Category Archives: Book

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

9780701187880Karen Russell is one of the most exciting authors currently working. Her appeal comes from both her beatific writing and her extraordinary imagination. Considering she has only authored one novel and another short story collection, her work is something to look forward to. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a welcome return to short fiction by the powerhouse of the bizarre and surreal.

As with any collections of short stories, there are some misses, but thankfully there are only a couple here. In fact, they’re not bad stories, they just don’t hold up next to the others. For example, the titular story is well written and contains a unique idea that pulls a reader in, but compared to say ‘The New Veterans’ it loses power. The idea of vampires living out their days in Italy and sucking the juice from lemons rather than the blood of people is witty and appealing – particularly in our current phase of vampire fiction. However, with ‘The New Veterans’ Russell tackles something as poignant as the war in the middle east and adds her flair.

This was easily my favourite story in the collection. A soldier returns home from war and is recommended for deep tissue massage to help with his post traumatic stress. When he lays on the massage table he reveals a tattoo that covers his back and captures a scene from his time in the war. It all sounds rather mundane until the massage therapist begins to work and she interacts with the tattoo on a different level. She finds she can move the position of the sun which changes the soldiers mood, or she can push his fears away by manipulating other aspects of his artwork. Suddenly the story transforms into something infinitely magical while also bringing many emotions off of the page.

While not as sombre, ‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ is another story that shines for its absurdities. Here the reader meets a stable full of horses which wouldn’t be unusual until we discover that the horses are long dead American presidents reincarnated. They still hold their grudges and they still want the power, but Russell spins it in such a way as to keep you laughing while genuinely pondering death and what lies beyond.

The third story in the collection was the biggest miss for me. The idea of seagulls bringing pieces of the future into the past on a beach is quirky but loses meaning as the story progresses. Whereas ‘Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating’ takes something equally ludicrous and makes you wonder why it has never been written before. The idea of people travelling to the Antarctic to support either the whales or the krill in the annual feasting is intriguing before you even read the first word. I’m Team Krill ’til I die, by the way.

I’ve read this collection over the last month and I suppose the test of time is perhaps a good indication of the quality of the fiction. The better stories are still lodged in my brain today and they are as vivid as the day I read them. Particularly the women who are turned into silkworms.

As I’ve mentioned, the collection is funny and also surreal. There is a bounty of magical realism to behold, but Russell also steps into the realms of fear, as seen in the closing story, which truly set me on edge. It’s clear to see why Karen Russell has such a following. Her ideas and prose are astonishing and the odd damp squib of a story can be expected. They don’t really matter in the context of the book, the brilliance completely outweighs the not so.

Published by Chatto & Windus. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

9781447227526And Kent Haruf does it again. After my love bubbled over for Plainsong and Eventide, I was concerned about reading the last instalment in the Holt trilogy. I fell in love with certain characters and my mind was comfortable with how Eventide ended. There was a fear that Haruf couldn’t win me over again. I kept putting off reading it for that reason, but also because I knew that when I read it the story would end. Obviously I pulled myself together and sat down to read.

As with Eventide, the story doesn’t follow a set of characters. The Holt trilogy takes a snapshot of life from different perspectives and leaves you to mull it all over. There is no real beginning or end, Haruf only gives you the middle and you’re okay with that. I didn’t approach Benediction thinking that I would meet old friends or that storylines would be wrapped up in a bow. That isn’t what these books are about.

Benediction introduces us to Dad Lewis, a character called so because he is a dad and Dad is dying of cancer. We find this out very early on and the book follows the emotions that result from that situation. Other characters will pass in and out, such as the new preacher in town and his son, but we will always come back to Dad much like we did with the McPheron brothers. But I don’t want to write about the story; I want to write about how the book made me feel.

As with the previous books, Benediction took me through a range of emotions because of the skill with which Haruf writes. The author has the power to use pensive sentences to hollow out your heart and fill it with memorable characters. Each sentence has a delicate touch. The structure is simple and the book is stronger for it. By using such sparse language the emotion seeps out of the page more effectively. The book has a bittersweet tinge to it, in that Haruf will never allow his cast to rise above their issues and solve all their ills.

Kent Haruf is a true master at his craft. I’ve just read back over the previous 360 words and realised not one of them has any power to them. The Holt trilogy has had such an impact on me that it renders me rather dumb for words. I honestly don’t feel as if I can articulate my passion for these novels. Benediction is a jewel that can nestle well with the others and I am sad that it has all come to an end. I may be very new to Kent Haruf, but I can say that I have found a new favourite author whose books are more powerful than I can truly express.

Published by Picador. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

The Son by Michel Rostain

9780755390793It is true that each book can have particular and individual effects on different readers. Michel Rostain’s debut will be a book that leaves each member of its audience with a little something, but each will vary greatly. I’ve always seen reading as a way of escaping our world, but I also see it as a way of connecting with our souls. In order to fully appreciate something we must connect with it at the most basic of levels – emotion.

It is emotion that connects us to artwork, or music, or writing. It doesn’t matter what emotion is experienced as long as you connect. Not everyone can look upon the same painting and feel the same outcome. And so certain stories will resonate with different perspectives. The story within The Son is one of parental bereavement and the foundation of grief is experienced differently from person to person.

Some may see within the startling depictions of loss, similarities between the cast and their own experiences, whether they be a grandparent, parent, or indeed, a child. Michel Rostain gets right to the point with his words, there is no preambling – we are launched directly into his characters misery. Where as so many books can be described as a rollercoaster ride or a journey, The Son is more of a plateau with a small ridge at the edge. This is a story of loss and only that, there can be no “happy ending” to such a story. Grief is almost eternal.

Of course, I speak from experience as a bereaved parent. My daughter didn’t die from disease as Lion, the titular son, did. She died due to an accident, due to a wrong time, wrong place situation. I can relate to nearly every nuance of sadness and madness that Rostain displays. This is, after all, partly autobiographical. His displays of the truth of his and his wife’s emotion is there for you to either relate or learn. Each low is exactly described with such a deft skill that those who haven’t yet lost somebody can open a window into a mind wracked with bewilderment.

I felt connected to Rostain in a way I have never felt with another author, but of course, this may be missed on other readers. But then, the similarities of symptoms are worldwide, we all grieve and so I believe that anyone can walk away from this novel with a connection.

The idea that Lion is narrating the book from beyond the grave is an interesting concept and one that plays the heartstrings with even more gusto. However, at times the emotion seems presumed, after all Lion is dead, he cannot know how his parents feel exactly. But then, we must remember that the writer has lived this tale. In that way, the book doesn’t sit as comfortably as I would like. But, this is a minor issue and one that perhaps I only picked up on due to my own life experience.

It is understandable why Rostain is an author on many lips. Aside from his obvious connection with his story, The Son shines for many other reasons. Most importantly is the writing style that is used and translated wonderfully by Adriana Hunter. Each sentence is generally clipped and staccato giving the underlying emotions that extra punch needed to drive home its message. One aspect that I loved, but may not please all readers, is the lack of separating situations. Many small anecdotes roll into one larger page of text in a stream of consciousness. This adds to the maddening feel of bereavement in how the mind marches back and forth from each tale and from important to the trivial.

On the rear of my proof copy of the book is the tagline “This is not a book about death. It’s a book about life”. To some extent this is true as it follows the living from the view of the deceased. However, it is more a book about what makes us who and what we are. How we are made and how fragile we are, no matter our size, stature or strength. It is a book about people.

Published by Tinder Press. This book was kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

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The Tower by Simon Toyne

9780007391639There’s always going to be a lot of pressure on the shoulders of an author who is putting out the third and final part of their trilogy. For Simon Tonye, that pressure must have been apparent. After dates slipping and “tight deadlines”, The Tower is finally coming to us. Was it worth the wait? Does the trilogy finish with a flourish? No. and No. Not for me, anyway.

I really enjoyed Sanctus and The Key for their preposterous plot points and conspiracy theory themes. They were entertaining because Toyne wrote them well and he made the ideas take on a new sheen. His story wasn’t just about the evils of the church, it was about natural spiritualism. As we arrive at The Tower the loose threads should be tying themselves together and a conclusion that fits the preceding story should flow. However, it felt as if Toyne was grasping at straws and hoping that something would pay off.

The opening half of the new novel is brilliant. It keeps the same themes from the previous two instalments and contains the same tense plotting. New characters are introduced and are welcome to sit alongside the previous greats of Liv and Gabriel. All these things heightened my excitement kept me wanting to keep reading through the night. Eventually the middle of the book arrives and all the fresh ideas seem to be thrown out of the window. Suddenly cliché is rife throughout the pages. Every plot twist can be forecast without any real skill and when they arrived they led to my eyes rolling.

It seems that convenience and coincidence is the answer to many of the plot questions. So many of the long and short standing plot arcs are solved by saying “oh, the answer was in the room all the time, gosh!” This sticks out because the two opening parts had much more quality to them. Within the final fifty pages I found myself becoming more frustrated with how things were wrapping up. Gone was the unexpected and imagination. The writing quality is still great; Toyne doesn’t let himself down in that respect. His characters still have that spark that I want from a thriller but upon closing the book I walked away with a heavy heart.

Published by Harper Collins. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

Note: I hate writing negative reviews, particularly when I respect the author so much. I genuinely enjoyed Sanctus and The Key.

Snapper by Brian Kimberling

9780755396207Despite the appearance of a novel, Snapper reads more like a collection of short stories all with a similar theme. In this case, Nathan who studies birds and lives in Indiana. Each story contains Nathan who seems like a representation of Brian Kimberling. We see a writer who has created a character in order to explore his own feelings and thoughts about his home. Nathan is unsure and distant about his home state of Indiana and through several tales about many different topics he explores the concept of home and love.

Our narrator, Nathan, is a rather complex man who is in love with the birds of Indiana and a woman who epitomises the freedom of our feathered friends. He is perhaps only complex due to the scattered way in which his story is told. Because of the structure of the ‘novel’ we see lots of moments from Nathan’s life, but each one is rather surreal and almost farcical. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for a more confusing read than if it was more formally arranged.

The topics range from exploring the wilderness for birds to boat trips into lakes and capturing snapping turtles, from the trials of marriage to the trials of drug taking roomates. There are bird facts to be learned and anecdotes to be enjoyed but it lacks cohesion. While Kimberling’s stories are funny, witty and sweet and his writing is smart and solid, there always felt as if there was something missing. It’s an entertaining book, it’s intelligent and I laughed out loud many times but it didn’t steal my heart. I didn’t put it down thinking that I would recommend it to everyone I meet (unlike the rest of the Tinder Press titles I’ve read so far).

The first half of the book is very strong and grabs the reader with a grip that makes you want to read everything about this man and his life. The initial stories are pleasant and entertaining – they hold that small town America charm that I personally love. The second half suffers a little from pushing the farce and humour a little far. The cast that surrounds Nathan becomes rather unlikeable and the stories wander a little too aimlessly.

Having said that, I enjoyed Snapper, but it’s one of those books where I find it hard to nail down my feelings. It is hilarious in places, Nathan is a great central character and most of the plots are absurdly terrific. There are far more educated people out there who can say it better than I, but this blogger just can’t put his finger on why the book didn’t capture my mind, despite containing many of the elements I love in my fiction.

Published by Tinder Press. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

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The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

9780857868718Bestselling and award winning writer Patrick Ness is probably best known for his YA writing and his ability to make me cry. While The Crane Wife takes him to different extremes, bizarrely this new novel actually holds a few similarities with his other writings. This predominately appears within the folklore feeling that abounds this story and transforms what would usually be a contemporary piece of fiction into a fairy-tale. This is magical realism at its height. Man helps Crane recover in his garden, Crane magically becomes the centre of his world as a beautiful woman. It is a story that imaginations were created for.

Ness is retelling a folk tale and placing it in the modern world. One night, George is woken in the middle of the night by an odd and misplaced sound. Upon venturing into his garden he discovers a beautifully perfect white crane that has seemingly plunged to earth after an injury. Once George helps the crane, his life will never be the same again. Kimiko walks into George’s shop and from that moment the novel becomes a surreal dreamscape that contains humour, passion and ethereal themes.

Kimiko becomes a centre point in which the plot, characters and metaphor revolves around. She is a puzzle to be unravelled within the journey from first page to last and while she appeals in many aspects, at times the vagueness of her personality can grate. In fact, the same can be said for the entire book. Ness’ writing twists and turns with grace and pirouettes through glorious prose, however there are aspects to the plot where the surreal becomes a little too much. This is mostly towards the close of the book as all the intricacies of Patrick’s ideas come to a head.

It’s an enigmatic novel that captures the heart despite the small flaws in the construction. While I floundered a little towards the tail end I still found myself utterly enamoured by the flow of the writing and the prose chosen by a talented wordsmith. The reader falls for Ness’ abilities in the same way the cast falls for Kimiko, it becomes passion between reader and writer – Between ordinary and magical.

Published by Canongate. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

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Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna

9780571231904Fanny and Stella is a book that acts as a keyhole to our Victorian past that allows readers to spy on the activities and atrocities that occurred during the time of Fanny and Stella. Activities that may be raucous to overly sensitive minds and atrocities that make us both realise how far we have come as a society, but also how much further we have to go. The idea of two gay men wanting to dress and act like women in the 21st century barely raises an eyebrow, but when Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park dared to be different it caused outrage and scandal.

The book is meticulously researched from the appearance of each person to crop up down to the minutiae of the court case that followed the arrest of Fanny and Stella. Of course, in Victorian times every nuance of these men (or as is preferred to call them; ladies) was seen to be illegal and an affront to the Queen. The book is a fascinating look at the lives of these ladies and the attitudes of the men who opposed them. Not only is it an interesting read but an important one for us to look at our history and for the LGBT community.

At times it is hard to relate to Fanny (the plain one) and Stella (the pretty one) as their lives are so utterly different to what we see today. They lived in a time of vice and corruption. Prostitutes were two to a penny, disease also as common and early death was also something to fear. They were dark times and Fanny and Stella were exploring parts of society that were deemed darker. Obviously the book treads in specific territories within the LGBT world. There are some very graphic depictions of sodomy and anal examinations, but they are par for the course in a book that wants to be honest with its readers.

Neil McKenna is a wonderfully passionate author who writes about what he believes in and what is important to him. That passion comes across in the way this story is told. There is a pace to the situations that makes it feel like fiction, although the photographic evidence of Fanny and Stella and their courtroom documents prove that these men really lived through their ordeal. Among the tales of theatre, drag and lifestyle there is, of course, a tense courtroom drama that unfolds with both tension and hilarity. Because Fanny and Stella is a funny book, I suppose it needs to be when it wear its heart on its sleeve.

As someone who doesn’t usually read nonfiction, I was sceptical as to how the book would read. Thankfully McKenna injects enough personality to stop the book becoming dry and dull. It is a fascinating look at history and one that is told by the underdog. This isn’t a snapshot of history likely to be told elsewhere, it needs someone who cares and respects everyone – not just the winners or victors in life.

Published by Faber and Faber. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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