exterminate other cultures and species instead of cultivating diversity, we won’t survive, and our stories and mythologies will die with us.

It’s absolutely true, but I can’t help believing that somewhere, somehow, a small group of humans will survive the catastrophe and become feral and their language too will escape into the wild, throw down new roots and grow new branches.   I can’t imagine what it will look like, but on one of the twigs there just might be the story of a man and a woman, a utopia, and a fruit that gave forbidden knowledge and brought expulsion, destruction and ruin.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Blood Tide by Avril Joy

Blood Tide, featuring Private Investigator Danny Beck, is this month's E-book and, because I'd really enjoyed Avril Joy's novel  The Orchid House, I plunged into her first thriller with high expectations and wasn't disappointed.

It’s Newcastle, in the north east of England, and Danny Beck, recently widowed, has left his job in the prison service and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life.  A friend who runs a small private investigation agency has asked him to mind the shop while he goes to Australia to visit his family, and Danny - tired of living in an empty house with nothing to do - has agreed.

On his way to the office, Danny crosses one of the bridges over the Tyne and finds a young girl standing on the girders ready to jump off.  Trained to talk prisoners out of difficult situations, Danny tries to talk her down, but in the end she jumps, throwing him a piece of paper on which she’s written a name and a number.

Danny, who’d expected to be minding the telephone and the desk, or searching for a lost dog or two, finds himself at the heart of an investigation into a major international crime ring centred around a night club called the After Dark, where all kinds of perverted sexual tastes are catered for behind sealed doors.  It’s owned by Harry Munroe, a rich businessman who has powerful friends and the protection of violent thugs who don’t balk at murder.

One of the girls who works at the club, Gina, agrees to talk to Danny, but is too afraid to give much information away.  Then she goes missing and Danny’s search for her brings him up against Aidan, a young ex-soldier traumatised by service in Afghanistan.  He, too, is searching for Gina and has been following Danny’s every move.  Unstable and easily provoked into violence, armed with a sniper rifle, Aidan is someone Danny needs to have on his side rather than against him.  Aidan takes a lot of persuading.

There’s a rich cast of characters in this book, beginning with Danny himself - a complex, intelligent man, bruised by past events, unable to get over the death of his wife, still partly in love with the ex-girlfriend, Sarah, who is now married to his best friend.  Sarah is an artist, struggling with domesticity and her marriage to Tom, who is an ambitious prison governor, willing to turn a blind eye when necessary and without Danny’s moral scruples.  Then there’s Danny’s father, Joseph, one of a hardy breed of Northumberland moor dwellers, independent, cantankerous, but a man worth knowing.  And Sunil, owner of the Indian restaurant beneath the office who becomes Danny’s self-appointed minder.

The landscape of ‘Geordie-land’ is so beautifully drawn - the lilting rhythms of the speech, the curry houses, the old streets around the Tyne.  I could hear it, smell it, see it.  Avril says that when she set out to write the novel she was ‘exploring the themes that I am drawn to as a writer, among which are: the lives of abused and disenfranchised women, prison and the dark side, loss and the healing power of friendship and love, our deep connection with the past and with the landscape in which we live.’

I was gripped by this thriller from beginning to end.  I’d just finished a newly published Italian novel hyped as ‘the new Montalbano’, with all the resources of a big publishing house behind it,  but found the book a struggle to read and totally lacking in the kind of interest and good writing you need if crime fiction is to be anything more than just a plot-puzzle.   Blood Tide, by comparison, was in a different league, perhaps informed by the years that Avril worked in the prison education system which gives it a depth of real knowledge behind the characters and their motivations - on both sides of the legal divide. Avril is also a poet and this gives her prose another dimension.

Avril Joy’s thriller was almost picked up by two big publishing houses.  The story is a familiar one to many Kindle authors.   Avril writes:

When I first sent the novel to my agent I got an immediate and positive response – she liked it – she particularly liked the main characters and the dialogue. Things were looking good. It was picked up more or less straight away by an editor in a London publishing house who was keen to commission it. It went to the States to the co-publishers; was read there, and they declared in its favour. It looked like full steam ahead. I supplied the English publishers with photo, biography etc, etc. I foolishly, naively perhaps, thought we were home and dry.

Then suddenly everything went very quiet until finally after some months the editor said she was sorry but she was no longer in a position to commission crime fiction – not until 2012 at least. The story rolled on from there with other thwarted attempts (which I won’t go into) to sell by my agent until we finally agreed that the best way forward was Kindle!

All I can say is ‘Thank goodness for E-publishing’!  Those publishers are going to regret their decision to let Blood Tide slip, because Danny Beck has all the hall-marks of a classic detective and I can’t wait for the sequel!

Avril Joy blogs at Writing Junkie  

*This review first appeared on the Indie E-Book Review site  edited by Cally Phillips - an excellent guide to the best in E-books.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Marika Cobbold: Drowning Rose

What do you say to a man whose life you destroyed?

Marika Cobbold is good at the narrative hook - grabbing the reader by the throat on the opening page of a novel.  ‘Drowning Rose’ begins with a telephone call.   Eliza, just leaving the museum where she works as a ceramics restorer, is contacted by her godfather for the first time in 25 years.  He wants reconciliation, and in the following chapters, the novel begins to unfold the tragedy that led to their estrangement and the corrosive guilt that has subsequently destroyed Eliza’s own life.

Readers of Marika Cobbold will recognise the heroine - fortyish, childless, prickly, damaged by childhood events.  This time her name is Eliza, and she narrates her life in the first person, from an appropriately skewed viewpoint.  Her antagonist, the bolshy Sandra/Cassandra relates the events of their shared past in another first person narrative, equally partisan.   There are two unreliable narrators, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle for the reader to determine.  This double stranded narrative is another of Marika Cobbold’s hallmarks and it’s expertly handled.

The revelation of character in a first person narrative is very difficult to do successfully, but Marika Cobbold accomplishes it without visible effort.  Sandra/Cassandra seems, at the beginning, to be a rebellious teenager, unlikeable but worthy of the reader’s sympathy, but she gradually reveals herself as the chilling orchestrator of catastrophe.   She has been given a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s boarding school, where she is unable to fit in - always conscious of her working-class background among the daughters of the rich.  Eliza, Rose and their friend Portia appear to her as ‘princesses’, gifted with beauty, money, and the confidence that privilege brings.  Sandra becomes their ‘hanger-on’ and the girls try to treat her kindly, but soon grow tired of her.   From admiration to jealousy and hatred is only a short step.  ‘You seem to think it’s all just out there, just sitting there, waiting for you to go and get it,’ Sandra tells them bitterly.  When she and Rose fall in love with the same boy, it soon becomes clear that there are no limits to what Sandra will do to get what she wants.

But it’s Sandra who gives us a clear picture of the 16 year old Eliza, caring, artistic, with all her life spread in front of her like a gift.   She has natural style, wearing battered hats and second-hand clothes and a tacky necklace, so successfully ‘somehow you ended up wanting one just like it’.   Eliza is the only ‘princess’ who is habitually good to Sandra and pleads her cause with the others. 
    ‘”Cassandra is a very clever girl,” Eliza said.
    I wondered if she was taking the piss but she didn’t look as if she was.  She had the kind of face that showed everything she was thinking and right now she seemed to be thinking nice things.  Her smile was friendly and her eyes were kind.’

The picture that Sandra draws provides a tragic contrast to the present day Eliza, still punishing herself for events that the reader begins to realise were not her fault at all. 

On the negative side, the novelist seems to be exploring ground already covered in some of her previous books, though lovers of Marika Cobbold will not object.  I also found this novel’s central device perhaps a little too obvious.  The fragile, damaged Eliza, is a restorer of fragile, damaged ceramics.  She loves her work because mending porcelain ‘makes me happy to think that instead of that thought and effort being thrown away and lost I can bring it back to usefulness’.   There is a parallel between the repair of the broken object and the repairing of Eliza’s self-esteem.   She believes she is a realist; others call her self-defeatist - as her godfather tells her, ‘sometimes the two are one and the same’.  But afterwards I wondered whether I was wrong and the device is psychologically right - after all, what jobs do people like Eliza take?

There are some very skilled novelists writing in the UK at the moment and Marika Cobbold is high up on the list.  She doesn’t set my hair alight, but she doesn’t disappoint in the Good Read stakes either.  Personally I like the kind of  hybrid novel that she writes - literary fiction with elements of mystery and romance.  I enjoy the undertow of a strong narrative, and an awareness of language and psychology.  You know you’re in safe hands, and she always manages that difficult trick - the ending that is neither too unbelievably happy, nor too downbeat to cheer the reader.  What she leaves you with is hope and an open door for your imagination to walk through.

*This review first appeared on Book Munch on May 15th.  Book Munch is a good site to find something different and exciting to read - it's definitely not the front window of Waterstones!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Robert Hass: The Apple Trees at Olema

Robert Hass - New and Selected Poems

The American poet Robert Hass wasn’t someone I’d taken much notice of until a Tuesday Poem friend shared Meditation at Lagunitas’ It was extraordinary - not just the way the poet used words, but the thread of reasoning that moved through the poem.  This was a poem about love, memory, longing (‘desire is full/of endless distances), and language itself:
                 .......‘the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.’

So I looked for more of Robert Hass’s work. The Apple Trees at Olema runs to 352 pages and contains a selection from five previous volumes and a generous helping of new work, so I thought it would be a good introduction and I was right.   This isn’t a book to skim through.  I’ve taken months and months reading carefully through the different sections, reading and thinking, reading and underlining, going backwards and forwards.  Now that I’ve finished the collection I’m about to start again - this time just dipping in and out to remind myself, to go swimming in poetry that is unique and exceptional. 

He has a gift for choosing images and phrases that lodge in your mind; ‘Quiver dipped the nib of his pen/into the throat of the inkwell.’   ‘The wind-chivvied water,’ ‘The sky is inventing a Web site called newest azure.’  ‘They are built like exclamation points, woodpeckers.’  ‘Where the fat green figs hung like so many scrotums/among the leaves.’  Poetry - language - is itself a kind of translation.  Robert Hass writes  ‘as if language were a kind of moral cloud chamber/through which the world passed and from which it emerged charged/with desire.’   

Hass translates Czeslaw Milosz, as well as Japanese poetry and each poem has a depth of knowledge behind it of European and eastern traditions, history, psychology and philosophy.   You’re aware of this hinterland as you read, but you don’t need to know any of it to understand the poems.   Louise Gluck described his work as ‘entirely his own: a complex hybrid of the lyric line, with an unwavering fidelity to human and non-human nature, and formal variety and surprise, and a syntax capable of thinking through difficult things in ways that are both perfectly ordinary and really unusual’.

Some of the poems are autobiographical - growing up with an alcoholic mother, the break-up of a marriage, death of a brother.   But it’s the way he tells stories that impresses me most.  Some of the longer poems seem to be short fiction (one of them is called Novella), the shorter ones could qualify as flash fiction - and it could be argued that they’re prose poetry - they cross the borderlines of genre.  Because it’s flash fiction day in the UK tomorrow, I thought I’d quote one of the poems from his collection Human Wishes.  'Museum' has a lot of resonance for me because I visited the same museum and looked at the work of Käthe Kollwitz, just at a time when eastern Europe was emerging from behind the Iron Curtain.  Robert Hass manages to get the whole experience into a very small space.


On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant.  She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times.  She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms.  He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table.  His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy.  They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air.  He holds the baby.  She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll, and eats it in their little corner in the sun.  After a while, she holds the baby.  He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes.  They’ve hardly exchanged a look.  Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping.   All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror.  But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible. 

Quoted under the Fair Usage Agreement for the purposes of comment and review.

The Apple Trees at Olema is published in UK by Bloodaxe Books (there's a good video clip of Hass reading) and in the USA by Ecco Press (Harper Collins)  

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Satantango - Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes

Today I'm reviewing George Szirtes' translation of Satantango - a brilliant novel by the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai - over at Book Munch.

"Béla Tarr’s 1994 screen translation of Satantango opens with a long-shot of cattle standing indifferently in the rain, up to their hocks in mud, and then  - after an almost endless pause – closes in on the human beings who exist under the same sky, soaked by the same rain, immobilised by the same mud.  I’m a big fan of Béla Tarr (who also filmed one of Krasznahorkai’s later novels The Melancholy of Resistance) and was interested to see how the novel Satantango would relate to the film, but not being a Hungarian speaker, I’ve had to wait until now to find out. Apparently George Szirtes deliberately avoided the film while doing the translation to avoid cross-contamination. But I found that film and book carried on having a dialogue in my head as I read, and one illuminated the other in a very positive way.   In the opening sequences of both film and novel Futaki, woken by bells, listens to the rain from the warmth of Mrs Schmidt’s bed, and watches the dawn through the ‘mousehole’ of a window that provides a view of the derelict estate that is a product of the collapsing political system. And he sees himself ‘nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin’."

Read more here ...............

Satantango was published in the UK by Atlantic on May 1st

Monday, 7 May 2012

Jonathan Gottschall: ‘The Story-Telling Animal’

I'm currently reviewing for a couple of online book sites, as well as reading the occasional publisher's mss, and not finding as much time as I'd like for the books I personally want to read.   The 'wish list' is piling up!

Today I found this intriguing title.  I'm always fascinated by books about the curious human addiction to story-telling.  It seems to be in our DNA.  Jonathan Gottschall puts it like this:

'Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.'

The book has a trailer on YouTube.

And this is what he has to say about the interaction between reader and writer:

'The writer is not…an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader's imagination.'

I've always believed that much creativity comes from daydreaming.  We all daydream, but maybe writers and artists can spin the dream into something bigger and more concrete.  Apparently,

'an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours – one-third of our lives on earth – spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes – vain, aggressive, dirty – come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.'

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Stephen Dixon: What is all This? Uncollected Stories

I've begun reviewing for the on-line site Book Munch, which has a reputation for 'tell it as it is' reviews.  My first assignment was a giant anthology of Stephen Dixon's previously uncollected short fiction.  He is a strange writer - the nearest analogy might perhaps be Raymond Carver, but Dixon is meaner and leaner than that, or perhaps Kafka, because he generates the same kind of brooding malevolence - a sense of unease beneath the surface and you've no idea where it comes from. His style is unique and he's an author that anyone writing short fiction needs to be aware of. You can read the complete review below.

'Reading all sixty two of Stephen Dixon’s uncollected stories in a single five hundred and sixty page marathon is a challenging experience.  But then, Stephen Dixon has been forcing readers to confront their own assumptions about literature, society, their complacencies and preconceptions, and ideas of how and what a writer should write, for more than fifty years. What Is All This? is an apt title.  It expresses a kind of bewilderment about being human, and the world we live in, which is the question that connects diverse stories that span several decades from the 1950s to the present day, reflecting the output of one of   America’s most undervalued writers........'  Read More on Book Munch

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Survival of Thomas Ford: John AA Logan

This is my second E-book this month after Catherine Czerkawska’s Curiosity Cabinet, and both books really demonstrate the quality that is available on the E-platforms.  Both books were turned down by publishers after ‘rave rejections’, for marketing concerns and decisions that had nothing to do with the books themselves.

That both books have been in the top 5 sellers on Amazon demonstrates just how off-the-mark publishers have been recently.  Even celebrity memoirs aren’t selling as well and Dickens is languishing behind them too.

The Survival of Thomas Ford is a thriller that is at times extremely dark.  John Logan manages to get inside the mind of a teenage psychopath with chilling reality.  Thomas Ford loses his wife in a car crash caused by Jimmy and his friend Robert.  Ford is the only survivor and spends months in hospital recovering.  Despite his injuries he remembers, very clearly, the car and its occupants.  The police find it hard to believe him and for a while both the police and his in-laws suspect that Ford may have caused the accident himself.

Jimmy’s girl-friend is a cleaner at the hospital.  When he discovers that Thomas Ford is not only alive, but has given the police a description of him and his car, he decides that Ford must be removed.

The novel is very well written (crime fiction so often isn’t) and gripping all the way to the grisly end.  If you enjoyed the Wasp Factory and Train Spotting, or even if (like me) you didn’t, you’ll like this.    

Monday, 16 April 2012

Twelve Minutes of Love - Kapka Kassabova

Have you ever danced at a Milonga?  Do you know what a Gancho is?  Ever had a Tangasm?  If so, then it’s very likely you’re a Tango addict like Kapka Kassabova.  If the answer’s no, then prepare to be informed, moved, seduced and entertained. 

Kapka Kassabova is a wonderful poet and the author of a previous memoir, ‘Street without a Name’, about growing up in Communist Bulgaria.  That story ends as the Kassabova family leave Bulgaria for the UK and New Zealand.  When Twelve Minutes of Love opens, Kapka is a 27 year old New Zealander, with no sense of belonging anywhere, and a permanent sense of what the Portuguese call ‘Saudade’ - a state of longing, homesickness and displacement; the condition of the exile.

Straying into a club one evening to meet friends, Kapka hears Tango for the first time, watches a couple dance it, and becomes hooked.  Tango was created in South America by exiles, displaced people living outside the fringes of society.   It’s a hybrid, a sinuous, seductive mongrel - a music that was in perfect synchronicity with Kapka’s mood at the time.
Kapka with her collection of Tango shoes
Soon, she was discovering that there are tango relationships and other relationships and the two don’t always mix.  The perfect partner in one life may have two left feet in the other. Kapka began travelling the world in search of tango - Auckland, Argentina, Berlin, Edinburgh, Marseilles - and the book describes her relationships and the extraordinary cast of characters she meets in what Kapka believes to be a search for new tango experiences, but which is in fact a search for who she is and where she belongs.  And, yes, it does have a happy ending.

This is a beautifully crafted memoir that uses the structure of the music as a structure for the book.  It’s a brilliant read and Kapka Kassabova obviously dances as well as she writes.  I'm jealous!