Review: A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin (2020)

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin

Blurb:

From farm to factory, alcoholism to war wounds, friendship to betrayal, the stories in A Place Remote take us intimately into the hearts of people from all walks of life in a rural Ohio town. Whether they stay in their town or leave for distant places, these characters come to realize no one is immune to the fictions people tell others—and themselves—to survive.

In each of these ten stories, Gwen Goodkin forces her characters to face the dramatic events of life head-on—some events happen in a moment, while others are the fallout of years or decades of turning away. A boy is confronted by the cost of the family farm, an optometrist careens toward an explosive mental disaster, a mourning teen protects his sister, lifelong friends have an emotional confrontation over an heirloom, and a high school student travels to Germany to find his voice and, finally, a moment of long-awaited redemption.

Review:

I am so grateful to Lori @TNBBC for providing me with a copy of A Place Remote in exchange for an honest review. Book bloggers, if you aren’t following TNBBC already on Twitter, you really should: the selection of books she promotes is so tantalising that I wish I had time to read and review them all! I chose this ARC because I am fascinated by Amercian small town stories – last year I read a whole spate of them, and I loved the feeling of being totally immersed in a specific location. A Place Remote centres on an Ohio town, but it spirals out and back again in an incredibly clever way. It reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (for obvious reasons) and of ‘small town’ books by Kent Haruf and David Joy. The writing style put me in mind of Lauren Groff, whose works I also discovered and devoured last year. In short, Gwen Goodkin is exactly my type of writer, and this book has me on tenterhooks for what she is going to produce next.

The stories in this collection vary in length and tone, but they sit harmoniously with each other, adding up to a cohesive whole which is extremely satisfying for the reader. The opening story, ‘Winnie,’ is a powerful example of the novel-like scope that the short story form can have, encompassing years of the characters’ lives with elegant economy. Similarly, in ‘How To Hold It All In,’ Marv’s experiences of war, love, marriage and friendship are (excuse the pun) all held within the short form with delicacy and skill. The trio of stories about Dawn, Jimmy and their mother are a heart-wrenching suite of tales, revealing Goodkin’s interest in perspectives, in gently turning over the dynamics of groups of characters.

This interest is much more explicitly dealt with in perhaps my favourite story of the collection, ‘Just Les Is Fine,’ in which a disillusioned optometrist becomes engaged in a hostile confrontation with the writer herself. I love the playful nature of this story, and how cleverly Goodkin steers the emotional drive of the narrative so that it teeters on the edge of farce but maintains enough dramatic thrust that it never descends into it. I don’t think there are many writers who could have pulled it off: I am in awe of Goodkin’s talent.

Other stories that will stay with me include ‘The Widow Complex’ (not one for arachnophobes!) and the final story, ‘A Month of Summer,’ which I think is the longest piece in the collection, and which thoroughly justifies its length by the level of nuance and emotional resonance that it contains in its story of ‘Yulli’s’ experiences in Germany as an exchange student, and his complicated relationship with home.

Home is, of course, a recurring theme in these stories: the desire to escape coupled with the seeming inevitability of return creates a tugging feeling that is echoed in the struggle between familial expectation and personal desire, as well as the power tussles between men and women, which are beautifully articulated in ‘As I Lay Living.’

I am really excited to have had the chance to discover a writer as skilled and subtle as Gwen Goodkin, and I firmly believe there will be extremely exciting things to come from her in the future. This is a startlingly good debut collection, and one that I whole-heartedly recommend.

A Place Remote by Gwen Goodkin is published by WVU Press and is out now.

Review: Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal (2020)

Blurb:

Jimmy Noone escapes his difficult life in a small town and finds himself living on the streets of a big city where he meets Betwa, who brings with her a chance of real friendship and a glimpse of new hope. Betwa disappears and Jimmy walks across the sprawling metropolis searching for her.

He arrives on Shifnal Road on the other side of the river where people from all over the world live side by side yet some inhabitants are so isolated they seem to have disappeared altogether. Jimmy becomes the catalyst for their lives colliding.

Journeys to the street and to the city are retraced, so too are stories abundant with lost dreams, unrivalled friendship, profound love and stifling grief, each underpinned with the subtle threads of commonality which intersect them all.

Should We Fall Behind is about the passing of time, and the intricate weaves of joy and suffering, love and loss which shape human life along the way. It is about the people who have somehow become invisible, and how their stories make them visible once more.

Review:

I don’t think it is any great secret that I am a massive fan of the books that Bluemoose have published so far this year. Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught and The Sound Mirror by Heidi James are two of my top reads of 2020, and as such I was both excited and slightly nervous about diving into the third novel in Bluemoose’s year of only publishing books by women. I need not have worried – this book is stunning. I am extremely grateful to the author and publisher for my proof copy, in exchange for an honest review.

I need to begin by talking about Duggal’s prose. From the first page, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the writing, the crystalline precision of the carefully wrought sentences, as if each word had been painstakingly carved out of ice or glass. It is a wonderful, freeing feeling as a reader to sense that you are in exceptional hands from the moment you start reading. I was happy to give myself over to the story immediately. There is nothing pretentious about the prose, nothing purpled or excessive – it is clean, delicate, exact, showing the same kind of respect for words as the writer shows for her characters.

The use of multiple points of view works incredibly well in this novel. We open with Jimmy’s story, and he is, in many ways, at the heart of the novel. As we switch to different characters’ perspectives, we see him through their eyes. To Ebele, he is a threat, lurking too close to their home as he shelters in the wreck of a car. To Nikos, he is a nuisance. To Rayya, he is an object of compassion, and the recipient of her surplus of unused maternal energy. And to Tuli, Ebele’s young daughter, and one of my favourite characters in the book, he is Storyman, a visitor from the world of imagination.

Perspective and subjectivity is handled so brilliantly in this book; characters are more than they seem on the surface, their complexities revealing themselves to the reader and to some, though not all, of the other personages in the story, so that sympathy ebbs and flows between the characters and the reader in a delicate balance. Nikos and Ebele, and even at times Jimmy himself, present themselves to the world as harsh, abrasive, hard to like, but a gradual thread of understanding is woven through their backstories and their interactions. As with everything in Should We Fall Behind, this is cleverly and subtly done; there are no simplistic redemption arcs or pat happy endings here. Similarly, two of the most sympathetic characters, Betwa and Daban, are not given named point of view chapters, and the absence of their perspective is just as revealing as the presence of other points of view. Daban’s goodness and kindness is echoed in Rayya’s generosity and in Tuli’s innocence – he is there in their actions, almost, for me, taking on a more symbolic role. Betwa, too, is less of a physical presence, and the contrast between the news stories that circulate and the memories of her that Jimmy holds onto feels significant.

For me, this book is about radical empathy. It is about understanding without sentimentality, affording dignity and respect to people whose voices are too often silenced. I strongly feel that this novel is a powerful antidote to sensationalist news stories: the often tragic events of these characters’ lives are handled with sensitivity and a lack of drama that strikes me as not only compassionate but respectful. This book is not a twee morality tale about embracing our shared humanity in a big group hug; it is a quiet call to lay down arms and consider why we put up such barriers between ourselves and those we view as ‘other’. It feels deeply important, relevant and hugely intelligently rendered. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; it is one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose Books in October, and is available to order here.

Review: The Girl From the Hermitage by Molly Gartland (2020) @molbobolly @rararesources @EyeAndLightning

Blurb:

Galina was born into a world of horrors. So why does she mourn its passing?

It is December 1941, and eight-year-old Galina and her friend Vera are caught in the siege of Leningrad, eating wallpaper soup and dead rats. Galina’s artist father Mikhail has been kept away from the front to help save the treasures of the Hermitage. Its cellars could provide a safe haven, as long as Mikhail can survive the perils of a commission from one of Stalin’s colonels.

Three decades on, Galina is a teacher at the Leningrad Art Institute. What ought to be a celebratory weekend at her forest dacha turns sour when she makes an unwelcome discovery. The painting she starts that day will hold a grim significance for the rest of her life, as the old Soviet Union makes way for the new Russia and her world changes out of all recognition.

Warm, wise and utterly enthralling, Molly Gartland’s debut novel guides us from the old communist era, with its obvious terrors and its more surprising comforts, into the bling of 21st-century St Petersburg. Galina’s story is an insightful meditation on ageing and nostalgia as well as a compelling page-turner.

Review:

Everything about this book, from the title to the cover to the blurb, had me incredibly intrigued from the moment I saw it. As such, I jumped at the chance to be on the blog tour for The Girl From the Hermitage – many thanks to Rachel’s Random Resources for my spot. I received a digital copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, and am always keen to read about places and periods I don’t know much about. The siege of Leningrad isn’t a setting I have read about before, and I feel like I learned a lot from reading this story. The opening chapter plunges the reader right into the desperate situation faced by the city’s inhabitants, narrating in vivid present tense how Mikhail struggles to keep his daughter alive in impossible circumstances. The sensory detail and obvious attention to accuracy in terms of research creates an immediate sense of trust in the storyteller – I was ALL IN, right from the beginning, plunged deep into the world that Gartland builds up with such care and skill.

We first meet Galya as an eight year old, ill, starving, cold, clinging onto life by her fingertips; it is a hugely impactful introduction, setting the stakes high in the opening pages. At first, I presumed the majority of the action of the novel would take place at the time of the siege, following Mikhail, Galya, Vera and Anna, unravelling the story of how they got there, and detailing how they managed to overcome the hardships. I buckled in for a wild ride, a dramatic, heroic tale of survival in a time of war. And then, the book surprised me. It flipped my expectation on its head and offered me something quite different, and far more interesting than I could have predicted. Something really special happened to me while reading this book, and I’m going to try and explain it below.

When the narrative jumped forward and I found myself following Galina, as a wife and a mother, and later a grandmother, through the post-Soviet changes and the family dramas that form the next stages of her story, I had a strange experience of feeling as if I was entering into a conversation with the protagonist as I read the novel:

Me: Oh, you’re a woman now, I was enjoying that story about the Hermitage. I thought we were staying there for a bit.

Galina: Just wait and see what is happening here.

Me: Oh, but it was so dramatic…

Galina: I can’t be the girl from the Hermitage forever. For survivors, life goes on, we grow up, we have families, we have to deal with the more mundane matters of existence, we have to leave the trauma behind and find a way to keep on going.

Me: Oh I see. You’re right, that’s much more interesting.

Galina: I told you. You need to trust me.

I apologise to Molly Gartland for putting words into her character’s mouth, but I really did feel as if Galina, as she gradually transforms into the wise old Babushka, was speaking to me through this book, patiently explaining that the ‘what next’ is just as important as the Big Event, the trauma, the time that can be neatly summed up in a striking title. Galina is not just ‘the girl from the Hermitage’ – she is so much more: an artist, a landowner, a matriarch, a woman trying to come to terms with the personal and political changes around her. It is testament to the author’s incredible skill (even more so when we consider that this is Gartland’s debut) that the voice of Galina came to me so clearly, with such wisdom. I really feel like I learned an awful lot from this novel, and I am beyond exciting to see what this incredibly talented writer produces next. I highly recommend this book: it is beautiful, intelligent, confident writing, full of characters who will stay with you and maybe even change you.

About the author:

Originally from Michigan, Molly Gartland worked in Moscow from 1994 to 2000 and has been fascinated by Russian culture ever since.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University, Twickenham and lives in London.

The manuscript for her debut novel The Girl from the Hermitage was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award and Grindstone Novel Award.

Social media:

@molbobolly Twitter

Purchase links:

http://eye-books.com/books/the-girl-from-the-hermitage 20% off with discount code HERMITAGETOUR. Free UK p&p

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Hermitage-Molly-Gartland-ebook/dp/B087BZSXN5

Review: The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M Edwards (2020)

The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M Edwards

Blurb:

1916: While the Great War rages through Europe, in the small coastal village of Trunrowan, Cornwall, life for Loveday Nance could not be more different. With her husband Will away fighting, the reality of having a longed-for child of her own seems to be slipping away with each day that passes.

Present-day: Kitty and Ben Gridley decide to leave their busy lives in Bristol hoping for a quieter way of life in the pretty village of Trunrowan, Cornwall. Little do they realise the impact that moving into Creek Cottage will have on them. When Kitty begins to experience strange things happening at the cottage, she is certain there is a secret harboured within its stone walls.

‘The Secret of Creek Cottage’ is a tale that follows the lives of two families, almost a century apart.

Review:

I was delighted to receive a copy of The Secret of Creek Cottage from the author in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tina for sending me a copy of her beautiful book. Sometimes a book hits the spot precisely, and gives you exactly what you need at the right time, and this was definitely one of those books. I have read some brilliant but ferocious books this month, such as Maria Straw Cinar’s mind-melting novel Girl, and, just prior to this book, Annabel Banks’ acerbic collection of short stories, Exercises in Control. I’m also currently watching the tv series The Boys, which is just so far beyond dark that I can feel it bruising my brain as I watch it. As such, I have been feeling pretty sated with ‘twisted and weird’, and a comfort read was definitely required.

And what a comfort read this book is! This is a really lovely novel: the two parallel stories reflect each other in a way that vaguely reminded me of Virginia Moffat’s Echo Hall, but the touch here is lighter, and the humour much more prominent. The Secret of Creek Cottage is terrific fun to read: the Cornish accents are a delight, and the threads of folklore and paranormal elements are intriguing rather than sinister. I had minor gripes and quibbles with some of the characters – I found Ben rather annoying (don’t ever dismiss your pregnant wife’s concerns as fanciful, my friend) and when Kitty told her friend Lizzie that she was very lucky that her husband was so good with their daughter, my feminist hackles rose! But then this is a charmingly old-fashioned book: the characters are, on the whole, polite and nice to each other, the story bubbles along merrily, soothing as a clear stream and possessing a kind of gentleness, and perhaps even gentility, that really does bring a smile to your face and gladden your heart.

My favourite elements of this delightful book were, firstly, the Cornish setting, complete with my first introduction to the tradition of Droll Tellers (Gribble Gummo was perhaps my favourite character in the book, and – random aside – the ritual that he has Loveday perform at the Standing Stones was a direct echo of one of the stories in Exercises in Control, which is the kind of reading co-incidence that makes me very happy, even though it means nothing to anyone else!) Secondly, the way that Will’s ‘shell shock’, or PTSD as it would now be known, is handled when he comes back from the trenches of World War One is both deeply moving and thought-provoking. It was a bit of a surprise to find such a subject in what is, mostly, a light, funny book, but it is so well done: we can’t blame Will for coming back a changed man, though we feel for Loveday as she tries to re-establish her relationship with her husband.

The secrets and reveals are nicely done, and the book is very well-paced. If you are looking for a gentle read that may just give you some respite from the hurly burly of this crazy year, you will certainly find it in this charming book.

The Secret of Creek Cottage by Tina M Edwards is published by SIlverWood Books and is available to purchase here.

#SquadPod Boost: Let’s Hear It For…Louise Walters Books

Picture from Louise Walters Books website

The wonderful Sue @brownflopsy, my reading guru extraordinaire and member of my fab #squadpod group of super supportive book bloggers, has posted the first in a series of spotlights on some of the “smaller players” that she has come across since she started blogging. She’s been kind enough to let me use her title and picture (below) to do a small accompanying post to share my own enthusiasm for Louise Walters Books. For more detail, check out Sue’s brilliant post here.

Picture by @brownflopsy used with kind permission

Like Sue, for me one of the greatest joys of starting on this odd but fun book blogging journey has been discovering more indie publishers. The best books I have read this year have all come from indie presses, and it has been a real eye-opener to actually start paying attention to who publishes the books I am reading, and where I buy my books from.

I’ve been dipping my toe into the world of blog tours, mostly with the absolutely lovely @damppebbles, whom I cannot recommend highly enough. Through Emma, I have discovered some fantastic books that I may not have come across otherwise. Louise Walters does outstanding work publishing incredible books, and while I am not (yet) the expert that Sue is, I thought I would share three LWB books that have crossed my path.

The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow

The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow

Blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. Simon is epileptic and his seizures are increasing in severity, but when he is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses, he is convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Despite resistance from the villagers, the police, and his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.

Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?

Drawing on philosophy, science, and the natural world, The Naseby Horses is a moving exploration of the bond between a brother and his sister; of love; and of the meaning of life itself.

My Thoughts:

I absolutely loved this book, which I read and reviewed for the @damppebbles blog tour. You can read my full review of this beautiful, highly original novel here. It is a very special book, and I urge you to check it out.

In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton

In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton

Blurb:

This warm-hearted tale explores marriage, love, and longing, set against the majestic backdrop of Morecambe Bay, the Lakeland Fells, and the faded splendour of the Midland Hotel.

Ted Marshall meets Rene in the dance halls of Morecambe and they marry during the frail optimism of the 1950s. They adopt the roles expected of man and wife at the time: he the breadwinner at the family ceramics firm, and she the loyal housewife. But as the years go by, they find themselves wishing for more…

After Ted survives a heart attack, both see it as a new beginning… but can a faded love like theirs ever be rekindled?

My Thoughts:

I’m on another @damppebbles blog tour for this book in November, and I can’t wait to read it. It sounds so lovely, and I know a few fellow book bloggers have already read and raved about it.

Don’t Think a Single Thought by Diana Cambridge

Blurb:

1960s New York, and Emma Bowden seems to have it all – a glamorous Manhattan apartment, a loving husband, and a successful writing career. But while Emma and her husband Jonathan are on vacation at the Hamptons, a child drowns in the sea, and suspicion falls on Emma. As her picture-perfect life spirals out of control, and old wounds resurface, a persistent and monotonous voice in Emma’s head threatens to destroy all that she has worked for…

Taut, elegant and mesmerising, Don’t Think a Single Thought lays bare a marriage, and a woman, and examines the decisions – and mistakes – that shape all of our lives.

My Thoughts (ha):

I’m awaiting delivery of Don’t Think A Single Thought by Diana Cambridge, and I can’t wait to read it. If you’re quick and order it before the 24th of September, Louise and Diana have an amazing offer here. I am very excited that with my paperback copy, I’ll be getting a free copy of Writing Magazine AND a chance to have a phone chat with Diana!

If any of these books pique your interest, or you want to check out the rest of Louise’s amazing catalogue, visit her website here. Supporting brave indie publishers like Louise is such a good way of spreading the book love, and you get some fantastic books into the bargain!

@brownflopsy is planning more spotlight posts, so do keep an eye out and make sure you are following her on Twitter – myself and the rest of the #squadpod will be supporting her all the way!

Links

https://www.louisewaltersbooks.co.uk/

https://brownflopsy.blogspot.com/

Review: Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (2020)

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks

Blurb:

‘We do have a complaints procedure. You will find paper and a pen (chained) to the shelf by the bin. Write your concerns and then place them in the bin. PLEASE NOTE: We do not allow items to be placed in the bin. Please do not write on the paper.’

A lonely woman invites danger between tedious dates; a station guard plays a bloody game of heads-or-tails; an office cleaner sneaks into a forbidden room hiding grim secrets.

Compelling and provocative, Annabel Banks’s debut short fiction collection draws deeply upon the human need to be in control — no matter how devastating the cost.

Review:

Influx Press is rocketing up my list of favourite publishers. I recently read and adored Famished by Anna Vaught, and I have Between Beirut and the Moon and Boy Parts very high on my TBR pile. This short story collection was recommended to me by @brownflopsy, my sister-in-weird when it comes to reading tastes. I was promised a fierce, original collection and this book did not disappoint. I devoured it in one sitting, practically licking my lips with glee at the needle-sharp prose and deliciously off-kilter sense of humour.

These stories are best approached with as little prior knowledge as possible, I think, so that the sweet, sharp shock of them is not diluted. As such, I will keep this brief. There are twelve stories in this slim volume, each one bristling with a sense of compacted energy, an electrical crackle and spark that is exciting and unsettling in equal measures. At times I was reminded of Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and there is also a hint of the dystopian bleakness of Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten, which I reviewed earlier this year. But Banks’ style is all her own, and her spittingly ferocious, utterly confident prose probes human behaviour in a wonderfully confronting way. I particularly liked how the theme of dating was woven into so many of the tales, yet approached so differently in each. There is nothing predictable about these stories.

The standout story for me was Rite of Passage, teetering as it does on absolute screwball comedy, yet maintaining an edge of poignancy. I guffawed in a very unattractive manner, but I was also strangely moved by it. A Theory Concerning Light and Colours explored one of my weird obsessions, the condition of synthasthesia, in which people experience the stimulation of multiple sensory pathways, so that colours are heard, for example. I find it fascinating, and Banks’ story is so skilfully done. I honestly don’t think I am ready to talk about the title story yet – it is so powerful that I need to have a pause and then revisit it. THE MOUSE!

In keeping with Annabel Banks’ taut, succinct delivery, and not wanting to give anything else away, I shall wrap this review up here. If you haven’t already read this collection, I urge you to do so, and when you have, please get in touch so we can TALK ABOUT THE MOUSE.

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington (2020)

Blurb:

A lyrical and atmospheric homage to the strange and extraordinary, perfect for fans of Angela Carter and Erin Morgenstern.

This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived…

Born into a post-war circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned in the shadows of the big top. Until the bright light of Serendipity Wilson threw her into focus.

Now an adult, haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus, our narrator, a tightrope artiste, weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child… But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again?

Beautiful and intoxicating, A Girl Made of Air brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory; Marina, Manu, Serendipity Wilson, Fausto, Big Gen and Mouse will live long in the hearts of readers. As will this story of loss and reconciliation, of storytelling and truth.

Review:

First things first: as a physical book, A Girl Made of Air is stunningly beautiful, and I am so glad I pre-ordered a hardback as a me-treat. I was immediately drawn to the book by its cover and its subject matter, and the mention of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, one of my all-time favourite books, sealed the deal.

It is hard to go wrong with a setting as rich in fictional possibilities as a circus, and A Girl Made of Air is full of the sights, sounds and stenches of behind-the-scenes circus life. Fausto’s circus has the requisite eccentric characters, exotic beasts, poky accommodation and of course, the big top, and the novel captures the peripatetic lifestyle of the circus brilliantly. What is different, and really fascinating, about this book is the way that we as readers are positioned alongside a protagonist who is on the periphery herself, an outsider amongst the outsiders, so that we tend to get sidelong glances into the action of circus life as we follow Mouse peeking out from under trailers or glimpsing her parents from afar. At first, I found this perspective slightly frustrating, as I wanted to be thrown in among the glitz and the colour, to revel in the midst of the action, but gradually I realised just how clever the author is being here: as a reader, finding myself in exactly the same position as the protagonist is such an interesting experience.

The story itself also took me by surprise, subverting my expectations. It is darker, and ironically perhaps, more ‘grounded’ than I was expecting – instead of a dazzling tale of ‘the world’s greatest funambulist’, this is a very human story about getting it wrong, about being a flawed and changeable person, making snap decisions you come to regret and acting in ways that unintentionally hurt those you care about the most. Far from being a fantastical, spangled story of wonder, Mouse’s life is beset by small disappointments and niggling uncertainty. As a protagonist, she felt very real to me, sympathetic at times, and other times frustrating and alienating, so that I wanted to shout at her, “What are you doing?” That’s when you know a character has really got under your skin.

I think that was perhaps my favourite aspect of this novel: despite the magic and the folklore woven into its narrative, it felt very true and very revealing. The characters, instead of being colourful caricatures, the bright, cartoonish circus folk of childish imagination, are damaged and desperate, broken down by human tragedy and drudgery in a way which really makes you think about the person behind the performer. I loved the touches of myth and magic, don’t get me wrong, that’s my jam, and Serendipity Wilson’s tales from the Isle of Man are wonderful, but this story offers so much more. It peels back the curtain, if you will excuse the rather obvious metaphor, and reveals the grubby truth behind the razzle dazzle.

A Girl Made of Air challenged my expectations in the best way: I was anticipating one thing, and got something even better. I was expecting a good night out at the circus, and I came away with a far deeper experience. Oh, and I have to do a shout-out to my favourite character, Cubby, whom I adored. I highly recommend this book, but you can’t have my copy, because a) it is too pretty and b) I will be rereading it soon.

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington is published by Quercus and is available to purchase here.

Review: Girl by Maria Straw-Cinar (2020)

Blurb:

Mannis Poor is Girl- amnesiac, revelator, mute. On her transformative pilgrimage to the desert she begins to recall what led her to kill. Determined to take back control from those who robbed her of power, she reaps revenge on her attackers, creating a warped fairy-tale world in which she becomes the vigilante Queen. Girl takes the reader through sensory landscapes, fragments of memories and vivid flashbacks of transgressions and transformations. Celtic mythology, alchemy and poetry collide in this tale of lost innocence and a girl’s struggle for freedom from the male gaze, violent desires and bloody colonialism.

Review:

Okay, deep breath. From the blurb, I knew that this book was going to be different. I don’t shy away from books that walk on the weird side, which is why I was delighted to be approached by Emma Lee at The Blue Nib, and to receive a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I don’t think anything could have prepared me, though, for just how different this was. I am still reeling, phrases and words swirling around my head from this fiercely original, earth-shattering book.

I have to admit that at first, I was lost. This book is such an explosion of power and language, each sentence grinding down norms of narrative to a powder, a drug to be snorted, an experience that is more visceral than literary, that for the first few pages I just gazed at the text wide-eyed, Bambi before the hunter’s gun. But as I untensed and let the pulsating prose wash over me, I found there was indeed enough of a narrative thread to carry me along on the waves of Straw-Cinar’s ‘inside-out’ prose. Mannis, our ‘girl’, journeys across the world, finds shelter in the desert, returns to right the wrongs that have been done to her, wreaking revenge on the men who have violated her, half avenging angel, half demon queen. I really did become engrossed in her story, as utterly fantastical and, at times, horrific as it was.

This novel is all about the language. It isn’t like any kind of prose I have seen before. Heavy rhymes, invented compounds, humorous wordplay, surprising pop culture references clutter every sentence, thickly redolent with a poet’s love of sound. I found myself reading many passages aloud, revelling in the kaleidoscopic cacophony that the author creates with her piled-on words. There is violence, brutal and raw, as shocking as blood on the page, and sex, graphically described, but also love, real love, and brief moments of connection, and landscapes and journeys and excitement and action.

Girl comes at you with all guns blazing; a fierce, flaying experience, almost uncomfortably intense. There is something really powerful behind Straw-Cinar’s bending of the ‘rules’ of language, as she pushes the boundaries of prose as far as they will go: you can almost hear the creaking of dams straining under the monstrous pressure of her flood of words. I am honestly not sure exactly who to recommend this to, so I will say this: proceed with caution, certainly, but if you are interested in an intense experience that pushes you as a reader to your very limit, this is it.

Girl by Maria Straw-Cinar is published by Chaffinch Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth translated by Charlotte Barslund (2020)

Blurb:

Ellinor, a 35-year-old media consultant, has not been feeling herself; she’s not been feeling much at all lately. Far beyond jaded, she picks through an old diary and fails to recognise the woman in its pages, seemingly as far away from the world around her as she’s ever been. But when her coworker vanishes overnight, an unusual new task is dropped on her desk. Off she goes to meet the Norwegian Postal Workers Union, setting the ball rolling on a strange and transformative six months.

This is an existential scream of a novel about loneliness (and the postal service!), written in Vigdis Hjorth’s trademark spare, rhythmic and cutting style.

Review:

This is the first novel I have read by Vigdis Hjorth, and I want to thank Maya at Verso for sending me a copy of Long Live The Post Horn! in exchange for an honest review. I am delighted to have been introduced to the Norwegian novelist’s work, and will certainly be seeking out more of her books.

The premise of this book is nothing if not intriguing: I do love a blurb that takes you aback, and I was unsure what to expect from a novel with such a jaunty title and such odd subject matter. Indeed, this book turned out to be quite different from anything else I have read this year. Its ‘redemption of a misanthrope’ arc is faintly reminiscent of A Man Called Ove, and its protagonist’s utter separation from other people calls to mind another fictional Eleanor, but this book is unique in its mixture of really quite profound existential despair and bleakness coupled with moments of real human truth and beauty. I was deeply moved by it, which is not what I was expecting.

Ellinor is so mired in her own solipsistic numbness that it takes a while to adjust to the relentless “I’s” of her first person narrative; her relationships with coworkers, family, and even her lover are an almost distasteful process of ‘going through the motions’. There isn’t an awful lot of back story, but this suits Ellinor’s personality – she who can barely remember what happened a few years ago, who struggles to hook the story of her life onto the emotional landmarks that others use. She is cold, distant and completely fascinating. I have never encountered a character quite like her. If, like me, you read to discover new ways of seeing the world, Ellinor’s narrative provides that sense in spades.

And then there is the postal directive, an intrusion of politics and current affairs into Ellinor’s otherwise unmarked canvas of a life. Her PR firm must help the Norwegian postal service to oppose an EU directive which would lead to their services being undercut by inferior competitiors. It is a quirky sideswipe, but it works, and it works brilliantly. Some of the most moving passages in the novel come from the postal workers’ reactions to the directive, and Ellinor’s gradual thawing in response to their humanity is really beautifully done. Although this is a very different type of novel, it reminded me slightly of Ronan Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, in the way that this book also shows that there is much to be learned from the quiet dignity of the mundane; the things we overlook, take for granted, never even stop to consider. These might just be the things that can save us. Long Live the Post Horn! arrives at this idea via a howl of despair rather than the gentle, comforting hum of Hession’s book, but for me there is a link between the two.

This is not a long book, but it is immersive, original, and, for me, one that tapped into some pretty big emotions. It is a bit of an oddity, as is Ellinor herself, but I really would urge you to read it, to be surprised, and to maybe let it change the way you see certain things. I for one am extremely grateful to have read this book, and to have discovered the writing of Hjorth in Charlotte Barslund’s taut translation. And I’ll probably be thinking about it every time I post a letter for a good long while.

Long Live the Post Horn! is published by Verso Books and is available to purchase here.