Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Reading round-up: April

April 2016 books

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel - Pre-order
I'm glad I get to write about this first, as I really want to draw everyone's attention to it. To be published in August (I will be posting a full-length review closer to the actual publication date), McDaniel's debut is set in the small Ohio town of Breathed during the scorching summer of 1984. A young boy appears from nowhere claiming to be the devil; his presence has an indelible effect on the whole town, and one family in particular. It's just brilliant: beautifully written, with a story and style that actually feel genuinely original, and your heart will break for these characters. It might be my favourite book of 2016 so far. Just to be absolutely clear: I LOVED IT.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing - Full review / Buy
In a candid memoir, Olivia Laing dissects her own experience of loneliness by way of a study of numerous artists' lives and work. Mashing together personal experience, art history, psychology and sociotechnological commentary, The Lonely City is a brilliant work of creative non-fiction: its biographical and autobiographical elements are equally successful. Laing has a refreshingly balanced perspective on the different ways individuals experience loneliness, and that stops the book from ever preaching to the reader or rehashing cliches. A moving and reassuring read for anyone who's ever felt lonely or isolated.

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman - Full review / Pre-order
This is being marketed as the first adult novel by a writer who's previously written lots of YA fiction, but it makes more sense if you consider it, too, a book for younger readers. With a thrillerish plot (the mystery of a local boy's suicide) lurking in the background, it concentrates on the toxic bond between two misfit girls, Lacey and Dex. Like a simpler version of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, it's equal parts teens behaving badly, suspicions of Satansim, and the frustrations of small-town life. Elements of the story are really enjoyable - it's set in the early 90s, and the grungy period detail is great - but I was never convinced by the characters or their behaviour.

A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer - Full review / Buy
Short but powerful, this story of a young woman's descent into a short-lived 'life of crime' is perfectly formed, breathless and wonderfully strange. The narrator, Bianca, is a fascinating creation: she's a classic unreliable narrator, putting up a veneer of passivity, depicting herself as an innocent caught up in events she cannot hope to influence - but is this the truth? And what will happen when she wrests back control? I read the whole book in under an hour, but it has nevertheless left a memorable impression. 

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert - Full review / Buy
I'm not quite sure how to categorise this. Fantasy? Horror? Just... weird? There's a distinctly creepy vibe to Lambert's haunting novella, in which a reclusive, disfigured man finds children inexplicably appearing, seemingly out of thin air, on his estate. If you want everything to be neatly tied up and explained at the end of a story, you'll probably hate this - it remains stubbornly enigmatic - but it provides a stream of indelibly strange scenes, and I found myself happy to roll with its enchanting oddness.

Trencherman by Eben Venter, translated by Luke Stubbs - Full review / Buy
Part retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, part dystopian vision of near-future South Africa; the latest Eben Venter novel to be translated into English is quite unlike anything else. Conrad's narrator Marlow becomes Martin Louw, summoned back to his family's ancestral farm to retrieve his nephew, Koert. His odyssey leads him through a ravaged landscape to the skeleton of his childhood home, now filled with desperate people, presided over by the nightmarish figure of Koert. Dark, dreamlike and often grotesque, Trencherman is tough going at points, but it's the most thought-provoking novel I've read in a while, rich with meaning and symbolism.

300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson - Full review / Buy
Just thinking about this book makes me feel happy. It's like summer in a bottle, and makes the perfect holiday read, whatever you take that phrase to mean. With Faro, Portugal as its setting, 300 Days of Sun flips back and forth between 2014 and the early 1940s, unravelling a long-running mystery. I must admit my opinion may be biased, as I've been to many of the places depicted in the book, and I loved 'revisiting' Faro through two sets of characters' stories. But honestly, it's so indulgently enjoyable that I'm sure I would have loved it anyway. 

The Girls by Emma Cline - Full review / Pre-order
I'd really been looking forward to this, but it turned out to be another case of hype leading to disappointment - not because it's a bad book, but simply because it didn't tell the story I was hoping to read. Set mainly in the late 1960s, it promises the tale of a girl being sucked into a sinister cult, based on the Manson Family, but what it delivers is more of a coming-of-age story; the cult stuff is really just a backdrop. Fun as a quick read, but it doesn't delve very deep into the potential suggested by its source material.

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Sunday, 1 May 2016

This week's links: 1 May 2016

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...
Joel Sartore
'The stuffed bighorn sheep get a dusting at Cabela's, the "World's Foremost Outfitters" in Sidney, NE'
by Joel Sartore
Harbin Opera House by Iwan Baan
Harbin Opera House, China by Iwan Baan
(it's worth looking at the whole slideshow; this building is amazing, both inside and out)

Books & literature:
Wonderland Arcade, 1968
1968: Wonderland Arcade

Film, TV & music:
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Monday, 25 April 2016

Review: 300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson

300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson300 Days of Sun (12 April 2016) by Deborah Lawrenson

Something I have found about holidaying alone is that I tend to develop more intimate relationships to the places I visit. When I've stayed somewhere on my own, I often feel as though I've lived there for a short period - even if the duration of my holiday was just a few days - and find I can recall features of the area, such as the layout of streets, in far more more detail than seems usual. I'm mentioning this because the main setting of 300 Days of Sun is Faro, Portugal, which I visited on a solo trip last year, and there's no doubt that this added to my enjoyment of Deborah Lawrenson's latest novel. Specific places I actually visited - such as Ilha Deserta and the Chapel of Bones - are key to the story. There's always something a little bit thrilling about that, and though Lawrenson's description is sharp and vivid, being able to picture these places from memory definitely added to the effect.

There are two stories here, told in alternating parts. In 2014, Jo, a journalist who has fled to Faro to escape a persistent ex-boyfriend, meets Nathan at a Portuguese language class. He tells her he's there to seek the truth about his real parents, and suspects there may be links between his past and two resorts close to Faro, where a number of child abductions have taken place. Jo finds a contact with possible connections to the resorts; he gives her a book which, he says, contains information that will help her get answers. The book is a 1954 novel named The Alliance, with its roots in the real life story of its American author, Esta Hartford. Extracts from Esta's novel, set during the Second World War in Lisbon and Faro, make up the second plot strand.

I have a real weakness for the type of story in which a character investigates a mystery at a fairly slow place, by following a trail of clues - exploring locations related to the crime, looking up old newspaper articles at the local library, and arranging meetings with people who might know something, who then pass them on to other people who might know something. It's all well-trodden ground, but I absolutely love it, and Jo and Nathan's story is a perfect example. Their sections were my favourites, and I could quite happily have read a whole book about these two characters. I even loved the quiet scenes of Jo's everyday life: attending classes, pottering around her rented flat, going out for a walk and a coffee - they're so real and ordinary, and really brought Jo to life for me.

By contrast, the Esta sections take quite a while to really get going. Jo's bits are in first person and Esta's in third, which perhaps makes Esta - or rather, her avatar, Alva - harder to get close to. The content also initially seems somewhat drier, as Alva and her husband Michael (another journalist) struggle to adjust to wartime life when they find themselves stranded in Portugal. But as more is revealed, the Esta/Alva narrative becomes just as fascinating as the modern-day story; perhaps even more so, as it spans years and involves a richer sense of history.

300 Days of Sun doesn't break any new ground, but it's a lovely, gentle, feelgood read complete with gorgeous locations, an interesting mystery and a pinch of romance. It's the perfect book for anyone craving a little bit of relaxing escapism.

I received an advance review copy of 300 Days of Sun from the publisher through Edelweiss.

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Sunday, 24 April 2016

This week's links: 24 April 2016

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...
  • The season 2 finale of Better Call Saul was this week. Honestly, I can't say enough about how much I love this show, so much that I feel panicked at the thought that it will some day have to end. I love (and, obviously, wholeheartedly agree with) Julia Turner's Brow Beat post, Better Call Saul Is Better Than Breaking Bad. Francine Prose's NYRB piece also sums up the plot and all the strengths of the show very succinctly, and has a great title: The Ballad of Slippin’ Jimmy.
  • Last week I really enjoyed a few of the Google Spotlight Stories shorts (they're all on YouTube but you have to watch them through the mobile app to get the proper 360° effect) and yesterday I saw Hardcore Henry, the video-game-inspired action movie shot with head-mounted cameras, all of which has got me thinking about the possibilities of first-person and VR cinema. These are interesting: Studio 360 and The ultimate empathy machine. And here's a good piece about Hardcore Henry that hones in on one of the things I liked the most about it (although it's so spoilery that even the title of the article is a spoiler).
Hinterland by Hans van der Meer
From Hinterland by Hans van der Meer
Werner Bischof - Aerial view of NYC, 1953
Aerial view of New York City, 1953 by Werner Bischof

Book reviews, lists, blog posts:
Karasjok by Camille Michel
From Karasjok by Camille Michel

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Monday, 18 April 2016

This week's links: 18 April 2016

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...
Norilsk by Elena Chernyshova
From Days of Night, Nights of Day by Elena Chernyshova
Circa 1940s flashes by Bert Grimm
Skin deep: glimpse into the history of American tattoo design

Book reviews, lists, blog posts:
Cité Rateau by Scott Benedict
Scott Benedict captures the raw concrete of the Cité Rateau housing estate in Paris

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Saturday, 16 April 2016

A few new books

A few new books

A Little Life / Hanya Yanagihara / Buy
I must be one of the last remaining book bloggers who hasn't read this, or even had a go at it. It's been on my reading list for ages, but I find the length daunting - that, and how incredibly harrowing everyone seems to say it is. I felt it would be a book best experienced in physical form, and I feel ready to tackle it (at some point) now I've got the paperback.

Hungry the Stars and Everything / Emma Jane Unsworth / Buy
Having adored Animals, I felt compelled to track down Unsworth's debut novel, published by the now-defunct (I think? Their website is no longer extant) indie Hidden Gem Press. The story sounds somewhat more surreal than Animals: it's about Helen Burns, a food critic who is invited to a mysterious restaurant where she's served food with the power to evoke particular memories from her past. But it's also described as 'a romantic comedy about whether it’s better to marry the love of your life with all the attendant passions and problems, or whether it is better to opt for someone loving and steady, if a little more predictable.' I'm intrigued.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool / Viola Di Grado, translated by Michael Reynolds / Buy
It was Viola Di Grado's Hollow Heart I was actually looking for, but when I found a cheap copy of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool instead, I couldn't resist it. Italian author Di Grado's debut is set in Leeds, where she lived for a time, and in a period of perpetual winter. It is a story about music, language and love, in which 'Camelia and her mother communicate in a language of their own invention, in which words play no part', and protagonist Camelia 'learns to see the world differently' when she starts to learn Chinese ideograms from the man she is falling in love with.

This Too Shall Pass / Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie Miles / Pre-order
One of two books I'm going to be reviewing for Nudge within the next couple of months, this Spanish novel has been a blockbuster hit all over Europe. It follows Blanca, who, having recently turned forty and lost her mother, decamps to the coast along with her children, best friends, and two ex-husbands. The jacket of this proof copy sells it well, ambitiously describing Busquets' prose as 'Joan Didion meets Elena Ferrante' and positioning it as a [combination] of literary fiction and an [escapist] beach read: 'the perfect literary summer escape, with a hilarious and honest narrator, an undeniably gorgeous setting, and lots of drama'.

The Wolf Road / Beth Lewis / Pre-order
I actually won this in a Goodreads giveaway - the first time that's happened since 2013 (when I freakishly won three in a row). I first heard about The Wolf Road in a report from last year's London Book Fair; the description of it as 'Mad Max meets True Grit' caught my eye, though it is now being marketed, as every post-apocalyptic novel must, as being 'perfect for fans of Station Eleven'. At the centre of the story is a young girl, Elka, whose world falls apart when she discovers that Trapper - the man who raised her - is wanted for murder. Setting off into the wilderness to find her real parents, she discovers 'a trail of blood and bodies' and a growing list of enemies. I don't know how I'm going to get on with the unique narrative voice - and it doesn't seem anything like Station Eleven at all - but I'm interested in giving it a try.

Trencherman / Eben Venter, translated by Luke Stubbs / Buy
The second book I'll be reviewing for Nudge, and the latest Eben Venter novel to be translated into English, following Wolf, Wolf. First published in Afrikaans in 2008, Trencherman blends a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with a dystopian vision of near-future South Africa. I'm reading this right now, and it's very intense - quite tough going at times, and often bleak, but totally captivating.  

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Sunday, 10 April 2016

This week's links: 10 April 2016

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...
The Barbican Estate conservatory by Rory Gardiner
Utopia now: the heritage of London's brutalist architecture

Windows 95 Launch
Aug. 24, 1995: Launching Windows 95

Book reviews, lists, blog posts:
“The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing), Kazakhstan,” 2011, by Nadav Kandar
The Hidden Nuclear Ruins on the Border of Russia and Kazakhstan

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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Reading round-up: March

March 2016 books

High Tide by Inga Ābele, translated by Kaija Straumanis - Full review / Buy
Not Working by Lisa Owens - Full review / Pre-order
The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel, translated by Alison Anderson - Full review / Buy
Night Train by Martin Amis - Full review / Buy
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg - Full review / Pre-order
The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida - Full review / Buy
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth - Full review / Buy
Lover by Anna Raverat - Full review / Buy
Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra - Full review / Buy
The Last One by Alexandra Oliva - Pre-order
Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky - Full review / Pre-order
Look at Me by Sarah Duguid - Full review / Buy
Thin Air by Michelle Paver - Full reviewPre-order
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - Read (free on Kindle, or here)

I'm not going to write mini-reviews for this lot, since a) there's 14 of them, b) I reviewed everything I read on holiday in this post, and c) I reviewed a few more in this post.

But it was a productive month, and most of these were good. Five favourites, in order:
1. Animals: hilarious, moving tale of friendship, drugs and growing up (or not), with a perfect ending
2. Thin Air: deeply spooky and atmospheric ghost story centring on a mountain expedition
3. High Tide: uniquely written, poetic; a playful and tragic life story (and love story) told in reverse
4. The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty: unputdownable novella with a fascinating identity-shifting protagonist
5. Foxlowe: thrilling, chilling coming-of-age tale about a girl who grows up in a commune

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