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Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Nicola Cornick – The Woman In The Lake

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Too beautiful to lose. Too dark to keep.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45694-5
First Published: 26th February 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th June 2019
Rating: 4/5

Lady Isabella Gerald would like her husband dead. Lord Gerald is a bully, an adulterer, and involved in shady practices; and he is often violent towards her. Meanwhile Isabella’s maid, Constance, isn’t as silly and sweet as Isabella thinks she is – in fact Constance is spying on her Lady for her Lord. One day, Isabella declines to wear the new dress her husband has bought her; after raping her he tells Constance to destroy the dress. But Constance doesn’t destroy it, although its presence seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. Centuries later, young Fen Brightwell visits Lydiard House, but upon walking into one of the rooms she finds herself alone; there’s an angry man in the next room, who is dressed in historic clothes and screaming at her to take away the dress that is lying there. She does so, and keeps it. Years later, after an abusive marriage and the death of the grandmother she lived with, the dress comes back into her life, together with thoughts and propensities she thought she’d left behind.

The Woman In The Lake is an appropriately fast-paced novel full of secrets and crime. Set in two time periods – the 1760s and the present day – it doesn’t use time travel/slip to the same extent as Cornick’s previous two dual-plot novels, instead spending time on both eras equally, the extra time afforded by the relative lack of travel spent on a stunning few ideas that slowly become more complex and exciting.

The story is good but it is specifically Cornick’s construction and execution of the various elements that makes this book what it is. The novel is like a whodunnit doubled, or even tripled; the amount of thought and planning that’s gone into it is obvious and it is as much this easy-to-see display of composition as the actual effect of it that makes the reading experience so vibrant.

This remains true even on those occasions wherein secrets and answers are predictable (sometimes they’re not hidden from you at all). The predictable nature of a fair number of plot and character elements may seem at first a drawback; but it’s not. Cornick has populated her novel with a fairly standard number of main and secondary characters but because she’s brought the use of secrets to them all – some more than others, of course – those secrets that are predictable are often of the sort that you need to know to be able to work out others. And even if you do work out more secrets than you may have been expected to, you’ve still got that complexity of the writing itself to enjoy.

The use of history is brilliant, and where it turns to historical fantasy it’s well thought out. You may need to suspend a bit of belief but that is part and parcel – if you’re happy reading a book where someone slips back in time, you’re going to be okay with the rest of it.

So there is a lot about the process to like about this book, and it could well be the best part, but the rest is right up there. The plot is paramount in general; the characters each in their turn bring the focus to their small section of the world, their individual lives within the whole. Cornick uses some social history here, particularly the alcohol smuggling that went on in Swindon, and then there’s Lydiard House and the parkland; in a break from her work in this genre so far, she populates her locales with fictional characters for both eras, using Lydiard Park and its past inhabitants for inspiration and spinning her own story from there. (A word about Lydiard House: Cornick’s history about the house as its own entity is based in facts – the council owns it now and it’s open to visitors. The council uses the upper floor for meeting rooms and so forth, so the bedroom as a museum piece is downstairs, a recent creation, as are other rooms that may have been upstairs; this is to say that if Fen’s visit confuses you at all, this is the reason. I wrote about the House and Park last year, including photos.)

The characters are good, but considering everything discussed so far, you may not find in them much to take away; they do each propose things to consider and the historical people provide food for historical thought but it is those ‘things’ that will likely stand out to you most, the characters interesting enough but more of a vehicle for the plot. No one is particularly winsome, however this is part of the point of the narratives. The historical characters are mostly loathsome, even those who have been treated badly aren’t very nice, and the present-day characters have many flaws to their traits; Cornick’s tale looks beyond perfections and dreamy heroes, in fact you may not be one hundred percent sure about any of the relationships or friendships. It’s a good reflection of reality and often also a good reflection of humanity in general. (The narrative is written from four points of view as a whole, with three taking the majority of the time.)

Domestic abuse is an important thread in both of the narrative eras with different stories behind them, the differences in society weaving into them in their own ways. In conjunction with this, Fen’s life includes a lot of child neglect, which combines with her married past. Cornick looks at Fen’s experiences as a fact-of-the-matter – Fen’s been hurt, and still is hurt, but it’s been happening for so long that emotions are largely off the table. It’s a hard-hitting tale that Cornick is careful not to tie up too neatly – some people never change.

The Woman In The Lake is a spooky book, a somewhat Gothic tale, that might just keep you up a bit longer than you’d thought, the story taking twists you may not have seen coming in terms of the way the characters deal with them, and Cornick being unapologetic in her writing of it. This is a solid work of fiction, factual when needed and when it works with the fantasy, and fantastical where it fits. It looks a various concepts with care and consideration. But most of all, it’s simply chock full of good literary action.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Death Of Baseball

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‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring’ — Marilyn Monroe.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 452
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-999-58735-2
First Published: 21st May 2019 (ebook); 21st June 2019
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Japanese American Clyde lives with his caring mother and highly abuse father; when his father causes him to kill his cat, the effect of continued causes Clyde to change. At the same time, Clyde comes to discover the films of Marilyn Monroe, who died the night he was born – this, he believes, is no coincidence. Not far away, Jewish Raphael fights with himself and over the rules of others; he’s a passionate believer in his faith but a problem for his family. He’s been told he’s special, chosen.

The Death Of Baseball is an epic novel about the psyches of two young men in 1970s America, one who believes he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, and the other, a kleptomaniac with what appears to be an anti-social disorder, both accidentally and on purpose destroying what he holds dear. The story chronicles their early years and eventual meeting, ending in a fast-paced and fitting conclusion.

Ortega-Medina has a particular handle on storytelling that’s a dream to experience; as we saw in his debut, Jerusalem Ablaze – a collection of stunning short stories in which on one the defining stylistic features was that short stories need not end with a moral – his take on writing draws you in and keeps you reading. And, whilst you of course want to be tempted by the story, you don’t actually need to actively like it to enjoy the book. In short, this author could write a story about paint drying and it’d be one of the most engrossing and compelling things you’d ever read.

So this has carried over into his first novel. The story is well executed, and suitably stretched out over a number of years and locations that aid your continued interest when the characters’ ethics go downhill (more on them in a bit). Provided the genre of psychological thriller, the things to get you thinking are varied and clever. The first of these you encounter is Clyde’s reaction to the death of his cat, an accident caused by his terror of his father’s violence; Clyde’s mother suggests a method to put the cat out of his mind and the written ‘version’ of this that Ortega-Medina adopts brings to the fore the devastation of abuse on a child and shows the difficulties present in trying to deal with such a thing at such a young age. If you love animals and/or have recently experienced the death of a pet you may find it hard to read, but the perseverance pays off; read it slowly, you get through it, and the pain you may feel only goes to display further what the author is communicating.

Ortega-Medina includes a lot of abuse – this book shows how abuse can lead to abuse, or to mental issues that often get seen solely as part of the individual rather than also in the context of the cycle. The writer looks at both child and adult; focusing on the effects on the child he nevertheless spends a moment here and there on the abuser, not to explain away problems but to show the beginnings in terms of facts. It affects Clyde’s maturity and sense of person but the writer is careful not to explain away the thriller element of the story, suggesting also places that aren’t impacted by childhood. Raphael’s treatment is a lot more subtle, his own awful deeds blurring the neglect from his family.

The characters are incredibly well written. Clyde is somewhere just left of the middle in terms of ‘goodness’, a person who is either misguided (and delusional) or real (Marilyn gets a word in at the start). Raphael is towards the anti-hero end of the scale, a troublemaker of a particular persuasion who often says he is sorry but isn’t, a person fairly akin to Alex of A Clockwork Orange, who you go back and forth between hoping it’s just a phenomenally bad case of understanding, and a true, intentional, lack of care. A lot of the book deals with the question of redemption, whether Raphael will ask for it and act appropriately, and how many times he might be afforded a chance.

This book has a strong LGBT thread running through it – the characters are gay. The book includes a lot about religion in it – Judaism – however sexuality isn’t discussed in this light; they are two separate themes of equal importance. It’s worth noting, particularly given the label, that the acronym does not extend to transgender issues – Clyde is not trans; his thought as to an operation, which is in place for a short while, is due to his belief that he is Monroe – he wants to look like her rather than become a woman for the gender itself. (I think this important to note in case you’re wanting to read the book due to what may appear to be the inclusion of trans issues – this book isn’t it.)

In looking at Judaism from the perspective of a person who deems themselves devout we read about the faith, and in travelling to Israel learn a bit about the situation there (the perspective is mostly that of Raphael’s family who are heavily involved in the military). Mostly the stay in Israel is about the place itself, the way it is regarded by various peoples (Raphael meets a born-again Christian who seems completely indifferent to the troubles), and the journey to different areas within the country draws out the epic feel of the book.

The ending, whilst quick, is nevertheless a little drawn-out – partly because by this time you have completely given up hope over certain things. The conclusion isn’t rewarding in the ‘usual’ way, perhaps in deference to the fact that by that point, it would be difficult to make it such. The Death Of Baseball, then, is a book in which the reading experience is everything – it’s hard to relate to the characters, the story itself is often difficult. Whilst the ending is a metaphorical race to the finish line, an exhilarating ride to a shocking conclusion, it is the act of reading the book itself that you will miss, Ortega-Medina’s style of storytelling irresistible, compelling. The book is akin to a road trip, where the time spent travelling, the progression of the trip, is what you take away with you, and the easiness of the reading alongside a complexity that is hard to define means you’ll miss this book for quite a while after finishing it.

(On the subject of baseball, if you don’t know about Monroe’s marriages, have a quick read before you start this book. It’s not necessary to know, per se, but it’ll add just that bit more to your reading.)

I received this book for review.

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Dolly Alderton – Everything I Know About Love

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…And indeed the things scribbled out.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 358
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-98210-5
First Published: 1st February 2018
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Dolly had a privileged upbringing, living in the suburbs north of London. As she becomes an adult, life changes; in a number of non-linear chapters she tells us the stories of her twenties from the early days to her thirtieth birthday, the drinking, partying, drugs, sex, that in the course of time led to her maturity and growing wisdom. And throughout it all she chronicles her friendships, the steadfast women who have helped her through the rough times, those whom she has helped in return.

Everything I Know About Love is Alderton’s first book, a memoir bringing us to her present day (the paperback includes a new chapter). Most often a love letter to female friendship, the book includes romantic love but more often short relationships – Alderton has said that we think so much about the spark that keeps romance going but that we don’t spend enough time on our friendships in the same way. A journalist, writer for television, and podcaster, Alderon’s book also includes the early days of her work in the industry, the backdrop of many escapades.

Alderton begins her book with little introduction; most likely the book will appeal to those already familiar with her work and thus this won’t be a problem. However, to anyone who may otherwise be interested (as I was, having heard her speak at a festival) this is a work that can grow on you – the first chapters may be difficult, lacking in detail, but you soon become familiar with the writer enough that the ‘requirement’ to know about beforehand becomes a lot less important. More to the point is the ability to relate to her childhood – Alderton acknowledges the privilege herself on various occasions – the attendance at a boarding school, and relative ease of access to the places she begins to work (for example she gets a placement on a TV show with no details included as to how); again, though, there is a however – as the years pass and she has to network and so on, there are more details of this kind included. The details by themselves may not affect every reader but will help a good number.

The writing is casual and the pages fly by. It’s conversational, Alderton preferring ease of understanding over perfected prose. The content of the chapters tends to be compiled by subject matter rather than timeline, leading to a slice of life effect, however it’s not hard to find your bearings in any given set of pages.

Alderton is adept at imagery, and you become well-versed in her friendships over the course of the book; she’s also good at making it easy to keep track of who’s who – the book has a large cast of characters with enough detailing and stories to remember. You start wanting to hear more about some people and, obviously allowing for the natural changes that will affect it, Alderton’s choices in narrative correspond to this.

A lot of Alderton’s experiences in adulthood are average, very everyday – this is where her concept for the book and her stories of her friendships comes in. She includes some moments of her life that have impacted those she loves more than they impacted her, making a fair amount of the book about others rather than herself (this sounds against the idea of a memoir and may not always be apparent when reading, but it’s true). There are some stories of particular depth and heart in them. One person in Alderton’s life was Florence, her best friend’s sister, who sadly died of leukemia before she entered the excellent adulthood that was clearly awaiting her – Alderton has dedicated her book to Florence as well as a whole chapter that looks at Florence’s early achievements, the love of her family, and the ripple affects of her death. The writer includes an extract from an article Florence wrote that contains this fantastic piece of advice:

Be the person you wish you could be, not the person you feel you are doomed to be. (p. 203)

Amongst the various prose chapters are dotted recipes (skip-able), a chapter of silly or drunken text messages (also skip-able), lists of things learned (good to read), and some very on-the-mark pretend missives to groups of people (bridal parties and wedding guests, baby shower invitees) that show the reality behind plans made without self-awareness that often cause minor conflict. A paraphrased example: ‘please don’t feel you need to bring a present… but here is where we are registered… for expensive items’. These on-the-mark missives are pretty brilliant to read.

Alderton’s awareness of issues naturally progresses as the book continues and she displays openly the problems as well as the changes made to fix them:

‘Why did you do it?’
‘I don’t know. To feel close to people? To make conversation? Maybe to feel powerful,’ I said. ‘That’s the only reason people gossip. I obviously did it to feel powerful.’ (p. 234)

The best part of the book is the last section, wherein Alderton ends her stories to write an extended reflection on what she’s learned. In a way, it’s a pity the stories end, but this is where everything comes together and you see just why she wrote the book and why people have been excited about it. Alderton puts into words things we often think about but rarely put into words ourselves. She gives a voice to things that are a part of many people’s lives that are things we don’t really think about (or think about at all). It’s a beautiful conclusion and makes more obvious the structure of the work. The only problem here is that the reflections go on a bit – whilst already a summation, the content is repetitive and could have done with more editing.

Everything I Know About Love might not look like it’s a book for the many, but it is. It’s a book with a lot of good advice, a book that includes the low points and why things can be a problem whilst not suggesting those things be avoided (Alderton has said she wanted to talk about drink, drugs, and so on openly). Read it alongside a subscription to the magazines she writes for, or after a brief bit of research, and you’ll get the most out of it.

I received this book for review.

 
Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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