Book Review: Lanyards

Lanyards, by Neil Campbell, is the third book in the author’s Manchester Trilogy. I have not read the previous two works, Sky Hooks and Zero Hours, also published by Salt. From what I can quickly glean online, this current story is narrated by a man who could be around the same age as the author. Their background, work experiences and publication history appear similar. The narrator enjoys reading Knausgaard among many other male writers lauded within certain literary circles. I pondered if Lanyards could be a work of autofiction.

Campbell is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School. On their website his biography is as follows.

“Neil Campbell was born in Audenshaw, Manchester in 1973. While working variously as a warehouseman, bookseller and teacher, he had poems and stories published in small press magazines, and edited the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003-2008. In 1999 he completed an MA dissertation on the short stories of Raymond Carver at the University of Manchester, and went on to graduate from MMU’s MA Creative Writing programme in July 2006. His short story collection Broken Doll was published by Salt in March 2007 followed by a second, Pictures from Hopper, 2011, and an e-novella, Sky Hooks, in 2014. He has also had two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary, and a story collection Ekphrasis, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and had a story in the Best British Short Stories 2012.”

Although much of this matches details shared by our protagonist, the narrator expresses disdain for Creative Writing courses – not least because the working class cannot afford them.

“I wanted to read great literature and try to write great literature and the further away I could get from Creative Writing the better.”

The story being told jumps around in time offering snapshots of the narrator’s life. Opening in childhood he describes: the gift of a BMX bike, hanging out with his friends, stealing from sweet shops. He writes of later when he had a job in a warehouse. This work follows a brief football career cut short by injury. Football remains important but as a spectator sport.

The narrator’s friends include local poets who meet up in pubs. Here they offer advice to upcoming writers along with the opportunity to read their work in public. At one spoken word night he meets the woman who will become his wife, an Asian born British woman who opens his eyes to casual racism.

The bones of the book are the jobs the narrator must accept to earn a living. The agency he signs up with finds him temporary work supporting SEN students and at a call centre – zero hour contracts. Wrapped around this precarious working life are the narrator’s social hours, spent mainly in pubs imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. His partner tries to interest him in theatre but he remains unimpressed, falling asleep during one show he regarded as tedious.

The narrator harbours disdain for many habits of the middle classes while nurturing his personal preferences and grievances. For example, he hankers after the old kind of pubs finding too many are now

“All too clean, somehow, too family friendly.”

The style of writing is conversational, like catching up with an old acquaintance. There are lengthy sections of dialogue interspersed with descriptions of the narrator’s day to day experiences. He recounts: days at work on his various jobs, nights out with friends, outings with his partner, football matches. The reader gains a feel for the life he is living, including his resentments and ambition as a writer.

Despite the interesting style and substance of the prose I did not become emotionally invested in the characters. Travels around Manchester painted a vivid picture of recent changes in the city, with frequent mentions of bypasses and supermarkets, but did not convey if these are more widely regarded as an improvement. At times there are sparks of anger over government policy or as a result of nostalgia. Given the choices the narrator makes I was unclear what it was he expected.

Clearly stated is a desire to emulate the authors he admires alongside derision for writers who hawk their wares on social media. All of this is conveyed within a commonplace existence where jobs are offered and lost with little regard for the worker – sadly, it has always been thus.

And yet, there is something within the tale that burrows into the mind of the reader – a spark of malcontent that demands attention. Within the ordinary life portrayed is a vibrancy, an insistence that good writing is worth pursuing. As readers we can be thankful that such attitudes persist amongst those whose voices should be heard.

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

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Book Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is a gentle and percipient story about a team who create a 1960s situation comedy drama for prime time television. The protagonist is a young woman from Lancashire, Barbara Parker, who wishes to emulate her hero, Lucille Ball, and become a comic actress. To achieve her dream she travels to London where, through a series of lucky events, she meets a pair of radio writers and a producer who have been commissioned by the BBC to create a half hour show for a TV series, Comedy Playhouse. The team, including the already cast leading man, at first reject Barbara as she does not fit the look they desired for the female role. However, when they allow her a read through of the script it becomes clear there is a spark they could work with. Their decision to give Barbara the part changes all of their lives.

Barbara adopts a stage name, Sophie Straw, and adores the work she is given by her new colleagues. Their conceits, wit and education draw her into a world where she is eager to belong. They in turn value her talent, and two of the men are drawn to her looks and figure. Where most actresses are tall, straight and skinny, Sophie is buxom and curvy. With her northern accent – almost unheard of within the corridors of the BBC – and ability to cut through the affectations of certain highbrow media people, she is the root around which the sit-com grows.

Light entertainment is looked down upon by the serious critics. Amidst the many social changes of the 1960s was a wider hunger amongst the growing number of television viewers for shared enjoyment. The insufferably serious minded frown vociferously on the choices made by the millions who avidly watch popular TV shows. They believe such programming should be ‘relegated’ to the commercial channel and the BBC remain above populism.

“What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Barbara, now Sophie, remains ambitious but finds that success does not bring her the satisfaction expected.

“She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.”

Her co-star also develops a type of melancholy when he realises that fame in a sit-com will not propel him into the lauded parts in film and theatre that he expected and craves. Meanwhile, one of the writers is working on a novel and wishes to be taken seriously by the literati. What had initially felt like a lucky break loses its charm and momentum.

The tale takes the reader through the changes in the team as four series of their show are made. It then moves forward in time to what comes next.

The team members’ personalities lead to differing outcomes in their personal lives. These are portrayed with a light touch but offer insights that provide the depth in an otherwise benign if engaging read.

The final section depicts the characters in their old age. Even Sophie has become a product of the media: surrounded by people who want fame via the entertainment industry, removed from those with other ambitions and therefore assuming they don’t exist.

“Sometimes it seemed as though all anyone wanted to do was write television programmes, or sing, or appear in movies. Nobody wanted to make a paintbrush, or design engines, or even find a cure for cancer.”

She retains her occasionally astute observations, especially around how the aged are treated and how they regard themselves.

“people of their age wanted to think about the future, like everybody else, but what they most wanted was to live in the present, rather than the past”

The writing is easy on the reader but there are plenty of nuggets to chew over, especially on individual ambition in the arts and hierarchical conceits. Although providing a somewhat nostalgic look at what some regard as a golden era of light entertainment, there is much that is relevant in today’s climate of artistic judgement of quality and popularity. The various discontents are well rendered.

A strong addition to the author’s oeuvre, this is an enjoyable, undemanding yet satisfying tale.

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

Book Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, by Peter Hedges, was first published in 1991 by Simon & Shuster. This 2014 edition is a re-release from Fox, Finch & Tepper, the publishing arm of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, whose aim is to “rediscover undercelebrated books with a strong sense of place and memorable characters.” The Grape family, of whom the titular Gilbert is the fourth of six mostly grown children, are certainly memorable. Their father committed suicide by hanging himself in their basement fifteen years before the story opens. Their mother reacted to this family tragedy by consuming so much food over the intervening period that her weight has made the floor sag beneath the television chair she all but lives in. If something isn’t done soon she will likely meet her end in the same room as her late husband by falling through the floor.

Gilbert hates what his family has become. His Elvis loving eldest sister, Amy, is run ragged trying to look after everyone since their mother abandoned maternal duties to concentrate on eating while watching endless TV. His elder brother, Larry, who discovered their father’s body, left home when he could no longer bear to spend time in the place. Their sister, Janice, was sent to college and now flies in to offer advice before escaping to her life free from the drudge of daily family obligation. It is left to Gilbert to support Amy in looking after their younger brother, Arnie, a seventeen year old who was not expected to live beyond toddler-hood and who has many mental and physical conditions that keep him thinking and acting that age.

Gilbert has worked in the same local grocery store since he was at school, going full time as soon as he finished with formal education. He is in a rut but, with his family as it is, cannot see a way to climb out and change the direction his life is taking. The small town where the Grape family has always lived offers no privacy, from either the well-intentioned residents or the voyeuristic. Gilbert has ended up conducting an affair with an older, married woman. He despairs of what he has become and dreams of escape.

The plot weaves itself around two pivotal events.

Firstly, a pretty young girl, Becky, arrives in town leading to jealousy from Gilbert’s younger sister, fifteen year old Ellen, and a flurry of eager interest amongst Gilbert’s male friends who are desperate to acquire girlfriends for the bodily benefits this brings. Gilbert is also enchanted by Becky but what remains of his self-esteem requires that he not admit to how he feels, about this or anything else.

The second event is Arnie’s impending eighteenth birthday. His mother has, for many years, repeated a mantra:

“I don’t ask for much. Just let me see my boy turn eighteen. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

Her children are therefore organising a party to celebrate their brother’s big event. Organising anything is a challenge in a home where essential chores go undone and siblings rant and rail against the hand life has dealt them. Not only is the house under strain but so are each of the family members. There is constant tension between the siblings. This is a family that has been in crisis for more than a decade, holding together by the most tenuous threads of thankless duty that, along with the trauma of past events, have strangled the spaces where love should be.

As the seismic plates under the Grapes’ shift an earthquake is all but inevitable. What is in question is the magnitude and what will collapse as a result of the oscillations.

I chose this book based on a recommendation from Markus Zusak at an event on his Bridge of Clay Tour last year. In many ways the first half of the Gilbert Grape reminded me of Bridge of Clay. This concerned me somewhat while reading. I wondered if Zusak had not been as original as I had given him credit for. I need not have worried. The second half of the book took the Grape family in a different, equally compelling, direction. The denouement is somewhat shocking but also moving and quite brilliantly rendered.

Although sizable, albeit not excessive, the story warrants its number of pages. Character development is key but the reader is trusted to understand what is being portrayed. The writing is taut yet engaging with tightly plotted action and droll witticisms. Emotion is more powerful because it is underplayed.

In the introduction the publisher writes:

“the Grapes aren’t exactly the most pleasant company – most of the time they’re a bunch of dysfunctional, warring oddballs, and arguably Gilbert is the worst of them all.”

It is the complexity of the family interactions, the despairing dark humour of Gilbert’s responses, that invoke reader sympathy. I came to care what happened to each of the Grape siblings. They may not be ‘nice’ but this is reassuringly authentic. Their travails and stuttered team work in the face of societal judgement, their inability to move forward anchored as they are by their mother’s behaviour, has the reader cheering from the sidelines in hope of them somehow finding a way out of the mire they had no choice over being submerged in.

A strong story that grew more enjoyable as I came to understand why the characters behaved as they did. A satisfying and recommended read.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is published by Fox, Finch & Tepper.

 

Book Review: Girl meets Boy

Girl meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is from Canongate’s Myths series. It is woven around a retelling of the story of Iphis which originates in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Also briefly included is a story based on the early life of Lilian Lenton, a suffragette who became ill due to being force fed while in prison. How women are valued (or not) is a recurring theme, although this is far from a polemic. Rather it is a love story in which gender is merely one aspect of attraction, yet a significant one to the uninvolved who observe and then worry themselves about societal appearance.

Imogen and Anthea are sisters living in their grandparents’ house in Inverness. Their parents separated when they were young and this has coloured their relationship. Imogen stepped into her mother’s place when she was only seven years old. She feels responsible for Anthea, and frustrated when her sister acts in a way she regards as irresponsible.

Both girls work for Pure, a company marketing bottle water as an aspirational consumable. When a graffiti artist daubs the office signage with a message suggesting that selling a necessary and natural product in this way is wrong, Anthea is smitten and questions her faltering role in the creative team. Imogen is proud of her own success at the company, won by agreeing with the boss and going along with the banter of colleagues. She hopes for a promotion and is horrified by her sister’s behaviour.

Despite the brevity of the tale many issues are covered including: foetal selection by gender, eating disorders, the male gaze, expectations of women’s role in the workplace. All of this is secondary though to the happiness found in a mutual love affair. The girls may have been scarred by the actions of their parents but they were nourished by the tall tales told by their fun loving grandparents.

“it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse.”

Given that this tale is based on Metamorphoses, expect transformations. When they come their contemporary relevance is highly satisfying.

In many ways a humorous and quiet story, there are many thought provoking aspects that will linger. An enjoyable addition to a series of concise reimaginings from established and well regarded authors.

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

Book Review: The Offing

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers, is written in prose that is as mesmerising as poetry. The author conjures up a potent sense of place, rendering the beauty and power of nature alongside man’s small place in it. The tale is humbling but also uplifting. This is writing to be savoured.

The story is narrated by Robert Appleyard, son of a miner working the pits around Durham. Now facing old age, Robert is looking back on a pivotal summer when he was sixteen and hungry for freedom. Growing up he understood that, once finished with school, the colliery beckoned as it had his father and grandfather. Before accepting this fate, he decides to satisfy a hunger for a different experience. The Second World War is not long over and the transience of life, the need not to waste what precious moments are granted, is seared into a mind still reeling from horrific images of mass graves.

“Wars continue long after the fighting has stopped, and the world felt then as if it were full of holes. It appeared to me scarred and shattered, a place made senseless by those in positions of power.”

“no one ever really wins a war: some just lose a little less than others.”

With a pack on his back, Robert sets out from home one morning to explore whatever is beyond the village where he has spent his life to date. He sleeps in outbuildings or under hedges, doing odd jobs to earn food along the way. Having felt cooped up in a classroom, where lessons dragged interminably, he relishes being outdoors, unknown and unconstrained. He walks from Durham across Cumbria and through North Yorkshire, to where the land meets the sea.

“This was agricultural rather than industrial terrain – of the earth rather than stained by it.”

“I experienced frequent and quite unexpected moments of exhilaration at the overwhelming sense of purposelessness that I now had. I could go anywhere, do anything. Be anyone.”

Although drinking in his newfound freedom, Robert’s outlook is still limited by the beliefs drummed into him about what someone like him can expect to achieve. He is therefore unprepared when he meets Dulcie Piper, a wealthy and eccentric older lady living in a rundown cottage above a remote bay. She recognises the potential in the boy and sets about inculcating an appreciation of literature. Amongst other pleasures, including fine cooking and wider thinking, she introduces him to poetry.

Dulcie is a fabulous creation with her disregard for rules, religion and those in authority.

“I have seen other wars. Read about plenty more too. And what I’ve learned is that they’re all much the same […] most people just want a quiet life. A nice meal, a little love. A late-night stroll. A lie-in on a Sunday. As I said before, don’t despise the Germans.”

“‘We’d be ruled by Nazis now if they had got their way,’ I said.
Dulcie shook her head, tutting. ‘Worse, Robert. Much worse. We would be ruled by those remaining English stiffs employed by the Nazis to do their bidding. Chinless wonders and lickspittles. There would be no room for the poets or the peacocks, the artists or the queens. Instead we’d be entirely driven by the very wettest of civil servants – even more so than we already are. A legion of pudgy middle managers would be the dreary midwives of England’s downfall.”

Dulcie tells Robert stories from a colourful history, lends him books, expresses opinions he has never before considered. Over the course of the coming weeks she awakens in him a deeper understanding of possibilities. Alongside their burgeoning friendship the verdant surroundings shares its bounty. Robert is enraptured by the sea, the land and its creatures. In time he learns why Dulcie, with her wealth and connections, has settled in this place.

Plot development is gentle. The joy of the book is the language: the rich descriptions of nature, the wit and wisdom of dialogue. Although set in a time that too many hark back to with nostalgia, it has contemporary relevance. Time is marked in the shape of the land more than the history of man’s repeated foolishness fuelled by ego.

“the Great War was the worst atrocity committed by humankind. What lessons were learned? Build bigger bombs and better bombs, that’s all. Hitler still happened, and there’ll be another angry little man along in due course. I sometimes think that in many ways we’re completely screwed, all the time. I suppose it’s a collective state of insanity. It must be, to keep repeating the same patterns of death and violence.”

Perhaps because of such sentiments, the life Dulcie has lived, and introduces Robert to, is one of making the most of every moment. She has taken pleasure wherever it may be found: nature and literature, food and wine, love and travel. A tragedy haunts her yet she retains an enthusiasm for life, eschewing societal strictures. She shows Robert that he has choices beyond family expectation.

I finished this novel both with tears in my eyes and feeling like punching the air with satisfaction. It made me want to go straight out and enjoy a long walk through the local fields to appreciate what matters in our still beautiful world. There may always be the endless bickering of dull men about: politics, loss of respect for some self-appointed hierarchy, the good old days. Of more import and value is the breathing in and out of the seasons. Nature renews and offers itself as a balm for those willing to engage. Perspectives in life need not be those imposed by oppressors.

I enjoyed this story, the power of its words and beauty of its language. The author has delivered something special. I recommend you read it.

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

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

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

Book Review: Witches Sail In Eggshells

Witches Sail In Eggshells, by Chloe Turner, is a collection of seventeen short stories, several of which have won awards. This does not surprise me. The prose is taut and often exquisite. Each story carries unassuming weight and depth. I have been taking my time over each tale as I wished to savour the experience. Writing this consistently good is rare.

The topics explored are pleasingly varied. The protagonists vary in age, situation and orientation. Background to characters and their actions are offered in just a few carefully constructed phrases. Although many of the tales cover just a few pages their plot and development will linger.

The collection has a strong opener in Hagstone which explores what would happen if we got what we wished for. There is an understated dark magic at play. If this isn’t your sort of thing be assured that it does not detract from the ordinary lives depicted that most will recognise and empathise with.

Next up we have Piñata, set around a child’s eighth birthday party. She is an entitled little princess whose mother is struggling to keep up with the wealthier school gate mummies – knowing she is failing. The father cannot see beyond his own needs and insecurities as he faces tries to avoid impending approaching middle-age.

“A passing child hears the profanity, giggles. Lou winces as the two men congratulate each other with back slaps and a half hug. At least the three wise women won’t have heard; they’re too busy casing the room. Divided for better coverage, they’re poking manicured fingernails, taking in the Primark prints and Stu’s vast telly, and the six-inch plastic flamingo dancer he brought her back from Marbella that time, which Lou’s forgotten to hide.”

Inches Apart introduces a couple whose marriage is under strain. Set in a hotel during winter season the imagery is evocative and perfectly reflects the faltering relationship.

Labour of Love tells of the progression of a pregnancy alongside the care of a fruit and vegetable garden. The sadness and hope of the prospective mother is reflected in a crop that is struggling to thrive.

While the Mynah Bird Watched is set in a doctor’s surgery, in a country where resources are scarce. Decisions must be taken about who to help, made more difficult in a small community where histories are shared. There is potential for revenge.

Other tales explore: toxic relationships escalating into violence; the effect of marital breakdown on the women affected when their children become friends; a working mother who harbours a dislike for her children’s nanny told from the younger woman’s point of view; the balance between love, irritation and thwarted dreams in long married couples; the power wielded by an intoxicating partner and the limits of friendship when damage is wreaked.

The House With Three Stories That Might Be Five features a young woman on the run having escaped a cult. The loneliness and almost regret ramp up with the unexpected denouement.

A Raft of Silver Corpses is a devastating yet all too believable reaction to man’s deliberate blindness to the damage caused by his unthinking behaviour.

Lobster Scissors looks at the unspoken pact of family secrets over many years and how these can leak when dementia hits.

The Wetshod Child is written in vernacular, not a style I usually enjoy but in this case works well, the sadness palpable.

The economy of words and quiet power of each story are impressive. Each is also thoroughly enjoyable to read. This is storytelling at its best. Highly recommended.

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