TagLegend Press

We Love This Book reviews: Andrew Blackman and Daisy Hildyard

Here are a couple of interesting books that I’ve reviewed recently for We Love This Book.

Andrew Blackman, A Virtual Love (2013)

Jeff Brennan is an IT consultant with a knack for showing different faces to the world as circumstances require.

When he tags along on one of his friend Marcus’s environmental protests, he meets the beautiful Marie, who assumes Jeff must be a celebrated but reclusive political blogger also named Jeff Brennan, whom she admires. Jeff is only too happy to play along, and as the pair’s relationship develops his deceptions grow ever more desperate. To make matters even more complicated, Marcus is leaning on Jeff for favours in exchange for keeping his secret; and the other Jeff Brennan decides to find out who this Marie is who keeps leaving him flirtatious comments.

Andrew Blackman’s second novel is a fine study of identity and deception at the point where the online and offline worlds intersect. Blackman shows how Jeff treats lying to Marie as just another way of selectively creating a persona, and ends up digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole as a result. The novel tells a compelling story, but also reflects seriously on the nature of identity in the modern world. Jeff is not the only character to manipulate perceptions of themselves: Marie tidies up her online presence for him, and isn’t such an attractive personality to everyone.

The characters of Jeff’s grandparents serve as reminders that identities may be lost – with Arthur’s journalistic career long behind him, and Daisy’s very self taken by dementia – and as a means of comparing past and present. But perhaps Blackman’s smartest technique is to have all his narrators address their words to Jeff, so we never hear from him directly. Our impressions of him come from a distance, rather like the people taken in by his various personas – and the ‘real’ Jeff is lost among all the different versions of him.

(Visit the publisher, Legend Press.)

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Daisy Hildyard, Hunters in the Snow (2013)

Daisy Hildyard’s debut is a patchwork novel about the patchwork nature of history.

The unnamed narrator returns to from London to rural Yorkshire to deal with the paperwork for the farm of her late grandfather, Jimmy – who was, like her, a historian. She reads Jimmy’s writings on four historical figures: Edward IV, Peter the Great, a former slave named Olaudah Equiano, and Lord Kitchener. Doing so sparks off the narrator’s memories, and those little stories intermingle with the broader sweep of history.

Hunters in the Snow is built to emphasise that what we may think of as history is partial, has been put together from fragments, and can be shaped towards different ends. Jimmy’s four accounts include acts of deception, in both events themselves and in their chronicling. Historical and more novelistic styles of writing merge and gain equal weight, as do the different kinds of stories being told. Jimmy has a magpie interest in history, and plenty of thoughts on its nature. As Hildyard’s afterword indicates, even the novel itself has been assembled from bits and pieces of haphazard research.

A downside of this approach is that Hunters in the Snow can sometimes feel like too much of a grab-bag, its ideas a bit too diffused because there are so many at play. And there is a detached quality to the prose that doesn’t always sit well with the more personal moments. But the sheer breadth of Hildyard’s novel is wonderful to experience, and the reader is left with much to think about.

This is certainly one of the most distinctive novels I’ve read this year. Although it’s assembled from many sources, Hunters in the Snow speaks firmly with its own voice.

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See my other reviews for We Love This Book here.

Book notes: Manu Joseph and J.R. Crook

Manu Joseph, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012)

In 1990s Madras, journalist Ousep Chacko spends his days trying to find out what caused his teenage son Unni to commit suicide three years ago.

All Ousep has to work with are a few of Unni’s comics (Unni having been a talented cartoonist), and the possibility of talking to Somen Pillai, an elusive former school friend of Unni’s. Elsewhere in Ousep’s life, his wife Mariamma is losing her grip on reality and sometimes wishes him dead; and his younger son Thoma is developing a crush on a neighbouring girl. Piecing what happened to Unni might be the only thing that could bring the family back together – that is, if it doesn’t pull them apart.
The plot of Manu Joesph’s second novel runs in ever increasing circles, revisiting old points to reveal a little more each time. We’re aware early on that Unni was at times disruptive at school; but the complete picture of how and why only emerges later, casting a different light on what we knew. Likewise, Unni’s worldview comes into focus only gradually, a tense and intriguing process. Added to this are some striking observations; for example: “From their dark windows and doorways people stand and gaze, looking bored, expecting a greater boredom to reach them; it is as if they know that the extraordinary does not exist.” The Illicit Happiness of Other People is an engaging read that leaves readers with plenty to think about afterwards.
(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)
J.R. Crook, Sleeping Patterns (2012)

Jamie Crook is the latest recipient of the Luke Bitmead Bursary for unpublished writers, which leads to a publishing contract with Legend Press; so here’s his winning novel, Sleeping Patterns. It’s presented as a set of story-fragments sent by a character named ‘Jamie Crook’ (deceased in the book’s present) to Annelie Strandli. The fragments tell of how Jamie and Annelie came to know each other as students, as well as a third student named Berry Walker. Annelie found herself drawn to Berry, an aspiring writer; but finding a hidden manuscript of his made her reconsider what she thought she knew.

Sleeping Patterns is a novel of piecing together the truth, on several levels. Just as Annelie constructs an image of Berry from the pieces of his manuscript, so the reader has to construct what happens in Crook’s novel from the textual fragments presented out of chronological order. There are hints in each layer of narrative that what we’re reading has been shaped for some other purpose, and secrets to uncover to the very end. That mystery keeps one reading, but Sleeping Patterns also gives cause to reflect on how far we can really know people, no matter how well we think we do. This is an intriguing start to Crook’s career, and it’ll be interesting to see what he writes next.

BOOK REVIEW: Seven Days by various authors (2007)

Also up at Laura Hird’s website is my review of Seven Days, a Legend Press anthology of seven stories which each follow a single character over the course of one day. It’s an interesting idea, though (as is almost always the way of these things) some contributors do better with it than others. The best ones, however, make it well worth giving the book a try.

Read the review in full

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