Monday, 12 November 2018

The Lingering by SJI Holliday

The Lingering (Paperback)

You'll have nightmares about taking a bath

Early on in SJI Holliday’s new novel The Lingering an eerie and unsettling backdrop is established. Using classic thriller tropes; the remote county house, the secluded group of people and the sealed off set of rooms, Holliday sets up an alluring premise but is this suspense writing by numbers?

Holliday’s protaganists, ex-policeman Jack and Nurse Ali arrive at secluded Rosalind House to join a secretive sect who offer respite and relief from the outside world through meditation and positive thinking. Charismatic cult leader Smeaton is at the helm and long-term resident Angela agrees to show the new arrivals the ropes. Quite what led these people to each find themselves at Rosalind House only adds to the drama.

As we learn more about the site itself  the mystery thickens with Holliday throwing in a nearby village with suspicious locals, a tradition of witch-craft and folklore, and diary extracts from 1955 when the site was used as a psychiatric facility. 

The Lingering is well written with an expert eye for pace and plotting. Most successful is the structure which interrupts the narrative, told in turn from the perspectives of both Ali and Angela with the diary extracts from Dr Baldock which creates tension which builds up through its flashbacks to the old asylum. SJ Holliday sets out to achieve a lot in this creepy thriller with clear influences from Shirley Jackson to Agatha Christie but what it lacks in singularity it makes up for in combining recognisable elements to weave together a jolly good fireside yarn.

Beware, you’ll be having nightmares about taking a bath but some time.

The Lingering by SJI Holliday published by Orenda Books, 256 pages

Monday, 5 November 2018

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd's Hut (Hardback)

Violent at times and tender at other

This is Australia at its bleakest. A boy on the run, a priest with a past and blisteringly hot salt-flats as a back drop. Tim Winton writes about desperation, isolation, faith and identity. 

Violent at times and tender at others this is raw storytelling.

The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton published by Picador, 228 pages

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Another novel about a white man with problems? Think again

The cover of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer prize winning novel Less includes a suited man in free fall surrounded by loose pages of a manuscript. It’s a desperate scene conjuring images of the financial crash, of heroes falling from their lofty podiums and of celebrities exposed as frauds but is this just another novel about a white man with problems?

Less is part travelogue and part literary fiction concerning protagonist Arthur Less. Less is an erudite but second-rate writer who comes out of a long relationship with a celebrated poet and decides to travel as a means to work out what to do next with his life. Accepting invitations to literary festivals across the globe Less builds an itinerary of self-discovery knowingly designed to suit a gay man approaching the unknown territory of 50 years of age.

The novel is structured by the destinations on Less's global events calendar including France, Morocco, India and Japan to name a few. At each stop Less comes to terms with another anxiety whilst he plays out his journey of self-reflection. Yes, he’s self-obsessed and yes he’s self-serving but just when the story is about to descend into another middle aged white guy wallowing in his problems Andrew Sean Greer injects sharp wit and self-deprecating humour to make this as much an ode to middle aged masculinity as it is a modern gay self-help book.

In a particularly meta moment Less reflects on the glory of winning the Pultizer, ‘Pull it sir’, prize which Andrew Sean Greer went on to win for his own novel. Less himself would no doubt have approved. 

Arthur Less is a brilliant every-gay-man for a new generation who not only want to read the novel but want to follow his travels on Instagram. 

Less by Andres Sean Greer published by Lee Boudreaux Books

The Long Take by Robin Robertson

Silver screen tropes and movie icons

Long form prose poetry meets classic Hollywood noir in this Chandler inspired piece about a hack reporter on the rain drenched streets of LA and San Francisco. Robertson's prose is lushly cinematic as it plays with silver screen tropes and movie icons. 

The Long Take by Robin Robertson published by Picador Poetry, 256 pages

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People (Hardback)

'Boy meets girl' disrupted in a modern romance

Sally Rooney’s Man Booker nominated novel is a modern romance set largely in Dublin but beginning near Sligo with two teenagers, Connell and Marianne. The two get to know one another as Connell’s mum works as a cleaner in the mansion where Marianne lives with her distant mother and abusive brother. The pair form a secret relationship bound together by the discovery of sex.

Connell is smart, perceptive and firmly a part of the in-crowd whilst Marianne exists awkwardly on the fringes. The pair hardly acknowledge one another at school let alone admit to their relationship.

Later the pair both move to Trinity College in Dublin to study. Though Marianne is his constant, their relationship becomes increasingly on and off again as they navigate a new and uncertain social scene. This is where Rooney’s writing is at its most poignant capturing the everyday insecurities and self-doubt that many experience. For Connell the uncertainty of modern love is more pronounced as he struggles to fit in with the college social scene and finds relationships, with anyone other than Marianne, empty and wanting.

Amongst the many salient themes that Sally Rooney raises in the novel are mental health and social mobility but most successfully she captures Connell’s coming of age from determined and confident teenager in Sligo to hesitant and insecure student at Trinity College. In this respect the novel is as much bildungsroman as literary fiction.

Normal People is an effortless read in which the boy meets girl trope is disrupted for a world in which the boundaries of friendship and romance are blurred.

Normal People by Sally Rooney published by Faber and Faber, 288 pages

Monday, 22 October 2018

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman (Paperback)

A clever novella that Challenges age and gender stereotypes

Along with ubiquitous vending machines, brightly lit convenience stores are a staple of Japanese urban landscapes. From snacks and drinks to umbrellas and crisp white shirts the likes of Hudson, Family Mart and 7 Eleven are always on hand to get you through the working day or to get you out of a fix.

Despite their functional esteem, working in a convenience store is not regarded as a viable or aspirational career. Consequently, employees are a transient bunch with a tenure of months rather than years. Convenience Store Woman is about an employee, Keiko, who bucks the trend by devoting years in service to her community. But is Keiko's loyal servitude masking something about her own life?

The key theme in the novel is around the value placed on service roles in Japan versus white collar career positions. Even her own family urge her to get a 'proper' job suggesting that she has needed therapy since a childhood incident that that left a black mark by her name.

Keiko wonders what life would be life if she does conform to the lifestyle expected of her. In an attempt to take control of her own life Keiko begins a relationship with Shiraha, a fellow convenience store worker, whom she agrees to live with but ultimately she struggles to resist the role of servitude that she is so proud to hold. At one point, having given up work, she finds herself rearranging products on the shelves to improve their appeal.

In Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata successfully flips the status on the ever-present sound of "Irasshaimase" which is what, in fact, keeps mega-cities like Tokyo working. This a clever novella that challenges gender and age stereotypes whilst shining a light on a society coming to terms with its own problems with over-work.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori published by Portobello Books, 176 pages

Monday, 15 October 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Read in one sitting but remember for much longer

Nick Drnaso made history this year when his novel Sabrina was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. As the first graphic novel to make the long-list Drnaso has broken the Man Booker mould in a work that pushes boundaries in storytelling and in style.

The story begins in Chicago with a young girl, Sabrina, cat sitting for a friend and chatting to her sister. The tone is suburban and quotidian with little indication of what's to come. Next we meet Teddy who arrives in Colorado to stay with his friend, Airman Calvin, whilst he recovers from a break up.

The pages that follow meticulously present a troubling story about a missing girl and the conspiracy theories that circulate virally online as the story breaks in the media. At all times the narrative is executed beautifully in the simple lines of Drnaso's illustrations that are beautifully expressive.
The medium allows for the awkward silences between Teddy and Calvin to really resonate. There are frames without any dialogue that linger with profound realism. Likewise the muted colour palette or pale pinks and beige effortlessly conveys the banality of strip-light life in Colorado.

Sabrina is a novel for 2018; with its themes of social media and 24hr news cycles Drnaso knows how to use existing social tension to tell a story. But its the theme of trust, and specifically who to trust. that makes this novel a story of our times.  

Drnaso is a huge talent that I suspect has a bucket full of stories in his head

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso published by Drawn and Quarterly, 204 pages

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen

Pink flamingos in the Winter

A few chapters in to the latest Antti Tuomainen and you'll be forgiven for thinking you'd lost the plot. Palm Beach Finland concerns a visionary (read crazy) property developer attempting to recreate Palm Beach in chilly Finland. But that's not all, this dreamland then becomes central to a murder investigation. Jan Nymen is sent from the covert National Central Police to investigate amongst the plastic palm trees and rubber rings at the 'hottest beach in Finland'.

Palm Beach Finland is everything you'd expect from the writer of last year's The Man Who Died (2017), with Tuomaimen you get crime and caper all wrapped up in a decidedly Finnish packet. In this case a murder mystery novel with black humour as witty as pink flamingos in the winter.

Tuomainen has a distinctive style which David Hackston must work really hard to adapt into English, hats off to him. At times the surreal humour gets in the way of the narrative which is more driven by the unique setting that any any of the characters.That said Palm Beach Finland is a fun read for crime fiction fans looking for something to brighten their Autumn stacks.

For Tuomainen at his darkest try a different piece of Finnish Noir with The Mine (2015) but for now at least the bright cover art of Palm Beach Finland will cheer up your bedside table this October

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen published by Orenda, 300 pages

Friday, 5 October 2018

The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada

So much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella

Toshiki Okada's The End of the Moment we Had is a straight forward novella about two people who meet and experience a short lived yet hyper-intense relationship. But in this novella the narrative is only part of the experience as Okada's writing style, which combines elements from both fiction and theatre, steals the show. 

At the beginning of the novel we meet a group of six guys heading for a night out in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. They brag and banter with each other as they make their way into club but at a certain point the narrative locks onto one of the men in particular as he watches a performance in the club and then meets a girl.

Just when we're settled onto a single narrator Okada switches again though this time its to the girl. As the pair leave the club Okada establishes that this is a story about one couple amidst the teeming population of Tokyo.  

As news breaks of the US led air-strikes on Baghdad and the streets of Tokyo hum to the crowds of anti-war protests the couple retreat to a love hotel which becomes a home for their relationship to play out. Once the door to their room is closed they forget the world outside as the love hotel becomes a simulacrum for a world distilled down only to sex and conversation.

Just as the love hotel is an idiosyncratic Japanese concept so to is Okada's style of writing which covers so much story and so much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella.  Another brilliant slice of Japanese fiction brought to the UK by Pushkin Press.   

The End of The Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Trap by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Fiction that makes you late for work

Trap takes us right back to the action at the end of Lilja Sigurdottir's English language debut Snare only this time the noose is even tighter.

The novel begins with Sonia and her son Thomas in hiding in Florida. The pair must move from town to town so as not to leave any trace that her ex Adam might be able to track. Spending time with Thomas is wonderful but Sonia can feel the threat looming every day.  

Back in Iceland Agla tries to come to terms with the end of her relationship with Sonia whilst picking up the pieces of her shattered career following the banking collapse in which she played a major part.

As the story develops Sonia is inevitably drawn back into the trap that this time sees her carrying cocaine into Iceland via Greenland. As with Snare, the chapters are extremely short creating a fierce pace that makes the heart pound. This is fiction that makes you late for work. 

Sigardardottir writes escapist crime fiction that viscerally sets the heart and mind racing as you vicariously experience tension at the extremes of the human condition. Even characters in the novel read Nordic crime fiction before they go to sleep, is there any let up?

Characters are developed in this second installment, most notable Braggi who continues to cooperate with Sonja in order to raise funds to support his terminally ill wife

In Sonia, Lilja Sigurdardottir has created a contemporary LGBT hero who approaches life with the energy and nous to overcome any of the challenges that she face. Sonia knows who she is, what she wants and who she wants around her. Is anyone likely to stop her? Think again.

Trap by Lilja Sigardottir and translated by Quentin Bates published by Orenda, 225 pages

Friday, 21 September 2018

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

"The Mistake is coming to stay for a while"

By Nightfall was first published in 2010 after the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours. In this novel, Cunningham’s protagonist is successful 40 something New York art dealer Peter who lives a middle class metropolitan life with his wife Rebecca in an upmarket part of town. Peter’s life revolves around gallery openings and visits to wealthy clients who might just buy another piece for their ostentatious collections. But for Peter something is missing. Enter Rebecca’s younger, drug addict and Yale drop-out brother, Mizzie, "The Mistake is coming to stay for a while".

By Nightfall is, in many ways, a contemporary retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but to Michael Cunningham’s credit there is more to this novel than meets the eye. Cunningham builds on the trope of the uninvited guest to create a novel about ageing, about success and about letting go.

Just as von Aschenbach is captivated by the young Tadzio in the Lido of Venice, Peter is inexplicably drawn to Mizzie in a way that leads him to question everything in life around him. Is Peter’s affection paternalistic, an intense form of comradeship or is it something else? 

By Nightfall includes countless narrative and stylistic references to Mann’s work but Cunningham updates the idea with more grit and post millennial modernity. The novel is brilliantly structured and his New York society, more Rodin at The Met than pretzels on Broadway, is beautifully crafted. By Nightfall is a great read about the diversions that occur in life.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham published by Fourth Estate, 256 pages