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#TuesdayBookBlog THE SHADOW OF THE MOLE by Bob Van Laerhoven (@bobvanlaerhoven) A dark and beautiful novel set during WWI that explores the depths of people’s minds and souls #literaryfiction #WWI

Hi all:

I want to share the review of a novel by an author those of you who read my blog regularly will already be familiar with. He never disappoints and his books are always pretty special.

The Shadow of the Mole by Bob Van Laerhoven

The Shadow of the Mole by Bob Van Laerhoven

1916, Bois de Bolante, France. The battles in the trenches are raging fiercer than ever. In a deserted mineshaft, French sappeurs discover an unconscious man, and nickname him The Mole.

Claiming he has lost his memory, The Mole is convinced that he’s dead, and that an Other has taken his place. The military brass considers him a deserter, but front physician and psychiatrist-in-training Michel Denis suspects that his patient’s odd behavior is stemming from shellshock, and tries to save him from the firing squad.

The mystery deepens when The Mole begins to write a story in écriture automatique that takes place in Vienna, with Dr. Josef Breuer, Freud’s teacher, in the leading role. Traumatized by the recent loss of an arm, Denis becomes obsessed with him, and is prepared to do everything he can to unravel the patient’s secret.

Set against the staggering backdrop of the First World War, The Shadow Of The Mole is a thrilling tableau of loss, frustration, anger, madness, secrets and budding love. The most urgent question in this extraordinary story is: when, how, and why reality shifts into delusion?

“The Flemish writer Bob Van Laerhoven writes in a fascinating and compelling way about a psychiatric investigation during WW1. The book offers superb insight into the horrors of war and the trail of human suffering that results from it” – NBD Biblion

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Mole-Bob-Van-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-Mole-Bob-Van-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

https://www.amazon.es/Shadow-Mole-English-Bob-Laerhoven-ebook/dp/B09RTTK28K/

Author Bob Van Laerhoven
Author Bob Van Laerhoven

About the author:

Bob van Laerhoven was born on August 8th, 1953 in the sandy soil of Antwerp’s Kempen, a region in Flanders (Belgium), bordering to The Netherlands, where according to the cliché ‘pig-headed clodhoppers’ live. This perhaps explains why he started to write stories at a particularly young age. A number of his stories were published in English, French, German, Polish, Spanish, and Slovenian.

DEBUT

Van Laerhoven made his debut as a novelist in 1985 with “Nachtspel – Night Game.” He quickly became known for his ‘un-Flemish’ style: he writes colorful, kaleidoscopic novels in which the fate of the individual is closely related to broad social transformations. His style slowly evolved in his later novels to embrace more personal themes while continuing to branch out into the world at large. International flair has become his trademark.

AVID TRAVELLER

Bob Van Laerhoven became a full-time author in 1991. The context of his stories isn’t invented behind his desk, rather it is rooted in personal experience. As a freelance travel writer, for example, he explored conflicts and trouble-spots across the globe from the early 1990s to 2004. Echoes of his experiences on the road also trickle through in his novels. Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Gaza, Iran, Mozambique, Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Myanmar… to name but a few.

MASS MURDERS

During the Bosnian war, Van Laerhoven spent part of 1992 in the besieged city of Sarajevo. Three years later he was working for MSF – Doctors without frontiers – in the Bosnian city of Tuzla during the NATO bombings. At that moment the refugees arrived from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Van Laerhoven was the first writer from the Low Countries to be given the chance to speak to the refugees. His conversations resulted in a travel book: “Srebrenica. Getuigen van massamoord – Srebrenica. Testimony to a Mass Murder.” The book denounces the rape and torture of the Muslim population of this Bosnian-Serbian enclave and is based on first-hand testimonies. He also concludes that mass murders took place, an idea that was questioned at the time but later proven accurate.

MULTIFACETED OEUVRE

All these experiences contribute to Bob Van Laerhoven’s rich and commendable oeuvre, an oeuvre that typifies him as the versatile author of novels, travel stories, theatre pieces, biographies, non-fiction, letters, columns, articles… He is also a prize-winning author: in 2007 he won the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime-novel of the year with “De Wraak van Baudelaire – Baudelaire’s Revenge.” “Baudelaire’s Revenge” has been published in the USA, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Russia. In 2014, a second French translation of one of his titles has been published in France and Canada. “Le Mensonge d’Alejandro” is set in a fictitious South-American dictatorship in the eighties. The “junta” in this novel is a symbol for the murderous dictatorships in South-America (Chile and Argentine, to mention two) during the seventies and beginning of the eighties. In The Netherlands and Belgium, his novel “De schaduw van de Mol” (The Shadow Of The Mole) was published in November 2015. The novel is set in the Argonne-region of France in 1916. In 2017 followed “Dossier Feuerhand (The Firehand Files), set in Berlin in 1921.

“Baudelaire’s Revenge” is the winner of the USA BEST BOOK AWARDS 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense.

In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published the collection of short stories “Dangerous Obsessions” in the US, Australia, UK, and Canada, in paperback, e-book, and hardcover. “Dangerous Obsessions” was voted “best short story collection of 2015 in The San Diego Book Review. In May 2017, Месть Бодлерa, the Russian edition of “Baudelaire’s Revenge” was published. “Dangerous Obsessions” has been published in Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Spanish editions. In January 2018 followed “Heart Fever”, a second collection of short stories, published by The Anaphora Literary Press. The collection came out in German, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. “Heart Fever” was one of the five finalists – and the only non-American author – of the Silver Falchion Award 2018 in the category “short stories collections.” In April 2018, Crime Wave Press (Hong Kong) brought forth the English language publication of “Return to Hiroshima”, Brian Doyle’s translation of the novel “Terug naar Hiroshima”. The British quality review blog “MurderMayhem&More” listed “Return to Hiroshima” in the top ten of international crime novels in 2018. Readers’ Favorite gave Five Stars. In August 2021, Next Chapter published “Alejandro’s Lie,” the English translation of “Alejandro’s leugen.”

https://www.amazon.com/Bob-Van-Laerhoven/e/B00JP4KO76/

My review:

I thank the publisher and the author for the ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review. Having read three of Van Laerhoven’s novels before (in their English translations), I knew I had to read this one, especially because of the early psychiatry theme that plays such an important part in the story. I might not work as a psychiatrist now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it a fascinating topic. And it is particularly well-suited to fiction.

To do full justice to this novel would require a very long review (even by my standards, and I do tend to go on a bit), perhaps even a whole book, but I will try and cover a few aspects of it while not spoiling it for readers. To be honest, although there is a mystery (well, mysteries) in this book, there are many interpretations possible, and I have no doubt that reading it will be a complex and unique experience for each and every reader.

The setting is momentous, both in space and time (the French trenches during WWI), but the book contains a variety of narratives, not only the overall story taking place in chronological order and involving a young psychiatrist (Michel Denis) who has recently lost an arm, during the war, when we meet him, and his adventures (both professional and personal), but also the story of the Mole, a man found at the very beginning of the novel in one of the tunnels the soldiers are digging. (That aspect of the novel, the setting in WWI, and some of the psychiatric elements reminded me of Regeneration by Pat Barker, a novel I recommend as well to anybody interested in the subject. The two books are very different, though.) He claims he has lost his memory when they find him, and he also says he is dead. The main way he communicates with others around him is through his writing, a story set many years earlier, full of symbolism, darkness, violence, and surreal elements, and whose protagonist cannot truly be him, but somehow comes to be identified with him. This diary/novel seems to be the result of automatic writing, and we have the opportunity to read it as well and reach our own conclusions. We are also provided with several letters, extremely personal in nature, one written by a character we meet earlier in the story, and another one by a character who plays a very small role in the events. And although we mostly see things from Michel Denis’s point of view (although written in the third person), we also get access to the diary of a very peculiar (and wonderful) psychiatrist he meets later in the book, Dr. Ferrand, who challenges him and helps him face his own fears and issues. Don’t worry, though. Although the book is complex, this is due to the concepts and issues it raises, not the way the story is told. The narrative is not straightforward, and it is far from an easy read, but the way the story is told is not confusing, and the changes in point of view and narrative are clearly signalled.

The novel is a kaleidoscope of narratives, perspectives, opinions, true events, dreams, imagination… and the veil separating all those is very thin indeed. The author and his book ask some pretty big questions: what makes a human being feel whole? Is it a matter of physical health, appearance and looks, having a name and identity recognised and respected by others, having a job title, holding a position, and being part of a family? What makes us human, and how much cruelty, suffering, and pressure can we endure before we disappear or become a shadow, dead to the world? How do we develop our personalities and what makes us who we are? It is only a matter o genetics, or experiences, trauma, education, influences, role models, and everything around us play a part?

Discussing the characters is not easy, because, at least as it pertains to the main characters, our experience in reading this book is akin to being privileged witnesses of their undergoing an analysis that digs deep into their minds, their early memories, their dreams… Although the mysterious identity of the Mole is at the centre of the novel (or so it seems), learning who Michael Denis really is, is as important, and we discover many truths about some of the other characters in the process. Many of them are perhaps things we’d rather not know, but we cannot choose. Everything is somehow related, and every piece of the puzzle is necessary for the final reveal (which I won’t talk about).

As I had mentioned psychiatry and my interest in it, for those who might feel as intrigued as I am, there are wonderful references to the early figures of the history of psychiatry, important psychiatric texts, famous cases… which I thoroughly enjoyed, but more than anything, I loved the discussions between Michel and Dr. Ferrand, who is a man and a professional with great insight and with ideas well before his time. His comments about the nature of psychiatry and the way it might evolve are both beautiful and thought-provoking.

Talking about beautiful, the writing is gorgeous. The different sections are written in very different styles, as it befits the characters doing the writing within the story, but they are all compelling, feel true, and are powerfully descriptive. We might be reading about a bombing, a sexual assault (yes, this book is not a light read, quite the opposite, and readers should be warned about the dark nature of the story), a historical event, or a beautiful landscape, and we feel as if we had a first-row seat, even though sometimes we’d rather be anywhere else. Reading the biography of the author is easy to understand how all he writes rings so true, as he has lived and witnessed extremes of human behaviour most of us will never (luckily) have to confront.

A few quotes from the book:

“We’re moths in the night, burning our wings every time there’s a ray of light.”

It wasn’t a sound. It was every sound sucked away from the world by a powerful vortex that distorted time so that the world shrivelled and subsequently expanded until a point where everything had to burst. In front of Denis, the wall erupted open, and behind it a great bull was belching fire.

Remember you said you couldn’t live with yourself anymore after your arm had been hacked off? That’s how you said it: hacked off. And here’s what I thought, if you can’t live with yourself, who is being ‘you’ then?

The book includes poems, quotes from famous (and not so famous) books, songs… some in French and German, and these are translated in a series of notes easily accessible, even in e-book format.

I recommend this book to readers looking for deep meanings, who love historical fiction that goes beyond the usual, who are prepared to face the darker aspects of human behaviour and the human soul, and to anybody looking for a new author who is not afraid to move beyond convention and to make us face some dark truths. A complex and rich book for those who dare to ask some tough questions. I hope it helps you find the answers you were looking for.

Thanks to the publisher and the author for this novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember, if you have a chance, to comment, share, click, like, and especially, to keep smiling and safe.

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE SHIVERING GROUND AND OTHER STORIES by Sara Barkat For those who dare get lost in the beauty of the writing and the magic of other worlds #RBRT

Hi all:

Today I bring you something that defies easy definitions. Ah, a word of warning. The book will be published (if there are no delays) on the 1st of December, so it might not be available for immediate download if you read this post on the day of its publication, but you could reserve it and won’t have to wait too long for it.

The Shivering Ground and Other Stories by Sara Barkat

The Shivering Ground and Other Stories by Sara Barkat

The Shivering Ground blends future and past, earth and otherworldliness, in a magnetic collection that shimmers with art, philosophy, dance, film, and music at its heart. 

A haunting medieval song in the mouth of a guard, an 1800s greatcoat on the shoulders of a playwright experiencing a quantum love affair, alien worlds both elsewhere and in the ruined water at our feet: these stories startle us with the richness and emptiness of what we absolutely know and simultaneously cannot pin into place.

 In the tender emotions, hidden ecological or relational choices, and the sheer weight of a compelling voice, readers “hear” each story, endlessly together and apart.

~

“The word ‘original,’ as a compliment, is both overused and quite often misused. But sometimes it’s the only word that will do. Sara Barkat is an original. Her imagination is imperious; she wields words as she pleases, in ways that delight and unsettle. In this, she reminds me of Emily Dickinson. Reading her, I expect you will agree. Don’t miss the opportunity.”

—John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture (1995-2016)

Author Sara Barkat

About the author:

Sara Barkat is an intaglio artist and writer with an educational background in philosophy and psychology, whose work has appeared in Every Day Poems, Tweetspeak Poetry, and Poetic Earth Month—as well as in the book How to Write a Poem: Based on the Billy Collins Poem “Introduction to Poetry.” Sara has served as an editor on a number of titles including the popular The Teacher Diaries: Romeo & Juliet, and is the illustrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper Graphic Novel, an adaptation of the classic story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 

https://sarabarkat.com/bio

My review:

I write this as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity to read and review an early ARC copy of this special collection…

I enjoy short stories, but I rarely read anthologies or collections of them, other than those of authors I already know and whose writing I love. However, although I had never read this author’s work before, there was something compelling and utterly different about this book, and the cover and the title added to the appeal.

Although I’m not sure what I was expecting to read, the stories were surprising and extremely varied. Some seemed to be set in the present (or an alternative version of the present), some in the past (or a possible past), some in a dystopian future, some in parallel universes, and the characters varied from very young children to adults, and from human beings to a variety of “Others”. Some of the stories are very brief, some are long enough to be novellas (or almost), and they are written from all possible points of view: first person, third person (in some cases identified as “they”), and even second person. I usually would try to give an overview of themes and subjects making an appearance in the stories, but that is notably difficult here. The description accompanying the book gives a good indication of what to expect, and if I had to highlight some commonalities between the stories, I would mention, perhaps, the desire and need to connect and communicate with others, in whatever form possible, and to create and express one’s feelings and thoughts, through any medium (music, painting, writing, sewing…),

These short stories are not what many readers have come to expect from the form: a fully developed narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, although usually providing fewer details and not so much character development as we would find in a novel, and often with a surprising twist at the end that can make us reconsider all we have read up to that point. Barkat’s stories are not like that. They rarely have a conventional ending (even when they do, it is open to readers’ interpretations), sometimes there are descriptive passages that we aren’t used to seeing in short narratives, and the plot isn’t always the most important part of the story (if at all). The way the story is told, the style and beauty of the writing, and the impressions and feelings they cause on the reader make them akin to artworks. If reading is always a subjective and personal experience, this is, even more, the case here, and no description can do full justice to this creation.

Despite that, I decided to try to share a few thoughts on each one of the stories, in case it might encourage or help other readers make their own minds up. I’d usually add here that I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but these are not that kind of stories either.

1. The Door at the End of the Path. A wonderful story full of vivid descriptions of a young girl’s imagination, her internal life, and a reflection of the heavy toll the difficult relationship of the parents can have on their children.

2. Conditions. A glimpse into the relationship between a brother and a sister, where the best intentions can have the worst results, set in a world that is half-dystopia, half an alternative present, with more than a slight touch of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

3. The Eternal In-Between. A dystopia set during a pandemic, with plenty of steampunk-like fancies, and an ode to the power of imagination.

4. The Mannequin. A dystopian world epitomized by the willingness of its subjects to undergo quite an extreme and symbolic procedure to keep the status quo in place.

5. Brianna. A very special retelling of a fairy-tale story that digs dip into the psychological aspects and the effects such events would have over real people, especially if it was a fate repeated generation after generation. One of my favourites.

6. Noticing. A story with a strong ecological theme, a generous dose of fantasy, some beautiful illustrations and eerie pictures, an endorsement of the power of stories, and a strong warning we should heed. Both terrifying and breathtakingly beautiful. Another favourite.

7. Entanglement. A short but compelling story/metaphor of a love affair, and/or the possibility of one.

8. The Day Before Tomorrow. Although set in a very strange and dystopic society, it is a Young Adult story of sorts, and the relationship between the two main characters feels totally natural and everyday, despite the extremely unusual surroundings. Perhaps our stories never change, no matter what might be happening around us. A hopeful story I really enjoyed.

9. It’s Already Too Late. Very brief, very compelling vignette with a very strong ecological message. A call to forget about our excuses and the reasons to carry on doing nothing.

10. The Shivering Ground. A sci-fiction/fantasy/dystopian story that might seem utterly sad and pessimistic, but it is also moving and (I think) hopeful.

11. A Universe Akilter. A wonderful story that kept wrong-footing me, as if the ground the story was set on kept shifting. A Universe Akilter indeed! It starts as the story of the breakup of a romance, seemingly because the man has been caught up cheating, set some time in the past (many of the details and the way the characters behave sound Victorian, but there are small incongruous details that pop up every so often and others that seem to shift), but as the story progresses, it becomes the story of a (possible?) love affair in parallel universes (the universe of our dreams, perhaps), that influences and changes the life of the protagonist, making him discover things about himself and his creativity he would never have considered otherwise. This is the longest story in the book and one that might especially appeal to readers of dual-time or time-travel stories (although it is not that at all).

 

As usual, I recommend those thinking about reading this collection check a sample of it. The stories are quite different from each other, but it should suffice to provide future readers with a good feel for the writing style.

I could not help but share a few paragraphs from the book, although as I have read an ARC copy, there might be some small changes to the final version.

 

All the wreckage, all the ruin, and the ground was brilliant red. Every morning, he would wake to more of the world ending, and the earth laid out a scarlet cloak as though waiting for an emperor to arrive.

 

He wishes, desperately, that he could remember the sound of her voice hen she still knew innocence; that he had thought to fold it in his pocket with the mementos of another life.

 

Perhaps being a mis-turned wheel in a spinning globe is only as it should be after all, when in the spring, the scent of mint and apple blossoms fills the acres behind you.

 

But, surely, I wondered, interpretability only goes so far. To go further would be to strike out onto one’s own adventure, breaking the mass of the art’s finished illusion.

 

I wouldn’t say I “understood” all the stories, or I got the meaning the author intended (if she had a specific design for each one of her stories), but I don’t think that is what this collection is about. Like in an exhibition of artworks, the important thing is what each one of them makes us feel, what thoughts and reflections they set in motion, and how much of an impression they leave on us.

I don’t recommend this book to readers looking for traditionally told short stories, with a clear beginning and end, and a satisfying conclusion. On the other hand, readers seeking something outside the norm and happy to: explore new worlds, try new experiences, ponder about meanings and possibilities, and get lost in the beauty of the writing and the magic of the words, should read this collection. It’s too beautiful to miss.

 Thanks to Rosie and the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember, if you’ve enjoyed it, to like, share, click and comment. Stay safe, keep smiling, and dare to explore all the wonderful worlds books can take us to. 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview 337 by M Jonathan Lee (@MJonathanLee) A ‘total’ reading experience #literaryfiction

Hi all:

I bring you a pretty surprising (albeit enjoyable) reading experience.

337 by M. Jonathan Lee

337 by M Jonathan Lee

337 follows the life of Samuel Darte whose mother vanished when he was in his teens.

It was his brother, Tom who found her wedding ring on the kitchen table along with the note. While their father pays the price of his mother s disappearance, Sam learns that his long-estranged Gramma is living out her last days in a nursing home nearby.

Keen to learn about what really happened that day and realising the importance of how little time there is, he visits her to finally get the truth. Soon it’ll be too late and the family secrets will be lost forever. Reduced to ashes. But in a story like this, nothing is as it seems.

https://www.amazon.es/337-M-Jonathan-Lee/dp/0995492352/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/337-M-Jonathan-Lee/dp/0995492352/

https://www.amazon.com/337-M-Jonathan-Lee-ebook/dp/B08HQYXLKP/

Author M. Jonathan Lee

 About the author:

M Jonathan Lee is a nationally shortlisted author and mental health campaigner.

His first novel The Radio was shortlisted in the Novel Prize 2012. Since that time he has gone on to publish five further novels. 337 is his sixth novel.

He is obsessed with stories with twists where nothing is exactly how it first appears. He was born in Yorkshire where he still lives to this day with his twins, James and Annabel.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M_Jonathan_Lee

Here you can find an interview with the author:

https://www.hideawayfall.com/meet-our-authors/

337 by M. Jonathan Lee

My review:

I had never met M. Jonathan Lee before but when I was approached by his publishing company and read a bit more about the new story and its background, I had to give it a go. I thank them for providing me an ARC hardback copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

I was intrigued because they were insistent on sending me a hardback copy, but once I had it on my hands, I knew why. This is a pretty special book, not only because of the way it is written and the story it contains, but also because of the format. At first sight, the book appears to be double-ended. The images on both sides are the same (or almost): the door of a house with several transparent glass panels and a stained glass geometrical design on top and on one side, wood flooring (flooded by light) and a side door (on that door the glass panels on the cover are glossy rather than matte like the rest of the cover) —although perhaps it is a reflection rather than a real door— and the number 337 written (inside a box in a lighter colour) at the bottom on the right hand corner (oh, and the number is also glossy). The palette of colours includes different tonalities of yellows and browns, with a touch of green in the stained window. The other side is the same, but the palette of colours goes from violet to blue, as if this was a nocturnal version of the previous cover. It seems that the name of the author is only written on the spine, but if we pay attention to the title and the typography we soon realise that the 337 of the title, upside down, reads “LEE”.  Whichever end of the book you open, it seems to be the start of the book, with the information about the edition, some quotes about the author’s previous books, a poem, and then chapter one. As I am a bit contrary, I started reading by what I later discovered was the back cover (I guess), the night version of the door, and when I reached page 16 I was greeted by this message ‘Nothing is as it seems…’ and in the next page I was told to turn the book and keep reading from page 16. Several empty pages and pages with geometrical motives followed, so I turned the book, and after checking to make sure I hadn’t missed a different beginning, I kept reading. Yes, not your standard novel, and it got me thinking. However, in case you’re already intrigued and rushing to order the book, please note the double-ended upside-down opening for this book is available in books ordered in hard copy from UK booksellers only. Don’t worry, though, the rest of the book is pretty special as well.

This is a work of literary fiction, even if a quick reading of the description might induce some people to think they are going to read a standard murder mystery book. Although there is an investigation or a process of research going on, there is nothing standard about it, and the book’s description hints at that. The book delves into memories, looks at how we remember our childhood and past events, examines the stories we tell ourselves (both about ourselves and about those around us), the way we protect ourselves from events and feelings, what happens when we are confronted with reality, and also reflects upon the many alternative ways different people deal with trauma in their lives. Some refuse to let it go; some bury it; some chose to try and forget (sometimes aided by drugs and alcohol); some reinvent themselves…

This is a book with very few characters, and in some ways, it reminded me of a play with a very small cast. It also brought to my mind a very well-known (and excellent) Spanish novel by Miguel Delibes called Cinco horas con Mario (Five hours with Mario) where the recently widowed wife of Mario reflects upon her life with him while she seats next to his coffin at the wake. Here, the main character and narrator of the story, Sam (Samuel) tells the story, in the first-person and in the present tense. He is a man leading a life that appears rather meaningless. He still lives in his parents’ house; he has an online job where he just seems to clock hours for doing as little as possible; he is in the process of divorcing his wife (she initiated divorce proceedings); and he seems to live stuck in the past, still trying to understand what happened to his family following his mother’s disappearance and his father’s imprisonment for her murder. The book opens with a dream/memory from the past, a time when his family and his grandparents —on his father’s side— had gone for a picnic to the park, a family annual tradition. There are several dreams/flashbacks throughout the book, and they are so beautifully and carefully described that we get quite a clear sense of what the family life might have been like (in full technicolour detail). Of course, as the book reminds us, things are not always as they seem, and although for much of the book we only have Sam’s own point of view, events, comments, and even memories that intrude into the action make us start wondering how reliable a narrator he is as we keep reading. We also hear about his wife, Sarah, his brother, Tom, his father, his mother (the one whose disappearance is at the centre of the book), his grandfather, and especially his grandmother, who is dying in a nursing home and whom, after much hesitation, he ends up visiting. Despite his initial reluctance, he ends up spending a lot of time with his grandmother, and that makes him reconsider things. We also meet a few members of the staff at his grandmother’s nursing home. And not even there things are as they seem to be.

The writing style is fascinating. I’ve mentioned the beauty of the descriptions, and there are some fabulous similes and metaphors as well. The writing is lyrical and at times reminded me of poetry, both in written and visual form (we might get a white space where there is a meaningful silence in a conversation, or very short sentences written as if they were a prose poem), mixed with some very insightful comments and reflections. We also have access to the conversations Sam shares with others, mostly his grandmother, but also Tom and the other characters that have much to contribute to our understanding, although not perhaps in the way we think at first. The book flows well and there is something very compelling about it, although it is not a page-turner in the usual sense, because nothing much happens for those who love action, while at the same time there is a lot going on.

A few examples of the writing, so you can see for yourselves what I mean (although remember this is an ARC copy):

Random thoughts are now jumping like kernels of corn over heat. They pop and explode inside my head like fireworks in New Year’s Eve.

When you experience some kind of serious trauma at a young age, it stays with you. It’s like a ghost which follows a few feet behind every footstep — a quiet whispered sound that reminds you of your past.

It has always confused me why people who have not got the slightest clue of what somebody is experiencing still believe that it is their right to state their opinion on the subject. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I believe it comes down to guilt.

And here, Sam is ranting (mentally) about the effects of mobile phones on conversations:

We could be locked in some deep conversation, maybe about to open up about some desperate fear or seemingly unsurmountable problem, and instead a screen is thrust in front of us and we have to smile politely at a picture of a surprised-looking cat near a cucumber. It is unbelievable. The number of truly worthwhile moments that have been spoiled by the interruption of mobile phones is limitless.

The ending… I am going to keep my peace and only tell you that I loved the way it is written and I liked the ending itself, although it wasn’t a surprise for me.

This is not a book for people who are looking for a plot-driven book and an intricate story. It has elements of mystery but it is, first and foremost, a subjective reading experience. If you enjoy literary fiction and like to savour writing in the same way you might enjoy a delicate meal or a beautiful piece of music, I recommend this novel to you. It is a ‘total’ reading experience.

Thanks to the publisher and to the author for this very special novel, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep safe, and if you feel like it, like, share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling. We’ll get there.

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog RUM HIJACK by Phil Motel (@philmotel) A writer for writers of discerning taste #RBRT

Hi all:

I picked up this novel after reading an intriguing and enticing review by fellow reviewer and talented writer Terry Tyler, and as I’ve discovered quite a number of great writers following her recommendations, I had to give this one a go. I’m sure you’ll realise why soon enough.

Rum Hijack by Bill Motel

Rum Hijack by Phil Motel

A frustrated loner and book lover, convinced he is destined to write a best seller and become a literary legend – before even typing a single word – begins taking out his “writer’s block” on the local community.

Depressed and volatile, his explosive outbursts within the privacy of his own home begin to manifest in public as his increasing creative frustrations and disastrous romantic relationships pile up, causing him to become a source of amusement among the regulars at local pubs and bars – but who will have the last laugh?

https://www.amazon.com/Rum-Hijack-Phil-Motel-ebook/dp/B086XL8L3Y/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rum-Hijack-Phil-Motel-ebook/dp/B086XL8L3Y/

https://www.amazon.es/Rum-Hijack-Phil-Motel-ebook/dp/B086XL8L3Y/

Author Phil Motel

About the author:

Phil comes from southern England and now lives in the US. He is a radical, innovative, avant-garde writer whose prose attracts readers every time it is encountered. His influences are many but he has been compared favourably with Rimbaud, Bukowski and Dosteovesky for his dark and earthy tales of outsiders on the edge.

Inkker Hauser Part 1: Rum Hijack, his debut on Amazon, is the darkly comic tale of a frustrated and slightly insane would-be writer who begins taking out his “writers’ block” on the local community. Inkker Hauser Part 2 is the follow up and contains a hysterical, surreal and agonising karaoke sequence, which will probably never be equalled.

Rum Hijack was recently included in a list of the top 50 Best Indie books of the year in 2014.

Phil’s other main interests are music and basketball – and is a fan of the Chicago Bulls. His Bukowskiesque blog, Motel Literastein, about an Englishman living on the fringes of society and sanity in a motel in Philadelphia, is controversial, confrontational and cathartic, but never dull, beautifully written and well worth following.

He will probably never return home.

Follow Phil on Twitter on the address below.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Phil-Conquest/e/B00NGQNOBC

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel. It came highly recommended, and it’s one of those books that I’m sure won’t leave anybody indifferent.

This is not a book heavy on plot. It is a novel narrated in the first person by a would-be writer stuck in writers’ block and seemingly unable to unleash the immense and unique talent for literature he believes he has. He uses all the tried and tested methods most readers will be familiar with (drinking heavily, navel-gazing, taking drugs, isolating himself, constantly trying to call the muses…) and some pretty unique ones (he is obsessed with submarines, and a particular Russian submarine disaster; he is also interested in air disasters; he has a penchant for peculiar interior decorating and a unique sense of fashion; he loves his fish and model-making [submarine again]). He adopts a variety of names and identities throughout the book, and seems intent on outraging and destroying things around him in frustration for not being able to create something, although when he dreams of literary fame, it isn’t what most people would think a writer would dream about.

Rather than helping, everything he tries seems to send him down a slippery slope of self-destruction (and a fair deal of vandalism and petty crime as well), and as readers, we are privileged witnesses of this journey towards… Well, if you read it you can decide by yourselves.

Although Bukowski has been mentioned in several reviews, the main character made me think of several books and authors I’ve read as well, some quite recently. He did remind me of the main character in Malibu Motel, who is so self-involved and unrealistic that he keeps digging holes for himself. Inkker (to give him one of his adopted names) has more insight (even if fleeting), and there is something more genuine about him, although he keeps it under wraps and well hidden. It also reminded me of Eileen and other protagonists of Ottessa Moshfegh’s work, but her characters are more extreme and even though less likeable, we normally get more of a background and a better understanding of where they are coming from. And, the way Inkker’s angry simmers and boils until it explodes in outrage, reminded me of a fantastic essay I read many years back by John Waters (the film director) called ‘101 Things I Hate’ published in his collection Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. What starts like a list of annoying things Waters is sharing with us, gets more and more outrageous as he gets more and more irate, and you can hear him shouting at you from the page by the end. It’s impossible not to nod and agree at many of the items on the list, but there is something at the same time darkly funny and scary in the way his emotions run so raw and close to the surface.

The book is beautifully observed and written, although, of course, it being in the first-person and the narrator a pretty unreliable one, we have to take all his comments and his opinions with a huge pinch of salt, and that goes for his depiction of other characters (and there are a few: an indie writer —of all things— and his girlfriend, an elderly neighbour, the guests at a disastrous dinner party, the locals at a pub, a couple of women, one he had a one-night-stand with and one he goes on a date with…). As you might suspect from the description, he is not particularly skilled in the social graces either and that results in some scenes that feel like watching a train wreck. It’s impossible to look away even when you know it’s going to get ugly, and I’m sure some of them will remain imprinted in the minds of readers for a long time.

Rum Hijack, which was first published in two separate parts, is darkly comedic (his quips at most writers, especially at self-published ones, will be ‘appreciated’ by those in the profession although perhaps not so much by readers not familiar with Twitter or with indie authors’ marketing techniques), and although in the face of it there is nothing particularly endearing about the protagonist, there is such vulnerability, such contradictions (he is reckless but careful, anarchic but worried about getting caught, a self-proclaimed outsider but eager to be admired and loved),  such need, and such self-loathing behind many of his actions that it’s impossible not to keep reading about his adventures and hope that things might take a turn for the better.

This is not a book for readers eager for adventure and action, who love a complex plot and consistent characters. It is not for those who dislike first-person narrations or prefer clean, edifying and inspiring plots and messages. If you enjoy literary fiction, books about writing (or writers’ block), are eager to find new voices, and love your humour very dark, check a sample of this book. You will either love it or hate it (yes, it’s a marmite kind of book). It’s up to you.

Thanks to Rosie and her team, to the author, and to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, and always, keep safe, out there or indoors.

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The Latecomers by Rich Marcello (@marcellor). Beautiful writing, unusual subject, and a challenging read

Hi all:

So many things have happened recently, I don’t know where to start. But first and most important of all, I hope you are all well and keeping safe. We’ll get through this together. I have no doubt.

Sorry for my long silence. After my previous update, you know many of us are confined home. After completing some parts of the course online, finally, the University of Cambridge decided to accept online teaching as a valid way to complete our practice. As I write this, I’ve taught my first online class, and let me tell you it’s been a steep learning curve, but hopefully, we should all be finished right in time for Easter, so I hope to be able to spend more time with you all after that.

And now, I bring you a review.

The Latecomers by Rich Marcello

The Latecomers by Rich Marcello

An aging couple and their closest friends piece together a life-changing plan from an otherworldly text.

Maggie and Charlie Latecomer, at the beginning of the last third of their lives, love each other but are conflicted over what it means to age well in a youth-oriented society. Forced into early retirement and with grown children in distant cities, they’ve settled into a curbed routine, leaving Charlie restless and longing for more.

When the Latecomers and their friends discover a mystical book of indecipherable logographs, the corporeal world and preternatural world intertwine. They set off on a restorative journey to uncover the secrets of the book that pits them against a potent corporate foe in a struggle for the hearts and minds of woman and men the world over.

A treatise on aging, health, wisdom, and love couched in an adventure, The Latecomers will make readers question the nature of deep relationships and the fabric of modern society.

The Latecomers is a profound and philosophical novel about aging and connection, which offers hope and a new vision for how we as a society could age well. Filled with poetry and mysticism, the novel takes the reader on a journey from which he or she will inevitably be changed.

­­––Rebecca Given Rolland, author of The Wreck of Birds

 

I found Rich Marcello’s absolutely outstanding new novel, The Latecomers, gripping, original, thought-provoking, and very clever. I cared deeply about the main characters, and the book kept me guessing, kept me reading compulsively to find out what happened to them.

––Sophie Powell, author of The Mushroom Man

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/LATECOMERS-Rich-Marcello-ebook/dp/B08427HQXJ/

https://www.amazon.com/LATECOMERS-Rich-Marcello-ebook/dp/B08427HQXJ/

https://www.amazon.es/LATECOMERS-Rich-Marcello-ebook/dp/B08427HQXJ/

Author Rich Marcello
Author Rich Marcello

About the author:

Rich is the author of four novels, The Color of Home, The Big Wide Calm, and The Beauty of the Fall, The Latecomers, and the poetry collection, The Long Body That Connects Us All. He also teaches creative writing at Seven Bridges’ Writer Collaborative. Previously, he enjoyed a successful career as a technology executive, managing several multi-billion dollar businesses for Fortune 500 companies.

The Color of Home was published in 2013. Author Myron Rogers says the novel “sings an achingly joyful blues tune, a tune we’ve all sung, but seldom with such poetry and depth.” The Big Wide Calm was published in 2014. The US Review of Books stated, “Marcello’s novel has a lot going for it. Well-written, thought-provoking, and filled with flawed characters, it meets all of the basic requirements of best-of-show in the literary fiction category.” The Beauty of the Fall was published in 2016. The Midwest Review of Books called it “a deftly crafted novel by a master of the storytelling arts” and “a consistently compelling read from cover to cover.” The Long Body That Connects Us All was published in 2018. Publishers Daily said, “Fathers and sons have always shared a powerful and sometimes difficult bond. Rich Marcello, in a marvelous new collection of extraordinary verse, drinks deeply from this well as he channels the thoughts and feelings of every father for his son.”

As anyone who has read Rich’s work can tell you, his books deal with life’s big questions: love, loss, creativity, community, aging, self-discovery. His novels are rich with characters and ideas, crafted by a natural storyteller, with the eye and the ear of a poet. For Rich, writing and art making is about connection, or as he says, about making a difference to a least one other person in the world, something he has clearly achieved many times over, both as an artist, a mentor, and a teacher.

Rich lives in Massachusetts with his family. He is currently working on his fifth and sixth novels, Cenotaphs and In the Seat of the Eddas.

www.richmarcello.com

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rich+marcello

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7356640.Rich_Marcello

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

I have read and reviewed another novel by Marcello, The Beauty of the Fall (you can read my review here), was entranced by it, and I was eager to read this book, although worried that, at least for me, the previous novel would be a tough act to follow. This book has many of the qualities that made me love the previous one (beautiful language, gorgeous descriptions, a spiritual dimension, a search for personal truth, and many strange and wondrous events that sometimes are difficult to categorize [are they visions, hallucinations, visitations, a transcendental connection with the gods and the elders, enlightenment?], and little interest in following the standard rules of narrative. Yes, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, of sorts, but one sometimes feels as if there were many corridors the characters could choose, which might end up resulting in a variety of futures and of novels, and at times we get hints of those. Somehow, though, it didn’t move me in the same way the previous book did, and that is perhaps down to current circumstances. Reading this novel in the middle of a pandemic, while confined at home, made me feel uneasy about some of the characters’ decisions, their self-absorption, and the ease with which they make decisions that might potentially affect many people, with little regard for anybody else’s interests.

The book is divided into two distinct parts, the first one told, in the first-person, by the two main protagonists, Charlie and Maggie Latecomer, now in their second marriage, seemingly happy, who after successful careers are now pursuing their own artistic interests. Suddenly, despite their deep love for each other, Charlie, who’s been feeling restless, decides he has to go in pursuit of his own path. He tells his wife this and goes on a retreat. Not only that, but he asks a young woman to accompany him. The couple was completely enmeshed in each other, and although Maggie loves the idea of the MOAI, a Japanese concept that they define as a sort of extended family, she acknowledges that she’s resisted including others in theirs. She starts to question everything she had thought, makes new connections and renews some of the old ones, and when the retreat ends in quite a traumatic manner (I ‘ll avoid spoilers), there is a reconfiguration of their MOAI and new people join in. They also go through some life-changing experiences together. This part is more contemplative, more descriptive, and slower than the rest of the book, and I felt somewhat impatient with Charlie, whose behaviour and reasoning I found quite difficult to accept, in light of his protestations of love and of not wanting to hurt Maggie. I liked Maggie much better than Charlie, and although by the end of the book I was more reconciled with Charlie’s character, because he’d gone through quite a lot of change, I still felt more empathy for Maggie, even if I had little in common with any of them or the rest of the characters in the novel (even if I have visited Northampton and enjoyed the descriptions of the town and also of the island and the retreat).  There are more adventures in part two: we have a mystical book that the characters keep trying to decipher, they uncover a secret, they have to fight a big corporation, and they go through much heartache. The rhythm picks up in the second half, and I felt that was partly because we only get to see things from Maggie’s point of view, and she is more determined, action-driven, and even rushed at times.

There are quite a few themes in the novel, including relationships (love, extended families), growing old, health (what does it mean to be healthy and what price would we pay to live longer), pharmaceutical corporations, end of life care, spiritualism, identity, philosophy, religion, mysticism… There is a search for meaning and for finding one’s place in the world that is quite refreshing, especially because the protagonists are not youths trying to decide what to do with the rest of their lives, but older characters, who refuse to be settled and give up (and although I did not connect with some aspects of the book, I definitely connected with that). I do not know much about Nordic mythology and therefore I felt at times that I was missing much of the background that might have allowed me to understand the characters’ experiences better, and that made me feel somewhat detached. The novel is classed as literary fiction and magic realism. Both genres cover a great variety of styles, subjects, and reading experiences, and readers who enjoy philosophical themes and like a challenge should give it a try.

I have mentioned the two main characters, and I have said that there are a few others: three that end up becoming a part of their extended family, two elders (both women), another female character who is the spiritual guide, some of the other people attending the retreat, and the baddie (who is never fully explained). I’m not that far of, by age, from many of the characters, but I can’t say I have much else in common with them, as they are all fairly well off, (one very rich), and in general seem untouched by the worries of everyday life. Although we spend time with some of the other characters, and I particularly like the two elders, I did not feel we got to know the rest of the MOAI well enough, considering the length of the novel and the amount of time we spend with them. Part of the problem might be that it’s all told from the first-person point of view of the two protagonists, but the decisions of Joe, Ebba (she’s a total puzzle to me), and Rebecca (I liked her but I would have liked to know more) don’t always seem to fit in with what we know about them. But an important part of the novel deals with the fact that no matter how we feel about others, and how connected we are, that does not mean we are the same and we have to live by the same rules and share in all of our experiences. We all have to strive to be the best versions of ourselves.

I have mentioned the writing style at the beginning of my review. There are poetry and lyricism, and as I mentioned above, there are also many contemplative passages. This is not a fast book and there are many descriptions of landscapes, mystic experiences, and also philosophical wanderings. The characters have their own rituals and these are described in detail (and yes, there are descriptions of their art, their shared experiences, their memories, their sexual relationships, although not too explicit…), and I think that readers will either connect with the writing style or not. The quality of the writing is not in question, and the fact that Marcello writes poetry is amply evident, but it won’t suit every taste.

The ending resolves the main points of the plot, although not all mysteries are explained, and there are aspects left to readers’ imagination. I liked the ending, although I had been expecting it for quite a while and at some point worried that the characters wouldn’t do what seemed to be “the right thing”. It’s a difficult decision and not one many people would take in real life, but, at least for me, it made sense.

Would I recommend it? You’ve probably noticed that I’m conflicted about this novel. There is much I like about it and some aspects I don’t like as much, although I think I might have felt different if I had read it in other circumstances (and might come back to it later on). In summary, this is a book for those who like to savour a novel and who enjoy thinking deeply and exploring unusual avenues. It is not a book for those looking for a tightly-plotted story, a mystery, or a fast page-turner. There are mysteries, but not those of the kind we expect to read about in novels of the genre. The protagonists are privileged in many ways, older than the norm, and their search and struggles might not connect with everybody. I’d recommend readers to check a sample of the book, and to give the novel time, because it changes and grows in the second half, as do the main characters, Charlie in particular.  Ah, members of reading clubs have a set of very interesting questions at the end, and I agree this is a book that offers plenty of food for discussion.

 

I leave you a great review of this novel by another member of Rosie’s group, as Barb makes very important points and you might find it helpful in making a decision about the book.

https://rosieamber.wordpress.com/2020/03/31/rosies-bookreview-team-rbrt-the-latecomers-by-rich-marcello-marcellor-tuesdaybookblog/

And I loved the teaser of Marcello’s next novel at the end of this one.

Thanks to Rosie and her team, thanks to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep safe, read, and keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews New books

#Bookreview #THEGLASSHOTEL: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel (@EmilyMandel) Beautifully constructed and a marvellous reading experience (@picadorbooks)

Hi all:

I bring you a book I love by an author I’ve read before and became an instant follower of. Somehow I thought I got a notification that the book was already published, but it won’t be out until March, or April, depending on where you live, but I wanted to share it now before it gets lost somewhere…

The Glass Hotel. A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel
The Glass Hotel. A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel: A novel by Emily St. John Mandel

New York Times “20 Books We’re Watching For in 2020”

An Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Bustle, Buzzfeed, GoodReads, The Millions, Boston Globe, USA Today, and Women’s Day Most Anticipated Book

From the award-winning author of Station Eleven (“Ingenious.” – The New York Times), an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events-a massive Ponzi scheme collapse and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avradimis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down. Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the threat, never knowing it was intended for him. He leaves Vincent a hundred dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife.

High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant’s. The collapse of the financial empire is as swift as it is devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night. Until, years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramidis vessel, the Neptune Cumberland, and disappears from the ship between ports of call.

In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

https://www.amazon.com/Glass-Hotel-Emily-John-Mandel-ebook/dp/B07RL58ZDG/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Glass-Hotel-Emily-John-Mandel/dp/1509882804/

https://www.amazon.es/Glass-Hotel-Emily-John-Mandel-ebook/dp/B07RL58ZDG/

Author Emily St. John Mandel

About the author:

Emily St. John Mandel was born in Canada and studied dance at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. She is the author of the novels Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, The Lola Quartet and Station Eleven and is a staff writer for The Millions. She is married and lives in New York.

https://www.amazon.com/Emily-St.-John-Mandel/e/B002BMMGK2

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Picador for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review. Having read St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven almost six years ago (you can read the review I wrote on another site here), I jumped at the opportunity to read this one. And although the story is quite different, I loved it as well.

Despite the differences between the two novels (Station Eleven was set around and after a virus pandemic that decimated the population and caused major changes to civilization), there are some commonalities. In her new novel, there is also a major event that although not as disastrous and all-encompassing as the pandemic, it has a devastating effect on the lives of all involved, from Jonathan Alkaitis (a character inspired by Bernard Madoff), to the people working at a hotel he owned, and even his receptionist. The collapse of his Ponzi scheme works as an axis around which the rest of the plot and the elements of the story spin, although it is far from evident how all the fragments fit in together when we start reading the novel.

The formal structure of the novel feels almost magical in its perfection. It begins with the end and yes… it ends going back to the beginning, but we get three parts, changes in time frames (always marked, so it does not cause confusion) from the 1950s up to the near future, many of the characters have “before” and “after” lives, and some even create imaginary lives to cope with their dire situation, so at times it seems as if it would be impossible to pull it all together, but the author manages, and it is a delight to follow the clues and be taken in, sometimes, quite unexpected directions. The book is not a thriller per se, but there are plenty of mysteries, lots of secrets, and unexplained events, and all the individual stories are more than interesting enough in their own right to keep us reading.

There are different voices and different narrators, almost as many as characters. Most of the chapters are narrated in the third person, but from only one of the characters point of view at a time, and although at first we don’t know how they are related to each other, there is no confusion as to who is thinking what or what story we are following. There are chapters in the first person, at the very beginning and at the very end of the novel, in a style reminiscent of stream of consciousness, and also chapters that correspond to the chorus of the employees working with Alkaitis in his fraudulent investment company, where we get information about several characters at once. There are many settings, but I think the island and the Glass Hotel of the title work particularly well and function as a focal point, as a hub where many of the players meet and take on paths that will mark their lives forever. The writing is beautiful, compelling, reflective, lyrical, multifaceted, evocative, and a joy to read.

As I mentioned before, the characters are all interesting, although perhaps Alkaitis and his story will sound more familiar than most of the rest. But even he has something that makes him human and easier to empathise with than readers would expect.  Like all the rest of the characters, he has doubts, human weaknesses, he is uncertain, he loved his brother and his first wife, and he lost them both. And he is loyal after his own fashion. All the characters, even those who have nothing in common with us, have frailties and emotions we easily recognise. We might not like them, but we do understand them and can easily put ourselves in their shoes. The description mentions a few of the characters, and there are many more, but I won’t go into too much detail, because as I’ve said, this is a book to be discovered and enjoyed slowly, as it unfolds as we read. If I had to choose one, it would probably be Vincent, a girl who experiences loss at a very early age and tries many different lives for size, but all the characters have moments of clarity, thoughts, or questions that have made me gasp, nod, or stop and think.

It’s been a long time since I read Station Eleven, but there are nudges towards it in this novel (there is a mention of a virus, and some of the characters of the previous book make brief appearances in this one), and there is no denying the similarities in the way the story is told and in the author’s style of writing. Perhaps the other book is open to a more hopeful and optimistic reading, while this one is more contemplative and personal, but I’d be hard pushed to choose a favourite (and I am convinced that I must reread Station Eleven again).

As usual, I’d recommend checking a sample of the book first, but readers must be aware that the beginning is written in quite a different style to the rest of the book, so keep reading. Ah, and there is a supernatural element in the story (I hesitate to call it magical realism, as it is very specific and it makes perfect sense), in case you’re wondering.

It’s particularly difficult to choose a few quotes, but I’ll try:

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

“What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

“If another memo could possibly be sent out, this one specific to smokers: You cannot be both an unwashed bohemian and Cary Grant. Your elegant cigarette moves are hopelessly undermined by your undershirt and your dirty hair. The combination is not particularly interesting.”

“It’s possible to both know and not know something.”

A great novel that looks at truth, reality, identity, the tales and lies we tell ourselves, the nature of memory, and makes us question our priorities. Beautifully written, structurally fascinating and full of engaging characters, I recommend it to lovers of literary fiction who don’t mind investing some time in a story and also, of course, to fans of the author.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher and the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#BookReview Surrendered Stories by Kristin Fouquet (@KristinFouquet). Whimsical, touching and atmospheric stories and photographs

Hi all:

I bring you the review of a pretty special book. If you’re looking for something a little different and love black & white photos, this is your book.

Surrendered Stories by Kristin Fouquet
Surrendered Stories by Kristin Fouquet

Surrendered Stories with photographs by Kristin Fouquet

These four surrendered stories are accompanied by twenty-four b&w photographs. In “Cocteau’s Ransom”, two dognappers believe they’ve found the solution to their financial troubles until unexpected complications arise. A lonely young woman with employment issues finds her escapism in vintage films at “The Vestige”. When the Roussels “Return to Camp Bon Temps”, their annual summer fishing camp, it’s not all good times as their daughter cannot forget the previous summer. In “Margaux’s understudy,” an inexperienced home healthcare worker uses the past in creative ways to engage her wards.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Surrendered-Stories-photographs-Kristin-Fouquet-ebook/dp/B07QJDW11V/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Surrendered-Stories-photographs-Kristin-Fouquet-ebook/dp/B07QJDW11V/

https://www.amazon.es/Surrendered-Stories-photographs-Kristin-Fouquet-ebook/dp/B07QJDW11V/

Author and photographer Kristin Fouquet

About the author:

Kristin Fouquet writes and photographs from lovely New Orleans. She is the author of for other books of short literary fiction: Twenty Stories (Ranks Stranger Press, 2009), a collection of flash fiction and longer short stories, Rampart & Toulouse (Rank Stranger Press, 2011), a novella and short stories, The Olive Stain (Le Salon Press, 2013), a chapbook of flash fiction, short stories, a novelette, and Parisian Graveyard Postcards, and Surreptitiously Yours (Le Salon Press, 2016), a novella. Her photography has been widely published in both online journals and in print: magazines, chapbook and book covers, and CDs. She enjoys constructing photo essays. Her preferences are fine art photography, street photography, street portraits, and the occasional traditional portrait. You are invited to visit her humble virtual abode, Le Salon, at the web address http://kristin.fouquet.cc

My review:

I received a paperback review copy of this book from the publisher. That has not influenced my feedback.

I was intrigued by the description of this book, by the author’s previous work, and by the fact that this volume of four of her stories includes twenty-four of her own black and white photographs, which illustrate and create an aesthetic dialogue with the content and the feel of the stories. I was also intrigued by the title and my curiosity was answered as soon as I read the opening quote in this slim but handsome volume: A piece of writing is never finished. You just surrender. (Carter Monroe). I love this quote because, as I write as well, I am familiar with the feeling that a story is never quite as good as it could be, and it is never totally finished. In my opinion, though, these stories are perfect as they are.

The four stories are very different, but the images and the writing style turn this book into a unique experience.

I’ll share a few comments about each individual story, but I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

“Cocteau’s Ransom”, written in the third person, is a story of a couple who believe they’ve found a way to make some money by kidnapping a dog, but they have made a mistake (an understandable one, for sure, but still…) A fun and humorous story (although it might upset animal lovers).

“The Vestige” has a touch of nostalgia (in fact, at first I thought it was a historical piece but I soon realised I was wrong), plenty of atmosphere, lovely characters, and it is also a sweet and gentle love (?) story that will enchant fans of the cinema experience and enthusiasts of old movies.

In “Return to Camp Bon Temps” we meet Martine, a girl who’s deeply traumatised due to something that happened last summer.  The story, which is also narrated in the third person (all three first stories are), takes place in the summer camp where the members of her extended family meet every year, and each person has its own role to play. Martin, her father, is a larger than life character who seems to always get his own way, but things are not as they seem to be, and I loved the father-daughter relationship and their moment of truth.

“Margaux’s understudy”, narrated in the first person by a young woman who lands a somewhat odd first-job, has touches of the fairy and/or gothic tale (it made me think of Bluebeard), of old movies and movie stars of the golden era (Sunset Boulevard, for example); it includes fragments of diaries and quotes from plays; it is very atmospheric (and the photographs are gorgeous), and is a fairly whimsical but also touching love story and the story of an obsession. Oh, and one of its characters is a fabulous parrot called Ayo.

As I wrote this review I realised that if I had to come up with a possible theme that links all the stories, it would have to be “appearances can be deceptive”. In these stories, both characters and readers misjudge people and situations, and the twists and surprises come when we learn the truth.

These stories, mostly set in New Orleans, are perfect for reading during short breaks; they create an immersive atmosphere without going into excessive detail, and are ideal for people looking for an engaging interlude between long and demanding reads. I look forward to following this author’s career, and I’ll be sure to visit her website and learn more about her work as a photographer. A great collection.

Thanks to the author for her stories and photographs, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. Four stories of the man as a young artist. For lovers of experimental literary fiction and New York.

Hi, all.

If you have been following my blog for a while you’ll know I’ve been trying to keep up with the Man-Booker Prize this year. Here is a review of another one of the books that made it into the shortlist.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

LONGLISTED (AND NOW SHORTLISTED) FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017

On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.

As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.

 

https://www.amazon.com/4-3-2-Paul-Auster-ebook/dp/B01LZPLGUS/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/4-3-2-Paul-Auster-ebook/dp/B01LZPLGUS/

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Paul Auster’s 4321 is his first novel in seven years, and it feels extra personal. Details of a life spent growing up in Brooklyn—of loving the Brooklyn Dodgers, Laurel and Hardy, summer camp—are laid out with the earnest intensity of a writer looking back on his life. Plot points arise—for instance, a person is killed by lightning—which mimic more unique moments from Auster’s own life experience. At nearly 900 pages, it is also a long novel—but a reason for that is 4321 tells the story of its protagonist, Archie Ferguson, four different times. What remains consistent throughout Archie’s life (or lives) is that his father starts out with the same career, Archie falls in love with the same girl, and his personality seems more nature than nurture. But those are starting off points, and if our lives are the sum of our choices, they are the sum of other people’s choices as well. Circumstances matter, and what will keep you thinking about this book is the convergence of time and circumstance within each of Archie’s different lives. His past propels him, his circumstances form him, and regardless of which life we are reading, time will ultimately take him. –Chris Schluep, The Amazon Book Review

Editorial Reviews

“[Paul] Auster’s deep understanding of his characters, soothing baritone, and skillful pacing…deliver an immensely satisfying experience overall for listeners”
-AudioFile Magazine

“An epic bildungsroman . . . . Original and complex . . . . It’s impossible not to be impressed – and even a little awed – by what Auster has accomplished. . . . A work of outsize ambition and remarkable craft, a monumental assemblage of competing and complementary fictions, a novel that contains multitudes.”―Tom PerrottaThe New York Times Book Review

“A stunningly ambitious novel, and a pleasure to read. Auster’s writing is joyful even in the book’s darkest moments, and never ponderous or showy. . . . An incredibly moving, true journey.”―NPR

Ingenious . . . . Structurally inventive and surprisingly moving. . . . 4 3 2 1 reads like [a] big social drama . . . while also offering the philosophical exploration of one man’s fate.”―Esquire

Mesmerizing . . . Continues to push the narrative envelope. . . . Four distinct characters whose lives diverge and intersect in devious, rollicking ways, reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. . . . Prismatic and rich in period detail4 3 2 1 reflects the high spirits of postwar America as well as the despair coiled, asplike, in its shadows.”―O, the Oprah Magazine

Sharply observed . . . . Reads like a sprawling, 19th-century novel.”―The Wall Street Journal

Ambitious and sprawling . . . . Immersive . . . . Auster has a startling ability to report the world in novel ways.”―USA Today

“The power of [Auster’s] best work is . . . his faithful pursuit of the mission proposed in The Invention of Solitude, to explore the ‘infinite possibilities of a limited space’ . . . . The effect [of 4 3 2 1] is almost cubist in its multidimensionality―that of a single, exceptionally variegated life displayed in the round. . . . [An] impressively ambitious novel.”―Harper’s Magazine

“Auster’s magnificent new novel is reminiscent ofInvisible in that it deals with the impossibility of containing a life in a single story . . . . Undeniably intriguing . . . . A mesmerizing chronicle of one character’s four lives . . . The finest―though one hopes, far from final―act in one of the mightiest writing careers of the last half-century.”―Paste Magazine

Wonderfully clever . . . . 4 3 2 1 is much more than a piece of literary gamesmanship . . . . It is a heartfelt and engaging piece of storytelling that unflinchingly explores the 20thcentury American experience in all its honor and ignominy. This is, without doubt, Auster’s magnum opus. . . . A true revelation . . . One can’t help but admit they are in the presence of a genius.”―Toronto Star

“A multitiered examination of the implications of fate . . . in which the structure of the book reminds us of its own conditionality. . . . A signifier of both possibility and its limitations.”―The Washington Post

“At the heart of this novel is a provocative question: What would have happened if your life had taken a different turn at a critical moment? . Ingenious.”―Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Auster presents four lovingly detailed portrayals of the intensity of youth – of awkwardness and frustration, but also of passion for books, films, sport, politics, and sex. . . . [Trying] to think of comparisons [to the novel] . . . [nothing] is exactly right . . . . What he is driving at is not only the role of contingency and the unexpected but the ‘what-ifs’ that haunt us, the imaginary lives we hold in our minds that run parallel to our actual existence.”―The Guardian

“Draws the reader in from the very first sentence and does not let go until the very end. . . . An absorbing, detailed account – four accounts! – of growing up in the decades following World War II. . . . Auster’sprose is never less than arresting … In addition to being a bildungsroman, “4321” is a “künstlerroman,” a portrait of the artist as a young man whose literary ambition is evident even in childhood. . . . I emerged from . . . this prodigious book eager for more.”―San Francisco Chronicle

“Leaves readers feeling they know every minute detail of [Ferguson’s] inner life as if they were lifelong companions and daily confidants. . . . It’s like an epic game of MASH: Will Ferguson grow up in Montclair or Manhattan? Excel in baseball or basketball? Date girls or love boys too? Live or die? . . A detailed landscape . . . for readers who like taking the scenic route.”―TIME Magazine

“Auster pays tribute to what Rose Ferguson thinks of as a ‘dear, dirty, devouring New York, the capital of human faces, the horizontal Babel of human tongues.’. . . Sprawling . . . occasionally splendid.”―The New Yorker

“A bona fide epic . . . both accessible and formally daring.”―Minneapolis Star Tribune

Inventive, engrossing.”―St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Arresting .. . A hugely accomplished work, a novel unlike any other.”―The National (UAE)

“Brilliantly rendered, intricately plotted . . . a magnum opus.”―Columbia Magazine

“Auster’s first novel in seven years is . . . . an ingenious move . . . . Auster’s sense of possibility, his understanding of what all his Fergusons have in common, with us and one another, is a kind of quiet intensity, a striving to discover who they are. . . . [He] reminds us that not just life, but also narrative is always conditional, that it only appears inevitable after the fact.”―Kirkus (starred review)

“Auster has been turning readers’ heads for three decades, bending the conventions of storytelling . . . . He now presents his most capacious, demanding, eventful, suspenseful, erotic, structurally audacious, funny, and soulful novel to date . . . [a] ravishing opus.”―Booklist (starred review)

Rich and detailed. It’s about accidents of fate, and the people and works of art and experiences that shape our lives even before our birth―what reader doesn’t vibrate at that frequency?”―Lydia Kiesling, Slate

“Auster illuminates how the discrete moments in one’s life form the plot points of a sprawling narrative, rife with possibility.”―Library Journal (starred review)

Mesmerizing . . . . A wonderful work of realist fiction and well worth the time.”―Read it Forward

Frisky and sinuous . . . energetic. . . . A portrait of a cultural era coming into being . . . the era that is our own.”―Tablet magazine

“Almost everything about Auster’s new novel is big. . . Satisfyingly rich in detail . . . . A significant and immersive entry to a genre that stretches back centuries and includes Augie March and Tristram Shandy.”―Publishers Weekly

Author Paul Auster
Author Paul Auster

About the author:

Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Travels in the Scriptorium, The Brooklyn Follies, and Oracle Night. I Thought My Father Was God, the NPR National Story Project anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

https://www.amazon.com/Paul-Auster/e/B000APVFU4/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.

I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.

First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel, he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered.  So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.

Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.

Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations, and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.

I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1909935118?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance

What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.

My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.

In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and of course, REVIEW!

[amazon_link asins=’0143039830,0140154078,0140115854,0312429010,0143112228,0811214982,0571210708′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’wwwauthortran-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’beb47d20-ac2b-11e7-94f5-ad9ca3322f04′]

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview RESERVOIR 13 by Jon McGregor (@jon_mcgregor) A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing. #Iamreading

Hi all:

I am on a mission to try and check at least some of the books that have made it into the Man Booker Prize longlist this year, and here is one of them.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGrego

“A wonderful book. [Jon McGregor]’s an extraordinary writer, unlike anyone else.” ―Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water

LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
A GUARDIAN NOTABLE BOOK OF 2017

From the award-winning author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Even the DogsReservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family’s loss.

Midwinter in an English village. A teenage girl has gone missing. Everyone is called upon to join the search. The villagers fan out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on what is usually a place of peace. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

As the seasons unfold and the search for the missing girl goes on, there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together and those who break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals. An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a tragedy refuse to subside.

“A new novel from the absurdly gifted Jon McGregor, seven years after the IMPAC-winning Even the Dogs, Reservoir 13 is haunting and heartbreaking, the tale of a disappearance and its aftermath―his best yet.” ―The Guardian, “Fiction to look out for in 2017”

“Jon McGregor has been quietly building a reputation as one of the outstanding writers of his generation since 2002, when he became the youngest writer to be longlisted for the Booker prize… Reservoir 13 is an extraordinary achievement; a portrait of a community that leaves the reader with an abiding affection for its characters, because we recognise their follies and frailties and the small acts of kindness and courage that bind them together.” ―Observer (UK)

“Fascinating… McGregor is a writer with extraordinary control… Reservoir 13 is an enthralling and brilliant investigation of disturbing elements embedded deeply in our story tradition.” ―Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

https://www.amazon.com/Reservoir-13/dp/0008204861/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reservoir-13-LONGLISTED-BOOKER-PRIZE-ebook/dp/B01MDNI266/

Author Jon McGregor
Author Jon McGregor (Photo credit: Dan Sinclair)

About the author:

Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the
winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset
Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham.

Twitter: @jon_mcgregor
Website: www.jonmcgregor.com

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jon-McGregor/e/B001IQXNGI/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.

Thanks so much to NetGalley, Harper Collins UK Fourth State and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

Categories
Book review Book reviews Writing

#Bookreview The Way of the Writer. Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson. Unique reflections based on a lifetime of thinking and writing well.

Hi all:

Although I read more fiction than non-fiction, there are more and more non-fiction books finding their way to my to be read pile, and I’ve read a few that I want to share too. So to bring more variety to the reviews, here comes one I read recently that might be particularly interesting to writers, but I believe many people will find interesting and inspiring, no matter what their call on life.

The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson
The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson

The Way of the Writer. Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson

Scribner

Nonfiction (Adult)

Description

From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing.

An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pursuit. His 1990 National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage is a modern classic, revered as much for its daring plot as its philosophical underpinnings. For thirty-three years, Johnson taught and mentored students in the art and craft of creative writing. The Way of the Writer is his record of those years, and the coda to a kaleidoscopic, boundary-shattering career.

Organized into six accessible, easy-to-navigate sections, The Way of the Writer is both a literary reflection on the creative impulse and a utilitarian guide to the writing process. Johnson shares his lessons and exercises from the classroom, starting with word choice, sentence structure, and narrative voice, and delving into the mechanics of scene, dialogue, plot and storytelling before exploring the larger questions at stake for the serious writer. What separates literature from industrial fiction? What lies at the heart of the creative impulse? How does one navigate the literary world? And how are philosophy and fiction concomitant?

Luminous, inspiring, and imminently accessible, The Way of the Writer is a revelatory glimpse into the mind of the writer, and an essential guide for anyone with a story to tell.

Editorial Reviews

Review

“Charles Johnson has given us a book that will hopefully place a gentle but firm hand on the shoulder of every writer. Here are short essays offering advice, writing life insight and encouragement to anyone wishing to master the art of storytelling. Johnson’s book is a reminder that good writing consists of more than sleeping with the dictionary. It requires a major commitment to the love of language.”– E. Ethelbert Miller, award-winning poet and 2016 recipient of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature

“Charles Johnson here provides—as his subtitle promises—’reflections on the art and craft of storytelling.’ It’s a welcome addition to the small shelf of useful books on the way of the writer and one that belongs with those of his mentor, John Gardner. Here the writer links the personal with the professional in ways that both inspire and instruct. Use this book (a) to deepen your familiarity with the work of a distinguished author, (b) to understand how serious practitioners address their art and (c) to improve your own.”–Nicholas Delbanco, author of The Years 

“Those of us who put pen to paper for a living have known of Charles Johnson for a very long time.  He is one of America’s greatest literary treasures.  He is a skilled wordsmith, superb craftsman, master of understatement, philosopher, cartoonist, and deeply talented novelist whose 1991 novel Middle Passage, (which won the National Book Award for fiction) predates the current surfeit of Underground Railroad novels by a good two decades.  Like the great Ralph Ellison to whom he is often compared, he will forever cast a long shadow over us who follow in his wake.  Here he graciously opens up the treasure chest of writing secrets and philosophy for those of us who seek to kneel at the tree of learning, told by a man who has kissed the black stone of literary excellence.”—James McBride, National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water

“If you’re looking to learn to tell stories in written form, look no further. This book is as accessible as it is profound, lively, practical, and full of earned wisdom. I was a student of Charles Johnson’s, and can vouch for the power and value of his teaching. There are plenty of craft books available out there, but this is the only one I know of that is–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating–indispensable.”–David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars

“This is a book for many readers. If you are an aspiring writer, the path that Dr. Johnson sets out is a clear guide to your destination—whether you become a best-selling novelist or a top non-fiction writer or not.  You will find a compass in this book that will direct you towards a real way that will fulfill your efforts.  There is much practical advice and worldview wisdom here that will sustain you in your journey.  Those who are on a different path (as readers) will also find fulfillment here.  Dr. Johnson sets out original and illuminating guides on how to confront literary fiction—especially philosophical fiction.  These reflections advance critical theory toward literature that is, itself, philosophy.  This is a must-buy for both of these travelers.  The destination will more than reward the price of the ticket.”–Michael Boylan, Professor of Philosophy, Marymount University and author of Naked Reverse: A Novel

“An honest, engaging, and wonderfully inspiring book for both writers and teachers. Charles Johnson’s deep intelligence, joyful rigor and refreshing iconoclasm are evident in every subject he covers here.  Philosophical and practical, The Way of the Writer is sure to become a classic in the mold of John Gardner’s excellent books on writing.”–Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others

“A meditation on the meaning of literature and practical guide to the art and craft of writing fiction.”–Library Journal

“Charles Johnson has a long-standing reputation as one of the world’s greatest fiction writers. Now in this brilliant new book, The Way of the Writer, he offers us an eclectic meditation on the storyteller’s craft that is by turns memoir, instructional guide, literary critique, and philosophical treatise. Every reader will be deeply enriched by the book.”—Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back

“All writers will welcome the useful tips and exercises, but the book will also appeal to readers interested in literature and the creative process. Johnson’s wonderful prose will engage readers to think more deeply about how to tell a story and consider the truth-telling power of the arts.”-Library Journal STARRED review

“Throughout, Johnson’s voice is generous and warm, even while he is cautioning writers to be their own ruthless editors.  A useful writing guide from an experienced practitioner.”—Kirkus Reviews

“National Book Award winner Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990) has taught creative writing for over 30 years and now shares his well-refined thoughts on how best to develop literary taste and technique…. Every aspect of this writing manual, which is laced with memoir, illustrates Johnson’s seriousness of purpose about literature and his laser focus on the thousands of small choices that shape a written work. The result is a book that will be appreciated by aspiring writers and everyone who shares Johnson’s delight in the power of words.”–Booklist

“A meditation on the daily routines and mental habits of a writer…the book radiates warmth…a writer’s true education might start in institutions, it seems, but for Johnson it is more a lineage of good, memorable talk.”–New York Times

“Eloquent, inspiring and wise, The Way of the Writer is a testament to the methods and advice the author espouses, and even if you aren’t an aspiring novelist, Johnson’s book is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of our finest writers.”–Seattle Times

“Writers who haven’t had the opportunity to study with Dr. Charles Johnson during the past 40 years are now in luck. The novelist, essayist, cartoonist, and philosopher has collected the creative lessons he’s learned along the way in a new practical and semi-autobiographical guide.”–Tricycle

“An instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing.”–Chicago Review of Books

About the Author

Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King’s RefrigeratorDreamerFaith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

My review: Unique reflections based on a lifetime of thinking and writing well.

Thanks to Net Galley and Scribner for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review.

This non-fiction book is not a ‘how to’ book and won’t give the reader a formula for producing, and even less, selling, books by the bucket load. The subtitle, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling describes much more precisely what the book is. And if there’s one thing we can’t accuse Charles Johnson of, is of lacking precision.

The book is structured in six parts (1. Who Is the Writer?, 2. The Process of Writing, 3. What Helps the Writer, 4. The Writer as Teacher, 5. The Writing Life and Duties of the Writer, 6. Philosophy and the Writer), each one collecting some of his essays on topics related to the craft of writing, that are very numerous. The parts, and each essay, can be read separately, although if read as a book there are reflections and quotes that will become familiar, and anecdotes and thoughts that appear more than once (not a big problem if readers dip in and out, or read it over an extended period and go back to revisit the parts they find more relevant or inspiring). Due to the nature of the materials, some of the content overlaps, particularly as this is a deeply personal book, based on Charles Johnson’s experiences, and he talks about his personal writing schedule, his interest in martial arts, how he started his career as a journalist, his love of drawing and design, his Buddhist beliefs, his interest in Philosophy…

The author taught an undergraduate and a postgraduate writing course for many years, although he has been retired for a while, and he describes his ‘boot camp for writers’ that he strongly based on John Gardner’s (that he describes as his writing mentor) programme. Johnson talks about the readings he recommends, the hard schedule of writing he requires, how he focuses on technique, how he advises writers to read a dictionary from cover to cover… So, there are exercises one could do independently and advice one can follow, but mostly the book is a reflection on his career, as a writer, philosopher, teacher and reviewer. From a personal point of view, I especially enjoyed his essay on reviews because it spoke to me and to my thoughts on what a review should be like, and the importance of telling people what they might find and like in the book, above and beyond your personal taste and opinion in the matter.

In some of his essays, he uses his own books as examples of some of the points he makes (character building, voice, point of view, among others), understandably, as he can discuss his intentions and how they relate to the technique he used, rather than assume what other authors were trying to do. This creates two issues. I’ve read some comments that would indicate he might come across as self-aggrandizing, arrogant and full of himself, although reading the rest of the articles makes quite clear that that is far from the truth. The other issue is that the comparisons and examples might not be as clear for readers who are not familiar with his work (although he does mention other writers often). I must admit that living in the UK, although I studied American Literature years back, I am not familiar with his work, and checking Amazon.co.uk, this is the only one of his books I could easily find. Even in Amazon.com most of his books are only available in paperback or hardback. But many of his comments about drafts, editing, working as a journalist, and his compelling defence of storytelling and the importance of finding a story that captures the reader’s (and of course, first the writer’s) imagination can be enjoyed and savoured without direct knowledge of Johnson’s fiction.

The author is an exacting and hardworking writer and thinker and he expresses strong opinions about what literature should be like. His is the world of literary fiction, and literature and stories used to explore and explain philosophical insights, of traditional publishing and paper books. He does mention pork literature or industrial literature and acknowledges that some writers make a living by writing genre fiction (although he does not mention it by name or discusses it in any details) but that is not what he’s interested in. I could not help but think about the self-publishing movement and the writers who embrace it, who will also find much to enjoy in the book but, like many other writers will feel very differently about some of the topics. Charles Johnson mentions a couple of times that he did not himself study a degree in creative writing (his method is more like an apprenticeship, and it reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and his account of his self-education and dedication to learning, although with a very different goal in mind) and says that those degrees do not exist in Europe (they do, so I’m not sure all the essays are up-to-date). He acknowledges changes in standards and interests in the student body, and how he’s had to adapt his reading list to such changes so they remain relevant.

The author uses wonderful quotes from great writers and philosophers to illustrate his thoughts and make some points. I had to stop highlighting the text as there was hardly anything left without colour on the page, and this is one of those books eminently quotable and that will keep readers going back for second helpings.

This collection of writings by Charles Johnson is likely to make anybody interested in books and writing think and reflect. Some of the advice might be easier to apply than other, depending on the style of writing and the intentions of those reading it, but many of his reflections and thoughts will resonate and inspire most of us, and who would dispute the importance of storytelling?

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Way-Writer-Reflections-Craft-Storytelling/dp/1501147226/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Way-Writer-Reflections-Craft-Storytelling/dp/1501147226/

Thanks to Net Galley and to Scribner for offering me a copy of the book and thanks to Charles Johnson for sharing his career with us, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you feel so inclined, like, share, comment and CLICK.

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