Random Musings: Reading should be a pleasure

I have a friend who, amongst other writing gigs, is a theatre critic for a national newspaper. From time to time he takes me along to a show as his +1. In this way I get to see plays that I would not pay to see, not because I am unlikely to enjoy them but because I cannot be sure this would be the case. An outing to the theatre is a rare and expensive treat. When parting with hard earned cash I play it safe.

My friend comments from time to time on the dearth of new plays by lesser known writers being granted space in the large and popular theatres. At these venues musicals and adaptations of the classics overwhelm schedules. Looking back at the shows I have taken my children to see over the years – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, Wicked – I understand why theatre directors make the choices they do. They run a business that requires a paying clientele and these types of productions have proved enduringly popular.

Most people don’t watch several theatre shows a week with a view to writing about them. It is little wonder my friend seeks variety and greater depth but he is atypical of attendees.

I have on occasion taken more of a risk with theatre tickets. My son and I enjoyed a stage adaptation of Toby Litt’s novel Deadkidsongs but it was in a small venue that charged £10 for a ticket rather than the more usual £35 (double that for London shows). We chose to go having read and rated the book. Enjoyment of a book also lead me to buy more pricey tickets for us to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, that and consistently good reviews from a variety of people, not just the professional critics.

I probably attend the theatre a handful of times in a year, including the shows my friend invites me to. I attend the theatre more than many people.

I bear all this in mind when I encounter well read, self confident, literary experts who express unhappiness at the number of crime fiction books, thrillers and romances published each year. I fully understand why they want more variety – I do too – but genre fiction continues to sell well. Publishers run a business that requires paying customers.

When I first started reviewing I was happy to read almost anything and rated many crime and thriller books highly. Like a musical at the theatre they are easy entertainment, enjoyable if not always mind stretching. It is only since my reading became a major part of my life that I have grown jaded when faced with the formulaic. What I must remember when writing about such books is that I am not typical of the majority of readers. According to a YouGov survey the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4. Last year I read in excess of 180.

It is too easy, when knowledgeable and passionate about a subject, to be critical of those whose tastes differ. I have another friend who can discuss the merits of wine based on the field where the grapes were grown and the weather prior to their harvest. They would likely be appalled at my regular purchases of supermarket discounted Australian Chardonnay. Cost is an issue but I enjoy my basic bottle of plonk each evening. In down time, enjoyment is key.

There has been much discussion this week about where people shop for books and the choices they make when purchasing. That I now seek out literary fiction which is challenging, sometimes experimental, preferably character driven, is simply the direction my reading journey has taken me. I do not consider myself a more worthy reader. I choose books I expect to enjoy, as I believe all readers should feel free to do without criticism.

It is good to spread the word about a fabulous title others may not have heard of. My hope for my reviews is that they lead readers to books they will be glad to spend time with. Reading should be a pleasure more than an achievement. Remain open to recommendations but choose for yourself.

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Random Musings: Reader Fatigue

To be clear…

If you wish to read a book, any book, then you should read it. If you enjoy reading a certain genre – and genre is simply a means of classification – then you should read it. No reader should be shamed for their choices. Sometimes it is good to switch off from life’s stresses by indulging in easy entertainment.

As for me…

I like to read an eclectic mix of books. As a book blogger I am fortunate in being sent a generous quantity of books to review. Other than romance, which I am unlikely to enjoy, I accept most genres.

Over the past few years this has resulted in me reading a large number of crime and thriller novels. Recently I have become aware of them merging. The means by which they grab my attention, maintain the tension, throw out a few red herrings, offer a twist at the denouement, has appeared uniform. I believe I am suffering reader fatigue with these popular genres.

There are, of course, exceptions. Authors such as Sarah Hilary, Mick Herron, AA Dhand, Adam Hamdy, Paul E. Hardisty and Ragnar Jónasson have produced books in the last year that have sufficient depth and character development to stand out – and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

What I have become aware of though is that I am seeking out more literary fiction. I crave the variety of structure, the experimentation, the lyricism. Beautifully crafted prose delights me more than clever plot twists. I seek characters who challenge my preconceptions.

 

I find the books I currently enjoy reading bubbling up from the small presses. It is not that I wish to fall off the radar of the bigger publishing houses who still produce much fine work – Gather the Daughters and Tin Man come to mind as recent reads I would not have wanted to miss.

Still though, the market feels crowded and I am not simply after the next big thing. For me, a standout read must do more than mimic. Rather than the next, I seek the original.

 

 

Book Review: We that are young

We that are young, by Preti Taneja, is a fabulous reworking of King Lear. Having enjoyed a number of adaptations of this Shakespearean tragedy on stage I was familiar with the direction the arc of the story was likely to take. This did not in any way detract from my enjoyment. The book is big in size, scope and depth. The action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country, its people, and the stubborness and hurt inherent in wider family feuds.

The tale opens with the return of a son, Jivan, banished to America with his mother when he was thirteen years old. Prior to this he had been one of five young playmates, although as the child of his father’s mistress had never been permitted full integration into the privileged lives of his friends. His half brother, Jeet, and he grew up alongside the three daughters of a hugely wealthy businessman, Devraj, who is also Jeet’s godfather. The girls – clever Gargi, beautiful Radha, and baby Sita – have in the intervening years grown into outwardly dutiful and obedient women.

Jivan returns on the cusp of change. The oppulent farm where the family now live is being prepared for Sita’s engagement celebrations. As Jivan is shown around, a lunch is taking place that will be the catalyst to Devraj’s ruination.

Economic growth has enabled India to consider itself a world player and with this has come a clash of cultures. Despite the quality and beauty of local products there is a hankering after western labels. Colour and vibrancy are being toned down, flesh exposed in imported attire. Women desire more freedom and opportunity than tradition permits.

Devraj demands that his daughters regularly demonstrate love and respect for him, in word and deed. When Sita unexpectedly refuses to conform he attempts to punish her by passing on the share of the business he had selected for her, his favourite, to her sisters. Gargi and Radha watch as he reacts to their little sister’s rebellion, envious of her courage but afraid of its effects. They fear their father may be going mad and determine to save the business for themselves.

The story is told from the points of view of each of the five former playmates, with occasional chapters in Devraj’s voice. Their’s is a life of excess, abuse and thwarted desire. When Jeet chooses to leave the farm the reader is offered a snapshot of the lives of India’s untouchables, a contrast that is shocking and telling. Those who grow up in comfort will struggle to understand the psychological effects of poverty, the cost of survival.

Devraj strives for a new India yet fights any attempt by his daughters to embrace change, to relinquish stifling traditions. This generational divide is all too familiar. Elders are eager to force the rules of their upbringing on their children, unappreciative of the differing challenges they must face in an evolving world.

The writing is stunning, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the region, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the corruption and striving for a better way of life at all levels. Turns of phrase deserve to be savoured, imagery basked in. The story is labyrinthian and should not be rushed.

Although a literary feast this is also a highly readable story. It remains engaging, tense and compelling throughout, despite knowing how it must end. I wanted to applaud that last line, the author deserves all the commendations. Recommended without reservation.

 

If you wish to purchase the cool black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The same words, bound in orange, are also available from discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

 

 

Book Review: Flesh of the Peach

“If I owned a horse, I feel like I would ride it until it dropped from exhaustian under me,’ Maud said […] ‘I wouldn’t stop until it had given me everything and taken me far further than it could.”

Flesh of the Peach, by Helen McClory, is a story of grief, selfishness, and the lasting damage caused by damaged people. The protagonist is Sarah Browne, a twenty-seven year old aspiring artist who, when the story opens, has been rejected by her married lover on the day she discovers her estranged mother has finally died. Raised in a chaotic household of women, where attention was rare and often caustic, she escaped to London as a teenager and then on to New York, a city she now chooses to leave.

Sarah decides to use her newly acquired inheritance to start again, to move to a cabin in New Mexico where she hopes to find the space to consider what she can now be. She takes with her just a few possessions, including a new yellow sundress, but also decades of emotional baggage that she has worked to suppress.

“She placed the newly purchased dress so that it lay across the bed in a pool like sunshine. […] She was going to dress from now on for a beautiful life. Keep saying those words to yourself. It sounds naive but that is one way to choose to exist. As a polished stone skipped across the harshness of things.”

Sarah’s wish is that she be the best possible version of herself, which is the most that any can aspire to be.

There follows a roadtrip in a Greyhound bus, a stay in a soulless motel, and then a drive to her late mother’s cabin retreat in the Southern Rockies. Here she meets a neighbour, Theo, and they embark on an ill-fated affair.

There are flashbacks to Sarah’s childhood in Cornwall. The isolation of the cabin unsettles her equilibrium. Theo falls in love with this young woman whose pressure cooked emotions demand release.

Despite the foreboding atmosphere the writing remains lyrical, the imagery painting both sensation and location. Sarah is delicate and fierce, owning her needs without apology, a female willing to reject societal expectation.

The final quarter of the book lost some of the coherancy which had held together preceding chapters. Nevertheless, the quality of the prose ensured engagement was retained. The denouement was unexpected yet once read could be regarded as inevitable. Disquieting but pure pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Solar Bones

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Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, is the most accurate adherence to stream of consciousness style writing that I have come across. The entire novel, all 223 pages in the edition I read, is presented as one continuous sentence. Do not let this put you off. Despite its apparently mundane subject matter it is an engaging and compelling read.

The narrator is Marcus Conway, a native of the county of Mayo in Ireland. When the book opens Marcus is standing in the kitchen of his family home listening to the Angelus bell ring out from the village church a mile away.

We learn that Marcus has been married for twenty-five years to Mairead, a teacher at a local school. They have raised two children – Agnes who is an artist, and Darragh who is casually working his way across Australia. The committed parents have adjusted to the initial emptiness felt when their grown-up children first moved away. They have settled into a comfortable routine.

Marcus looks around him recalling history as he has lived it through familiar places, possessions and significant events. He is an engineer by profession working for the local council on infrastructure projects. He is frustrated by the influence self-serving politicians exert on the decision making process. He takes pride in his ability to work to a standard.

Raised on a farm he remembers his childhood and then the deaths of his parents. His relationships have at times been rocky as life sometimes is. Mostly though he feels grateful for the chances he has been given. In many ways his is an ordinary life, as he wished it to be.

It did not take long to slip into the cadence of the writing. Its beauty is in the detail, the observations made and insights given. The reader is drawn into the intricacies of this man’s everyday pleasures and irritations. Not a single turn of phrase is dull or misplaced.

A haunting elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence. This is an extraordinary, life-affirming read.

Book Review: Moonstone

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Moonstone: the boy who never was, by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb), is a book that, had I known more about it in advance, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read. Despite this I am glad that I did. Written in sparse, vivid prose it regularly took me outside of my comfort zone with its graphic descriptions. Whilst key to the plot and indicative of the main character’s detachment from society much more than this was explored. These other elements, particularly the insights into Icelandic history, were sufficiently strong to keep me engaged.

The protagonist is sixteen year old Máni Steinn who lives in Reykjavík with his great-grandmother’s sister. He earns his money by performing consensual sex acts with men. Homosexuality is outlawed so he has no shortage of customers for his services. Máni has always been a loner spending much of his free time watching films at the two cinemas in the town. He also studies people, particularly a young woman he refers to as Sóla G—. He appears content living within his thoughts and imagination.

The story opens in October 1918 when the Katla volcano erupts. The Great War is in its final throes far away and the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu is about to arrive. In the next few months Iceland, and Máni’s life, will undergo radical change.

There is a stark beauty to the writing despite the dark subject matter. Máni maintains his signature detachment as he watches the townspeople react to trauma and tragedy. Families mourn their many dead. Iceland is granted its freedom as a nation state. Máni cannot remain a mere spectator to events forever.

The final chapters are set ten years later. Despite several rereads I failed to understood the denouement and feel frustrated that I have missed what I expected to offer some nugget of clarity.

At less than 150 pages this is a short work of fiction but not one that will be quickly forgotten. Where it not that open discussion may spoil the reveal for future readers I would be seeking other’s interpretation of those final pages.

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

Reading the Galley Beggar Press backlist

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Today I should have been travelling to London to attend a book launch and party for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, the latest offering from Galley Beggar Press and currently on the shortlist for the Republic of Conciousness Prize. Due to engineering works I had to pull out as my planned train home will not be running. This is disappointing, especially as I have been preparing for the event for some time. My preparation involved reading so actually no great hardship there.

For Christmas in 2015 I was gifted a Galley Buddy subscription along with copies of every full length paperback I did not already own from the publisher’s backlist. When no bookish shaped gifts appeared in my stocking last year it was pointed out by my not-a-reader husband that I had not yet read all of the previous year’s much wanted titles. When I was invited to this party I decided to pick up my neglected books. Galley Beggar Press publish ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, just the sort of stories I enjoy. There will be no Gig Review this weekend as I had planned, but you may now read my reviews of all the books by clicking on the covers below.

forbidden-line   Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Alex-Pheby--Playthings   Anthony-Trevelyan--The-Weightless-World

wroteforluck    francisplug

randall--paperback   andrew-lovett-everlasting-lane-ebook

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback   simon-gough-the-white-goddess-paperback-v2

Should you wish to order any of these please consider doing so direct from Galley Beggar. Even a few extra sales can make a difference to the viability of small presses.