Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness

“He is on the fringes, camouflaged within the crowd. To him, the streets are a theatre, with an ever-more complex cast and plot. The flâneur is the only observing audience member of this play. Maybe there are other flâneurs, at different vantage points, but what they witness would be a completely different work. As the characters of his theatre present themselves only randomly, in flashes, the flâneur is our only possible protagonist, both sociologist and anthropologist, alienated and immersed in his city.”

Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, by Simon Kinch, explores a young American man’s ennui as he reaches the end of a three month long tour of Europe. When the story opens he faces a choice – return to his parental home in America as planned or remain where he is. Sitting on a bench in a coastal town between Spain and France he has received a text message from his girlfriend – she is breaking up with him. His reaction is to throw his phone into the sea and abandon plans to visit Paris and then London before flying home as his ticket and visa demands. Instead he returns south, to a hostel in the small Spanish town of Sevilla.

The protagonist, Granville, feels cut adrift. He accepts the easy friendships offered by the other young people he encounters. Knowing that his money is not limitless he finds himself a small job. He observes the lives others lead from his vantage points in cafes and as he walks the streets. He eavesdrops on conversations. Although seeking company, he shies away from attempts by others to get to know him better.

Had he returned to America Granville would also have found a small job to tide him over until he rejoined the road his life would now travel. In dual narratives the reader is offered snapshots of his day to day life in Sevilla and as it would have been in Madison, USA.

The melancholy undertones of the narrative pervade each small choice Granville makes. He is drifting but cannot find a good reason to change this way of living. He misses his girlfriend yet rejects the advances of others if they try to get close. He becomes more interested in the interactions of strangers than in improving his own.

Although told in the first person there is an air of detachment, a recognition that Granville is not behaving in a manner that can be sustained. In Sevilla he can neither speak nor read Spanish yet puts off the need to make longer term decisions. By throwing away his phone he has cut contact with those from home. He recognises that his parents will be worried yet still continues as he is. When crisis points are reached his reactions revolve around avoidance.

Granville struggles with his girlfriend’s rejection, as if not accepting her decision makes it less real. He changes location rather than changing himself. He seeks a dream without the drive to achieve. He is aware yet will not act constructively.

Granville’s drifting is only possible due to his position of privilege, yet the writing engendered a degree of sympathy. The parallel stories provide a vehicle for portraying much that is difficult to express. There have been many classic stories written of men attempting to find their place in a world that rewards behaviour they rail against. This contemporary offering stands with the best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

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Reading Bingo 2017

This fun little exercise is not something I have participated in before but, having enjoyed reading Cleo and Marina‘s choices, I decided that I would take part too. If you click on the covers you may read my reviews.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

The Last Hours by Minette Walters.

A captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for the lords and serfs in England, 1348. They lived in fear of a wrathful god and are now facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days. I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed.

A Forgotten Classic

The Beauties by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater).

A collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories and my first foray into this esteemed writer’s work. Snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens.

A Book That Became a Movie

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Despite knowing the story well I enjoyed, once again, immersing myself in the world of the boy wizard and his nemesis.

A Book Published This Year

Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary.

I don’t read as many crime novels these days as their plots had started to merge into each other, but Sarah’s books remain outstanding. This is the fourth in her Marnie Rome series. A battle for survival is being fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns of the plot, each new scene oozing menace. Masterfully crafted.

A Book With A Number In The Title

2084 by various authors.

Anthology of fifteen short stories set in a variety of dystopian societies. Each builds on contemporary topics, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed. The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling.

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

Stanly’s Ghost by Stefan Mohamed.

The third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. An adrenaline pumping adventure that never takes itself too seriously. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers.

A Book With Non Human Characters

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris.

A dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. A reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

A Funny Book

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige.

Interpreting funny as curious, quirky.

Council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. This previously ordinary middle aged man, who had never before thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman he glimpsed as he was felled. Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world, the depiction of which is fabulous. The book is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale.

A Book By A Female Author

So the Doves by Heidi James.

Intelligent murder mystery. An evocative study of memory and the stories we create to shape how we regard ourselves. Artfully told this tale demands that the reader question their core perceptions of themselves. It is a disturbing, compelling, ultimately satisfying read.

A Book With A Mystery

Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates).

The fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English. In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. Excellent reading.

A Book With A One Word Title

Glass by Alex Christofi.

One young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. Entertaining and engaging with an understated depth and intelligent humour.

A Book of Short Stories

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips).

Fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Mostly set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

Free Square

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja.

A fabulous reworking of King Lear set in modern day India. A literary feast and my book of the year.

A Book Set On A Different Continent

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.

A story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the surviving sibling. Deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered.

The First Book By A Favourite Author

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

The author’s only book to date but I met him at a festival and he is lovely so, a favourite.

This is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrels and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past. A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging.

A Book I Heard About Online

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers.

A fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. Multi-layered presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.

A Best Selling Book

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

A story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Booker shortlisted. Original and engaging.

A Book Based Upon A True Story

Tinderbox by Megan Dunn.

A book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides. It is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

A Book At the Bottom Of Your To Be Read Pile

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill.

Not from the bottom of my TBR pile as I question if I will ever get there but one that sat waiting to be read for longer than it deserved.

Two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other is rejected by her husband and returns to her studies, trying for university. The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. History and supposed progress in a country I knew little about.

A Book Your Friend Loves

Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Not just my friend, anyone who has posted comments about this on line.

A hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. A glorious, heartfelt read.

A Book That Scares You

Nasty Women by various authors.

A collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. Predates the #MeToo campaign. Enlightening and discomfiting, an important read.

A Book That Is More Than 10 Years Old

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

The first instalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. An imaginative page-turner.

The Second Book In A Series

Freefall by Adam Hamdy.

The second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy. A high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement.

A Book With A Blue Cover

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernieres.

A story of a boy and his dog, somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect but still good reading for any age. As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. Loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2017 Longlist

On Thursday of this week, The Times Literary Supplement announced the longlist for the 2017 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. You may read the article, which includes Neil Griffiths’ thoughts on each book, by clicking here. This made public the results of a process I have been involved in since the summer. As a member of the prize’s reader bloc I have been privileged to be a part of the judging process, reading all the books submitted and providing my views. The reader bloc have been sharing their thoughts and opinions amongst themselves over the past few months which has highlighted differences in reading preferences. One thing we have all agreed on though is the high quality of the submissions. We have read some of the best literary fiction published this year.

The longlist is an outstanding selection representing the wide variety of titles we were asked to consider. When Neil Griffiths created the prize he wrote the following Mission Statement which I kept in mind as the judging process progressed.

The Republic of Consciousness is an expression of the affect of a particular kind of writing. Whilst I’m sure there are examples before Shakespeare, for our purposes the Shakespearean soliloquy might be regarded as the first explicit attempt to deliver us into the consciousness of another person, to take us from being mere witnesses to a character’s behaviour to participating in their lived experience. It is an act of phenomenological conjuring, which in slightly less technical parlance means the re-creation of a perceived world without any mediating voice. Of course there is a contradiction in this definition: the novel or play is an artefact, a work of fiction, and a long way from direct prehension of phenomena. And yet. There are writers whose work suggests that human consciousness beyond their own can be accessed, and through that the categorical unknowableness of others’ lived experience might be revealed. It is writing as a moral act. The Republic of Consciousness is here to support and celebrate this.

The prize is intended to reward small presses willing to take a risk on books that offer readers ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The longlisted titles meet these criteria and more. As well as literary merit the judges were asked to consider how much we enjoyed each reading experience.

I have already reviewed these works – you may check out my thoughts by clicking on the titles below. Should you choose to read these books do please consider borrowing from a library, buying from an independent bookshop, or ordering direct from the publisher where this is possible. These small presses can only survive if they are able to cover their costs and Amazon does not always support this endeavour. If you click on the publisher listed below you will be taken to their page for the book.

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis) – published by Les Fugitives

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson – published by CB Editions

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell – published by And Other Stories

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Attrib. (and other stories) by Eley Williams – published by Influx Press

We that are young by Preti Taneja – published by Galley Beggar Press

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie – published by Salt

Playing Possum by Kevin Davey – published by Aaaargh! Press

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers – published by Bluemoose Books

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) – published by Charco Press

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner – published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner) – published by Tramp Press

Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden – published by Little Island Press

The shortlist will be announced at Waterstones Manchester on February 15, 2018. To keep up with news on the prize you may follow on twitter at @prizerofc. It will be a challenge to whittle this list down to the five from which the winner will be selected later in the spring.

Book Review: Tinderbox

Tinderbox, by Megan Dunn, is a book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides.

In November 2013 Dunn set out to participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise for her novel was a rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who befriends the fireman in Bradbury’s work. Dunn intended to produce a homage to the book, which she had studied in High School. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

Dunn decides to reread the novel but ends up taking much of her material from Sparks Notes (a study guide) and the 1966 film version of the book, featuring Julie Christie. Dunn admires how Christie dresses and looks. She is also fascinated by the film making process detailed in the DVD extras. She is easily distracted when writing which provides for entertaining asides.

By 2013 Dunn had left behind her career as a bookseller at Borders, a chain of bookshops that went into administration in the UK in 2009. She recounts episodes from her experiences in the various branches where she worked, and of being made redundant. Her recollections are honest and lacking the usual sentiment book lovers apply to booksellers. As an aspiring author she had hoped that inspiration would seep from the pages of the stock she handled but this wasn’t to be.

Dunn struggles to churn out the words required to meet the NaNoWriMo target. She ponders Bradbury’s creative process, how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter hired by the hour, completing the first draft in nine days. Her own writing refuses to flow.

Dunn reflects on the books that sell well; on culture snobs and the popularity of reality TV; on the rise of Amazon and growth of on-line retail; on Kindles and other eReaders. She studies the future as imagined by Bradbury and observes the habits and technology of today.

The writing is sharp and contemporary. There is no shying away from such issues as the prevalence of downloading digital content illegally. Dunn admits to drug taking and reflects on the breakup of her marriage. She mentions the large number of creative writing courses she enrolled in over the years. It is refreshing to find an autobiographical account of failure that is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched the film referenced but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Dunn’s portrayal of book selling was of particular interest. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

Tinderbox is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town

Secret Passages In A Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers), is a quirky tale of a middle aged man whose past comes back to haunt him. Its protagonist is Olli Suominen, a husband, father, parish counciller and head of a small book publishing business based in Jyväskylä, Finland. Olli considers his home town to be a monument to dull ordinariness. His marriage has grown stale and he barely knows his young son.

Olli has recently joined a film club and Facebook. A girlfriend from his teenage years, Greta, connects with him on the social network. Greta has written a bestselling book – A Guide to the Cinematic Life – which Olli’s wife buys him for his birthday. It prescribes a new way of living.

“The deep cinematic self is an artist that sees life above all as an aesthetic construct. It is like the voice of the conscience but instead of moralizing it leads us to make cinematic choices and interpret our roles as well as we possibly can. It also silences the stage fright of slow continuum attachment so that stories can be set in motion and cinematicness can be achieved.”

Olli’s publishing house needs to find a new title that will sell well. When Greta mentions online that her current publisher is unhappy with her ideas for her next book – the first in a series of magical travel guides starting with Jyväskylä – Olli suggests that she could publish with him. This business arrangement soon starts to affect his personal life.

The reader is taken back to the childhood summers Olli spent with his grandparents in Tourula, where he first met Greta. Olli was part of a group who called themselves the Tourula Five; they even had a dog named Timi. The children would spend their days going on adventures, seeking out underground passageways, eating picnics, messing about on the river. It was a thrilling time until it all went horribly wrong.

Olli has disturbing erotic dreams which are described in detail. His real life sexual encounters are also recounted leaving little to the reader’s imagination. The sex scenes were too numerous and graphic for my tastes, but the same could be said of many popular films, and this story is cinematic in style. As happens on screen, sex is regularly conflated with love.

Much of the story seems preposterous but this appears to be the point. A cinematic lifestyle does not require that the script be realistic, only that it be aesthetically memorable, and the writing reflects this.

Greta’s ideas, which include the existence of mood particles in certain places that affect behaviour, are granted potency. The power of suggestion and the adoption of fads is mocked throughout. When characters become inconvenient they are written away without consequence.

Two denouements are offered for the reader to choose from allowing film preferences to be catered for. The big reveal adds a little depth to the somewhat fantastical plot.

This is a story that encapsulates adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy and comedy with references to the numerous films it parodies. As a whole it is kooky, which at times I found irritating, but despite this it somehow works.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: The Second Body

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The premise of this essay by Daisy Hildyard is that every living being has two bodies – the physical body that can eat, drink and rest, and a body embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. Its purpose is to explore what the author calls the second body, and the alleged boundaries between all kinds of life on earth. It is not altogether clear if she is attempting to prove a conclusion she has already reached or to discover something new.

Her musings and anecdotes are wrapped around interviews with a number of individuals: staff working in a butcher’s shop; a criminologist specialising in wildlife crime; a PhD candidate working on micro biology; a senior researcher studying bio information; an evolutionary biologist. The author admits that she does not always fully understand the detail what these experts in their fields tell her.

There are repeated references to an Earthrise image which the author credits with making people consider the world as a single entity, something she appreciates herself when flying to a holiday destination. She also brings up climate change but does not make clear the point this raises, other than when she blames it for the flooding of her home.

“The river was in my house but my house was also in the river.”

To be clear, I make no argument against climate change but its inclusion in this essay comes across as a throw in.

There are mentions of the ordinary in her interviewees’ lives – opera, gaming, washing dishes – as if there is a need to prove empathetic aspects of the human condition. The author is seeking a definition yet fails to make clear the reasons for inclusion of certain subjects along the way.

She comes at the same points from numerous directions.

Each human being, as an entity, is made up of the same parts. However they look, when cut they bleed. The same could be said of other beings. Defining the boundaries between species can at times appear arbitrary. Each takes inside itself parts of others in food, air particles, water. A body expels skin, hair and other substances which are inhaled, absorbed or fertilise other living things. Around the world this process has an effect. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.

An individual’s impact on the world is consumption of resources and expenditure of waste, not what their life story may be. The human body replaces itself over time, shedding and renewing cells, yet each body is regarded as one separate being.

“This critical tradition speaks of psychology, the unfathomable depths of the individual, cultural identity and private individuality.”

There is symbiosis between cells, animals, people. Not everything acts purely in its own best interests. There is invasion, dependence and loss. Even amongst bacteria there is collaboration.

The author explores the boundaries between our first and second bodies as she seeks her definition. Interspersed with her commentary are musings on personal experiences, on Shakespeare, on death.

Any Cop?: There were interesting aspects but overall the essay lacked coherency and innovation. I expected something more than a somewhat rambling discourse on man’s place within the natural world.

 

Jackie Law