Book Review: Worlds From The Word’s End

Worlds From The Word’s End, by Joanna Walsh, is a collection of eighteen short stories that play with the meanings of words and the ideas they can convey. Some of the tales employ routine storytelling techniques, others are more opaque.

The collection opens with Two, which keeps the reader guessing what the Two may be. As with many of the stories, it references the passing of time in a not quite linear way. The setting is everyday but is inhabited strangely, reasons for this left to conjecture.

Bookselves considers how those who own books regard their possessions, how they accumulate and are used, how this changes over time. There are some gorgeous, rich phrases – books ‘fat with potential’, books left in bookshops because ‘they do not accuse you urgently enough’, books bought that now ‘ lie primed to spring, ever solicitous of your attention.’

The titular tale looks at a world that has run out of words which were too often misunderstood. It describes a relationship breakdown, where speech has failed as a means of communication:

“In the republic of words, I love you induced anxiety. How was your day? would elicit merely a sigh. I think people just got tired, tired of explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words.”

“You like women who are quiet? In the end it was not so difficult to let you go: you were only interested in the sound of your own voice. Pretty soon we had nothing left to say”

There are many interesting ideas to ponder throughout the book, although at times these rise above the storytelling, diverting attention from plot development. The insights are sharp and precise but translating relevance often less clear. Travelling Light, about the degeneration of a bulky shipment as it traverses Europe, could be a metaphor for many things.

I particularly enjoyed Femme Maison. Weaving the skeins of a familiar situation – going into a room for a reason only to be distracted, unable to recollect why there –  the story explores the changing value ascribed to accumulated possessions, including self.

Two Secretaries is an amusing depiction of unacknowledged rivalry in the workplace.

Enzo Ponzo challenges normalcy, telling an engaging story from an odd premise.

The Suitcase Dog I also found odd, one of the more opaque tales.

The premise and propogation in many of the stories can be strange in places yet each contains phrases that pierce the heart of the ideas they convey. They are perceptive, emotive. Several are also disturbing.

Simple Hans depicted sex acts more graphically than I care for.

Hauptbahnhof, about a person living in a railway station waiting for a person they someday expect to meet there, could be read as devotion yet is clearly obsession.

A collection that impresses for its use of language more than entertainment or ease of understanding. This is a book I have already returned to, gaining new insights with each revisit. It is a clever if not entirely straightforward read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

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Book Review: Rocco and the Nightingale

Rocco and the Nightingale, by Adrian Magson, is the fifth novel in the author’s Inspector Lucas Rocco series of crime thrillers. It is the first to be published by The Dome Press. Set mainly in rural France in the 1960s, the protagonist is a competent and diligent police officer. It is refreshing to read a crime novel with a main character whose work is not affected by troubling personal issues.

The story opens with a murder on a lonely back road near Picardie in 1964. Rocco and his team are called to investigate but can find little evidence other than the body. Just as it looks as though the victim may be identified, Rocco is taken off the case and assigned to protect a senior government minister ousted from the Gabon Republic in central Africa. Unhappy with this new role Rocco can’t quite let the murder investigation go.

Using trusted contacts in Paris, links with a criminal gang and the recent murder of a former police officer come under Rocco’s scrutiny. It would appear that an assassin may have been hired for a series of vengeance killings and Rocco himself could be a target. Although willing to take additional precautions, Rocco does not let this potential threat affect his work. When fellow policemen are gunned down where he should have been the extent of the danger is brought home.

Rocco risks the wrath of his superiors by travelling to other jurisdictions to investigate further. With a far reaching case to solve involving a vicious gang leader out to prove himself and a killer who appears to believe he is fireproof, Rocco’s willingness to follow procedure will only stretch so far. He suspects his superiors of ulterior motives.

Having cut back on the number of crime and thriller books I am willing to read, as so many merged into each other, this story proved worth making an exception for. It is comfortably paced with a good mix of interesting characters. The plot concentrates on solving the crimes without veering into unnecessary subplots such as romance. It is deftly written with enough humour and warmth to balance the gruesome detail of much of the action. Despite being part of a series it reads well standalone.

An engaging police procedural set before many modern methods of crime detection and communication became available. Rocco may enjoy more than his fair share of luck in garnering relevent information and in survival, but this is a well put together, entertaining read.

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

 

Book Review: A Pocketful of Crows

A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne M. Harris, is a dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. The protagonist is a fourteen year old brown girl living wild and alone in woodland. She despises the restrictions under which the tame folk in the villages live with their trinkets and vanity, their societal rules and disconnection from nature. She has been warned by her people to stay apart so watches unseen, curious but content. Her special powers would be lost if she allowed these soft people to own her by bestowing a name.

The brown girl’s powers enable her to put herself inside other creatures. She flies with the birds, swims with the otters, hunts with the foxes and wolves. She will sometimes enter homes inside cats or rats to spy on residents. When not travelling in this way she rests in a hut she has built, eating the fish and small creatures she traps, the plants she picks. She wears garments sewn with feathers, stays warm under pelts.

A chance encounter, an act of kindness, brings the brown girl to the attention of the son of a wealthy landowner, stirring up new feelings she struggles to contain. She goes home with him believing his words of love, his promise of a golden ring. To be together requires assimilation and it is the brown girl who is expected to change. She pays a high price for her taming only to find that the young man is not as trustworthy as she had assumed.

The brown girl seeks advice from an elder. She must use the magic of her people to regain what she has lost if she is to survive this transformation she brought on herself. As the seasons turn and the villagers suffer hardships they look for someone to blame. The brown girl, having drawn their attention, is condemned as a witch. She must evade capture while she awaits the fruition of her carefully crafted vengeance. Nature may be beautiful but she is also merciless, as the brown girl must now be. Man’s power is shown to be weak, his beliefs fickle. Unlike the wild he has but one life and it is as nothing to an ancient earth.

I loved this story for the imagery, for the idea that such magic could exist. It offers 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.

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

On being a judge for Not The Booker Prize 2017

Not The Booker 2017.

I nominated, voted, tweeted regularly to encourage other readers to participate. When the shortlist was announced I read each book carefully, posted my reviews, commented BTL as Sam Jordison’s thoughts were published on the Guardian news site. And then, after all titles had been assessed, dissected without anaesthetic, and one had even withdrawn, I received an email inviting me to be a judge. I agreed. How could I turn such an opportunity down? I was delighted, excited, and somewhat daunted that I was to appear live on national media.

The judges meeting was to take place via a Google Hangout – I had no idea what this involved. I do not use Skype, rarely even telephone, preferring written to spoken word. I live in a rural location as far from the box of tricks that supplies our village internet as it is possible to be. The chance of user error, or an unavoidable technical hitch, was high.

Unusually for me I didn’t think too much about any of this until the morning it was all to happen, 4am in the morning to be precise – ah the joys of an anxious mind.

Naturally I got my equipment and location set up hours in advance of need. I tried to keep busy until the appointed hour that I would not get in a tiz. It transpired that everyone else encountered last minute technical issues, everyone except me.

With laptop and mobile phone at the ready, crib notes prepared and taped at eye level, I donned my son’s gaming headset which he had kindly set up for my machine. And then I awaited my promised hangout invitation. With just a couple of clicks I was connected to London, live and available for public viewing.

This is how the judges meeting went.

Many congratulations to Winnie M. Li for winning the public vote and that of judge Hannah, thereby securing the prize for Dark Chapter. Both Yvain and I chose Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige. I also commended Not Thomas by Sara Gethin, and Yvain talked highly of The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald. All of us agreed it has been a strong year, better than the previous, and that reading the shortlist has been a pleasure.

Would I agree to judge a literary prize again? Despite my nervousness at appearing in public like this, yes please.

 

Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

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

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Book Review: We Are The End

We Are The End, by Gonzalo C. Garcia, is a book from one of my favourite publishers and therefore a story I wanted to enjoy. Unfortunately I did not. My negative reaction led me to consider not posting this review but I try to be honest with my readers. The structure of the tale may have been intended as edgy, contemporary, experimental. I felt it lacked depth and coherency.

The protagonist is Tomás, a twenty-seven year old computer games designer living in Santiago who teaches at the local university one day a week. Tomás fits the often unjust cliché of the media derided millenial. He is self-absorbed and impractical, seeking validation without effort. Although desperate to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, Eva, his attitude towards her is one of ownership and a desire for sex.

Tomás has recently moved into a new flat but has yet to put together a bed frame, sleeping instead on the floor or a couch. Eva took many of their possessions when she left so he drinks his coffee from the jug it is brewed in and eats his take-away meals from paper plates. His inability to move on with his life appears to preclude him from replacing what most would regard as essentials. He may not be rich but, from his other spending, could afford such basics.

Tomás is obsessed by Eva, refusing to accept their relationship is finished, something she has made clear. He drifts through his days achieving little, including the work required by his employers. When he manages to sleep he has vivid dreams. Between his wakeful and sleeping fantasies it can be a challenge at times to understand what is real.

A mutual friend informs Tomás that Eva, a marine biologist, has gone to work in Antarctica. Tomás decides that he will follow her, thereby proving his devotion and impressing her with his ability to be spontaneous. His planning is ludicrous but he does not appear to see this. If the ridiculousness of his purchases offers an attempt at humour it lacks urbanity.

Following a liason with a student, Tomás befriends a group of young people who work at a pawn shop. He attends events where he feels older than most, his concern at aging a recurrent theme. He is mocked for the way he chooses to dress and his general behaviour.

The writing is divided into sections narrating Tomás’s day to day activities, curated memories, ideas for computer games, and his dreams. The continuity can be somewhat fluid in places. His relationships with family and friends appear shallow and deceitful – his personal view of himself requiring that everyone see him in a more positive light than is deserved. His need to isolate himself from reality adds to the loneliness he will not own. His life has stalled.

I suspect that readers are meant to find many of the recurring themes depicted humorous, there is an element of burlesque. Tomás’s sexual fantasies culminate in a disturbing idea for a computer game that I found grotesque.

Tomás is envious of friends’ success, especially their depiction in memes. There is further irony such as a self proclaimed satanist named Jesús, and the absurdity of many situations Tomás finds himself in. He has a preoccupation with used chewing gum stuck under a desk. He considers himself busy yet does little with his days.

Water is referred to in many ways: the polluted river; a bath filled with booze that he climbs into fully dressed; the rainy weather and his lack of coat; a hole dripping water from his flat’s ceiling; his dreams of Eva and a house by the sea. Any joined up significance remains a mystery.

The roles of the protesters, party goers and various retailers add colour but little of substance. Tomás is depicted as impractical and oblivious; there are shades of parody, attempts at panache, but they fall short in conviction.

The book is a little over three hundred pages long. After one hundred pages an event was related which renewed my flagging interest. It was not retained. At just beyond two hundred pages there occured another event which was enough to propel me towards the end. That I was noticing such progress, willing myself to continue, demonstrates my lack of engagement.

I have the greatest respect for this small publisher’s ability to discover quality fiction. I will be interested in how other readers take to this tale with its often puerile representations. It was not for me.

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