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.