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Reflex Press: Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara

Abingdon-based Reflex Press grew out of a prize for flash fiction, so naturally enough that’s one of their focuses as a publisher. And here’s a collection of 33 stories in a hundred pages, by Australian writer Catherine McNamara. I really liked one of her stories when I read it at random a few years ago, so it was a pleasure to read her work once again. 

As the collection’s title suggests, this is dense and busy fiction, whose characters are often in heightened situations. Here are a few examples:

‘Banking’ sees a woman returning to confront her ex-boyfriend of one week after some money has disappeared from her account, and struggling with the desire that she still feels for him. There’s tension throughout this piece, and it’s only partly resolved by the end. 

‘A Forty-Nine-Year-Old Woman Sends Messages to Her Thirty-Two-Year-Old Lover’ is a paragraph of just a few lines capturing an intense feeling of desire that its narrator can’t shake off: “I wait for the thought of your face and body to mean nothing.”

‘The Vineyard’ has a strong central metaphor of a couple replacing their ruined grape plants with new hybrids. Their place is hemmed in, adding to the sense that this is the last chance for their vineyard to recover – just like a relationship on the ropes. 

For all that the stories are so short, McNamara’s distinctive voice comes through strongly. This is a collection that stays with you. 

Read the story ‘As Simple as Water’.

Avalanche Books: The Failing of Angels by Chris Tutton

The book I’m looking at today comes from Avalanche Books, whom I gather are largely a publisher of poetry and short prose. Chris Tutton is a poet who has seven collections with Avalanche, though The Failing of Angels is a novel – a novel unmistakably with a poet’s touch. 

As a child, Tutton’s narrator is rejected and abused by his parents. He wants their love, but they refuse it,and it takes time for him to find love elsewhere. Music provides him with a form of release:

The sensation of singing was like loosening the fingers of my clenched fist and releasing a small bird trapped beneath their thicket in my palm. Then watching it take to the air on unbridled notes, fluttering and weaving in the clear blue, safe, sunny sky; coruscating unfettered in the swallow-lift breeze of its wings.

Tutton’s prose is striking, full of alliteration, rhythm and unusual images. It’s as though, by telling his life story this way, the narrator can carve out a space of his own, a way to meet reality afresh on his own terms. The narrator’s mother sets up her own religion, a different path to engaging with the world, though tragedy is never far away. 

What you get in The Failing of Angels is a strong, heady brew of language that’s well worth reading. 

Galley Beggar Press: Insignificance by James Clammer

It’s time for another journey into the singular world of Galley Beggar Press. This time we meet Joseph Forbes, a plumber returning to work after a nervous breakdown:

For hours hereon there would be no softness but only the sharp edges of the tools and of the job itself. Almost always it became a battle of one sort or another. He did not yet dare to touch the airing cupboard door and confront the cylinder within, instead he opened the hard plastic case of the toolbox, he would put the gloves on then spend a moment familiarising himself with the things inside, what was this fear, this reluctance, you would think he’d never handled these tools before or learned what each one did.

There’s a wonderful sense in this book that James Clammer knows the precise weight of his prose and what it’s doing. The writing has a mechanistic tone, long paragraphs that break down into their component parts – fitting for a protagonist who works with his hands. 

It seems to me that Insignificance creates a space where Joseph can become (or be seen to be) a doer who’s also a thinker – action blurs into thought in this style of writing. Joseph is also faced with two characters who think in ways he doesn’t understand: his son Edward, who tried to poison his mother Alison; and Alison herself, who has found religion. 

Clammer’s novel takes place over the course of a single day, and the tension ramps up as you start to wonder where this day is going to go. Add in that prose, and it’s a compelling piece of work. 

Fitzcarraldo Editions: The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo

The original Spanish title of this novel is ‘Trilogía de la Guerro’ or ‘War Trilogy’ – because (according to an interview with the author) each of its three sections deals with the echoes of war playing out in the characters’ lives. The title of the English translation comes from a line of poetry repeated throughout the book: “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given.”

These themes – the shadow of war and the idea that reality doesn’t stand still – are apparent from the novel’s beginning. A writer (possibly a version of Fernández Mallo) travels to an island to take part in a conference on digital networks. The island was a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War, and the writer spends time finding the places in a book of photographs he has from back then, and taking pictures of those same locations now. Some of the results are reproduced in the novel, past starkly juxtaposed with present. 

In the second part of The Things We’ve Seen, we meet Kurt Montana, purportedly the fourth, unseen astronaut from Apollo 11. Now, Kurt lives in a retirement home, and recounts his life to us. He’s clearly haunted by his time serving in Vietnam, perhaps to the point where he can’t trust his senses or memory. The third part of Fernández Mallo’s book sees a woman take a walking tour of Normandy, where the remnants of war are never far away. 

Nocilla Dream was an earlier novel by Fernández Mallo which used fragments of prose on recurring themes to present the world as as a network without centre. The Things We’ve Seen also uses techniques of recurrence and remixed facts, but its paragraphs are lengthy and discursive. The effect (in another fine translation by Thomas Bunstead) is to suggest that there’s no way out of the writing here, just as there’s no escape from war for Fernández Mallo’s characters. The Things We’ve Seen is a hazy, striking experience. 

Prototype Publishing: Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard

I have a few posts coming up about books from small publishers that are new to the blog (and mostly new to me!). When the time comes, I’ll take the opportunity to introduce the publisher as well as the book, starting now…

Prototype is a London publisher that aims to “increase audiences for experimental writing”. They had a title longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize last year (Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces), though this is the first time I’ve read one of their books. I love a good series design, and I was already taken with the small format and striking black-and-white covers of Prototype’s prose fiction list.

Oli Hazzard’s novel is written as a single sentence, addressed to someone known only as A (all characters and real-world figures in the book are referred to by letters, which adds to a feeling of disorientation) . The title of Lorem Ipsum refers to dummy placeholder text used in book and website design, and there’s a sense that the narrator is using his lengthy email as a kind of displacement, throwing everything in as it occurs to him because he’s not quite sure what he wants to say. 

One of the novel’s main themes concerns different kinds of experience. For example, here’s the narrator talking about returning to the analogue world having been immersed in playing a video game:

…I feel like I am emerging from something distinct from sleep or distraction, a state of having been away from language for a while, and returning from the place where I had been–a place in which I ‘thought’ in football, in the sense that the movements of the players I was controlling were expressive of ‘thoughts’ (or maybe ‘ideas’) which I would otherwise only ever become aware of if they were articulated in words–is frightening, partly because it makes me realise how smoothly and soundlessly language can fall away… 

This theme extends to different areas of the narrator’s life, including parenthood. For example, he describes his sense of “our children’s resistance to our efforts to naturalise the process of everyday experience” – imagination rules, and the real world is only allowed in reluctantly. 

The way Lorem Ipsum is written gives the reader a similar kind of dual experience: being immersed in a swirling sea of language at the level of reading, against the everyday reality of what’s being described. The best thing is just to start reading and let it carry you away. 

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat

Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat won the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction with this book; as its title suggests, its characters have been displaced – and its structure underlines this even more. 

Voices of the Lost (translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth) begins with a series of anonymous letters, written to parents, siblings, lovers. These letters go into some of their writers’ deepest feelings and secrets, but they also float free of context to a certain extent. The letters never arrive with their recipients – each one is found, unsent, by the writer of the next. 

Following the initial cycle of letters is a set of chapters that appear to be written from the viewpoints of the characters who would have received those previous letters. These chapters cast new light on what we’ve read before, but the fact that they seem to respond to letters that weren’t sent makes their sense of reality uncertain. 

What I found in Voices of the Lost is a combination of powerful character portraits and a sense of dislocation that comes from the way the book is organised. It’s striking stuff to read. 

Published by Oneworld.

#2021InternationalBooker: and the winner is…

There was never any chance that the International Booker Prize judges would choose the same winner as the shadow panel this year, because we went for Minor Detail, which didn’t make it to the official shortlist (though it should have, if you ask me).

However, I’m pleased because the jury chose my favourite book from the official shortlist, which is…

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (tr. Anna Moschovakis)

Congratulations to the winners!

#2021InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s winner

The official winner of this year’s International Booker Prize will be announced later today. Before then, it’s time to announce the shadow panel’s winner. We choose a winner from our own shadow shortlist, so sometimes it matches the official result, and sometimes… Well, read on.

This was our tenth year of shadowing the International Booker (and its predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), but it was also a year of some firsts. We were able to meet virtually via Zoom for the first time – no mean feat when we have members in the UK, Australia, India and USA. We also introduced a ‘Eurovision-style’ scoring system for the shadow shortlist, where each panel member ranked the titles and gave them 10 points, 7, 5, 3, 2 and 1. After adding up the scores, we can now reveal the results:

In 6th place, with 25 points… Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý (tr. Nichola Smalley).

In 5th place, with 31 points… At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (tr. Anna Moschovakis).

In 4th place, with 37 points… The Employees by Olga Ravn (tr. Martin Aitken).

In 3rd place, with 39 points… When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (tr. Adrian Nathan West).

In 2nd place, with 52 points… In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (tr. Sasha Dugdale).

Which means our shadow winner, with a grand total of 68 points, is…

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (tr. Elisabeth Jaquette)

This is only the second time in shadow panel history that our winner hasn’t appeared on the official shortlist. It’s also another strong showing for Fitzcarraldo Editions, who have published four of our five shadow winners since 2017, and took the top two slots this year.

Congratulations to the shadow winners, and thanks to my fellow shadow panellists: Tony, Stu, Bellezza, Vivek, Frances, Areeb, Barbara and Oisin. It’s been another fun year – I wonder what the official jury will have chosen?

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

15 Years of Quick Reads, and The Motive by Khurrum Rahman

2021 is the 15th year of Quick Reads, an initiative run by the Reading Agency charity to help reach people who find reading difficult, or who don’t read regularly for pleasure. Every year, six new Quick Reads titles are published: short books that are distributed to libraries or available to buy at a low price (£1 in paperback). 

I was invited by Midas PR to review one of this year’s Quick Reads titles. The 2021 selection includes The Baby is Mine by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Atlantic), The Skylight by Louise Candlish (Simon & Schuster), Saving the Day by Katie Fforde (Arrow), Wish You Were Dead by Peter James (Macmillan), and How to Be a Woman abridged by Caitlin Moran (Ebury). But I went for The Motive by Khurrum Rahman (HQ), which is a prequel to his series of spy thrillers featuring Jay Qasim, a west London dope-dealer who reluctantly ends up working for MI5.

In The Motive, Jay takes a call from a stranger asking him to deal at a student house party. Jay would prefer to stick to customers he knows, but times are tough. He might wish he’d kept to his rules, though, when one of the students is stabbed. What’s more, Jay’s friend Idris – a police officer – is also called to the scene. 

I enjoyed reading this: it’s snappily told, with Jay and Idris both engaging narrators. You get a real sense of the tense atmosphere at the house party, and there are several twists when it comes to who’s responsible for the crime. I’m interested to see where Rahman takes Jay after this, so I think I’ll be reading more in the future. 

The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga

In the mood for a long book? Here’s a 700-page Mexican tale of revenge (translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer) that never flags. Our narrator is Juan Guillermo, who grew up in Mexico in the 1960s. His brother Carlos had his own drug business, and was killed by the Good Boys, a Catholic youth gang protected by the local police chief. Juan Guillermo’s parents died in a car accident a few years later, but he sees their grief over Carlos as the root cause. He would like vengeance, but that won’t come easily. 

The structure is what really makes The Untameable stand out to me. For a long way into the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between different periods of Juan Guillermo’s life, as though highlighting that none of this is really over for him. A parallel strand sees a young man hunting an infamous wolf in the Yukon, which mirrors Juan Guillermo’s search for revenge – and intersects directly with his story in the end. In between chapters, there are shorter passages on different beliefs and practices around death, which show how much this weighs on Juan Guillermo’s mind. 

I found The Untameable to be fascinating, poignant, and a good old page-turner.

Published by MacLehose Press.

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