Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

Cover imageIt’s been well over four years since Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors was published. Since then she’s produced three children’s books. I’d been eyeing the schedules hoping for another adult novel, wondering if her writing career had taken a permanent turn when Oligarchy turned up. This short, biting novel should please Thomas fans with its story of a Russian oligarch’s daughter who spends a year in a British boarding school and finds herself turning detective.

Fifteen-year-old Tash has been whisked from her mother’s grungy Moscow flat and installed in a Hertfordshire independent school for girls by the father she’s only just met. She’s been given a black Amex card, told to buy whatever she wants and sent frequent parcels of expensive goodies. She’s mystified by her fellow dormmates, all caught up in their obsessions with social media, boys, and above all, losing weight. They’re a snobby bunch, looking down their noses at the local girls, tormenting their teachers – particularly the few males amongst them – and fantasising about the school’s founder, Princess Augusta, reputedly given a black diamond by the sultan who raped her. Tash spends her holidays in London with Aunt Sonja, her father’s sister and cybersecurity expert/hacker, who seems just as fixated on her weight and her looks as Tash’s school friends. When the most waiflike of the anorexics is found drowned in the school’s lake, the therapists are called in tasked with purging the school’s pupils of their obsession with starving themselves, but Tash is convinced that there’s more to Bianca’s disappearance than meets the eye. Then someone else goes missing and Tash’s sleuthing takes off in earnest.

Somebody in a long-ago government decided that girls should read classic feminist literature and so they are studying Angela Carter and the school can’t do anything about it because it’s the law.

There’s something of the mad fable about Thomas’ whirlwind novella which slings a multitude of well-aimed barbs at all manner of things, from private schools to social media, eating fads to therapists. She saves her sharpest swipes for the obsessive concern with thinness, launching a few digs at gym culture for good measure. As you’d expect from Thomas, it’s very funny – Mr Hendrix’ failure to curb the girls’ sneers at the populace of Stevenage in all their tattooed glory is a treat – but it’s also very, very dark. Sharp observation, smart satire and the hint of a feminist ending for Tash, Oligarchy filled the Thomas gap for me. I’m hoping that we adults won’t have to wait another four years for her next book.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786897794 212 pages Hardback

Royals by Emma Forrest: The Princess and the pauper

Cover imageRoyals is Emma Forrest’s fourth novel. I’d not read anything by her before but was attracted by the idea of a working-class Jewish boy drawn into the orbit of a poor little rich girl set against the background of London in 1981, the summer the city, or rather the entire country, found itself caught up in Royal wedding fever. Not me, I have to say.

Eighteen-year-old Steven is the son of a cab driver who regularly takes his frustrations out on his wife until Steven starts to take the punches for her. The day of the royal wedding, Steven’s father hits him so hard he wakes up on the children’s emergency ward. In the bed next to him is Jasmine, brought in after her fourth suicide attempt and loudly complaining that she should be with the adults. Jasmine’s a beauty but that’s not what attracts Steven who’s clearly gay despite his repeated declarations that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. She’s a fabulous creature who charms everyone with her dazzling attention and her generosity. These two instantly click, forming a friendship so deep it’s as if they’ve known each other for years. Steven experiences more over the next couple of weeks than he has in a lifetime, luxuriating in an unaccustomed intimacy. He also comes to understand what lies beneath Jasmine’s desperate need for company and for love. By the end of the novel, Steven will have taken the first step in attaining his ambition to produce clothes that flatter and cosset the women whose pain he longs to ease.

Almost within the first five minutes of starting it, I found myself thinking what a great film of the good old-fashioned variety Royals would make. The period detail is spot on; earworms abound for those of us of a certain age. Forrest unfolds – or perhaps unreels – her story through Steven’s voice as he looks back on the brief few weeks his shy, awkward teenage self spent with the sophisticated yet vulnerable Jasmine. It’s not a particularly original story, no real surprises, but it’s one that keeps your attention with its vivid cinematic scenes.

I got some dirty looks and some interest and that’s how it’s continued for the rest of my life

Both Steven and Jasmine could easily have been hackneyed caricatures, each representative of their class and background, but Forrest succeeds in bringing them sharply to life: Jasmine’s manipulation of anyone she needs on her side contrasts with her generosity of spirit while Steven’s clear-eyed perception of her worst behaviour cannot inure him to her charm and need. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing novel. Forrest knows how to turn a striking phrase, telling her story with wit, humour and insight.

Can you imagine a life where we just look at pictures of ourselves? It would be unbearable says Jasmine, explaining her encyclopaedic knowledge to Steven. How true, and how prescient.

Bloomsbury Books: London 2019 9781408895214 336 pages Hardback

Books to Look Out For in December 2019

Cover imageJust enough new novels in December to fill a post, two of them in translation beginning with Annette Hess’ The German House, set against a backdrop of the 1963 Frankfurt war crimes trials. The war’s a dim memory for 24-year-old Eva, keen to start her new life with her wealthy fiancé. When an American investigator offers her a job as a translator, she finds herself questioning both her family’s role in the horrors of the past and her own future. Hess’ novel is one of three published to launch, HarperVia, a new literature in translation imprint from HarperCollins. Always happy to see more of that and if It Would Be Night in Caracas is anything to go by it’s a list to keep an eye on. That’s a stylish jacket, too.

Anne Catherine Bomann’s Agatha was a bestseller in Germany, apparently, but was originally published in Denmark. A 71-year-old psychiatrist with no family or friends is eagerly awaiting retirement when a young German woman walks into his clinic and demands an appointment. He finds her fascinating, beginning a joint course of therapy with her which forces him to confront his fear of intimacy according to the blurb which sounds very promising to me.

Angela Meyer’s Joan Smokes is a mere 76 pages, apparently, more a short story than a novella although it won this year’s Mslexia Novella Award. Set in the ‘60s, it’s about a woman who arrives in Las Vegas determined to reinvent herself. Calling herself Joan, she gets to work on her appearance – choosing red lipstick and dying her hair – but turning her back on her past may not be so easy. ‘This city of flashing neon, casinos and shows is full of distractions. Finding a job will be quick and easy. Things to do. New people to meet. A clean sheet. She’s certainly not thinking about Jack, or … No. Not any more. Her new life starts right here, right now’ says the blurb. I rather like the sound of this one.

I’m finishing the last new title post for 2019 with Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man. Eighteen years Cover imageafter her mother left Palestine, betrothed within a week, Deva finds herself facing a string of suitors in Brooklyn, arranged by her formidable grandmother whose care she has been in since her parents were killed in a car crash. Shocking truths are revealed, apparently, forcing Deva to question everything she thought she knew about her family. ‘Three generations of Palestinian-American women living in Brooklyn are torn between individual desire and the strict mores of Arab culture in this heart-wrenching story of love, intrigue and courage’ say the publishers. The New York Times described it as ‘a love letter to storytelling’.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo (transl. Elizabeth Bryer): Dystopia in the here and now

Cover imageVenezuelan writer Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas is one of three novels published to launch HarperVia, a new imprint from HarperCollins dedicated to publishing literature in translation. It sets the bar pleasingly high with its immersive story of a middle-aged woman, left alone after the death of her mother, who seizes a chance to escape the long and bloody revolution taking place on the streets of her country.

Adelaida has nothing left of her paltry savings after her mother’s burial. Her only family are her two aunts, now in their eighties, who she remembers visiting in their village as a child. She grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution which began two decades ago. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. One day, Adelaida comes home to find her apartment taken over by a group of women engaged in their own version of state aid distribution. Aggressive and violent, they beat her up, refusing to let her in. Managing to break into her neighbour’s flat, she discovers Aurora’s corpse and with it an opportunity. Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem.

Instead of funeral parlours, the city now had furnaces. People went in and out like loaves of bread, which were in short supply on the shelves but rained down in our memory whenever hunger overcame us.  

We’re so bound up in our political troubles here in the UK that we sometimes forget that the plight of others is far, far worse than our own. Syria comes to mind, from which our domestic media seems to have turned their faces, but Venezuela’s situation is also desperate as Borgo’s novel makes clear. She’s careful to remind readers of the inequities visited on a diverse society in the determined grip of a white middle class before the Revolution but brutality, corruption and degradation accompanied by galloping inflation and shortages seems hardly an improvement in a country rich enough in oil for everyone to live comfortably.

Adelaida tells her story in her own voice, weaving childhood memories and scenes from her work as an editor through the events which unfold after her mother’s death. Borgo’s writing is visceral and vivid, her narrative gripping. Her novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. In my ignorance, I was not entirely sure how realistic it might be but the chilling disclaimer at the end suggests that several incidents are based on actual events. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now.

HarperCollins: London 2019 9780008359911 240 pages Hardback

To the Volcano by Elleke Boehmer: Stories of longing and loneliness

Cover imageI’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.

The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.

Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.

These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 9781912408245 177 pages Paperback

The Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer Award 2019 Shortlist

Sunday Times Young Writer Award 2019Last year I was lucky enough to be asked to shadow judge the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award along with Amanda, Lizzi, Paul and Lucy. It was such an enjoyable experience, both reading the shortlisted titles – all very different, all more than worthy of the award – and meeting other bloggers plus, of course, the authors. This year another five bloggers will be taking a turn and I hope their experience is as rewarding as ours. Announced yesterday, this year’s shortlist looks just as enticing, made up of two novels, one short story collection and one book of poetry. Here they are:

Cover images

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Testament by Kim Sherwood

It’ll be a tough choice for both the sets of judges, I suspect. If you’d like to keep up with what the shadow judges are up to you can follow their posts via the links below or on Twitter using  #YoungWriterAwardShadow.

Anne Cater at Random Things Through My Letter Box

David Harris at Blue Book Balloon

Linda Hill at Linda’s Book Bag

Clare Reynolds at Years of Reading Selfishly

Phoebe Williams at The Brixton Bookworm

The shadow judges will annouce their winner on 28th November followed by the judges a week later. The prize will be awarded at the London Library on Thursday, December 6th. Good luck to all and have fun!

Six Degrees of Separation – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Seven White Gates

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I’ve read many times as a child and as an adult.

Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass are stuffed with riddles, puzzles, wordplay and a multitude of allusions which Martin Gardner helps elucidate in The Annotated Alice

I’m distinctly unkeen on annotations in novels but Jonathan Coe’s footnotes in The House of Sleep had me in hysterics.

Coe is best known for his state of the nation novels, a sub-genre I find hard to resist. A recent favourite was Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.

A particularly grisly murder brought Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm to mind for me while reading Craig’s novel. A couple of pages later she pleasingly tips her hat to Gibbons with a quote.

Gibbons’ comic novel is widely acknowledged as a parody of the floridly romantic historical style epitomised by Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, set in Shropshire during the Napoleonic Wars.

Shropshire is the location for one of my childhood favourites, Malcolm Saville’s Seven White Gates which has some wonderfully atmospheric scenes on the Long Mynd.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole to a childhood favourite set in Shropshire. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (transl. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis): Interconnected lives

Cover imageI’m sure I’ve already made this observation here but I’ve yet to read a dud from Peirene Press. Their books are always thought-provoking and often beautifully expressed, a tribute to both writer and translator, or in this case translators. Clearly, Meike Ziervogel has a very discerning editorial eye and her own writing is quite remarkable, too: Flotsam is one of this year’s favourite books for me. Emmanuelle Pagano’s interconnected set of brief short stories, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, is the last in Peirene’s Here Be Monsters series, exploring the lives of those who live a little outside society.

We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try to see more clearly inside ourselves

The inhabitants of a French village, high up in the mountains, are no different from anyone else in that they have memories, families, friends, lives marked by the usual sadnesses and occasional outbreaks of joy, but some have suffered more than others. Every afternoon, a man stands on the bend of the road where his family was killed, as if to turn back time, then the road is diverted leaving him truly lost. A man is shamed by the childhood joke whose cruelty still lingers in the lives of the two women who were its victims. A hitchhiker finds himself picked up by a taciturn woman whose driving is so dangerous she seems intent on killing them both. A woman remembers the cousin she so closely resembled they were often mistaken for each other, convinced that her cousin committed suicide, while another thinks of the therapist obsessed with the fox she put out of its misery as a child shortly after her parents separated. These stories and many more are bookended with the childhood memories of a woman happy to read alone while listening to her cousins play and the reflections of another who discovers there’s much to learn about her fellow readers from her library loans.

When I borrow books, I take with me glimpses of their daily goings-on, all the little doings that fill our own stories and mingle with those in the books, sometimes to the extent of leaving their marks on the pages, the inside things and the outside things.

Pagano’s stories offer snapshots of the villagers’ lives through their memories and anecdotes. Many of her characters are alone or on the fringes of society. Their stories are often sad – suicide, grief and loss are frequent – but there’s also tolerance, gentle humour and small kindnesses. Each is told in the character’s own, distinct voice, unfolding their lives in simple yet striking descriptions:

This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock.

Small details accrue, each one carefully stitched in until a vivid picture of a community emerges. Beautifully executed, it’s another Peirene triumph.

Peirene Press: London 2019 9781908670540 124 pages Paperback

The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession

Cover imageMary Costello’s Academy Street was one of my books of 2014. The story of one woman’s attenuated life, I loved it for its small canvas and pared back prose, including it in both my Man Booker and Women’s Prize for Fiction wish lists. It popped up again here earlier in the week as one of my Five Novellas I’ve Read. You can imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to The River Capture, slightly daunted when I read that it was an homage to James Joyce, but still keen nevertheless. Costello’s second novel is about Luke O’Brien, a teacher in his thirties who has taken a career break to write about his beloved Joyce but who seems to be getting nowhere.

Luke returned to the family farm four years ago. He’s alone apart from his aunt Ellen whose bungalow is within waving distance. Luke lives on the rent from the family’s fields, determined to drive a hard bargain with the farmer whose cattle now graze them. He does everything but write, turning over all manner of things in his mind, constantly returning to Joyce and his characters. He wanders into town for his shopping, visits his aunt, talks about their family, marked by tragedy, and looks after his adored pregnant cat. One day a young woman appears asking a favour. Her uncle can no longer look after his dog and Ruth has been told that Luke might take him in. They fall to talking, exchanging family histories, sharing lunch and a little wine. Ruth leaves Paddy with Luke, promising to come back soon. When she does, their connection deepens, Ruth a little taken aback at Luke’s frankness about his sexuality. Long emails are exchanged then a weekend away and Luke begins to dare to hope for happiness, even taking Ruth to meet Ellen. It’s after that meeting that a bombshell is dropped, a secret revealed, and an ultimatum delivered precipitating an episode of madness that seems to have been flickering at the edges of Luke’s consciousness for some time.

The River Capture was something of a curate’s egg for me, delicious in the main but with a long stream of consciousness section which veered away from the linear narrative I’d become absorbed in. I should mention that I’ve never managed to finish one of Joyce’s novels and I suspect therein lies the problem.

The first part of Costello’s book had me transfixed with its gorgeous word pictures of the countryside and its portrait of a man caught up in obsessions, skittering from idea to idea. Luke is firmly rooted in family, breaking off his university studies to nurse his sick aunt and then caring for his mother. The farm is freighted with memory which unspools in Luke’s mind as he walks the land and looks around his house. The passages in which he grapples with the awful dilemma with which he’s faced are full of memories, family history, abstruse knowledge – one thought triggering another, often on an entirely different topic. It’s unsettling to read, a vivid depiction of a disordered mind, but it’s a very long passage and I found myself getting lost in it. So, perhaps not quite what I was hoping for although there’s a great deal that I enjoyed. I suspect if you’re a Joyce fan you might think differently.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781782116431 272 pages Hardback

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.