Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Goodbye, Learn This Phrase

After five years, I've decided to stop updating this blog.

I've always loved writing on the internet. I've been doing it for half my life, it's helped shape my career, and I'm probably going to be doing it for the rest of my life. But, as everyone knows, traditional blogs are a dying medium. Despite how long Learn This Phrase has been around, and my efforts to update it regularly, it's getting fewer visits than ever. My analytics tell a depressing story of gradual decline (with the odd spike when a publisher or someone Twitter-famous has tweeted one of my posts). It's getting harder logistically too; this year, even finding somewhere to host photos has become difficult. Aside from all that, I'm busier than I used to be and have less time to assemble posts. Altogether, it's become a combination of chore and habit rather than something that's truly fun to do anymore.

So I'm saying goodbye to this blog (the existing posts will stay here), but I'll still be writing about books all over the internet. If you'd like to keep reading, here are some options:
A big thank you to everyone who DID keep reading this thing for so long. I hope you'll stick with me in one way or another.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Review: Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo BuchananHarmless Like You (11 August 2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

In 60s/70s Manhattan, Yukiko Oyama is a lonely girl, caught between two cultures; she feels ugly, and her peers either bully or ignore her. Opting to stay in New York rather than move back to Japan with her parents, she falls into an unequal friendship, then an abusive relationship – then marriage to a man who loves her, about whom she is ambivalent. All the while she strives and struggles to realise her ambition as an artist, something she feels destined to do but can find no obvious way to achieve. In the second strand of the story, set in present-day Berlin, Yukiko's estranged son Jay is forced to visit her after the death of his father.

The story is told backwards. We know at the beginning that Yukiko has become an artist, though we don't know when, or how, or exactly what she's achieved. We also know she abandoned Jay when he was very young. As Yukiko's story progresses through her life from childhood to motherhood, we come to understand how she reached this point, and how her actions have shaped Jay.

Harmless Like You might easily be dismissed as middle-of-the-road literary fiction, and in having a creative type as its protagonist, it's certainly no different from many first novels. But I can't remember ever having read a book of this sort with a protagonist quite like Yukiko: someone who has a consuming creative impulse, not just a desire to create art but a feeling that she must, that it's who she is at her essence, but experiences a lifelong struggle with expressing/channeling it, and lacks any immediately recognisable talent. Yukiko does achieve a modicum of success, but it doesn't make her famous or wealthy or influential, and her route to that success is a slow, hard slog, punctuated by long dormant periods and failures. In general, she is a rich and nuanced character who I felt fiercely attached to from the start. Her cultural displacement, her destructive streak of self-hatred, her furious, thwarted ambition – all are powerfully portrayed.

With Yukiko so vivid and lifelike, perhaps it's unsurprising that Jay is a little more... wobbly. He's a self-described 'asshole' who says unpleasant things about women's bodies pretty often, and at times it does feel like the author is laying the Horrible Sexist Man shtick on a little too thick (while also wanting the reader to like him, as demonstrated by the fact that the other major aspect of his character is how much he adores his cat – the lovely Celeste, an important character in her own right). He's still interesting, there's just a self-consciousness in the way he's written that isn't there with Yukiko at all.

Despite a bit of unevenness, I really enjoyed Harmless Like You. It's emotive, sometimes moving, but doesn't provide any proper answers for what ails its characters. Small connections are made, people promise to be better, but none of that secures a happy ending for anyone in this (really rather bleak) story. As such, it achieves a clever balance: there's a degree of harsh realism, but as a whole, the book remains quite gentle and enjoyable to read.

I received an advance review copy of Harmless Like You from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Review: Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Dodge and Burn by Seraphina MadsenDodge and Burn (28 July 2016) by Seraphina Madsen

Heiress Eugenie Lund is missing. This we know from the newspaper article that opens Dodge and Burn, reporting that a manuscript, ostensibly Eugenie's work, has been found in a Spanish cave. The ensuing extract reveals the fate of Eugenie and her sister Camille: after their mother's death in a freak accident (involving killer bees), they were adopted/kidnapped by the sadistic Dr Vargas, who 'educated' them – in his own arcane manner – and experimented on them. But the meat of the story takes place some years after the sisters' escape from Vargas, with Eugenie recently married to a Frenchman named Benoît who has preternatural fighting skills.

The tone for Eugenie's quest to be reunited with Camille is set when she pauses, briefly, to sum up her (their?) predicament thus: 'Who would have guessed that all of this tragedy would befall us, that we would lose one another and I would journey so far and wide and come to this spot, newly married, running from casino mafia and the law?' At first, I found this bad and stagy, but I later came to see this voice as part of the book's charm. Eugenie and Benoît's flight becomes an acid-soaked misadventure across several states, with competing aims: on the one hand, to lie low; on the other, to find Camille and ultimately kill Vargas. Eugenie shifts in and out of consciousness and, accordingly, in and out of different realities, seeing visions and finding clues. She has spiritual and psychic connections with Camille and believes these can help them reunite, but when she's constantly tripping, can anything she says be trusted?

The story bursts with colour and energy. Characters are geniuses or outrageous eccentrics, all of them larger than life. Every page – every sentence, even – fizzes with vivid descriptions, unusual word choices, rapid-fire exposition and movie-worthy dialogue. The plot takes 'far-fetched' to new heights and the narrative barely pauses for breath in 240 pages. If Dodge and Burn was food, it would be one of those rainbow piñata cakes, but with pills and tabs of acid in the middle instead of sweets.

It's exciting and great fun, but it can also be absolutely exhausting. It's best read in quick bursts. At points, Madsen's writing feels like it's been over-revised into artificial stiffness and needs to be a little looser; at others like it could do with more editing (I can't believe someone with Eugenie's intellect would get 'lay' and 'lie' mixed up, and I cringed hard every time I encountered 'off of', probably my least favourite pairing of words in the English language). And of course there's Eugenie and Benoît. Picture Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, but with higher IQs; they're constantly pawing at each other and using annoying pet names; I have to admit I would've liked the book better without all their mutual simpering.

So it's not perfect. But it is delightfully different, and it's impossible not to get caught up in its vibrancy and enthusiasm. Though Dodge and Burn has flaws, it's difficult to dwell on any one of them for long, as another outlandish twist is sure to come along and sweep you up in its madness. It also ends on something of a cliffhanger, with one potential explanation for Eugenie's narrative dismissed before it can be properly explored. Some may find this terribly frustrating, but I thought it was a clever move that suited the flighty nature of the story and its narrator.

This is the first book from independent publisher Dodo Ink, and its sparky originality bodes well for what's next.

NB: I backed Dodo Ink's Kickstarter campaign, but the book I chose as my reward was the forthcoming The Eleventh Letter by Tom Tomazewski; I bought my copy of Dodge and Burn.

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Reading round-up: July

July 2016 books

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerFull review / Buy
Ah, Look At Me. This book was the high point of July's reading and may well prove to be the high point of the year. Frances, a would-be writer who has recently suffered the death of her mother, is trying desperately to stave off loneliness when she meets a glamorous couple: Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix. They 'adopt' Frances, drawing her into their social circle, but the reader can see what Frances shuts out: that the Frasers treat her as a kind of vaguely amusing and slightly pathetic pet. Nevertheless, it is through this relationship that that Frances meets Nick's colleague James, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility... You might be able to guess where this is going, but it doesn't matter, because Frances is a masterpiece of a character: Brookner makes her deeply, painfully moving but infuriating at the same time. I could quote something from just about every page. Look At Me is a devastating character study with so much to say about the human condition. It is absolutely brilliant.

Death and the Seaside by Alison MooreBuy
Bonnie Falls feels stuck: she's almost 30, lives with her parents, hasn't got anywhere with her writing and can't seem to pin down a full-time job. She's also got a rather unfortunate surname, since she's dogged by a fear of – and obsession with – falling or jumping from a great height. When Bonnie decides to move out, she's befriended by her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, who takes an overbearing interest in the outcome of her latest short story. Fiction and reality intermingle as Bonnie's fate seems to be caught up with that of her heroine, Susan. Moore weaves a particular kind of magic from everyday details, and her way of making the banal thrilling reminded me of Alice Furse's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, albeit with a rather macabre slant. Death and the Seaside is a story of manipulation and imagination, peppered with literary references, as much about the creative process as it is about the characters. The blend of genres and influences makes it feel, as many great novels do, quite unlike anything else I've read.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn GreenwoodFull review / Pre-order
When Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer, meets Jesse Joe Kellen, a motorbike-riding loner and ex-con, she is eight and he is 20. They 'fall in love' while Wavy is still a child, and although the story spans 12 years, this is an undeniably troubling and uncomfortable tale. Unlike many early readers, I did know (roughly) what All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was going to be about before I started it. I think fiction should tackle difficult topics, and many of my favourite books have disturbing subject matter. Even so, this was too disturbing for me; not necessarily because of the plot itself, but because of the way the reader's response is blatantly manipulated in one direction, with the use of supposedly divergent narrative voices acting as little more than a smokescreen. That's not to say it is without merit: Greenwood writes beautifully and the story does, whatever you make of it, elicit a strong response.

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson, translated by Neil SmithFull review / Buy
The Invoice is narrated by a nameless character who receives a mysterious invoice for a huge amount of money. At first convinced it's a mistake, he's slowly made aware that he's missed a large-scale campaign in which Swedish citizens are being invoiced for all the happiness they've experienced throughout their lives. Numerous officials assure him the sum is correct – but how can a man with such an ordinary, uneventful existence owe more than anyone else? The story is part answer to that question and part romantic comedy, as the narrator develops a crush on the helpline operator who's supposed to advise him on the invoice. It's gentle, sweet and life-affirming.

Hold by Kirsten Tranter
Tranter combines the relatable drama of existential/relationship angst with a deft touch of the supernatural in her slim third novel. When Shelley moves in with her partner, David, she finds a small, hidden room that isn't on the house plans and doesn't seem to be accessible to anyone else. She's instantly protective, and the room becomes an outlet for her anxieties and a place to realise her fantasies. There's a shimmering quality to Hold, in which nothing ever quite feels solid, and the obvious question – is the room a product of Shelley's imagination? – is left open. It's as calm and comforting as a maybe-ghost-story can possibly be. It's also so similar to Michelle de Kretser's Springtime – the tone, atmosphere, characters, even the plot – that I couldn't help but see the two books as companions to one another, taking place in the same liminal world.

Our Young Man by Edmund WhiteBuy
A weird yet thoroughly enjoyable book spanning the lengthy career of an apparently ageless male model. Born into a poor family in rural France, Guy finds his looks are his ticket to a luxurious lifestyle, and eventually, he makes it big in the USA. His inability to physically age (which is never defined as anything other than luck, but is bizarre enough that some sort of magic is at least implied) means he enjoys unusually prolonged success, but will he ever be happy? Guy is so cold and robotic that it's difficult to say. Somehow, that makes him compelling rather than offputting. I know this is a contradiction in terms, but if I had to sum Our Young Man up in two words, I'd call it a sombre romp.

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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review: Look At Me by Anita Brookner

Look At Me by Anita BrooknerLook At Me (1983) by Anita Brookner

Frances Hinton is an introspective woman, 'loyal and well-behaved and uncritical', with aspirations to become a successful writer. She works in a medical research library where she studies her colleagues and makes notes for short stories, perhaps a novel. Her mother has recently passed away, and every evening she returns to a vast, outdated Maida Vale flat where she is attended by the ageing family maid, Nancy. Of indeterminate age herself – she seems to feel both young and old – Frances is chronically lonely, constantly battling to convince herself that she is content, or at least that her stark existence is a choice.
Fortunately, I am not a hysterical person. I am used to being on my own and sometimes I doubt whether I could endure a lot of excitement. This remains an academic question, for I have never yet been tempted in this way. I am very orderly, and Spartan in my habits. I am famous for my control, which has seen me through many crises. By a supreme irony, my control is so great that these crises remain unknown to the rest of the world, and so I am thought to be unfeeling. And of course I never speak of them. That would be intolerable. If I ever suffer loneliness it is because I have settled for the harsh destiny of dealing with these matters by myself.
Until, that is, a carelessly glamorous couple, Dr Nick Fraser and his wife Alix, take an interest in her and involve her in their social life. (Said social life sounds rather dull – they're either going to the same restaurant night after night or watching films at home – but as far as Frances is concerned, she's hit the jackpot.) Alix in particular treats Frances like a child might treat a pet, displaying her to friends, openly mocking her in supposedly affectionate fashion, and forgetting her altogether when she's bored. But it is through her association (one can hardly call it friendship) with the Frasers that Frances meets James Anstey, and the love she has longed for seems, at last, a real possibility.

Naturally, that's not the end of it, but it wouldn't even matter if it was, for Look At Me is, regardless of its plot, at its strongest as a detailed analysis of the fascinating, tragic, endlessly quotable Frances. Her sensitivity is fathomless, yet her forced detachment verges on inhuman. She describes herself as an 'observer' seven times, and by the closing chapters she has reached the point of describing herself in third person. Despite her own situation, she is moved to horror by the loneliness of others, showing little sympathy. 'I hated every reminder that the world was old and shaky... that everyone was, more or less, dying.' In one particularly revealing scene she describes the effect of having seen a group of people in a launderette on Christmas Day. Imagining they have nowhere else to go to find companionship (though there is no evidence that this is really the case), she is aghast, and tells us so in the most melodramatic terms:
[I] saw inside the steamy window three men and one woman, quite well-dressed, reduced to spending their day like this, and finding what company the desperation of others afforded them. I never wanted to see that again... The day was ruined. I could not wait for Nancy to retire to her television, and I even went to my mother's bathroom cabinet and took two of her sleeping pills from the bottle. I did not need them; I simply wanted to kill the day.
Instead, she seeks the company of gilded extroverts like the Frasers – as though their personalities will rub off on her without any effort being made on her part; as though the isolation and dullness of fellow outcasts (such as former library employee Mrs Morpeth, who she visits monthly out of a sense of duty she can never quite banish) might, too, be catching. 'I do not seek out friends so that they will offer consolation: I have a horror of that.' Inevitably, she is an unreliable narrator, and even as Look At Me delves so astutely into Frances' inner life, some details remain obscure. Surrounding her obsession with the Frasers and James is the spectre of what she implies was a devastating love affair. She refers to it repeatedly as 'the time of which I never speak' – a falsehood, as she often narrates its effect on her, but the circumstances are never properly revealed.

As Alix seems cruel and dismissive towards Frances from her first appearance, it's painful to keep reading about the self-abasement Frances engages in to keep hold of her 'friendship'. Yet when Alix rhetorically asks Frances 'it's all self with you, isn't it?' it's hard not to agree. The title, 'look at me', is her constant internal refrain, both a cry for help and an infantile demand for attention. She maintains that she does not love James even as she builds an imagined future around him; insists that she doesn't mind, even likes, Alix's patronising habit of calling her 'Little Orphan Fanny', despite the fact that on the very first page of the book she baldly states 'I do not like to be called Fanny'; tries to play down her adoration of the Frasers by claiming that the time she spends with them is all simply research for her fiction.

There are indicators that the novel is set in the era of its publication, the early 1980s, but they are few and far between: a passing reference to 'horrible shops' selling, among other things, 'video cassettes' is one of the only clues. Otherwise, it could be set in the early 1930s or mid-1950s, and the book it most reminded me of was Claude Houghton's I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930). It, too, concerns a character who has accepted his lot as a lonely, quiet observer, only to find his life transformed when he is inducted into a circle of glamorous friends. Frances, however, lacks the often comic voice of Houghton's narrator (although there are some moments of dry humour – and I found it interesting that she so often insists her own stories are very funny).

Frances is also a clear precursor to the eponymous antiheroine of Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, and has a similar effect on the reader – she is both heartbreaking and maddening. Like Eileen, Frances wants others to really SEE her, yet does nothing to make this happen; like Eileen, Frances is frustrating and offputting, yet I think many readers will recognise parts of themselves in her. Frances is nowhere near as candid or, frankly, as scatological as Eileen, but the two characters talk so nakedly of their own unhappiness, inner turmoil and longing for more that at some points they could be speaking with one voice. Where Eileen has her inscrutable 'death mask', Frances has her manners:
The trouble with good manners is that people are persuaded that you are all right, require no protection, are perfectly capable of looking after yourself. And some people take your impassivity as a calculated insult, as Alix seemed to be doing now. Still I smiled.
I found Look At Me so devastatingly incisive about loneliness, longing, having an acute awareness of how others see you, and the exquisite pain of dashed hope. It certainly won't be my last Brookner.

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