Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander EssbaumHausfrau (17 March 2015) by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly. So begins the tale of Anna Benz, the adulterous 'hausfrau' of the title. An American married to a Swiss banker, Anna describes and thinks of herself as a passive person (the word 'passive' is something of a motif in this book). She's lived in Switzerland for nine years, but knows only basic German, has no job, no 'hobbies', and no close friends. Most of her affairs are a matter of her going along with what men want from her ('like handing an open wallet to a thief'), and her marriage to Bruno happened in much the same way: 
Bruno turned to Anna and said, 'I think you would make a good wife for me. I think I want to marry you.' It was spur-of-the-moment and matter-of-fact. The idea crossed his mind and he spoke it aloud in the same way he might announce that he'd be up for watching a film... I agree, Anna thought. I would make a good wife. I would mostly make a good wife.
Sometimes, she doesn't seem to be fully present during sex; at other times, it's the only way she can access her own emotions. She has two sons and a daughter, despite never having been quite sure she wanted children: 'Anna hadn't longed to be a mother... It terrified her... Still, Anna got pregnant. And then again and then again. It seemed to just happen.'

That's a particularly apt quote because it seems that life always 'just happens' to Anna, and she lets it take its course without truly participating. She is 'mostly' a lot of things - a good mother, mostly; a good friend, mostly... It's within the bit that isn't 'good' that this story takes place, and that's where the messy, fascinating truth about Anna lives, too.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (US)Anna is seeing a psychotherapist, Doktor Messerli, who is trying to encourage her to be more active; to take control of her life. At Messerli's suggestion, she's also attending classes to improve her German. It's possible to read Hausfrau as one extended scene that moves between Anna's sessions with Doktor Messerli and her German lessons, with the rest as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It's not quite a stream-of-consciousness, but achieves a similar effect as scenes from Anna's life blend with her discussions with Messerli and the instructions of her German tutor, Roland; conversations cut into each other, so a question asked by one of Anna's friends might be answered by one of her therapist's observations, a 'lesson on conjugation' interrupted by a sex scene. Essbaum's background as a poet is obvious - there are passages of Hausfrau that read like prose poetry - but sometimes the language is as cold and sterile as Anna's repetitive life. This in itself works well, fitting beautifully with the icy setting.

I'd read mixed reviews of Hausfrau and that was why I put off reading it for months, despite having had a copy since March. A common criticism is that it's dull, that Anna's passivity is depressing and the small details of her days unnecessary; I suppose technically I can see why it might be boring to some, but it just didn't read that way to me. I'm not sure how Essbaum managed to make scenes of Anna picking out groceries at the supermarket thrilling, but she did. And of course (predictably) I loved Anna herself. She is deliberately, perhaps a little too conveniently, a blank slate - she's an orphan and isn't close to any other family members; her childhood and life in America prior to meeting Bruno is never really elucidated - but if you stick with the story, this proves to be crucial.

This is one of those books that's obviously been so meticulously planned and plotted that every detail has significance. Hausfrau's final scene achieves a perfect synchronicity. It becomes clear where Anna's story has always been leading; the blankness of her character, by this point, makes perfect sense. The story is brought full circle, and it's impossible not to think back to that ostensibly mundane opening, about how Swiss trains run on time and Anna's world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives. Hausfrau is a story about an empty marriage and multiple affairs, but it's also a philosophical novel that grapples with the ennui of a woman for whom being a 'hausfrau' isn't a necessity, but a choice offered to the privileged; whose behaviour can, therefore, be frustrating and hard to understand (not the affairs, but her inability and unwillingness to pull herself out of this gilded cage). On the surface, Anna is hardly a sympathetic heroine for modern female readers, something underlined by the way other female characters rail against her at various points, but Essbaum makes her story heartbreaking and compelling despite that.

I received an advance review copy of Hausfrau from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

Sunday, 22 November 2015

This week's links: 22 November 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
Las Vegas by Vincent Laforet
Las Vegas by night by Vincent Laforet
Rala Choi
From Diary by Rala Choi

Book blog posts and reviews:
The Brutalist London Map
The Brutalist London Map

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Reading and sampling: MORE ghost stories and spooky books

In the last couple of months I've spent lots of time combing through recommendations, lists and 'similar authors' in the hope of finding some good ghost stories by authors I haven't previously read. (I wrote a list of existing favourites last year and have always hoped to find another F.G. Cottam or something on a par with Michelle Paver's Dark Matter.) Much of the time, this has been a thankless task - there's so much rubbish in this genre - but it's led to the following books being added to my to-read pile and, in some cases, taken off it again...

Ghost stories and spooky books

A few I finished...

The Undesired (22 October 2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
The third book I've read by this author, and third time lucky, as this is the best yet. It combines elements of mystery with supernatural shocks in a story spanning two time periods. In 1974, we follow Aldís, a cleaner at Krókur, a care home for 'delinquent' boys; in the present day, the focus is on Ódinn, who's investigating past events at the home, including the death of two of the boys. Naturally, Aldís and Ódinn are connected, but it isn't easy to figure out how, and Sigurðardóttir really keeps the reader guessing. With plenty to keep the plot moving and the pages turning, the story flows effortlessly. The Undesired isn't as scary as Sigurðardóttir's I Remember You, but it has a really effective eeriness running through it, and it's also much tighter and more coherent.

The Ice Twins (29 January 2015) by S.K. Tremayne
This is completely addictive and a very quick read. But like most completely addictive things, it's not good for you and has no lasting value. It's also much more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel (despite the fact that it's one of the finalists for Best Horror in the Goodreads Choice Awards, which is what made me aware of/interested in it in the first place). The story is about a family who go to live on a tiny, virtually inaccessible island off the coast of Skye. The parents, Sarah and Angus, are still grieving after the death of one of their twin daughters a year ago. The remaining daughter, Kirstie, is coping rather differently, sometimes claiming she is her sister Lydia, leading Sarah to fear she misidentified the daughter who died. There are some good creepy moments and the setting is effective, but most of the story is well-worn 'husband and wife lying to one another' stuff. If you like thrillers, this might be one to try; if you prefer horror, I wouldn't bother.

The Visitors Book and Other Ghost Stories (22 October 2015) by Sophie Hannah
Okay, I'm going to try not to be too horrible about this. So I'm not going to say anything about it, except - just don't read it. Honestly. Go read some creepypasta, they have better plots.

And some I've sampled...

An English Ghost Story (2014) by Kim Newman
(Read up to 8%.) Sometimes you just instinctively know you won't like a book from page one. That's how I felt about this, though I did drag myself through the first chapter regardless. The style annoyed me, the details jarred. (There's this scene where a teenage girl character wants to play old-fashioned music in the car and is annoyed when her family prefer to listen to a rap song called, and I am not making this up, 'Poppin' a Cap in Mah Bitch's Skull'. Yeah... okay.) I'm happy to abandon this without knowing what horrors will befall this unconvincing family.

The Matrix (1995) by Jonathan Aycliffe
(Read up to 8%.) Not to be confused with the film. This seems... not bad so far, but I'm not entirely convinced yet. In the style of a classic ghost story, it reads like an account set down by a dour academic, a natural sceptic who has experienced some troubling event that can't be explained rationally: Even now, goes the first line, it seems strange to me that I should be writing this memoir at all... As such, it's very dry and old-fashioned and the first few chapters take their time to set up the narrator's history before anything of note actually happens. I do enjoy this technique, but the story hasn't yet come up with anything to make me particularly feel it's worth carrying on with.

Nocturnes (2007) by John Connolly
(Read the first story and the beginnings of a few others.) I've avoided Connolly for years because I really hated a book of his, The Book of Lost Things, but I've heard good things about Nocturnes from several sources, and the ghost story quest finally persuaded me to give it a go. Unfortunately, I have not been converted. I thought the first story was really and truly awful, offensive as well as not very good. I tried starting a few of the other stories - and to be fair, they are written in a variety of different styles from the first, so I'm sure they're not all the same - but nothing grabbed me. Considering my feelings about The Book of Lost Things, I don't think I'm going to be making any further attempts at them.

Nyctophobia (2014) by Christopher Fowler
(Read up to 9%.) This is more like it. I'm not exactly sure where it's going - is it going to be more thriller than horror? - but the first few chapters are funny, sparky and engaging. Chapter one: narrator Callie is shown around a beautiful Spanish house by an eccentric estate agent. Chapter two: Callie and her (apparently very new) husband Mateo go to see the house again. Chapter three: we learn how Callie and Mateo met - so I'm guessing their relationship is going to play an important role in the plot. And if all this seems a bit irrelevant to the nyctophobia theme, it's worth it just for the line 'he had me at hielo'. Despite a few bits of awkward dialogue, I'm really interested in reading on.

I received an advance review copy of The Undesired from the publisher through NetGalley.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

What to read in November & December 2015

New books to read in November & December 2015

Once again, I can't believe it's time for another of these posts... or, indeed, that we're now well into the second-to-last month of the year. December in particular doesn't tend to be a great time for new fiction, but here are some books out now or soon that might be worth a look.

First of all, there's Number 11 by Jonathan Coe - perfectly timed so that its publication date is the 11th day of the 11th month (it's also Coe's 11th novel and yes, the number does have some relevance within the story). I read this back in August and LOVED it. It's a loose sequel to What a Carve Up! and has a similar element of satire/social commentary, but the best thing about it is the cast of characters, their captivating individual stories and the web of connections between them. One of my fave books of the year so far, this comes with a big recommendation from me.

November also sees the publication of a trio of interesting short story collections. Most notable is Ali Smith's Public library and other stories (5 November), which brings together new stories from Smith with essays and other snippets; its aim is to defend libraries and rail against the recent spate of closures. Ball: Stories by Tara Ison (1 November) is set mainly in contemporary Los Angeles and 'explores the darker edges of love and sex and death, how they are intimately and often violently connected'. Cockfosters by Helen Simpson (5 November) takes as its starting point London tube stations, but its characters journey much further afield, opening 'irresistible new windows onto the world from Arizona to Dubai and from Moscow to Berlin'.

There's another train journey in The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel (9 November for the Kindle edition, 1 December for the paperback): two former lovers meet again on a train to Paris, but this isn't the tale of an affair rekindled, rather 'a psychological thriller about past romance, with all its pain and promise'. Also translated from French, Life, Only Better by Anna Gavalda (19 November) is made up of two novellas about two different characters who, following chance encounters, make the spontaneous decision to 'throw caution to the wind and change their lives entirely'.

I'm intrigued by A Ghost's Story by Lorna Gibb (5 November). It's the 'autobiography' of the Katie King spirit, an entity which appeared regularly at séances in the late 19th century and thus became a 'spirit celebrity'. The book is 'the tale of a ghost's quest to understand human faith, loss and passion; it is also the tale of a contemporary scholar desperate to understand the allure of the spirit world'. Sounds like a very different sort of ghost story, one I'm keen to check out. Also from Granta but rather different in subject matter is All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (5 November), originally published in the author's native German in 2006. Set at the tail end of WWII, it focuses on a wealthy German family determined to shut themselves off from the rest of the world - until 'their decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing'.

Sloane Crosley's The Clasp (5 November), published in the US in October, gets a better-looking cover for its UK release. The story is inspired by Guy de Maupassant's story 'The Necklace' and follows a group of twentysomething friends on the hunt for a legendary piece of jewellery. I haven't read any of Crosley's work before (she's published two collections of essays - this is her first novel) but The Clasp has had lots of rave reviews; file under Looks Interesting.

A Notable Woman (5 November) collects the 'romantic journals' of Jean Lucey Pratt, a diarist who kept a record of her life between 1925 and 1986: 'With Jean we live through the tumult of the Second World War and the fears of a nation. We see Britain hurtling through a period of unbridled transformation and the shifting landscape for women in society. A unique slice of living, breathing British history, Jean's diaries are a revealing chronicle of life in the twentieth century.'

Alongside A Notable Woman, another book that's gathering buzz is Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson (5 November). I probably wouldn't have noticed this otherwise, as to be honest the blurb doesn't make it sound like a particularly interesting story, but every review I've seen of it has been very positive. The Katherine of the title is a 'test tube baby' born in the late 80s who, at the age of nineteen, 'decides to disappear'. Bookmunch called it Thomson's best yet AND the book of the year; according to the Guardian it's an 'existential road trip' that's 'swift, shocking and satisfying'. One to sample, perhaps. 

The Secret by the Lake by Louise Douglas (19 November) sounds like a classic slice of feelgood reading in the romantic thriller mould, about a girl who works as a nanny uncovering a tragic secret within her employer's family. I didn't really enjoy the author's last book, Your Beautiful Lies, but I have enough residual good vibes from a couple of her others that I'm still hoping this will be one of those indulgent, fun and easy reads. On a similar note, The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood (3 December) is the second in the spin-off series of Death in Paradise novels, following A Meditation on Murder. I'll be picking it up if only because I'm dying for Richard and Camille to get together and will keep reading these things until it happens.

The last month of the year brings a new novella by F.G. Cottam, An Absence of Natural Light (10 December). Cottam is my favourite modern horror writer and I always look forward to his books; I have no doubt that this one - about a new couple settling into an apartment with a dark past - will be a great read. More suggestions of darkness in Alice Thompson's The Book Collector (5 November), 'a Gothic story of book collecting, mutilation and madness'. I'm not sure why I haven't read anything by Thomson before - her novels ALL sound fantastic.

Finally, there's A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce (5 November), a collection of short stories all set around the Christmas holidays and 'as funny, joyous, poignant and memorable as Christmas should be.' Frankly this sounds rather schmaltzy to me, but if there's one time you might want to read heartwarming sentimental stuff it's probably Christmas. 

What are you looking forward to reading in the next couple of months? 

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Sunday, 15 November 2015

This week's links: 15 November 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...

Weronika Dudka
International House, Brixton by Weronika Dudka, from her Tumblr (a real treasure trove of brutalist architecture and urban photography)
Charles Schridde
From Charles Schridde's 1960s illustrations of the 'house of the future', via DesignFaves
Book blog posts and reviews:
Tulip Hot Air Balloon I
Tulip Hot Air Balloon I by Lady May Pamintuan

Friday, 13 November 2015

Review: Rawblood by Catriona Ward

Rawblood by Catriona WardRawblood (10 October 2014) by Catriona Ward

Rawblood opens with the idiosyncratic voice of eleven-year-old Iris Villarca. She lives with her father in a lonely mansion, the titular Rawblood, on Dartmoor. There, he has convinced her of the legend of their family: the Villarcas suffer from a hereditary condition, given the evocative moniker 'horror autotoxicus', and Iris will die young if she neglects to follow his strict set of capital-R Rules. Essentially, the Rules say she must stay away from other people, with the sole exception of her father, and avoid strong feelings and excitement at all costs. It is when Iris starts conspiring to venture out after dark with her best friend, Tom, that she breaks the Rules and risks her father's wrath - but also comes to believe the condition is not merely her father's invention.

When Iris narrates, her voice is mesmerising, though it takes a while to get used to. She twists words in strange ways and relates dialogue in staccato fashion; sometimes she seems to talk in riddles, and once you've finished the book, it's easy to see how many of her enigmatic declarations might be considered a form of foreshadowing.
Loneliness is not what people think it is. It is not a song. It's a little bitter thing you keep close, like an egg under a hen. What happens when the shell cracks? What comes forth?
In chapter two, Rawblood switches to the diary of medical student Charles Danforth, 30 years before Iris's story. For a while it is a two-hander, with chapters alternating between these viewpoints. Then, for reasons I won't spoil, it moves on from them, and new voices are added to the mix.

The story of Rawblood is rooted in the landscape of Dartmoor - a place made up of clouds, bracken, cold streams, and the vast, lonely moor. The way Iris describes it, it's like countryside remembered from childhood. The Villarcas are always drawn back to this stark and beautiful place in the end (and it's exactly this that proves to be the key to the story), but they're often taken far away from it, and it's these diversions that produce some of the book's best moments. The Mary and Hephzibah chapter is incredible - a five-star short story in its own right. The conversation between Mary and Leopoldo, Iris's final journey through the house; these are stunning scenes, unlike anything I have come across in any book, never mind a ghost story, a genre typically riddled with cliches (cliches I love, but cliches nonetheless).

Rawblood's only failing is that it is slightly uneven, not always as brilliant as its own most brilliant moments. There are points when it seems like a mostly conventional piece of creepy historical fiction and is liable to drag slightly. Iris's voice dominates, and while Charles Danforth's narrative is obviously distinguished from hers, with some of the other narrators it is not so clear. Iris has such a distinctive way of describing things that when the same style bleeds into other characters' inner monologues, it's very noticeable. Similarly, Danforth's journal sometimes reads like a journal but often reads very much like part of a novel. But these are small flaws in an otherwise excellent book.

You may guess the tragic twist before the final chapters, but even if you do, Rawblood's climax is executed so perfectly that it barely matters. Rarely have I felt so thrilled by the climatic scenes of a book, not particularly because they're terribly scary, but because they're simply so good and complete, bringing everything together so neatly. The way it's all done is really quite awe-inspiring.

When I first sampled this book, I wrote that 'Rawblood appears to be quite unlike any other horror/ghost/gothic story I've read'. That turned out to be even truer than I suspected. It's a thing of melancholic beauty, an immediate addition to my list of personal favourites in the genre. Haunting, atmospheric, heartbreaking - a perfect winter read.

I received an advance review copy of Rawblood from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Books I've bought recently

I can't remember the last time I did a 'haul' post of any kind, but as the (physical) books I've bought in the past month kept stacking up, it seemed like it'd be a waste not to write about them. Now I just need my reading pace to pick up...

Books I've bought recently

Randall / Jonathan Gibbs / Source: World of Books
A book that's been on my radar for a long time - sometimes I just look at something on my wishlist and decide it's time to buy it. Randall is described by the author as: 'a counterfactual novel about the art world in London and beyond in the 90s and since, about the fuss the YBAs made, and the strange trajectories their careers took in the years that followed. It is about how to balance friendship with adulation, and desire with doubt. It is not a satire, or not only. It is an insider novel written from the outside.' All of which sounds brilliant to me, especially since 'novels about art/artists' is one of my favourite mini-genres.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Alice Furse / Source: Foyles (it's oddly not on their website, so here's a publisher link)
I've already read and reviewed Alice Furse's debut novel; this is just another opportunity to go on about how great it is. A nameless narrator ruminates on life as she tries to survive the banalities of a data-entry job at Weblands, which is a sort of every-office for the millennial generation. It shapes a story (and central character) that's simultaneously timeless and utterly relevant for present-day readers.

Two Eerie Tales of Suspense / Paul Torday / Source: Charity shop
If I'm completely honest, I only bought this because of the title. I've never read Torday before, and have always had this (unfair?) perception of his books as being quite twee. The two eerie tales are titled Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà vu and Theo, and are billed as 'suspenseful and intriguing... mysterious and sinister'; the beginning of the first one is interesting, with a classic feel; and who doesn't love creepy hotels?

Animals / Keith Ridgway / Source: Skoob Books
Ridgway is the author of the excellent Hawthorn & Child - I really enjoyed that book and his short story The Spectacular, but have never got round to reading any of his other novels. When I picked up Animals, though, I was transfixed straight away - it has a great first page, one of those that makes you a) laugh and b) immediately want to read on. Definitely a book I'll be reading sooner rather than later.

The Lone Pilgrim / Laurie Colwin / Source: Skoob Books
One of my aims when shopping at Skoob was to buy something I had no prior knowledge of, preferably something unavailable on Kindle and/or out of print, by an author I hadn't read before. I picked this up completely at random and bought it (no checking of Google/Amazon allowed) on the basis of the blurb and first page. Colwin is, it turns out, mainly remembered for her food writing, something that wouldn't really interest me - but this collection of short stories, portraying 'people who are experiencing, often for the first time, the startling, enriching, maddening complications of adult life', does.

I Love Dick / Chris Kraus / Source: Foyles
One of those social-media-buzz books - if you're on #booktwitter you're sure to have picked up on all the talk about this recently. Originally published in 1997, it's getting its first official UK edition this month, and has acquired the status of a 'cult feminist classic' in the intervening years. I'm trying to avoid reading too much about it as I don't want my response to be affected by expectations, but the few I have looked at have compared it to some books I didn't particularly enjoy, so I have a feeling this one could go either way...

The WikiLeaks Files / Various authors / Source: Amazon
I actually already had an advance copy of this in ebook format, but I was finding it difficult to read on my Kindle - it's very in-depth and so different from what I'm used to (I don't read enough non-fiction) that I felt I would get along with it better if I had a physical copy. This is the first serious text on international relations I've read since finishing my degree, and my progress has been very slow, but it makes for a stimulating change from fiction and is getting cogs turning in my head that have been out of use for a very long time.

Collected Screenplays / Paul Auster / Source: A discount bookshop somewhere in North London
How likely is it that I'll sit down and read a 500-page hardback book of screenplays any time soon? Not very, I have to admit. But when I spotted this on a table outside a bookshop with a big £2.99 sticker on the cover, I grabbed it instantly. I already have Auster's Collected Prose, and if nothing else, this one will look lovely next to it on my bookshelf (even though it's a little bit battered).

The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant / Leone Ross + Last Christmas / John D Rutter / Source: Nightjar Press
(You can't really see these in the image; they're the two slim pamphlets propped up against the stack.) Some of you might remember that back in the summer, I was sent three of these limited edition short stories by Nightjar Press, and really enjoyed them. Since then, I've been periodically checking Nightjar's online shop and waiting patiently for more to be issued, so I snapped up their two new chapbooks as soon as they appeared. I haven't read either of the authors before, making these an exciting unknown quantity.

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

This week's links: 8 November 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...

Rob Clayton
Lion Farm estate in Oldbury by Rob Clayton

2001 Odyssey by Bill Bernstein
The dance floor at 2001 Odyssey in Brooklyn by Bill Bernstein

Book lists, blog posts and reviews:
Lichtenberg, Berlin by Mitch Epstein
Lichtenberg, Berlin by Mitch Epstein

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