Book Review: Bitter Sixteen

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Bitter Sixteen, by Stefan Mohamed, is the first book in a proposed fantasy trilogy for young adults. It introduces the reader to Stanly Bird, a cynical schoolboy who discovers on his sixteenth birthday that he has gained the powers of flight and telekinesis. As his closest companion is a talking beagle this is daunting but not as surprising as it might have been for someone else.

Stanly is a perceptively written, introspective teenager, a loner who has cultivated a brooding, mysterious persona that enables him to keep his peers at bay. His parents worry about his lack of friends but Stanly believes that they have enough problems of their own and has little patience with such concerns.

Having grown up alongside the fictional worlds of superheroes and computer games Stanly questions how he should use his new and burgeoning abilities. Living in a remote Welsh town there seems little scope for saving the world. He is also aware that it would be dangerous to let others know of his powers. He has no wish to be studied for scientific purposes or forced to fight for those with an agenda of their own.

Just as it seems that Stanly’s personal life may be looking up he is forced to flee to London where he discovers that he is not the only person with superpowers. He also discovers that his abilities are not as secret as he had believed. Thanks to his new friends he finds work in a comic book store. He battles monsters, both human and supernatural. He must also circumvent the adults who see him as a bad influence on his girl.

What sets this book apart from others in the genre is the quality and style of the writing. Stanly is a fabulous creation and is presented with such wit and humour that his exploits are a joy to read. Having superpowers is weird, dangerous but also fun, especially the flying bit.

Although written for young adults I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, proving once again that a good book is for any reader. The denouement was poignant but fitting; the story is concluded but I am so glad that there is a second book in this series due soon. Stanly Bird is not a character I wish to say goodbye to yet.

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

 

Author Interview: Helen Fitzgerald

hele full length black top 2016 credit Ria FitzGerald

What if the worst thing you did went viral?

Today I am delighted to welcome Helen Fitzgerald to my blog. Last week saw the publication of her twelfth novel, ‘Viral’, which I reviewed here. The novel’s memorable opening line has merited some discussion. Readers of the book will form their own views about the behaviour of the various characters, something that I would like to think is also being debated by book groups and friends. I wanted to know what the author hoped to achieve in writing about such a fascinating and timely subject.

1. First of all, that opening line. It fits the story, and there are far more shocking events explored in later pages. Are you concerned that it will detract from discussion about what follows?

What opening line? I have no idea what you mean…

Viral is about a young woman who finds that she has suddenly been defined by one stupid act – defined, punished, and ruined: on a worldwide scale. The line is a statement by my character Su – she’s saying Oh my God, this is what happened; this is who I am now. She is in shock, and I feel it makes sense that the reader should feel her shock. The line is the inciting incident and the problem that drives the story to its end. Can she shed this world-wide shaming and redefine herself? I guess I’d be worried if I didn’t feel confident about all the lines that follow. I loved writing Viral. I’m really proud of it all the way to the end.

 2. Have you had any negative reaction to the way you have portrayed young women going abroad for drink, drugs and no ties sex? Do some of your readers object to having to accept that this happens, that it is the public sharing without consent that is offensive?

Not yet, but I’m ready for it! I hope readers will see that misogyny, online abuse, and slut-shaming are the problems here; not young women.

 3. Viral is your twelfth book. As a writer, do you have different expectations compared to how you felt when your first novel was published, or your third?

Yes, when my first was published, I expected to retire to Italy with my millions. Now, I just hope I can write another one.

4. I have read the term ‘breakout’ from others who have read early releases of this book. Does this cause you excitement or concern?

I love my writing career as it is. I’m not under too much pressure. I write what I want, when I want. People don’t take unexpected selfies with me on a bad hair day. So I don’t feel the need to break out. If I sold millions, I’d have to retire to Italy after all, and I don’t want to anymore. I’m happy where I am.

5. And finally, do you have any concerns about the direction discussion about this book may take at author events?

I quite enjoy making people feel uncomfortable – most of my books are about subjects that should unnerve you – so I’m not concerned at all. I’m looking forward to debates, difficult questions, being forced to think harder about certain things… bring it on!

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Thank you Helen for taking the time to answer my questions. Now I need to find out if you will be attending any events near to me!

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‘Viral’ is published by Faber and Faber, and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Jihadi

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Jihadi, by Yusuf Toropov, is not an easy book to get into but will reward the persistent reader with the satisfaction of having consumed an impressive work of literature. The narrative hooks brought to mind the Fibonnaci sequence. After a slow start the plot gathered pace until it was necessary to pause from time to time to absorb the multitude of ideas being conveyed. It is a layered and nuanced study of how society may be manipulated to further a cause.

The book is set out as a memoir written by a treasonous American operative during his incarceration in a secret government facility. The prologue suggests that this man, Ali Liddell, died during his interrogation. His executioner is now reading his words, making notes as they go along.

The notes appear personal and unhinged. The note writer listens to music and finds meaning in the lyrics to fit their desired interpretation, one of the more bizarre elements of the book. Perhaps it demonstrates that any words may be twisted to support an argument.

The story is a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are offered out of order and must be slotted together until gradually what is being assembled becomes clear. It is set in the Islamic Republic and in America. Murders are planned and carried out in both locations.

Thelonius Liddell is a secret agent who kills on government orders. He has returned to his wife in America following a mission that did not go as planned. He appears to be suffering from something like PTSD. His wife, Becky, has a brain tumour that mimics schizophrenia. Her husband and father have tried to keep this prognosis from her that she may better enjoy whatever time she has left.

Liddell’s mission brought him into contact with a devout follower of Islam named Fatima. Fatima’s pregnant sister, her husband and mother-in-law have recently been killed by a shell fired from an American tank. Another shell killed a toddler and injured his eight year old brother. These events set in motion an uprising within the Islamic City where Fatima lives and works.

The story revolves around the intelligence services on both sides, the soldiers tasked with maintaining order, and the radicals who initiate the uprising. Among the Americans are those who think that any and all Muslims should be killed as they present a threat to civilisation. Among the followers of Islam are those who think that any and all Americans should be killed for similar reasons. It is clear that neither side truly believes in the tenets they espouse but use them to garner support for their cause, believing that the end justifies the means. The end they are looking for may be boiled down to personal gain.

What is being explored is the nature of terrorism and the personal cost to individuals on both sides of the hatred being whipped up by their leaders. This is not a new supposition but is presented in such a raw and compelling framework that it commands careful consideration. It does not, however, read as a political diatribe but rather as a study of humanity. The instinct to preserve, to seek control and to follow the herd are recognisable. There are also moments of humour in the tale – I chuckled at the reference to White Walkers.

Jihadi is strap-lined A Love Story. Just as the reader will question what is right or wrong, good or evil, so they may question what it means to love. Whatever language is spoken or creed followed, to seek to control, to dominate, is to accept submission. Where force is used suffering will follow, and it will not always be the ‘others’ who will suffer.

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

Q&A with Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau

gallic_logo_copy_copy[1]      Aardvark_Logo_Master_Black[1]

Today I am delighted to welcome Jimena from Gallic Books / Aardvark Bureau to my blog. I discovered this small press last month when they kindly sent me a review copy of The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. This turned out to be just the sort of book that I love to read and I will be reviewing another title from their list, The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert, in the coming weeks.

Without further ado, let us find out more about a small press which aims to excite, inspire and entertain.

1. Why did you decide to set up Gallic and then Aardvark?

Jane Aitken and Pilar Webb set up Gallic in 2006, to fill what they saw as a gap – although most UK authors were translated into French, very few French authors made it into English. As a result, many wonderful French novels were not available to a UK readership.

Now that Gallic is well established, with a catalogue of more than 60 books in the UK, we thought it was the right time to expand beyond French. Compared to 2006, many publishers large and small now publish French fiction in translation. French literature is less in need of our support, although it will always be a focal point for us.

So we asked Scott Pack, with whom we had worked in the past, to curate a small list of fiction from around the world. And that is how the Aardvark Bureau was born in 2015. Our catalogue so far ranges from a Japanese forgotten classic, to the best of Australian and New Zealand contemporary literature, plus British authors worth discovering. And this is only the start.

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

Gallic and Aardvark aim to publish books that engage with subjects or settings not found in other novels. Many of the Gallic titles explore French history. Our ‘noir’ author Pascal Garnier delighted in depicting France at its bleakest – not glamorous, it’s the France of anonymous villages and sullen small towns with bad restaurants, tacky hotels, cheapo carnivals. Jean Teulé’s books explore the nineteenth-century Breton poisoner Hélène Jégado and the mob murder at Hautefaye in 1870. We also look for intriguing characters like Muriel Barbery’s concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

At Aardvark Bureau we are looking for wonderful writing with a strong sense of place. But most importantly, we publish books that we love.

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors?

To launch Gallic, we immersed ourselves in the French market and read as much as we could. We were looking for books that French readers love, but that would also resonate with English-speaking readers. But now we tend to rely on our contacts among French publishers – they know what we like and are good at selecting from their lists for us.

Scott found the original Aardvark titles in a variety of ways. He found The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, for example, by listening to Radio New Zealand in the middle of the night! I think that led to other Australian and New Zealand titles – we now have four Antipodean authors.

4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

The publishing industry has changed a lot since we started in 2006. The main change has been the rapid development of the digital book. And, more recently, the role that social media and book bloggers play in spreading the word about books. Authors and publishers now have an open channel of communication with readers through social media; Facebook, Goodreads,Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are all effective tools for marketing a book. It is a big change, but one worth celebrating.

And it means that you can have an effective marketing campaign without using costly Tube posters or expensive advertising. In our early years we did spend money on these things and we don’t miss that!

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

Gallic is part of the family of publishers of translated literature. With them we share the challenges and excitement of bringing unknown authors to the English-speaking audience. But we are different because we also have a bookshop, Belgravia Books.

We stock a curated selection of fiction, history, biography, children’s and cookery to suit our local market, but also to reflect our support for other independent publishers publishing translated fiction.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

Good stories always sell, and as publishers we must use the best tools we have to reach audiences. A very important element is knowing who your readers are, and what they like. If you have this knowledge, you are very likely to have loyal people who will be looking forward to your upcoming publications.

We don’t tend to go with the latest trend, preferring to try to choose books that take our readers into worlds they haven’t been to before.

Our bestselling title, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, of which we have sold nearly 400,000 copies, would definitely count as original, rather than as part of a trend.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

Buyers want to have the option, so all our titles are available in print and eBook. Our eBook sales are usually 25% – 30% of our total sales. And we find that books that are popular in print are also popular in e-format. We haven’t yet had a book where we’ve had digital success that has not been reflected in our print sales.

8. Do you consider yourself niche or mainstream?

Gallic is indeed a bit niche in terms of its strategy, as we only publish French literature in translation. However, we aim to appeal not only to Francophiles but to all lovers of good books. We believe readers are up for discovering something new.

Aardvark Bureau gives us the freedom to look for wonderful writing worldwide. At the moment we are focusing on great books written in English but not published in the UK. These are very exciting times as there is so much out there worth publishing.

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

We are a small company which means the team works very closely and the decision-making is quick, efficient and fun. So, definitely collaborative.

10. Plans for the future?

We will continue to bring the best of French writing to English language readers. This year is a very exciting one because in February, Gallic will publish its first graphic novel – a beautiful adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way by artist Stéphane Heuet. We hope this book will give readers who have not yet savoured Proust the chance to enjoy this important classic in an accessible way. And we hope that lovers of Proust will enjoy the intricate visualisations of Combray and Paris.

Also, we are thrilled to be publishing the long-awaited new novel by Muriel Barbery, The Life of Elves. After the great global success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, we cannot wait to share this new story with our readers in May. Plus, fans of the great Pascal Garnier will enjoy another of his fine noir novels with Too Close to the Edge.

On the Aardvark Bureau front, we have a strong year ahead introducing some wonderful Australian and New Zealand authors. We have Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (the story of octogenarian theremin virtuoso Dame Lena Gaunt), Fiona Kidman’s The Infinite Air (the fictionalised account of the life of New Zealand aviator Jean Batten) and Damien Wilkins’ Max Gate (the story of Thomas Hardy’s death told by his housemaid, Nellie). And we have a unique novel by British author Charles Lambert. The Children’s Home has been described as ‘a distorted fairy tale, raising unsettling questions that stay with the reader long after the final page.’

In general, the future for both Gallic and Aardvark Bureau is to continue to publish literature that is exciting and unique, and will give readers an unforgettable experience.

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Thank you Jimena for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Gallic Books – The best of French in English

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: Gallic Books (@gallicbooks) and Aardvark Bureau (@AardvarkBureau)

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If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers

Book Review: Queerbashing

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Queerbashing, by Tim Morrison, is a raw and searing account of the life of McGillivray, a homosexual who refuses to bow to the conventions of his time and remain silent about his sexual orientation. It would be a challenging book to read given the levels of contempt and violence he encounters, but the author writes with such a dark humour and wit that, at times, he had me laughing out loud.

McGillivray is born in the late 1950s, in Stromness on the island of Orkney:

“second from the top and over to the right on any competent weather map of the British Isles.”

The descriptions of living in a tight, religious community where even the clergy were regarded as too forward thinking by many of the locals, provided a spot on account of the attitudes I encountered growing up in Belfast. Children were raised to fear, above all, eternal damnation. Their god of love had been known to flood the world and kill all but his chosen family and a few animals. They were commanded to love thy neighbour but not in that way. Interest in the opposite sex was discouraged. Had McGillivray admitted to interest in the same sex then his neighbours would have solemnly prayed for his soul, and for the souls of his family, for goodness knows what had gone on for him to turn out like that.

McGillivray was miserable at school but he drank in the teaching, particularly from the religious zealots. When he left the island it was to study theology at Aberdeen University. He knew that he was gay but kept this guilty secret to himself. As part of his formal sex education his class in school had been informed by a kindly doctor that

“Everyone goes through a homosexual phase before becoming normal. You should not be worried by those feelings. Some unfortunates seem to get stuck at a particular stage of development but this is unlikely to be you.”

When McGillivray did decide to come out he opted to do so publicly. He was interviewed by a student magazine and challenged those who would quote biblical texts as proof of his sin. He accepted the stares from his peers who regarded him as a dangerous exhibit. He also had to accept that he would not be allowed to graduate as a minister of the Church of Scotland.

He moved south to London, experiencing anonymity for the first time, and then settled into life in Northern England where he found a job with the local council. He rented a house in a rough part of town, a decision that changed his life.

Where the chapters set in Orkney, Aberdeen and London are filled with caustic but clever humour, the narration of life in Grimsbrough is more poignant. Openly gay men were regarded as legitimate targets by many, including the forces of law and order. McGillivray had his friends but amongst wider company was required to accept personal insults cloaked as jocularity as a matter of course. When these attitudes spilled over into violence he was considered to have brought it on himself for being what he was. It reminded me of the assumptions of many that girls shoulder some of the blame for their rape because they looked attractive to their attackers.

The fallout from events in Grimsbrough provided a powerful account of the effects on an individual of such prejudicial attitudes. McGillivray was forever changed.

The story concludes with an account of a strange event in his later life. I struggled to navigate these words. I could guess at an interpretation for these last few chapters but am unsure what the narrator wishes to convey.

Despite this somewhat perplexing denouement I would recommend the book. It is short compared to many modern reads but packs a mighty punch. The skill of the author in presenting a dark story in such an entertaining way is to be commended. This is saporous, satisfying food for thought that merits wide recognition and debate.

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

Book Review: The Forgetting Time

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The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin, is a well written book but with a plot that I struggled to get behind. As a reader it seems strange that I can accept the possibility of dragons or other magical occurrences in a story yet balk at the idea of reincarnation. It is a problem that many of the characters in this book shared.

Noah is a troubled child who seems to know things that he has never been taught. He is four years old, terrified of water, suffers recurring nightmares and is desperate to go home to his mama, despite already being in what he should consider his home with his mom.

When things come to a head at his pre-school his mom knows that something is wrong, that this is more than just an overactive imagination. She seeks psychiatric help but all that is offered is medication with potentially harmful side effects. In desperation she turns to Dr Anderson, whose life’s work has been an attempt to scientifically prove that certain young children retain memories of a former life, of being someone they could never have known.

Dr Anderson has problems of his own. He has been diagnosed with aphasia, a type of dementia affecting the brain’s language centre that will eventually render him unable to make sense of words and therefore communicate. He is writing a book about the cases he has studied and begins a race to complete his manuscript while he still can. He includes his analysis of many children around the world but his agent tells him that he needs to add a strong and recent American case that his readers will feel a connection to. When Noah’s mom, Janie, approaches him he agrees to take Noah on, a final case study that will enable him to complete his work.

Janie is horrified by what she considers the bunkum that Dr Anderson is offering her as a solution. She is also repelled by the idea that her beloved son’s suffering should be treated as just another study in a book. She wants a cure not a write up. However, with her money running out and Noah’s distress increasing she sees little alternative but to follow Anderson’s suggestions. Noah is to be taken to find the Mama he has been crying out for.

I read the first half of this book unable to shake off my scepticism. By the time I had reached the second half the pace had picked up and my interest in the outcomes for each of the characters kept me turning the pages. The inspiration for this story comes from fact. It would seem that my inability to accept possibilities is as limited as many of the American characters in the book, that this is in contrast to those from other parts of the world who do not require proofs and belief to simply allow that the workings of the world can be beyond current human comprehension.

I very much enjoyed the way Tommy’s backstory was presented. Here we had a family and community to get to know, plus there was a mystery to solve. The way Tommy’s family reacted to Noah was easy to empathise with. What exactly was going on seemed less important when the tension rose.

I suspect that my inability to get behind the basis of the plot shows a lack on my part. The author has produced a nicely written, considered and unusual tale yet I railed at the premise. I hope that others will be able to move beyond such prejudices and enjoy the rip and weave of the storytelling.

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

Book Review: The Ballroom

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The Ballroom, by Anna Hope, is a love story set in what would have been considered a progressive mental asylum a century ago. It is a damning indictment of the innate sense of superiority still evident amongst wealthy, white skinned men, and the danger this poses to all of society. The way these men think and the power they hold over those less fortunate than themselves in terms of governance makes for familiar and chilling reading.

The story opens with the admittance to Sharston Asylum, a six hundred acre facility for the mentally deranged on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, of a young mill worker named Ella Fay. Ella has been sectioned for causing a disturbance at her place of work, for breaking a window and then attempting to run away. Her life has been hard, not just at the mill but before that at home where her father regularly beat her mother, now dead.

Ella is assessed by the apparently affable Dr Fuller. Fuller has hopes of using music and dancing to improve his patients’ outcomes. As a member of the Eugenics Society he agrees with many of his peers that the poor are lesser beings than the wealthy. He reveres a lecturer he had at medical school named Pearson.

“During his lectures, Pearson spoke of many things, but alongside the danger of the inferior man he spoke of the superior man and of the need for these superior men to populate the world”

Many of the inmates at the asylum were admitted due to their pauperism, which Fuller believes is a fault of their genes and something that could be eradicated if they were prevented from breeding.

“pauperism is to a large extent confined to a special and degenerate class. A defective and dependent class known as the pauper class. Lack of initiative, lack of control, and the entire absence of a right perception is a far more important cause of pauperism than any of the alleged economic causes.”

At Sharston Asylum a strict policy of separation ensures that no breeding can take place. The only time any of the two thousand men and women can meet is at a weekly dance in the ornate Ballroom at the centre of the massive building. Attendance is strictly monitered and is regarded as a reward for good behaviour. Ella is determined that she will be good in the hope of one day being released.

Over on the men’s side is an Irish melancholic, John Mulligan. He and his friend, Dan Riley, are assigned jobs in the grounds where they dig graves and tend the fields. When Dr Fuller requires a subject to study for a lecture he plans to give arguing for self sufficient colonies, work camps to house the increasing number of degenerates threatening to swamp society, he picks on John. He intends to scientifically demonstrate that the regime at Sherston is a model which could benefit the inmates, the surrounding community, and society as a whole.

Ella befriends Clem, a well educated young woman from a wealthy family who pay for her incarceration in an attempt to persuade her to conform. Fuller concurs with the widely held opinion that men and women are inherently different, that men are naturally inclined to progressive thought whereas women are born to nurture. When Clem refused the suitor chosen by her father and brother, desiring instead to attend university, they considered her behaviour hysterical and requiring treatment.

Ella and John meet at the weekly dances. They exchange letters, which Clem reads and writes due to Ella’s illiteracy. The drudgery of their days is lightened by the feelings kindled. It is exactly the sort of behaviour that Dr Fuller is determined must be stamped out if the expense to the state of pauperism is to be eradicated.

The writing evokes the hard life of the inmates: the heat, smell, discomfort and boredom that must be tolerated alongside the knowledge that all power of self determination has been removed. If they were not mad to begin with it takes great effort to prevent madness developing in these circumstances. The inhumanity of the staff is painful to read. Above all of this sit the doctors meting out what they see as benevolence. They have no idea how their patients think and feel because they cannot perceive of them as equals.

A powerful, satisfying read that is a chilling reminder of the need to rebel against the lies peddled by government of the inferiority of certain classes of people. Our Eton educated overlords are still being raised to consider themselves superior types of being, and to persuade those beneath them of the need to eradicate the poor by whatever means.

This is also a love story of the first order. I was rooting for Ella and John throughout, despairing over Clem’s circumstances. Beautifully written, emotive, and all too relevant today.

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