Book Review: Stuff

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Stuff, by Charlie Hill, is a short novella that takes the reader through a week in the life of a thirty-something year old man who has been struck by the understanding that his impetus to progress through life has stalled without warning. Having survived what he describes as a rocky patch when he was younger he had reached a place where he could derive pleasure from his simple day to day experiences. He could walk from his small flat to the local supermarket and see colour in the people and places he passed by on the way. He could cope with his job and the perverse changes being enacted. He spent time with his girlfriend and enjoyed their quiet existence.

And then something changed. He realised that

“The blaze inside me must have been dying for some time […] I just hadn’t realised.”

No longer could he find reasons for putting up with the curveballs thrown his way. The gratification he found in the small things – a chance meeting, a colourful butterfly or flower that he couldn’t name but wished to learn – was no longer there. There seemed no point to his existence and he lacked the energy to find a way to kick-start his being.

He turns to an old friend and to his girlfriend but realises that they are not responsible for helping him out of his discombobulation. He confesses to his mother, feeling safe in doing so due to her advanced dementia.

Something must be done. He cannot continue in this oppressive grey.

The writing is subtle and poignant. An ordinary life is depicted with its sensitivity to variances of mindset, sometimes difficult to reason with or control.

The denouement is chilling yet not without hope. This is an intimate, affecting read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: First Love

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First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, introduces the reader to Neve, a writer in her thirties married to the older Edwyn who is preoccupied with his health following a myocardial infarction suffered before they met. Written in the first person the narrative explores Neve’s life and varied relationships with razor sharp insight. This is a story of the inherent need humans have to interact with others, and the hurt this creates.

“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterize the forms they assume?”

As soon as she was able Neve distanced herself from her parents who divorced when she was a child. She found them both demanding and needy, forever trying to find in her something she was not. Through her alcohol fuelled twenties she sought love and acceptance from friends and sexual partners, yet spent much of her time alone. Occasionally she glimpsed the way she was seen by others but could only ever be herself however much she attempted to act out their visions of her.

“You are the girl that never came true.”

Close relationships burned themselves out as time passed yet were often difficult to relinquish. In moments of weakness Neve would attempt to get back in touch, despising herself when she realised what she had done and how insecure she appeared. She longed to be strong, to be satisfied when alone, yet still sought something indefinable in others.

“It is strange what we expect from people, isn’t it? Deep inside ourselves.”

After years spent living in an acquaintance’s spare room or in tiny rented spaces she was offered a grant that took her to France. Here she had time to reflect before returning to her life which continued much as before.

“being abroad, at least, being out of it somehow, I found it was possible to feel less implicated. Less accounted for.”

Neve’s mother appears to be the antithesis of her daughter with her constant socialising and desperation for support. From time to time she seeks solace in her daughter. Their rare visits, although accepted, leave Neve eager to reinstate distance.

Apparently born of love, Neve’s marriage is not always a happy one. Edwyn is controlling and unforgiving, introspective and quick to anger. He resents that he is not always the centre of Neve’s life yet often rebuffs the form of affection she tries to offer. He bullies her until she capitulates, demanding that she agree with his interpretation of her behaviour.

“sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been that naive? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?”

The dialogues throughout are painful in their honesty bringing to the fore the thoughts many try to suppress in their attempts to convince themselves that relationships are balanced and healthy. Humans may be social animals but we each exist within the shadows and complexities of feelings that can only be fully known to ourselves.

This is beautiful writing, raw yet sublime. Recommended to any who wish to better understand the human condition.

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

The Republic of Conciousness Prize

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I write regularly of my enthusiasm for books published by the small, independent presses. I am therefore following with interest a new literary prize set up to generate wider awareness of their work.

The Republic of Conciousness Prize was created by novelist Neil Griffiths to celebrate the “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland. Griffiths, whose novel Betrayal in Naples won the Writers’ Club first novel award and whose Saving Caravaggio was shortlisted for the Costa best novel award, said he decided to found the new prize after realising that works from small presses represented the best fiction he had read in the last year. He explains in more detail here.

Unlike many larger awards, publishers are not charged an entry fee. The prize pot, to be divided between publisher and author, was raised by raffling £10 tickets online which gave donors a chance to win a bundle of books by British and Irish presses. Publishers with a maximum of five fulltime paid people working for them may submit one novel or single author collection of short stories per year.

The winner will be chosen based on two criteria, lifted from the Galley Beggar website, ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. These sound like my sort of books.

The Longlist, announced at the end of November 2016, contained the following titles:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Dodo Ink for Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen
  • EROS for Crude by Sally O’Reilly
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Istros for Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Holland House for The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong
  • New Island for Beautiful Pictures of a Lost Homeland by Mia Gallagher
  • Peepal Tree Press for The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas
  • Peirene Press for The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift
  • Tangerine Press for The Glue Ponys by Chris Wilson
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Yesterday evening, at an event held in Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, this was whittled down to the following shortlist, decided by a small group of independent booksellers, chaired by Neil Griffiths:

  • And Other Stories for Martin John by Anakana Schofield
  • Cassava Republic for Born on A Tuesday by Elnathan John
  • CB Editions for Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams
  • Daunt Books for Light Box by KJ Orr
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene
  • Freight for Treats by Lara Williams
  • Galley Beggar for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge
  • Tramp Press for Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The winner will be announced in March and, if I can get hold of the first six of these books (the final two I already own) I will be reading along with the judges. Anybody care to join me?

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Book Review: Metronome

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Metronome, by Oliver Langmead, is a fantasy adventure story that takes the reader inside the world of dreams. Its protagonist is William Manderlay, a retired sailor and musician living in a care home in Edinburgh. He and his friend Valentine, a distinguished old soldier, spend their days coping with the indignities of ageing. When Manderlay talks of the vivid dreams he increasingly suffers his friend ascribes them to a muddle of memories, over-stimulated imagination and indigestion.

Manderlay’s dreams take him back to his youth, to happy times spent with his late wife, Lily. Often though they then descend into nightmares, to pursuit by beings he believes to be lepers or huge creatures that cannot feasibly exist. He is aware that he is dreaming but this does little to diminish his distress.

In one such dream he meets a strange young soldier who introduces himself as March. He is a Sleepwalker, a nightmare hunter capable of disintegrating the monsters Manderlay must face. He gives Manderlay a compass and explains how he may traverse this world through doorways that will take him to the Capital. There they arrange to meet.

The dreams Manderlay walks through include other dreamers who he is instructed not to assist. If the dangers they face become too difficult to bear then they will wake and be gone from this world. The same would happen to Manderlay, but if he is to help March defeat the increasingly disturbing nightmares then he must remain asleep.

What follows is the unfolding of a quest to reach an island beyond storms where a Nightmare King has been imprisoned. Manderlay holds the map to this place in the music he makes. Competing Sleepwalkers and other beings are determined to reach it to fulfil their own ends. Battles must be fought with weapons forged through wit and faith.

As with the best fantasy stories the strength of this tale is in the underlying interpretation left to the reader to decipher. The layers and depths wind and intersect through a plethora of fantastical locations and creations. The imagery evokes the contrasting colours of challenge, order and reworked experiences. In dreams it would seem the barely possible may be achieved.

Such an unusual narrative is hard to explain but this is a highly readable adventure leading to a satisfying conclusion. Its originality is such that it adds to the appeal without descending into the absurd. Although I wondered at times how elements would interweave the puzzle was completed without contrivance. An enjoyable and fulfilling read.

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

Book Review: The River at Night

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik, tells the story of four friends who decide to go camping and white water rafting along a remote river in North America despite having no training or previous experience in such pursuits. When things go catastrophically wrong they must draw on every ounce of resolve to survive. The trials faced will change them forever.

The story is told from the point of view of Win, a frustrated artist still grieving from the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her brother. When her long time friend, the effervescent and seemingly fearless Pia, calls on Win to sign up to her latest exciting plan for the women’s annual get-together, she is reluctant to agree. Only her fear of missing out when the rest of their friendship group have confirmed their attendance makes her say that she is also in.

Rachel is a nurse and recovering alcoholic. Sandra is a cancer survivor and mother of two. All four of the friends are middle aged city dwellers seeking adventure but with little concept of the extent of the danger they are putting themselves in. There are casual mentions of botox injections, concern over hairstyles. This is not a foursome used to respecting the power of nature.

The women have commited to a four day challenge led by twenty year old Rory, a handsome young man who considers himself a master on the river. They are his first booking on a new business venture that his father is helping him set up following youthful scrapes with the law. I can only assume that his inexperience accounts for the lack of an emergency plan – the inclusion of flares, perhaps a satellite phone, along with training in their use should they be required. The group are off grid indulging in a high risk activity yet have no means of calling for assistance.

The disasters that follow are exacerbated by the dangers residing in the dense forests bordering the river. As each new threat to their survival must be faced each woman’s selfishness comes to the fore. This is not a feel good story of a group empathetically pulling together for the good of all.

By the end I barely cared if the women perished. They were mean and egotistical, their reactions foolish and bullying. They treated their one offer of assistance, who risked sharing a valued means of escape, with contempt. Frustrating though this episode was to read – I felt angry at times with the women’s attitudes – it fitted with their city lives.

The plot was well constructed and the writing flowed. The imagery evoked the beauty of the forest as well as nature’s power. That I disliked the protagonists does not make this a poor story. It did however detract from my enjoyment.

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

Random Musings: Whose story?

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I live in a country where the standard greeting is a variation on ‘How are you?’, where nobody expects the response to be anything other than ‘I’m fine’. Even when we visit a doctor we automatically make this claim despite our presence in the surgery proving it cannot be entirely true. We choose to be regarded as fine by the wider world because anything else requires the sharing of personal information. To offer our health or circumstances as a subject for discussion runs the risk of the details imparted being shared further afield. We lose control of the narrative. Our carefully guarded privacy is invaded.

Last week I was recalled to my old homeland by my sister. She had been coping for some time with our elderly parents’ deteriorating health and it had all become too much for her to bear alone. I am the youngest of three siblings but my sister is the only one who has remained close to where we were raised, where my parents still live in the old family home. The practical demands all fall to her and have done for many years.

I flew over within twenty-four hours of her call. I joined my sister in her daily rounds of parental visits and medical appointments, quickly becoming aware and empathising with the pressures she has recently faced. I offered practical advice on potential ongoing strategies. I was accused of being hard hearted. With only a few days available before I returned to England I was aware that my input could only be of limited use.

And it hurts to be unable to give parents what they want. It hurts to see them suffer and to be accused of not doing enough to ease their distress. They are being forced to accept the support that is best for their current needs but which removes much of the autonomy they have enjoyed throughout the sixty-five years of their marriage. There are no easy answers to the challenges of declining health and aging.

My sister and I spent many hours discussing the situation. Sharing helps. But I am under orders not to share too much. This is my story but also theirs. As someone who processes the complexities of life through writing, putting thoughts on paper that I may try to make sense of the myriad emotions churning around in my head, I find the requested silence creates feelings of desolation.

I am burdened with a fear of selfishness for these thoughts when my sister faces the greater challenge of proximity.

We willingly shoulder our responsibilities for loved ones – husbands and children as well as parents. We try to find a workable balance in how much we give to each. We do not always agree on what is reasonable.

When under pressure it sometimes becomes necessary to admit that all is not fine. Many open up to close friends, I rely on filling a blank page. If ownership of my story is taken from me, so too is the comfort of release.

Book Review: Deep Down Dead

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Deep Down Dead, by Steph Broadribb, is the first in a proposed crime thriller series featuring Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson. In need of a high paying assignment that will enable her to clear the debts incurred gaining cancer treatment for her nine year old daughter, Dakota, Lori agrees to pick up a fugitive who has been found and held by a less than reliable associate. Lori is perturbed to discover that the fugitive is her old mentor, JT. When her usual child minder cannot be called on to help she is forced to take Dakota along for the ride.

From the off it is clear that there is more to this job than a simple pick up. Whatever JT had been trying to achieve had brought him to the attention of some high level and well connected criminal masterminds. They are as determined as Lori to bring him in, but have no qualms about killing any who get in their way. A shoot out at a gas station puts Dakota’s life on the line. Lori needs to use every lesson she has ever learned from JT in order to protect her daughter’s life. This includes delivering him in time to collect her fee.

The story is a road trip from hell. Just as it seems that Lori has overcome one obstacle another, more challenging one, is placed in her way. She is unsure who to trust and JT is unwilling to open up about who exactly is after him or why let alone how they are all connected. Lori is skilled and fearless, but her normally clear judgement is clouded by the knowledge that her daughter is in danger. She struggles to set aside the guilt she feels for allowing such a situation to occur.

This is a fast moving, adrenaline rush of a story with a relatable protagonist who it is hard not to cheer along. Lori is as feisty and independent as they come, refusing to rely on men who all her life have given her nothing but grief. Her past may be catching up with her but she is determined to do whatever it takes to provide for Dakota.

A hugely enjoyable, edge of your seat read. As you turn those pages, remember to breath.

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

This review is a stop on the Deep Down Dead Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts detailed below.

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Deep Down Dead is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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