Category Archives: Books

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading

christmas-booksI have, for a long time, done everything I can to give books as gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Yes this has bordered on the ridiculous, particularly when giving books to children as yet unable to read. But I firmly believe it is one of the ways to support not only authors and publishers, but also a literate and artistic community. Books are one of my favourite things to give because of the possibilities they hold – the chance that they could spark inspiration in the heart of a loved one. And they are one of my favourite things to receive for the same reason.

So, this seems like as good an opportunity as any to recommend you consider giving books or magazines to people who may be facing tough times this Christmas. Organizations like the Footpath Library will no doubt take your pre-loved items off your hands and deliver them into the hands of folks sleeping rough. It might seem low on the list of things that people need at this time of year, but think about the joy you get from reading and consider sharing it, however you can.

I hope you all have a safe and happy Christmas with your family tomorrow. Relax, be merry and share the good times with the people around you.

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_hrAt the end, they handed her enough drugs to last Ed the thirteen weeks until his next scheduled visit. There was a jolt of promise in the bag of medications. She wondered for a moment whether, if she gave him the whole bag at once, he would be his old self for a few days, an afternoon, a couple of hours. It would be worth it, even if the rest of the time he was a mess. She knew it didn’t work like that, though. His real self wasn’t hiding in there waiting to be sprung for a day of freedom. This was his real self now.

Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves is a huge sweeping novel about Eileen Tumulty, who grows up in an Irish community in New York, the daughter of hard drinking parents. She is a girl with big plans. She grows into an ambitious woman and surprises herself by falling for Ed Leary and, eventually, marrying him. But it turns out Ed doesn’t share Eileen’s ambition, and doesn’t seek better paying opportunities when they come along. In time Eileen notices a dark change in his personality and as Ed withdraws she is left to solve the riddle of what is to become of her family.

Ed’s withdrawal and subsequent personality changes are due to Alzheimer’s. And, far faster than anyone would expect, Ed is whittled away by the disease. Eileen variously copes, doesn’t cope, struggles and does the best she can. Meanwhile she forces herself through full time work, striving to claim the medical benefits on offer after ten years of service.

The story is sad, and happy, and moving all at once. The devastation of the illness, the need to cope but impossibility of coping, it is woven through. Eileen’s character is a remarkable, three dimensional creation, she is by turns driven, intelligent and proud. It isn’t just a story of Alzheimer’s, it’s a story of life and love and family. I enjoyed it and sprinted through far quicker than its 620 pages would suggest.

But here’s a thing. I don’t know if it’s a thing worth mentioning or not. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this novel, had it been written by a woman, would be dismissed as too “domestic”. I don’t know why I feel that. But it does seem that family driven dramas are deemed women’s business when written by women, but when written by men it is a brave foray into the human condition. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Thomas’ work. It was just something that circled my head as I read, like a moth drawn to a single lightbulb. Take, or dismiss, it as you will.

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas: 4 stars.

Read it when: you have a long stretch of time in which to luxuriate in its length.

Have your say – the best books of 2015

This is kind of what my to read pile looks like. Image by Glen Noble.

This is a bit like what my to read pile looks like. Image by Glen Noble.

So the Books of the Year list is out at ABR and there’s a few titles on there I’ve read but more I haven’t which is a damn shame. It’s reminded me to prepare my own Books of 2015 post, because what the internet really needs is another opinion. And I thought why not make it a party – so I’m asking you to let me know what your favourite reads of 2015 were.

I’ll include them all in a post and maybe when we’re done Christmas book gift buying will be that little bit easier. Or harder. Sometimes I think I should have my income transferred to my local bookshop just to save time. Eventually they’d have to ask me to leave, like a drunkard in a bar, “I’m sorry ma’am, you’ve had enough”. But that’s all beside the point.

What were your favourite books of 2015? Have at it in comments!

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes lastAfter they’d run the first TV ads, the number of online applications was overwhelming. And no wonder: there were so many advantages. Who wouldn’t rather eat well three times a day, and have a shower with more than a cupful of water, and wear clean clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed devoid of bed bugs. Not to mention the inspiring sense of purpose. Rather than festering in some deserted condo crawling with black mould or crouching in a stench-filled trailer where you’d spend the nights beating off dead-eyed teenagers armed with broken bottles and ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts you’d have gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend a hedge to trim, the assurance that you were contributing to the general good, and a toilet that flushed. In a word, or rather three words: A MEANINGFUL LIFE.

The world is collapsing, the economy falling apart and people are desperate. Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, trying to survive, getting by with what they can. But they are offered a chance: they sign up for a new social experiment, the Positron Project. They will be given stable jobs, a home of their own. In return they just have to swap their freedom every second month for a stay in a prison cell.

Wait, what?

So, aside from the bewildering premise, I had a little bit of trouble with this book. It’s good, disturbing, darkly funny. The set up is dealt with in the first third, things start to go awry in the second third and the final section is like a race to the finish in which a carefully constructed and increasingly horrifying plot propelled me to the end. I defy anyone to try and put the book down in that last third, it’s impossible. However. I didn’t like any of the characters. At all. And I didn’t much care what happened to them. I think that’s what my problem boils down to.

Charmaine is a prissy thing who invests in floral blouses and actually says “darn it” as an expletive. Until she starts having an affair and then she discovers a wild side she didn’t know she had. Stan is a bit of a macho jerk, really, focused almost exclusively on the demands of his genitals. They get embroiled in a spot of corporate espionage with Jocelyn, who seems determined to play her corporate woman role as butch as possible and Aurora whose face was ripped off in a freak roller derby accident. Aside from the roller derby accident, I suppose I can’t complain that all this isn’t believable.

The story is dark and nods at a nightmare of corporate prison farming, human rights abuses in a utopia (almost) gone wrong. The slip from too good to too good to be true is gradual, though you know it’s coming, and once the drama starts to ramp up it becomes utterly ridiculous. I don’t know why I wasn’t in love with this, but I wanted to like it more than I did.

The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood: 3.5 stars.

Read it for: some dark humour over the saccharine holiday period.


The desire to bleed


I have a short piece called Blood up at Danse Macabre’s DM du Jour today. I don’t know why all the pieces I’ve written lately are so dark. But I enjoy them. Hope you do too. Have a read, feel free to comment if you like it and enjoy your weekend.

The End of Seeing by Christy Collins

theendofseeingWe lived between nappies and traffic jams, mobile phones, and a small stretch of green we called our own, which we rarely saw in the daylight. We reminded each other of garbage collection schedules, the child carers’ names, and which jabs Mia had had. We attended dinner parties, pulling threads from our clothing, pushing our hair into place, smelling of the contents of bottles that still line our bathroom cabinet, and wondering if this was really how we wanted to spend our free time.

And we were still, there was no doubting it, the privileged.

Christy CollinsViva La Novella winner The End of Seeing is just 190 pages long but it took me an eternity to read. It is so beautiful and so, so painful that I had to take it in small doses. Read a few short passages, put it down, shake my head to clear the lump in my throat, and return to the sunlight for a moment.

The protagonist, Ana, is grieving. She is grieving the loss of her daughter Mia and on its heels the disappearance of her partner Nick. Her family and friends tell her to give up waiting. They bury an empty coffin. And she goes home to the empty house in the suburbs they moved to to give Mia some space, desperate for a life that had room for them, though it was never the life they planned.

Nick was drowned, it is assumed, when a leaky boat full of asylum seekers went down in the Mediterranean. Ana cannot let go of this end, she cannot believe he was on that boat. She goes to Europe to follow him, she has print outs of his black and white images, and traces the trail of his last photojournalism assignment. The big one. The one that meant something. And the one that eventually got Nick disappeared.

From the shores of the Mediterranean to the hotel laundries, brothels and cramped apartments, this is a story of a flood of people with nowhere to go, with no hope, with nothing but a series of bad options. And it’s about the forces that would rather their stories weren’t told. Ana’s grief is tangible, it leaps off the page and threatens to crush you, it grows from the singular grief for two lost loved ones, to a wide ranging grief for the world, for the life she leads, for the lives of others who are lost, lost, lost. I wanted to write to Collins after I finished this book, which took me nearly a month to read, rather than the half hour its length suggests. I wanted to say “Christy, you hurt me. And it was just what I needed. It was perfect.”

It’s not just an emotional punch lurking within these pages. This is a novella that seems important in a global, the time is now, kind of way. But it’s a painting, a sonnet, not a protest march. Or perhaps it’s both. Please read this.

The End of Seeing, Christy Collins: five stars.

Read it because: it might change you forever.


The Eye of the Sheep: Sofie Laguna

the eye of the sheepI ran into the bathroom where the tiles were white and cool and I leaned my cheek against the wall. I looked at the crisscrossing lines. I traced my finger up and down the grooves where the mould collected, growing thick and black with spores that shot out from strings attached to the main body. Each spore was poison but you would need to lick every crack in the bathroom wall and the guttering at the base of the shower and the circles around the taps before you showed the symptoms.

The cold of the tile against my cheek slowed my cells to a cycle per second. One . . . turn . . . two . . . turn . . . three . . . turn . . . I closed my eyes and made a picture of my dad’s hands.

I think I’ve been putting off this review. Granted I’ve been busy, I’ve been away, I have had a whole roller coaster ride of brain chemistry and I’ve not had the patience to sit at the computer for long. Which is a problem for a writer. But that’s a whole other story.

The Eye of The Sheep is an affecting novel about Jimmy, a little boy who, though it isn’t directly mentioned, is on the autistim spectrum. He lives with his mum who is huge and has asthma, a constant wheezing he recognises as her breathing ebbs and flows. He also lives with his brother whom he worships, and his father, who needs to be left alone with the bottle with the Cutty Sark on it fairly often. The family home is a fragile, tense place, until it is plunged into tragedy and Jimmy is thrust into the wider world.

There are so many high points of this novel. The tone of Jimmy’s narration, its unique tenor and view of the world speaks so many truths. The quiet threads of domestic violence, inherited violence, weave together so subtly you barely notice them until they’re everywhere. The characters are real, believable, Jimmy’s world is tangible and his losses are painful to watch.

Laguna’s novel is brave. It’s brave in a big way, a broad sweeping way, the way it tells the stories of families in peril through the eyes of one particular boy. It’s also brave in terms of the personal experience and tone of her protagonist. Her interpretation of Jimmy’s world could have gone wrong, it could have come across as patronising, it could have put Jimmy in a position of being “inspirational” in that horrible demeaning way. But it doesn’t. Jimmy speaks from his own view, plain and simple. I particularly understood his relationship with the dog. Dogs are the best people.

I really enjoyed this. Will it live with me forever until I die? Maybe. Will I ever read it again? Probably not. But I do recommend this one. I seem to recommend everything I read. But such is life.

The Eye of the Sheep, Sofie Laguna: four and a half stars.

Read it for: a masterclass in showing not telling.

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