Friday, 3 July 2015

Reading round-up: June

June 2015 books

Music for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai - 9/10. Full review / Buy the book
I loved this collection of stories; one of them - 'The November Story' - is PERFECT, many of the others are brilliant, it's almost impossible to sum them up in a single sentence, and Rebecca Makkai is amazing at creating worlds with just a few sentences. Music and wartime are indeed significant themes here, but art and love are equally prominent. I wasn't as keen on some of the shortest stories, and thought they could easily have been cut altogether - but that was almost totally cancelled out by the sheer brilliance of the best ones.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll - 9/10. Full review / Buy the book
Something I read a lot (creepy/spooky/uncanny short stories) in a format I hardly read at all (a graphic novel). Beautifully illustrated, this just gets better as it goes along, and made me want to read more and more by the author. Enthusiastically recommended.

The Followers by Rebecca Wait - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This is the story of Stephanie and Judith, a mother and daughter who join a religious cult. Interest is added by the fact that this group, the Ark, exists in the present day, and not in some desert outpost but on the moors of northern England. The Followers is incredibly readable, but I was disappointed that it didn't go further into some characters' histories; it sets up this fascinating world but then you only get to hear about what happens to a couple of people involved in it. I know that's a bit of a daft criticism. I think the bottom line is: I really liked the idea of this story but it wasn't executed in the way I'd hoped.

The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott - 10/10. Buy the ebook
I really need to review this. It's hard to describe, though - it's basically a study of how 'networked life', ie 24/7 connection to the internet and social media and the ability to constantly communicate across almost all physical borders, has transformed the human experience, and what that means for us. But it's a sprawling sort of book that goes in loads of different directions, rather than presenting a single argument. If this sounds a bit incoherent, it sometimes can be, yet Scott's writing is so beautiful it barely matters. It's an academic thesis written like a novel. Pop culture references are woven in very naturally and nothing about it feels gimmicky. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but this really grabbed me.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler - 10/10. Buy the book
I haven't written a proper review of this either - you know how great books can be more difficult to write about than the average or bad ones... Darkness at Noon is a dramatised version of real events, an obvious but unnamed simulacrum of Stalinist Russia, with Rubashov, formerly a senior member of the Party, suddenly arrested and imprisoned for invented crimes. Driven not by character or plot but by ideas, it depicts Rubashov's state of mind and thought process as his incarceration forces him to contemplate the part he has played in building a dictatorship, and his disillusionment with the political philosophy he has imposed on others. It's perhaps a weird thing to say about a book with such sombre themes, but it felt like such a relief to read something like this - it's such a powerful and intelligent novel, and it reminded me why 'classics' are worth reading.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara - 5/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
A noirish Italian mystery originally published in 1940, this has a simple but intriguing premise - the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of an apparently content woman, a case that's a dead end until an intruder appears at her daughter's home years later - that it never quite delivers on. The characters are shallow cut-outs, and I was further irritated by inconsistencies in the narrative. This is part of the Pushkin Vertigo imprint, and I'm really hoping it's the exception rather than the rule, as I'm keen on reading at least a few of the other books they're publishing.

The Harvestman by Alison Moore - 8/10. Buy the book
Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers by Elizabeth Stott - 7/10. Buy the book
The Home by Tom Fletcher - 6/10. Buy the book
All three of these are chapbooks from Nightjar Press; I reviewed them together in this post.

A good month, because I liked almost everything I read, and I think at least four of these will end up on my best-of-the-year list. I haven't felt much love for reviewing, blogging or Twitter, though; but after spending a bit of time thinking about it, I'm not quite ready to give up on this blog just yet. July resolution: post more often.

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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Three strange tales from Nightjar Press

Nightjar Press chapbooks

I've had a rocky time with new fiction lately - so many of the books I was looking forward to in 2015 have turned out to be disappointing. The lure of new novels is always strong, but I've been trying for a while now to move away from the usual blog fodder of ARCs and recent commercial fiction and devote more of my reading time to older books, classics, novels in translation, non-fiction and books from smaller publishers. When Nightjar Press - an independent publisher of limited edition, signed chapbooks - offered to send me a few stories to sample, it seemed like a good opportunity to try something a little different while sticking to a genre that's close to my heart: tales of the uncanny.

For my first Nightjar read, I picked Alison Moore's The Harvestman (May 2015). I still haven't read any of Moore's novels (she was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012 with The Lighthouse), but I've enjoyed a couple of her short stories in collections from Curious Tales and Spectral Press. Creepy seaside towns are evidently a recurring motif in her work, and the setting here is immediately alive with dread as protagonist Eliot wakes up in his eerie, empty flat. (It was only after finishing the story that I realised I had incorporated the cover photo into my mental image of Eliot's surroundings, envisioning a characterless slab more akin to an office block than a residential building.) This is not exactly a horror story, at least not in the supernatural way, but it has that essential component of the genre - fantastic atmosphere - in spades, and is filled with sharply observed details that made me feel every tiny piece of it had an exhaustive backstory waiting in the wings.

Tom Fletcher is another author I already had some degree of familiarity with - again, because of his contributions to the two collections mentioned above. The Home (May 2015) was the shortest of the chapbooks I received, and also the most immediately weird. A man sits in a strangely furnished room - concrete, but with flock wallpaper and a rustic painting hanging on the wall. In the corner is a TV screen, on which he watches his wife attempt to escape from a towering menace known only as 'The Home'. To say any more than that might give the game away, although the ending of the tale is left open to interpretation. I do wish this had been a bit meatier, with a little less ambiguity - but all the questions its plot raises make it undeniably intriguing.

The last author from my selection was an unknown quantity: Elizabeth Stott. In contrast to the others, her story, Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers (June 2013), opens on a comic note as preening Maureen reflects on how she's tamed her boyfriend, former lothario Tony. The idyll is soon shattered, however, as she arrives at his flat to find him with another woman... OR IS IT?! Balancing melodrama and a wonderfully schlocky premise with moments of actual terror, this was the scariest of the three - the only one to make me jump - and it also had the most memorable ending. The image of a rusting car beneath an autumn tree, an unmoving figure in the passenger seat, has haunted me ever since...

I thoroughly enjoyed these creepy tales, and I would, and will, buy more. They're all limited to 200 copies, signed - and these are the only editions available (no Kindle versions or anything) - and they cost £3.75 each, including postage. If you know someone who's into ghost stories, I think one (or a few) of these would make a really good gift.

PS: if you know of any similar small presses publishing this kind of fiction (or any type of fiction I might be interested in), let me know in the comments. I'm always happy to get them on my radar, and reading these chapbooks made me think about the opportunities they offer to enjoy quality material from emerging authors at an early stage - material that may never be published elsewhere.

Buy The Harvestman - Buy The Home - Buy Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers
Just in case you didn't catch it above, Nightjar Press provided me with these chapbooks for free in exchange for a review. As ever, that didn't affect my opinion!

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Venice photo diary part 2

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Cannaregio, Venice
Venice seen from St Mark's Campanile
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Grand Canal, Venice
Lion of Venice statue in St Mark's Square
Streets and canals of Venice
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St Mark's Campanile / Grand Canal, Venice
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St Mark's Square, Venice by night
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
Venice seen from St Mark's Campanile / Palazzo Ducale
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
Inside Palazzo Ducale, Venice
Grand Canal, Venice
Inside Palazzo Ducale, Venice / Street in Castello
Venice at sunset
On the flight home from Venice...

The first thing to know about Venice is that it's smaller than you (probably) expect. You also don't actually need to take boats everywhere (which may not be a revelation to some, but it surprised me!) - you can get almost anywhere on foot. But the fact that the streets are constantly intersected by canals and bridges makes them incredibly labyrinthine; I got lost in Venice more frequently than anywhere else I've been. Until I admitted defeat and switched on Google Maps, I kept wandering around in circles trying to find places I wanted to go, only to discover I'd ended up somewhere I thought was in the opposite direction. So my main recommendation is: make sure you've done whatever you need to do with your phone to use mobile internet... or else take a very detailed map with you.

As for what I saw and did, it's worth noting that many of the most famous sights of Venice are exactly that - sights; you don't necessarily have to pay to go inside places in order to experience the best view of them. (For example, the image of Santa Maria della Salute seen from the Ponte dell'Accademia is iconic, but the church is underwhelming inside.) I found that wandering the whole city was the best way to see it. The best-known areas - anywhere around St Mark's Square and the main two bridges - are constantly full of people, but further afield it can be so quiet and calm (and just as beautiful) that it feels like you're worlds away from the crowds. In particular, I really enjoyed walking around the districts of Cannaregio and Castello.

  • The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a gallery of modern art which includes works by DalĂ­, Picasso, Duchamp, de Chirico, Magritte, Jackson Pollock and Jenny Holzer among many others. This was THE must-see thing in Venice for me, and although it is a smallish gallery the collection is fantastic - it didn't disappoint.
  • Palazzo Ducale is enormous, and has various exhibitions going on inside it - we left it rather late to go here (on the evening of the final day), and weren't aware that you can't buy a ticket for the Palazzo itself; you have to buy a multi-purpose ticket which also gives you access to a number of other attractions in and around St Mark's Square. If we'd known this, we'd have set aside a lot more time to see everything on offer! Give yourself at least a few hours if you're planning to go here as there's a lot to see.
  • I mentioned this in the previous Venice post, but the views from St Mark's Campanile are fantastic, and worth queuing for.
  • GELATO. Enough said. My favourite gelato of the trip was the salted caramel flavour from Grom.

  • I'm so glad to have seen Venice, and I'd really recommend it for a short holiday, or a daytrip if you're visiting elsewhere in Italy. You can easily see the whole city in less than a week; if you didn't want to go beyond the main tourist areas, you could probably see all of the major attractions in a day. It's so picturesque that you're guaranteed breathtaking views wherever you go.

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    Friday, 19 June 2015

    What I read on holiday: the Venice edition

    Venice
    Books I read in Venice

    Perhaps I invited bad luck by saying in my last holiday reading post that I always set off with a reading list in mind. I wanted to read at least one book or short story actually set in Venice, and had planned to read my first Elena Ferrante novel (The Days of Abandonment, which has now gone back onto the to-read list); I also had a vague aim to avoid any new/forthcoming books, sticking to pre-21st-century fiction and novels in translation. But then, of course, my Kindle broke. Using the world's most unreliable wi-fi (I had to sit in the bathroom sink to get it to work), I managed to get a few books downloaded to my phone, but not the ones I'd planned to read - so the Venice reading list was a mish-mash of whatever I had to hand, plus a couple of NetGalley ARCs.

    Vertigo (1954, translated 1956) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
    I was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I think) a reissue to tie in with the launch of Pushkin's Vertigo imprint, dedicated to 'writers of the greatest thrillers and mysteries on earth from countries around the world'. Adding to the confusion (which is perhaps very apt for this novel), I was half asleep when I read it. So I can't write anything much in the way of a review, but I did really enjoy this noirish mystery and tale of obsession; it's a quick read with a great ending. I'll certainly read more Boileau-Narcejac.
    Rating: 8/10. Buy the book

    All This Has Nothing To Do With Me (2013, translated 2015) by Monica Sabolo
    An odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from French. However, it takes some rather grim turns, and the title - which I, at first, took as flippant and funny - ends up having a certain dark significance, especially if (as everything implies) the story is autobiographical. It starts as the story of a female journalist, 'MS', pursuing a colleague, 'XX'; we observe the birth and death of their fling, and MS's subsequent heartbreak. But alongside this, the backstory of MS's family is told. At first comparatively dry, these chapters build to a disturbing revelation which is surprising, even shocking, in the context of the light and silly earlier half of the novel. However, the book is too slight to really examine it, and just comes to a stop soon after this point. The overall effect is an uneven work, with not one but two stories left feeling frustratingly unfinished.
    Rating: 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

    Asylum Piece (1940) by Anna Kavan
    Kavan's brief, lucid stories have the quality of remembered nightmares. The first work published under the name of Kavan (she had previously used her married name Helen Ferguson, and took her nom de plume from a character in one of her own novels), Asylum Piece - a patchwork of interlinked vignettes that could be considered a novel or a short story collection - is sometimes brilliant, but a little patchy. The title story, made up of eight mini-stories, is somewhat hit and miss - while it's the longest and most complete piece, it's also the only one to deviate from the first-person narrative (seemingly always belonging to the same person) Kavan uses elsewhere, and it suffers for that. The motifs used throughout the rest of the stories build up themes of oppression, paranoia and the impossibility of escape familiar from her fantastic novel Ice.
    Rating: 8/10. Buy the ebook

    Pretty Is (2 July 2015) by Maggie Mitchell
    Probably best categorised as a thriller, this is actually a book of two very distinct halves. Firstly, it's about two 12-year-old girls who are kidnapped and help captive, for a period of a few months, by an apparently benevolent man they name Zed, and the effect this has on their lives thereafter. Secondly, it's the much less interesting story of these characters 18 years later, now an author and an actress, and how their identities and lives come under threat when they meet again. The clever way Mitchell handles the kidnapping story - relating different aspects of it with different voices, playing with form by including explicitly fictionalised accounts, and retaining a measure of ambiguity so that the reader is never quite sure they have the whole truth - is the book's greatest strength. Unfortunately, the 'present-day' story is riddled with plot holes and wrapped up with a disappointing, abrupt ending.
    Rating: 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook

    Slights (2009) by Kaaron Warren
    A weird, sick, dark character study that's often disturbing/disgusting, frequently surreal, and definitely NOT for those who have a low tolerance for unsympathetic, misanthropic characters. Disastrously fucked-up protagonist Stevie is obsessed with recreating a near-death experience she had after the car crash that killed her mother; she finds that being in a state somewhere between life and death takes you to a room where you're tortured and tormented by those you 'slighted' in life. Though nominally a horror story, Slights spends more time unravelling Stevie's life story and the history of her family - the narrative follows her from the age of 18 to 35, and the major twists involve revelations about her father. Going by other reviews I've read, many horror fans don't seem to think it's worth sticking with for 500 pages, but I enjoyed the dark humour and Stevie's destructive adventures.
    Rating: 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook

    Burning Secret (1913, this translation 2008) by Stefan Zweig
    A very sharp little story. It subverts what seems to be a typical tale of seduction - set in a hotel, it tells of a lecherous baron setting his sights on a married woman - by focusing on the seductee's son, a highly sensitive 12-year-old. The bounder's strategy of capturing the boy's affections first quickly backfires: he develops a deep admiration of the baron, and is outraged when he's abandoned in favour of his mother's company. Unable to understand what the baron wants with her, he determines to discover the nature of the 'secret' he's convinced the two must share, and in doing so he unwittingly throws the stability of his family into jeopardy. The short narrative builds to a deflated but emotionally impactful conclusion that's both reassuring and deeply sad (for the boy as well as the reader).
    Rating: 7/10. Buy the ebook

    Music for Wartime: Stories (23 June 2015) by Rebecca Makkai
    I've written a proper review of this here, so I won't go over all the same points again. Suffice to say I loved this story collection; some of the shortest stories are a little weak, but the longer pieces are almost all brilliant - in some cases perfect. I loved the way that each story created its own little multi-faceted world so completely.
    Rating: 9/10. Full review / Pre-order the book

    I received review copies of Vertigo, Pretty Is and Music for Wartime from the publishers through NetGalley and Edelweiss.

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    Sunday, 14 June 2015

    Venice photo diary part 1

    Grand Canal, Venice
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    St Mark's Square, Venice seen from the Campanile
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    Santa Maria della Salute, Venice from the Grand Canal
    Bridge of Sighs, Venice
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    Detail of Palazzo Ducale, Venice
    Venice seen from St Mark's Campanile
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    Garden at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni / Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
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    Venice seen from St Mark's Campanile
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    Garden at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice
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    Grand Canal, Venice by night
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    Grand Canal, Venice by night

    My trip to Venice didn't get off to the most auspicious start - I might have mentioned this a couple of times elsewhere, but I had a run of bad luck which included my Kindle breaking (although when I got back, Amazon replaced it with a better, more expensive model for free, so all's well that ends well as far as that goes). But it's impossible not to fall in love with Venice - one of the most beautiful and photogenic places I've ever been. I'll write a bit more about what I did when I post the next lot of photos, but honestly the best bit of being in Venice for me was just exploring, wandering all over the city on foot (and yes, you can get pretty much everywhere without having to get in a boat). It's endlessly fascinating to look at, and every street corner, every narrow alleyway, every small bridge is a photo opportunity, whether in the more tourist-filled spots or in the quieter areas further afield.

    The 'Venice from above' shots were taken from St Mark's Campanile - highly recommended for spectacular views across the city. We attempted to beat the queues by going first thing in the morning, which meant it was comparatively overcast (as you can see from the pictures), but the views would've been worth the queues anyway.

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