Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What I read on holiday

Ilha Deserta, Portugal
Holiday reading, May 2015

I always read a lot on holiday. Strange as it may sound (since, after all, I read all the time anyway), copious reading is one of the things I look forward to most about going away. I used to put a pile of books in my suitcase; now I have a Kindle, I usually set off with a reading list in mind. This time, my aim was to read my way through a collection of books I'd come to think of as 'the 2014 backlog'. Books that had, at one point or another, been at the very top of my to-read list, but had been pushed down or off it altogether by other priorities. Alongside those were a couple of new books I thought would make perfect holiday reads. Here's how it went...

Outline (2014) by Rachel Cusk
Nothing much really happens in Outline. A writer, Faye, goes to Athens to teach an English-language writing workshop. She befriends the man sitting next to her on the plane, who tells her of his failed marriages. The stories Faye hears - from this man, from her co-teacher, from her students and friends - make up the narrative, and in between we learn a little of her own life. So it's not terribly eventful, and there certainly isn't a plot, but the characters' conversations are fascinating, having that pleasant quality of feeling real in the way they jump from subject to subject and head off in irrational directions, yet being better than reality - more articulate, with fewer interruptions, more coherent and measured and simply more interesting. I somehow always knew I'd like this book, and I liked it in exactly the way I expected to.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the ebook

Idiopathy (2013) by Sam Byers
Sam Byers' 'debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle' is populated by characters most readers seem to have hated, but whom I took to immediately - especially the supremely acerbic antiheroine Katherine. She's one of three protagonists, the others being indecisive Daniel and fresh-out-of-rehab Nathan. The characterisation of these central figures is the book's great strength - they're horribly real, and their inner dialogues and neuroses about relationships, work and life in general are totally believable. Byers is also excellent at nailing communication: banal office conversations, the awful mechanics of arguments and insults between lovers. The secondary characters can be a bit daft, a little too oversaturated in what seem to be intended as their satirical traits - as can the plot, to the extent that it exists - but for the most part this is a painfully funny read (emphasis on painful). Should be more widely read, and I'm glad I finally got round to it after two years (!) of having an 'advance' copy.
Rating: 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

The Ghost Network (5 May 2015) by Catie Disabato
Enormous fun. This innovative, super-meta novel is presented as an existing book - part academic text, part true crime - written by an English professor, and found and edited by a fictionalised version of the actual author. The subject: the disappearance of Lady Gaga-esque pop star Molly Metropolis, closely followed by Caitlin Taer, a music journalist and avid fan who was trying to find out what happened to her. Replete with footnotes, the book proceeds to diverge into various ideas, conspiracies, and subplots involving the Situationist International movement, psychogeography, and... public transport. These diversions and the obvious riffs on real celebrities' images are themselves a demonstration of the oft-referenced situationist concept of détournement, while the titular ghost network is, unexpectedly, a map of every possible permutation of 'the L', Chicago's elevated railway - real, proposed, and imagined. Comparable to Marisha Pessl's Night Film and the fiction of Scarlett Thomas, it ends up as a conspiracy thriller-cum-dissection of modern fan culture, and it's completely absorbing, addictive, funny and wonderfully energetic. The best new book I have read this year.
Rating: 9/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

The Woman Upstairs (2013) by Claire Messud
One of those rare books I didn't love as a whole and yet find myself wanting to quote to death, remembering specific passages far more clearly than I remember what the book was actually about. This story is a chronicle of quiet inner rage and repressed anger, all revolving around narrator Nora's increasingly desperate obsession with a glamorous, successful, intellectual family, the Shahids. The plot, which ends predictably, isn't remarkable - the appeal of The Woman Upstairs lies in the way Claire Messud constructs the fascinating character of Nora. There were parts of the book in which I related deeply and fundamentally to Nora, while at other points, she repulsed me. Inspiring this sort of reaction makes the story powerful and memorable: I may have had mixed feelings about Nora, but I'll never forget her, and this is the sort of book I'll reread in a few years' time (I'm curious to see if, and how, my reaction will differ when I'm older).
Rating: 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

A Certain Smile (1956) by Françoise Sagan
As short and sharp as her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan's second (published a year later) is the story of a young woman's affair with an older man, and her subsequent, inevitable, heartbreak. Bored and indifferent towards her boyfriend, Bertrand, Dominique feels a shift in her affections when she meets his married uncle, Luc. Once again Sagan provides remarkable and painful insights into the emotional landscapes of youth - the progression of Dominique's feelings for Luc is as agonising to watch as it is inescapable. I wasn't wowed by this like I was by Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps because the books are very similar in terms of tone, mood, and the relationships between characters. I can see why the two have frequently been published together, and I'd have perhaps preferred to read them one after the other. Still, this was another perfect little gem of a story ideal for a sunny morning.
Rating: 8/10. Buy the book

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay (10 September 2015) by William Boyd
From the moment I first heard about it, I'd wanted to describe William Boyd's new novel as 'the female-focused version of Any Human Heart'; the first-person life story of a female photographer named Amory Clay, its tagline is 'the story of a woman - the story of a century'. It does indeed span most of the 20th century, taking Amory from London society to Berlin in the 1920s, to New York in the 1930s and France during the Second World War, and from a cottage in the Scottish Highlands to Vietnam. It's a fascinating series of adventures, but not as full or satisfying as Any Human Heart. Amory failed to come to life for me - I felt her character was painted too broadly and I couldn't picture her as a real person. This was certainly a nice holiday read, but lacking in the humour, emotion and insight I'd been hoping for.
Rating: 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the book

Outline, Idiopathy and The Woman Upstairs were all on the 2014 Backlog list. I started and rejected several more from that list - Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Unteachable by Leah Raeder, Abroad by Katie Crouch - and I've written a little more about the reasons why on Tumblr. Next time - partly because of a few disappointing new books this year - I'm thinking of banning myself from reading 'modern' (maybe 2000 or later) fiction, unless it's translated from another language. Or perhaps I should do that as a month-long project?

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Monday, 18 May 2015

Three days in the Algarve

A couple of weeks ago I set off to Faro, Portugal, for a mini-holiday. I stayed in what old books call a pension and hopped around various locations in the Algarve - to Quarteira, Albufeira, and most memorably the beautiful Ilha Deserta.

Faro Old Town
Faro Cathedral
Faro buildings
View of Faro from the hotel
Faro Old Town
Faro Old Town
Faro building details
View of Faro from the hotel

Faro makes a good base for an Algarve holiday - for a start, the airport's there, but it's also quiet, inexpensive, not overtly 'touristy', and has beautiful architecture. The Old Town in the south of the city is lovely to wander around, there are lots of fantastic details on buildings (I loved the intricate street signs) and even the graffiti makes for nice Instagram pics.

View from the ferry to Ilha Deserta
Ilha Deserta
Ilha Deserta
Ilha Deserta
Ilha Deserta 4

Ilha de Barreta, more popularly known as Ilha Deserta, is an uninhabited beach island - it can only be reached by a ferry from Faro (or by taking your own boat, if you happen to be that lucky). It's also the southernmost point of all of Portugal. It's an incredibly peaceful place: anything I say about how de-stressed and relaxed I felt while there - like all my problems were millions of miles away, etc etc - will probably sound like a meaningless platitude, but it was genuinely a bit of a spiritual experience. It's just you, the ultra-soft sand, the sky and the sea; it feels like there's nothing else in the world. The ferry company who take you there advertise it as a once-in-a-lifetime event, and unlike many things described thus, it actually IS. If you're visiting Faro/Albufeira/the Algarve, it's a must-do (and try to get the first ferry of the day so it's as empty as possible) (oh and also, it's really cheap - €10 return!)

Shells and a street sign in Albufeira
A boat at Albufeira

Albufeira is a more tourist-orientated resort slightly to the west of Faro (you can get a bus between the two). There are lots of souvenir shops and there's an escalator to the beach, but compared with some other resorts I've been to or heard about, I was pleasantly surprised by how laid-back it felt. The fact that it was relatively quiet probably helped. The beach is gorgeous, with spectacular rocky cliffs and picturesque whitewashed buildings in keeping with the traditional style of the region, and it's great for ice-cream, cheap food and people-watching.

(I also visited Quarteira, another resort which is less picturesque, dominated by tower-block-style hotels - and it happened to be deserted and pouring with rain that day, giving the whole place a vaguely post-apocalyptic air. It gave me lots of imaginative fuel but didn't result in the best photos.)

Igreja de Carmo
Chapel of Bones at Igreja do Carmo in Faro

On my last day I took the opportunity to join an hour-long tour around Faro - I'd been eyeing the little tourist train all weekend, and when I found out it only cost €2.75 I felt like it would be stupid to miss out. The train took us around the Old Town, past the Ria Formosa national park and Alameda João de Deus gardens, before stopping at a stunning church, Igreja do Carmo. I'd been wanting to visit this place and didn't think I'd get a chance to see it properly (it had been closed on my previous attempt to visit) so I was thrilled to be able to go inside and particularly to see the Capela dos Ossos - Chapel of Bones - attached to the church.

Old Town and Quarteira

I was so sad to leave and could definitely have spent several more days exploring the surrounding towns and visiting some of the other beaches around Faro. Until next time...

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

Review: In My House by Alex Hourston

In My House by Alex HourstonIn My House (19 May 2015) by Alex Hourston

Maggie is in her fifties and lives alone, except for her dog, Buster. She's returning from a walking holiday when she catches the eye of a terrified girl in the airport toilets; the resulting sequence of events leads to her being lauded as a hero for rescuing the girl, Anja, from a trafficking ring. After she agrees to a meeting, Maggie finds Anja insinuating herself into her life and her home.

You might think you know where this is going: a lonely woman, starved of company; an unreliable first-person narrative; a charming, manipulative stranger who seems like the victim until it's too late. And in some ways, this story does bear the hallmarks of its antecedents - In My House is reminiscent of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Harriet Lane's books. However, it surprised me - and exceeded my expectations - by transforming into an elegant and thoughtful character study, with a subtle undercurrent of tension, going beyond a resurrection of character stereotypes already done perfectly in other books. In the end, I felt it more closely resembled Samantha Harvey's underrated Dear Thief.

Maggie is not one of those fictional women whose loneliness is fuel for jealousy and avarice, despite the impression that's knowingly created by the opening scenes of her holidaying alone and returning to an empty house. She's neither alone nor lonely - there's a tight-knit group of friends and, it turns out, a daughter. It's clear Maggie has something to hide, clear her budding relationship with Anja has some greater significance, but the natures of these things are evasive. Her reasons for buying every newspaper, scouring them for mentions of Anja's escape and her own involvement, are unclear at first - it's not immediately evident whether she is simply obsessed by her own small representation in the media or afraid that the attention may bring something else to light. Later, she's horrified by the idea of photographs of her being tagged on Facebook. One might be drawn back to her early statement that she was 'never one for photos'. Why would she not want to be spotted by a member of her own family, as seems to be the case when she journeys to Brighton with Anja? What sense can any of this make when she is content to socialise with her friends and holiday with groups of strangers? Maggie's relationship with her daughter is another mystery - it is clearly strained, but they are not estranged from one another; so surely (we think) nothing that bad can have happened? These details keep you glued to the book and yet seem to preclude any major revelations, which I found refreshing. In My House deals not with extravagant twists, but a slow drip-feed of information.

One of the triumphs of In My House is Maggie's narration: in every aspect, it reflects the character. Ordinary, but a cut above banal; restrained, but a little romantic; plain language with an edge. Here she is describing a walk in the park:
A group of uniformed children waited at the entrance, their cries like birds. Clouds rushed us, and the wind picked up a handful of crisped leaves and threw them at the dogs. The beginnings of autumn, though we were not there yet.
Recalling the response to a poem recital in her teenage years:
An eddy of applause and then a sharp throaty sound from a single spiteful girl. A silence began, a contagious sort of silence; a ripple of embarrassment that spread like blown sand, in shuffle and glare.
Remembering her mother:
Hands gripping her skirts, eyes on fire, transported. She was articulate in her fury; a glamour to her - her only glamour. Never more compelling than in the arms of a rage.
Her ablutions end with 'the bath blood cool, water sheeting off me'. Buses emit 'long queeny gasps'. Cautiously elegant, self-consciously refined, with something clipped, measured, and restrained about it - Maggie's voice elevates her above those around her, and yet occasionally shows her up as more judgemental than she'd like anyone to believe. Another strength of Hourston's style is the dialogue - 'And Jan? She. They got on?' 'Sorry. I've just got to. Sorry. You go' - with its halting, authentic rendering of speech.

There are no plainly disturbing moments here, more odd turns of phrase and small motifs that make themselves known by repetition. Maggie's references to Anja evoke the language of lovers as often as they do a mother-daughter sort of relationship. The two of them simultaneously saying the same thing 'turned my mind to lovers, and perhaps hers too'; after Anja sleeps at Maggie's house, they sense the aftermath of 'some sexless one-night stand'. But Maggie often wants to either protect Anja or tell her off, baffled at her hallmarks of youth - texting, revealing clothes, a bad tattoo. By placing Maggie's attitude towards Anja partway between motherly and covetous, Hourston makes their relationship all the more disconcerting. There's a scene in which Maggie brushes Anja's hair that was like nails down a blackboard for me, such was the pitch of its weird, familial/carnal vibe. Maggie refers continually to memories of her own mother in this scene, but it is also the culmination of any sexual charge in the book.

This was so nearly a 10/10 book. (When I got to the middle, I was so rapt that I really considered going back to the beginning and read it over again, more carefully - but in the end, my need to know what happened next won out instead.) I loved Maggie's character and the economical unfurling of the truth. My rating was dragged down slightly by a bit of unevenness and some details I didn't feel were resolved satisfactorily, and I would have preferred certain things about Maggie's background to be a little less predictable.

When Maggie says: 'it's hard, this business of being with others', she might be summing up the whole story. In My House is a book about the difficulties inherent in relating to other people, the conflict between different types of feelings and motivations, the instability of family relationships: alongside Maggie's story about getting to know Anja, there runs the tale of her own past, providing a mostly fascinating contrast to her present-day life. When a line from Anja near the end throws Maggie's whole account into question, it almost seems like an aside - Maggie's possible unreliability has become secondary to the specifics and the small observations of her story, her life. She's a character who will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney by Andrew Michael HurleyThe Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley

Was ever a book more suited to a grey and drizzly Bank Holiday weekend? (Which it was, when I read it.) Steeped in religious symbolism and quintessentially British bleakness, The Loney is an odd, dreary sort of horror story - the tale of two boys, our nameless narrator and his mute brother, Andrew, known as Hanny. The Loney, meanwhile, is a place - a desolate stretch of northern coast, and one of a number of deliberately evocative place names in this story, along with the village of Coldbarrow and the houses Thessaly and Moorings.
Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.
The boys travel to the Loney as part of a sort of pilgrimage. They are led by a newly arrived priest, Father Bernard, appointed after the death of the previous incumbent, Father Wilfred. With them are the boys' parents, who they call 'Mummer and Farther'; Father Wilfred's brother and his wife, Mr and Mrs Belderboss; and the church housekeeper, Miss Bunce, and her fiancé, David. The religious aspect of the group's gathering is more than mere exposition: Mummer believes it is here that Hanny will be 'cured' of his mutism and learning difficulties, and it's the perceived power of faith and ritual - ultimately, the insufficiency of faith - that informs the plot's development and the real horror at the Loney's heart.

Originally published independently - by Tartarus Press - last year and now picked up by Hodder & Stoughton imprint John Murray (the new hardback is out in August), The Loney is gathering a buzz in the media and, inevitably, on Twitter. A piece on 'the ghost story's renaissance' in the Telegraph had this to say: 'Modern classics in this genre are rare, and instant ones even rarer; The Loney, however, looks as though it may be both.' The Loney isn't really a ghost story, but it has plenty of the genre's classic traits - such as the framing narrative, in which the narrator is looking back on this period of his youth, and occasionally mentions talking about the Loney with his therapist. There's a pinch of black magic and an inexplicable transformation, but much of the story concentrates on building atmosphere; constructing a nuanced portrait of the boys' really rather grim lives; realising the feverish, desperate sense of hope surrounding the group's presence at Moorings.
I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The most disturbing details don't appear to have much to do with anything supernatural: what to make of the heavily pregnant girl the brothers meet - the narrator initially estimates her age as thirteen or fourteen, and later states 'she seemed even younger than I'd first thought' - who says airily of the impending birth, 'it's nothing. I've done this before. It gets easier the more you have' - and is never seen again? The Telegraph piece compares Hurley's work to that of Robert Aickman, and it's easy to see the resemblance in the sheer dread Hurley evokes here, as well as the depiction (indeed, personification) of nature as savage and cruel. Also Aickmanesque is the deeply ambiguous ending, concluding the story with either a stroke of genius or a frustrating cop-out, depending on your interpretation. (I have to say that personally, I was a little disappointed.)

It's apt that the central family has the surname Smith: The Loney is like a Morrissey song made novel ('Everyday is Like Sunday' with shades of 'Yes, I Am Blind' and maybe a bit of 'November Spawned a Monster') and, with a depiction of a poor Catholic childhood central to the story, I was reminded of the earlier parts of his autobiography more than once. The story is set in the 1970s, and it's perfectly redolent of a time not so long ago, but almost unthinkable now, before technology transformed the possibility of any place seeming entirely unknowable. Of course, the inability to 'call for help' is a mainstay of horror stories, and isn't limited to those set before everyone had a mobile phone - but here, it's used particularly effectively to help portray an era, a way of life, a system of belief in its death throes. The Loney is at once acutely bleak and strangely beautiful:
A train rushed past, leaving a skirl of litter and dust, and then the rails returned to their bright humming. In the scrubland beyond, the swifts were darting over the tufts of grass and the hard baked soil with its beetroot-coloured weeds. We watched them turning on their hairpins deftly as bats.
I can certainly understand why The Loney might be labelled an instant classic. It's a seriously impressive first novel, and so successful at creating a setting that it's sure to linger in the memory.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback (pre-order)

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reading round-up: April

April 2015 books

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This fantastic debut is the story of Yasmin, a dissatisfied teenager obsessed with a popular classmate. When she spots a man staring at Alice, the object of her infatuation, she quickly latches on to him and pursues a very odd sort of friendship. Yasmin's voice - thoroughly believable but insidiously sinister - is brilliantly realised, and the story, which turns out to be something of a twisted coming-of-age tale, takes some thrilling turns.

Wolf, Wolf by Eben Venter - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Wolf, Wolf is an exploration of masculinity and sexuality in present-day South Africa. It's a dense, complicated novel (very difficult to sum up briefly) that's not necessarily an easy read, and can be an uncomfortable one, but is nevertheless very rewarding and satisfying.

The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - 10/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Another South African novel - but a very different sort of book to Wolf, Wolf. This incredibly subtle and vaguely tense book is written in a spare, elegant style, and it describes what happens at a near-deserted rural hospital when a young, extremely idealistic new doctor arrives. Disturbing undertones and hints of tension combine to spellbinding effect. It may sound uneventful, but I found the slow release of the plot absolutely gripping. Probably the best book I have read this year.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
My first proper encounter with Woolf's work. I'm really glad I've read it - and I could instantly see the influence it has had on many other things I've read - but I felt a sort of detachedness towards it. It certainly isn't the first time I've said it, but this was a book I admired rather than loved.

How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are by Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret and Sophie Mas - 7/10. Full review / Buy the book
A fun fashion/lifestyle book centred on the idea of the 'Parisienne'. The authors treat this concept with the frivolous approach it deserves, and the result is a funny, irreverent, often sarcastic scrapbook of advice, stories, lists and recipes that's like an extended and improved version of a fashion magazine. Way more enjoyable than I thought it would be.

In My House by Alex Hourston - 9/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
Along with the aforementioned Things We Have in Common, this is one of the best debuts I've read in 2015. It starts off as a story about a fiftysomething woman, Maggie, who is asked for help by a girl in an airport; unwittingly, she ends up saving the girl, Anja, from a trafficking operation. Then Anja insinuates herself into Maggie's life. If you think you know where this is going, you're probably wrong - it's not a thriller but rather a thoughtful character portrait, a study of love and family and selfhood, with a mere undercurrent of tension. In My House really exceeded my expectations.

Zines by various authors, ed. Liz Farrelly - 5/10. Buy the book
I acquired a copy of this completely randomly, and wasn't surprised to learn it's out of print. Purporting to be a visual history of zines, it's very much of its time (it was published in 2001), with large spreads given to zines like Shoreditch Twat and illustrations by James Jarvis. It also offers no commentary on the featured publications, so it's really more of a coffee-table book than anything else - nice to look at, but it won't teach you anything.

The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Something of a love letter to Buenos Aires, The Tango Singer has an intriguing plot - revolving around a near-mythical singer whose ethereal voice has never been recorded - but really, it's all about the setting. Alive with music and heat and a somehow tangible texture, this is a lucid and labyrinthine story - it's dreamlike, but it so vividly evokes the city that you'll feel like you've been there.

The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - 8/10. Full review / Buy the book
A re-read of the classic short story, and my first encounter with other work by Gilman: this volume, part of the Penguin Little Black Classics series, also contains two other stories - a ghostly tale entitled 'The Rocking-Chair', and the acidly funny 'Old Water'. The power of Gilman's most famous work is undiminished, and the others are enjoyable, though nowhere near as memorable.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North - 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
With a similar setup to Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World, Anna North's novel tells the story of Sophie Stark, a talented young film director, through a 'chorus of voices' belonging to those who knew and loved her. It's very compelling, but it doesn't quite achieve a rounded portrait of Sophie, who remains unknowable and a bit unbelievable. While incredibly readable, I couldn't help but think it was all a bit flimsy as a whole.

The Trap and A Dance in the Sun by Dan Jacobson - 10/10. Review to come / Buy the book
Two books in one volume - although The Trap is really more of a short story. I bought this after reading that Jacobson's work inspired Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor, and was delighted to find so many similarities between them that they could almost have been written by the same person - not that The Good Doctor is derivative, but both authors use a prose style that's simple and graceful yet complex and full of meaning, telling a hundred small stories in one. Set in sun-bleached semi-wilderness, both The Trap and A Dance in the Sun - published in 1955 and 1956 respectively - weave intricate tales of entrenched racism, latent violence and family tension. Unfortunately most (if not all) of Jacobson's books are now out of print, but I'll certainly be seeking out more.

Stallo by Stefan Spjut - 5/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
Translated from Swedish, this murky supernatural thriller traces the connections between a boy who went missing in the 1970s, a woman who runs a website about mythical creatures (and whose father allegedly took a photograph of one such creature), and the possible sighting of a troll in a small town. It promises fascinating themes, but at 600+ pages it takes far too long to get to them; it also reveals its secrets far too early, leaving the (sizeable) remainder of the book with a distinct lack of suspense.

Fermentation by Angelica Jacob - 8/10. Review to come / Buy the book
If I write down a one-sentence description of this novel, it sounds seriously bizarre: set during a scorching summer, it's a semi-erotic novella about a pregnant French woman who begins to experience uncontrollably strong cravings for cheese. An oddity it may be, but Fermentation is also beautifully written and irresistibly atmospheric.

Better late than never - this roundup feels a bit incomplete with several reviews missing, but once again I've got a huge backlog to catch up on! I read some really great books this month, with the highlights being The Good Doctor, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, In My House, and Things We Have in Common. In fact, almost everything I read in April was really good.

I expect May to be another bumper month. Having been on holiday, I've already read 7 books and crossed off most of my outstanding to-read list from last year - but more on that in another post...

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

What to read in May & June 2015

New books for May and June 2015
23 new books to read in May & June 2015

The Predictions by Bianca Zander - 5 May
‘Gaialands, a bucolic vegan commune in the New Zealand wilderness, is the only home fifteen-year-old Poppy has ever known. It's the epitome of 1970s counterculture - at least in theory. But Gaialands's strict principles are shaken when new arrival Shakti harnesses her divination powers in a ceremony called the Predictions. Poppy is predicted to find her true love overseas, so when her boyfriend, Lukas, leaves Gaialands to fulfill his dream of starting a punk band in London, she follows him. In London, Poppy falls into a life that looks very like the one her prediction promised, but is it the one she truly wants?’

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato - 5 May
‘A frightening, whip-smart adventure through Chicago begins when pop star Molly Metropolis disappears before a major performance and two young women set out to find her. At first, the mystery of her disappearance is a light-hearted scavenger hunt. But then they become ensnared in her secret society. As they follow clues through the dark underbelly of Chicago, they both realise that they're in greater danger than they could have ever imagined.’

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh - 7 May
The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field. You were looking down at your brown straggly dog, but then you looked up, your mouth going slack as your eyes clocked her. Alice Taylor. I was no different. I used to catch myself gazing at the back of her head in class, at her silky fair hair swaying between her shoulder blades. If you'd glanced just once across the field you'd have seen me. You'd have known you'd given yourself away. But you didn't. You only had eyes for Alice.

The Cellar by Minette Walters - 7 May
‘Muna’s fortunes changed for the better on the day that Mr and Mrs Songoli’s younger son failed to come home from school. Before then her bedroom was a dark windowless cellar, her activities confined to cooking and cleaning. She’d grown used to being maltreated by the Songoli family; to being a slave. But Muna is far cleverer - and her plans more terrifying - than the Songolis, or anyone else, can ever imagine...’

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski - 12 May
‘Ranging from Mexico to Southeast Asia, from Venice, Italy, to Venice, California, The Familiar portrays nine lives hanging in the balance, each of them called upon to make a terrifying choice. At the very heart, though, is a twelve-year-old girl named Xanther who one rainy day in May sets out with her father to get a dog, only to end up trying to save a creature as fragile as it is dangerous... which will change not only her life and the lives of those she has yet to encounter, but this world, too - or at least the world we think we know and the future we take for granted.’

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North - 19 May
‘Told in a chorus of voices belonging to those who knew her best, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark is an intimate portrait of an elusive woman whose monumental talent and relentless pursuit of truth reveal the cost of producing great art, both for the artist and for the people around her. She uses stories from the lives of others to create movies that bring her critical recognition and acclaim; but as her career explodes, Sophie’s unwavering dedication to her art leads to the shattering betrayal of the people she loves most.’

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick - 19 May
‘A memoir of self-discovery and the dilemma of connection in our time, The Odd Woman and the City explores the rhythms, chance encounters, and ever-changing friendships of urban life that forge the sensibility of a fiercely independent woman who has lived out her conflicts, not her fantasies, in a city (New York) that has done the same. It's written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist, the role of the flâneur in urban literature, and the evolution of friendship over the past two centuries.’

Day Four by Sarah Lotz - 21 May
‘The trip of their dreams becomes the holiday of their nightmares: Day Four is Sarah Lotz's extraordinary, unmissable follow-up to The Three. Four days into a five-day singles cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, the ageing ship Beautiful Dreamer stops dead in the water. With no electricity and no cellular signals, the passengers and crew have no way to call for help. But everyone is certain that rescue teams will come looking for them soon. All they have to do is wait...’

In My House by Alex Hourston - 21 May
‘Maggie lives a life of careful routines and measured pleasures. But everything changes when, walking through Gatwick a few days shy of her fifty-eighth birthday, a young woman approaches her and whispers a single word: ‘Help.’ Maggie responds, and in that moment saves a stranger. But when the story gets picked up by the papers, Margaret is panicked by the publicity, as well as the strange phone calls she begins to receive. Meanwhile, Anja makes contact. She wants to thank her rescuer, but quickly insinuates herself into Maggie’s life...’

The Followers by Rebecca Wait - 21 May
‘When Stephanie first meets Nathaniel, she is a struggling single mother and he is a charismatic outsider. In deciding to join the small religious cult he has founded high on the moors, Stephanie thinks she is doing the best for her daughter, Judith: a new home, a new life, a new purpose. But from the moment they arrive, the delicate dynamic of Nathaniel's followers is disturbed, and as Stephanie slowly surrenders herself to Nathaniel's will, tensions deepen, faith and doubt collide, and a horrifying act of violence changes everything...’

Girl at War by Sara Nović - 21 May
‘Growing up in Zagreb in the summer of 1991, 10-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy; she runs the streets with her best friend, Luka, helps take care of her baby sister and idolises her father. But when civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, she is lost to a world of genocide and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival. Ten years later she returns to Croatia, a young woman struggling to belong to either country, forced to confront the trauma of her past and rediscover the place that was once her home.’

Death is a Welcome Guest by Louise Welsh - 4 June
‘Magnus McFall was a comic on the brink of his big break when the world came to an end. Now, he is a man on the run. Thrown into unwilling partnership with an escaped convict, Magnus flees the desolation of London to make the long journey north, clinging to his hope that the sickness has not reached his family on their remote Scottish island. He finds himself in a landscape fraught with danger, fighting for his place in a world ruled by men like his fellow traveller Jeb - practical men who do not let pain or emotions interfere with getting the job done. This is a world with its own justice, and new rules - where survival is everything...’

Stallo by Stefan Spjut - 4 June
‘In the summer of 1978 a young boy disappears without trace from a summer cabin in the woods. Twenty-five years later, Susso runs a much-maligned web page, one dedicated to searching for creatures whose existence has not yet been proven: the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot. When an old woman claims that a small creature has been standing outside her house, observing her and her five year old grandson for hours, Susso picks up her camera and leaves for what will become a terrifying adventure into the unknown...’

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen - 4 June
‘The enigmatic billionaire founder of Tetration, the world’s most powerful tech company, hires a failed novelist, Josh Cohen, to ghostwrite his memoirs. The mogul, known as Principal, takes Josh on a mind-bending world tour from Palo Alto to Dubai and beyond, initiating him into the secret pretext of the autobiography project and the life-or-death stakes that surround its publication. Insider tech exposé, leaked memoir-in-progress, international thriller, family drama, sex comedy, and biblical allegory, Book of Numbers renders the full range of modern experience both online and off. Embodying the internet in its language, it finds the humanity underlying the virtual.’

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry - 4 June
‘New York, 1895. Sylvan Threadgill, a young cleaner, finds an abandoned newborn baby. Odile Church is the girl-on-the-wheel, a second-fiddle act in a show that has long since lost its magic. And Alphie wakes up groggy and confused in Blackwell's Lunatic Asylum. On a single night, these strangers' lives will become irrevocably entwined, as secrets come to light and outsiders struggle for acceptance. From the Coney Island seashore to the tenement-studded streets of the Lower East Side, a spectacular sideshow to a desolate asylum, Leslie Parry makes turn-of-the-century New York feel alive, vivid, and magical... The Night Circus meets Water For Elephants.’

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango - 4 June
‘Henry Hayden appears to have a perfect life: he's a famous novelist with more money than he can spend, a grand house in the country, a loyal, clever wife. But Henry has a dark side, a carefully maintained lie he will stop at nothing to protect. In thrall to paranoia and self-interest, Henry makes a fatal error that could cause the whole dream to unravel and, despite his Machiavellian efforts, events swiftly spin out of control as lie is heaped upon lie, menace upon menace. And it turns out that those around him have their secrets too...’

The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus - 4 June
‘Cecilia Somner's fate hangs in the balance. A larger-than-life heiress to a robber baron's fortune, once known for her cruel wit as much as for her tremendous generosity, CeCe is now in opulent decline. Along with her troubled son, George, and his outsider wife, Iris, CeCe must face the Somners' dark legacy and the corrupting nature of wealth. The secrets and lies between the Somners grow entangled, culminating in a crime as unforgettable as it is unexpected. While no riches can put things right for the family, when all is lost, they learn what life beyond the long, shimmering shadow cast by their dynasty may become...’

Louisa Meets Bear by Lisa Gornick - 9 June
‘When Louisa and Bear meet at Princeton in 1975, sparks fly: they dive headfirst into a passionate but explosive affair that will alter the course of their lives, changing how they define themselves in the years and relationships that follow. Reading Louisa Meets Bear is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, as we uncover the subtle and startling connections between new characters and the star-crossed lovers. We meet a daughter who stabs her mother, a wife who sees herself clearly after finding a man dead on her office floor, a mother who discovers a girl in her teenage son's bed, and more, in a gripping collection of linked stories.’

In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar - 16 June
‘These nine globe-trotting, unforgettable stories from Mia Alvar, a remarkable new literary talent, vividly give voice to the women and men of the Filipino diaspora. Here are exiles, emigrants, and wanderers uprooting their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere - and, sometimes, turning back again. From teachers to housemaids, from mothers to sons, Alvar’s powerful debut collection explores the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined.’

The Insect Rosary by Sarah Armstrong - 18 June
‘All families have secrets, but Bernadette's are more dangerous than most. On holiday in Northern Ireland in 1982, she and her older sister discover their family is involved with disappearances and murder. Thirty years later Nancy makes a disastrous return to the farm with her own family. The events of the past gradually and menacingly reveal why those sisters have not spoken to each other since that last disturbing summer together...’

The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott - 18 June
‘What does it feel like to be four-dimensional? How do digital technologies influence the rhythms of our thoughts, the style and tilt of our consciousness? What new sensitivities and sensibilities are emerging with our exposure to the delights, sorrows and anxieties of a networked world? And how do we live in public, with recoded private lives? Tackling ideas of time, space, isolation, silence and threat - how our modern-day anxieties manifest online - and moving from Hamlet to the ghosts of social media, from Seinfeld to the fall of Gaddafi, from Twitter art to Oedipus, The Four-Dimensional Human is a highly original and pioneering portrait of life in a digital landscape.’

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler - 23 June
‘Simon Watson lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home, a house perched on the edge of a cliff that is slowly crumbling into the sea. On a day in late June, Simon receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller, sent to him because it is inscribed with the name of his grandmother. The book tells the story of two doomed lovers who were part of a travelling circus more than two hundred years ago. The paper crackles with age as Simon turns the yellowed pages filled with notes and sketches. He is fascinated, yet as he reads Simon becomes increasingly unnerved by the story's parallels to his own family...’

Music for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai - 23 June
‘The author of The Hundred-Year House returns with a collection of short stories marked with her signature mix of intelligence, wit, and heart. A reality show producer manipulates two contestants into falling in love, while her own relationship falls apart. Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young boy has a revelation about his father’s past when a renowned Romanian violinist plays a concert in their home. In an unnamed country, a composer records the folk songs of two women from a village on the brink of destruction. These wide-ranging and deeply moving stories will delight readers of Lorrie Moore, Jim Shepard, and Karen Russell.’

I can't believe a) it's almost the end of April and b) it's time for one of these posts again! So May & June are big months for new books, although some titles originally due to launch within these two months have been put back since I originally wrote about 2015 books. Most importantly, the new Scarlett Thomas novel will now be out in July instead, and Hannah Richell's The Peacock Room seems to have vanished off the face of the internet.

I've read a few of these already: Things We Have in Common and In My House are fantastic debuts, and I also enjoyed The Predictions and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Most-anticipated book of May/June, for me, is a dead heat between Death is a Welcome Guest and The Ghost Network; the former is the sequel to one of my favourite books from last year, and the latter I've been absolutely dying to finish ever since I read an extract from it.

What will you be reading in the next couple of months? Any more May/June releases you're looking forward to?

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Sunday, 26 April 2015

Mini reviews: Anna North, Tomás Eloy Martínez, Eben Venter

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna NorthThe Life and Death of Sophie Stark (19 May 2015) by Anna North

Anna North's second novel announces itself as a book that 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist' - the titular Sophie Stark, a young filmmaker. Its narrative employs a 'chorus of voices' to portray the development of Sophie's career and the correlative disintegration of her relationships.

The narrators range from fascinating - Allison, Sophie's protégé and lover; Robbie, Sophie's brother - to annoying and slightly dull. But because Sophie herself is rarely heard from (and even then it's just her words as remembered by others), she's more of a conduit for other people's desires than a rounded character, a believable person, or someone you can truly care about. Twisted and broken up and reformed through the stories of those who knew her, she is not seen truthfully - naturally, of course, but this makes it a struggle to form any image of her beyond someone else's fantasy. She emerges as a character who is complicated, but not necessarily believable or nuanced, in her contradictions, and her arc is ultimately more one-note than it should/could be. The ending seemed limp, and I felt as if there should be more - some wider appraisal of her life.

That sounds completely negative; in fact, I did actually really enjoy reading this book. It's compulsive and very readable, there are some beautiful moments within the various stories, and I read it with great eagerness to know what would happen next. I did feel, however, that it was overall quite a flimsy story that missed opportunities to explore the scope of Sophie's life and the significance of her art. It also suffers from its similarities to Siri Hustvedt's brilliant The Blazing World, which is a more mature and intellectually engaging treatment of the same idea.

Rating: 7/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez The Tango Singer (2001, translated 2004) by Tomás Eloy Martínez

The Tango Singer is a wonderfully resonant tour of Buenos Aires, its labyrinthine streets and twin histories: the political and the literary. Our narrator is Bruno Cadogan, a PhD student who travels to the city to research his thesis - a study of Jorge Luis Borges' essays on the origins of the tango - and instead finds himself mesmerised by the recent legend of a tango singer, the near-mythical Julio Martel. Rumoured to have an incomparably beautiful voice which has never been recorded, Martel performs at random, unannounced, on obscure street corners. Bruno's mounting obsession with hearing the singer leads him on a disordered, dreamlike journey around the city, taking in the voices and stories of many other characters from the past and present of Buenos Aires.

Martínez draws heavily on Borges' work: his short story 'The Aleph' forms the basis of one of Bruno's main obsessions, as he and a friend/lover conspire to gain access to the basement of their boarding-house to entice tourists to its supposed location. In Borges' story, the aleph appears as 'a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance' through which everything, all the universe, infinity, can be glimpsed. At first, this is just a ploy to make money; later, Bruno becomes convinced the aleph truly exists. This is just one example of the way the story spirals into an almost hallucinatory state, with the structure of the novel reflecting both the topography of Buenos Aires and its protagonist's disorientation.

If you enjoy the sort of book that really transports you to another place, I'd recommend this: more than anything else, it's a portrait of a character falling in love with a city. Martínez has a style that's lucid in every sense of the word, and the book is somehow full of texture, coming alive with the heat and the music of its setting.

Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Wolf, Wolf by Eben VenterWolf, Wolf (2013) by Eben Venter

I've written a full review of this on Goodreads, but it's basically a load of rambling, because it's very hard to get a handle on Wolf, Wolf. It's a dense, complicated novel that's not necessarily an easy read, and can be an uncomfortable one, but is nevertheless very rewarding.

In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs Duiker - and his relationship with his dying father, Benjamin. But it has many diversions and addresses a number of themes. It's an examination of masculinity in which Mattheüs' sexuality is put under the spotlight: his father has never been able to accept the fact that he's gay, and his addiction to internet porn has become an obsession so dominant that that drives a wedge between Mattheüs and his on-off lover Jack. It's about growing up, and the relationship between dreams, ambitions and reality, as Mattheüs strives towards a goal - opening a healthy takeaway - that's both a rejection of his father's values and a way to gain his acceptance. It's about communication and miscommunication within families and other relationships. Full of symbolism, the story offers no easy answers for its difficult and often hard-to-like characters.

If you're looking for something with a structured plot and neat resolutions, you won't find them here. Towards the end, things become ever more horrible for the embattled Mattheüs, who sinks deeper into failure and despair. The book ends on a poignant note as he resolves to atone for past mistakes, not knowing that elsewhere, a tragedy has ensured his dreams are - once again - impossible. Wolf, Wolf itself, though, is a satisfying novel, a potent depiction of one family that also acts as a broader portrait of contemporary manhood and post-apartheid South Africa.

Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I received an advance review copy of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

The Good Doctor by Damon GalgutThe Good Doctor (2003) by Damon Galgut

Following two men working in a rural, near-deserted South African hospital, Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor is an ambiguous story, in which nothing happens, and everything happens; a book of thick and palpable atmosphere. Frank Eloff is the long-established deputy director of the hospital, perpetually waiting for a step upwards to the top spot, a move that has been repeatedly promised, but never quite happens. At the beginning of the story, a new junior doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives - having apparently insisted upon this location, despite the fact that there are so few patients, the existing team find themselves with hardly anything to do. Laurence is everything Frank is not: endlessly upbeat, hopeful and incredibly, perhaps even wilfully, naive. But he also has a sinister streak, and when the two doctors are forced to share a room, Frank finds himself more and more distrustful of Laurence.

The plot also weaves in small stories that build up a picture of the surrounding area and its people. Built to serve the capital of a now-defunct homeland, the hospital is located amongst arid wasteland and an entirely deserted town. It's a setting Galgut exploits to full effect, creating a vivid image of an eerie, empty backdrop perfectly suited to the lost individuals who inhabit it - 'a strange twilight place', as Frank calls it. Secondary characters come into their own as representations of this place's limitations and its chequered history. There's Maria, a local married woman with whom Frank has had a long-running, erratic and distinctly odd affair; Tehogo, a hospital orderly who exerts an inexplicable power over the other staff; and 'the Brigadier', the self-styled former dictator of the homeland, who may or may not still be alive and exists as a shadowy presence on the fringes of both the town and the story.

The book opens with Frank's first impression of Laurence: 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' Later: 'I wanted to say, you're very young. I wanted to tell him, you won't last.' Yet lonely Frank finds himself unable to reject Laurence entirely - the newcomer is 'like two people', one an unwanted, clingy shadow, the other a much-needed confidant. There is always something vaguely disturbing about Laurence's presence, and always some suggestion he is not quite telling the whole truth about his own past; at other points, there are hints of an always-formless sexual tension between him and Frank. These various suggestions remain, for the most part, suggestions, and The Good Doctor never reaches the simmering pitch of a thriller. Despite that, it's an engrossing story that had me completely captivated from the first page onwards.

Who is 'the good doctor' of the title? It could be either Laurence, with his puppy-dog optimism, or Frank, who is far more down-to-earth, realistic and practical. But the book keeps the answer from us, highlighting the characters' faults - Laurence's damaging and possibly deliberate guilelessness and Frank's jaded, unhelpful cynicism - too clearly for either to be truly worthy of the name. There again, The Good Doctor is also, arguably, an allegory, with the protagonists' attitudes illustrating different approaches to the 'new' South Africa and the flaws within them. Frank is stuck in his ways and resists change, unless it benefits him. Laurence, on the other hand, wants to enable change, but goes about it in all the wrong ways, blindly doing what he thinks is right or useful rather than what is actually necessary or helpful to the impoverished community. Both men struggle to relate to their non-white colleagues, and in the end this will play a pivotal part in their respective failures. Near the end, Frank's boss Dr Ngema confronts him about his innate racism, but he resists, and thereafter the two are simply 'carefully nice to each other' - he still hasn't learned.

I loved the graceful voice and controlled tone of this spellbinding novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, it's lost none of its power and feels incredibly fresh. I can't fault it - undoubtedly the best book I've read this year so far.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback