Category Archives: fiction

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – just to the left of the action

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was lent to me by Mr Literary Kitty at a weak moment in my life when I wanted something ‘that’s easy to read and where nothing bad happens’. Well, it was easy to read; Karen Joy Fowler’s style is accessible and engaging, but I think Mr LK’s definition of bad things and mine must be different.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book as some elements of it hinge on surprise and I, having read nothing about the book in the run up and not even having bothered to read the blurb, was surprised by them. Reading the book that way made me look at the narrative in a new light, as per Fowler’s intentions, and I don’t want to deprive you of that if you haven’t already had things spoiled for you by a Chatty Cathy.

But I will say that I found some elements of this book quite depressing. Our narrator Rosemary is a solitary college student who has never quite fitted in for reasons that become clearer later on. Her father is a miserable bore, a scientist and, periodically, a drunk. Her mother seems to have been swallowed whole by a family tragedy or two some way back and is now a shadowy husk of her former self. Rosemary’s ostensible family home sounds like a creepily airless mausoleum – no wonder she isn’t keen to visit. But college doesn’t seem much of an escape, especially since it is the desperation to hold onto one of the ghosts of her past that convinced her to enrol here in the first place.

One day in the college cafeteria, Rosemary meets Harlow, a captivating apparent madwoman, who is smashing crockery around a man who is trying to break up with her, and she feels for the first time since her childhood that she might have found her other half, someone she can be herself around. Of course, Harlow sets the reader’s spider senses tingling. This self-absorbed handful is surely going to be the next disaster to befall Rosemary…isn’t she?

Despite the pervasive sadness at the heart of this book, it’s not all doom and gloom and the subject matter is extremely interesting. Fowler is a smart and highly readable author and Rosemary is a quirky narrator with a much more interesting supporting cast. Maybe that’s why the book didn’t really dazzle me like I expected it to. Things happen in Rosemary’s orbit, but not so much to her. She’s always standing side-on to the action, so this story is a little bit muted, a little bit unsatisfactory, like a play where all the real action happens off screen. But who knows. Maybe that’s the only way to tell a story like this. Not everything can go from beginning to middle to end, with a quest completed by a hero along the way. Sometimes you have to just dive in and splash around for a bit. And you could do worse than to do that here.

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Look At Me – the domestic dramatic

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I picked up a copy of Sarah Duguid’s Look at Me when I went to have lunch with a friend who works at her publisher. I’m never one to turn down a free book, but I did think the cover wasn’t particularly enticing – I thought it had a bit of a Woman’s Own feel to it. Shame really, because the book is excellent.

Look at Me is the story of a shattered family who are picking up the pieces in the wake of a domestic tragedy. Elizabeth is looking for something in her father’s study when she finds a letter written to him by his daughter, a half-sister Elizabeth never knew she had. This is explosive news, especially given the half-sister is younger than Elizabeth, whose mother has recently died. Reeling with a sense of betrayal, she decides to contact the sister, Eunice, only to find that she regrets inviting her into their lives, and that the decision is remarkably hard to undo.

Eunice, with her brittle brightness, is a perfect study in passive aggression. I found myself panicking on Elizabeth’s behalf as she slid a little too comfortably into Elizabeth’s dead mother’s bedroom. I wanted desperately to stop her cleaning everything, to stop her trying to change things. I, like Elizabeth, wanted her to know her place, and I wanted Elizabeth to put her there.

She’s brilliantly drawn, Eunice, because she’s so fundamentally unlikeable, and yet, in many ways she’s the victim. Her mother, abandoned by Elizabeth’s posh hippy father after a free love experiment affair, gave her up for adoption to a woman she is now estranged from and a man who she loved but who recently died. She wants to know where she comes from, she wants to fit in and yet…Duguid does a masterful job at making her grating. Her insensitivity is pitch perfect, and the way she manoeuvres and manipulates, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not, creates a tangible sense of dread in the reader. Elizabeth fears her taking over, taking everything she loves from her, and you’re swept up in that feeling of skin-prickling anxiety. You want Eunice gone, the house isn’t safe with her in it although you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is you think she’s going to do.

The interesting thing about this book is that Elizabeth and her family are often, in their own ways, not very likeable either – or at least they don’t occupy the moral high ground of the book any more than Eunice. Elizabeth is directionless and a little childish, her brother Ig a bit inert. Father Julian is probably the least likeable of all – this is all his fault in the first place, after all, and he never seems to want to take responsibility. Plus his long-winded lectures on hippy free love are intensely irritating.  Aunt Valerie was a favourite of mine since she was the only person who seemed to have the measure of Eunice from the beginning and actually be ready to take her to task, but is she just taking out her anger at her sister’s death on a vulnerable young girl? Duguid’s light touch means we get to ask these questions and they echo right back at us. The novel has no prescriptive answers.

I was hugely interested to learn, in the author’s Q&A at the back of the book, that the idea for it came to Duguid when she discovered as an adult that she too had a half-sister. Hers was conceived under different circumstances and went her own way after meeting her half-siblings a few times for lunch. No dramatic Eunice-esque story there. But in these pages Duguid captures another possible outcome with gripping fluency and real emotional intelligence. Look at Me is a brilliant domestic drama with just the right balance of charge and creepiness.

 

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Salaam Brick Lane – we don’t need your red-trousered hipsters

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I read Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane with interest, not least because it’s a book about my neighbourhood. I don’t live on Brick Lane obviously – this book is set nine years before I moved to London and by the time I got to the East End, Brick Lane was already arty enough as to be too expensive for me. But I live in the surrounding area, which itself has changed a huge amount over the last decade that I’ve been here – particularly in the years since Crossrail was announced.

I remember (this couldn’t have been much more than a few years ago, I don’t think) when Whitechapel market, a stronghold for fruit and veg, meat and fish, household sundries, pashminas and cheap jewellery and makeup, saw its first coffee stall open. Urban Café, it was called, and me and Mr Literary Kitty laughed when we saw it. Then came a Costa on a high street which has never had anything brand name since we’ve been there, except for a JD Sports and a Budgens, which is run by an insanely hardworking 24-hour staff and sells hot samosas at 4am, and is open even on Christmas Day. Someone was stabbed in there one year around the festive period – but that was extremely unusual. This is an overwhelmingly safe area, especially given the poverty (with 44-66% of people living in income poverty depending on which side of the area you’re in).

I can imagine it was grimmer in 1999. I know some people still consider it a bit grim now. I’ve never much considered West London – I know it’s expensive and apparently prettier, but I recently started working in Fulham and, coming home at the end of the day it makes me realise how different the East really is. It’s full of high rise blocks, the streets are floating with carrier bags and empty, greasy chicken boxes (for every school in Tower Hamlets there are 42 fast food outlets), the market stinks of fish-water and it’s crammed tight with people. That much hasn’t changed since Tarquin Hall lived in the vicinity. It’s still full of Sylheti Bangladeshis (Bangladeshis are the largest ethnic group in the area at 38%), street signs are still in Bengali, and people still live packed into council flats with not enough bedrooms. I’ve moved around a lot since I’ve lived in the area and consequently viewed a lot of properties, including plenty where there are four generations of a family living there and every square foot seems filled with humans.

In the block I live in now, the flats are max of three bedrooms, but when I come down the stairs and see my neighbour’s front door is open, I can see in the bathroom at least ten used toothbrushes crammed into the mug on the sink. My neighbours work incredibly hard – you can nip down to the cornershop at midnight on a Sunday and it still might be open. You can buy an amazing array of food, spices, exotic vegetables, all parts of the animal you could ever want, and huge, HUGE pots and pans to cook all that in, for reasonable prices.

People are pleasant, friendly and relaxed and not nosy. I know my little old lady Jewish neighbours and the young Asian families well enough to exchange pleasantries in the lift or in the hallways. We smile and wave and talk about that inevitable British thing, the weather. There are always gangs of boys and men loitering around at night – the result, in some cases, of having too many people crammed into a small space at home, I suppose – but though I’ve had a few minor unpleasant incidents over the years I’ve walked the streets here at night, these have been rare, and nothing horrible has ever happened to me.

Sometimes, people’s politeness is surprising, when you consider what an unfriendly place London is supposed to be. A group of hooded teens crowded round the entrance to the flats stand smoking a spliff, only to open the door for you as you pass – an unusual kind of neighbourhood concierge. It’s nice and I didn’t want to hear Tarquin Hall say bad things about it. And he didn’t really. Or at least he gave a balance. He got to know his neighbours, despite his initial misgivings that the place was a shithole. There’s the irrepressible, friendly slum landlord Mr Ali, who against his brow-beating wife’s wishes supports his teenage daughter studying at Cambridge. There’s the feisty old Sadie Cohen who hates ‘poofters’, loves her cat, the sticky-eyed Mr Beigleter, and carries a sad secret beneath her tough-as-leather exterior. There are the proud, hard-working Albanian refugees and their Afghan friend who solve the problem of Christmas dinner by nonchalantly killing a Canada goose in Victoria Park and bringing it home, and unassuming Cockney wheeler-dealer Chalky. There’s library enthusiast Naziz with his emotionally abusive father and a treasure he keeps hidden under the floorboards for the day he and his mother make their escape. And there are more.

Salaam Brick Lane is a colourful collection of life stories that intersect with Hall’s during his year in Brick Lane and it’s a rich tapestry, especially interesting if you’re familiar with the general area, as there’s quite a bit of local history woven in there too. It’s interesting that the hipster influx was already beginning in 1999 and it’s interesting, too, that Whitechapel at least has hung on so long to being Banglatown. It’s still very much recognisable from Hall’s book, although I wouldn’t have called the area I moved into in 2008 dangerous by any stretch.

After his year there, Hall is keen to leave, even if he never actually makes if further than Dalston. I have no such plans, I love it here, but I suppose ten years is a long time in the East End. Maybe it’s more different now than it seemed to me when reading this book. When I look back, it’s changed quite a lot in the time even I’ve lived here. With the Costa came an independent coffee shop with black wood frontage and a chalkboard with cheeky slogans that change daily. It sells expensive juices and eye-wateringly expensive cakes. At the moment it’s still nestled in with the Indian sweet shops and pound shops but it won’t always be.

Next to the mission where the morning drinkers congregate there’s now a Coffee Republic (just on the other side of the road from the other two coffee shops in case you’re too desperate for caffeine to cross the road). Towards Aldgate next to the halfway house the gleaming skyscrapers full of multi-million-pound flats, which languished so long as dusty building sites, are filling up with a new and different kind of tenant. The cosy, run-down pubs where you could still get a £2.99 pint and buy meat and socks from a man coming round the tables close and close. Then, six months later, they’re back with loud music and funky lighting and everything costs three times as much and you can’t get a seat. (I know, I know how I sound.)

Now the Crossrail’s coming to ferry people in and out of Whitechapel, big chains will muscle in. Rents are edging up and up. I wasn’t born round here so am I part of the problem? I’m under no illusions that some people will think so. But I know I want the market and the pound shops and the cheap beer and I’m not interested in paying the best part of a fiver for a slice of cake. I won’t be forced to move out as the prices go up but I don’t want to lose my neighbours either. “But it’s progress!” some people say. “Living standards are going up.” But they’re not, are they? My neighbours, most of them, who rent, aren’t getting rich, they’re being forced out to make way for people who are already rich. They don’t want fish-water or stalls selling £1 lipstick and dresses for a tenner and that for me is part of the problem. Moving somewhere is one thing, changing the place beyond all recognition is another. When Tarquin Hall moved in, the Sylhetis were the latest in a long line of immigrant communities who’d moved into the East End, when the previous occupants seemingly moved on up and out, but it seems like this time it’s just going to be out, much, much further out. To conclude this rant, in which I’ve admittedly not told you much about Tarquin Hall’s book, I just want to say that if you ask me, the place was fine the way it was. I’m not saying it’s great that people are poor, just that poor people shouldn’t get forced out of an area just so richer people feel comfortable living there, and if red-trousered hipsters and suited professionals want to live here, why can’t they just enjoy it for what it is? Yes, it’s slightly worn, slightly grubby, but it’s also fun and charming and full of life. Fulham already exists, and if you can’t afford to live there, tough shit, but we don’t need another one in the East End.

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The Guest Cat – left me scratching at the door

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Lovely Mum bought me Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, I assume because it had such a beautiful cover. The cat’s eyes stare up at you beseechingly in teal foil (the above picture doesn’t do it any justice) and when you leave the book on a table in a dark room they are capable of a slightly unnerving flash when the moonlight hits them.

I love cats, for all the reasons dog-lovers often despise them. I love their haughtiness, their indifference to attempts to suck up to them, the way they sometimes look at you as if to say, “What on earth are you doing, cretin?” So you’d think I’d love Hiraide’s celebration of a cat who came to visit him and his wife in their small guest house. But I didn’t. I wanted to, I did. But this book, for me, was hard work.

Perhaps I’m out of practice with reading difficult books. Perhaps I’m lazy. I tried to apply myself to it, but it always felt like work. When I got home after a long day I didn’t want to pick it up. I couldn’t lose myself in it. Perhaps it’s that I like to dive into people’s lives when I read, understand what makes them tick, and I didn’t really learn anything about the author (I assume from the biographical note that this is somewhat autobiographical) or his wife (her speech is reported but she’s an otherwise opaque, shadowy character) when reading this. I know, it’s about the cat, not them, but it’s hard to really understand what the cat meant to them if you don’t know anything about what makes them tick. It’s hard (at least for me) to care. Since we can’t get an insight into the cat’s thoughts or feelings either, it felt like there was a kind of void at the heart of this book.

Sometimes the prose is beautiful and poetically descriptive and in those places the book feels like a lovely, refined artefact of love. But other times Hiraide gets bogged down in describing in painstaking detail the angles of the alley behind his house and ruminating about the meaning of ‘lightning capture’ versus ‘capture of lightning’. Perhaps it’s a matter of certain things getting lost in translation from the Japanese (and indeed there are some interesting translation notes at the back of the book that support this theory). And of course, not every book ever written needs to be easy and fun. But I found it a bit self-indulgent and humourless if I’m honest, and I just never felt like I was inside the writing. It was an extremely short book but it still felt a bit like a chore. I felt like a cat scratching at the door of a dark, possibly empty house. Perhaps Takashi Hiraide’s writing is just not for me.

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The Adventures of Vaclav the Magnificent and his Lovely Assistant Lena – it’s magic

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Straight off the bat, I loved this book. Go out and find it right now, buy it and read it. Haley Tanner’s debut novel is fantastic and I can’t wait to read more of her work (I’ve been meaning to read this book which has been sitting on my shelf since 2012 so there’s hopefully at least a second novel out by now!). The story of Russian immigrant children, Vaclav and Lena, who live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, near Coney Island, is a story of friendship, magic, hidden horrors, broken hearts and a deep and enduring love.

We first meet Vaclav and Lena when they are ten and nine-and-eleven-months respectively. Vaclav, who worships Houdini whose worn autobiography he has brought with him all the way from Russia, is determined to be the world’s greatest magician. Lena, he is determined, will be his lovely assistant. They practice every day after school at Vaclav’s house, after which Vaclav’s mother, the warm-hearted, hard-shelled Rasia, makes dinner, frequently borscht or something hot and cabbage-related. Vaclav’s home is a poor but happy one, in a quiet, frayed-at the-edges, unfashionable way (this is not an over-romanticised immigrant story, let’s get that straight). Lena’s life, with her cold, unfriendly stripper aunt, in an apartment full of overflowing ashtrays, mould and strange men, is, we feel uneasily, less so. But Tanner doesn’t wallop you over the head with this feeling, which is her genius. She lets it creep into your heart slowly, like it does to good-hearted Rasia.

The character’s voices: small, hard, secretive and quietly bossy Lena; lively, magic-obsessed Vaclav, whose heart is wide open and who loves unreservedly; and kind, tough, proud Rasia, are all alive and fascinating and different. Tanner’s prose is simple, quotidian, deliciously easy to read, and her characters grip you. This book had its hooks in my brain from the first chapter, and I started squirrelling away furtive extra little bits of time to read it whenever I could, much like Lena steals little bits and pieces from Vaclav’s house, a toilet roll here, a slice of bread there (Rasia realises and starts to treat her tiny thefts like a shopping list, leaving extra bits out for her, for this secretive, lonely, frustrating little girl that she loves, dearly, with her huge heart).

This book is excellent, both in its essence, its characters who are authentically, unquestionably alive and flawed, with imperfections you recognise from people you love, or that you share, and in the story itself, which is an absolute page-turner. It’s not a Big Narrative with caps and otherworldly drama – it is everyday, it is just people’s lives, brilliantly documented by a writer with extraordinary sensitivity to the human condition. Even the book’s villains, once they get their say, make you realise that no one is completely good and no one is completely bad. We’re all a combination of the things that made us and the things that shaped us after that.

This is a story of the uncertainty and the coexisting certainty of youth, the rescuing power and also the futility of love in its strongest concentration. It is a wonderful, wonderful story which has sunlight and darkness and borscht and magic and left me tripping over myself to get to the next paragraph, the next page. You know when your eyes start skimming ahead without your volition, desperate to know what happens next? Well yeah, that. It is charming and insightful and memorable and I highly, highly recommend it.

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The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul – not my cup of tea

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Lovely Mum almost never lets me down with her book purchases, but when I saw a Kirkus Reviews quote on the front of this book that said “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” I thought this book probably wasn’t going to be my dream read. The story revolves around a group of five very different women who come together in a Kabul coffee shop run by ex-pat Sunny.

There’s the beautiful pregnant widow Yazmina, who was left for dead by warlords her uncle was indebted to, and who now have their sights set on her younger sister in Nuristan. There’s English tough-on-the-outside, broken-on-the-inside journalist Isabel, wealthy middle-aged socialite Candace who has divorced her husband and come to Afghanistan to be with her younger lover, the mysterious Wakil. And finally there is Hajalan, my favourite, who has sixty-odd years of Afghan history in her memory. She wears her hair short under her headscarf and smokes when her rigid son Ahmet isn’t looking. She’s in love with Rashif the tailor, and has been since they were children, though they’ve both been married and widowed since.

Rashif writes Hajalan letters that she can’t read, and these poignant letters were my favourite part of the book. Their love story in general really moved me … the rest of the book, well, I can’t say it was rubbish. It just wasn’t the sort of book I like to read that much. It was a bit on the worthy side for chick-lit, and a bit on the light side for anything else.

It also had more proofreading errors than any book I’ve ever read in my life (I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m an editor. We’re arseholes.) I found that especially puzzling because the copyright page said that it had been reprinted twenty times in 2013, so they had plenty of opportunities to sort this out. And they weren’t even little things. One of the main characters’ names is spelt wrong on the back for a start. I wasn’t going to get into this because it makes me sound insufferable but I had to go with it in the end because I guess I just am insufferable.

Anyway, this is a perfectly good read that just didn’t hit the spot for me but clearly did for tons of other people as it sounds like it sold bucketloads of copies. Kirkus Reviews hit the nail on the head when they said it was “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” so if that sounds like your cup of tea, don’t let me put you off it!

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The A-Z of You and Me – life unravelling

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James Hannah’s The A-Z of You and Me is a bittersweet look back at a life by a man looking at the rapidly approaching end of his life. At forty, death is coming sooner than he expected it and when we meet him he is struggling to cope with this fact. His main carer at the hospice, the warm, lively Sheila, suggests he play a game to help him pass the time and keep his mind active. He is to go through the A-Z naming his body parts and conjuring a memory of each as he does.

We flit back and forth – childhood, terrible teens, twenties, now. Ivo, our narrator, has had a life that is both colourful and full of missed opportunities. In part, it is a painfully authentic story of friendship – how it can be both comforting and destructive, and the author’s strongest talent is his ability to write what feels real, in all its frustrating, messy glory. We can see where Ivo is headed; we have the benefit of hindsight. We want to shake him: “No, not that way! Don’t do that! For God’s sake, can’t you see you’re going to ruin everything?!” But Hannah also paints those prophetic things in the mundane colours they appear in to all of us at the time. The turning points in our lives are rarely things we recognise as turning points on the day. The bus you get on, the decision to go to that club, to let this person lead you here or there.

Hannah writes sweetly, and sadly, about love, without being maudlin, and he writes excellently about addiction too – or maybe addiction is the wrong word. He writes excellently about habit, and that sickening feeling of doing something you know is wrong but you can’t seem to find the energy to halt your progress somehow, until you feel the consequences, and sometimes even then. I read the book when travelling home on a long journey and I cried in the airport, on the plane, even on the tube (leaking sly little tears behind the cover of the pages).

The author conjures up futility, restlessness and regret in a very human way that never feels overblown, and is never tempted to stray into sounding grand. Ivo was never a hero, and he never becomes a hero, even as you feel perfect sympathy with him and understanding for him and his life. He feels like a real person, with all the weaknesses and shittiness that come along with it and James Hannah writes the unravelling of a life in a way that is both painfully honest and deeply moving.

 

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