Sunday, 9 April 2017

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Just a quick reminder (in case anyone is still checking this blog) that Learn This Phrase is now a newsletter. Sign up below and you'll get today's newsletter – it includes all the books I loved in February and March, a review copy round-up and plenty of links.

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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Goodbye, Learn This Phrase

After five years, I've decided to stop updating this blog.

I've always loved writing on the internet. I've been doing it for half my life, it's helped shape my career, and I'm probably going to be doing it for the rest of my life. But, as everyone knows, traditional blogs are a dying medium. Despite how long Learn This Phrase has been around, and my efforts to update it regularly, it's getting fewer visits than ever. My analytics tell a depressing story of gradual decline (with the odd spike when a publisher or someone Twitter-famous has tweeted one of my posts). It's getting harder logistically too; this year, even finding somewhere to host photos has become difficult. Aside from all that, I'm busier than I used to be and have less time to assemble posts. Altogether, it's become a combination of chore and habit rather than something that's truly fun to do anymore.

So I'm saying goodbye to this blog (the existing posts will stay here), but I'll still be writing about books all over the internet. If you'd like to keep reading, here are some options:
A big thank you to everyone who DID keep reading this thing for so long. I hope you'll stick with me in one way or another.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo BuchananHarmless Like You (11 August 2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

In 60s/70s Manhattan, Yukiko Oyama is a lonely girl, caught between two cultures; she feels ugly, and her peers either bully or ignore her. Opting to stay in New York rather than move back to Japan with her parents, she falls into an unequal friendship, then an abusive relationship – then marriage to a man who loves her, about whom she is ambivalent. All the while she strives and struggles to realise her ambition as an artist, something she feels destined to do but can find no obvious way to achieve. In the second strand of the story, set in present-day Berlin, Yukiko's estranged son Jay is forced to visit her after the death of his father.

The story is told backwards. We know at the beginning that Yukiko has become an artist, though we don't know when, or how, or exactly what she's achieved. We also know she abandoned Jay when he was very young. As Yukiko's story progresses through her life from childhood to motherhood, we come to understand how she reached this point, and how her actions have shaped Jay.

Harmless Like You might easily be dismissed as middle-of-the-road literary fiction, and in having a creative type as its protagonist, it's certainly no different from many first novels. But I can't remember ever having read a book of this sort with a protagonist quite like Yukiko: someone who has a consuming creative impulse, not just a desire to create art but a feeling that she must, that it's who she is at her essence, but experiences a lifelong struggle with expressing/channeling it, and lacks any immediately recognisable talent. Yukiko does achieve a modicum of success, but it doesn't make her famous or wealthy or influential, and her route to that success is a slow, hard slog, punctuated by long dormant periods and failures. In general, she is a rich and nuanced character who I felt fiercely attached to from the start. Her cultural displacement, her destructive streak of self-hatred, her furious, thwarted ambition – all are powerfully portrayed.

With Yukiko so vivid and lifelike, perhaps it's unsurprising that Jay is a little more... wobbly. He's a self-described 'asshole' who says unpleasant things about women's bodies pretty often, and at times it does feel like the author is laying the Horrible Sexist Man shtick on a little too thick (while also wanting the reader to like him, as demonstrated by the fact that the other major aspect of his character is how much he adores his cat – the lovely Celeste, an important character in her own right). He's still interesting, there's just a self-consciousness in the way he's written that isn't there with Yukiko at all.

Despite a bit of unevenness, I really enjoyed Harmless Like You. It's emotive, sometimes moving, but doesn't provide any proper answers for what ails its characters. Small connections are made, people promise to be better, but none of that secures a happy ending for anyone in this (really rather bleak) story. As such, it achieves a clever balance: there's a degree of harsh realism, but as a whole, the book remains quite gentle and enjoyable to read.

I received an advance review copy of Harmless Like You from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Review: Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Dodge and Burn by Seraphina MadsenDodge and Burn (28 July 2016) by Seraphina Madsen

Heiress Eugenie Lund is missing. This we know from the newspaper article that opens Dodge and Burn, reporting that a manuscript, ostensibly Eugenie's work, has been found in a Spanish cave. The ensuing extract reveals the fate of Eugenie and her sister Camille: after their mother's death in a freak accident (involving killer bees), they were adopted/kidnapped by the sadistic Dr Vargas, who 'educated' them – in his own arcane manner – and experimented on them. But the meat of the story takes place some years after the sisters' escape from Vargas, with Eugenie recently married to a Frenchman named Benoît who has preternatural fighting skills.

The tone for Eugenie's quest to be reunited with Camille is set when she pauses, briefly, to sum up her (their?) predicament thus: 'Who would have guessed that all of this tragedy would befall us, that we would lose one another and I would journey so far and wide and come to this spot, newly married, running from casino mafia and the law?' At first, I found this bad and stagy, but I later came to see this voice as part of the book's charm. Eugenie and Benoît's flight becomes an acid-soaked misadventure across several states, with competing aims: on the one hand, to lie low; on the other, to find Camille and ultimately kill Vargas. Eugenie shifts in and out of consciousness and, accordingly, in and out of different realities, seeing visions and finding clues. She has spiritual and psychic connections with Camille and believes these can help them reunite, but when she's constantly tripping, can anything she says be trusted?

The story bursts with colour and energy. Characters are geniuses or outrageous eccentrics, all of them larger than life. Every page – every sentence, even – fizzes with vivid descriptions, unusual word choices, rapid-fire exposition and movie-worthy dialogue. The plot takes 'far-fetched' to new heights and the narrative barely pauses for breath in 240 pages. If Dodge and Burn was food, it would be one of those rainbow piñata cakes, but with pills and tabs of acid in the middle instead of sweets.

It's exciting and great fun, but it can also be absolutely exhausting. It's best read in quick bursts. At points, Madsen's writing feels like it's been over-revised into artificial stiffness and needs to be a little looser; at others like it could do with more editing (I can't believe someone with Eugenie's intellect would get 'lay' and 'lie' mixed up, and I cringed hard every time I encountered 'off of', probably my least favourite pairing of words in the English language). And of course there's Eugenie and Benoît. Picture Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, but with higher IQs; they're constantly pawing at each other and using annoying pet names; I have to admit I would've liked the book better without all their mutual simpering.

So it's not perfect. But it is delightfully different, and it's impossible not to get caught up in its vibrancy and enthusiasm. Though Dodge and Burn has flaws, it's difficult to dwell on any one of them for long, as another outlandish twist is sure to come along and sweep you up in its madness. It also ends on something of a cliffhanger, with one potential explanation for Eugenie's narrative dismissed before it can be properly explored. Some may find this terribly frustrating, but I thought it was a clever move that suited the flighty nature of the story and its narrator.

This is the first book from independent publisher Dodo Ink, and its sparky originality bodes well for what's next.

NB: I backed Dodo Ink's Kickstarter campaign, but the book I chose as my reward was the forthcoming The Eleventh Letter by Tom Tomazewski; I bought my copy of Dodge and Burn.

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Reading round-up: July

July 2016 books

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerFull review / Buy
Ah, Look At Me. This book was the high point of July's reading and may well prove to be the high point of the year. Frances, a would-be writer who has recently suffered the death of her mother, is trying desperately to stave off loneliness when she meets a glamorous couple: Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix. They 'adopt' Frances, drawing her into their social circle, but the reader can see what Frances shuts out: that the Frasers treat her as a kind of vaguely amusing and slightly pathetic pet. Nevertheless, it is through this relationship that that Frances meets Nick's colleague James, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility... You might be able to guess where this is going, but it doesn't matter, because Frances is a masterpiece of a character: Brookner makes her deeply, painfully moving but infuriating at the same time. I could quote something from just about every page. Look At Me is a devastating character study with so much to say about the human condition. It is absolutely brilliant.

Death and the Seaside by Alison MooreBuy
Bonnie Falls feels stuck: she's almost 30, lives with her parents, hasn't got anywhere with her writing and can't seem to pin down a full-time job. She's also got a rather unfortunate surname, since she's dogged by a fear of – and obsession with – falling or jumping from a great height. When Bonnie decides to move out, she's befriended by her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, who takes an overbearing interest in the outcome of her latest short story. Fiction and reality intermingle as Bonnie's fate seems to be caught up with that of her heroine, Susan. Moore weaves a particular kind of magic from everyday details, and her way of making the banal thrilling reminded me of Alice Furse's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, albeit with a rather macabre slant. Death and the Seaside is a story of manipulation and imagination, peppered with literary references, as much about the creative process as it is about the characters. The blend of genres and influences makes it feel, as many great novels do, quite unlike anything else I've read.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn GreenwoodFull review / Pre-order
When Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer, meets Jesse Joe Kellen, a motorbike-riding loner and ex-con, she is eight and he is 20. They 'fall in love' while Wavy is still a child, and although the story spans 12 years, this is an undeniably troubling and uncomfortable tale. Unlike many early readers, I did know (roughly) what All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was going to be about before I started it. I think fiction should tackle difficult topics, and many of my favourite books have disturbing subject matter. Even so, this was too disturbing for me; not necessarily because of the plot itself, but because of the way the reader's response is blatantly manipulated in one direction, with the use of supposedly divergent narrative voices acting as little more than a smokescreen. That's not to say it is without merit: Greenwood writes beautifully and the story does, whatever you make of it, elicit a strong response.

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson, translated by Neil SmithFull review / Buy
The Invoice is narrated by a nameless character who receives a mysterious invoice for a huge amount of money. At first convinced it's a mistake, he's slowly made aware that he's missed a large-scale campaign in which Swedish citizens are being invoiced for all the happiness they've experienced throughout their lives. Numerous officials assure him the sum is correct – but how can a man with such an ordinary, uneventful existence owe more than anyone else? The story is part answer to that question and part romantic comedy, as the narrator develops a crush on the helpline operator who's supposed to advise him on the invoice. It's gentle, sweet and life-affirming.

Hold by Kirsten Tranter
Tranter combines the relatable drama of existential/relationship angst with a deft touch of the supernatural in her slim third novel. When Shelley moves in with her partner, David, she finds a small, hidden room that isn't on the house plans and doesn't seem to be accessible to anyone else. She's instantly protective, and the room becomes an outlet for her anxieties and a place to realise her fantasies. There's a shimmering quality to Hold, in which nothing ever quite feels solid, and the obvious question – is the room a product of Shelley's imagination? – is left open. It's as calm and comforting as a maybe-ghost-story can possibly be. It's also so similar to Michelle de Kretser's Springtime – the tone, atmosphere, characters, even the plot – that I couldn't help but see the two books as companions to one another, taking place in the same liminal world.

Our Young Man by Edmund WhiteBuy
A weird yet thoroughly enjoyable book spanning the lengthy career of an apparently ageless male model. Born into a poor family in rural France, Guy finds his looks are his ticket to a luxurious lifestyle, and eventually, he makes it big in the USA. His inability to physically age (which is never defined as anything other than luck, but is bizarre enough that some sort of magic is at least implied) means he enjoys unusually prolonged success, but will he ever be happy? Guy is so cold and robotic that it's difficult to say. Somehow, that makes him compelling rather than offputting. I know this is a contradiction in terms, but if I had to sum Our Young Man up in two words, I'd call it a sombre romp.

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