Not really a review…

I said that I would review “AN A-Z of possible worlds” by A.C Tillyer aaaaaages ago. I have put it off and put it off because the truth is I wanted to love it so very much but I don’t and I didn’t want to say that.


It looks beautiful and utterly unique. I am a huge McSweeney’s fan and the presentation of these stories put me in mind of the care and attention that McSweeney’s publications have. It comes in a red box embossed in gold with the letters of the alphabet. Each story has it’s own wee booklet and it is just gorgeous.

See

Roast Books have done a wonderful thing here, and I am excited to see what else they do in the future. Their website is very interesting – looky looky!

So, hurray for Roast Books, hurray for publishers that take chances and produce works of such fabiosity, I am only sorry that an A-Z really didn’t do it for me. I love the concept but found the stories to be more tell than show, and they all seemed to share the same rather dry voice. I am entirely prepared to say that may just be personal preference as there seem to be plenty o’ rave reviews around the blogosphere. I think also that the price is a large one to pay to take a chance: when I pay £20 for a McSweeney’s it’s a lucky dip of writers, some I will like, others I won’t and I can just flip on to the next, here Ms Tillyer’s is the only voice on offer so…

Eep. Sorry.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Wow, what a gorgeous read this was. A rare treat. It’s a “novel in stories” which relates the later years of Olive Kitteridge (and her husband, her son and her neighbours.) It succeeds so beautifully for me because it is packed with quiet truths. I love fiction which illuminates our lives, and these stories felt very real.

I don’t want to ruin things for anyone who has yet to read this so will try not to give too much away, however when Olive visits her son in New York it was the first time that the voice seemed to slip to me. As for the airport scene? Phooey. That’s what I reckon. So yeah, “Security” was the weakest story by far. The rest were perfect slices of lives, stories full to busting and yet none of it feeling over written. Wonderful.

BUT!

I would not have picked this book up in a million years. This is the cover:

and I still have no clue what the fuck it has to do with the book. Whose back is that meant to be? It sure as fuck ain’t Olive’s – we know she’s a much larger than average woman in her seventies. I can’t think of anyone else in the book who this could be either. So presumably the publishers think this is an enticing cover? It looks like a certain type of frothy book, non literary, a girly affair. It’s not. This book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and hurrah, it is a well deserved win. There’s no mention of it on the cover (yet) and hopefully when there is it will give others who may pass this by pause for thought. If it hadn’t have been for Nik Perring raving about this I would not have bothered. Thanks Nik – it’s brilliant, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all.

Review of The Reader

I was sent a review copy of The Reader magazine a while back. I hadn’t heard of The Reader before so had a look at their site. They state that “The Reader Organisation is a charity dedicated to bringing about a Reading Revolution – we are making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy and engage with books on a deep and personal level.”

We run more than 80 weekly read aloud groups across Merseyside, in libraries, schools, GP surgeries, hospitals, Day Centres and workplaces as part of our Get Into Reading project
We were finalists in the NHS Health and Social Care Awards in January 2007
We run Liverpool Reads, a city-wide book bonanza which gave away and encouraged the reading of 13,000 books this year
We develop new culture-based social inclusion projects such as Community Shakespeare, Wirral which brought 1500 people into Birkenhead Park this summer
We publish The Reader magazine praised by Seamus Heaney as “one of the best things to thump through the letter box”
We’re turning non-readers into readers, one page at a time. What’s more, we’re connecting people, with each other, through books
The Reader Organisation is a charity dedicated to bringing about a Reading Revolution – this means great books reaching everybody – it’s our mission to engage people of all ages and backgrounds in sharing a wealth of literature. For us, reading is a force for social good that can build community and enhance lives.

The Reader Organisation works in four areas:

Reaching Out

Participation:
Get into Reading, our leading social outreach project, Liverpool Reads, Reader-in-Residence projects, and Community Shakespeare.

Training:
Read to Lead training is our accredited training programme for those who wish to develop Get Into Reading in other areas of the country.

The Reader magazine
The Reader magazine is our publication for established readers, encouraging wider and deeper reading.

We also have a blog to keep you updated with our news, book reviews, updates from the world of literature and a few, slightly more unusual things!

Reader Events
Our annual events calendar brings people together to enjoy live literature events, including the Penny Readings, Readers’ Days, Food for Thought, poetry and author readings. Keep track of what we have coming up using our Events Calendar and our News Feed.

Research and Development
Developing research through student participation; researching reading and health; delivering an MA in Reading in Practice with the School of English at the University of Liverpool.“

It all sounds terrific, and thoroughly worthy of support. I read the magazine a while ago, and intended to review it much earlier. The problem I had was that I wasn’t sure what to say. Did I like it? Maybe. How strange that I can’t tell. I loved the Camille Paglia poetry bitch fest, which was fun. The article was an extract from “Arion” so I’m not sure how indicative it is of usual Reader articles. It made me decide to buy Paglia’s “Break, Blow, Burn” though! There is a selection of good poetry, a few essays, reviews, a couple of stories, a crossword, a quiz, letters, an extract from a novel, and the final part of a serial (which having not read the previous parts I was not very interested in.) I am not sure who this magazine is aimed at. If the policy is to produce an accessible, intelligent literary magazine well, yes, this is. But who will be buying it? I wonder just how accessible and interesting it is to those who aren’t regular literary readers (it does suggest that it is for “established readers.”) It is a book rather than a magazine. It has a books price tag too at £6.95. I liked flicking through but didn’t engage much, and if I’m spending nearly seven pounds, well unless it featured favourite authors of mine I would perhaps buy myself a book instead. However, if I fancied reading a lively literary mix and maybe discovering interesting new writers, would I read again? Sure would. Would I like them to publish one of my stories in this gorgeous looking publication? Absolutely. Do I recommend it? I think so.

Review of "This is Not About Me" by Janice Galloway

It won’t surprise any regular reader of this blog to hear that I think Janice Galloway’s “This is Not About Me” superb. Despite it being published last year I have only just read it. I hoarded it like a rare treat, saved for a time when I could properly engage, believing that writing this good deserves attention. I have been pounding through umpteen books to review, and have deliciously come to a stop. Time for Janice.

There is a lack of family photographs bar the one on the front cover, so instead snapshots are created with Galloway’s customary precise prose. Rather than write with hindsight Janice the narrator speaks from her childhood, baffled by often cruel words and actions. She doesn’t qualify these things with an adult’s perspective, there is no summation, just a childhood up to the age of 12 told in scenes rich with the sounds, sights and taste of Saltcoats in the 60’s. Music, sweeties, telly, knitted clothes, chips, plants, and people conjured with descriptions as magnificently telling as “Sophie’s wrists were lavender, her eyes rimless, congealed as eggs.”

Janice managed life with a drunken father and an unhappy mother by being as quiet and as little trouble as possible. Her sister Cora was elsewhere, married and with a baby or babies of her own. After leaving her violent husband Beth Galloway moved to a cramped room above the doctor’s surgery she cleaned, taking Janice with her, and for a brief time there was calm. However, they were joined by Cora, now alone, much older than Janice, and full of unpredictability. Cora crackles off these pages, her beauty rituals and rage vivid. She terrorises Janice, her mother, and possibly the local men. She’s a kind of smoking, knitting queen, stationed in a chair, fag on the go, watching the telly, dictating to all and sundry, prone to alarming outbursts.

Janice begins school and learns how being good at tests isn’t enough, she is expected to fit in, to be cheery and make conversation. After school she sits outdoors, waiting hours for her mother to return home from work, making her own entertainment. Reading these clear slices of childhood made me long for a kindly stranger to befriend Janice, show her some affection and understanding, but none appears. It is an uneasy read. Knowing that adult Janice is one of the finest contemporary writers in the world and held in high regard is some comfort.

This is not a voyeuristic misery memoir. There are fleeting glimpses of love here, but it is awkward love, self-conscious and stiff. One of the saddest scenes has Janice saving money to buy her mother a present. She chooses with enormous care something special that she hopes will let her mother know how much she is loved. Cora ridicules the gift, and Janice, before it is given, and insists it be returned to the shop for a refund. Cora pulls her hair, bashes her lip, and Janice does as she is told and buys a pair of “safe” gloves for her mum instead. Ouch.

For the most part Janice observes, attempts to decode actions and anticipate the slight twists and turns of mood that can be the difference between a sort of peace or Cora raging at her, often violently. I was glad when she develops her own sense of anger towards the end of this volume with the onset of hormones. I wanted her to stand up to Cora, take the power away from her.

This memoir is a version of the truth, as all memory is. There are other sides to the scenes here, and as the title says this is not all about Janice. Here is Cora’s story, and Beth’s too. These three females cooped up together, struggling, each wanting something different. I would like to know more of them. As characters, for that is all they can be to me the reader, they are all three interesting. Looking again at the photo on the cover having read the book, the picture becomes perfectly symbolic of the relationships we have learnt about inside. I don’t know if there is to be a follow up, I certainly hope there is some kind of a happy ending.

EDIT: Now available in paperback.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a big slab of a novel, 550 plus words, large pages, divided into 4 sections. I enjoyed Sittenfeld’s debut novel Prep very much but was disappointed by The Man of My Dreams, so I wasn’t sure how I’d get on with this. Apart from tsking about having to carry such a hefty novel in my bag, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The American Wife refers to Alice, who by marrying Charlie Blackwell ends up being America’s First Lady. The book is based on the real life Laura Bush. True facts about Laura Bush’s life (such as a fatal car accident she was involved in) are taken and fictionalised. I am impressed that despite us knowing how it’s going to end there is still enough moderate cliff hanging to keep us reading on.

I thought Sittenfeld was immensely skilled at bringing to life teen anxieties and school concerns in Prep, and here again she paints a rounded portrait of young Alice. It is the earlier parts of Alice’s life which I enjoyed the most, the fact that she winds up marrying the president was almost incidental.

As the First Lady Alice rates far higher in the popularity stakes than her husband does. She is also perceived to have great influence on him, and a variety of people wish her to use that power. Sittenfeld ponders what it would be like for the President’s wife to not share his values, and this, along with Alice’s guilt about the car crash, seems to be the central theme.

It’s not a particularly challenging or flashy novel, rather it is something to relax into and enjoy. There were times when, with my writers hat on, I thought, but surely this is telling and not showing, but it didn’t seem to matter a jot. I guess it’s just another of those “rules” I’ll never quite get.

I’ll be rating it 4 out of 5 on my Good Reads page.

Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel


I have been fortunate enough to read stories by Kuzhali Manickavel, and they are consistently wonderful. She worked for a brief while in the online writing group that I am part of. I think she became frustrated by the lack of useful critiques she received. I told her that I couldn’t think of a single thing that would improve her work, and I meant it. It is rare to read stories like hers, I am not sure how to describe them, but they are strange, affecting, beautiful, funny and glorious.


Her debut collection is published by a new publishing house based in India, Blaft. It is available to those of us outside India from Amazon.

If you are not convinced by my words, let me turn to Miranda July who says of this collection “Not merely lyrical and strange, but also deadpan funny. I can’t shake the feeling that I know this woman, personally–like we hung out at a party or something. But I don’t, and we didn’t. She’s just that good.”

And check out the ace cover!


 

I wrote "A realistic and informative piece"

There is a review of Writer’s Market UK 2009 at The Crafty Writer
and in it they say some good things and mention me. Hurrah. Although they call me a not-yet-published person, I assume because I was short listed for the Not Yet Published Award but it made me feel a bit, hmmm, well, I do have some things published actually mumble, mumble…

Anyway, you should all buy Writer’s Market Uk 2009 because it is jolly useful and I am in it.

Bang Crunch by Neil Smith

The collection opens with Isolettes and the arresting line 

Blue tube, green tube, clear tube, fat tube.

However, perhaps the author is not sure enough either of his own voice, or of the reader’s ability to get it, so follows up with A Dr Seuss rhyme. Yes, thanks, got that. Never mind, he continues with an image of a premature baby that is so entirely unexpected and yet spot on, that I was astonished. That is just the opening page. 

There is so much here, sometimes too much. The text of Isolettes is thick with puns: 

Nick U Nick off 

The pent-up suite 

If marriage is an institution married people should be institutionalised. 

Pushing through though is a tender understanding for character that gives heart to this and the majority of the other stories. 

Green fluorescent protein is a bittersweet tale about a 17-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexuality. At home his alcoholic mother talks to the ashes of his dead father, at play Ruby-Doo, the skinny bookish science fan he befriends, confuses his feelings. There are more of Smith s accurate descriptions: 

…Ruby-Doo does the fake crowd roar – the hushed wahhhh – I taught him. 

These are people that we meet again in Funny weird or funny ha ha? and whilst I am a huge fan of the short story form it felt like there was such warmth and depth to this trio of unusual characters that I would welcome reading a novel about them. The B9ers are a support group for people who have had benign tumours. Bang Crunch is the story of the extraordinary Eepie Carpetrod, whose rare syndrome makes her live her life in fast forward, aging rapidly, racing towards death. 

Occasionally it seemed to me that Smith thought of a witty phrase and then wrote a paragraph around it.Extremities is an idea that failed in my opinion as he writes of gloves that yearn for a particular hand, and a talking foot. 

The last story, Jaybird is also the longest. It centres on a group of Montreal-based actors. Benoit Doré, a man whose “…laid-back look was a lie. His mussed-up hair came courtesy of a mud putty that had set him back twelve bucks”, mentors a woman who works at an agency looking after actors’ interests, and she uses the opportunity to take revenge on her clients. The story twists nastily along and I read, wincing. At the end though, there is much needed possibility and hope. Like so many collections, the quality is up and down according to the strength of individual stories, but this is a good introduction to Neil Smith, and I look forward to reading more of him.

(I wrote this piece for The Short Review)

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