Book Review: Man With A Seagull On His Head

“She’d sat in front of him for three weeks and he hadn’t seen her. How odd to discover one didn’t exist.”

Man With A Seagull On His Head, by Harriet Paige, opens in the summer of 1976 when council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. The moment is witnessed by Jennifer Mulholland, a shop assistant at a nearby department store who happens to be by the shore. No words are exchanged but this brief encounter, the unexpected vision of an unknown woman as he is felled, is seared onto Ray’s subconscious. The previously ordinary middle aged man living alone, who had never thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman on every surface available and with whatever substances come to hand.

Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world. Now living in London he has been adopted by Grace and George Zoob, collectors with a penchant for the experimental. Ray is still painting his woman and nobody, including him, knows who she is. An interview in a national newspaper alerts Jennifer to her unasked for role as Ray’s muse.

Alternative chapters allow the reader to catch up with the direction Jennifer’s life has taken. Still living in her small Essex town she no longer lives in a bedsit but has become part of a wider family. She observes the decisions people around her have made and how these have changed the trajectories of their lives. Few have ended up where they expected.

“she realised that she had no true friends in the world and that there was no one at all who understood anything about who she was.”

Themes of loneliness and the small deaths of personal dreams pervade. There is an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Grace Zoob struggles with her need to be acknowledged in a world that has no need for her individual existence. Eventually she takes out her frustrations on Ray.

The depiction of the art world is amusing but it is the deftly drawn characters and their private concerns that add impressive depth to this engaging story. It is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Life may at times appear to have no purpose yet still people find ways to live.

“sometimes you just had to put one foot in front of the other and tell yourself that you’d have a nice cup of tea when you got home.”

Quirky in places but always accessible this is existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale. A book that I will now be eagerly recommending – a vividly drawn, satisfying read.

 

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

 

Man With A Seagull On His Head 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.

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Book Review: So The Doves

“We are a tale we tell ourselves: editing, adding, mythologising, and of course we do it to each other too.”

So The Doves, by Heidi James, is an intelligent murder mystery set in Medway, Kent. Its protagonist is Marcus Murray, an award winning journalist working for a prestigious London newspaper that has just published his impeccably sourced exposé of an influential, international organisation. Marcus uncovered the company’s involvement in illicit currency trades leading to government arms deals in the middle east. He considers himself a good guy but has opened a Pandora’s Box, and he too has an Achilles heel.

When Marcus’s boss sends him to cover the story of a body found near his old home town he is irritated at being set a task he now considers beneath him. Staying with his elderly mother in his childhood bedroom, memories of a life changing teenage friendship, the ending of which he has long suppressed, return. When he realises that he has been removed from London to enable his newspaper to protect itself, he must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for the principles on which he has built his life and career.

The story jumps between 1989 and the present day. As fifteen year olds, Melanie Shoreham befriends Marcus when he moves from his fee paying school to the local comprehensive. He basks in the reflection of the image he builds of Mel, never truly understanding what her life has entailed.

“Were they really so different? Maybe they were and maybe he believed that if he could only figure her out, emulate her – her gestures, her attitude – then maybe he could be invincible, extraordinary, like her.”

In the present day Marcus strikes up a friendship with one of the detectives on the local murder case. Marcus is wary of relationships and cannot trust the motives of his new lover, initial perceptions bolstered by his view of the flat where they go to have sex.

“His place was neat and stylishly bland, like a flat in those estate agent brochures. Everything matching, and revealing nothing about the owner except that they have no taste of their own.”

Marcus cannot tell if his wariness is due to his growing paranoia, the innate ability be believes he has to read others, or a hangover from the teenage memories now crowding his days.

“The brain sees what it wants to see, looking for patterns and the familiar, what we know. Perhaps that was it? We’re trapped in the wireframe of our memories, building our present from old images.”

All but cut off from his London life, Marcus’s refusal to capitulate brings the trouble generated to Kent. Even now he is unsure of what is real and what he is constructing to excuse his increasingly volatile behaviour.

An undercurrent of foreboding slowly rises to the surface. Marcus struggles to maintain his veneer of studious truth-seeking which is gradually being peeled away. The fictions he has created which pass as memory have enabled him to live with his selfishness and failings. He was not proud of his behaviour then, and must now confront the fact that he may be no better decades later.

When the timelines come together, after the police investigation uncover links, Marcus is forced to remember events leading up to the last time he saw Mel. He revisits the past, but powerful forces are reinterpreting what is known to suit their own ends.

This is an evocative study of memory and the stories we create to shape how we regard ourselves. Its razor sharp percipience is in places discomfiting but this never detracts from the tension of the storytelling.

“Memory, if we’re honest, is a servile , biased little beast, delivering up half-remembered scenes that cast, at the very least, a flattering light over even the worst moments. […] We hunt like toothy little animals for patterns, for meaning, scurrying about gathering our special tales to line our nests and keep us warm at night.”

Artfully told this tale demands that the reader question their core perceptions of themselves. It is a disturbing, compelling, ultimately satisfying read.

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

Book Review: The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole, by Benjamin Myers, is a fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. In a remote Yorkshire hamlet, on the cusp of the industrial revolution, a local man named David Hartley pronounces himself King. He leads a gang of weavers and land workers in an illegal enterprise that puts food on the tables and clothes on the backs of the poorest in his area at the expense of those who have sufficient. Hartley and his brothers talk of becoming Lords of the woods and moors which they believe belong to the likes of them. Unlike those who more regularly bear such titles, Hartley shares his ill gotten gains. Those who live in abject poverty have little regard for the aristocracy who treat them with disdain.

“Landowners who rarely walked the land […] who spent their days away paving turnpikes and building mills. Sinking canals and striking deals. Buying and selling. Traders. Sons of the empire, the aristocratic archtects of England’s new future. Men for whom too much was never enough.”

Hartley recognises that changes are ahead. He worked for a time in the Black Country and knows of the huge mills that will replace the hand looms still operating in basic homes such as his.

“soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money.”

An illegal practise had existed in the area for many years, the clipping and forging of coins. Through persuasion and coercion the Hartleys centralise and expand the scale of this operation, thereby disrupting the local economy. With many benefiting, loyalty is assured, until one man grows dissatisfied with his share. Jealous of Hartley’s growing comfort and power he approaches an excise officer, William Deighton, who is determined to bring down those now known widely as the Cragg Vale Coiners and their leader, King David.

Deighton and his friend, a successful young solicitor named Robert Parker, are unused to the base manners and smell of this turncoat, pondering if he deserves any better than the harsh life he leads. As well fed, regularly paid servants of the Crown they do not appreciate how the Coiners value their freedom, and know the land on which they and their forebears were raised. The Coiners are family men, even if they do treat their women as chattels, existing to satisfy men’s needs and provide children. The wealthy may be fatuous and condescending but they have the law on their side, and it exists to protect the lawmakers.

The writing is fluvial, reflecting the stark beauty of the land and the depths of the characters portrayed. The audacity of Hartley’s operation, the cunning with which it was perpetuated, is presented alongside acknowledgement that some suffered from his success. Yet he fed the hungry, cared for the needy, while the wealthy brought industry in the name of progress, costing forgotten lives and keeping the many in poverty. Had Hartley’s criminal activity continued, I wonder would his willingness to share.

A multi-layered account presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.

Book Review: The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote

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The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, by Dan Micklethwaite, is a poignant yet always humourous adventure featuring a wine guzzling twenty-two year old whose life revolves around the stories she reads in books. Her top floor flat has been taken over by her literature, with bookshelves obscuring windows and a shower curtain protecting the titles she keeps in her bathroom. She has little furniture and a ragbag of clothes, but her many bookshelves overflow and her bedroom is carpeted with novels of uniform size. She rescues books from charity shops and orders them on line. Her stories have kept her together as the life she dreams of has repeatedly slipped from her grasp.

At the beginning of the tale we learn that Donna is currently single. Her previous boyfriend, Kirk, disliked her fixating on books, preferring that she concentrate on pleasing him. We learn that Donna’s father, an English teacher, encouraged her to read voraciously to avoid growing up ‘a thickie’. His scathing language was never confined to his pupils. Donna’s childhood was played out to the soundtrack of her parents’ arguments, although their eventual divorce helped her financially.

One morning Donna rashly decides to leave the sanctuary of her small and stuffy flat. She will don the armour of a knight and go questing. She discovers that Huddersfield may not be ready for such bravado. The setbacks she encounters force her to consider a different role, perhaps that of a princess.

Storybook princesses will inevitably seek their prince. Donna’s experience of these beings has not been favourable. She resents that her lovers regard every situation as revolving around them. She has no wish to be any boy’s toy.

Donna’s prince, even if he does talk a bit southern at times, brings her wine and companionship, but it is her books that continue to provide the adventures she seeks. She lives life through her imagination, fueled by stories lightly flavoured by experience. She begins to question their happy ever after.

Written in short sentences and chapters, the author is piercing in the observations he makes about his characters and setting. He captures the mundane as Donna sees it, turning empty shops into caves and bookshelves into forests. His heroine is a too thin, ginger haired, northerner with a proclivity, if not the talent, for cosplay. She and her many foibles are brought to life with a sharp wit and a sympathetic wisdom. She is a fabulous creation, volatile and vulnerable but determined to forge her own path with as clear a head as excessive wine consumption will allow.

“Nobody has ever accused Donna Crick-Oakley of being adventurous. A slut, yes. A thickie. A dreamer. A quiet one. A fat bitch (before she lost weight). A skinny bitch (after). A nutter. A swot. A stick-in-the-mud. An accident waiting to happen. A cry-baby. A silly cow. A giant waste of time. All of the above, but never adventurous. The fact was, when given a choice between real life and books, Donna Crick-Oakley chose books every time. […] She chose books because they never left her lonely the way Kirk had had left her lonely. Because company was often nothing of the kind, whereas a good book always was.”

Much of the story reads like a modern day fairy story, paying homage to the traditional form, not Disneyfied. There are awkward conversations, drunken messages posted on social media, and the disdane of city dwellers to battle. Throughout the text perceptive insights are fired like arrows, mocking yet poignant and very funny.

A tale lightly written with a depth that will linger, it is clever whilst avoiding any conceit. More than that though, this book offers entertainment. It was an absolute pleasure to read.

Q&A with Bluemoose Books

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Today I am delighted to welcome Kevin from Bluemoose Books to my blog. I discovered this publishing house last month when they kindly sent me a review copy of If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here, a stunning novel that you should all go and read now.

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

1. Why did you decide to set up Bluemoose?

I won a national writing competition and was whisked down to London by a Sunday newspaper to be wined and dined at The Ivy with the editorial director of Macmillan and an agent from Curtis Brown. It didn’t go well. A year later I read that all the big money advances were going to Irish writers so I changed my name to Colm O’Driscoll and sent the first three chapters off to Darley Anderson, Lee Child and Martina Cole’s agent. He tried to get hold of me by phone but of course I didn’t exist, so he wrote a letter. I contacted him but I had to be Irish for a year. I even had to tell my lads that if a posh man from London rings and asks for Colm, that’s me. The things you’ll do to get published.

He loved my book and so I signed up to Darley Anderson but at the time they couldn’t sell Anthills & Stars. Apparently nobody was buying comedic fiction. After 12 months I got the book back and moped and moped. Hetha, my wife, told me to do something about it, so we re-mortgaged the house, started Bluemoose Books, published my novel and a book by a Canadian writer, Nathan Vanek, called The Bridge Between. We made enough money from these two books to continue and here we are, 10 years later still publishing.

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

Our aim is to publish cracking stories, period. Books that engage, inspire and are beautifully written.

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

Writers send their work to us, they read our published books and get in touch, hear our authors at festivals, library events, through book reviews in the national and regional press.

Some even ring up on Boxing Day.

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

I’ve spent over 25 years in sales and marketing for fiction, non-fiction, academic and business publishers, so nothing is really that new, although the marketing of ‘brand names’ is quite frightening these days.

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?

There are some brilliant independents out there and we are all different. What, I think, makes Bluemoose successful is the brilliant editors we have, who all have different reading tastes and different life experiences, so when we get together and decide to publish a book, we know that there is something unique in that story and the writing that will attract readers.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

As a publisher I think you must never follow trends. That way lies madness. In my opinion you cannot predict what will sell, you may replicate what has sold and hope to sell but as an independent originality and authenticity are the two key things you look for in a new writer.

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

We find increasingly that people want paper books for sharing. However, we do sell a lot of digital books too. Our analysis tells us that people on holiday or business trips will buy digital for convenience but when they come home and want to share their reading experience they buy the paperback and share. Reading is solitary but can become communal and an online community experience too.

8. Do you consider Bluemoose to be niche or mainstream?

We are stridently independent and if we ever become mainstream and just publish to keep the accountant happy, take me away in a box.

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

Collaborative but the final editorial decisions are always with the publisher/editor.

10. Plans for the future?

We have 6 brilliant books in the pipeline for this year, and several for 2017 and 2018.

Highlights in the first 6 months of this year being:

  • If you look for me, I am not here by Sarayu Srivatsa, just published;
  • Tainted Love, the second novel by Anna Chilvers, in May;
  • The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, a debut in July from Dan Micklethwaite.

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Thank you Kevin 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: Bluemoose Books.

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: Bluemoose Books (@Ofmooseandmen)

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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: If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here

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‘If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here’, by Sarayu Srivatsa, brought to mind Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’. Like Okri’s tale, it focuses on a young boy whose life is blighted by his family circumstances and the fractured culture in which he lives. The supernatural aspects of this story are, however, less pronounced. I found it more accessible and incredibly sad, dealing as it does with a child who has no control over the way he is treated by the adults entrusted with his care. It is a story of family and grief interwoven with the influences of religion, superstition and history. It is an exploration of the impact of abandonment, of person and place, and how the abandoned are damaged by a lingering desire for what has gone.

Set in the coastal town of Machilipatnam, in post independence India, it narrates the early life of Siva, who lives with his mother, father, grandmother and their staff in a large, rundown house built by an Englishman, George Gibbs. When Gibbs left the town his name remained on roads, in the research facility and factory he founded, and amongst the belongings he left behind in his home. Siva’s father now runs the research facility and his grandfather the factory.

The book opens with the circumstances surrounding Siva’s birth. His mother, Mallika, had longed for a daughter that she may be the mother she had always craved, her own mother having died giving birth. Mallika’s mother-in-law, the pious widow, Patti, calls on all her Hindu gods to grant her a grandson, that three generations of the family may cross over from heaven into eternal bliss rather than being reborn again and again into this cruel world.

Mallika is unmoved by Patti’s desires. She prepares pretty dresses for her longed for daughter. When she goes into labour a daughter is indeed delivered, who she names Tara, and who minutes later dies in her father’s arms. Mallika is distraught, rejecting the twin who follows his sister from the womb. The only way the family can get her to care for her newborn son is to allow her to pretend that Siva is Tara, a charade that is played out until the boy starts school.

Siva believes that Tara lives inside him. He longs for his mother’s love but is rejected time and again if Mallika is forced to confront the fact that it was the boy who lived. The rest of the household, although uncomfortable with Mallika’s unstable behaviour, tolerates her foibles in order to maintain the uneasy status quo.

Siva befriends Rebecca, a motherless young girl two years his senior who lives with her father and grandmother in the local town. Siva feels more comfortable with Rebecca and her friends than with the boys at his school. He is intrigued by another town resident, Sweetie-Cutie, who was born a man but now dresses as a woman following castration. Siva questions his own gender, longing to be a girl that he may regain his mother’s love.

Siva’s father encourages his son’s interest in science. When Siva goes to his father with heartfelt questions he is given factual answers. These offer him more comfort than the life lessons he is given at school which are skewed by Christian beliefs, or the teaching he is offered by his grandmother with her Hindu faith and superstitions. However, Siva’s father is devoted to his work and has little time for his son.

The interweaving of George Gibbs and his story with the contemporary tale seemed a little surreal but added to the underlying exploration of identity, a struggle for both Siva and his country. The writing is, in places, beautiful and profound.

As Siva approaches puberty he finds himself further alienated and contemplates drastic action. It is heartbreaking to read of his pain. The parallels between Siva’s struggle and that of his country are understated but skillfully portrayed.

This book was rewarding to read and a lesson in a culture that can be challenging for a western mind to understand. The reader is left to wonder how a child can ever recover from such a skewed upbringing, how a country will have been damaged by forced transition and then abandonment.

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