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Helen Oyeyemi – What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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…But this book may be yours.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 263
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-29936-3
First Published: 8th March 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2017
Rating: 5/5

An abandoned child looks for the lock that the key around her neck is linked to; a girl looking for a place in the world joins a puppetry school and her experience of the paranormal extends beyond the ghost in her house; an all-female university society seeks new members, detailing its history with the all-male society that led to their own creation.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a fantastic and fantastical short story collection of the sort that draws you in swiftly and keeps you glued to the page.

These stories don’t always come with a message or shocking ending like some, but there’s a grain of truth (or fictional truth) in all of them. What they are is incredibly enjoyable; the mix of fantasy and paranormal together with the balance of contemporary and historical is a dream to read. Then there’s the fact that often, stories are written in such a way that they seem historical when they aren’t, and it’s the magic of them that makes them feel as though they’re set in the past. Take the first story, for example, Books And Roses that has a big element of The Secret Garden in it, where things are not bona fide magical but do feel so. (Books And Roses also features a massive library so it’s beautiful in that way, too.) Is Your Blood As Red As This? calls in a paranormal, almost horrific, vibe, looking at ghosts and puppets, the second of which might be able to move by themselves. Then there’s the wonderfully titled If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think? which doesn’t tell you exactly what it’s about – you find out the consequence for unlocking the book but not the history or reason for what happens – but that doesn’t really matter. It’s bizarre, but here bizarre is a feature, something that you nod or even shrug about and then move on, the strangeness somehow making the book even better.

On the subject of stories sometimes seeming historic when they aren’t, the writing plays a big part. Oyeyemi’s prose is simply gorgeous, somewhere between the literary fiction of today and the glorious Gothic of the Victorian period. (Oyeyemi recently covered Emily Brontë’s writing for a television documentary so there’s an influence here. She’s also inferred a love of classics elsewhere.) It’s just lovely, the sort of writing you want to be reading for hours.

The book mainly looks at women but there are a number of men, and the book is diverse in race, setting, and sexuality. Sometimes these things are they with reason, so to speak – that is to say they are there for a studious reason – other times they’re just part of the story, the collection being a mix of stories for interest-sake only and ones that look into society. Indeed one story looks at one society in particular, focusing on the fictional Homely Wench Society of Cambridge, formed to rival a male-only one.

Do the stories go on on occasion? Yes and no. These are slightly-longer-than-usual stories, so it can feel you’re reading them for a long time, but as books go, the 263 pages really aren’t a lot and there aren’t any dull moments. The object of the book does seem to be to entertain first and foremost and perhaps leave you with something to think about. Above all, the experience of reading it is the highlight. With its admittedly random, long titles, no matter how interesting they might be, it can be difficult to recall later exactly what you were reading and for once that’s not a big drawback, the similarities in the tales being intentional with the same characters showing up various times.

In an entirely unrelated song from the 1980s, Radio Musica, British singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw sung ‘Experience has made me rich’. I note it here because that is the perfect way to describe What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Reading this book leaves a small mark in your conscious – whilst you may not necessarily wish it would carry on forever, your sense of literary knowledge will be better for having read it.

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Hanif Kureishi – The Last Word

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Or words, plural. Many.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 344
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22755-1
First Published: 21st October 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Harry is charged with writing a biography of Mamoon Azam, a literary giant; his editor promises it will launch his career. And so Harry goes to meet Mamoon and his Italian wife – his second wife, previously a fan of his work – and stays with them for a time, getting to know them both. There’s a lot to Mamoon’s life that Harry thinks should be included but the literary star has other ideas.

The Last Word is a somewhat comic novel looking at the situation and life of a fictional, rather pretentious person. Some reviews have said it seems to be a parody/based on V S Naipaul – Naipaul’s love life as reported on the internet does match Mamoon’s, albeit that Mamoon’s in this case is incredibly exaggerated.

The novel begins well and is very funny, but it quickly becomes stoic, with Harry, Mamoon, and Liana spending their days talking about various subjects and doing nothing else. The slight philosophical vibe of the book becomes overdone and repetitive, the plot never really going anywhere.

In addition to this the main characters are difficult. Harry spends his time talking about his strong feelings for his fiancée, Alice… whilst in bed with Julia, a person who works at Mamoon’s. Is this whole situation and sexual promiscuity likely part of the whole parody? Yes, but when there’s no really story arc to it and it’s included just because, it’s hard to say it’s of any worth.

This is to say that no one in this book learns anything, there is no character development at all and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the book, except perhaps, if it’s simply a sort of inside joke about another, factual, writer.

If you know a lot about Naipaul – if we consider it could be about him – then you might enjoy it but beyond the first few chapters (which are admittedly stellar) it’s difficult to say this one is worth your time. The type of comedy has a lot to recommend it – in another book, perhaps.

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Louise Douglas – The Love Of My Life

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The tree makes the apple fall… and calls itself lighter for it.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 328
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-330-45358-5
First Published: January 2008
Date Reviewed: 8th November 2017
Rating: 4/5

After Luca died, Olivia decided to move back up north, where she and her husband were originally from. She wanted to be close to their childhood homes but true to form his family are not at all interested in seeing her return, in fact they really don’t want her to come back. Olivia’s childhood was not a happy one and the choices she made were seen as rebellions. Only Marc, Luca’s twin brother, is happy to see Olivia, and they find themselves becoming closer in their grief, a dangerous thing in the situation they’re in.

The Love Of My Life is a short novel with a dual narrative, Olivia speaking of the present in tandem with the past. The book is somewhere between a contemporary novel of social issues and a work of suspense, the reason for all the hate unravelling slowly but the slowness being rather apt as Douglas has something she wants to talk about – the way Olivia was brought up and the effect her mother had on her maturity. Olivia is only somewhat a heroine, often remaining passive and often quite annoying to read about, her decisions being the sort we call wrong; however your like or dislike for her is not the point in this book, rather the importance lies in how Olivia has come to be in the situation she is in.

Olivia was, is, and likely will always be the black sheep of the family, her mother spitting out such phrases as ‘you’re just like your father’ and demeaning her. Because Olivia was not as talented academically as her sister and because she often made very normal mistakes for her age, she was belittled. The town being small meant that this hatred from her mother spilled over into society, with adults believing Olivia was trouble. And so as she aged she rebelled, but there were also a lot of things she did that weren’t her fault at all.

So Douglas looks into the effect of this treatment. Struggling in a place that hates her, Olivia’s choices often look bad but aren’t. A good example that doesn’t spoil the plot – because it’s known from the start – is the way she ‘stole’ Luca from his family, ‘ruining everything’ by starting a relationship with someone who she’d known since childhood and who loved her very much. Olivia wasn’t good enough for their family.

The only possible point of contention with this study is how it continues into the ending of the book, the climax being perhaps not as satisfying as you might have hoped and Olivia leaving things be that she could very well fight against. Whether or not you like the ending will largely depend on how much you’re willing to suspend bookish enjoyment for what Douglas is trying to do, however either way you will likely see and appreciate it for what it is.

Interesting to consider is the way the author balances showing and telling. As a first-person narrative, Olivia obviously tells the reader a lot but Douglas’ look at grief and its effects allow for a lot of showing. There’s a lot to Olivia that she, the character, may or may not realise – things that the reader is privy to. As much as she can be difficult to emphasise with on occasion, you will feel a lot of understandable pity for her and the desire for her to spend her time with those who support her.

It’s a book steeped in grief but there are happy times. Douglas’ flashbacks and writing of Luca are so winsome it’s easy to forget you’re reading about a character who is no longer there; whilst Luca doesn’t ‘haunt’ the book, so to speak, his personality makes the pages brighter. Luca’s inclusion provides extra ‘evidence’ alongside Olivia’s descriptions and the phone calls with her sister as to the way the protagonist has been manipulated and split as black, the scapegoat everyone uses to take all their issues.

As for the writing, it’s rather lovely, and is enough to keep you reading when things are difficult. Douglas’ careful prose and attention to detail makes the pages fly by as you seek to know what happened all the while feeling at ease with the pace she’s set.

This is a book that exposes why things that seem so trivial or different on the surface affect people – a lot of the conflicts are small on the surface but big for the characters. It’s a book with a lot of romance but balanced by a massive dose of reality. But whilst it may be difficult at times it’s never too much to handle, Douglas’ expertise ensuring a good reading experience.

I read this book in preparation for my event.

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A J Waines – Lost In The Lake

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The words of Rockwell are apt here: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me”.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 388
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-543-16398-8
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 30th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Psychotherapist Sam Willerby is going to be careful about patients in future – she’s had trouble before and doesn’t want that again, but when Rosie is assigned to her care, she is lenient. Rosie was travelling home with her fellow quartet members when there was an accident – following trouble with the vehicle, it ended up in a lake, and Rosie was the sole survivor, her viola the only instrument recovered. She wants to remember what happened by she’s also taken a shine to Sam, believing they can be good friends. There’s a lot to remember, and also a lot to realise.

Lost In The Lake is a psychological thriller with a distinct difference – whilst it is a page turner, the general trend to get the pages turning faster is supplemented here by some fabulously relevant and literarily satisfying detail. An item of work by someone with a background in psychotherapy, it offers a lot to enjoy and rely on, along with some teaching moments.

The detail in this book is most apparent where it comes to character development – instead of the usual idea of a bad person – who you may or may not know from the start – and the resulting race to see what’s happened, Waines gives a definite nod to the structure but then goes into the villain’s mind. In a style akin to Georges Simenon but, it could well be argued, done better, the author shows you Rosie’s background long before she turns to look at the progression towards the finale, taking the reader back to the character’s childhood to show the effect extreme neglect and the loss of parents and constant changes in foster care have affected Rosie’s emotional well-being and stability. It’s a person-first story, a look at the humanity of a character before any literary thriller relish comes into play, a style of writing that you means you not only see exactly (very much) how it gets to the point it does, but also that you can relate – at least on some level – to the character.

Bolstering the effect further are the individual voices. This book is told by Samantha and Rosie, chapter by chapter, and both have distinct voices. You will never be confused as to whose chapter you’re reading and there is no feeling that the author is talking.

The story itself is involved. Full of music, trickery, and a fair dosing of red herrings (it’s apparent from the cover that Rosie is involved in something but whether the crime/accident or whether her villain status is separate takes a while to become known). There’s also Sam’s story; this is both the second story of a series and a standalone, and Waines has spent time on Sam’s background so that the times she does things that will move the plot along are relevant to her rather than mere devices.

As for the writing as an element it is very good and rather literary at times. The editing is solid, with the descriptions not moving towards filler except perhaps if you’ve read the first book (therefore the repetition is understandable) and as said previously, this is a text of showing. The telling that is included is the natural result of a story told in first person narration and particularly in Rosie’s case the words serve to highlight to the reader what Rosie cannot see or understand.

Lost In The Lake is a very good book. By the end you have a full working knowledge of the characters, the plot, and also a good example of a thriller as its own product. The climax is well done and the extent the characters go to make sense. Highly recommended.

I read this book in preparation for my event.

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Nicholas Royle – Ornithology

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Anthologies for birds, now in 140 characters or less.

Publisher: Cōnfingō Publishing
Pages: 177
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-59660-3
First Published: 2nd June 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A man obsesses over a woman he meets on Twitter whilst his neighbours seem to follow each other around. A man puts up shelving with his girlfriend as a man in a second block of flats across from him puts up shelving with the same girlfriend. A person who admires the ever-rarely seen birds about his house gets sick and finds an unknown entity inside him.

Ornithology is a collection of short stories on variations of the concept of birds and what they are. Individuality, identity, the modern world and phrasing, and the difference and likeness between birds and humans are all considered in what you will come to find a strange, weirdly horrific collection.

The collection bares a resemblance to Max Porter’s recent Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in fact for those of you who’ve read that book referring to it is a fairly good way to describe Ornithology. That eerieness of Porter’s book and its is-it-really-happening factor is here, too, in Royle’s collection. It’s a weird mix of respect for wildlife and the destruction of it, in many ways presenting an extreme version of the mix of protection and moves towards extinction we see today, with its often literal gobbling up of animals and transposing of what birds do to their prey onto the human condition. Different levels of strangeness appear throughout with the stories arranged in such a way that you start with the hint of magical realism and end up in the realms of science fiction and literal horror.

Some stories barely approach the main subject, using it more as a lean-to, whilst others are heavily invested. The first story, Unfollow, is a particular highlight and its placement sets the tone for the rest of the book; it’s a story in which social media and our appropriation of an onomatopoeic word are at the forefront of a tale that looks at a person’s worry that they are stalking someone online against a backdrop of people physically stalking each other. The Obscure Bird, a few stories in, looks at our relationship with each other and with birds, in a literal, all-consuming, way.

When it comes to the horror stories – in particular – some are better than others. There’s a reason for this – the book is a collection spanning years of work. The unfortunate fact is that these works on a theme inevitably include plots that are similar, resulting in a lessening of impact as you go along; on their own, each story is very good, with the usual slight differences in literary enjoyment you’d expect. It’s best to read this book slowly; it favours a dip in, dip out approach.

Overall, this is a top notch collection that keeps you thinking and provides a lot of literary pleasure. If consumed more slowly than a rogue human eating birds, it’s a strange beast, but there’s much beauty in it.

I received this book for review.

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