It’s Shiny linkiness time …

I haven’t told you about all the reviews I wrote for the latest edition of Shiny New Books yet… If you’ve not visited yet, there are around 80 new pages of reviews and articles and our editors’ picks competition on the front page as usual.

Back to me!  This time we’re concentrating on fiction reviews:

A Price to Pay by Alex Capus

a-price-to-pay1-190x300

Capus is a Swiss-French author writing in German. This novel, translated by John Brownjohn, opens in November 1924 at Zurich railway station with three people passing through it at the same time but they never meet. We follow these three through their lives into WWII, in which each will have a part to play and pay the price. Based on real lives, they will become the forger, the spy and the bombmaker. The book relates its history calmly and thoughtfully, giving us the space to appreciate the characters’ fates – and leaves us wondering what would have happened if these three people had actually met?

Read my review here.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

hornby funny girl

You’ll probably know that I’m a big Hornby fan (see here and here for previous reviews).

Funny Girl is set during the golden age of the 1960s for TV comedy and concerns a northern lass who was nearly Miss Blackpool, but escapes to London to become a star in a TV comedy that follows the trials in the lives of a young couple.

The show itself is really the star of this book, and we get an inside view on it – from concept to finished article, and all the lives of those concerned in between. Hornby could have chosen an edgy show to feature, instead he went the cosy route. We have a charming heroine and everyone behaves as expected. To be honest, it’s not Hornby’s best, but it was still very enjoyable, nostalgic fun.

Read my review here.

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

ghosts-of-heavenIf I’m a big Hornby fan, I’m an even bigger fan of Marcus Sedgwick, one of the best authors of teen fiction that really does cross over to make satisfying adult reads. (see here, here and here for previous reviews).

His latest novel is a cycle of four novellas – each having a focus on spiral patterns. In the order published they move through from stone age to middle ages, to Victorian and then the future – but he says you can pick your order to read them in. I preferred the gradual reveal of the interlinking between them so stuck to the natural order, and it wasn’t until the last part that it clicked that the whole novel was a homage to a certain other story – and I loved that!

The hardback is also a lovely thing, with gold foiled covers and turquoise page edges – but in side is a fine novel too. I loved it.

Read my review here.

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Sources: Top two – publishers – thank you. Bottom – my own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Orion books, 2014, hardback 448 pages, paperback coming March 5.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby, Viking, 2014, 352 pages.
A Price to Pay by Alex Capus, Haus Publishing, 2014, Hardback, 240 pages.

 

Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

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Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

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Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

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I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

armchair nation
Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

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where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

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So that’s my week – how has yours been?

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To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

Life with the Hawkings

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking

Travelling to InfinityI already posted about the wonderful film The Theory of Everything about the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking here. At that time I wasn’t far into the book, Jane Hawking’s memoir, which the film was based upon. It took me some time to finish the book, read between other fiction novels over a fortnight or so, for it is a bit of a chunkster at 490 densely packed pages.

Jane Hawking first published her memoir in 1999 and the story ended in 1990 after the separation between her and Stephen was made official – this happened after the ending of the film which (started and) finished with Stephen being made a Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1989. In this new abridged version, a postscript brings us up to date.

It takes a special kind of strong woman to fall in love with a man who has been given just two years to live, but that’s what happened to Jane Hawking. Stephen was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease before they married – there is no cure, but amazingly Stephen is still living over fifty years later – a medical phenomenon, even amongst those who contract the rarer, more creeping form of the disease. They didn’t know that would happen then though, and were determined to live life to the full.

Jane looks after Stephen through thick and thin, through the vagaries of university life going from one post to another, relocations around Cambridge, and always the gradual decline of Stephen’s mobility. A fiercely proud man, he totally relied on Jane, and to a lesser extent his research students, to help him get about between home and college. At first Jane was managing to keep her own studies in medieval languages up alongside, but once they had a baby it started to get really difficult. Stephen was very reluctant to start using a wheelchair – but the day came, as did two more children. Stephen’s condition goes up and down – he is prone to frequent choking fits. Gradually the decline results in him needing a tracheostomy to breathe and not choke and in time Stephen meets the computer generated voice that has spoken for him ever since.

Jane has had many battles throughout, and proved to be a tough cookie. She was never really accepted by Stephen’s own family though. Atheists through and through, they could never understand her own needs as a practising Christian. This competition between God and science is one theme that runs through her memoir.

During the middle decades of their marriage, with Stephen on the conference circuit earning his keep at the college, and the demands of motherhood and running the household, it’s not wonder that she was exhausted. Her sense of frustration comes off the page, yet she never says she regrets putting her own life on the back-burner for Stephen. This middle part of the book is undeniably less exciting than the beginning or the end, and the endless detail over every conference and each little obstacle for Jane and Stephen does wear a little thin here.

Relief comes in Jane meeting Jonathan – the local choirmaster who begins to give their son Robert piano lessons, and soon becomes indispensable. Jonathan will eventually become Jane’s second husband, but there is much heartache to come before their developing relationship can be acknowledged. Indeed by the time it was obvious that Stephen now needed wrap-round nursing care, Jonathan had had to go.

It was the arrival of the nursing team that opened the rift between Jane and Stephen. Freed from looking after him round the clock, Jane is momentarily at a loss – and eventually one nurse in particular, Elaine, will edge her out of their marriage for good. It is enough to say that Stephen’s short marriage to his nurse didn’t work out either, there is a sense of schadenfreude about that, but due to having three children together, the Hawkings became friends again.

This is primarily a memoir about a remarkable family and Jane doesn’t let the fact that Stephen is arguably the greatest living scientist get in the way of that. He does come across as pig-headed and proud sometimes – but he is also a loving husband and father, one with his head often in the clouds thinking though. I got a distinct sense that he has used his disability to his advantage – freeing his mind to think.

The fullness of this memoir is, in its way, commendable – it really brings home to us how difficult life was living with someone disabled in this way through decades which weren’t sensitive to such needs. Whether such quantity was needed, I’m not so sure, but Jane Hawking has written a fascinating memoir, and shows us how much she cares for her former husband on (nearly) every page. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

 

 

Quick Reads – ideal for the train!

I’ve been terribly naughty and snuck in two novellas that got sent to me a couple of weeks ago, so not from my TBR piles.  But the TBR dare is a do it your own way challenge, and it’ll be back to books I already owned by the end of 2014 from hereon in – promise!

Galaxy Quick Reads is an expanding series of novellas written by best-selling authors and only cost a quid each. They are designed to encourage reluctant readers and so are all easy to read in terms of vocabulary and font-size but, that doesn’t mean that the stories suffer – they will engage any reader. For more information about the Quick Reads charity visit www.quickreads.org.uk.

Six new titles are being added to their list today:

  • Roddy Doyle – Dead Man Talking
  • Jojo Moyes – Paris for One
  • Sophie Hannah – Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen
  • Fanny Blake – Red for Revenge
  • Adèle Geras – Out of the Dark
  • James Bowen – Street Cat Bob

I got sent a couple (along with a welcome bar of chocolate) to try out:
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I read these on the train last week – one on the way down to London, one on the way home and they fitted perfectly into that 50 minute slot.

Sophie Hannah’s novella Pictures or it Didn’t Happen tells the story of Chloe who is rescued by a complete stranger on a bike when she realises she’s left her daughter’s audition music in the car and they won’t have time to go back and get it. Tom Rigbey cycles into her life and seems to good to be true, but she still falls for him and they have a whirlwind romance – yet is he to be trusted? You expect complex plots and lots of drama from Sophie’s, and we get a good degree of drama built into the 123 pages with a neat twist.

Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle has a great pun in its title, and is the story of Pat and Joe, friends from childhood and now middle aged. However, they haven’t spoken for several years after they had a fight. Now Joe is dead. Pat and his wife go the wake held on the eve of the funeral and Joe, in his coffin in the front room, talks to Pat… Funny and a bit creepy, this novella was great fun.

So my first experiences with Good Reads were both good ones.

From Val McDermid and Ian Rankin to Jojo Moyes and Maeve Binchy, the list of Quick Reads has something for everyone including some non-fiction from John Simpson for example. I won’t hesitate to pick up other titles that interest me if I see them – at £1, they’re a bargain.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Pictures or it Didn’t Happen (Quick Reads 2015)by Sophie Hannah
Dead Man Talking (Quick Reads)by Roddy Doyle

A brief blog post about time

Just a quick blog post today to say that yesterday I went to see the film The Theory of Everything – the story of Jane and Stephen Hawking.

IT WAS BLOODY BRILLIANT!

Its two young stars – Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were exceptionally good.

Theory-of-Everything_612x381Redmayne’s transformation as Hawking’s disease took hold was masterly, but Jones’ steely determination to make the best of their lives together, then later frustrations shone out of the screen too. Both have been nominated for Oscars – my fingers are crossed.

The film was well structured and beautifully shot with a great supporting cast including David Thewlis and Emily Watson amongst a group of other younger actors I am less familiar with.

I took my 14yr old daughter and she was transfixed throughout the whole film too. My eyes did brim with tears at several moments, but did manage to hold them in.

GO AND SEE IT IF YOU CAN!

Travelling to InfinityIt so happens, and not coincidentally, that I’m about quarter of the way through reading the new edition of Jane Hawking’s book Travelling to Infinity, which the film is based on.

Jane’s book is quite a chunkster at just under 500 pages, and carries on beyond the film, which stops in 1987 when Stephen was made a Companion of Honour. Originally published in 2007, this new edition published to tie in with the film has been abridged and added to.

I’m enjoying it so far, and can recognise many of the stories within from the film, which although having to compress things seems true to Jane’s life story. I hope the book continues to hold up.

Have you read the book or seen the film?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind the Theory of Everything by Jane Hawking. Abridged edition pub Dec 2014 by Alma Books, paperback 490 pages.

Some great ‘new to me’ author finds of 2014…

This year I added a column to my master spreadsheet that I religiously maintain (more on that tomorrow!). The new column is for ‘new to me’ authors, and I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you; the links will go to my reviews. And top of the list is:

Pascal Garnier

pascal garnierSadly, Garnier is no longer with us; he died in 2010. However, thanks to Gallic Books’s series of translations into English, the Frenchman’s books have found a new and appreciative audience. He wrote about fifteen novels, of which six are now available, plus many other works many of which were stories for children.

Garnier’s novels are pure noir often set in the French suburbs and hinterlands of the big cities, featuring people who are at the end of their tether, leading them to commit extraordinary – and often murderous – acts.

islandersI’ve read two of them so far.  The A26 (translated by Melanie Florence), and The Islanders (translated by Emily Boyce). The A26 features a brother and sister who were dying of cancer and an agoraphobic hoarder respectively, living and working alongside a new stretch of road being built. The Islanders features the rekindling of a dangerous romance from his teens when a man returns home to bury his mother at Christmas. They’re intense, claustrophobic, and very funny in that laughing while gasping behind your hands kind of way!

Antal Szerb

antalszerb I read just a single novel by Szerb –  The Pendragon Legend (translated by Len Rix), which was tremendous fun and a philosophic adventure to boot involving stolen manuscripts, ancient rituals, murder and mayhem all at breakneck speed.

P1010976Although his other novels are altogether more serious and less comedic, I know I will adore them, but I was absolutely delighted to discover that Szerb wasn’t the stuffy, serious European author I’d thought he might turn out to be.

I Also Discovered the Joys of Reading…

at freddiesrainOlder or reprinted novels by Penelope Fitzgerald, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Robert Aickman and Sylvia Plath. Some notable debuts too in Virginia Bergin’s dystopian YA novel The Rain and Jasper Gibson’s hilarious yet nasty A Bright Moon for Fools.

But I shall finish with one more, very much alive, British, new to me author …

Mick Herron

mick herronAnyone who is a regular here will know that I am a huge fan of spy stories, generally preferring them over crime novels any day. Thus it was a pleasure to discover Geordie, Mick Herron via his book Slow Horses.

In this novel, a bunch of has-been and disgraced MI5 spies, known as the ‘Slow Horses’ and  shunted into a backwater office to do paperwork, get involved in an international kidnapping plot.

slowhorses200The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

There is a sequel – Dead Lions, which I’m looking forward to reading, and I gather a third is on the way for 2016, Yippee!

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Which authors did you discover in 2014?

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part One – the Shiny Edit…

hollyThis year for the first time, I’ve split my best of list in two. Having read around 130 books this year, there are too many to feature in just one post and there is an obvious split – today’s first part will feature those books that I’ve reviewed over at Shiny New Books

Forgive me for continually banging the drum, but I’m inordinately proud of Shiny and I am immensely grateful to all the lovely bloggers, friends, authors, translators, publishers who have written reviews and features for us. Special thanks to my three co-editors: Victoria, Simon and Harriet.

Tomorrow’s list will feature my favourite books this year reviewed on this blog, which includes many titles not published this year. 

But first over to the Shiny Edit! The links will take you over to my full reviews:

Best (Auto)biography

bedsit disco queen

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star by Tracey Thorn.

Tracey writes beautifully about life, love and the music business but does it quietly with warmth, wit and wonder at the good luck she’s had along the way. I loved this book so much, that sharing a maiden surname, I wish I was related to her!

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Best YA Read for Adults Too

picture me gonePicture me Gone by Meg Rosoff

This novel about a girl and her father who go on holiday to visit his best friend only to find him missing is an understated novel, with a teenager as its reliable narrator who discovers that it’s the adults who are unreliable. Gently told, there are no big shocks but it reveals a lot about how we learn to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

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Best Coming of Age

american sycamoreAmerican Sycamore by Karen Fielding.

A tale of siblings growing up by the banks of the Suequehanna river in north-eastern USA. Billy Sycamore’s life may start off as a modern day Huck Finn but something terrible happens that affects his whole life and family. Narrated by his young sister, it is both funny and sad, and has some transcendant turns of phrase.  Loved it.

She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

Best Woods

into the treesInto the Trees by Robert Williams

Forests play a huge part in mythology, yet can a modern family find their own enchanted life living in one?  The very first paragraph of this novel tells us that the forest may be a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. This is a powerful drama of families, finding a life-work balance, true friendship … and trees.

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Best Totally Un-PC Book

BonfiglioliDon’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli

Imagine a 1970s Jeeves and Wooster crossed with James Bond, an upped double-entendres quotient and totally un-PC and you’ve got the Charlie Mortdecai books, of which this is the first. Written in the late 1970s, these capers narrated by the art-dealing aristo are great fun.

 

A Quick Mention for These Two

Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

The former a drama about child abduction and growing up on Anglesey in Wales, the latter an eco-thriller set on an island paradise that is ‘full of win’. Totally different, but both fab.

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… And Finally, My ‘Shiny’ Book of the Year

StationelevenUKHCStation Eleven
by Emily St.John Mandel.

I loved this elegant dystopian novel that takes place in the aftermath of a flu pandemic and following the links from former lives that persist between some of its survivors.

Awful things happen, yet seen through the journey of the Travelling Symphony – a collective of musicians and actors who struggle to keep the canon alive – there is positivity instead of despair for the fate of mankind.

Speculative fiction is possibly my favourite sub-genre of reading and this book is superb.

Read my review at SNBks.

 

 

 

The boy, the stolen painting and the Russian…

Just occasionally, I believe I can read minds – well in a Derren Brownish way – you see by my title of this post, I hope to have manipulated you into thinking you were getting a(nother) post on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; some of you will be thinking but Annabel’s already reviewed that, hasn’t she? They would be correct – see here.

Yes you would be right too – partially – for this post will concern The Goldfinch – but only in passing…  for on my shelves the other day I found a book which I had bought years ago, and its subject matter does concern a painting which gets stolen, and a Russian who is initially very much in the Boris mould. This book though was published in 2006, thus it predates The Goldfinch by years. Let me tell  you a bit about it…

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

world to come

The story starts with Benjamin Ziskind, recently divorced. His parents are dead, but he’s still very close to his twin sister Sara who persuaded him to go to a singles cocktails event at the Jewish Museum in New York where there was an exhibition of paintings and drawings from ‘Marc Chagall’s Russian Years’. He was about to leave when he saw a painting and it stopped him in his tracks:

It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walking – unaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for “Over Vitebsk.” This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting’s name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents’ house.

Ben steals the painting. The story of whether he’ll get away with the theft or not forms half of the rest of the story, the other tells how the painting came into the family and what happened to it and them through the generations.

In the second chapter, we meet Boris Kulbak, an orphan in the Jewish Boy’s Colony in Malakhovka just outside Moscow. These orphans are lucky – they have school lessons, and the new art teacher takes a shine to Boris’s painting of a cave-like womb lined with bookcases and stalactites, and in it a fat, pink baby. The teacher offers to trade him one of his own paintings for Boris’s one – and this is how Boris (whose real name was Benjamin), met Marc Chagall, and Chagall’s friend, the author Der Nister (‘The Hidden One’). All are Jewish, but call each other Comrade. Boris/Ben chooses the tiny painting above in trade. All three will eventually escape from Russia making a life for themselves elsewhere, Chagall in Paris, Der Nister in Berlin – but as a Jew, he will struggle to get his stories published.

So back to Ben – who meets his own ‘Boris’ type – Leonid from Chernobyl – in High School. After a rough start, the two become friends and Leonid will marry Sara. The story continues to flit back and forth between the ages, and somewhere amongst all this we meet the other really important character – Rosalie, Ben’s mother – who becomes a famous author of philosophical fables based on Yiddish folktales. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Erica at the museum is onto Ben…

The story was inspired by the real-life theft of said Chagall painting (it was later recovered). Chagall did teach for a time at the orphanage too along with various poets and Yiddish writers, so Horn had a rich vein of historical fact to base this novel upon.

The straight-forward mystery part of this story works really well. She (yes, this Dara is a woman) weaves in and out of the time-line and we begin to see how the past fits into the present and how everything links together. So far, so ‘Goldfinch’ and I really enjoyed it.

Where it didn’t work well for me though were the parts where it went all mystical and dived deep into Yiddish fables of birth and rebirth – the world to come, what happens to souls when you die and all that. Also some of Der Nister’s and Rosalie’s tales were included and these did nothing for me either I’m afraid. Most of this occurred in the last third of the book, confusing matters quite a lot and not giving me the satisying ending I was craving.

The book had multiple rave reviews when it was first published – it was very different then to the literary mysteries that had come before. Now with post-Goldfinch hindsight, and I apologise to the author for comparing it all the way, despite its faults and length I preferred the straight story-telling of Tartt. The World to Come is not short either at just over 400 pages, and parts of it were brilliant – just not enough for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The World to Come by Dara Horn (2000). Penguin paperback, 416 pages.

A clever parody or a triumph of style over substance?

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

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A couple of weeks ago, I got inordinately excited when this book I’d ordered arrived.

For all its faults, IKEA is the booklover’s friend. Affordable shelving, in practical and/or posher versions, is what the bibliomane needs (I’m speaking as a 10x Billy owner here – I can construct those boys at speed!). I’m an IKEA fan – but only if I pick the right time, i.e. when the least number of people are likely to be there – say opening time on a Tuesday term-time morning. I can happily spend the morning browsing and filling my trolley to the brim with crocks, lamps, picture frames, throws, cushions, wine glasses and all the things those clever marketers put in my way in the circuitous you-must-see-everything route to the checkout.

The front cover of Horrorstör is stunning!  At first you don’t notice the faces in the pictures, or register that the title has the word ‘Horror’ in it – you just giggle at the umlaut and you want to get inside the book and see more of the IKEA parody. Horrorstör, like the giant it is parodying, is a clever piece of design – there are floormaps, furniture descriptions, order forms, and more. Each chapter is named after (complete with umlauts as needed), and preceded by an illustration, of a particular piece of furniture. My favourite was the Hügga office chair – available in Night Leather.

The novel starts well:

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It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming towards the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were the barely living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbours partying until 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges.
But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work.

And that’s just the employees. They work for Orsk – an IKEA-copycat furniture superstore, at the Cuyahoga, Ohio branch. There’s Amy, who’s too clever to be just a floor saleswoman but is stuck in a rut, Basil the deputy manager – a real jobsworth, Ruth-Anne a gentle soul who always thinks well of people, Trinity – a Goth who believes in the supernatural and her boyfriend Matt who doesn’t.

As the story opens, the staff have arrived to find that furniture has been moved and soiled – a Brooka sofa to be exact, not the first item to be vandalised in the past days. Basil, who knows that a management inspection is imminent, persuades (with the lure of double time) Amy and Ruth-Anne to stay in the store with him overnight to seek out the perpetrator and get rid of them – he suspects a tramp has got in somewhere. Trinity and Matt say it’s ghosts – the Orsk site has history apparently. Trinity has visions of moving on from Orsk to hosting her own TV show about haunting, and she and Matt sneak back into the store after work with detectors to look for the spectres.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot, suffice to say that – surprise! It’s not a tramp that’s trashing the store. It all gets nastier and nastier in the early hours of the morning. Will any of them get out alive?

As a ghost story, once we find out about what happened back in history, the plot was entirely predictable. We’ve all read that kind of horror story before, but I did really enjoy it. The author has taken a classic haunted house trope and relocated it in a commercial world where management-speak rules and work is the treadmill you get on every day. That extends to the customers too – as Matt explains: ‘Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience.’

There are some genuinely creepy moments – this will make you shudder with recognition…

She took one last glance around the room and noticed that the sign on the wall had changed. Its message used to be “The hard work makes Orsk your family, and the hard work is free.” But the running water had worn away many of the letters. Now it simply read: “Work makes you free.”

There are other moments that will make you squirm with laughter and disgust – the thought that lazy parents will change an infant’s nappy on a display sofa and stuff it down the back rather than retrace their steps the half-mile to the toilets is the ickiest thing in the whole book! (sad but probably true too…)

So – was this book a clever parody or a triumph of style over substance? My answer is both! Every aspect of the design of this book is well done inside and out – even the sizing – no prizes for guessing whose catalogue it matches. The line drawings, fonts, all the little details are so well done and the design team get their credits on the inside back French flap. The substance of the plot may not be terribly original – a debt to Stephen King is in order, plus a nod to Mark Z Danielewski’s ground-breaking House of Leaves (I must re-read that!), but the sheer comedy in the spoofing of management goobledegook and rigid work practices is spot on and raises the text above an average ghost story.

Hendrix cleverly makes Orsk a cut-price IKEA, putting them on a pedestal in a ‘We’re not worthy’ way. While IKEA can’t officially approve of this book, I bet they love it as much, or even more, than I did. (9/10)

P.S. An ideal Christmas present for Billy bookcase fans…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Horrorstorby Grady Hendrix. Pub October 2014 by Quirk Books. Softback, 256 pages.
House Of Leavesby Mark Z Danielewski