Thursday, 20 November 2014

Catherine Chanter's The Well: A unique, outstanding debut

The Well by Catherine ChanterThe Well (5 March 2015) by Catherine Chanter

When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.

The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.

Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.

What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.

There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.

The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).

The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.

TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut.

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

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser: A ghost story. Or is it?

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de KretserSpringtime: A Ghost Story (22 October 2014) by Michelle de Kretser

It's a ghost story. It must be, because it says so on the cover. Or is it? Well, it is, but that prominent subtitle is also deliberately misleading.

The protagonist of Springtime is Frances. A writer and academic in her late twenties, she's recently moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her new partner, Charlie, a much older man with a young son. She is disorientated by her new surroundings: in contrast to the ordered grid system of Melbourne, 'in Sydney the streets ran everywhere like something spilled'. She takes walks with her dog, Rod, whose imposing appearance obscures the fact that he's terrified of other animals. It's on one of these walks that Frances spots, in one of the gardens she frequently passes, a woman in distinctive clothes, and experiences 'a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled'.

Before this, there is an early glimpse of ghostly happenings to come when Frances remembers Charlie's mother, who, like hers, was French. She was 'a drunk' who stole from Charlie, but in the present day of the story she is dead: 'that meant Charlie was free of her, Frances believed'. The ominous suggestion inherent in this belief is obvious - it seems naive on Frances's part to assume this, and of course, the ghost story subtitle leads the reader to suspect that the continuing presence of Charlie's mother may well turn out to be literal.

The sightings continue, always when Frances is alone: each time she spots the woman, flitting through the garden with her own dog, her feeling is that 'the morning swayed, as duplicitous as déjà vu'. She can't quite pinpoint the house the garden belongs to - 'it merged with the sun in Frances's mind: it was something else that shifted about and wasn't always where she looked'. However, the story makes these experiences as opaque as the sightings themselves. It moves on, to talk about Frances and Charlie's complicated relationship, the menacing presence of his ex-wife, and Frances's difficulties in dealing with his son, Luke. At home, they receive mysterious phone calls which consist of nothing but a computerised female voice saying only 'goodbye'; Frances suspects they are somehow the ex-wife's work, but can't prove it.

The longest single scene, although it's fractured and scattered throughout the narrative, depicts a dinner party which sharply illustrates the tensions between Frances and Charlie, as well as Frances's feelings of not fitting, being conspicuously out of place. Talk turns to ghosts, and here de Kretser puts her cards on the table with a tongue-in-cheek flourish, as one attendee, a writer, theorises: 'ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out'. Springtime is both that loose, open kind of story this character mentions, and a story about ghosts that works up to a shock, albeit a dulled one. It's at this point, wishing only to provoke another guest, that Frances is compelled to confess her own experience, and in the process, begins to feel frightened herself for the first time. The 'ghost' only becomes a real threat when it is spoken about, having hitherto only hovered around the edges of a story that is more about the difficulties of ordinary life and relationships.

When the secret of the ghost is revealed, it's benign, even mundane, though not without a twist of something macabre. If there is anything frightening here, it's the everyday things like Frances's uncertainty about Charlie, and their inability to talk to one another clearly about the things that matter; and while his mother doesn't hang around the couple as some sort of apparition, Frances sees echoes of her in Charlie, in the same way that she sees echoes of Charlie's ex-wife in Luke. An epilogue set eight years later shows that things - as we might expect - are much changed for Frances, but links with her old life remain. This underlines the spirit of transience that seems to be the book's major theme - the scene of Frances's sightings of the ghost can't be fixed in her mind, and her trust in Charlie fluctuates, as do her feelings for him, her belief in her work, and her certainty of her own place in the world.

While very short - probably too short, really, to have been published as a novella in its own right (although it seems to be available only as an ebook in the UK) - Springtime presents a beautiful, unexpectedly eerie portrait of believable and nuanced characters. 'What people don't pay attention to changes the story', says Charlie at one point (Frances is concerned he won't understand her research - she is writing about 'objects', small details, in eighteenth-century French portraits). And this is why it's so clever, as well as quite daring, that de Kretser's story is explicitly positioned as a ghost story. The reader is given certain expectations which are bound to colour their experience of the tale, what they do and don't take away from it. Personally, I wouldn't categorise this as a ghost story in the traditional sense, but as a self-contained short story and a character study, it is an excellent piece of work, with layers that demand to be unpicked.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Reading round-up: October

October 2014 books

96. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
97. How to be both by Ali Smith - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
98. The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
99. The Room by Jonas Karlsson - 9/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
100. Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
101. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
102. The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol - 8/10. Read my full review / Read the story online
103. Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
104. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zamba - 6/10. Buy the ebook

Nine books seems a lot, considering that this was the month I decided to try and change my reading habits and priorities. But I do feel different: I've been trying to go with my instincts more often, just reading what I feel like, as well as putting less pressure on myself to write reviews. I've also spent more time writing - and on Tumblr I've been compiling weekly lists of interesting links and writing a bit about some books I didn't finish reading.

I don't want this to be a rambling post, so I'll keep it as brief as possible. The Room is an amazing novella - look out for it in January next year. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and (especially) How to be both deserve the critical acclaim they've received. The other books I read in October were less notable; but at least two of them form part of projects I'm thinking about, so I'll probably discuss them in further detail at some point in the future.

I was planning to give ARCs a complete rest after The Room, but I was quite excited about Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train and couldn't resist reading it immediately upon getting hold of a copy. Unfortunately, I found it far more formulaic than I'd hoped. You can read my review of it on Goodreads, but some of the stuff I've discussed might be considered spoilery, so proceed with caution...

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Friday, 31 October 2014

Crooked House, M.R. James and the ghost story tradition

Crooked House

Crooked House was first broadcast on BBC4, at Christmas in 2008, as three half-hour episodes, and later released on DVD as a film-length single cut. Designed to fit into the 'ghost story for Christmas' tradition, it's a potent combination of historical ghost story and modern horror. Mark Gatiss, who also wrote all the episodes, stars as the Curator; his conversation with Ben, a teacher played by Lee Ingleby, opens the series, and the stories that follow are ostensibly local legends related during that conversation. Crooked House works well as a portmanteau, but it can also be treated as three self-contained stories. 'The Wainscoting' is set in the Georgian era, 'Something Old' in the 1920s, and 'The Knocker' in the present day. Linking them all together is a good old-fashioned haunted house, the evocatively named Geap Manor, a place that 'seemed to attract unpleasantness'. It's the setting for the first two episodes, and although it's been demolished by the third, a remnant of its ghoulish decor - a doorknocker in the shape of a half-human face - proves to be more than enough to keep the house's malevolent spirit active.

'Do you believe in ghosts?' asks the Curator, as the first episode opens on a blank, black screen: immediately disconcerting. There are moments of complete disquiet throughout the episodes: some melodramatic (a quick cut to a two-second-long flashback with an unearthly scream), others less obvious (a cat yowls loudly and abruptly down a corridor; there's the sudden, disembodied laugh of a child in a quiet library; a burglar alarm rings for so long you think it's never going to stop). On the surface, Crooked House is a perfect cocktail of everything that makes a classic horror story, from a ghostly figure wafting about in a ragged wedding dress to creaking floorboards and knocks on the door in the dead of night, all served with a dash of knowing, camp humour. But there are also enough layers and subtleties that it's still enthralling and near-perfect to me even after about thirty repeated viewings (a conservative estimate). Crooked House ranks among my favourite ghost stories and my favourite TV shows of all time.

Geap Manor

'The Wainscoting' is about things that go bump in the night, literally (there's a 'mouse' in the woodwork...) but it's also a moral tale. Joseph Bloxham, the haunted man, is a wealthy businessman whose involvement in a Venezuelan investment scheme has left others impoverished and criminalised. Throughout the episode, he watches with mounting indignation, and little apparent guilt, as the wife of one of the ruined investors is confronted with increasingly awful circumstances; and he ignores the words of his friend, Noakes (a scene-stealing performance from Julian Rhind-Tutt), who seems to act as the voice of Bloxham's conscience: 'no-one can deny you've done well; the question is, have you done right?' The tale reaches a horrifying crescendo as Bloxham is claimed by the house, but even when confronted by irrefutable evidence of the haunting, he's still shouting 'I deny it all'. In 'Something Old', though, we have a more innocent pair of characters: a young couple, Felix and Ruth, newly engaged, but (naturally) doomed to suffer a curse. This episode doesn't ratchet up the tension like 'The Wainscoting', or have the same moments of quiet dread; instead, there's more character development and humour as the viewer is prompted to wonder where exactly the story will go. The more earthly threats to this fragile relationship - a scheming, beautiful ex-girlfriend and a male friend of indeterminate sexuality, plus the couple's very different backgrounds - are displaced by the intrusion of a terrifying figure, leading to the first really horrible reveal of the series. This does, however, still play on Ruth's very ordinary fears that Felix will be unfaithful and that his family feel she isn't 'good enough'; and the appearance of this spectre in the midst of a raucous party echoes the generational differences between the 'bright young things' and Felix's grandmother, with her Victorian values. The couple are at least allowed a sort of happy ending - albeit off-screen, and not without sacrifice.

In 'The Knocker', we find out more about Ben, who is a bit more ambiguous - neither 'bad' like Bloxham or 'good' like Ruth. He seems an affable enough character, but the viewer soon learns he's abandoned his pregnant girlfriend out of fear that he can't shoulder the responsibility of fatherhood. (Though he does at least have the decency to feel bad about it). This episode is full of stops and starts, abrupt cuts from silence to loud noise, and misdirection. True to its more modern setting and style, it sets out to disorientate, rather than spook, the viewer. Although some of the revelations are deliciously familiar (when Ben approaches the locked museum, for example), 'The Knocker' doesn't conform to the expectations laid out by the previous two stories, which seem like cosy fireside tales in comparison. And, because it's still couched within a traditional narrative structure, this is shocking. All form and meaning goes out of the window as red herrings are used as a prelude to the most horrific moments, the appearance of a truly terrifying figure is accompanied by a cheesy 'sinister laugh' sound effect, and a bland surburban home turns out to be far more dangerous than a labyrinthine manor house. Slips in time are used to great effect, with the power to surprise still intact after repeated viewings.

Something Old

There are things wrong with Crooked House, of course: I'm not trying to claim it some misunderstood masterpiece. I've watched it enough that I cringe in anticipation of the occasional moments of bad acting and misjudged lines (but then, it was filmed in fifteen days and on a shoestring budget). What amazes me about it is that even after I've watched the whole thing over and over again, it still has the power to enthrall, and there are still things I hadn't noticed before. (For example, I've only just discovered that 'geap' is Old English for crooked, both the literal and symbolic senses of the word.) It still captures that perfect wintery ghost story mood, something I usually find far more effective on the page than the screen: adaptations often lose the story's magic, and there are so few modern shows or films in the genre that don't take a severe turn into fantasy or horror. I'd have loved another series of Crooked House: the Curator's snippets of other stories from his 'study of the manor' show there were plenty more ideas to explore, and in the making of documentary included as an extra on the DVD, Gatiss mentions a 'spoof on Most Haunted' that was originally proposed as part of this series. That said, six years down the line, a sequel is probably too much to hope for...

Gatiss fronted a documentary on M.R. James, M.R. James: Ghost Writer, for BBC2 in 2013. As a potted biography of James, it's interesting, but what I found most exciting about it was the opportunity to more closely examine possible links between James's work and the stories in Crooked House. I don't want to undermine the elements of Crooked House that are completely original, or its other influences - the portmanteau format was inspired by Amicus horror anthologies made in the 1970s - but its parallels with classic ghost stories, and particularly those of James, are what I, as a keen consumer of ghost stories in all forms, find most thrilling about it. Many main elements of the Geap Manor tales can be identified as a homage to James. (Gatiss would also go on to adapt 'The Tractate Middoth', a 1911 James story, for the BBC; it was screened at Christmas last year. Despite my love of Crooked House and the fact that I really enjoyed the original story, The Tractate Middoth didn't work anywhere near as well for me. The story didn't translate to the screen as effectively as it could have, and there was something almost too clean and crisp in the look of the thing. I liked it, but it hasn't resulted in a need to obsessively re-watch.)

M.R. James - Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

James's stories are invariably multi-layered and typically feature a framing device: sometimes the main meat of the story is contained within letters or a journal found by, or bequeathed to, the narrator; sometimes the story is told by a character who heard it from another character who, in turn, heard it from another. This method of narrating the story at one remove (at least) is, of course, common in classic ghost stories, and has also been used by contemporary writers of the genre, most notably Susan Hill in The Woman in Black etc., to great effect. James's tales were originally intended to be read aloud, and the sometimes convoluted Chinese-whispers effect makes more sense when you consider them as part of an oral tradition first and foremost. The first two stories in Crooked House are told to Ben by the Curator, but there's a duality here since the stories (including Ben's story) are also being told to us, the audience. Televising a ghost story is surely a natural progression of the original form.

Another result of the framing device technique is that the reliability of the story becomes compromised. It could just be true: after all, the person telling you the story heard it from a reputable source. On the other hand, it could be nonsense. In Crooked House, even the latter interpretation adds a sinister edge: how do we know, for example, that Felix and Ruth are happy in the end? Only because the Curator tells us so. Sitting in a local museum, surrounded by arcane objects covered in dust sheets, he's the image of the academic with a dark obsession who so often appears in James's stories - the quintessential antiquarian. A local curator is actually featured in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', in connection with the identification of an 'ugly and frightening' carved figure - not unlike the grotesque doorknocker in 'The Knocker'.

The Knocker

The undead creature that appears in 'The Knocker' is, too, undoubtedly an homage to the subhuman figures that people James's stories. In 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book', the demon appearing in both an illustration and, later, in real life is described thus: 'a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires... hideously taloned... eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate'. Similar creatures are evident in 'Lost Hearts' ('the nails were fearfully long... the light shone through them') and 'The Mezzotint' ('what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs...') Couple these descriptions with their visual realisations in the BBC's James adaptations, also revisited in Ghost Writer, and it's easy to see where the aesthetic inspiration for the Geap 'Abomination' came from. As in the stories, this is a very brief appearance, and all the more frightening as a result.

Crooked House deviates from the Christmas ghost story template by refusing to give its central character a happy ending - blameless Ben's research and caution isn't enough to save him, or the even more blameless Hannah, from a truly awful, bleak fate. In line with the overall subversiveness of 'The Knocker', this is unexpected after we see an immoral man punished in 'The Wainscoting' and wholesome characters ultimately saved and redeemed by love in 'Something Old' (even Constance's demise is given a redemptive spin). In James's stories, the narrator is typically as much of an observer as the reader, describing events from a distanced, 'safe' position: in Crooked House, the listener, represented by Ben, is drawn into the story and not allowed to escape. With a series of interlocked tales like the ones that appear in Crooked House, it's tempting to try to impose some overarching message or moral on the narrative as a whole, but the story twists away again and won't let us do this. Perhaps it is more accurate, to utilise the title of another James story, to simply say that is 'a warning to the curious'.


I've created a playlist on YouTube featuring all three parts of Crooked House plus M.R. James: Ghost Writer and The Tractate Middoth.
Thin-ghost.org contains the text of all James's ghost stories plus biographical information and further details on various TV and film adaptations.
Or you can get them free for Kindle: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories, and A Thin Ghost and Others.
More ghost stories coming soon: I'm working on a definitive post of recommendations!

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Monday, 20 October 2014

One to watch out for: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

The Room by Jonas KarlssonThe Room (2009, English translation to be published 15 January 2015) by Jonas Karlsson

This is the story of Björn, the newest employee of 'the Authority' - an organisation which, as mysterious as it sounds, resembles the sort of very ordinary office found all over the world. Convinced of his own superiority to his co-workers, Björn immediately develops a plan for success, involving 55-minute periods of intense work and as little contact with his colleagues as possible. But it's only when he discovers 'the room', a small, beautifully furnished office which appears to belong to no-one, that his awakening really begins. In the room, he can focus perfectly on his work, become an improved version of himself. The problem is, nobody else believes the room exists.

The Room works on lots of levels:

– It's a satire of office culture in which the characters, and the workplace, are at the same time generic and completely recognisable. (The author bio at the beginning informs the reader that Karlsson has never worked in an office - pretty amazing given the merciless accuracy of his portrayal of this environment.)

– It's a psychological drama - we don't know (at least at first) whether Björn is mad, whether he's consciously pretending, or whether the room really exists and his colleagues are playing a cruel trick on him. His visit to the psychiatrist provides a real stomach-flipping twist.

– If you choose to read it this way, it's a mystery - what does the Authority do? Do its employees even know the answer to that one? If the room does exist, what reason do the other staff have for pretending it doesn't? This conundrum is one that's investigated by Björn himself, and forms part of the breakdown charted in the novel.

– It's a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness. When the staff of the Authority confront Björn, it reads partly as funny - there is an element to this setting, with its lack of detail, that's somehow unnatural, so the reader knows not to take what happens entirely seriously, and some of the details are explicitly comic (Björn shuffling around in his plastic shoe covers). But if you put yourself in his place, it's also horrifying: his fellow workers talking about his 'madness' in insulting terms right in front of him, speaking about him as if he's not there, becoming openly threatening and nasty. Another aspect of this: if Björn's soujourns to the room help him to do his job, make him more productive and a more valuable member of the team, does it matter whether they're real or not? How should the others balance their discomfort about Björn's activities - which, after all, are harmless - against the benefits they gain from allowing him to carry on? Again, this is a question the characters are forced to ask themselves and, by extension, a question the reader is encouraged to face too.

Björn is a brilliant character. He's unreliable on several fronts (lying to the reader and/or lying to himself?), incredibly pedantic, and his personality combines extreme awkwardness with extreme arrogance, producing an effect that's both awful and hilarious. He isn't supposed to be likeable, and other readers will no doubt have mixed reactions to him, but I couldn't help liking him. Maybe I sympathised with Björn because one way to read The Room is as a critique of individualism: his colleagues object to his behaviour not just because of its obvious strangeness, but because Björn acts alone and apart from the group. Is the story, perhaps, a cautionary tale about the dangers of daring to aim too high or 'think outside the box'? (Literally, in Björn's case.)

The Room is the first of Swedish author Karlsson's works to be translated into English. As far as I can tell, it was originally published as part of a volume of short stories, and that shows in the precision of its minimalist style. Which is not to say it's too short to count as a novel in its own right - it has 65 chapters. But each tiny detail is finely honed. Björn's brief, faintly sinister summary of his history - 'I have to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with my colleagues', he says of his previous job, no doubt significantly downplaying whatever that situation was. His scathing pen portraits of workmates - 'pinned up around his desk... were loads of jokey notes and postcards that obviously had nothing to do with work, and suggested a tendency towards the banal'. The room itself - its neatness, its clean lines, its atmosphere akin to 'early mornings at school... the same relaxed feeling and limited freedom'.

The blurb for The Room describes it as Kafkaesque, a comparison that's often thrown about without having much real relevance to whatever it's attached to. The last book I read, The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington, came with a quote on the jacket likening it to 'a more expansive Kafka' - I liked the book, but that comparison is frankly ridiculous. In Ch'oe In-ho's Another Man's City, the influence of Kafka is made explicitly obvious - not least through the fact that the protagonist is known only as K - but I found the references too overt. The Room, however, really does deserve to be called Kafkaesque. The subtle surrealism of Björn's situation, the overwhelming and disconcerting power of the Authority and all its bureaucratic regulations, and Björn's persona - halfway between ignorant and knowing, looking for a way out of this labyrinth but going about it in all the wrong ways - all fit the term very well. The Room is more than just a homage, however: Karlsson's style and humour make it a strong story in its own right, quite apart from any influences.

A short, sharp, quick read that's nevertheless full of details ripe for analysis, The Room has the makings of a cult classic, and I'm really looking forward to reading more from Karlsson.

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

Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Friday, 17 October 2014

What to buy in the Kindle Autumn Sale

The Kindle Autumn Sale is now on, and to my mind this isn't as strong an offer as some of the previous sales. Loads and loads of crime, but a bit of a poor showing for literary fiction, and quite a few books that have appeared in sales several times before... But anyway, here's a few highlights I've picked out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight - £1.99
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - 99p
The Awakening by Kate Chopin - 99p
Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber - both £1.29
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble - £1.79
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews - £2.39
Unwanted by Kristina Ohlsson - £1.49
Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason - £2.07
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas - £1.39
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine - £2.39

Let me know if you've spotted any other good buys!

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Monday, 13 October 2014

On reading burnout, or book fatigue


A small portion of the to-read pile...

It’s finally happened: I am suffering what I can only define as some sort of reading burnout. The absolute exhaustion that results from even thinking about the amount of books I want to read, and how I can ever hope to work through my to-read list, has started to become stressful. These days, it’s a relief if I start a book and it’s bad, because that means I can cross it off the list, and move quickly on to the next one. I’m reading three books at the same time right now, and I’m not sure why: because I want to balance out different types of books, different reasons for reading? Or because I’m not really satisfied with any of them?

I’ve written previously about the perils of book blogging and the race to read new books first, and the various difficulties involved in trying to review books as honestly as possible, but this is something else again. It’s more about trying to reconcile my desire to read as extensively as I possibly can with reality: I can’t read non-stop, I can’t ever know or understand everything, I can’t read every book before everyone else, and I have to be able to make time for other things. Choosing the next book is always a stressful task, one dogged by various fears – that I should be reading something ‘better’ or more worthy, that by choosing this one I might be missing out on something else that’s brilliant, that I lack the ability or knowledge to analyse the text properly.

I guess the crux of the matter is that I want to find books that are right for me, whether new or old, revered or unknown, trashy or intellectual. And I think that takes a bit of time and work and getting to know oneself as a reader. In the past few years, as I’ve established this blog, I have had a bit of a scattergun approach - reading loads of new releases, mainly, and not paying enough attention to whether they have much merit beyond newness.

Since I wrote this post last year, I think I’m becoming better at ignoring new and forthcoming releases if I think they will be of little, or even just mild, interest to me. It’s a slow process, though. I’ve also learned to (mostly) ignore books loudly compared to other, better books – the comparisons are often inaccurate and sometimes they’re completely and utterly irrelevant. (Some of the books I’ve seen described as ‘the next Gone Girl’ are so totally unlike Gone Girl in every way that it’s actually pretty hilarious.)

There are other concerns at work here too. I want to do more writing of my own, making time to write stories and other pieces rather than just reviews. I want to take some time away from concentrating solely on reading fiction; I want to learn about critical theory, I want to learn how to code, and I want to watch more films, and maybe even watch some of the 9000 TV shows that have completely passed me by over the past few years – and I want to write more about these things, too. And at the same time, I want to read more non-fiction and essay collections. At the same time, I want to read more translated fiction and experimental fiction. At the same time, I want to read novels by women from the 80s and 90s which were then considered significant but have now fallen into near-obscurity. At the same time, I want to keep reading new releases and being the first to find exciting new voices. At the same time, I want to continue making time for books I find comforting and entertaining, even if they have little literary merit. At the same time, I worry I haven’t read enough classics and should be pointing my reading energy in that direction. At the same time, coming full circle, I want to learn to be a better critic, a better reviewer, a better editor. I want to be (and read) a million things simultaneously and feel like I am letting myself down by not achieving this, even though it's impossible.

In the past few months I’ve noticed myself moving away from reading books on my Kindle and buying a lot of physical books. In some cases this has been a necessity: some of the books I've been trying to track down aren’t available in ebook format. It's also, admittedly, informed by the romantic/nostalgic notion of carting a battered old paperback around. But I can’t help but think there is some subtext here about trying to impose some order on the chaos of my ever-growing to-read list – making it a physical thing to be conquered rather than an endless, formless scroll of Kindle categories – and harking back to a simpler time, when I didn’t have this need-to-read-EVERYTHING problem, and having several hundred ebooks waiting to be read wasn’t even possible.

October is going to be a really busy month, and I’m going to try and concentrate less on reading as much as possible, more on getting other things done. I need to write up a review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room (it’s really, really good), and finish those three books, and after that this blog might be quieter for a month or so. I’ve also started a Tumblr for assorted notes, links and pieces of writing about topics other than books. Hopefully, once I’ve got some of these worries out of my system, I’ll have a clearer picture of exactly where it is I want to go as a reader and a reviewer.

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Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington - the magical, the grotesque and a dash of charm

The Spirit Cabinet by Paul QuarringtonThe Spirit Cabinet (1999) by Paul Quarrington

Long story short, I found this after an exhaustive search for a novel that would be as similar as possible to the film The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, without actually being a comedy. TIBW was a film I became obsessed by while simultaneously thinking a lot of things about it were terrible and it could so easily have been better (I am still planning to write something about this) and, while still in the obsession phase, I was briefly determined to find a book that captured the things I had been drawn to. The glamour and excess and sexiness of the Las Vegas stage magic mini-world but also the many things about it that are grotesque, dated, insular and weird. It had to have a contemporary setting (most books I could find about stage magic had a historical setting) and ideally, obviously, I wanted it to be focused on a successful duo and to be set in Vegas. I didn't think I was going to find anything that fulfilled all the criteria until I came across The Spirit Cabinet, although I had to order a copy from the US; I don't think it was ever published here, and indeed Quarrington seems to have been much better known in his native Canada than elsewhere - a search for UK pages containing the author's name doesn't turn up anything much at all.

That wasn't really a long story short, was it? Anyway, the main characters in The Spirit Cabinet, Jurgen and Rudolfo, are clearly based on Siegfried and Roy. Reading a few biographical articles on them while reading this book made it clear that the characters are so similar, Quarrington's novel could almost be a roman à clef, if it didn't take a fantastical turn part-way through. The plot hinges on Jurgen's purchase of a collection of Houdini memorabilia, including the titular Spirit Cabinet, which he quickly becomes obsessed with. There are three stories here: one about what happens after Jurgen acquires the Spirit Cabinet and begins to 'change', one about how he and Rudolfo came to be famous, and one that seems to be a glimpse into the future, with Rudolfo alone and ruined.

The Spirit Cabinet has a sort of slightly 'zany' tone that differs from anything I would normally choose to read. Everything's larger than life, though this is perhaps normal for the Vegas strip. There were numerous scenes I found painful to read despite the fact that the things they described weren't particularly graphic or unpleasant, compared to other horrible stuff I've read without flinching. The author seems keen on reinforcing these grotesque elements every so often: he doesn't let us forget about Jurgen's 'crippled, purple' eyelids, damaged in an early performance (remembering the details of this makes me feel queasy even now), or the condition that leaves Rudolfo completely hairless. There are many minor characters with utterly repulsive appearances, or chronic bad breath or acne, or some other unfortunate affliction. Samson, Jurgen and Rudolfo's albino leopard, is anthropomorphised to a degree, the narrative often providing insight into his all-too-human thoughts and emotions. In fact, he's probably the most sympathetic character.

This is, after all, a story of magic, and there are hints of the real thing everywhere. This fantastical element heightens after Jurgen's Spirit Cabinet fixation begins, but it's already evident before that: it's not always clear whether some of the characters are simply doing tricks or actually have powers. When someone mentions vampires you have to pause for a moment to wonder whether this should be taken literally, and when something implausible happens (for example the development of a completely improbable - but, in the end, quite sweet - relationship between two of the secondary characters) it seems less ridiculous than it should.

I find it difficult to judge, overall, whether I enjoyed this book or not. It held my interest, but there were times I found it altogether 'too much', and had to take a break from it: as a result, it took me a relatively long time, nearly a month, to get through it, even though it's not a challenging read. And as always with books I give an average rating, it's hard to say how I'd recommend this, or to whom. I suppose it boils down to this: I wouldn't not recommend it, but at the same time, I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to get hold of a copy, like I did. Too dark to be quirky entertainment (see The Night Circus), but too wacky to achieve much literary merit, it occupies a strange, yet undeniably intriguing, hinterland between comedy and sincerity.

Rating: 6/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Paperback