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Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Debut (page 1 of 9)

An epistolary debut novel

How You See Me by S.E. Craythorne

craythorneThis is the last of my reviews of books I finished reading in 2015; I thought I’d better get a few thoughts down before the memory of reading it fades too much.

As Susan said in a recent post, ‘I have a weakness for debuts’ – you never know what you’re going to get.  In How You See Me, we get that relative rarity – the epistolary novel, but done in the style of We Need to Talk About Kevin – we only get to read one side of the conversation.

Daniel Laird is the letter writer. He’s returning to his ailing father’s home in Norfolk to look after him. He’s not been there for nine years.  As the novel starts he is leaving Alice to set off on his journey home:

From the pillow next to yours 

[…] You’ll say I should have woken you, but there’s too much to say. Too much I haven’t said. A father and a sister. A whole life to explain. I’m sorry I’ve not told you about any of this before; we’ve had so little time together. I’ve probably lied to you. That’s habit. I lie to  everyone about my family. […]

Missing you already, my darling.

Your Daniel

At the start, the letters fall into two kinds. The first are love letters to Alice, whom we soon find out Daniel met at work – she was patient of his boss, Aubrey, a psychiatrist; Daniel is his receptionist/secretary. The second concern family matters and practicalities to his sister Mab in which he complains about Maggie the care-worker who pops in frequently, about the house, about his frail father – well he moans about everything to Mab really. Daniel also writes some letters to Aubrey. They obviously do not have a normal employee/boss relationship.

Daniel’s father was – is – a celebrated artist, a painter who went through a series of muses and models when Daniel was young. It’s a shock to Daniel to see him reduced to a husk of his former self, but it does give Daniel a sort of power over him that he never had before. ‘…like it or not, I’m home.’ he says as he settles into a life of domesticity and walking the dog.

It is the discovery of a hidden cache of his father’s paintings that provides the turning point in this drama, and the faint air of unease starts to take a more sinister tone. Daniel had left home for a reason, and the exhibition planned of the new paintings brings all the hidden tensions to the surface. Daniel has been hiding from himself. Aubrey reinforced that, and Mab – well she hides behind her masks (she’s an artist too). We finally begin to see Daniel as everyone else does when events unravel his life.

I don’t know what it is about books about artists, but their oft-tortured and free-loving souls make for great drama. The descriptions of Daniel’s father in his productive years rather reminds me of the randy Uncle Ralph in Bethan Roberts’s child abduction drama Mother Island (which I reviewed here). As for Mab’s masks – the sheer idea of interpretive dance in masks just makes me squirm (almost as much as the singer Sia with her strange dancers).

The one relief we get is when Daniel takes his father on a holiday to the coast – it seems to refresh Daniel, but the effect is short-lived. Otherwise the tension and unease creeps steadily upwards to the shocking climax.  This portrait of a broken mind makes for a powerful debut well worth reading. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

S E Craythorne, How You See Me (Myriad editions, August 2015) paperback, 190 pages.

Discoveries of the year…

Time to highlight some of my favourite ‘new to me’ authors that I’ve discovered this year. I’ll start off with a trio who have a good back catalogue, authors I’m amazed not to have read before, and then mention a few debut novelists I loved. Again, all links in this post will take you to my original posts:

Louise Welsh

Louise_400x400I’ve been meaning to read some books by Louise for ages – I’ve had several on the shelves for a good while. I finally read one of her novels though when her publisher sent me the first volume of her planned trilogy known as The Plague Times Trilogy: dystopian thrillers set in a world beset by pandemic flu known as the ‘Sweats’.

A Lovely Way to Burn, the first volume has a sparky heroine who is a presenter on a TV shopping channel and starts right at the beginning of the pandemic. It has a gripping medical thriller side-plot too which made for a really taut and suspenseful read.  The second volume Death is a Welcome Guest (review coming soon) follows what happens to a Scottish comedian who manages to get out of London and encounters gangs and fledgling new communities as he tries to get home to Orkney. This all sounds very like Survivors (the wonderful 1970s TV series), but Welsh has injected a great twist which adds significantly to the story.

I can’t wait for volume three, but meanwhile I have those others on the shelves for my TBR reading.

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Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff-VanderMeer-headshot-by-Kyle-Cassidy-683x1024

Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy

I read all of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy earlier this year. The three volumes, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance combined into a  SF/Horror/Eco-thriller mash-up that raised as many questions as they answered. Unevenly written, yet full of such brilliant ideas and imagery. I gave the books high, but not the highest scores, yet this trilogy has truly stayed with me, so for that reason alone I want to explore more of his writing.

I’m really keen to read more of Vandermeer’s work now to see if it’s equally bizarre. I have Finch, his detective novel set in the ruined city of Ambergris on my shelves, plus Wonderbook, which is a gloriously illustrated Creative Writing handbook for fantasy fiction.  I’d love to get my hands on The Steampunk Bible too.

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Jake Arnott

arnottOver the years, I’ve bought all of Jake Arnott’s novels, but they stayed on the TBR shelves until I finally got The Long Firm down – and was totally wowed by it. I did have the advantage of having seen the TV adaptation some years ago of this book, but the novel itself was marvelous – its 1960s Soho setting was just so detailed – I loved it, and can’t wait to read more. (I note he has a new novel due in 2016 too!)

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Aside from established authors with a back catalogue to explore, I’ve also encountered some great debut authors this year including:

Will any of these make my year-end Best of list?  Some certainly… but you’ll have to wait for it!

Catching up on reviewing…

My to be reviewed pile is larger than I like and I don’t want to forget the books – so here are some shorter reviews for you:

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics

lukavicThis is one scary novel – published as a YA book but is definitely not for younger teenaged readers! The story is narrated by Amanda who is sixteen, and has been meeting the post-boy in secret for some time now. It gets her out of the house, away from her family and her deaf and blind baby sister, whose birth nearly killed her Ma. Amanda also has a secret, and doesn’t know what to do about it; her sister finds out what it is and tells her she must sort it out, or she’ll tell their parents.

There’s not room for the six of them in their tiny mountain cabin, even though Pa is often away trading. Suffering from cabin fever, he decides to move them all to the prairie, where they find a large abandoned home which will suit them down to the ground – only it’s steeped in blood! They clean, patch and mend and eventually move into the house, and that’s when strange things really start to happen.  Their neighbours are a doctor and his son, and the son tells bloodthirsty stories about tainted land and mad families – given the blood they found, are these stories true?

Gosh this was a disturbing book! It is as far from Little House on the Prairie as you could ever get – the only similarity being that the families are both pioneers/settlers. Despite her own secret, you know that Amanda can be relied upon, and her voice is authentic. I didn’t want to put the book down, but had to as I the train reached London, I had to wait for my return journey to get the full horrors of this brilliant debut. (9/10)

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A Short Gentleman by Jon Canter

short gentlemanBy complete contrast, this book is a riotous comedy starring the most deluded yet successful (in part) gentleman you could hope to meet. This novel is barrister Robert Purcell’s life-story, told after his release from prison for an offense we will eventually find out about.

It is full of hilarious scenes – after a fight with his childhood arch-enemy Pilkington, Robert’s mother asks him why he didn’t hit back:

‘He’s bigger than me.’
‘Nonsense. You must hit back, Little Man. Hitler was short.’

All the way through, Robert’s prevarications are hilarious, as are his footnotes. He is an absolute square, a snob and aesthete, a very literal chap too, yet underneath there is a human lurking which makes all the situations and relationships he gets himself into all the funnier.

Jon Canter has a wonderful track record as a comedy writer – I loved his book inspired by the series ‘Rev’ last year.  A Short Gentleman was actually our book group choice for last month, chosen because we wanted to read a funny novel and I dragged it from my memory as one that Kim and some other bloggers had really enjoyed a few years ago.  It was a hit with our book group too and I’d love to read Canter’s other novels. (8.5/10)

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Pretty Thing by Jennifer Nadel

nadelThis is a coming of age story set in the mid 1970s which explores the relationship between a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl and her older boyfriend, Bracken, but also between Becs and her best friend Mary-Jane.

Becs and Mary-Jane were meant to be sneaking off to the pub to meet friends together, but when Mary-Jane was late Becs went on her own.  A young man offers to buy her a drink – he introduces himself:

‘Bracken,’ he said. He was much taller than me and older. Old enough to have been a real hippy. I tipped my head back to meet his gaze. His eyes were brown. Not normal brown, but deep dark brown the colour of rain-soaked wiid,
‘Bracken,’ he said again, ‘as in fern.’
The skin around his eyes crinkled into a smile and it took me a moment to realize I was meant to tell him my name.
‘Rebecca,’ I said trying to sound grown-up. Becs was what everyone called me but it didn’t feel nearly sophisticated enough.

That same evening, Mary-Jane is sexually assaulted, when she was late. This event will resonate throughout the book and their friendship will suffer.

Meanwhile, Bracken turns up to meet Becs at the school gate in his van, and this becomes a regular thing. They don’t have sex immediately because Becs is underage. She’s convinced he’s her soulmate and that he’ll wait. She trusts him. Should she?

This was a tense and naturally unsettling drama that can be read in one sitting – you’ll want to find out who Bracken is and what happens to Becs and Mary-Jane.  I was 16 in 1976 when this book was set and it took me straight back to those times – I was glad that my own experiences of sneaking into the pub and so on didn’t go the same way.  Nadel captures the teenager’s voice really well, wanting independence but not knowing enough about trust, from naivety to growing up fast.  A good pacy read. (7.5/10)

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Sources: Publisher, own copy and publisher respectively – Thank you.

Amy Lukavics – Daughters Unto Devils (Oct 2015, Simon & Schuster), paperback original, 240 pages. Buy from Amazon UK.

Jon Canter – A Short Gentleman (2008, Vintage), paperback 384 pages. Buy from Amazon UK.

Jennifer Nadel – Pretty Thing (Feb 2015, Corsair), paperback original, 256 pages. Buy from Amazon UK. 

It's a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.

 

A strong new voice…

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young GodI bought this short novel on Elle’s recommendation after she responded to my post about the number of male authors I tend to read (that post in itself was a response to hers on the same subject). Young God is the debut novel by a young American author and the minute Elle told me that it was like Winter’s Bone but more so, I had to investigate – and indeed a quote from Daniel Woodrell tops the list on the back cover.  Sold!

It starts as it means to continue:

NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.

‘Nikki.’
‘How far down is it?’
‘Like a hundred feet,’ Wesley says.
Wesley squats near her feet. He wants to stick his dick in her. Nikki yanks tight all the bows of her bikini, hot pink. It used to be Mama’s. Now Mama’s too old to wear it. Nikki has been thirteen forever.

There is a technique to jumping. Nikki manages it, but her Mama, jealous of her, doesn’t. She slips and dies, smashed on the rocks. Nikki is left with her Mama’s pervy boyfriend Wesley, who gets his way with her. Her response is to steal his bag of pills and car and drive off in search of her real father.

In her mouth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.
‘Coy Hawkins’
It rings out.

As you might expect, in this trailer park world in Appalachia, this is going from one bad situation into another. Coy has been a drug dealer, he used to be the ‘biggest coke dealer in the county’, but currently he’s just a pimp, living in a trailer with Angel whom he rents out. He also has a young son, Levi, by Crystal who lives down the road. Levi is always out on his bike, watching.

Nikki stays. Angel is hostile to her, her father is not bothered, although grateful for Wesley’s pills. Life carries on in the trailer and once Nikki finds out that Coy is just a pimp, she is disappointed – he used to be someone. Somehow, she stirs a paternal urge to impress in him and he attacks another pimp for her.

This is the start of a new relationship between Nikki and her father, steeped in drugs and prostitution. Nikki learns the value of being an underage virgin and tries to recruit a girl from the children’s home. You can tell it’s going to descend into a new level of hell – but will Nikki survive?

My word! This novel, once started, doesn’t let go. The language is very coarse, the violence and sex is very nasty, the poverty is extreme. It’s everything you might expect from a tale of poor white trailer-trash folk, but it goes beyond cliché to become something else entirely. You can’t ‘like’ any of the characters, but you have to respect that they have no other way out. Nikki has such strength, you have to admire her for it, as you do Ree in Winter’s Bone. Nikki has a harder edge though, honed by years of abuse, neglect and periods in the children’s home.

Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Soon, you recognise that the white space around the shorter ones will usually signal a major moment, be it in thought, deed or conversation. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.  Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest one I’ve ever read – but I loved it. You don’t have to take my word for it either, see what Eimear McBride thought of it in the Guardian here(10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. Pub Granta 2014. Paperback, 208 pages.

The One Version of Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

versions of usLast night it was a balmy evening in Abingdon – perfect for an author event in the packed courtyard garden of Mostly Books during Independent Bookshop Week. Visiting was Laura Barnett, author of The Versions of Us, a fantastic novel featuring three possible versions of the life of a couple. Publicists have billed it as ‘One Day meets Sliding Doors’, and it’s an apt comparison, as we follow Eva and Jim through the years with roughly annual snapshots in three different versions of how their lives could have turned out adding the what if? aspect of Sliding Doors, although Laura’s novel is more satisfyingly complex than either of them.

The story starts with a prologue in which Jim and Eva are born in 1938. Then we jump to 1958 when Eva and Jim are both studying at Cambridge (where Laura studied) and the timeline splits into three versions of their fateful meeting as Eva is cycling along the banks of the river Cam and she swerves to avoid a dog.

Version Two…

‘Are you all right there?’ Another man was approaching from the opposite direction: a boy, really, about her age, a college scarf looped loosely over his tweed jacket.

‘Quite all right, thank you,’ she said primly. Their eyes met briefly as she remounted – his an uncommonly dark blue, framed by long girlish lashes – and for a second she was sure she knew him, so sure that she opened her mouth to frame a greeting. But then, just as quickly, she doubted herself, said nothing, and pedalled on. As soon as she arrived at Professor Farley’s rooms and began to read out her essay on the Four Quartets, the whole thing slipped from her mind.

The three versions of Jim and Eva’s lives go on to intertwine around each other throughout the book, and we go from Version One to Two to Three as we move through the years. You may be reminded of the structure of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (reviewed here) – but there is no evolution in the lives here – there are just the three interwoven versions. Laura told us how Life After Life had been published as she was halfway through her first draft and she didn’t read it deliberately.

Why three versions? Laura always wanted to have one with the big romance at the start, one where there was a spanner in the works, and well, one that was completely different. Three felt right. She wrote all the stories together, intertwining them from the beginning, envisaging the novel as a plait. She didn’t plan out the three arcs in detail, but did include around five set piece scenes which occur in each version – big birthdays and funerals essentially. Outside of those, she let the lives of her characters develop as they went. She aimed to keep the balance between the three storylines, not favouring any of them, keeping them and the reader guessing, and always trying to maintain compassion for the characters.

Jim and Eva are fantastically well realised in all three versions. We ride the ups and downs of life with them, through good times and bad, infidelities, marriages, parenthood, their careers. We laugh and cry with them, get annoyed with them and get wrong-footed when they don’t do what we expect. Yet, we rarely get confused which version we’re in, except just a little in those segments where the three versions come together at a single event which of course will go three different ways. The Versions of Us is a very accomplished novel and I really enjoyed it.

P1020505 (640x480)

Laura’s other day job is as a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic for several London newspapers and Time Out magazine, so she’s no stranger to writing and had written two unpublished novels before coming up with the idea for The Versions of Us.  She told us how, after she’d finished the novel, she found an agent by googling the authors she admires and contacting their agents. In this way, she was picked up by Sarah Waters’ agent, and when they were ready to submit the novel to publishers, just before the annual Frankfurt Book Fair last year (good timing!), there ended up being a bidding war between six publishers and she had the luxury of picking the one she felt most at home with – W&N. Foreign rights are going well too, so it’s been a whirlwind time for Laura, now doing the publicity rounds.

One really great question from the audience was about if she felt that her novel had changed her as a reviewer and critic in any way. Laura’s honest reply was that she didn’t think she could review fiction any more, because she is so aware of what it takes to write a novel now and has great respect for the craft of writing. I asked a seriously smart alec question about the Fates from Greek mythology who spin, weave, measure and snip the threads of life and whether she’d imagined the fates of her characters like that at all with her ‘plaiting’ of their tales. Laura, bless her, hadn’t studied any classics at her South London comprehensive and was amazed at that congruity – she charmingly said she’d have to look it up!

Laura proved to be a very engaging speaker and she was happy to chat and sign books for all. If she’s coming to your neck of the woods, it will be well worth a visit to see her and I can recommend her novel too – bring on the next! (9/10)

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