I’ve been pretty interested in this book; in light of my recent slow reading I’m posting an extract before/instead of a review.
Julia Chapman is a pseudonym for the writer Julia Stagg and Date With Death is out on 9th March. It’s the first novel in a series and published by Pan Macmillan. This is the prologue:
Mist. Fog. Or even brume. Dense cloud lapping at the muted glow of the station lamp; twin tracks emerging suddenly from the murk, the edge of the platform softening into nothing. It was too far inland to be a haar or a fret. But however it was labelled, it made the dark, early-morning hour redolent of death.
Richard Hargreaves, alone in this cold, shadowy world, stamped his feet, the sound smothered by the dampening shroud, and lamented the paucity of words to describe this recurrent feature of autumn in the Dales. Unlike the Inuit in the frozen north with their wealth of terminology for snow, the locals here had very few ways of representing these dark, damp, drizzly days.
Fog, then. It was too thick for mist, visibility almost zero, and gave no hint of being burned off, should the sun ever rise above the hills to penetrate the low-lying vapour mass. He pulled his scarf tighter against his chilled neck, thrust his hands in the pockets of his overcoat and smiled into the gloom.
Last day of the week. Two days without having to get up to catch the six-thirty train. And this evening with her. There was a lot to look forward to, despite the dreary weather.
He had no idea how wrong he was.
To his right, the flare of an approaching light bled into the blanket of grey. Richard Hargreaves, for the last time in his life, hunched his shoulders, shoved his hands further in his pockets, and stepped towards the edge of the platform.
When the blow struck him in the back, he had no means of defence. No means of stopping himself falling.
The press release looks to fans of Alexander McCall Smith, Robert Galbraith, and Midsomer Murders. Author Cath Staincliffe describes it as ‘A classic whodunit set in the spectacular landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, written with affection for the area and its people’. If you like the sound of it and would like to know more, there will be further extracts and other posts this week:
Do you enjoy reading ‘whodunits’?
As the crow flies.
Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2017
Jake (a woman) lives on a sheep farm. It’s a fair life but she’s always on tenterhooks, waiting for what she believes is the inevitable appearance of her abusive ex. In her time she’s journeyed far to get away from him and the life that had become sordid. And most recently she’s had more reason to worry – someone or something is killing her sheep.
This is a difficult book. Not in the literary or harrowing ways but in the way it’s been written and structured. All The Birds, Singing is the story of Jake’s life up to the present point but the events are all jumbled and it’s not a case of a chapter per event; one minute you’re reading about farmer Don and stranger Lloyd, the next Karen, who seems to have been/is a friend, then Greg, who soon falls from the narrative without a trace. And because it’s not just about the people – I’ve used names to make the explanation easier but there are various places involved, too, that often sound the same – it’s a good while into each chapter until you’re blessed with the answer as to what and when you’re reading about. The chapters are not differentiated – there are no dates or times and the writing is the same.
This means you end up spending a lot of time trying to ground yourself, time that should be spent understanding what you’re reading and gleaning answers. The plot itself is incredibly vague to the point that it surpasses all notions of ‘clever’ to become too much. This means there’s a great distance between reader and book. It makes it hard to care about what’s going on. One question is answered but in terms of the book it’s very minor; it may have been important to Wyld but it’s not something that occurs to you to think about until later on because there are other things that have been going on for the entire time that you’d like to know about.
Where the confusion and vagueness works is in the way Wyld doesn’t specify Jake’s present day location, instead leaving clues via references to the flora and fauna in perhaps the most dedicated example of ‘show’ yet. It likely won’t be vague to readers familiar with the place but many will likely admire the way it’s eked out.
There’s a nice atmosphere to the nicer sections of All The Birds, Singing, but it’s hard to recommend.
In terms of time, February has been better. I struggled at one point with blogging and reading but all considered I managed to get a fair number of books read. As much as it’s been raining recently, there was one day when I sat outside in a t-shirt. Our overall good weather and lesser colder temperatures are still here.
All books are works of fiction.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland – A trio of exploring gentlemen discover a land of women and decide to journey there to see how primeval it must be. A very good commentary of early 1900s society.
Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Lyu decides to aid the plotters and assassinate the governor who has closed the university. Great early 1900s novella.
Tom Connolly: Men Like Air – Three British and one American man in New York, living their lives, getting the flu, ending strange relationships, and working in art galleries. Difficult to summarise, I’ve opted to show the comedy element; this is a fab book.
I really appreciated Herland. I think ‘love’ is a strong word because there are some problems with it – in a modern context at least it can be a bit uncomfortable but I found it to be well structured and created, the use of extremes in the trio of male visitors and the relative balancing Perkins Gilman aimed for in making the more moderate character her narrator. Due in part to the sudden ending (one of those ‘where is the next page?’ situations) I moved straight on to the sequel, With Her In Ourland which can be found at Feedbooks. This sequel seems to be less read and studied but with good reason, I believe: as much as you might want to complete the story, it’s more a set of thoughts than a novel. I very much enjoyed the Huch and the Connolly, too. The Huch was a nice quick read that boosted my feeling of accomplishment as well as added to my goal of reading older books. The Connolly was rather clever and contained so much.
None this time.
Spring is certainly on its way.
What book did you most enjoy in February?
School’s not just out for summer.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch
Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.
The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.
This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.
The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)
Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.
As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.
Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.
I received this book for review.
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.
Publisher: Myriad Editions
First Published: 21st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2017
Finn hops on a plane from London to New York City with girlfriend Dilly, looking forward to seeing the sights but most importantly to maybe finding his older brother, Jack, who looked after him as a child. When he meets Jack, the man is coming down with the flu and Dilly decides she doesn’t want to stay in what she feels is an underwhelming place, so they move on. In due course, Finn will find himself employed at a swanky art gallery after stealing money from a location in front of it – Leo, the owner, will be impressed by his guts and the idea of having someone so unsuited to the art world in their sphere. And the man Leo used to meet for breakfast everyday, brother-in-law William, will continue being content, nay, happy, with his simple routine.
Men Like Air is a book that uses stereotypes unashamedly in order to do what it wants to do. It’s all about character and is a whole lot of fun.
The book has everything you’d expect of a good novel that’s all about characters rather than plot. Even the plot, which is mostly day-to-day (in Jack’s case, for example, for a long time this book is mostly about trying to live through the flu, a level of detailing and time provided to routine illness that Connolly is obviously adamant needs to be realistic and is a welcome change from the very brief moments of illness or just being told someone is sick that happens in other books) will disappoint if you’re expecting a good one. There is a plot but the ending is quick, sudden, and not particularly satisfying outside of its prognosis for the characters. Go into this book for plot rather than characterisation and you’ll likely not enjoy it. (You can also go into it looking for patches of bookish discussion.)
In many ways, then, the book is a parody. The quick ending sports a brief forward-flash of what will happen in a way that mimics the ending of Mansfield Park – yes, two very different books that nevertheless share something specific. The time spent on the characters, making them real, is matched by the time having a laugh and doing things that reminds you they are fictional. Connolly uses a lot of devices to good effect – the extreme personalities, the use of female characters as supporting roles, the use of a past year when the present would have been fine, scenes that don’t do much to push the narrative forward. One could say it’s literary fiction that bridges the gap – literary fiction that those who don’t like literary fiction will enjoy just as much as those who do, even more so, perhaps.
New York is shown as both a tourist destination and in its day-to-day life. Finn looks forward to seeing it and there is a brief sudden trip up the Empire State Building but other than that the tourism happens in bog standard restaurants and lesser internationally well-known places. And the tourism mainly consists of Finn walking around. It is in some ways a character itself, especially when it comes to William’s ruminations on the mornings and beauty of it, but more than that it’s Connolly’s admiration that shows through. Evie Wyld’s blurb on the front cover says it perfectly: “An epic love letter to New York City.”
Coming to the narration, then, it’s third person past tense and moves back and forth between the characters with often a mere single linked sentence – if you’re not on the ball you may have to backtrack when you realise the point of view has changed. It’s the sort of narrative choice that can come under fire but with all the comedy and intentional extremes it’s easy to view it as another carefully considered device. Connolly often details, briefly, the situation of strangers who pass by the characters, adding to the comedy, but ‘briefly’ is the word – it’s quick, stopping before the time you’d get bored of the idea of a detour.
This is, as the summary says, a book about male relationships, but for all the comedy, parody, and simple delight of the work, it can seem a subtle one. In many ways it’s a book about the self. Is it very ‘manly’? Yes, but as said above, whilst the woman support, supporting is a device. There is often a female aspect at work, for example standing up to sexism, even whilst in the first chapters the worrier know-it-all whirlwind that is Dilly may make you want to stop reading (another feeling Connolly has created and knows when to stop – he’s quite the master of this sort of storytelling).
It is difficult to say exactly why this book is so good. It moves slowly through the days (if you ever forget that there is Jack’s continuing flu to remind you), slowly through everyday routine. You feel you’re learning something or being told something without being able to pinpoint exactly what. Things that suggest it would be boring. But it’s not. It takes time but it makes you smile, it steeps you in New York without really exploring it or detailing much about it (one assumes many of the locations – restaurants, galleries – are fictional), it allows you to laugh at it as well as with it. Throughout you can see the author considering his reader and, much like he has his characters, he’s considered many different types of reader rather than the idea of a whole.
As Wyld’s blurb continues, “…bold, absorbing and very funny.” Men Like Air is a super book that needs to be read – reviews will only ever be able to go so far in explaining it. It’s a book for mornings, for lunchtimes, for evenings. A book for weekdays and weekends. There is so much to it and whilst you may wish you could have spent longer seeing where the characters went, you won’t feel at a loss.
I received this book for review.