Book Review: Wild Dog

Wild Dog, by Serge Joncour (translated by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh), is in many ways a thriller but written in such rich and sensuous language it demands to be savoured rather than rushed to conclusion. The plot runs across two timelines: the year following the outbreak of the First World War, and August 2017. Both are set in and around a remote French village where incomers are treated with unfriendly wariness.

Opening in July 1914, the superstitious villagers of Orcières are disturbed by the shrieks of unidentified creatures. They look fearfully towards extensive woodland that surrounds a steep hill casting its shadow over the village. They believe the house at its peak is cursed. Nobody now lives there although once it was the centre of a thriving vineyard.

When war arrives it steals the men and also livestock, requisitioned as beasts of burden or to feed the troops. Readers are reminded throughout the story of the barbarity of such man made offensives – the cost borne by those with no choice or understanding, yet made to suffer terribly.

In order to survive, the men’s work must be done by the women of the village. They feel guilt that they can shoulder the burden and worry about the changes this foreshadows.

The first known casualty of the war is the doctor whose wife, Joséphine, appears to be the only resident who has retained her horse. She takes to riding it up the cursed hill where an itinerant circus performer, a German, has been permitted by the mayor to hide his animals. The villagers are disturbed by the roars of lions and tigers that require many kilos of fresh meat to be fed to them regularly at a time when food is scarce.

The more contemporary timeline features a long married couple, Lise and Francke, who work in the film industry. Lise has been ill – blaming irradiated waves from phones and networks – and chose to step back from acting. She seeks solace in painting, meditation and a change in diet to cut out animal products. Following recent failures in the films he makes, Franck started working with two young business partners he hoped would reinvigorate his production company. Instead, he feels threatened by their ideas. When Lise suggests a three week holiday cut off from technology Franck is fearful of what plans will be hatched in his absence.

Lise and Franck rent the remote house on the hill above Orcières. They have never before taken a holiday away from other people. Franck is appalled at the lack of WiFi and mobile phone connection. Lise relaxes into the solitude, relishing the beauty of the location.

Across both timelines tension quickly builds as man and nature vie – predator and prey. Man is, of course, also of nature. And war springs from posturing power play – attempts to prove supremacy and reap the rewards. In the modern world this can also be seen in business deals – the suppressed violence felt against those who seek to neutralise competitors. When Franck befriends a wild dog that appears out of the woodland his primal instincts are awakened. Stripped of society, he seeks to attune with nature and use it to his advantage.

The World War roars on demanding more and more men to fuel its furnace of constructed hatred. In Orcières, Joséphine is struggling with the loneliness of widowhood and fantasises about the lion tamer whose body is so different from the doctor. The villagers blame the German incomer for any ills that befall the village. Voices of the circumspect are drowned out by those of the fearful. What is to be truly feared goes unrecognised.

Apart from a brief lull around the middle of the story, the plot progresses at a carefully crafted pace, building tension from potential threats – real and imagined. The basis of rumours that swirl are gradually revealed.

The writing style is wrapped around a degree of repetition. This cadence fits with the hunter mentality manifesting in the many layers of comparative lifestyle choices and personalities.

The story offers perspectives on the cost of survival in societies where what is considered natural is largely man made. Emotions are suppressed, creatures trained, vegetation managed. Ripples caused by any deviation from the accepted balance have consequences that are rarely anticipated.

Character development brings to the fore how little we know even those we are close to, and how new experiences can bring about unanticipated transformations. True nature is shown to be as barbaric as it is beautiful. This is a thought provoking and alluring read.

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

Book Review: The Choke

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna, is a piercing and at times shocking coming of age tale. Set in small town Australia, its protagonist is Justine Lee who is ten years old when the story begins. She is playing a rough game with her two half brothers, Kirk and Steve, in woodland near her remote and neglected home. The family is fractured and often violent. Each has been shaped by cruelties inflicted by those from whom they might have expected affection.

Justine’s mother, Donna, left her daughter when she was three years old and hasn’t been heard from since. Justine’s father, Ray, is rarely there. The girl has been raised by her grandfather, Pop, on his three acre patch of land by the Murray River. They exist side by side talking more to their hens than to each other.

Kirk and Steve live with their mother, Relle, who Ray left for Donna. All three children seek Ray’s attention on the rare occasions when he returns. Ray is a callous father who amuses himself by baiting those in his vicinity. He has told Justine it is her fault her mother left. The boys idolise him but he pays them little attention.

Pop looks after Justine because nobody else would. Damaged by the war he has his own history of violence and regret. The one person who appears to be relatively happy is Pop’s daughter, Rita. She has made choices her father disapproves of leading to lengthy periods of estrangement.

Justine lives much of her life in her imagination. She cannot read or write so struggles at school. When she is forced to sit by a disabled pupil, Michael, her supposed friends expect her to mock him as they do. Instead, Justine learns to understand Michael’s mannerisms and utterances and he becomes her first and only true friend.

Growing up Justine had played with a neighbouring family, the Worlleys. Then Pop got into a fight and told Justine to stay away from them. Later, one of the older boys assaults her. Justine shuts down the part of her that understands why. She struggles to deal with the many violences, mental and physical, that she has suffered in her short life.

On one of his visits Ray favours Justine over his sons, ignoring her suggestion that he should be including Kirk. Later Ray tests her loyalty, having used her to gain access to a former girlfriend. Justine copes by suppressing thoughts of the damage he inflicts.

The friendship with Michael adds light to Justine’s grim existence but their shared pleasures are short lived. Left only with the memories of the different way of living she briefly glimpsed, they become something else she tries to forget in order to survive what is left.

The story jumps forward to when Justine is thirteen years old and starting high school. She is ill equipped to face the challenges this brings. Craving some form of affection she attracts attention as her body changes. With no one to notice or offer support, she suffers the consequences of being her father’s daughter.

Justine has no knowledge or experience of the words that could express the emotions she has been conditioned to suppress. This silencing, the years when her voice has been ignored, leads her to blindly accept a path until she finally realises she can no longer live this way.

Ray may be a monster but the author offers mitigating circumstances. Pop’s prejudices are damaging but he too is suffering the fallout of horrific experience. These are not excuses – Rita had the same upbringing – but they add depth.

The themes explored have been covered many times before in a plethora of stories but The Choke is still something special. It has a raw and compelling heart that lays bare the contrast between a child’s acceptance of the only life they know and their need for even some small measure of affection. It is emotive but never sentimental.

The land and the people are vividly portrayed as is the poverty and repetition of mistakes across generations. Although bloody and upsetting the denouement is fitting. This was a powerful and rare read.

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

Book Review: Little

Little, by Edward Carey, tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born prematurely in a remote Swiss village in 1761, who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Marie’s father was a soldier so she was raised by her mother, moving to Berne when she was six years old. Here she learns the art of modelling with wax from their employer, Doctor Phillipe Curtius. Curtius works for the local hospital creating models from body parts that are used to instruct trainee physicians. Growing depressed by his contact with the dead he branches out, much to the ire of his boss.

Curtius comes to the attention of a French writer, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who suggests the young doctor would find greater appreciation of his skills in Paris. When Curtius is threatened with penury, an attempt to rein him in, he decides to heed this advice. Packing his tools and belongings, including Marie who is now his de facto assistant, he heads into the unknown.

Mercier helps Curtius to find lodgings, suggesting he take rooms with a widow, Charlotte Picot, and her son, Edmond. Widow Picot takes an instant dislike to Marie but accepts her as a house servant so long as she does exactly as she is told. It is the start of a difficult relationship that will enable the widow to prosper by taking full advantage of her power over Curtius. Marie has no choice but to acquiesce if she is to survive.

Picot may be grasping but she has good business sense. The wax faces and figures Curtius makes prove popular and draw a crowd. This includes the young sister of the king and her entourage. The royal visit leads to a change of circumstances for Marie who ends up serving for a time in the Palace of Versailles. When eventually she is forced to leave, it breaks her heart yet proves fortuitous, for soon there are the rumblings of revolution.

Much of note is included within the pages of this book: the medical practices of the eighteenth century; life in Paris when it was a walled and gated city containing mostly wooden buildings; the now famous people who passed through Paris at this time; a first person account of life as a servant within the French Royal Court during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the personal vendettas and tragedies that those trying to live quietly during a revolution suffer. Marie’s changing situation highlights the precarious life and lack of agency endured by a young woman effectively owned by her employer.

This is truly remarkable story. A fictionalised account but based around known facts. The voice created for Marie is perfectly balanced and paced for storytelling. There is a pleasing lack of hyperbole although deep emotions are evoked. It is, quite simply, a darn good read. A contender for my book of the year.

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

 

Click on the image above to look inside Little

 

Book Review: Prodigal

Prodigal, by Charles Lambert, tells the story of the Eldritch family, the secrets and resentments that led to the adult children’s estrangement. It opens when Jeremy, the younger of the siblings, is in his fifties. He is living in a tiny apartment in Paris, making a meagre living writing erotic fiction under a pseudonym. He receives a call from his sister, Rachel, telling him that their father is dying. Somewhat reluctantly he returns to the family home in Kent.

Jeremy has been living in Paris since soon after his graduation, a move arranged by his mother for reasons to be revealed. Rachel stayed with their father, although soon married Denny and set up a stables business assisted by the family wealth. Denny left her a decade ago in the company of an employee. Rachel has been nursing her father through his final bout of ill health, yet another task she feels her brother should be showing greater appreciation of. Now that he has returned she wishes him to assist, yet grows jealous when anyone suggests that his actions are in any way generous.

The family history is presented in four parts. These cover: Jeremy’s return (2012); the period around their mother’s final days in Greece (1985); the weeks leading up to Jeremy’s departure (1977); their father’s death (2012). The reader learns that neither parent behaved with grace. Each also had their obvious favourites in their offspring. The atmosphere in the family home was toxic with violent undercurrents.

Rachel regards Jeremy as wilfully degenerate due to his preference for men and his occupation. She is bitter and angry that her family have not conformed to her desired way of living. Jeremy has largely avoided thinking about his family since he was encouraged to move away. He has had to cope with the tragedy of lost lovers and the knowledge that his writing is regarded by many with derision. The few times he and Rachel have got together over the years highlighted their differences and ended in acrimony.

The author is a skilled wordsmith, fully engaging the reader whilst revealing the family’s history from each of the key players points of view. There is empathy but also recognition that these are flawed individuals, that ripples are created when indulging in prodigal behaviour. Family members have the ability to hurt each other so much more deeply than other acquaintances.

A tale that will resonate with any whose family does not conform to their personal ideal. An alluring and satisfying read.

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

Click on the image above to look inside Prodigal

Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

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

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