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.

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.

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.

Book Review: The Reactive

The Reactive, by Masande Ntshanga, offers a snapshot of life in South Africa under the shadow of AIDs. Its protagonist is a young man named Lindanathi who is HIV positive. He spends his days getting high on drugs with two friends. All three are familiar with death having lost close family members. Lindanathi carries a burden of guilt following his younger brother’s death.

The trio are intelligent and articulate yet appear lacking in ambition. Perhaps it is the circumstances of their time and place that leaves them devoid of hope in a better way of living. They trade the drugs Lindanathi is given for his condition, using the proceeds to keep them supplied with alcohol, tobacco and glue. They hold down jobs they do not care for yet accept as their due.

The story, such as it is, unfolds slowly. An uncle gets in touch with Lindanathi calling in a promise made when his brother died. A mysterious client offers an unusually large sum of money for a supply of drugs. There is a disturbing scene played out with prostitutes. There are accusations of cultural appropriation.

Although working through these various plotlines the narrative provides cognisance more than action. In one scene the trio of friends are smoking on a beach pondering the history of a place where two foreign armies once fought over which of them owned the natives. Slavery is a shadow that has not fully dissipated, skin tone still affecting life’s possibilities.

Lindanathi had achieved a place at university but chose to drop out, causing a rift with his family. He drifts through each day seeking only chemical sensation. Whilst feeling compassion for the impact of his compromised health on his mental wellbeing, his inability to believe in a future for himself, it is hard to like his character given his actions.

The temperate prose and teasing out of the backstory engage the reader in a subtle yet substantial tale. I did get lost in places, failing to understand the significance of certain scenes, particularly involving the masked man. When reading any book it is necessary to interpret an author’s intended meaning. I suspect important elements of this tale were lost in my translation.

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

Book Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell, tells the story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the sibling. It is told from the point of view of Helen, born in Korea and adopted when a baby by Paul and Mary Moran of Milwaukee, USA. Helen was raised in her adoptive parents’ large if frugal home alongside her younger brother, also born in Korea and adopted when a baby. Their upbringing was not a happy one for multiple reasons, poignantly portrayed.

Helen now lives in New York City, in a shared studio apartment, where she is phoned by an uncle to be told of her adoptive brother’s demise. She describes herself thus:

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror I saw something upright and plain.”

Helen decides that she will fly to Milwaukee, despite not having contacted her parents in several years, to provide comfort and discover why her brother took his life. Arriving at their childhood home without warning she resents that the welcome given is less than effusive. She is irritated by the presence of a grief councillor as this was the role she had assigned herself.

In the days leading up to her brother’s funeral, Helen questions those who had spent time with him in the years since she left. He had remained in Milwaukee and still lived with their parents. Helen’s interrogations prove upsetting. Even her attempts at being helpful are not well received.

It is clear from early in the story that something about Helen is out of kilter. She prides herself on her ethical practices and reliability, that she has transformed herself into someone she regards as virtuous. She aims to offer succour yet seems incapable of empathy.

The narrative voice has a disturbing undercurrent. Helen’s scattered thoughts, inappropriate sharing, her ragged memories and attempts at fitting in, can erupt into antisocial behaviour. She believes her needs are often ignored in favour of others. She has cultivated a strategy for survival that proves brittle under stress.

There are moments of humour, particularly around Helen’s work as an after-school supervisor of troubled young people. That she can support herself in this way perplexes those who knew her from Milwaukee. She feels satisfaction that she managed to get, and stay, away.

The restless prose travels inexorably towards a climax that is deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered. Helen’s isolation pulses with dark energy.

A powerful evocation of a family damaged despite well meaning intentions. A tragedy of the living as well as the dead.

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