First of all, I really want to mention that whoever wrote the blurb for this book should win an award just for that. A historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it. See? That paragraph makes The Teleportation Accident sound like the best book EVER.
It isn't quite as good as all that, and it isn't as good as Ned Beauman's brilliant debut - Boxer, Beetle - either, but it's still a pretty great read. Starting in 1930s Germany, the story takes in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles across a span of thirty years as it follows Egon Loeser, a dissatisfied young man who flits around the world because of his twin obsessions with a 17th-century set designer, Lavincini - the creator of an infamously disastrous 'teleportation device', about whom Loeser is attempting to write a play - and a beautiful girl, Adele Hitler ('no relation'). The Teleportation Accident is full of the same farcical humour, grotesque characters and surfeit of coincidences that characterised Boxer, Beetle, and again, I was reminded very strongly of Jonathan Coe's signature style, albeit coupled with a historical setting. I loved the fragmented, surreal narrative style used for the section of the story focusing on Bailey, and wished I could have read more of this. The characters didn't engage me as much as those in Beauman's debut, however, and nor did I find the book anywhere near as funny. It's possibly cleverer, though: it is indeed a story about 'how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it', and this element of the plot is handled beautifully, with the historical events one might expect to take centre stage remaining firmly in the background, and seen mainly through the filter of Loeser's selfishness.
My main quibble was - well, my first main quibble was that after the first chapter, I really hated Loeser. I hated him so much, in fact, that it took me a couple of days to even pick the book up again. My antipathy towards him lessened slightly as the story went on, but that was partly because midway through the story - round about the point he stopped reading the letter from Blumstein - I realised you weren't supposed to like him anyway (as if his name practically being 'loser' wasn't enough of a giveaway). After that revelation, my remaining main quibble was that I didn't really understand why Beauman had chosen to focus so much of the narrative on Loeser's preoccupation with Adele and his sexual frustration. Why was Loeser so obsessed with Adele? Okay, she was beautiful, but he travelled the world for years after his brief meeting with her, so surely he'd have found other women to lust after/fall in love with/obsess over? And if he was so desperate to have sex, surely it's impossible that he wouldn't have been able to find anyone whatsoever to sleep with in all those years, in all those different social circles in all those different cities?! Wouldn't he just have gone to a prostitute - since we already know that he's done this before at the start of the book, I don't see why he would have any moral objection to the idea later in life... It all seemed quite flimsy and contrived, and when the whole situation turned out to have little actual relevance to anything else, I felt a litle bit confused. I also didn't really 'get' the final chapter, I'm afraid.
I've noted previously that when you have very high expectations for a new book by an author who has impressed you in the past, it's often inevitable that it will disappoint you (even if only a little). This was one of my most-anticipated books of the year, and I have to admit that it wasn't quite the tour de force I was hoping for. The Teleportation Accident is fantastically written, entertaining and (for the most part) engaging, and the plot is incredibly well-woven together. However, the characters are universally hard to like and, although the plot fizzes with energy and ideas, there's just nothing to really care about (at points I wished the story wouldn't 'ignore history' quite so much, even though I did fully understand what the author was doing, and the significance of this).
As this review goes to press (!), The Teleportation Accident has just been longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize. It's great to see such a young and relatively 'new' author being recognised, but I just wish this had happened for Boxer, Beetle!
Today marks one year since Amy Winehouse's death. The following is a blog post I wrote and posted on my old blog since the day it happened. It is, in fact, the only piece of writing from my old blog I am actually proud of. Rather than writing something new today, I really wanted to re-publish this post, unedited. Here is my tribute to Amy - RIP - never forgotten. ♥
I turned 27 last week. Today, Amy Winehouse, one of a tiny handful of musical artists whose work has meant so much to me that I can truly say it changed my life, was found dead at the same age. I have found it almost unbearably painful to watch the media already scrambling to rake over and dissect every detail of her life; yet as soon as I heard the news, this post started writing itself, running away with itself in my head, and I knew I would have to write something to pay tribute to this passionate, troubled, beautiful, intelligent, immensely talented young woman.
I've never been able to remember quite how I first got into Amy's music. I know it was before her second album, Back To Black, was released, because I bought Frank first and waited for the new one to come out. I quickly got obsessed with her music, her words and her image; I thought she was absolutely stunning, and with her naturally gorgeous features, exaggerated eyeliner flicks, big hair and rock & roll style, she became something of an icon to me. In February 2007, I went to see her live at Manchester Academy. I didn't know it then, but this was a golden time - Back To Black was huge, but she was yet to become famous for her drinking and drug use, yet to become a tabloid fixture. While she later became notorious for forgetting the words to her own songs or walking off stage, that night she was note-perfect. I have watched and listened to every known recording of her live performances I've been able to get my hands on, and despite how impressive her voice invariably was, I have never seen her sing so brilliantly as she did that night. Today I feel truly blessed to have experienced this.
That same year, I had my heart broken. By coincidence or fate, I went through an almost identical set of circumstances to those that inspired Amy to write the album (her first split with Blake Fielder-Civil, the man who would later, famously, become her husband). The man I loved, and who loved me, decided that it was too difficult for us to be together, and broke off our 'affair' to go back to an ex-girlfriend. Suddenly, the songs of Back To Black, an album I already adored, took on a whole new significance; I was living her words. He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet/With his same old safe bet/Me and my head high/And my tears dry/Get on without my guy (Back To Black). The second I stop the sleep catches up and I'm breathless/There's this ache in my chest/'Cos my day is done now/The dark covers me and I cannot run now (Wake Up Alone). I even considered, and never fully rejected, the idea of getting a particularly resonant verse of Love Is a Losing Game - Love is a fate resigned/Over futile odds/And laughed at by the gods - as a tattoo.
At this time, the thing that struck me most about Amy's songs was how incredible a lyricist she was. I copied many of her lyrics down in full into my diary and notebooks, and reading them back to myself, realised that they were so beautiful that they worked perfectly even without music; they were like poetry. Everyone always talked about Amy's voice, as well they might - she was a singer of rare, wonderful talent and even rarer sincerity and palpable emotion. But to me, she was always just as great a songwriter as she was a vocalist. She was the only credited writer of most of the tracks on Back To Black - both music and lyrics. She co-wrote the whole of Frank when she was still a teenager. How many artists have a gift like that?
(I remember once being sat upstairs, staring out of the window, and listening to Back To Black loudly, torturing myself about something or other, doubtless to do with my relationship. My mum came into the room and, sitting down next to me, she nodded towards the speakers and said, 'you know, she reminds me a lot of you'. I promptly burst into tears. When I went out with my big hair and my black eye makeup, my then-boyfriend's friends would tell me I looked like Amy. They meant it as an insult, perceiving her only as the drug-addled mess of tabloid legend, and as a woman who didn't fit their narrow lad's-mag definition of female beauty; I took it as a compliment.)
Like Amy and Blake, the man I loved and I reunited and had a tumultous, passionate relationship for the best part of two years. Through this I always felt a curious affinity with her, watching the mad whirlwind of their relationship and Amy's struggle with drink and drugs as they were played out in the newspapers and gossip magazines. She was the same age as me and, although I (thankfully) have never had to battle drug addiction or alcoholism or my partner going to prison, I have had my own issues with depression and anxiety, self-harm in my teens, and a similar pattern of fucked-up, mutually damaging, at times abusive relationships. And as my life changed, so too did my relationship with her songs. You Sent Me Flying will forever bring back memories of my doomed, painful infatuation with a work colleague. Whenever I felt frustrated or unsatisfied, Tears Dry On Their Own would become my anthem - Did I play myself again?/I should just be my own best friend/Not fuck myself in the head with stupid men. When someone I wasn't really interested in was pursuing me, I listened to In My Bed over and over, and when I broke up with my last boyfriend, Take the Box soundtracked the split.
I've always been a bit derisive of the whole 'cult of celebrity' thing - crowds of people waiting for hours just to watch someone coming out of a building and then screaming, weeping and fainting when they walk past - and I've always been suspicious of those mass outpourings of public grief that occasionally follow the death of someone famous. But fuck it. Amy Winehouse may have been a girl I'd never met, but she was a girl I'd never met whose words and music meant more to me than I can say. When I listened to her I knew that someone else had been through what I had been through, had felt what I felt - this beautiful, skinny Jewish girl with tattoos, anchor pendants and a giant beehive. She brought passion, power and honesty to every note she sang, whether a heartbreaking love song or a cheeky, funny track like Addicted, about smoking pot - It's got me addicted/Does more than any dick did - or Amy Amy Amy, which laments her 'weakness for the other sex'.
Am I suprised at Amy's death? If I am truly honest, not really. When I read the news on Twitter this afternoon, and saw some of my friends posting that they hoped it was a hoax or a nasty rumour, I experienced a sinking feeling of inevitability, an instant gut reaction that told me it was probably true. Like many fans, over the past few years I have watched her decline - punctuated by brief flashes of hope when she was photographed looking a bit healthier - with the sad suspicion that the best case scenario was that she would simply never record any more music. I always hoped I would see her perform live again, but in the end I really just prayed that she would overcome her demons and be happy and healthy. Rather that and her never sing another note than watch her slowly destroy herself in front of cameras and audiences. Sadly, she never did overcome those demons and her tragic, too-early death has truly shocked and saddened me. My thoughts are with her family, friends and all the fans who have shed tears for her today.
Here are some of my favourites of Amy's performances. This is how I will remember her.
This is a studio session recording of Love Is a Losing Game. I have always found this video absolutely heartbreaking; she almost breaks down in tears partway through the song. For me, this video truly encapsulates how much passion and candour she put into her music; how real her performances were.
Filmed in 2004, this AOL session recording of You Sent Me Flying is a painful reminder of the raw power of her early talent. (Unfortunately the video and audio are out of sync, but this was the only one I could find.)
Fuck Me Pumps live at Glastonbury 2007. This is by far my favourite performance/version of this song. The way she sings You did too much E/Met somebody/And spent the night getting caned (3:12-3:18) is unbelievable.
Valerie live with Mark Ronson at the Brit Awards 2008. While not one of her best performances vocally (though I still think it's fantastic anyway), I will never forget the moment when the opening chords of Valerie played and she strutted onto the stage. Completely unprepared for the sight of her, I literally stood up and screamed at the TV. It was the first (and only) time anything about the Brit Awards had excited or inspired me since I was a 12-year-old Spice Girls fan.
Another beautiful performance of Love Is a Losing Game, this one from the Mercury Music Prize ceremony in 2007. Something I always loved about her was that each and every performance was different - she never sang the same song in the same way twice.
Two of my favourites of her lesser-known songs - Best Friends, the B-side from the double-A-side single release of In My Bed/You Sent Me Flying, and a cover of the Gershwin classic Someone To Watch Over Me, a demo included on the repackaged Deluxe edition of Frank.
I know, I know, I know: this is not new news and everyone has already seen it, but I just couldn't help myself. The video for Lana Del Rey's 'National Anthem' is the best music video I've seen in ages and I'm hugely enamoured with it. (In fact, this is the first time I've actually wanted to download and repeatedly watch a music video since I first got an iPod that supported video and wanted to put the Spice Girls' 'Say You'll Be There' on it.) I just absolutely love everything about the aesthetic of it, and I don't even care if it looks like it's been shot in Instagram-cliché-vision. The chemistry between Lana and A$AP Rocky is amazing, and obviously her hair is pretty magnificent too.
36.The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas - 7/10 (full review). I was really surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this mystery/thriller/romance. A bit ridiculous, but exciting, juicy and completely gripping. Recommended as a holiday read! 37.Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster - 4/10 (full review). This is supposedly a dark mystery about the disappearance of the protagonist's husband in a remote, unfriendly village. In reality, it's more like chick lit with the mystery attached as an afterthought, and it's also quite poorly written. 38.Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill - 6/10 (full review). An entertaining, if a bit over-the-top, ghost story about an ageing rock star who buys a haunted suit online. I prefer more subtle horror, but this was good fun for the most part. 39.Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore - 8/10. A poignant, funny and beautifully written coming-of-age story, with an adult narrator reflecting on the friendship that defined her teens. Wonderfully evocative - this has made me keen to read more by the author. 40.John Dies at the End by David Wong - 3/10. A hard-to-describe fantasy adventure which started off with a lot of promise but, unfortunately, degenerated into a series of overlong and near-incomprehensible fight scenes. Messy and disappointing. 41.The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - 7/10 (full review). The third in the author's quartet of gothic, magical mysteries set in Barcelona, following characters from both of the previous books. I enjoyed this, but wouldn't recommend it unless you've already read the others in the series, and I'd also have preferred it to be longer and more detailed. 42.The Earthquake Bird by Susanna Jones - 8/10 (full review). Set in Japan, this follows a devious and untrustworthy (but fascinating) narrator who may or may not have murdered her 'best friend'. Nothing is as it seems in this story, which really grabbed my attention and created a palpable, unsettling atmosphere. 43.When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones - 10/10 (full review). Another unreliable-narrator story from the same author as the above - but this is a historical tale about a group of female students with ambitions to become Antarctic explorers. Beautifully put together, complex, atmospheric and consistently intriguing - I loved it.
All together now: 'this month's reading was a bit of a mixed bag'... as always! By far my favourite book of June's selection was When Nights Were Cold. Susanna Jones was a great discovery - I also really enjoyed The Earthquake Bird and am planning to get my hands on the author's other novels as soon as possible. If you're looking for something engrossing but not too taxing, I'd thoroughly recommend The Secrets Between Us, which was a great 'guilty pleasure' type of read.
There's a few new releases I'm looking forward to this month. I've already bought Fate, the sophomore novel by L.R. Fredericks, author of Farundell - a book I liked but felt was ruined by an obnoxious central character and badly misjudged 'romance' (review here). I'm hoping the follow-up will retain all the good parts of the author's debut but dispense with the things that put me off. I was very excited to discover a few days ago that a new G.W. Dahlquist novel, The Chemickal Marriage, has just been published. This is the final part of the trilogy that began with The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, which I loved, so I'll definitely be buying it at some point - although I do think £12 for the Kindle edition is a bit excessive! I'm also intrigued by Cathi Unsworth's Weirdo, which is published in a week or so - I haven't really been interested in the author's previous work, but I've read some really good reviews of this one which have piqued my interest. Finally, the new Ned Beauman book, The Teleportation Accident, is due out the day after my birthday. EXCITED SCREAM.
As the Second World War approaches, Grace Farringdon, a lonely and reclusive woman, is sheltering from the world in what was once her family home in Dulwich - now inhabited by Grace and a pair of eccentric lodgers. Estranged from her sister and seemingly without friends, she is haunted by memories of the past, and we soon discover she is a figure of such notoriety that a journalist may be trying to break into her house. She also reveals that she is the only survivor of 'the Society', following what seems to have been an expedition that went horribly wrong. Over the course of the night, she looks back on her memories of the events that led up to this incident, which form the bulk of the book's thoroughly engrossing narrative.
Grace's memories take us back to the days of her youth, when she longed for escape. Obsessed with explorers such as Scott and Shackleton, the celebrities of their day, she dreams of adventure but is constantly stifled by her overbearing father and subservient mother, who believe that women should be confined to the home. Adding to her anguish is the fate of her sister Catherine - a talented musician who is denied entry to college by her parents, and later seems to have spiralled into a form of madness. Determined that the same will not happen to her, Grace secures the funds needed to attend a women's college, where she sets up an Antarctic Exploration Society. At first, Grace and the other members - Leonora Locke, Cicely Parr and Winifred Hooper - simply plan to study the progress of famous explorers, but they quickly develop more ambitious plans.
Every nuance of emotion in this story is so wonderfully - and, sometimes, painfully - evoked. I felt that I was living Grace's experiences: her intense frustration at being trapped by her family; her intellectual and social awakening upon her entry to college; her desperate hope and subsequent heartbreak when a love affair turns sour; the anguish of friendships lost. The characters are also beautifully portrayed. The four girls make an unlikely set of friends - Grace is uncertain of her own identity, Locke is vibrant and overdramatic, Parr bossy and aloof, and Hooper far more reserved than the others. Additionally, Parr, unlike the other members of the Society, is staunchly opposed to women's suffrage, despite being by far the most independent and strong-willed of the group. This makes for a fascinating clash of personalities and beliefs which, while not always explicitly stated, is constantly present as an undercurrent in everything the group does.
I recently read the author's debut, The Earthquake Bird, which boasted a brilliantly twisted unreliable narrator, and I was hoping for more of the same from When Nights Were Cold. I wasn't disappointed: Grace is, indeed, a near-perfect example of the unreliable narrator, attempting to gain the reader's trust in her version of events but unwittingly allowing disconcerting glimpses of the truth. The plot twists and turns in unexpected directions (the nature of the Society's demise is not at all what you may assume at the beginning) and the story is consistently gripping, with diversions and surprises I didn't see coming.
I've read another review of this book which argued the case that it could have been deeper and richer, and I do actually agree with that. I would love to have seen more of the interaction between the four friends, and a more detailed exploration of their lives both at college and afterwards. I would have been happy to have read twice or three times as much about Grace and her fellow explorers. However, the story certainly didn't feel like it was lacking in any essential detail - indeed, the author's deft handling of such complex issues and characters within a relatively short book was one of the best things about it.
When Nights Were Cold is a more sophisticated and accomplished version of the type of tale told in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat - it combines a historical setting with the intrigue of a psychological thriller, and features a 'lone survivor' protagonist whose account cannot necessarily be trusted. I would also compare it to Jane Harris's Gillespie and I, another favourite of mine, and there are certain similarities with Sarah Waters' work, not least the tremendous sense of atmosphere and the author's skill at making you sympathise with a potentially deceitful character. I loved this book, to the point that I would recommend it to almost everyone: fans of historical fiction, unreliable narrators and/or slow-burning mysteries will find much to enjoy here.
I'm planning to make some changes to this blog and I want to start posting more often/about different things, but in the meantime, I thought I'd keep up the tradition of posting some stuff I've bought lately. What I'd really like is to raid the Zara sale and buy just about everything, but with no funds available for that sort of thing, I've been relying on my old favourites eBay and Primark along with some random sale finds.
Warning: contains dodgy quality phone photographs. (For all you ex-denizens of thehighstreet, this post may invoke some nostalgia...)
Skinny rings - something I'd been lusting after for ages. This set has three of each in three colours: silver, yellow gold and rose gold. I won them for $6.50 (just over £4) from a US seller on eBay.
Nightwear-esque, lace-trimmed shorts from Primark ~Limited Edition~, £1.04 + p&p from eBay! I bought these a couple of sizes larger than I would normally wear, with the intention of teaming them with a slouchy top and ankle boots. (It's probably never going to be warm enough to wear them, though, considering the 'summer' we're having...)