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:
IMG_20150130_154540 (1) (800x586)

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.

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you.

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


Life by the tracks …

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

train dreamsI couldn’t bring myself to spend £12.99 on the hardback of this novella, but now it is out in paperback I snapped it up as I’d heard great things about it – and wilderness novels always seem to appeal to me.

Train Dreams tells the life story of Robert Grainier, who as a child arrives in Idaho on the train in the 1880s to live with his uncle having lost his parents – we never learn how. Robert becomes a hard worker, on the railroads and in the forests in the northern tip of the state close to the Canadian border. He marries relatively late, in his thirties, and after his wife and child are presumed dead in forest fire, lives on his own for the rest of his days into his eighties.

As the novel opens, Grainier is working on a railroad bridge across a gorge, and lends a hand to colleagues who are planning to throw a supposedly thieving Chinaman off the bridge. The Chinaman escaped, but Grainier feels cursed by having taken part in the shameful exploit…

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider…

Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, and how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone head and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.

He feels the Chinaman’s curse is responsible for the presumed death of his wife and daughter when a terrible forest fire burns everything in the whole valley where their homestead was built. He will eventually return there and rebuild the cabin, living a near hermit life with just his dog for company for half of each year, working the other months. Once his ageing joints are no longer any good for logging work, he becomes a haulier for hire with horses and wagon. He makes enough to get by, but it is a hard life.

I’m not generally comfortable with short stories, which often feel as if they’re over before they’ve started for me. However, I am happy with the novella / short novel form which has enough length to tell a good story, but in keeping it short makes every sentence count.

This is the case with Train Dreams. Johnson manages to compress eighty years into not many more pages, but also to encompass all that was important in Grainier’s life within that constraint, always with the railroad somewhere in the distance or in his dreams. We appreciate Grainier’s sheer hard work and pioneer spirit, we’re sad with him for the loss of his wife and child, and feel his loneliness when he returns to his backwoods cabin where he is left to commune with nature.

Grainier’s life in the cabin brings to mind another book rich with the pioneer spirit – Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful novel The Snow Child. There is more than that point of similarity, but I won’t expound for fear of spoiling, suffice to say that magic plays no part in Grainier’s life, except in his dreams and grief.

What is amazing about this short novel is that, despite its condensed nature, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. Every sentence does indeed count. Its beginning featuring the episode with the Chinaman may not initially endear you to Grainier, but his strength of character will get you as you read on.  This was my first experience of reading Denis Johnson, I’m sure it won’t be my last. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Granta paperback, 116 pages. First published 2002 – Buy

Finding one’s inner animal?

A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett

A Man in the Zoo & Lady Into Fox by David Garnett Until I encountered the blogosphere, I had only ever encountered David Garnett (1892-1981) as the author of a novel that Andrew Lloyd-Webber based his musical Aspects of Love on. Garnett was part of the Bloomsbury Group. He was lover of Duncan Grant, and his second wife was Angelica Bell.

His place in the literary pantheon was assured when his 1922 novella Lady Into Fox was a success; it was followed in 1924 by A Man in the Zoo.  These two novellas have, in recent years, been frequently paired, both being about ‘animals’.  Interestingly, Garnett’s Wikipedia biography says: “As a child, he had a cloak made of rabbit skin and thus received the nickname “Bunny”, by which he was known to friends and intimates all his life.” so maybe it’s not so surprising that amongst his first works were these novellas which are all about ‘animals’.

Both novellas do ‘exactly what they say on the tin’. A Man in the Zoo, features a man who becomes an exhibit in the zoo, and in Lady into Fox, a lady turns into a fox. However, they couldn’t be more different in their approaches to animals…

A Man in the Zoo is the story of John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett, and as it opens, they are visiting London Zoo in Regents Park; John is trying to persuade his posh girlfriend to marry him, but it turns into an argument:

‘No! You silly savage!’ said Josephine. ‘No, you wild beast. Can’t you understand that one doesn’t treat people like that? It is simply wasting my breath to talk. I’ve explained a hundred times I am not going to make father miserable. I am not going to be cut off without a shilling and become dependent on you when you haven’t enough money to live on yourself, to satisfy your vanity. My vanity, do you think having your in love with me pleases my vanity? I might as well have a baboon or a bear. You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survival – atavism at its worst. Don’t ask me why I fell in love with you – I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I’m not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo – I’ve told you once and now I tell you again – with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.’  (page 7)

So John, maybe to spite Josephine’s rejection, does exactly what she suggests.  The zoo jumps at the chance to exhibit a human alongside the other great apes, and ere long, John, installed in his cage becomes the new star attraction.


He uses his time to read and meditate on his new situation, finding himself quite at home and able to ignore the gawpers outside.  The only thing that scares him is that Josephine might come to view him; likewise, she is scared of what she might find too.  I can’t say more for there are many developments in this tale before it reaches a definitive ending.

In Lady into Fox, Richard and Sylvia Tebrick, a few months married are out walking in the countryside when they hear the hunt. Sylvia is scared, and cries out. A moment later:

Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes.  (page 4).

Richard saves Sylvia from the hounds and takes her home where he dismisses the servants, shoots his dogs, and they continue to live a semblance of normal life, she dressed in a little jacket. However, as the weeks go on, she starts to lose what keeps her human, and begins to become more feral, leaving Richard in anguish.  As to what happens, again, I can’t say more.

The two stories may have opposite approaches towards animals, but they share a lot about what it is to be human rather than an animal.  In one a human sees what is like to be treated as an animal, in the other a human actually becomes an animal and we’re shown that anthropomorphism is merely fantasy. Both require a leap in the imagination for the story to deliver, and both have difficult characters – the initially ghastly Josephine, and Richard in the other who can’t believe what is happening. I preferred A Man in the Zoo which is lighter than the other, but they were a fascinating counterpoint to each other. I’ll happily read more Garnett. I nearly forgot to mention the charming woodcuts that populate this edition. They’re by RA Garnett – a relative?

For some other views see:  A Man in the Zoo at Fleur Fisher in her world; Lady into Fox at Simon T and Simon S

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett, Vintage paperback, 137 pages.

“A story of literature and obsession”

The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, Translated by Nick Caistor

This beautifully illustrated novella by Dominguez, an Argentinian author, is about people who are obsessed by books, and whose houses become libraries, (much like Gaskell Towers then, but I jest).

It starts with a death…

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

Books change people’s destinies. Some have read The Tiger of Malaysia and become professors of literature in remote universities. Demian converted tens of thousands of young men to Eastern philosophy. Hemingway made sportsmen of them, Alexandre Dumas complicated the lives of thousands of women, quite a few of whom were saved from suicide by cookery books. Bluma was their victim.

The unnamed narrator is a colleague of Bluma’s in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Cambridge.  When a package arrives from Uruguay for Bluma, containing a book which has a dedication handwritten by her to a ‘Carlos’ in the front, he decides to return it to ‘Carlos’, and sets out to find its reclusive owner. The journey will take him from Cambridge to his home city of Buenos Aires and on to Montevideo.

In between his travels he philosophises about books and their owners, and there are many truths in there, including:

“It is often harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them.”

“There is a moment, however, when we have accumulated so many books that they cross an invisible line, and what was once a sense of pride becomes a burden, because from now on space will always be a problem.”

Although set in the world of academia, and featuring some books I’ve never heard of, this story is not totally dry. There is humour, but there is a dark side to the final events that recall the moral consequences present in all such fables. An odd, but strangely entrancing little book. (7/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez. Pub 2005 by Harvill Secker. Illus hardback, 103 pages.

Bookgroup Report – Always look on the bright side of life

Candide by Voltaire

This short novel is another one of those influential classic books that I had always planned to read. I’d bought a copy in preparation, and ten years later it was still sitting on the shelf. I was really pleased that we chose it at book group, and I’m mighty glad to have read it for it was really funny and not a chore at all – a verdict we all shared.

Candide, or Optimism as it is subtitled, is a fast moving romantic adventure published in 1759.  Starting off in Westphalia, young Candide falls in love above his station – with the Baron’s daughter, Miss Cunégonde, but is driven out of the castle, gets press-ganged into the Bulgarian army, flogged, shipwrecked then caught in the Lisbon earthquake (of 1755), tortured by the Inquisition (which wasn’t ‘expected’), he gets separated from his beloved again, goes to El Dorado, gets rich, gets robbed – suffering ever-worse calamities in his journey to get home and find Cunégonde again. Through all of this hardship, Candide fervently believes that he will eventually be reunited with his love.

Along the way he has many companions, the foremost of whom is Doctor Pangloss, the teacher,  philosopher, and believer in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, a personal philosophy he spreads far and wide …

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in the little neighbouring woods, which was called a park, she saw through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects.  She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the deire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficing reason for young Candide, and he for her.

Yes, this is the first of many occasions when Voltaire gets slightly saucy, rather than satirical, and very funny it is too.  I must admit, a lot of the direct satire was lost on me and the rest of the group as we were unfamiliar with the times the story was set in. It appears that the German philosopher Leibniz was a particular target as he believed in a benevolent God – however, we could all get the general themes. This was where an edition with good notes came in rather useful. One of our group who is a linguist read the book in the original French and was amused to find that the novella is billed as ‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph’, Ralph being Voltaire.

In the end Candide’s optimism may have been tempered by the hard reality of life, but there are a lot of laughs along the way. Candide’s travels and encounters may owe a lot to Gulliver’s travels which preceded it, but what struck our book group most was the surreal edge to the humour – where else would you encounter an old woman with one buttock?  This led our book group to decide that Voltaire’s heir is none other than Monty Python, who in The Life of Brian, also simultaneously espoused and satirised optimism – here’s Eric Idle …

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best ….
And … always look on the bright side of life…

* * * * *
I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Candideby Voltaire
Gulliver’s Travels (Oxford World’s Classics)by Jonathan Swift
Monty Python’s Life of Brian [DVD] [1979]

A fabulous little modern fable…

The Tiny Wifeby Andrew Kaufman

This small but perfectly formed novella could be the wackiest thing you’ll read this year. A modern fairy tale about a bank robber that doesn’t steal money, but items of sentimental value from everyone held up.

He explains before he leaves, that those items give him 51% of everyone’s souls, and that will have ‘bizarre and strange consequences‘ in their lives, and they’ll have to learn to grow them back or die. Strange things do indeed begin to happen, and the victims meet to share their experiences, some of which are rather unsettling to say the least.

The story is recounted by the husband of Stacey, who had been in the bank.  She’d handed over her calculator on which she worked out everything – at first she thought she was just losing weight, but it soon becomes clear that Stacey is shrinking!  Will she work out how to stop it, and even reverse it, before she pops out of existence like the Incredible Shrinking Man did?

This story has a large amount of charm, which is augmented by wonderful illustrations in silhouette by Tony Percival. however it’s not all nice – parts of it are totally grim, (or should I say Grimm!).  The story is deceptively simple, yet packs the suitable moral punch that all good fairy tales need.  I will be definitely be searching out Kaufman’s previous short novel My friends are superheroes, after reading this great little book. (9/10)

My ARC came from publisher The Friday Project – thank you!

* * * * *

If you like modern fairy tales, I can also wholly recommend The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and Tokyo, cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.  Links below:

To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman. Pub Sep 1, as a gift hardback, 80 pages.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Press rewind and edit … Two novellas by Robert Coover

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

Earlier this year, I discovered American author Robert Coover when I was sent his volume in the Pengiun Mini Modern Classics series to read and review (click here).  One of the three stories in that collection, a novella called The Babysitter, was a mini masterpiece; the other two were pretty good too.  I duly resolved to read more of this fascinating author, and soon got the opportunity, as Penguin have reissued three of his books in their new format; I got a freebie through the Amazon Vine programme.

From my Coover reading so far, it would seem that he has two main preoccupations – fairy tales and sex.

These come together in Briar Rose which is a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. Coover’s version though is nothing like you’ve read before. It’s dark and nasty, but totally unlike say how Angela Carter would treat it.  The familiar elements are there: a princess has pricked her finger on a spindle and lies asleep for a hundred years, and a prince arrives to battle through the briars and greet his true love with a kiss.  That is where the similarity ends. Coover imagines what might happen if the wrong prince turned up and raped the princess? What if the princess grew old while asleep? What happens to her bodily fluids? – Yes!  There are hundreds of possible outcomes and he leads us through them in a series of vignettes. We’re never sure whether the princess is dreaming them, or whether they happened and she is doomed to go through it all again until the right prince comes along.  Meanwhile,  between these iterations from sleeping beauty’s point of view, are a similar set of the prince. Wondering what she’ll look like. Will he be the first. Will he be the one?  He battles through the briars for ever it seems, and he begins to wonder if it was worth it…

Spanking the Maid has a similar structure.  Each day, a maid arrives to clean her master’s bedroom, but she always gets something wrong and has to be chastised for it.  She tries so hard, but can never reach perfection, and submits to her punishment, resolving to do better next time.  Her master, doesn’t want to administer it, but feels he has to, to teach her a lesson.  Coover describes the daily spanking in great detail and I was just wishing for it to end.

Coover employed the same stylistic tricks in The Babysitter, (which is in his collection Pricksongs and descants along with several more fairy tales). However in that story, the multiple viewpoints and retelling of events did creep towards a real climax and a thoroughly resolved ending.  Both of these novellas had a ‘There must be more to life than this’ feel for me, and finished on a whimper rather than a bang.  They were both thoroughly distasteful too, full of base emotions, not a whiff of fairy tale romance of real relief!

Although I did wish for both stories to end so I could be released from the vicious cycle of the recesses of his imagination, the writing was compelling. I do feel I would need more stamina to cope with a full length novel of this intensity though. (7.5/10)

For another view on this book, visit Just William’s Luck

* * * * *
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid (Penguin Modern Classics)
Pricksongs & Descants (Penguin Modern Classics)