My Sweet Orange Tree – José Mauro de Vasconcelos

According to the press release, My Sweet Orange Tree has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. It’s a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 19 languages… but it has been out of print in English for over 40 years, until this new translation by Alison Entrekin, published by Pushkin Press. 

My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical novel, based on José Mauro de Vasconcelos’ childhood in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The book introduces us to Zezé, a precocious five-year-old with a tendency to play pranks on others, which often leads to him being beaten. He’ll tell others that he has the devil in him and should never have been born, yet he has charm and kindness to match his cheek. 

Zezé’s family struggles to get by: there are seven siblings to provide for, but Father is out of a job, so Mother has to work as much as she can at the factory. It means there are no presents waiting this Christmas in the shoes that Zezé has left outside his bedroom door. “Having a poor father is awful!” he blurts out, not realising that his father is right there to hear him. This leaves Zezé unable to act:

I felt like racing down the street and clinging to Father’s legs, crying. Telling him I’d been mean – really, really mean. But I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I had to sit on the bed. And from there I stared at my shoes, in the same corner, as empty as could be. As empty as my heart, careening out of control. 

But one of the things that’s so charming about Zezé is that he always has a plan. In this case, he decides to head out with his shoe-shine tin, to see if he can earn enough money to buy his father a gift. 

Zezé also has a broad imagination to match his resourcefulness. When the family moves house, Zezé claims a sweet-orange tree in the garden for himself. He names it Pinkie, imagines he can hear it talk, and whiles away hours riding in its branches with Tom Mix and other movie cowboys of the day. 

But friendship in the real world becomes increasingly important to Zezé. There are some memorable scenes as he becomes the helper of a man who visits the neighbourhood once a week to sing the latest popular songs and sell brochures of lyrics. Most important of all to Zezé, though, is his secret friendship with Manuel Valadares, a Portuguese with the finest car in the area. Time spent with him becomes an alternative to Zezé’s family life, a relationship that’s vivid on the page. 

Now that I’ve read My Sweet Orange Tree, I can absolutely see why this book is so beloved. Zezé is such a charming character, and there are some truly powerful moments. I’m glad to have had the chance to read this book, and warmly recommend it to you.

Book details

My Sweet Orange Tree (1968) by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, tr. Alison Entrekin (2018), Pushkin Press, 192 pages, hardback (proof copy provided for review). 

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

Some book recommendations from 2017

2017 was a year of ups and downs. With my reviewing hat on, I was especially pleased to make my debut at Minor Literature[s]. But I can’t escape the fact that this year was structured around illness as I’d never experienced before. It didn’t exactly stop me from reading, but it did have certain subtle effects on my reading choices, how I engaged with books, that sort of thing.

So, 2017 was not a normal reading year. When I tried to put together my usual countdown of twelve, I wasn’t happy with it, couldn’t recommend everything wholeheartedly. Instead I’m going to stick to a few books which were first published this year. I’ve got three books written in English and two translated from Spanish. I’m listing them here in no particular order, but they’ve all given me the shiver up the spine that I get from my favourite fiction.

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman.  The claustrophobic tale of a young girl sent to an orphanage after losing her parents in a car crash. She barely has the language to describe her experiences, but her very individuality poses a threat to the other girls around her in the orphanage. The prose of Such Small Hands is beautifully – dangerously – fluid, as the mental worlds of its characters form and re-form. Probably the most intense piece of literature I read all year.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel. The story of how a German family is broken when forced to flee west in 1945, then heals itself in the years after the war. This is novel structured as photo album: whole lives narrated intermittently, each scene a moment of experience adding to a greater whole. Ziervogel explores themes of image and appearance, and the individual within the sweep of history, all with a wonderful openness to her writing. 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Oh, how I love Jon McGregor’s way with words, his ability to bring out the mystery within the everyday. In this novel, he starts with the disappearance of a teenage girl, and builds up, layer by layer, an extraordinary portrait of a rural community. A new year begins with each chapter; some faces go, others stay. The disappearance becomes another part of local lore; only nature retains any true semblance of constancy. The resulting work is spellbinding.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell. A discovery from this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadowing. Amanda is dying in hospital (or some dark liminal space) and talks to David, a child who is not her own. With David’s help, Amanda sorts through her memories of holidays, her own daughter, and a tale told by David’s mother (whom Amanda met on holiday). Fever Dream constantly shifts between levels of reality; it’s a thrilling ride.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel. A portrait of a violent family relationship, in extreme close-up. When it’s clear he will gain custody of his sons, a father takes them from Kansas to New Mexico, promising that the three can be kids again. Life turns out to be very different, though. Magariel keeps the father-and-sons unit at the centre of view, which distorts how we see the novel’s world, and helps give the book its distinctive power.

There are my recommendations for 2017; I hope you find something that interests you. You can also check out my previous best-of-year posts: 2016201520142013201220112010; and 2009. I’ll see you next year!

A Vineyard in Andalusia – Maria Dueñas: a snapshot review

This is a perfect example of the right book coming at the right time. I was in the mood for a long and welcoming novel that could round off the evening. Maria Dueñas’ new book proved to be just that.

It’s 1861. Mauro Larrera is a Spaniard who has made his wealth as a silver miner in Mexico. As the novel begins, Larrera learns that his latest risky investment has collapsed, and he’s going to lose everything. He then has to find a way to get out of his predicament, while maintaining appearances. Mauro’s family and associates have their suggestions, but it seems clear from the outset that Larrera has it in mind to flee. 

Mauro borrows some money from a creditor he’d rather not cross, then sets off hoping to repeat his earlier success. Amidst various scrapes, he goes to Havana, then eventually finds himself back in Spain as the owner of a vineyard, and caught up in the complicated affairs of the family who owned it previously.

A Vineyard in Andalusia is a glorious yarn, almost every chapter adding a new twist to Larrera’s travails. It was also great fun to read in self-imposed instalments – there are plenty of cliffhangers. There are times when certain events happen ‘off-stage’ that I’d have loved to read rather than being told about them after. However,  this doesn’t detract from a highly enjoyable tale, narrated in the snappy prose of Nick Caistor’s and Lorenza García’s translation.

A version of this review was previously published as a thread on Twitter.

Book details

A Vineyard in Andalusia (2015) by Maria Dueñas, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (2017), Scribe Publications, 534 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist 2017

One of my favourite literary awards announced its longlist the other day. The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, now in its second year, is open to UK and Irish publishers who have a maximum of five full-time paid people working for them. It sums up its criteria for winning as “hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose”. 

The 13 longlisted titles, in alphabetical order of publisher, are:

  • Playing Possum by Kevin Davey (Aaaargh! Press)
  • Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell (And Other Stories)
  • The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books)
  • An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)
  • Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)
  • Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)
  • Compass by Mathias Énard, tr. Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
  • Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, tr. Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives)
  • We that are young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press)
  • Darker with the Lights on by David Hayden (Little Island Press)
  • In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie (Salt Publishing)
  • The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (Tramp Press)

Last year’s longlist had introduced me to some new writers, and even a few new publishers. So I was quite surprised to find that I’d heard of all 13 of this year’s books. I concluded that I must be more immersed in the world of the small press than I’d thought.

Well, I counted up and found that I had copies of nine books on the longlist… but I’d read only one, Compass. So I’ve decided I want to read the longlist. The winner is not announced until March, so there’s plenty of time; and the ethos of the prize is right up my street. This could be just the thing to get me back in the swing of reading (and, hopefully, blogging).

A quick update 

It’s been a bit quiet here, lately, so I thought I’d let you know what’s going on. My health hasn’t been great this year, and that’s had an effect on my ability to read and blog regularly. I’ve reached the point where the part of me that wants to share thoughts about books is wary of starting one in case later I’m not able to write about it as I want to.

But that’s not a sensible approach to have, really. The thing to do is just proceed at whatever pace I can. So I’m going to step back a little – I’m not taking a break as such, just taking things more slowly. I’ll still be on Twitter and Facebook, too. See you soon(ish).

I Am Behind You – John Ajvide Lindqvist: a EuroLitNetwork review 

The European Literature Network has been celebrating Nordic fiction lately. I’ve contributed a review of I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish horror writer known for Let the Right One In. This new novel concerns the occupants of four caravans who find themselves transported to a strange empty space, where their characters will be pressured until the flaws rise to the surface.  The translation is by Marlaine Delargy. 

You can find my review here, but do spend some time looking around, because there’s a lot to see. You can also download The Nordic Riveter, a 100-page PDF magazine collecting the new material.

Book details

I Am Behind You (2014) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, tr. Marlaine Delargy (2016), riverrun, 464 pages, hardback (review copy). 

My Personal Anthology 

Every week, the writer Jonathan Gibbs invites someone to ‘dream-edit’ their own Personal Anthology of twelve short stories. Each instalment includes a few words about each story and details of where it’s available to read (including online, where applicable.

This week was my turn in the editor’s chair. I couldn’t bear to commit myself to a definitive list of ‘favourites’ (after all, I might choose a different dozen tomorrow). Instead, I’ve selected stories that left a deep impression on me at the time of reading (various points over the last 15 years). My list includes long-time friends of this blog; beloved authors; and newer discoveries.

A Personal Anthology is sent free to subscribers via TinyLetter.com on Friday afternoon (UK time). However, the entries are archived, and you can read mine here. I hope you don’t you find it interesting and will be intrigued to try some of the stories. You can subscribe to A Personal Anthology here – I warmly recommend it. 

Reading something old, reading something new…

I’m changing the way that I read.

Mostly, I’ve always been a one-book-at-a-time reader, and if I ever had more than one on the go at once, they stayed where they were in my mind. I’ve never questioned that.

But recently I’d read a number of new releases in a row, and I enjoyed them, but still felt I was… in a rut somehow. Talking about it on Twitter reminded me that reading can inspire deeply emotional, transformative responses – the sort of thing, after all, that got me into reading as a hobby in the first place. I felt that I wanted to bring my blog closer to the actual reading, even if it meant that a straightforward review might not always be the best way to capture the experience.

First, though, I wanted a different approach to reading: my one-book linear method just tends towards a cycle of read-review-read-review-etc-etc, which I want to break. So now I’m going to have two books on the go at once, at least one of which will be a ‘classic’ or older book. The idea is to increase the potential for the books to bounce off each other (metaphorically!) while I read them. As I go along, I’ll see where the inspiration for blogging strikes.

The first books I’m reading under this ‘system’ are Scar by Sara Mesa (tr. Adriana Nodal-Tarafa), newly published by Dalkey Archive; and A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow, originally published in 1960 and recently reissued by Parthian Books. There was nothing deliberate about those choices; but it seems they have a certain thematic connection, so we’ll see how it turns out… 

BBC National Short Story Award 2017: ‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

This story was first published in Helen Oyeyemi’s 2016 collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a book that I found quite difficult to grasp as a whole, even though I’ve enjoyed Oyeyemi’s work in the past. It has been good to come to ‘if a book is locked’ afresh as part of the NSSA shortlist.

Oyeyemi’s protagonist (the “you” of her second-person narration) works analysing anonymised data on other organisations’ employees. A new colleague joins the company: Eva is subtly chic in a way that leads her female co-workers to try to compete. That’s until her lover’s wife visits the office to denounce her. At that point, the protagonist is the closest Eva has to a friend in her workplace. But the protagonist is preoccupied with what might be in Eva’s mysterious locked diary.

Oyeyemi always creates her own distinctive world with her words, even when she’s writing about somewhere ostensibly as mundane as an office. There are some neat parallels between the way Eva is treated by her colleagues; the protagonist’s family background; and the work that the company does. More, the ending blossoms into the beautiful strangeness typical of Helen Oyeyemi.

Listen to a reading of ‘if a book is locked’. 

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