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: The Threat Level Remains Severe

The Threat Level Remains Severe, by Rowena MacDonald, takes a wry look at life in corporate and political London. Set within the musty Palace of Westminster, its protagonists are lowly office workers looking for fulfilment, both personally and in their careers. Their coming together provides a lighthearted tale overflowing with sardonic humour. It is a contemporary, mocking yet poignant drama set within the supposed corridors of power.

Grace Ambrose has worked as an assistant to Hugo, the chairman of The Economic Scrutiny Committee, for seven years. She was offered the job when she temped at the office following her graduation, while she was trying to decide what she wanted to do next. She still hasn’t quite made that decision. Grace works alongside Rosemary, her senior in rank as well as years. Their jobs are straightforward, undemanding and secure. They are also interminably dull.

Australian go-getter, Brett Beamish, joins the team from the Treasury as an economics specialist. With his carefully cultivated image, business trainee vocabulary and self-satisfied demeanour he is the personification of management cliché. He is portrayed as a shiny package, smug and soulless. He struggles to understand why Grace presents herself as she does when it is not what he believes men will admire. To him, what others think is a vitally important consideration.

Grace mocks Brett’s attempts to modernise their working environment. His breakout area, whiteboard and colour coded desk arrangements are the antithesis of their surrounding wood panelled antiquity. Brett sets out to bond with Grace as team building dictates. Her tepid work ethic is beyond his comprehension.

On Brett’s first day in the office Grace receives an unsolicited email from a stranger. Reuben Swift tells her that she has amazing beauty and her lonely heart soaks up the flattery. Over the coming weeks he writes her poetry, sends her song recordings and photographs, playing to her arty ideals. She is wary but also intrigued. She wants them to meet.

The story progresses as Brett succeeds in bonding the team, they get ejected from a private members club, and fists are wielded on the roof of the palace leading to an arrest. The narrative viewpoint then switches to Reuben. A court case follows. The timeline jumps forward to where the characters end up next.

Although Reuben and Brett appear so different there are marked similarities in their desire to rise above their place in society at birth. Grace has the outward appearance of a left leaning hippy but is as uninspired in her middle class social and political opinions as she is about work. When she complains about the rampant paperwork generated by the workings of a democracy Brett teases that she would prefer a dictatorship:

‘It would be OK if I was the dictator.’

‘Dictatorships are always OK if you’re the dictator. What kind of dictator would you be?’

‘A benevolent one, I expect.’

‘One that insisted on north London liberal values on pain of death?’

I found the first section of this book, a little over half of the story, the most fun. The second provided an alternative viewpoint but felt somewhat far fetched. The court case and denouement wound the story up efficiently. They were easy to read but lacked the delicious humour of the earlier chapters.

This is a reminder of the shallow pretensions many cultivate, how people convince themselves that they are better than their personal concerns allow. The slow grind of politics gave me more faith in the system than media portrays. Grace and Brett are amusing constructs with their ambitions and contradictions.

Entertaining and original, showing life in the capital from a refreshingly honest viewpoint, this is an enjoyable, even if not entirely satisfying, read.

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

 

The Threat Level Remains Severe has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: The Children’s Home

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The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert, is an allegorical tale written by an accomplished weaver of words. The prose is sparse yet perceptive. The surreal aspects leave much of the detail open for reader interpretation but the arc is clear, and disturbing. If we open our eyes to that which is happening all around we risk comprehending the wickedness of the world and may be forever changed.

Morgan Fletcher lives the life of a recluse in his large and rambling home set within its own extensive grounds behind high walls. He is disfigured and allows himself to be seen by no one except his housekeeper, Engel, who ensures that other staff members keep their distance. He is aware that the world outside his walls is violent and troubled. He assumes that rumours of his monstrous looks have encouraged others to stay away.

Morgan spends his time reading and writing, finding solace in the books left to him by his late parents and the grandfather whose wealth built the house and family business. This is now run by his co-beneficiary, a sister he never sees.

The story opens with the arrival of a baby girl, left on the kitchen steps and found by Engel. They decide to take her in, rightly surmising that she would be better off with them than with the Department of Welfare in the city. Soon other children start arriving, some with labels tied to them giving names, others old enough to speak their monikers. The children’s origins are unclear.

Morgan delights in having these youngsters in his house. Engel is eager to care for them although they are so well behaved this is not an arduous task.

When one of the little girls becomes ill, Doctor Crane is summoned from the city. Initially shy of this stranger Morgan hides but is persuaded to show himself after subsequent visits. The two men become friends.

The children’s behaviour is precocious and uncanny, especially that of the eldest boy, David. He becomes the de facto leader, and it is he who decides that Morgan should leave the safety of his seclusion. Officials have visited the house threatening to take the children away and action is required.

Various tropes are explored: lack of parental love; concern over outward appearance when valued as a trophy rather than the person one could otherwise become; how much esteem is bound up in others’ perceptions; how one will look away rather than do what is right if this could threaten a comfortable lifestyle.

The story demonstrates how fulfilling it is to assist an individual, especially if something personal is gained. There is desire for payment, be it friendship, admiration or gratitude. Returns are diluted if the results are imperceptible.

Likewise, when the cost of inaction is brought up close and personal the horror cannot be avoided, which is perhaps why so many choose to wear blinkers and construct walls.

The denouement was cleverly done, offering potential explanations whilst allowing scope for reader inference. The potting shed brought to mind our education system. Monsters wear masks for propriety, first defining what that is.

A compelling tale that is neither straightforward nor simple to deconstruct. For those, like me, who enjoy peeling back layers and being challenged to think it offers a hugely satisfying read.

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

Q&A with Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

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

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

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

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

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

8. Do you consider yourself niche or mainstream?

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

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

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

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

10. Plans for the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

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The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, by Tracy Farr, is the fictional memoir of an octogenarian musician who has lived through two world wars and across four continents. It is a stunning example of writing that touches the soul, beautiful and haunting in its resonance. The understated emotion which simmers beneath the surface is all the more powerful for being recounted in modulated, demure textures and tones.

Lena Gaunt is an only child, born to wealthy, Australian parents in 1910 Singapore. She is shipped off to board at a school near Perth when only four years old, a beloved uncle helping to make her time there more bearable, that and her love of music. At her school, where she remained until she was sixteen, she learned to play piano and then cello. She eschewed friendship for her art at which she excelled.

By the time her father recalled her to the family home this had been relocated to Malaya. Lena soon grew bored with the refined and proper life she was expected to live. When her father discovered how she secretly coped with her boredom he raged at the potential shame and banished her.

Lena moved to Sydney where she met other artists and their patrons, including a professor who had invented a new type of musical instrument, the theremin. Lena fell in love with this avant-garde device, playing it at private parties, small gatherings and then at larger venues as her skill and fame grew. Her early success was, however, short lived. She moved to New Zealand with her lover, and then back to Australia where she saw out the years of the Second World War.

In the fifties there was renewed interest in her theremin playing and she traveled between Europe and America, not returning to Australia until she was in her sixties. After a twenty year hiatus she was invited to perform at a festival close to her home. In the audience was a film maker who approached her with a view to making a documentary of her life. Despite her reservations Lena agreed and it is this process around which her memoir, this story, is written.

The prose mirrors the character of the protagonist; it is, after all, written in her voice. Lena is self contained, fluid and refined, but with a simmering passion and internal disregard for convention. She requires privacy and space in which to live beyond the petty constraints imposed by:

“the workaday world with its morals and strictures, its curtain twitching and mouth pursing”

Although her colourful exploits are recounted in this tale it is the feeling and effect rather than the detail that lingers. There are smooth cadences, soaring crescendos, necessary recovery, all wrapped up around a life lived:

“out of sight of conservative eyes and minds of grey people”

There is triumph and tragedy, her experiences described as sounds:

“the sounds around me, reflected, refracted. These sounds had depth behind them and raw salt rubbed through them”

The only jarring note in this symphony of a life was Trix who came across as brash beside Lena’s outward finesse. Perhaps it was Trix’s term of endearment for Lena, the condescending ‘doll’, which particularly grated on my contemporary ears. Lena’s potential seemed diminished while with Trix, although the former may have considered this a price worth paying.

Despite the chain smoking, heavy drinking and casual drug use, the stench of degeneracy is avoided. Lena relishes the plaudits her talent brings but shows little concern for the expectations of others when in private. She finds beauty in the shore and in the power of her chosen art. Her ability to accept hardship as part and parcel of a life lived makes this an uplifting read despite the pathos.

The writing is as close to a beautiful piece of music as I have encountered. I drank in the words, was moved to rapture and tears, and felt sated. I could listen in my heart again and again. Read this book and be filled.

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

 

Book Review: The Last Pier

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The Last Pier, by Roma Tearne, is a beautifully written, evocative tale that explores sibling rivalry, guilt, and the complexities of familial love. Set in and around a bucolic, Suffolk fruit farm on the eve of the Second World War, the atmosphere is tense and claustrophobic as the cast of characters strain against their insular lives. This is not so much a story of a lost way of life as of lives lost due to the constraints of a society that demanded conformity and silent loyalty.

Cecily is thirteen years old and living in the shadow of her beautiful, just turned sixteen year old sister, Rose. With the prospect of war casting a shadow over the long, hot summer, Cecily watches from the sidelines as her sister flirts with lust and adventure. She is jealous of the attention Rose receives, angry that she herself is still treated as a child. By eavesdropping on conversations she picks up snippets of secrets but never fully understands their implications.

Within the first chapter we learn that, by the end of this summer, Rose will be dead. Twenty-nine years later Cecily returns to their now empty farmhouse to try to unravel the memories of what happened and why. The guilt she feels for her part in the tragedy has coloured every aspect of her subsequent life, yet there is much that she cannot make sense of. Her therapist has suggested that she needs to confront these demons. To do so she returns to the home from which she was banished after her sister’s funeral with only scant belongings, but an armoury of blame.

The story unfolds piecemeal as Cecily sifts through her fragments of memory from that summer. The farmhouse has fallen into disrepair but retains the ghosts of her dead family in the form of forgotten scents, furnishings, faded photographs and documents. Cecily wades into the tide of pain that she has long suppressed, recalling events leading up to the devastating fire that stole her sister’s life.

“Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they claim remembrance when they show their scars.”

Memory is such a treacherous beast, affected as it is by triggers from the present and the filter of hindsight. The telling of this story is strengthened by such unreliability. Cecily recalls how she felt at the time but can now recognise how much she missed. By adding knowledge gleaned over the decades in between, and from documents she discovers in the old house, she is able to piece together the parts played by her parents, her aunt, two strangers who stayed at the farm that summer, and a family of close friends from a nearby town.

These friends, the Molinello family, came over from Italy in the 1920’s and opened an ice cream parlour on the Suffolk coast, producing delicacies previously unknown outside of their native Italy. They required fruit from their local farm and the families soon became close, their children growing up and playing together. Now in their teens the children’s feelings are shifting. Cecily longs for more attention from Carlo, but believes that he, along with everyone else, has been distracted by Rose. As the young people grapple with their burgeoning desires, the adults are playing a more dangerous game. In the end it is their love affairs, jealousies and allegiances that will tear both families apart.

The final quarter of the book tied up the many, scattered threads but somehow lacked the brooding, dark, convoluted beauty of the story telling which had captivated me up until that point. The reading of the diaries and letters felt underplayed, almost bland after the pain of all that had gone before.

Woven into the finale of the tale are true events, rarely discussed horrors from the war. The acknowledgement of this is timely given current treatment of those who are regarded as foreign. It is depressing how little is learned from history. Those who look back on idyllic times are perhaps remembering locations rather than people whose thoughts and actions were far from any ideal.

Despite minor reservations around the denouement, I enjoyed this book immensely. A fine example of outstanding story telling that deserves to be widely read.

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