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Read This: Cooking with Bones by Jess Richards

I have a new review up at Bookmunch, and wanted to flag this one up especially, because the book is so good. In fact, it’s my favourite read of the year so far. Without further ado, I present to you Cooking with Bones by Jess Richards

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Amber looks at her sleeping sister Maya and sees a thousand phantom faces. Maya is a formwanderer, a “mirror of want” – a human specially engineered so that anyone who looks at her sees her as whatever they want to see, even if they’re not aware of what that is. Formwanderers have a difficult existence – there are reports of them killing people because their observers unwittingly desire it – but perhaps Maya’s greatest problem is that she doesn’t know what to be for her self.

When their parents announce that they have found jobs for the sisters that will split them up, Amber and Maya flee their home city of Paradon to a coastal village. They take up refuge in an abandoned cottage, where Amber finds a strange recipe book, cooking utensils made of bone, and cupboards full of ingredients. Discovering that more food is regularly left outside the front door, Amber sets about trying out some recipes, unaware of the effects they have on the outside world. Meanwhile, the villagers leave their tithe of goods out for the witch Old Kelp; but one child, Kip, is about to stumble across a secret.

Cooking with Bones is, quite simply, one of the best books I have read this year. Its vision is so confident and complete, its language a joy. One has the sense that Paradon houses endless stories waiting to be told – Amber’s new job at the Tear Lab, “where sadness is measured”, is just one tantalising detail – but they are not to be told here, as the city is swiftly left behind. This is the depth of texture with which Jess Richards imbues her novel’s world, and it is exhilarating to read. The recipes dotted throughout the text also evoke a real sense of magic:

“Sieve together the cornflour and sand, thinking of sand clocks, of life cycles, of beginnings and endings, of cliffs crumbling to rocks to stones to sand, and footprints leading along an inevitable path.”

As for the story, it strikes me most of all as a tale of growing up. The three young protagonists are all, in their own ways, being held back: Maya is so used to (literally) existing for other people that she can’t work out what she wants; Amber doesn’t really know what she wants either, but feels that primal want all the same; Kip just wishes to be Kip, though others place obstacles in the way. All will find some sort of resolution, though a happy ending is not guaranteed.

Cooking With Bones is a novel that draws you so completely into its world that it is hard to step out again. Whilst you’re there, it is a delight. Now I need to go back and read Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes; and you should definitely read this book.

Any Cop? Without doubt. As far as I’m concerned, with this book, Jess Richards has established herself as an important new voice in British fantastic literature.

(Elsewhere: read other reviews of Cooking with Bones at Workshy Fop and Learn This Phrase. They also think it’s great.)

Bookmunch’d: Alejandro Zambra and Sayed Kashua

Two recent reviews from Bookmunch:

Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home (2011/3)

Chile, 1985: as the neighbourhood gathers to shelter from an earthquake, a nine-year-old boy strikes up a sort of friendship with Claudia, the twelve-year-old niece of his neighbour Raúl. Claudia asks the boy to keep an eye on her uncle, and so he does – soon discovering that Raúl has frequent rendezvous with a mysterious woman. But no sooner has the boy prepared to reveal all to Claudia than she relieves him of his duties, and moves away.

This narrative then breaks off, and we meet a (similarly nameless) writer in the present day, who is apparently writing the noel we have been reading. He’s struggling to find his place in life, beset by a nagging feeling that his parents wrote the novel of the world, leaving his generation as “secondary characters”. The doubts and tensions raised by this feeling work their way into the writer’s novel, and this project becomes his focus – if he can get the novel right, maybe life will follow. We then return to the ‘fiction’ as, twenty years on, the boy-turned-man meets Claudia once more, and learns the truth.

Alejandro Zambra’s third novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) thus sets up a parallel between its two storylines. The young boy’s inability to grasp the realities behind adult interactions is nicely handled (as in the scene where he sees his father and Raúl talking about what he assumes to be “solitude”, but is presumably “solidarity”), as is his older self’s reaction to learning what was really going on in his childhood. But the two sides of the novel don’t quite seem to gel: the writer storyline doesn’t reach as far into its themes, which unbalances the book as a whole.

Any Cop? It’s a mixed bag. One half of the novel is good, but the other doesn’t quite match up to it.

Sayed Kashua, Exposure (2010/2)

Exposure is the story (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg) of two unnamed Arab citizens of Israel, both living in Jerusalem. One is a successful lawyer, who has made his wealth working on behalf of resident Arabs who are not citizens; his status gives him an informal, but valuable authority:

Without [Israeli Arab professionals]who would represent the residents of east Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities…Many of the locals preferred to be represented by someone who was a citizen of the state of Israel… Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half-Jewish.

One day, on a whim, he buys a novel from the second-hand book store, and finds tucked inside it a love letter, unmistakably in his wife’s handwriting. The volume is inscribed “Yonatan”, and the lawyer becomes consumed with the question of who this unknown suitor might be.

Sayed Kashua’s second protagonist has been rather less lucky in life: he’s a social worker, whom we first meet as he’s burying the 28-year-old Yonatan. We discover that Yonatan had been in a coma, and the social worker had taken on the job of minding him at night – a thankless task, but also a relatively straightforward source of income that the social worker welcomed. Looking after Yonatan also gave him something else: the opportunity to assume the Jewish man’s identity when registering on a photography course.

Exposure works best as a study of identity, and how it may be used and abused. Both protagonists operate at the boundary between Arab and Jewish identities: the lawyer acts as an intermediary between the two; the social worker becomes able to cross from one to the other. The comatose Yonatan becomes an anonymous canvas on which both men can project an identity: the lawyer creates a target for his jealous hatred, while social worker reinvents himself.

Kashua’s novel is not quite so successful in terms of plot, though. There are a couple of coincidences too many for it to satisfy as a mystery; and when the two men’s stories finally converge, it doesn’t seem to add much. Whatever the destination, though, the journey is worth it.

Any Cop?: As a study of character and issues, certainly; as a mystery story, less so.

Bookmunch reviews: HHhH and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Here’s my latest couple of reviews for Bookmunch.

Laurent Binet, HHhH (2009/12)

In 1942, Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík were sent from London and parachuted secretly into Prague. Their mission: to kill Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo, widely considered in the SS to be the brains behind his superior (‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ they’d say – Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or HHhH). Laurent Binet heard this story as a child, and became more and more fascinated by it after going to Slovakia as a teacher, and finding the church crypt where Gabčík and Kubiš hid after their attempt on Heydrich’s life. In this novel, Binet tells the men’s story – but he also chronicles the process of research and writing, and the difficulties of making fiction out of real events.

This is a fascinating approach. Binet may present a scene that reads like historical fiction, then unpick it in the next chapter, asking how much he can really be sure about, what he may have left out or glossed for the shape of his story. It has the effect of creating tension even when you know broadly where the history is heading, because suddenly nothing is certain. Alongside this, as Binet tells of his time researching and writing HHhH, it too takes on something of the quality of fiction – and the lines between what’s real and what’s not are shown to be ever more blurred.

The prose in HHhH is often matter-of-fact rather than colourful. It’s not that Binet doesn’t do colour: there are some gripping passages of narrative as Gabčík’s and Kubiš’s mission reaches its climax (I must add here that Sam Taylor’s translation from the French is superb). Rather, I suspect that the more neutral tone represents Binet’s desire to remain true to the history (perhaps the change of tone towards the end is a recognition that he can’t do so completely). And I don’t find that tone dry, nor Binet’s interjections intrusive; HHhH works well as a whole, both as a tale of history and the pitfalls of telling it.

Any Cop?: If you’re in the mood for a novel which is as interested in examining what it’s doing as in portraying its historical subject, definitely give this a try.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

In the 1920s, young Hattie is one of the many American blacks who will travel from the Southern states to begin new lives in the North. A couple of years after settling in Philadelphia, Hattie has married August and given birth to twins, whom she names Philadelphia and Jubilee in optimism for the years to come – but the children die as babies. She will go on to have many more children who survive, but this is the first sign of the difficulties Hattie and her descendants will face making their way in life throughout the twentieth century.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is structured as a series of episodes, each focusing on one or more of Hattie’s children at points in history ranging from 1925 to 1980, which together create a composite portrait of the family. The emotional scope of the novel is vast, as Ayana Mathis’s characters face desire, betrayal, racism, insanity, and more besides. Perhaps most central to the book are issues of living up to (or failing to meet) the expectations of others, and what binds (or may separate) the members of a family.

Mathis moves between many different viewpoints (third- and first-person) with fluency and ease. Her characters are always vivid, such as Six, whose violent outburst as a child becomes channelled into an unstoppable religious fervour (“The Word collected in his mouth like a pile of pebbles and pushed itself out through his lips”); and Bell, who couldn’t have foreseen herself living in squalor and wasting away from tuberculosis (“She’d taken such pleasure in saying no to [two marriage] proposals…Women who married men like that did nothing but shop for groceries and nearly die of boredom. But here I am dying anyway”).

And through it all is Hattie herself, from age 17 to age 71, who wants the best life for her family, but doesn’t always get it. It would be wrong to say that her determination never flags, or that she sacrifices herself entirely – Mathis’s portrait is too complex to sum up in that kind of way. But Hattie’s personality, and those of her children, fill the book to its very end.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. This is a superb novel of character and situation – and it’s only Ayana Mathis’s debut.

Paul Rooney, Dust and Other Stories (2012)

Paul Rooney is an artist who often works with text-based materials. Looking at the publication credits, many of the pieces in Dust first appeared in other forms – as video or sound works, or different kinds of written text. Now they’ve been brought together in this collection, a joint publication by Akerman Daly and Aye-Aye Books.

Voice is a key concern in these stories, and perhaps especially the extent to which the ‘voice’ of a story can be trusted. In ‘Towards the Heavenly Void, a musician with a sideline in mediumship finds himself channelling the voice of Les Dawson – or at least of someone who claims that the comedian we know as Les Dawson was someone with whom he swapped lives, whilst the man who’s ‘talking’ went off to South America in search of Che Guevara. Rooney captures the tone and character of one of Dawson’s monologues, leaving us with layers of voice that – as the tale’s ending symbolises – evaporate when you try to unpick them.

Rooney also makes use of different textual forms in Dust. ‘Transcript’ (a collaboration with Will Rose) purports to document a Q&A session between Rooney, Rose, and a film-maker. The talk soon gets maddeningly and entertainingly out of hand with audience interruptions, which dissolve the text into a clamour of voices – all overlaid with the interventions of the anonymous transcriber. It’s typical of Rooney’s playful approach that, as a character, the author says nothing; though of course his words are all over this piece.

Other stories have more conventional structures but come at the author’s concerns in equally effective ways. ‘Words and Silence’ tells of a call centre worker who creates elaborate personas for herself when making calls; eventually her imaginings threaten to swamp her view of reality. ‘The Kendal Iconoclasm’ turns a spy thriller into a tale of existential horror: its characters know they’re in a story – they can see it being typed out in front of their eyes – but not who the writer (or writers) are. Rooney’s protagonist tries to exert some control as he heads up the motorway, but he seems not to realise just how deeply enmeshed he is in the story – there’s no escaping from this escapist fiction. It’s just one example of the treachery of stories and words, as seen in so many ways throughout this collection.

Any Cop? Yes – taken together, the stories of Dust are an interesting exploration of voice and text. And Rooney’s diverse approaches means that there’ll always be something different on the next page.

(This review also appears at Bookmunch.)

Book notes: Terry Pratchett and Evan Mandery

Terry Pratchett, Dodger (2012)

Terry Pratchett visits Victorian London for his latest book. Dodger, a young sewer scavenger, sees a girl escaping from a coach and saves her from being beaten by the two men she was travelling with. This incident is witnessed by Charles Dickens, ‘Charlie’, who becomes a friend to Dodger, and social reformer Henry Mayhew, who shelters Simplicity, as the girl comes to be known. Several events increase Dodger’s notoriety, including his exposing the truth about Sweeney Todd, and he finds himself moving in loftier circles. He also discovers that there are people after Simplicity and an ingenious plan is needed to thwart them – an ideal job for someone like Dodger…

Pratchett brings the atmosphere of his London to life, conveying not just the difficulties faced by his characters through poverty, but also the ways they might survive (or not – his portrayal of Sweeney Todd as a damaged individual is especially vivid). The plot of Dodger doesn’t quite succeed: the antagonists remain too shadowy to have a full dramatic impact. But running through the novel are themes of pragmatism and appearances being deceptive, and here Dodger shines. Charlie understands that Dodger may be able to investigate events in ways which are valuable but not open to others. Dodger himself sees the manoeuvres of politics as not being much different from those of the street. And deceptive appearances are the foundation of the plan to save Simplicity, which gives Pratchett’s novel its fine finale.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Some other reviews of Dodger: Things Mean a Lot; Simon Appleby for Bookgeeks.

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Evan Mandery, Q: A Love Story (2011)

An (unnamed) New York academic and writer meets one Quentina Elizabeth Deveril (also known as Q), and promptly falls in love. The pair of them start dating, and find they’re just right for each other. Wedding bells look set to chime… until our man receives a note from himself, asking him to meet for a meal. He goes there, to find his sixty-year-old self, who has apparently travelled back in time to warn the younger him against marrying Q. The two of them, his future self says, will have a son who dies young from an inherited illness, and that will destroy Q. The protagonist decides to call the wedding off, and moves on with his life – but different future selves keep coming back in time to dispense their advice.

Q is Evan Mandery’s third novel; perhaps the first thing one notices is that it’s written in a rather mannered way that pushes it to one side of reality. This technique leads to some fine comic moments, such as the narrator’s and Q’s date on a bizarre miniature golf course, or the time they go on a protest march against a construction project, dressed in vegetable costumes. It also gives the protagonist’s exchanges with his older selves an effectively deadpan tone. But the same style sometimes leaves events without a full emotional grounding – sometimes Q reads too much like a joke.

The narrative thread of Q is full of digressions on subjects ranging from Sigmund Freud’s study of eels to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; these illustrate the book’s theme of what-ifs and alternatives. As time goes on, our narrator has cause to reflect on what’s important, in life and history; Mandery shows how the most important things are not always what we think they are at the time. The main plot runs like a whirlpool, as the visitations from time travellers become more and more frequent, and the novel heads ever closer to absurdity – until the ending, which is pitched just right, and is really quite affecting.

Any Cop?: Mandery’s style walks the line between annoying and charming, and doesn’t always stay on the right side. But, once you get into the swing of Q, it works. It’s worth a look.

(This review also appears at Bookmunch.)

Some other reviews of Q: A Case for Books; Glorified Love Letters; Raging Bibliomania.

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