Book Review: The Hope Fault

I enjoyed Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gauntso was happy when I received an early review copy of this, her second book. It is written in three sections and introduces the reader to an unusual family setup.

The protagonist is Iris who, over the course of a weekend, is organising the clearance of her old family holiday home in Cassetown, New Zealand. Farr has reimagined the Busselton suburb of Vasse as the location for her story. It is an up and coming area close to beaches and the Margaret River wine region. This is significant as the house was considered an investment by Iris’s ex-husband, Paul, when they made the purchase. It is he who wishes to sell. The proceeds will enable him to acquire a dream home to share with his second wife, Kristin, and their new baby girl.

I mentioned that the family set up is unusual. Arriving at the house with Iris is her grown up son, Kurt, back from university for the holidays. They bring with them fifteen year old Luce, the daughter of Iris’s best friend, Marti. Paul and Kristin arrive later in the day, with their recently born and much loved daughter, to help with the house clearance. Marti, Paul’s twin sister, will arrive the next day. All of these characters consider themselves family and appear to get on well. Iris has set aside the antagonism she once felt towards Kristin whose affair with Paul precipitated the breakdown of their marriage.

The first and third sections of the book are told from these characters’ points of view, the voice regularly shifting to enable the reader to better understand the effect of their words and actions on the others. In the background is Rosa, Iris’s elderly mother who lives in a care facility back in the city. The middle section of the book tells Rosa’s life story, moving through time from the present day to her birth.

There are many threads running through the tale. Geologists and map makers who work with the earth’s fault lines feature. These details are used as a metaphor for the fault lines running through the family. There is artistry: Kurt’s drawing; Luce’s music; Rosa’s writing; Iris’s embroidery. There are also dependencies – on alcohol and eating habits – alongside attention seeking and its effect. Kurt and Luce are particularly well rendered as they push for greater autonomy and privacy, the exasperation young adults feel towards the older generation is understood and conveyed.

The first section of the book covers the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, with the cast assembling and settling in. The narrative is kept sparse yet much is portrayed. Paul has decided that a final party will be held to which Iris has acquiesced. Through a first night dinner, the start of packing boxes and the arrival of party attendees the cast’s mindsets are unpeeled, their attitudes shared. My engagement in the story faltered as the second afternoon progressed but picked up as further threads were developed.

The second section, Rosa’s story, adds substance to the various histories so far revealed. What comes through is the way the elderly are treated, as if they have always been old, lacking in aspiration and individualism. With nearly one hundred years to cover only glimpses are given. The milestones of Rosa’s restless life contain secrets, achievements and a pivotal disloyalty. This relationship is given more pages than I felt it needed. I would have preferred more on how Rosa’s younger self came to be.

The third section returns to the holiday home and covers the Sunday and Monday of the weekend. Events of the previous night brought out a variety of irritations and weaknesses in the family members, yet most accept these as facets of people they love anyway. Iris worries about Kurt who is facing his demons. Luce is harbouring a secret, her mood volatile and resistant.

The rolling perspectives work well in portraying the mundane and how this affects different temperaments. Decisions made by adults as for the best have caused long term damage in their offspring that they struggle to articulate. What is regarded by the adults as an accepted weakness, a part of what makes the person as they are, is observed with disdain by their children.

Yet this remains a celebration of acceptance, the faults of each family member acknowledged and at times fretted over but not held against. By taking the reader through Rosa’s life we see that the children will move on, look back, and come to better comprehend. Eventually they too will see only an elderly relative in someone who was once a figurehead.

The writing offers touches of brilliance, insights that deserve further consideration. Although I found the pacing sporadic in places, my engagement wandering before once again being drawn in, the structure and premise provide an original take on family love, loyalty and affirmation. This is a worthwhile read.

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

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Book Review: Lou Ham

Lou Ham: Racing Anthropocene Statements, by Paul Hawkins, takes appropriated text from the world of Formula One Motor Racing and creates a series of commentaries. Each page contains just a few lines, staccato sharp experimental poetry that is scathing towards the attitudes of those who participate in the activity. The result is to provoke the reader to consider why it continues, and why the drivers remain so revered.

Climate chaos is a recurring theme, as is the money involved and the hollowness of the spectacle. In stripping away the hype, the inane and damaging nature of motor sport is brought to the fore.

None of the entries are straightforward text given the structure of their transmission. The humour is mocking yet effective in portraying the self-satisfaction of the driver, encouraged and facilitated by their team. The statements are the driver’s voice, divided into countries on the race calendar.

From ‘5 spain’

i’m happy with qualifying
fanfares should be ten yelps
i veered
i’m disrespectful

i was really happy with it
well i did get the win
it’s been a loudmouth of work

i was in teasels about it
still there’s no need
to get emotional
i got everything i could

a big congratultions
to this tearaway

The narrative builds, a sardonic exposure of a meaningless and detrimental spectacle, a costly entertainment. That cost is complex, and it is this that the percipient text delves into.

This is protest poetry that immerses the reader in the glittery, grubby world of wealth generation and its transient frontmen. Racing pollutes not just the planet but its participants. A challenging, persuasive read.

Random Musings: So an author wants a reader to ‘get’ their book?

Writing a work of fiction requires skill, persistence and determination. An author pours a part of themselves into their creation, crafting that original spark of an idea into a world and structure that the reader will find coherent and engaging. Like a child, when it is released the creator wishes it to be treated fairly and thoughtfully, recognised for the essential qualities that have been so carefully cultivated. The author wants the reader to ‘get’ their book and to appreciate, maybe even revere it.

The problem, of course, is that each reader views a story through the lens of their own lived experiences, and these may differ greatly from those lived by the writer. Readers wish to learn of other lives and cultures but also to find aspects they can relate to. What they take from a book, what resonates in the reading, may be far removed from the author’s intentions. To suggest that this reader is therefore incapable in some way smacks of the type of elitism that is holding back greater diversity amongst writers and readers.

When authors have thanked me for a review by expressing delight that I ‘got’ what was intended I have caught myself preening a little. That fleeting feeling of fellowship is warm and fuzzy, a rare treat for someone who generally feels a social outsider. Yet all that is being said is that, in reading the words, I travelled the path intended. I spotted the signposts and followed, noticing the highlights provided along the way. Other readers may be distracted by personal demons, struggling to navigate because they have been taught to interpret differently. They may still ultimately enjoy the reading experience but in a different way. This does not in itself make them a less able reader.

I have been writing in detail about events attended at this year’s Greenwich Book Festival. One author there suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction. The authors and publishers were eager to promote and encourage a widening of access to writers being published, and a broadening of readership. I ponder if this fine ideal would lead to greater divergence of opinion on what is regarded as impressive literature.

I regard a book as a success if it has been enjoyed by the reader. I understand that certain books I dislike are still well written, that it is the content rubbing against my wounds that has repelled me.

Other books, that have received a rapturous reception with reviewers expressing amazement at the art created, I have found dull. At times the impressed readers appear to regard themselves as somehow superior rather than simply having different tastes.

An author owns a book only until it is released. If it reaches a wide enough audience there will be a range of interpretations. Increased diversity means accepting difference. I think this is a good thing.

Monthly Roundup – June 2018

Here we are, half way through another year. Doesn’t time fly when there are so many good books to read? This month has been one of exams and welcoming my big children back from university for the summer. I posted reviews of eleven books, mostly from independent publishers, some of whom have been killing it on the prize circuit recently – particularly pleasing to see. I attended the wonderful Greenwich Book Festival and wrote up each event in detail. Following some critical on line discussion about where people buy books I also wrote about why reading should be a pleasure.

My fiction reading has been a mixed bag with three books proving not to be my cup of tea:

 
The Peace Machine by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), published by Pushkin Press
The Trilogy of Two by Juman Malouf, published by Pushkin Press

and a short story collection from Comma Press.


The Book of Havana by various, translated by Orsola Casagrande and Séamas Carraher

I read three novels that and I now urge everyone to read

 
Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth, published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press
Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press


Gamble by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, published by Salt

and a wonderful short story collection


How The Light Gets In by Clare Fisher, published by Influx Press

Two novels made me think, for very different reasons

 
Shatila Stories by various, published by Peirene Press
Thank You, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse, published by Arrow Books

I posted two reviews of non fiction books, one of which was originally written for Bookmunch

 
Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich, published by Granta Books
Linescapes by Hugh Warwick, published by Vintage

A series of six posts covered the events I attended at Greenwich. All but one featured authors whose books are published by the small independent presses. For balance, the festival party featured authors from two of the big houses, Penguin and Simon & Schuster.


An Overview
Festival Party featuring Imogen Hermes Gower, Lissa Evans, Paula McLain, Diana Evans and Louise Candlish
The long life of short fiction featuring David Hayden, Clare Fisher and Eley Williams
Keeping it real? featuring Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua
Smackdown! featuring Carrie Dunn and Toby Litt
Class Matters featuring Yvonne Singh Alex Pheby, Matthew De Abaitua and Shiromi Pinto

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Class Matters

From the festival programme:

In 2017, Dead Ink Press published the pioneering anthology Know Your Place in which working class writers addressed the issue of class inequalities head on. Authors from the anthology, and elsewhere, discuss class and writing.

Chaired by Matthew De Abaitua, the panel for this discussion included one writer from the excellent Know Your Place. Due to a no show, festival co-director Alex Pheby stepped in at the last minute to join Yvonne Singh and Shiromi Pinto. The discussion covered much interesting ground. None of the four authors are now working class but, growing up, all experienced class issues. My daughter and I ended up discussing this event more than any of the others attended. I may write my own post on class in due course to process the thoughts provoked.

Yvonne opened the event and read her story, More Than Just a Dreamland, from the anthology. Yvonne is a journalist, writer and editor. Her parents are from the Windrush generation. She applied to Know Your Place because she wished to counter the grim stereotypes of the working class, to write something joyful. Her story is set around a British beach. Such places are derided by some yet they hold happy memories for so many. Yvonne had to work her way through university. She first became aware of class at this time.

Alex was asked what role class played in him becoming a writer. He writes about the mentally ill and told us their weirdness cuts out the bullshit by which we live our lives. Alex grew up on a council estate in Basildon. His family then moved to Worcester where, due to his accent, he was considered posh. He passed the 11+ exam and ended up at a public school. Here he was called a gypo – a derogatory term. He experienced a sense of displacement.

Matthew asked about class mobility, what is left behind, identity. Shiromi grew up in Canada and finds class issues baffling. When invited to join the panel she was asked what class she would be and didn’t know. She has the experience of an immigrant coming from an aspirational working class family who moved to improve their chances. Her parents left Britain for Canada as they wanted to leave behind the racism and difficulty of class mobility. They desired greater opportunities for their children.

Matthew asked what working class means now. Yvonne talked of a survey that suggested there were seven classes, the lowest being precarious due to the gig economy. Like the others on the panel she accepts that she is not working class but that is her background.

Matthew quoted Orwell: “he does not act, he is acted upon”. Working class people have no agency.

Yvonne agreed. Many people now feel they cannot shape their future. Housing is out of reach and the older generation do not understand the younger’s lived experiences today.

Alex talked of the post-Thatcher attempt to undermine the infrastructure of support – unions, libraries, society. We now live in a strange form of individualism.

Yvonne mentioned that when she goes back to visit her working class acquaintances she feels a type of imposter syndrome.

Alex told us that his family were very left wing, Marxist. He doesn’t feel that he belongs to that. Whatever he is, his kids are middle class.

Matthew then read from his book, Self & I, about a period when he was working as a security guard on the Liverpool docks while a student. His mentor was an older guard who expressed annoyance when talking about students, asking what is the point of English Literature? The man bought himself a can of coke each day as a treat. Money was tight and coke was not a necessity, it was a rare luxury item that he allowed himself. When Matthew worked for Will Self it was at times almost a Pygmalian type relationship.

Matthew asked the panel about Grenfill and austerity.

Yvonne could only attend university as she received a full grant. She still had to work.

Alex, a university lecturer, told us that the obligation to work impacts on students’ ability to write. With the abolition of grants, more students have to work. Some also need to juggle childcare. They leave with huge debts. When that generation gains power in the future they may cancel these debts. What impact will that have on capitalism? Vice Chancellors wish to improve their institutions’ standings in league tables so raise entrance criteria. This cuts down on the diversity of students affecting all of their experiences.

Shiromi mentioned that Canada has always had university fees. Students graduate and go on to wait on tables in an attempt to clear their debts.

Matthew asked if the panel feel antagonistic towards literary fiction.

Alex talked of the English literary world being one of privilege, centred around Oxbridge and white, English males. Agents look for mirrors of their experiences and this affects who they choose to represent. There is a supposition that if a writer is incapable of gaining entry to Oxbridge then they don’t deserve representation. This attitude is complicit in its continuation.

Yvonne pointed out that fiction exists to tell other people’s stories. It is therefore a shame to limit it to one type, to close doors.

Shiromi moved back to the UK as a student. She was considering becoming a writer but couldn’t see anyone who looked like her being selected. They were all Oxbridge, an incredibly narrow field. Independent publishers offer a lifeline but the industry as a whole is exclusively a certain type. It is dispiriting.

Matthew suggested commercial fiction acts as a censor.

Questions were invited from the audience, the first being if inspiration were drawn from working class music.

Yvonne said yes. Pulp’s Common People tells a great story. Punk poetry can inspire. It is now harder though in all the arts. She suggested that the sciences were more egalitarian than the arts (not my daughter’s experience as a medical student – unlike her, her peers are mostly private school educated).

A teacher at a comprehensive school mentioned Gove’s Baccalaureate and how it has cut the focus from arts subjects, that they are no longer encouraged. This will lead to the gap getting wider. There is no immersion for students in the arts, no encouragement.

Alex talked of an entire group of people looking around for people who fit within their personal taste boundaries. This structural prejudice may not be deliberate. In going with gut feeling people can end up racist, sexist. Literature is chosen for what is expected to sell. We should be looking for something we don’t know, for new voices.

A question was asked, how much does reader demographic affect what is written?

Shiromi told us that agents do this, not thinking about broadening readership.

Yvonne talked of the limitations of market forces and perceived safety.

An audience member suggested that in the 70s and 80s when women weren’t being published they set up their own presses. It was suggested that writers consider alternatives, ways around the problem of Oxbridge.

Alex told them they were preaching to the converted and need to go out and evangelise.

Matthew suggested that the working class may have internalised passivity, telling themselves that, ‘they need to sort it out’, never seeing themselves as the they. He repeated that the working class have things done to them. They lack agency. Their experience of opportunity differs. A new model needs to emerge.

The event had run over time and had to be drawn to a close. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion, and a fine way to round off my attendance at Greenwich. After a quick thank you to Alex for his part in organising such an excellent festival my daughter and I headed back to our digs to mull over all that had been said.

  

 

Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves

Thank You, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, is one of a series of five classic Jeeves and Wooster novels being reissued by Arrow. Wodehouse was a prolific author, much admired for the gentle humour and droll sense of the ridiculous. Having last read any of his work several decades ago I was interested to see how I would react in the changed climate of contemporary care over expression. Certain terms jarred, and rightly, but the underlying wit and warmth remains.

In this tale Bertie Wooster has taken up a musical instrument, the banjolele. The noise he makes while playing sparks complaints from his London neighbours which he first hears about from a little liked acquaintance, Sir Roderick Glossop. Unwilling to countenance the idea of abandoning his art Bertie decides to move to the country where there are fewer people to annoy. He is shocked when his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, declines to accompany him, going so far as to resign when it becomes clear that Bertie will continue to make his music within the confines of a small cottage. Undeterred, Bertie pursues his plan anyway.

The cottage is rented from his old school friend, Lord Chuffnell, who resides at his stately pile nearby. On hearing that Bertie has let Jeeves go, Chuffy has snapped him up having cleared this course of action with his pride-deflated friend. Bertie discovers that Chuffy has fallen head over heels in love with an American heiress, Pauline Stoker, who unbeknown to Chuffy was once engage to Bertie. Pauline’s father put a swift end to their planned nuptials on hearing tales of Bertie’s exploits from Sir Roderick. All of these characters are now, for a variety of reasons, visiting Chuffnell Regis, and the comedy of errors may begin.

The language is over the top in its expression and inventive wit, which fits perfectly with the characters and their misadventures. Added to the mix are a pair of zealous policemen, and two young boys who could be loved only by their mothers. Bertie concocts various plans to bring his friends together, only to have them backfire. The tale includes a kidnapping on a luxury yacht, a devastating fire, and Bertie being forced to go without breakfast. Throughout it all Jeeves remains calm, offering information and advice to save the day.

This is escapist reading for those happy to immerse themselves in a privileged world without worrying about the wider implications. It is fun and easy within that freedom. In today’s censorious climate some of the humour could draw ire, although given the caustic nature of much modern comedy this is gentle. That I am afraid to laugh too loudly for fear someone will condemn me suggests I feel shackled. Wodehouse’s world may be anachronistic but his writing can be enjoyed if read in the context of its creation.

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

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Smackdown!

From the festival programme:

Carrie Dunn and Toby Litt discuss the sport where genuine athleticism and scripted spectacle collide in such spectacular fashion – as well as addressing important gender issues, writing about sport and wrestling’s long and unexpected literary history.

Given my lack of interest is wrestling, of any kind, this was not an event I would have chosen to attend had I not recently read Wrestliana. My reaction to the book left me eager to meet the author and hear what he had to say on gender issues and expectations of modern masculinity. While Carrie addressed sexism in WWE, Toby did not elaborate on his views. He was lovely, and personally thanked my daughter and I for attending the event, but the direction the talk took did not offer an opportunity to discover more on how he felt about the issues of masculinity written into his book.

Chaired by Sam Jordison, the event included readings, discussion and an audience Q&A. I could have asked but didn’t feel comfortable veering into what I feared may be contentious territory.

Carrie is a sports journalist. She holds a masters degree in English Literature for which she read a lot of fan literature, such as Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. These books present sport as a means to do manly bonding. Yet plenty of girls also enjoy sport. Carrie has been playing football since she was seven years old. She did her PhD on women’s experiences in sport and now writes about them, particularly football and wrestling. She pointed out that women are also now attending more events as fans.

Toby talked of the expectation that, as a man, he should participate in sport and have an interest in it. When he attended a state school he enjoyed football. It was fun simply kicking a ball around. When he transferred to private school he was required to play rugby where he was put in the middle of the scrum. He disliked this and the other sports on offer, only being able to raise any enthusiasm for middle distance running. By the age of thirteen or fourteen he had turned against sport.

Instead he got into books, reading works by Keats and the Brontës. There is no sport in these. It was only later that he came to realise that he could choose to do a sport he enjoyed. He took up fencing, sword fighting! He has never regarded himself as sporty.

Sam asked about the liminal territory wrestling inhabits as a sport.

Carrie’s book, Spandex, was written just as the sport was growing in Britain. She was granted access as they wanted publicity. It looks behind the scenes of British Professional Wrestling, at the wrestlers, referees and fans. In the last five years the sport has developed. It is more collaborative. Injuries are minimised due to teamwork. There is a bond of trust between wrestlers.

Toby told us that, unlike professional wrestling, Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling is not scripted. It is competitive. Promoters haven’t decided on winners beforehand. It is local with wrestling having been enjoyed by participating families for generations. It is part of the fun of the fair. As a knockout competition each round becomes more intense. The weaker fighters have been weeded out. It is a community event, fun for all ages. Even teenagers will turn up to watch fights between local family members…

As part of Toby’s research for Wrestliana he went to a WWE bout (American wrestling in Britain). He observed that the audience were more nuanced than on the televised American shows, not always booing the baddie or cheering the goodie. He found it a bit boring, lacking intimacy.

Carrie agreed that interaction with the audience has not yet been sorted in professional wrestling. The goodies and baddies are decided on beforehand and the audience are required to buy into this. It is a performance, as in theatre. Wrestlers play their part, the character assigned to them in a promotion. It’s not about who wins or loses but rather who gets the attention.

Carrie talked about sexism in the sport, how one promoter boasted that he would never pay a woman more than £20, because she is a girl. Women may be chosen for how they look in costume. Participants in WWE must do as they are told.

The discussion turned to football. Before mass media coverage it was a knockaround sport played between rival villages. There was no pitch. It was a brawl, the aim being to capture the leather ball. As a sport with many participants, individuals didn’t have the fame that successful wrestlers enjoyed. Wrestling was bounded; charisma mattered.

In a lot of sports the players put themselves into the story being created. They convince themselves that they can do what it takes, visualising successful moves. Self belief is necessary.

The talk ended and the audience were encouraged to buy the authors’ books. Engaging as it was I would have preferred more in-depth discussion on those gender issues. I remain disinterested in wrestling.