Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

I've been resisting this much-talked-about book for a while.  I've sometimes been disappointed by 'experimental', 'literary' novels, too often finding them pretentious and over-written.  So I approached Eimar McBride's Bailey's prize-winner with caution.  I was intrigued, I must admit, and finally gave in and down-loaded a sample from Amazon fully expecting to be disappointed again.  But I was hooked from the first sentences and when the sample ended I pressed the Buy Now button without any prompting.

When I read the description of the book I never thought I'd get further than the first page - but I'm 50% through it and hurtling along!

This is Joycean stream of consciousness. Prose-poetry, written in that lyrical way that only the Irish seem to manage.  It doesn't matter if individual phrases or sentences don't make sense - you have to read with the flow and let the sense seep into you.

The girl, growing up without a father, alongside a disabled brother with a mother who can't cope, experiences life without any filters.  Rebellion, religion, reproduction - the three big R's - clatter and crash through her mind and body.

Eimar wrote it in six months, but spent nine years trying to find a publisher. I'm not surprised, given the state of publishing at the moment, that Eimar couldn't get a deal from the big 6 (or even the smaller presses).  It was published in the end by her book-seller husband and a friend (Galley Beggar Press). After the accolades and the prizes, it's been snapped up by Faber.  From Indie to Faber - now that's a story!  But it just goes to show that some of the best and most innovative work is being done in the Indie sector, or published internationally (I'm a Peirene Press addict) beyond the reach of the Big 6, who will shortly only be publishing pulp fiction and celebrity crap. Traditional publishing is in crisis.  As Anne Enright (another brilliant Irish writer) put it "Who forgot to tell Eimear McBride about the crisis we are in and about the solution to that crisis: compromise, dumb down, sell your soul?" Fortunately nobody did. Thank whatever-you-swear-by for the Indies!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Water, Paper, Stone by Judy O'Shea

Amazon Link

Water, Paper, Stone

Judy O’Shea

In 1991 Judy left her job as a senior executive in the USA for a sabbatical year with her husband Mike, who had taken early retirement at 51 to fulfill a lifelong dream to become an artist.  They made a bucket list and one of the items on it was to spend time in Europe and learn another language.  After several false starts, they found themselves in the south of France in the Haut Languedoc on a touring holiday and fell in love with a village on the Tarn river.

Back in the states and ready to go back to work, Judy discovered that her sister Linda was critically ill following a cardiac arrest.  She had sustained significant brain damage.  ‘Linda’s courage and struggle to recover gave me the guts to get off the treadmill of my high-pressure career,’ Judy writes.   The book is written as a series of letters and emails to Linda as well as extracts from Judy’s personal journal.

Driven by a new sense that time was running out, Judy and her husband retired to France and bought a derelict water mill on the Tarn river - totally uninhabitable - and began to restore it and live their dream.

The memoir reminds me a little of ‘A Year in Provence’ - I could taste the cheese and the wine and share the drama of every catastrophe.  Living without mod-cons stretched Judy to the limit - ‘I learned I can pee in positions unknown to womanhood’.  They had a backhoe in the living room, no bathroom, rising and falling damp, rats, and incompetent builders, but they were reassured by their neighbour that ‘Avec l’argent tout est possible’ (with money anything is possible).  And so it proves.

I got involved with the fortunes of the Blanc family, where Judy goes to learn how to kill a sheep and make duck au confit.  I learned about the process of making Roquefort, the marital difficulties of the local restaurateur, and the plight of Christelle - a mail-order bride from Madagascar imported by one of their workmen -  who consults Judy about his lack of personal hygiene (how do you tell a large Frenchman that he needs a bath?)

Judy learns carpentry, stone masonry and the art of paper-making and discovers her own creativity as well as her husbands.  Before long she is being asked to take part in exhibitions in France and the United States and is setting up fascinating installations. It’s an amazing achievement.  How much personal creativity is wasted in corporate culture?

I enjoyed the glimpse into someone else’s life - the book is honest and well-written.  But it is also, for someone whose views are well to the left, an illustration of what has happened all over Spain, Italy and France, where wealthy colonisers have moved in from outside - Russians, Germans, Scandinavians, English, Americans - and driven prices up beyond the threshold for the local population.  It’s a dilemma - ruinous buildings are rescued and restored, but it often has a negative impact on the local community.  There are both pros and cons.  Judy’s book gave me much food for thought.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Harvest - by Amanya Maloba


by Amanya Maloba

Amanya was a guest on Roz Morris's Undercover Soundtrack blog and I liked what she said about her book of short-short stories.   I don't read much flash fiction - so much of it reads like cryptic jokes you might find in up-market Christmas crackers, or like prompts for a creative writing class.  But the best Flash Fiction reads like prose poetry, which I do have a taste for.

I also fell in love with the cover of Harvest, the contrasting colours and the image - covers are very important for me - they have to attract and I often buy a book for its cover.  In this case, the cover didn't lie.

Amanya's stories centre around food and appetite and they have quite a bite! 'We are what we eat' and so much of our lives revolves round food and its rituals. The stories are written in lyrical prose (the author is also a poet), sometimes with an edge, sharp observation and memorable lines.  "The sizzle of beignets frying in the back of the outdoor cafe has more timbre and raw emotion than any note to come out of Christopher Breaux's larynx.  The shake of powder sugar over the nearly square pillows of dough is sweeter than any kiss wrapped in foil or on lips." [Beignets and Trumpets]

Coffee becomes a series of associations and character changes.  "A cup of coffee, skidding tires of an airbus, and the frigid temperatures of a window seat, shift me into someone I don't know, someone fragile, someone that terrifies and kills me, exposing me to all my possible selves and all of yours. . . . What does the coffee in Tokyo taste like?  Bali?  Accra?  And why doesn't the coffee I brew in my place, whereever it is, always taste like shit, flat and fundamentally lacking?"

Amanya is an American whose family originally came from Kenya, but she has also lived in Europe - these stories have a global reach and are full of colour, with characters like Mango, Persimmon and Lime and titles like 'Pancakes at the 2893 World's Fair', 'The Watermelon Man', 'Habanero Lips', 'Cookie Woman', and 'George Washington's Black-Eyed Peas'.  One of my favourite stories concerns the Avocado Whisperer.  'I squish and mash them into bowls of black beans, onions, and corn, throw the whole lot in tortillas for the kind of meal that sits at the bottom of your stomach like the coked-out kids on the Red Line at four a.m... I'm an avocado racehorse - a thoroughbred sure bet. . . nothing short of what God binged on when She got the munchies on the seventh day'.

I loved 'Termites' - the story of a childhood visit to Nairobi to visit relatives, but one story in particular continued to haunt me.  'Dinner is served (Karibu)', which is narrated by the animal on the plate.  'I am consumable.  I do not belong to myself.  I am designed solely for your gratification.  You can stuff your greedy minds with my words and lick my tears off your dry hands . . . I exist only for your gluttonous pleasure. . .  I will kill you with every bite you take, but you will continue to eat because I am the finest cuisine you've ever had.  I will be your last meal.  Dinner is served.'

If you like to try something different, then Harvest is definitely one to read.

You can find out more about Amanya Maloba at


"The food of coastal Africa has long nourished the bodies and fed the spirits of many as it moved, along with a people, from its original continent across seas. Harvest echoes this original journey as it follows a young girl recalling childhood and discovering adulthood all while navigating different spaces and times. Amanya Maloba’s debut collection of contemporary African American vignettes is told in a voice that echoes generations of these stories, but is resolutely her own—personal and raw. Maloba has watered the soil of her imagination with laughter, tears, and centuries of wisdom, and the harvest she has brought forth is every bit as rich and rewarding as those nutrients promise. Perfect to savour one at time, but you may find yourself devouring these sweet and sour vignettes in one sitting."

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Girl in Room 14 by Carol Drinkwater

The Girl in Room 14 

Carol Drinkwater

Kindle Single

This is an ‘old-fashioned’ romantic story that will please a lot of readers - a bit of escapism set in the idyllic countryside around Cannes and Menton.

Cecile is a beautiful woman who sells lemons in the marketplace in Cannes, but there’s a mystery surrounding her.  She appears to have no private life and even her daughter doesn’t know her story.  Cecile has been waiting for someone for more than 16 years.  This is a very good 'set-up' and the anticipation of what might happen draws you into the story.

To say more would be a plot spoiler.   It’s beautifully written and I enjoyed the read - perfect for a quick 'comfort read'.  The drawback for me was that I just didn’t believe the story's resolution.  It just didn't convince me. This is a number one best-seller on Kindle mainly because of good promotion and a celebrity author, but I've read much better short stories from Indie authors - stories with real emotional power and the tug of truth.

The Girl in Room 14 - link