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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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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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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Terri Fleming – Perception

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Redux.

Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
Pages: [to come]
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-409-17062-4
First Published: 13th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

With Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia married and away from the family home, only Mary and Kitty remain. When Mr Montague arrives in town – single, wealthy, – Mrs Bennet sees possibilities ahead. Mary is inclined to believe marriage is not for her, but the man proves bookish, has a large library, and may have taken a shine to her.

This is a superb book, a fine follow up to a famous book by someone else.

Fleming has chosen to stick with Austen’s way with words; the language is Victorian and the effort to get it right practically leaps off the page – but it’s never overwhelming: Fleming blends in. Are there occasion moments of modernity? Yes, but more often than not it’s a discrepancy with grammar, wherein one could say that perhaps, maybe, Austen or her contemporaries might have said whatever it is. It would be impossible to say that this book has not been gone through with a fine tooth comb and that those few errors are not the equivalent of the odd typo found nowadays. (Indeed there are far fewer errors here than there in new books sets in our present era.)

The overall literary atmosphere is also Victorian, with Fleming keeping to the same relative lack of action as Austen. In terms of physical movement, nothing much happens – it’s all in the character development, which is rather good. It’s also an easy read, a book that makes you want to keep reading and isn’t at all difficult to resume reading when you need to take a break. It can be read in short bursts to no ill effect.

As said before, the character development is good. Fleming’s got them just right – they match Austen’s well yet Fleming manages to bring a bit of our present day feeling into it without distracting from the original context. Where, for example, some now say that Mr Bennet did not treat Mrs Bennet well (I’m personally of the opinion that they are a bad match and Mr Bennet is dealing with a lifetime of unnecessary drama), Fleming slides this idea in finely, looking at the question without detracting at all from the surface dressing.

There are a few characters that the book could have done without, namely the two shopkeepers whose role doesn’t have any true impact and who could have been edited out without issue. Thankfully their chapters are very short and there are only a handful of them. (They are also two of the purely fictional people so that combined with their lack of impact renders them completely irrelevant.) The other new characters work well and the original characters have been handled carefully, Fleming putting her own spin on proceedings and detracting from the original context as little as possible.

This is a book for book lovers. In addition to the major factors of the book, the story revolves around libraries, with Mary’s bookish nature allowed full reign. Whereas Jane and Lizzie’s stories are full of sweeping romance, Mary’s is more quiet (though no less compelling). It could be said it wraps up a bit too neatly but the same could very well be said of Mansfield Park.

Kitty’s romance is a lot less important in context, and isn’t as developed – at least in terms of time – as Mary’s, but given the relative shadow over her from Lydia’s presence, it’s not so out of place, so to speak. That Mary is provided more time, with all things considered, does make sense.

Perception is fantastic. It looks to conquer any language and structure issues head on, and creates a story that whilst factually unnecessary, does provide a lot of value, enough that you can say that its worth goes far beyond the simple idea of continuing a story very much loved. It’s also an excellent read just for the effort put into it, Fleming’s time spent researching and getting it all right being a delight to witness for itself.

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Adrian Mourby – Rooms Of One’s Own

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For some writers.

Publisher: Icon Books
Pages: 228
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-78185-8
First Published: 11th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 3rd September 2017
Rating: 3/5

Mourby travels around the world to experience the living and working spaces of famous past writers in order to get a feel for it all.

Room’s Of One’s Own presents a very specific idea that is appealing but doesn’t always achieve its purpose. Where it focuses on its premise of the way a writer interacted with their residence, it’s excellent, with some choice quotations included, great anecdotes, and the sort of information that you do have to travel to the place in order to learn.

It’s good to note straight away that this is as much about Mourby’s experience than a general report on the places. Most pieces of information are filtered through his own thoughts on the subject and the book is in many ways a travel log. However the histories of the buildings, away from the context of the writers’ lives, are often there to make up for the lack of personal experience and description Mourby is able to include; a sizeable number of the buildings are inaccessible to him – he is barred access by the staff or present residents – which will almost inevitably result in a sense of disappointment on your own part as you wonder why he didn’t just exclude that particular place in favour of another. On a few occasions, the places chosen were not used for writing.

There is a lack of diversity in the book, which is very noticeable. All 50 chosen are white, despite the fair number from the 20th century in particular.

Mourby’s interest in the writers is apparent and some of the angles he takes on them are particularly good to read, it’s just that the book is in many ways more for those interested in architecture.

I received this book for review.

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