Category: Contemporary and Classic (page 2 of 3)

Book Review: White is For Witching

 

Oooooo….a birthday book from one of my lovely sisters and what a treat. Been meaning to try out a Helen Oyeyemi after reading some good reviews and I wasn’t disappointed. Devoured this in two sittings.

Set in a large house in Dover, the two main narrators are twins, Eliot and Miranda Silver, who are in their late teens. The prologue opens with a series of fractured narratives – where we learn the girl, Miranda is missing.

The characters are all painted vividly throughout this book and with each passing page, you want to lap up more. I found myself fascinated by each of the characters, where ordinary details usually passed over were lingered over by Oyeyemi. For instance, the father, Luc, who isn’t a major character in the book is still crystal clear in the reader’s mind. His introduction was:

“He wooed his wife with peach tarts he’d learnt from his pastry father. The peaches fused into the dough, with their skins intact, bittered and sweetened by burnt sugar…His fingers are ruined by too close and careless contact with the heat; the parts that touch each other when the hand is held out straight and flat, the skin there is stretched and speckled and shiny. Lily had never seen such hands. To her they seemed the most wonderful in all the world.”

And yes, it’s a story about food in part. The girl, Miranda suffers from the condition of Pica (eating things that aren’t food, such as chalk, soil, etc.)

But the most interesting aspect of the story is the way in which the house impacts on the family. We come to learn that it has done so over the course of generations of Silvers.

A little taster without spoiling hopefully:

“I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home. I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read – I tell you where you are. Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look at me.”

The Soucouyant, is said in folklore, to inhabit the flesh of an old woman who strips it off at night.

(Image from: veryoddthings.tumblr.com/post/65240426394/they-hide-in-the-dark-soucouyant-the)

Book Review: Disgrace

Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee has sat, untouched by my bed for at least the last two months. Shameful….disgraceful you might say (or I would). Such an interesting and insightful book that when I finally picked it up I devoured it in just two sittings.

It tells the story of David Lurie, a Communications professor at the university of Cape Town. Shortly after the novel opens, David has an affair with one of his female students (something that we understand is not an uncommon occurrence for him). However, this time, the student files a complaint and David must face charges of harassment. At the hearing before his colleagues he is willing to admit he is guilty, but is unwilling to off any contrition. In turn he is forced to resign.

David ends up on his daughter’s farm in rural South Africa and it is here he comes to reflect on his past, with particular regard to his relationship and his treatment of women. Discussions with his daughter, Lucy lead David to re-evaluate his views on women. But it is only after he is attacked on the farm and his daughter is raped that David really begins to empathise with women. And in Lucy we are presented with a character at the opposite end of the scale from David. Lucy is willing to humble herself in an extreme manner as she believes that in this post-apartheid South Africa a life of humiliation is what she should settle for.

I read a few reviews on this novel that put forward that it was poorly executed, in that it was too moralistic, that the attack on Lucy is too much of a coincidence and is shoe-horned in to bring David to the revelation that his behaviour is the similar to the rapists. Or that it is too much that David goes back and has dinner with the father of the student he had an affair with, having a heart to heart with the man who should despise him. In one  someone said that David wasn’t even a believable character, more of a plot device.

Yes, this is a moralistic novel, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And was carried straight through the narrative. David’s voice is self-absorbed and cynical. He isn’t likeable, but he isn’t supposed to be.

The very opening line is strong in voice:

“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

He says of his students. “He has long ceased to be surprised at the ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday.”

There is so much in this book to love – the character coming to terms with his identity as individual and father, as well as his sexuality within these parameters. Questions about power and subjugation, about pride and humility, and how all these things affect a person’s humanity.

 

Book Review: You Are Not a Stranger Here

 

I recently read Adam Haslett’s debut collection of short stories, ‘You Are Not a Stranger Here’ released in 2002. I read this article, ‘The Perpetual Solitude of the Writer’ on the Literary Hub about the mindset of the writer and found Haslett’s take on it very interesting, hence trying his book.

So glad I did. There are interesting and varied narrators in this collection. The themes and ideas aren’t that varied – such as mental illness, sexuality, loss, but they are explored in depth.

Some of my favourite parts were the way a Bruegel painting in ‘The Good Doctor’ becomes so alive, but sinister because of the story relayed around it. There are some supernatural/inexplicable tales in this volume too, which were interesting. In ‘Divination’ we experience the strange with the main character in alls its subtlety:

“It had stilled a part of Samuel’s mind he’d never realised hd been moving. A tiny ball in the middle of his brain had spun to a halt. It scared him. He’d always thought fear would be something fast, a thing that pushed you forwards.”

My favourite though was ‘The Volunteer’ in seeing the world through the eyes of Elizabeth, where her family’s history collides with her present in such an intense and disturbing way.

“Elizabeth begged for the doctor to give her something to blunt the vicious pain in her abdomen. In the moments of reprieve, she’d open her eyes and from the walls of her bedroom see the dead generations staring down at her: daguerreotypes of gaunt women and Simian-faced men, stiff as iron in Sunday black, posed as if to meet their maker.”

(Image from http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/)

Book Review: The Art of Fiction

A little while ago I went on Curtis Brown’s 6 week online novel writing course. (A bit of CPD that kept me busy for some time and helped me get the oomph back into developing ideas, but in a more structured way to how I’ve previously written.) I would thoroughly recommend the six week Curtis Brown novel course to anyone thinking about it. Great resources, exercises and a lovely platform to share work with other writers. I think the last one is key, and I feel very lucky to have met so many talented and dedicated writers that I will stay in touch with. We have already started another private forum for the purposes of critiquing one another’s work and to keep each other motivated.

One of the lovely people in our group shared a link to a free open university writing group recently so if you don’t fancy doing a paid one, I would join such a writers’ group for the purposes of critiquing. It truly is invaluable the support and advice that such a group provides.

I wanted to leave a little praise for this book ‘The Art of Fiction’ by David Lodge too. I read this shortly after finishing the CB course. One of the modules was on reading as a writer, which of course is essential as a writer. Indeed, it’s one of the things I used to fuss about – am I reading enough, how many books should I aim to read a month, am I reading enough to be developing as a writer? Phwah! No need to overdo things…there are plenty of people out there to point you in the right direction. And Lodge is one of them.

This book, written by Lodge, both a fiction writer and academic of English and American literature gives you a helping hand. From topic to topic with examples from novels, he showcases techniques and styles. He is informative and humorous so doesn’t feel heavy, but enjoyable to analyse. It has given me more books to add to my list with techniques and styles to focus on too, which I look forward to applying.

A few examples of the kinds of thing he covers. There’s a passage on commonplace topics like point of view, introducing characters and stream of consciousness. There are also insightful case studies of suspense, titles, names, ideas, intertextuality and much more.

A particular favourite was the passage on Suspense with Hardy’s ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ (1873) to showcase the history of suspense and its use in the novel. In it we see Hardy’s character, Henry Knight whilst in pursuit of his runaway hat slip down a cliff. Hence the term cliffhanger we use today originates from here where Knight is left suspended (literally) from a cliff.

(Image courtesy of http://www.stuff.co.nz/)

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: Book Review

I tried this a few months ago after I had been reading a lot of commercial fiction (YA Fantasy generally). I didn’t keep reading because it felt so slow to get into at the time, think Thackery or Dickens, just a bit to much for my current mood. It definitely shows the importance to read what you want when the mood strikes. Saying that, this time around, reading this book was a joy.

We (eventually) meet Emma (who becomes Madame Bovary when she marries) and it is fascinating to watch her life unfold. It is a book about expectations, anticipation and our perception and internal dialogue with ourselves. At first Emma’s character struck me as something like Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, always seeking violent emotions, drawn to the extremes.

“Accustomed to the tranquil side of nature, she sought the dramatic in its stead. She loved the sea only for its storms, and the green grass only when it grew in patches among ruins. She had to derive a kind of personal profit from things, and rejected, as useless, anything that did not contribute directly to her heart’s gratification – for her temperament was sentimental rather than artistic, and she longed for emotion, not scenery.”

She is a character in love with the idea of love. It leads her to marriage, to an affair, to spending excessively and, of course, eventually, to ruin.

When she finally concedes to having an affair there is a luscious, descriptive paragraph of the countryside. Her actions have changed it and she perceives herself as changed.

“Evening shadows were falling, the sun, low in the sky, shone through the branches, dazzling her eyes. Here and there, all round her, in the foliage and on the ground were shimmering patches of light, as if hummingbirds had scattered their plumage as they flew past. All was silent; a mellow sweetness seemed to be coming from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat agin and the blood flowing through her body like a river of milk. Then she heard in the distance, from the other side of the wood, on those other hills, a vague, long drawn-out cry, a voice that seemed to linger in the air, and she listened to in silence, as it blended like a melody with the last vibrations of her tingling nerves.”

Even when she falls into ruin, coming close to madness, Emma hangs onto her deeply-rooted belief in love.

“She stood there utterly stupefied, aware of her own existence, only in the throbbing of her arteries, which she thought she could hear outside herself, resonating through the countryside with a defining music…she was still confused, for she had no recollection of the reason for her horrible state, the problem of money. She was suffering purely through love, and at the thought of it she felt her soul slipping out from her body – just as the wounded, in dying, feel their life slipping away through their bleeding wounds.”

Madame Bovary is a brilliant testament to the way we all perceive our lives with unique perceptions and internal dialogues that can never be fully known to others. I see it as homage to the fact that often an idea is more beautiful than the thing itself. So too, that in some ways there is far more life going on within an individual’s mind than in the real world, and that life can be a pale comparison to the vibrant world of the imagination.

(Screenshot from the 2014 film, Madame Bovary, starring Mia Wasikowska)

 

 

 

The Creative Penn and Desecration by J.F.Penn: Book Review

Just to start off with – I am going to extol Penn’s virtues as a talented author (in particular as she’s an independent author and has self-published her books). As well as publishing fiction, thrillers mostly, and a series with a paranormal twist, she publishes books on writing and independently publishing and marketing them. This author is a true inspiration to anyone who might be thinking about making the step into independent publishing. (Okay, that’s my little writer crush over, but seriously if you want any tips on doing any of the above – check out her website TheCreativePenn because she ensures all her work is produced to a professional standard and happily shares so many tips of making a go of it in this industry).

I am currently looking at getting my Arete trilogy out independently and I know Penn’s books, videos and whatever other format she releases her tips in, are going to guide me along the way. Another recommendation of Penn’s for independent authors is to join ALLI – The Alliance of Independent Authors, which I will be doing when I get things polished up in the final manuscript and off to an editor. A very quick run down of my process over the next little while is: finish redrafting last book in series, ‘Rites of Passage’, research and employ an independent content editor, copy-editor, proofreader, making changes from these, get out to beta-readers, get cover designer, decide on marketing strategy. Easy bit – boom – PUBLISH! I’ll be coming up with a cost plan soon and will be able to share a timescale. I will be updating and sharing along the way on this journey and hopefully get some tips that may prove useful to other writers out there.

Onto Penn’s book: Desecration! Although I’ve been following Penn as the Creative Penn a while, I hadn’t read any of her fiction yet. I chose Desecration (The London Psychic Series) as it had the supernatural/fantasy slant to the thriller and thought it would likely be the series I would prefer. I wasn’t wrong! What a fantastic read!

It’s not just that it’s fast-paced, lots of mystery and conflict throughout, but that her prose and the summation of her characters is beautiful, and has a lot of depth to it.

It starts in the Huntarian Museum, in the Royal College of Surgeons. The museum has a collection of specimens on human anatomy. In the very opening chapter a woman is murdered at at the museum, the collection providing a suitably garish and disturbing backdrop. Next we meet Jamie, a detective in the Metropolitan police, who is tasked with solving the woman’s murder, which in its surgical nature seems to be connected to the setting where it was carried out.

We go with Jamie on her journey to find the killer, from the West End where we meet some of London’s wealthiest aristocrats to East London, with artisans and artists. There are more gruesome scenes with plastination as art (where the water and fats in a cadaver are replaced with plastics to create a body that can be preserved and displayed). We also get an insight into the world of extreme body modification. Both subjects provide tension and interest to the developing story and characters, but Penn also delves deeper into these subjects. She asks questions about the body as art, about the right of the dead and about the living’s relationship with them.

I won’t give anything else away! Just know that it is a thrilling and thought-provoking read.

(Plastinated heart with pulmonary arteries and veins from Body Worlds)

 

 

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb: Book Review

Firstly, this is the kind of book I wish I’d read when I was younger. When Mihaly talks about the pains of growing up: his awkwardness, his disassociation with his family and his joyous discovery of a different dynamic in his friends Tamas and Eva, I thought it was such an insightful take on adolescence. I loved the way in which he told it to his new wife, Erzsi and the way in which he idolises what has passed.

“I have to tell you these things from the past because they are so important. The really important things usually lie in the distant past. And until you know about them, if you forgive me saying so, you will always be to some extent a mere newcomer in my life.”

Mihaly’s reverence for the past is what comes shining through in the novel and how it distorts his present and future.

Early on he describes his character so:

“For me the deepest truth was the things suffused with the lives of many generations…”

It’s fascinating to walk with Mihaly on his honeymoon and see how absent he is from his surroundings, almost a ghost inhabiting the present moment. Incidentally, I think Mihaly is the ideal travelling companion. (Yes, he may leave his wife on a train, but everywhere he looks the historic monuments are alive and there is a dream-like quality to his narrative and journey where anything is possible).

“They had passed beyond the threshold of dreams, the habitual hour of sleep. Now distinctions were becoming blurred, rational morality was in retreat as they surrendered themselves to the night.”

In amongst the romanticism, there is a grounding realism.

“On the hill young Roman boys, late descendants of the quirites, were playing at soldiers, hurling shards at one another, fragment of pottery two thousand years old, without a trace of emotion.

‘That’s Italy,’ thought Mihaly. ‘They pelt one another with history. Two thousand years are as natural to them as the smell of village manure.'”

His voice is amusingly cynical throughout as he reacts to characters he meets:

“Even Millicent’s stupidity was attractive. In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”

Or on his friend, who becomes a monk:

“…he had dug up from his soul the very roots of anything that might flower into those feelings that bind people together.”

One of my favourite scenes was the one in which Mihaly and his old college friend, Waldheim discuss the way in which life and death are bound together, this truth better known to Ancient cultures than in the present day:

“…for the archaic peoples nothing was more immediately apparent than death and the dead, I mean actual dead people, whose mysterious para-existence, fate and vengeful fury constantly preoccupied them. They had a tremendous horror of death and the dead. But then of course in their minds everything was more ambiguous than it is for us. Opposites sat much closer.The fear of death and the desire for death were intimately juxtaposed in their minds, and the fear was often a form of desire, the desire a form of fear.”

This age old struggle between how we relate to life and death and handle the two is what accompanies Mihaly throughout the novel and his journey. And we, like him, can only observe the present through the eyes of our past; a dichotomy that could take a whole lifetime to ponder.

(Image courtesy of laragosta.tumblr.com/post/118692687502. A photograph of a porta dei morti(door of the dead). Folklore in Gubbio says that this second door was to remove any who died in the house. There’s a great bit about these doors in Gubbio in the book.)

Skylark, Dezso Kosztolanyi: Book Review

 

I read a review after reading this book about how the author was writing about this town Sárszeg, a fictionalised form of Subotica, the author’s hometown, but of the past. And the time Skylark was first published, it, as well as two-thirds of Hungary had become part of Serbia, Yugoslavia after war.

You certainly get this sense throughout the novel that the relationship between mother, father and daughter – is unsustainable. It’s an interesting look at how life and its routines are precarious and fragile. As well as the balance we strive to achieve between routine and spontaneity. A very thought provoking read and some particularly beautiful passages:

“When people go away they vanish, turn to nothing, stop being. They live only in memories, haunting the imagination. We know they go on being somewhere else, but no longer see them, just as we no longer see those who have passed away.”

I particularly liked the description of bohemians and the reference to the way the writer “worked”.

“…they were strange fellows, these bohemians. They lounged around doing nothing and told you they were working; they were frightfully miserable and yet would tell you they were perfectly happy. They had more troubles than others but seemed to bear them better, od if they fed on suffering…”

The writer Miklos’ work:

“…he could see quite clearly before him the wretched rooms, where suffering collected like unswept dust in the corners, the dust of lives in painful heaps, piled up over many long years. He shut his eyes and drank in the garden’s bitter fragrance. At such time Miklos Ijas was ‘working’.”

My husband once worked in a Physics lab where the scientists had a time they designated as “thinking time” and did just that. I’ve been enjoying writers like Kosztolanyi and Magda Szabo lately and the little jokes they make about this style of working.

Leave you with one of these such lovely descriptions about the creative process:

“He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of diving understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain; the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own.”

The Door: Book Review

Another gem by Magda Szabo! It’s described by the Glasgow Herald as: “This melting pot of a novel hangs from a solid tripod of Greek myth, Biblical scripture and Slavic Fairy-tale…” It’s a good description and not over the top. It’s like a sumptuous dish – I’m thinking a bowl of Goulash with the rich flavours  of beef, red-wine and paprika wafting from the steam.

The imagery throughout adds depth to the story and you can’t help lingering over it. Some little tasters:

“When I thought about it the pair of them at the table weren’t at all like a mistress giving her good little dog his reward, they were more like figures from a Greek myth, taking part in some horrific celebration. The roast meat the animal had snatched was only a semblance. It was more than food, it was a meal not for human witness, a tangle of viscera, a species of human sacrifice – as if Emerence were feeding the actual person to the dog, along with all her fond memories and feelings.”

Right from the beginning we’re told that the relationship between the narrator and Emerence is ill-fated and doomed: “Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”

After this, we journey along, with these two women, prepared for the heart-ache to come. With the poignant, delicate writing and the hard-hitting imagery, even with the beginning statement issued, you find yourself still unprepared for how the journey will affect you. And over and over the narrator reminds us about the dangers of loving, her narration sounding like an oracle as old as time, issuing her warning again and again:

“…it was from this moment that Emerence truly loved me, loved me without reservation, gravely almost, like someone deeply conscious of the obligations of love, who knows it to be a dangerous passion fraught with risk…” And “In my student days I detested Schopenhauer only later did I come to acknowledge the force of his idea that every relationship involving personal feeling laid one open to attack and the more people I allowed to become close to me, the greater number of ways in which I was vulnerable.”

A beautiful read – and if I doubted it with just having read Iza’s Ballad, establishes her as one of my favourite writers.

(Medea kills her children)

Book Review: Remains of the Day

We were a little overdue this month on holding our book club, but met to discuss book number two yesterday. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a poignant and thought provoking read, awarding lots of discussion.

It details the life of Stevens, a butler and his service to a Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. Stevens embarks on a trip through the English countryside and reflects on his life and the events that have led him to where he is. In the choice of language, in the description of setting the reader soon understands he is struggling internally with the decisions he has made throughout his life.

At the very heart of the novel is his relationship with Ms Kenton, the housekeeper of Darlington Hall and we see throughout how he has missed opportunities to make connections with other people all his life. Instead he has quashed all emotion down and inhabits his role as a butler entirely, his core values and beliefs being to uphold and maintain a sense of dignity.

It is both fascinating and tragic how he clings to this belief in the beginning of the novel. Both the interactions with others and events over the course of the novel mean he is unable  to maintain this belief. At the end he is left with a fragile sense of self and filled with regret and loss.

Yes, heavy stuff, but soooooo worth reading – you’ll regret it if you don’t!

(We also watched the film afterwards, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, which was very well done for the most part)

(Image from the 1993 film, Remains of the Day)

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