Into the Trees by Robert Williams

Into The Trees by Robert Williams

When their apparently healthy baby won’t stop crying and they have exhausted all the usual solutions, sleep deprived parents Thomas and Ann become desperate. By chance, Thomas discovers that if he takes Harriet into Bleasdale forest she calms. Raymond, a giant of a man who works as a farm hand, walks the forest at night, glad to escape his damp smothered home in Etherton. Keith goes to the forest for entirely different reasons. From each of their perspectives Williams shows how their lives become entangled.

I worried at the start that there’d be some mystical forces at play, but thankfully no, this is a very real story, shot through with William’s customary insight into the human condition. Unexpected strands are brought in and woven seamlessly into the narrative. Williams does a grand job describing Ann’s first love and the passion that’s missing from her marriage. It was Raymond and his awkwardness who captured my heart though. I know a Raymond or two, and the author’s understanding of what it is to be an outsider, what it’s like to feel so alien in the world, is quite special.

It’s a terrific exploration of fear in many of its guises. There’s no fussy writing here, just clean, clear prose. Williams’s best novel yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smash Lits with Dan Powell

So, the first person to face my Smash Lits questions is Dan Powell.

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His debut collection of short fiction – “Looking Out Of Broken Windows” – has just been published by Salt. I got to read it before it was published. (Yeah, I’m showing off.) Dan was entering it into the Scott Prize and I told him “It’s a winner for sure” and “I fully expect you to win this competition”. I have NEVER said that to anyone else. I mean, what a thing to say! But, that’s how certain I was. That’s how good his stories are. All of them! He’s consistently excellent. Fanfare please, Salt loved it so much they published it and I think you should probably buy it. Or you can enter a competition to win a copy by commenting here or on any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet this March, or you can “like” the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page. All the names will be put in a hat for the draw which takes place on April 6th. Anyway, enough blurby stuff, on with the questions.

1) How do you organise your bookshelves?

I keep all my short fiction collections together on a series of shelves, but beyond that it is all chaos. I buy too many books (just ask my wife) and now there are stacks on top of stacks. I may have to start double layering each shelf but I am currently resisting that. It feels wrong.

2) What is your favourite biscuit?

Custard Cream. A design classic. The Helvetica of biscuits. They’re everywhere.

3) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?

All of my electronic devices have the same digital wallpaper. Clouds against a blue sky. Very calming. So that. Walls and ceiling, please.

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4) What was your favourite book as a child?

Treasure Island. It’s still in my top ten. Perfect boys’ own adventure. Funny and thrilling and at times very, very dark.

5) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Instrumental mood music. Somewhere between Lowercase Noises and Explosions in the Sky.

6) Are you in it for the money, fame and glory? Or?

I’m in it for the words. Just the words.

7) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

I’d swap places with Jonathan Franzen and use his computer to set him up an official verified Twitter account. I’d tweet a few for him, then sit back to watch the literary back room of the internet explode.

8) What makes the wind blow?

Those little sighs that toddler’s give when they are sleeping. That’s the starting point. It’s a butterfly flapping its wings thing.

9) Do you have a favourite pen?

Yes. My fancy-dan Fisher Space Explorer Pen. It writes upside down and in space. Just in case I’m ever upside down or in space or upside down in space. Can you be upside down in space?
(I am so jealous. I really want one of those. I asked for one for Christmas but nobody knew what I meant apparently.)

10) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Probably not. But some probably should.

11) Have you ever written an angry letter/email to a magazine or newspaper?

No, but my first ever published writing was a letter in the UK Transformers comic. I seem to remember winning twenty pounds as the writer of that week’s star letter. That’s better than you get for most short stories these days.

12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Not seen this since the early nineties. My sister watched this and Home and Away avidly. I caught glimpses up until I left for Uni. I’ll say Mike as he grew up to be Guy Pearce which was kind of unexpected.

13) Would you rather be a bee or a wasp?

Bee. No one likes a wasp.

14) If your life story was made into a book, what would the title be?

Looking Out of Broken Glasses or No More Books.

15) What did you do last Saturday night?

Read some Karl Ove Knausgaard and watched Wes Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket, with my wife. Not at the same time.

16) Do you have a writer crush?

I have a bit of a thing for Amy Hempel. She’s broken my heart many times and keeps doing so. I keep coming back for more.

17) Bacon VS Tofu – who wins and why?

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Bacon. Streaks ahead of Tofu.
(Streaks. Haha.)

18) Have you ever seen a ghost?

No. I am planning on being one though.

19) Are you Looking Out of Broken Windows? What can you see from your window?

I’m on a train as write this so I’m looking out of a wide, dirty window. I can see the suburbs of Nottingham. Uniform houses all in rows. Boxes with triangles on top. Punctuated every now and again by an industrial estate.

20) Can you make up a poem about broken windows?

The window broke
All by itself
It popped and snapped
It had no help
I tried to put it back in place
Tried but could only fail.

Is that a poem?

Oh yes, I think so. Very profound.

Thanks for answering my questions, and I wish you many sales and much success. I’d also like to say thank you for all the work you put into supporting other writers.

 

 

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I’m not writing a review of this. I’m not going to analyse or quote. This novel was such a treat: Absorbing, beautifully written, huge, well paced, a page turner, a triumph, a joy. And currently it’s half price at Waterstones. £10! A bargain, and the perfect Christmas present for anyone.

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

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I couldn’t finish this book. Really, I just couldn’t. Somewhere around page 150 I flicked forwards and saw more of the same and I just could not be bothered. I’ve read every one of Coupland’s previous novels. That’s 14/15 of ’em? And whilst he is, I think, inconsistent, he has long been someone who I will always always read. Of course it’s all subjective, but, for me, when he gets it right he’s not just spot on and zeitgeisty, he’s also a writer of depth. My favourite novel of his is Hey Nostradamus! Worst. Person. Ever is definitely my least favourite. It is, apparently, “written to be funny. That’s all it’s about. It’s not going to give you special meaning about the universe.” which is fine and dandy, as long as it can sustain the humour. 

It’s written from the perspective of Raymond Gunt (ooh, look, I nearly wrote Cunt) an unemployed camera man who agrees to shoot a Survivor type show in Kiribati. His despised ex-wife is his boss. He hires a homeless man to be his assistant as he has nobody else he can ask. He’s friendless, penniless, without morals, misogynistic, and chock full of all kinds of hate. 

It started well I thought, taking me by surprise with the hilariously descriptive line:

There I was, at home in West London, just trying to live as best I could – karma, karma, karma, sunshine and lightness! – when, out of nowhere, the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.

But x amount of pages of the same unrelenting, shockingly rude for the sake of being shockingly rude, prose becomes quickly tiresome. Gunt seemingly abuses an obese fellow plane passenger to death. He lusts after women in the basest of terms. He gets into trouble. He’s rude. Again. And then again. 

There are still some familiar Coupland moments. He describes a waitress as having “…her mind full of pseudonews” – that babble of 24 hours news streaming. He provides wry footnotes. He does write some bitingly funny lines. However, the novel read to me like a writing exercise: Write the most obnoxious character you can think of.  The hideous sexism was hard to cope with, even if it is meant to be ironic, it’s still hate. Ultimately though, the book bored me. Shame. 

 

The Deaths by Mark Lawson

Four wealthy families live in four exclusive listed houses in the countryside, a half hour commute from London. From the outset we know that one of these families has been murdered, and Lawson’s novel keeps the big reveal of who and why until the end part of the book. Instead he introduces us to each of “The Eight” as they commute, work, shop, drink, eat, and holiday together. On the surface all is perfect, inevitably, not far beneath those glossy veneers, all is far from ok.

The difficulty with having four sets of couples is in establishing distinct personas for each. Max, Jenno, Emily and Jonny seemed more vivid to me than Simon, Tasha, Libby and Tom. Added to their voices are those of the children, Nick (a fellow commuter), the investigating police officers, a female vicar, a nanny. Lawson’s cast is large, as is the novel, and I don’t think he manages to capture all the voices. His attempt at teen speak is rather clunky:

“Jeez, this is awks… He’s really old (thirty?) but dead fit and definitely gives her the full body scan, even though Mumsie made her wear a body-burka and what she calls the Sensible Coat. Tilly was, like, I’ll be inside all day but she was only on transmit as usual. Troll.”

He does, however, excel at pompous men whose speech is still peppered with juvenile public school phrases.

It’s not really a murder mystery, although of course it is that; it’s a satirical look at life now, a social commentary for the middle aged. Smart phones, Waitrose, drinking too much, children speaking in faux gangster styles, the economy, hypochondria, internet porn, coffee culture and so on. There are funny lines such as “Simon blames Top Gear for the fact that so many British men now regard conversation as violently belittling banter.” There’s also a lot of sex talk, and some sex scenes that may surely be nominated for this years Bad Sex award. (I can’t be bothered to flick back through the whole book, but I think there’s even a reference to the penis as truncheon.)

I wanted to know what had happened, but I did become somewhat bored and took to skim reading occasionally. It’s all a bit of a romp, with some brilliantly well observed lines skewering the white, middle classes. My favourite line:

 “A black maid is doing something complicated with pastry. The lives of these people.

“Monifa, my wife,” Mortimer identifies her.

Kate tries not to show that she has been humiliatingly out-liberaled.”

Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

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Set in Brighton and spanning the period of May 1940 – June 1941 “Unexploded” is obviously a story about war. It is, however, a deliciously layered novel whose strength is in its dealings with smaller more personal wars as well.

The novel leads us through the streets of Brighton, pointing out landmarks and features. Hitler is expected to invade and MacLeod is illuminating on the resultant atmosphere:

“Fear was an infection – airborne, seaborne – rolling in off the Channel, and although no one spoke of it, no one was immune to it.”

Evelyn, Geoffrey and their son, Phillip, live in the heart of Brighton. They are the very picture of respectability. Geoffrey is a banker who has been selected to take charge of Brighton’s internment camp. Evelyn is a well to do woman, unused to running the house without staff, but muddling along.  She married Geoffrey “…for his intelligent kindness, for his sense of fairness, for his loyalty to people.” We begin by sharing her impression of Geoffrey as a moralistic and trustworthy pillar of the community, and then watch that impression shatter.

Unexploded continually subverts preconceptions.

Evelyn takes it upon herself to read to the sick prisoners at the camp and encounters Otto Gottlieb, a “degenerate” German-Jewish artist. He is objectionable and hostile, and yet eventually shows more humanity than Geoffrey.

The evocation of wartime suspicions is superbly done. The children that Philip play with secretly listen to Lord Haw-Haw and anticipate Hitler’s arrival with a thrill. Anti-Semitism is rife, suspicion everywhere. A playmate’s older brother has been damaged forever in the war. Phillip’s friend wants revenge for him. Games turn ever more dangerous.

As Geoffrey and Evelyn’s relationship disintegrates both form attachments to others. There is much bubbling underneath. Evelyn seeks solace and wisdom in literature and particularly in the words of Virginia Woolf. (In yet another smashed preconception she sees her butcher attending a Woolf lecture.) Otto pays tribute to the dead through his paintings. The Arts are a vital life force.

I was already a fan of Alison MacLeod’s writing before I began reading Unexploded.  I am even more so now. Her words resonate, her descriptions are clear, her ability to imagine small details transport the reader. She expertly moves the story through to its climax, and beyond. Thoroughly deserving of its Booker longlisting, this is a thought provoking and engaging novel.

Bitchin’ haiku

My twitter link appears up there somewhere on the left (I think), but I figured I’d mention that I co-run another twitter account called Bitch Haiku. It kinda does what it says on the tin. We write bitchy haiku (syllables of 5, 7, 5) and tweet it. Other people send us their haiku, and we retweet that. Some send private messages so that we can anonymously tweet their snark. It’s therapeutic. It’s fun. We’re not into any racist, homophobic, sexist hate garbage. We do, however, embrace all kinds of petty nastiness. Feel free to join in.

Stoner by John Williams

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Several weeks ago people began to come into the bookshop and ask for Stoner. We got so many requests we kept it by the counter within easy reach. Initially I figured the title referred to some marijuana puffing dude, a paean to slackerdom, but I was entirely wrong. Stoner is a novel originally published in 1965, recently reissued by Vintage Classics. William Stoner is the name of the main character, a character not too dissimilar to the author, John Williams, apparently. It went into our “buy one get one half price” offer, and yet more people have bought it. I think part of the interest is that few people have heard of Williams, the novel is touted as a “forgotten classic”, and we all like the idea that we’re rediscovering something amazing.

From the first page we know that Stoner is the story of one man’s unremarkable life.

…he did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

William Stoner is the son of poor farm folk. From an early age (six) he becomes used to hard work and is expected to take over the running of the farm one day. He has no plans to ever leave the farm, but his father surprises him by sending him to college to study agriculture and the “new ideas” for four years. At college Stoner discovers what will be a lifelong interest in literature. For me, the books most devastating moments are those between Stoner and his parents. The writing is so understated, the prose so calm and clear. It’s incredibly moving.

Stoner remains at the university. The one constant in his life is literature; he studies, teaches, writes. He marries a woman who seems only to exist to make his life a misery. My one criticism of the novel is how it is never explained quite why Edith is so unpleasant, not only to him, but also to their daughter.

Where the novel succeeds beautifully is in its depiction of sheer ordinariness. Although Stoner occasionally glimpses something more, be it in his work, or as a father, or in love, those glimpses, those moments of hope, quickly fade. Stoner is left with the disappointment of being human. The reader understands this only too well.

…she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become.

I really did care about Stoner. For all its quietness there are plenty of life events to keep the pages turning. Well deserving of its “classic” status, this is a book I’m thrilled is selling so well. How marvelous, and what a shame John Williams couldn’t know how popular this novel would become. That’s very Stoner-ish.

FRiGG Twitter issue

The latest edition of FRiGG is a Twitter issue or, more accurately #TheTwitterIssue. A  collection of my rearranged tweets – “Life is Time Consuming” – can be read HERE alongside shiny tweeters Roxane Gay, Crispin Best, Erin Fitzgerald, Ravi Mangla, Scott Garson, Katrina Gray, Rusty McGee, Brad Green, xTx, Jules Archer, Danielle DuBois, Kima Jones, John Minichillo, Salvatore Pane, Russel Swensen, Kimberly Walters.


Thanks, Ellen Parker!

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