TagWe Love This Book

Spill Simmer Falter Wither: We Love This Book review

I have a review up at We Love This Book of Sara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. The book is narrated by a fiftysomething man to his one-eyed dog, but in an oblique and rambling voice that reveals just how much the protagonist has to say (sometimes without realising it) when he finally has someone to talk to:

My father’s name was the same word as for the small insectivorous passerine birds found most commonly photographed on Christmas cards, with orange-red blushed breasts as though they’ve been water-boarded by molten amber and stained for life. But my father’s name is just another strange sound sent from the mouths of men to confuse you, to distract from your vocabulary of commands. It doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t matter.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) by Sara Baume, Windmill Books paperback

The Black Country: We Love This Book review

We Love This Book have my review of The Black Country, the fascinating debut novel by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (and another of Nicholas Royle’s finds for Salt Publishing, which include Ian Parkinson’s The Beginning of the End and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse amongst others). It’s about a couple whose lives begin to disintegrate when they’re involved in a road accident one night – but the novel is transformed by its fuzzy prose style:

Harry pads out his memory of this day quite a bit. Maybe what he tells us is important. We’ll decide that. he tells of a time during the service when he reached for Maddie’s hand, prompted by what he calls a ‘prickle of a memory’ — Harry’s the type to say things like that — a prickle of a memory of a time when Gerald suggested the two of them work together, help each other out, pool ideas. So they worked together for the first time, reading some book or other. Harry says he wasn’t sure he got it, but Maddie did. Maddie got it, she understood it. If we let her, she#ll go on about how she found it all so brilliant, and Harry, being Harry, sort of fell for her then. That’s what he says.

Read the full review here.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Black Country (2015) by Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Salt paperback

Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Bert Wagendorp, Ventoux (2013/5)

Ventoux

Cycling is concrete and manageable. A bike, a road, a man: nothing could be simpler. In cycling you need only call on the top layer of your brain and introspection is not immediately  necessary, Sometimes exhaustion ensures that images rise to the surface which you had forgotten you were carrying with you, but you can always dismiss them as exhaustion-induced hallucinations.

– from Ventoux by Bert Wagendorp (translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent), which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)

father

Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

We Love This Book reviews: Janina Matthewson and Stefanie de Velasco

Another pair of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray (2014)

MatthewsonOne day, people start to lose things. Reclusive old Mrs Featherby’s front wall disappears without warning. Robert loses his job in the most literal sense, as he discovers that his office building is no longer where it used to be. The keys are gone from Marcus’s piano, and he has no idea what else to play. These and other characters are faced with a strange new world, and not all of them will be able to adjust.
Of Things Gone Astray may be Janina Matthewson’s first novel, but it marks her out as a writer to follow. There’s a wonderful, dream-like quality to Matthewson’s prose which binds together the most outlandish events and the emotional realities that they come to represent. The character Delia loses her sense of direction: at first, it seems she just can’t find her way around; but then we see that she abandoned her studies, and now has nowhere to go. Young Jake receives no good wishes from his father on his birthday – but the rift between the two goes much deeper than that.
So you can see the strange happenings in Of Things Gone Astray as reflecting the emotional states of its characters. But what rounds Matthewson’s novel out is that it can’t be reduced to a series of metaphors. Reality, fantasy and imagery intermingle to create a beautiful whole.
Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (2013)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2014)
De VelascoStefanie de Velasco’s first novel is a tale of two girls caught between adolescence and adulthood.
Nini and Jameelah are two 14-year-olds living in Berlin. Their lives are not plain sailing – Jameelah doesn’t know whether her family will shortly be deported back to Iraq, and Nini’s mother spends much of her time withdrawn into herself on the sofa – but the freedom of summer beckons. Drink of the season is tiger milk, the girls’ own concoction of chocolate milk, fruit juice and brandy. This cocktail represents Nini’s and Jameelah’s ambivalence towards the adult world: they want some of its attractions – in particular, to lose their virginity – but they also want to stay teenagers. Then tension between these opposing desires is central to the novel.
Tiger Milk never stands still: there’s always a new development, and Nini as first-person narrator will merrily skip over events if she wants, without waiting for the reader to catch up. Tim Mohr’s translation from the original German also captures this restless energy, the busy speech and constant action. De Velasco captures the sense of adolescence as a time of change and discovery: when you’re exploring the limits of yourself and the world around you, and seeing others move in both expected and unexpected directions. There’s also the sense of change that you didn’t see coming, as one period of life turns abruptly into the next, however much that summer seemed endless.

We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

We Love This Book reviews: David Safier and Cristina Henríquez

Here are a couple of reviews I’ve had published recently at We Love This Book:

David Safier, Apocalypse Next Tuesday (2008)
Translated from the German by Hilary Parnfors (2014)

SafierThe end of the world may come before Marie Woodward finds true love – and it’s not that far off.

Marie is thirty-five when she pulls out of marrying Sven at the last minute, realising that she doesn’t love him enough for it to last a lifetime. So she moves back into her childhood home with nothing much to do but feel sorry for herself. At the same time, her father is busy hooking up with a mail-order bride and her sister Kata is recovering from a brain tumour – then Marie’s bedroom ceiling caves in. Enter a handsome carpenter named Joshua who Marie quickly falls for and who just happens to be Jesus come to Earth. Meanwhile, Satan (disguised as George Clooney) has an apocalypse to bring about, and is on the lookout for some horsemen…

Apocalypse Next Tuesday is good fun read – David Safier gets plenty of comic mileage from the incongruity of putting Jesus into the world of contemporary dating. Hilary Parnfors’ translation from the German is nicely breezy, and I especially liked the touch of including comic strips ‘drawn’ by Kata. But Safier’s novel also has a serious heart, as Marie has to think about what she really wants from life and what it really means to give herself to someone. In terms of the plot, perhaps the decisive movement towards the apocalypse comes a little too late to keep the novel balanced. Still, Apocalypse Next Tuesday is well worth a look if you’re in the mood for a romp.

(The original review is here. The  book is published in the UK by Hesperus Press.)

Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)

HenriquezThe Rivera family cross the border from Mexico to make a new life in the US – but it’s not quite the life they had hoped for.

Alma and Arturo Rivera make the move because their teenage daughter, Maribel, sustained brain damage in an accident; they’re hoping that the specialist education available in the US will help her. But there are many obstacles to overcome: the Riveras speak little English; their money won’t go very far; for all his willingness to work, Arturo has to take a job picking mushrooms. But they’re determined to make this work, for Maribel.

Someone else with his eye on Maribel (though for different reasons) is Mayor Toro, the son of an established neighbouring family from Panama. The main narration of the novel alternates between Mayor and Alma, with their stories echoing each other in various ways: the Riveras are viewed with suspicion, as are Mayor’s motives for spending time with Maribel. Mayor’s tribulations at school show that difficulties like the Riveras’ don’t necessarily end once you’ve become a naturalised citizen.

Peppering Cristina Henríquez’s novel are individual chapters narrated by immigrant characters from different parts of Central and South America, each with as much of a story to tell as the Riveras, though we catch only a glimpse of them. The end of the Riveras’ tale loses a little of the subtlety that’s gone before it; but the various narrators of The Book of Unknown Americans remind us how many voices there are that may go unheard.

(The original review is here. The book is published in the UK by Canongate, and in the US by Knopf.)

Reviews elsewhere: Dave Hutchinson and Jeremy P. Bushnell

Europe in Autumn

Today I’m rounding up a couple of recent reviews that I’ve had published on other sites. First, I am back at Strange Horizons with a look at Dave Hutchinson‘s new novel, Europe in Autumn  (published by Solaris). This is a tale of espionage set in a future Europe which has fractured into myriad small polities – but there’s a quietness to the whole book that I find very interesting. Europe in Autumn has an engagement with form and tone that I’d love to see more often in contemporary genre science fiction. You can read my full review of the novel here.

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I also have a new review up at We Love This Book, of Jeremy P. Bushnell‘s debut novel, The Weirdness (published by Melville House). Here it is:

WeirdnessJeremy Bushnell’s first novel is the tale of a man finding his way in a world that turns out to be stranger than he ever imagined.

Billy Ridgeway is a thirty-year-old aspiring writer who wonders at the weirdness of everyday life: isn’t it just odd that you can walk into a bodega in New York and buy bananas? And why exactly did people start keeping animals as pets? One day, the Devil visits Billy’s apartment and offers him a deal: stop a warlock who’s trying to unlock the secrets of a magical artefact that could destroy the world, and Lucifer will ensure that Billy’s book is published (short stories are such a hard sell, after all). Billy doesn’t quite agree at first, but the Devil has ways of persuading him; and so begins Billy’s journey of adventure and discovery.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Weirdness is its sheer exuberance (or cheek), as Bushnell gleefully piles absurdity on top of outlandishness. Barely any part of Billy’s life remains ordinary, so it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief as just abandoning it and going with the flow. Yet there’s a certain distancing effect at play, as though all the magic is just a sideshow; at the heart of The Weirdness is the story of Billy finding out what really matters in life – and what matters is much more down to earth. For all that Bushnell’s novel is a fantastical romp, it doesn’t lose sight of the human dimension.

(The original review is here.)

We Love This Book reviews: Hannah Michell and Deborah Kay Davies

Here are two of my latest reviews for The Bookseller‘s online book magazine, We Love This Book:

Hannah Michell, The Defections (2014)

DefectionsHannah Michell’s first novel is a tale of secrets and desire at a meeting-point of cultures.

Mia Kim is a translator at the British embassy in Seoul; she’s been able o work there despite her uncle’s history of political activism, and knows that in some ways she is still on shaky ground – her uncle now runs a school for North Korean defectors. Mia is infatuated with the new counsellor, Thomas Dalton-Ellis, whom she puts in her debt when she hides the evidence that he caused. The two embark on an affair, but then Thomas is given the assignment of running a discreet check on Mia background to see if anything might compromise her integrity – and Mia learns that one of her uncle’s young defectors, may be passing messages over the border…

The Defections is partly a novel of the past refusing to let go of, or threatening to catch up with, its characters: Thomas left his previous posting in Vietnam under a cloud; Mia’s uncle’s activities may affect her current position, of course, but she’s also haunted by never knowing the English mother, of whom she is reminded whenever she looks in the mirror. These stories combine to create a nicely complex background, and you never quite know which detail the plot will turn on next.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Defections comes from seeing the different plotlines play off against each other, as a perfectly explicable detail from one character’s viewpoint becomes open to misinterpretation when seen from another. We also see how easily the personal may slide into the political for these individuals. Michell has created an engaging novel which leaves the reader intrigued to see what she will write next.

(Original review)

Deborah Kay Davies, Reasons She Goes to the Woods (2014)

ReasonsDeborah Kay Davies’s second novel chronicles, in a series of fragments, the ordinary and extraordinary moments of one girl’s childhood.

Right from the beginning, Pearl is acutely aware of sensations: the rising and falling of her sleeping father’s chest; the feel of mud on her hands after she has been playing with worms; the sunlight and water of her beloved woods. The short, disconnected chapters (vignettes, almost) in which Davies writes reflect the intensity of Pearl’s experiences – place, action and emotion – are evoked vividly.

The Pearl depicted in these snapshots of her life is an ambivalent character: she can be cruel (she calls her younger brother “the Blob”, and often treats him with the contempt that implies), but she also has a strong capacity for love and friendship – when she lets people into her life. As the novel progresses we start to see more of the contours of Pearl’s world: the difficulties in her family life and suggestions that she may not perceive life in quite the way we had thought.

The full extent of this is revealed subtly: the tone of Davies’s prose and the closeness to Pearl’s viewpoint give Reasons She Goes to the Woods a slightly unreal quality, with a touch of the folktale. It’s up to the reader to tease out the reality of Pearl’s life (and to decide what ‘reality’ means in this context). We end up with a rounded, complex portrait of growing-up that has an atmosphere all of its own.

(Original review)

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On the subject of We Love This Book, I must congratulate my fellow blogger (and Eleanor Catton fan) Anna James from A Case for Books, who is starting a new job at the end of this month as The Bookseller‘s books and media editor. So: congratulations, Anna!

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