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.

Book Review: A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing

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A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, is a rare and challenging journey into the mind of a young Irish woman raised by her deeply religious mother. The protagonist’s brother survived a brain tumour as a child which left him slightly damaged. Their father could not cope with the stresses this brought and walked away before the girl was born.

Living in a remote part of Ireland the children are close, driving their mother to distraction amidst the tuts of neighbours and wider family who disapprove of their exuberance. When they move from country to town the teenage children must find a way to fit in to this new way of life. They cope but not always well.

A visit from an aunt and uncle changes the girl, driving a wedge between her mother’s beliefs and her own ability to find personal acceptance. She seeks freedom from the constraints in which she has been raised but struggles to shed the expectations of family and the shackles of inbred guilt. Her choices, although liberating, teeter on the precipice of self-harm.

The narrative is not straightforward. It is a stream of thoughts, stuttering and juddering through significant events that shape the girl’s perspective. Being inside the head of someone trying to live with this shade of damage and rejection is a powerful experience.

Not the easiest of reads but absolutely worth the effort. This is a literary triumph, harrowing but impressively original.

 

Book Review: First Love

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First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, introduces the reader to Neve, a writer in her thirties married to the older Edwyn who is preoccupied with his health following a myocardial infarction suffered before they met. Written in the first person the narrative explores Neve’s life and varied relationships with razor sharp insight. This is a story of the inherent need humans have to interact with others, and the hurt this creates.

“People we’ve loved, or tried to: how to characterize the forms they assume?”

As soon as she was able Neve distanced herself from her parents who divorced when she was a child. She found them both demanding and needy, forever trying to find in her something she was not. Through her alcohol fuelled twenties she sought love and acceptance from friends and sexual partners, yet spent much of her time alone. Occasionally she glimpsed the way she was seen by others but could only ever be herself however much she attempted to act out their visions of her.

“You are the girl that never came true.”

Close relationships burned themselves out as time passed yet were often difficult to relinquish. In moments of weakness Neve would attempt to get back in touch, despising herself when she realised what she had done and how insecure she appeared. She longed to be strong, to be satisfied when alone, yet still sought something indefinable in others.

“It is strange what we expect from people, isn’t it? Deep inside ourselves.”

After years spent living in an acquaintance’s spare room or in tiny rented spaces she was offered a grant that took her to France. Here she had time to reflect before returning to her life which continued much as before.

“being abroad, at least, being out of it somehow, I found it was possible to feel less implicated. Less accounted for.”

Neve’s mother appears to be the antithesis of her daughter with her constant socialising and desperation for support. From time to time she seeks solace in her daughter. Their rare visits, although accepted, leave Neve eager to reinstate distance.

Apparently born of love, Neve’s marriage is not always a happy one. Edwyn is controlling and unforgiving, introspective and quick to anger. He resents that he is not always the centre of Neve’s life yet often rebuffs the form of affection she tries to offer. He bullies her until she capitulates, demanding that she agree with his interpretation of her behaviour.

“sitting there with that bright, bland expression on my face, trying to fence with this nonsense. Or had I been that naive? Was this what life was like, really, and everyone knew it but me?”

The dialogues throughout are painful in their honesty bringing to the fore the thoughts many try to suppress in their attempts to convince themselves that relationships are balanced and healthy. Humans may be social animals but we each exist within the shadows and complexities of feelings that can only be fully known to ourselves.

This is beautiful writing, raw yet sublime. Recommended to any who wish to better understand the human condition.

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

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

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

Book Review: The Empress and the Cake

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The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bolloch), is the third and final book in the 2016 Peirene series, Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Earlier this year I read the second in this series, Her Father’s Daughter (you may read my review  here). These exquisite short works of fiction are the treasure discerning readers seek.

Set in Vienna, this latest tale centres around Frau Hohenembs, an elderly countess now living in a city apartment cluttered with objects from her past. She is cared for by a rotund housekeeper, Ida, who puts up with her mistress’s temper and quirks due to an oft repeated promise of a house in Corfu. The story is told from the point of view of a young women Frau Hohenembs meets at a local bakery. The countess offers a share of the cake she is buying and persuades the young woman to accompany her home, taking advantage of perceived weakness and a compliant nature.

Eating the cake triggers the young woman’s food addiction and she descends into a dangerous spiral of binge followed by purge. Meanwhile, Frau Hohenembs plans raids on city museums to reclaim items once owned by her icon, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, referred to as Sissi.

Throughout the narrative are scattered anecdotes written by an unknown source who was close to the assassinated Empress, detailing episodes in her life. Sissi was obsessed with her looks, particularly her hair and weight. She observed a rigorous exercise regime and strictly controlled her diet. She would be sewn into her clothes and spend up to three hours a day having her exceptionally long hair styled and dressed.

Frau Hehenembs emulates this way of living, regularly berating Ida for lack of control in her consumption. When she notes that the young women, whose life she is now manipulating, has lost weight, she congratulates her even though the means by which this has occurred is evident.

The museum raids offer Frau Hehenembs a hold over her acolytes which she abuses dispassionately. When the young woman realises how she is being used she determines to escape.

There is a sinister undercurrent. The vagueness of the timeframe and the similarities between characters’ habits and foibles add shadows but also depth. The denouement is perfect.

The story is told with an elegant succinctness. The author understands that her readers will possess sufficient intelligence to read between the lines. The quality of the prose is a joy in itself, the spine tingling unfolding of the tale a pleasure to satisfy any literary palate.

There has been a trend recently for publishing big books. This offering proves that size is no indicator of value. I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.

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

Book Review: Feeding Time

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Feeding Time, by Adam Biles, is set in an old people’s care home, Green Oaks. Established in an old manor house, it is now owned by a conglomerate whose aim is to maximise profit. It is a place where the elderly and infirm who can no longer cope on their own go to die. The story is laced with humour but also the horror of such places. It portrays the residents with honesty and dignity, despite the many indignities that old age brings.

The reader is first introduced to Dot as she leaves the bungalow in which she and her husband had lived for the past twenty years. She has chosen to join him at Green Oaks where she moved him six weeks ago. Their only son is settled abroad with his own small family. He is dutiful, ringing her regularly for reassurance that all is well. Dot understands that institutions such as Green Oaks exist for the young as much as the old, lifting as they do the burden of care.

It does not take long for Dot to realise that life in this place will be nothing like the impression she was given when she applied to move in. The three wards are communal and staff are few. She is confused when her husband is not on the ward to which she has been assigned. Her fellow residents have multiple, age related health issues which they present to her with something akin to pride.

Dot meets Captain Ruggles who experiences life in the style of a weekly Story Paper from around the war. Each episode is presented to the reader complete with illustrations and advertisements (these are priceless!). His grasp on the reality that others see is tenuous. He believes that he is a prisoner of the Nazis having been accidently parachuted into this camp. He is eager to recruit his fellow inmates and orchestrate their escape.

Green Oaks is run by Raymond Cornish who finds the residents repellent and avoids them. Nursing needs have been outsourced so he now has just three staff to deal with day to day tasks. These young, underpaid Carefriends pilfer drugs from supplies and mitigate their boredom and personal frustrations with petty cruelties enacted against the elderly who they despise. When Captain Ruggles’ loud and lively behaviour disrupts their routine they seek to transfer him to the mythically feared Ward C that he may be chemically shut down.

There is a missing resident, Kalka, whose bed was given to Dot. He may be dead or simply moved elsewhere. The Captain remembers this man saving his life and wishes to return the favour. Discussion about his possible whereabouts, indeed about most things, is a struggle as few of the residents seem capable of retaining a train of thought. They take their drugs then sit in the day room or sleep, leaking effluence and odours while the staff concentrate on their own sorry lives.

There is no shying from the messy issues brought on by advancing age, yet each of the residents is presented as the person they still are inside their decaying shell. The Captain is a fabulous character, completely batty but living a life which in his own mind is real. It is a surprisingly uplifting portrayal of dementia.

The manner in which residents are treated by staff is grim, as is the behaviour of Cornish. What sets this book apart though is its spirit and style. There is a muted energy behind each of the characters despite their infirmities. Mind and bodily functions may have been loosened but there are still moments of perspicacity as they rage against the hand that life has dealt.

While there is still this hold on life there are adventures to be had, battles to be fought, especially against those who regard the elderly as a problem to be managed and silenced. As the staff slip further into mires of their own making, the old seek to enact their cunning plans.

This is a rare and imaginative tale filled with wit, verve and derring-do, as well as leaky, ravaged bodies. It is a story of people and life, strikingly original, brilliantly written and ingeniously presented. I recommend you order this book direct from the publisher now.

Feeding Time | Galley Beggar Press

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

Book Review: The Children’s Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: The Last Pier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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