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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

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Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

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The Trouble With Goats And Sheep (The Borough Press) was shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017.

Lambs (and kids) of god.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13217-0
First Published: 28th January 2016
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Creasy has disappeared and no one on the avenue knows anything about it. They’ve only two things to go on – the police don’t seem too interested, and Mr Creasy says his wife will be back given time. Grace is interested in the disappearance but more so in the idea of God – if the vicar says God is with us then God must be somewhere on the avenue. One of the neighbouring houses must host him; together with her many-jumpered friend, Tilly, she’s going to find him.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep is a wholly character-driven dual-narrative novel that looks at the way groups of people deal with individuals who aren’t like them. It’s also about how exclusive a small community can become.

Cannon’s backdrop is the British heatwave of 1976, a time when rain ceased entirely for a couple of months (we had 4 weeks here recently, which was weird enough), the temperature shot to a still-unbeaten record high, and water had to be rationed. This backdrop allows Cannon to look at emotions and personalities pushed to their relative limit. It also ensures that for the sections relating to that year, the neighbours spend a lot of time together by virtue of being outside.

The neighbours are insulated by their unchanged residence; whether by personality or through time (it’s mostly personality but the author covers both bases) these people are very set in their ways; as the then Conservative leader and later Prime Minister is known for saying, they are “not for changing”. There are some rather unfavourable characters here. To name but a few: Harold – a man full of hate who has convinced his wife that she forgets, making her create lists of tasks for the day; Sheila, who heartedly joins in on verbal attacks and is generally unable to see beyond her misconceptions; Grace’s parents who don’t take responsibility for what they’ve done and thus enable bullies to pursue others.

The person they hate, because ‘dislike’ is not a strong enough word, is a man who keeps to himself. You don’t find out if social circumstances were ever different, but the neighbours have turned their backs on Walter completely. In interviews, Cannon has said she wrote the book to shine a light on the situation of people on the edge of society and it is through Walter that she accomplishes this. Walter has supposedly stolen a baby in his time and everyone was secretly happy when his house went up in smoke – from the first, Cannon shows the reader how it’s more likely that Walter is misunderstood… not that anyone on the avenue would care that they got it wrong. The author doesn’t answer the question of the stolen baby until the end – it’s one of the whodunnit elements of the book – but what she says before that is enough for you to conclude that if Walter did steal the baby, it likely wasn’t malicious. Walter may have a learning disability and/or social anxiety – the what, if any, isn’t important, it’s the idea of difference that Cannon focuses on. The neighbours don’t like difference. Intolerance, arrogance, and as it happens, racism, is best in their books. Cannon tends to lace this with clever comebacks:

‘How exactly should they have prepared themselves?’
‘Got used to our customs.’ Harold pulled at his shoelace. ‘Learned a bit of our language, you know.’
‘I’m fairly sure they speak English, Harold.’
‘Well if they do, it’s only thanks to the Raj. You can’t just go marching into somebody else’s country and expect them to follow your rules, you know.’
‘India?’ said Dorothy.
‘No, Britain.’

As this is a character-driven novel, you spend a lot of time with these people – the entire time, in fact – but Cannon makes it worth your while. Aside from providing a reprieve in the form of Grace, who is a caring soul, the author takes time to de-construct how the neighbours’ personalities and biases can lead them to take action when most people would simply shrug and move on.

In terms of the whodunnit elements, the book sports rough pointers as to who might have caused the house fire that killed Walter’s mother, which is revealed at the end. (Have I said how awful these people are?) The mystery isn’t at the forefront and in fact the revelation, which is a bit murky and requires some thought, isn’t much of one – it does answer the question, but it’s only slight in terms of impact.

The ending itself, which returns to the mystery of Mrs Creasy, like the answer to the fire isn’t particularly interesting – Mrs Creasy’s non-presence is more akin to Du Maurier’s Rebecca – an off-stage character, no lines, yet nevertheless managing to make a sizeable impact.

In case all the nastiness is wearing on you, Cannon offers moments of humour. Seen most prominently near the beginning in order that you start the book knowing the deal straight out, there is a chapter that is almost entirely dedicated to making you laugh.

The hall filled with people. It was far more crowded than the church had been, and pairs of jeans mixed with Sunday best. It appeared that Jesus pulled a much bigger crowd if He provided garibaldis.

[…]

No one mentioned Jesus.
In fact, I didn’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked into the room, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Arctic roll.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep has a lot going for it. The detailing is excellent, the characterisation and dialogue spot on; many aspects of it are objectively very good, the subjective aspect falls firmly in the personalities. It’s altogether a well conceived and well-executed book, you just have to pick the right moment to read it.

I received this book for review.

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Kit De Waal – My Name Is Leon

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My Name Is Leon (Penguin) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced today.

Family lost and found.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 262
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97338-7
First Published: 2nd June 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Not long after Leon’s brother Jake is born, the children are sent to a foster carer. Leon is confused – he’s been looking after his brother and mother Carol very well and doesn’t know why strange people had to come break up his family. He isn’t sure if he likes Maureen and when baby Jake is taken away by a young couple he vows to see him again.

My Name Is Leon is a stunning story about the British foster care system and adoption, the effects of big changes on children. Set in the 1980s, it’s full of cultural references that will delight many a reader and through small studies of a couple of big moments in the 80s and 90s, looks at the prejudices in the system where mixed race families were concerned.

De Waal is a master of writing. The author has chosen to tell her tale in a way that speaks to Leon whilst showing the target readership – adults – what’s really going on. It’s a fantastic writing style that’s in many ways very easy to read but full of depth, a style that might appeal to children if it weren’t so geared to adults. The writing is what makes the book so profound, so moving; de Waal’s ton of personal knowledge of the foster system, of court, and of these issues across the years means that she packs a lot of punch in ways you really have to read to believe.

Talking of punches, there is a lot of hope in this book, but Leon’s life is never rosy (aside from, perhaps, his allotment) and there are things that will never happen because they didn’t and don’t happen in such situations in real life. Whilst some things are incredibly neatly tied, others are not and cannot be tied. This is a book that truly brings tears.

Leon gets the short end of an already short straw – not only does he end up away from his mother (a woman you will see as neglectful) but he looses his brother. He looses his brother because his brother is white, but Leon is mixed-race, so not only did he stand less chance of adoption due to his age but his skin colour means that either the couple did not want to adopt him or the social workers believed they would not. Yes – it’s horrible. It’s an absolute sod to read but so important.

Leon’s time with Maureen’s sister, Sylvia, coincides with the time of what appears to be the Brixton riots, when black Brits protested against police brutality in the country. The novel deals only with Leon’s early life, he is on the periphery of these protests due to friendships with adults he meets, so the accounts are short, but they hit hard. Do they add a lot to Leon’s story? No, not exactly – what they do is put Leon’s ‘inability’ to be adopted in a wider context. Were the people that could have adopted both white and mixed-race brothers thinking of racial riots whilst they made their decision? Likely not, but de Waal’s themes enable her to explore, for us, problems that were all wrapped up together, if, seemingly, loosely. (Of course the parental candidates for Jake may well never have known much about Leon or even been ‘offered’ him by the social workers, but even if that was the case – we don’t know – it still shows the problems with race in the social services’ system.)

Leon’s friendships lead to one of the more objectively pleasant aspects of the novel – gardening. The book is full of seeds, flowers, vegetables, containers, and it’s wonderful because not only do you get a fair outline of bedding seasons, you get to see how young lives can be changed with the right support, in this story combining with Leon’s foster mother and her sister.

And what about all these characters, this child, the foster parents, the friends? They are very well developed, which considering the writing is quite a feat. As in everything else, de Waal enables the reader to see more than Leon can so you get a delightfully rounded picture of everyone and who they are both to Leon and to the world. De Waal’s characters are great people who lift the novel from its themes. They are a major reason the book remains happy despite all that goes on. Even the more murky characters in this respect, the social workers, are well drawn to the same extent, even if by the very nature of the narrative they come across more neutral than good. (De Waal delves rather well into the thinking behind Leon’s placement and the decisions made for him.)

This is one of the finest novels published, both last year and for many years. Everything about it is just so good and the level of care taken surpasses most else. It is an incredible book that makes quick yet never rushed work of an important subject. It gives a voice to situations we don’t hear about enough by someone who really knows their stuff.

I received this book for review.

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Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

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And question society.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75263-7
First Published: 11th July 1960
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s the 1930s and Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus, a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. Scout is just starting school and finding her way around things she doesn’t understand including subjects Jem seems to know a lot about. As she grows a little older she understands more about her father’s work and when Atticus is employed to defend a black man against a charge of rape, the family will have to deal with people heavily prejudiced against black people and the whites who support them, and Scout will come to learn about the variety of people in a country starting to move towards equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Lee’s experience in a similar role to Scout, the child of a man in a similar role to Atticus. It’s a rather quiet book that makes its points with aplomb.

There are many fine elements in this book – the look at race, of course, but also the use of location in a way separate from that, the characterisation, and the general feel of it. It’s a book that if published today would likely be called literary fiction and it’s one that benefits from reading it considering a few viewpoints. How might it have been received if published in the day it was written? How would it have been received in its day? And what value does it have for us today? (That last one can be partly found in the answers to the other two questions.)

The plot meanders between strong, hard-to-put down chapters and easygoing scenes that in another book might make you wonder how much it was worth it – this is where the characterisation comes in. Lee’s strength in developing characters means that you want to keep reading and has that wonderful effect of making the characters feel real. This is of course likely due to the autobiographical element but beyond that it’s just pure talent; no matter how major or minor a character they are given what’s needed to make the book read as pure reality. Scout doesn’t understand much of what she hears, but Lee provides enough for the reader to comprehend it all. What’s lovely about Lee’s choice of narrator and narrative style is that you still get a complete picture of the other characters. There’s quite a bit of humour and a lot of love.

Lee’s look at racism and the burgeoning idea of equality is interesting. The book revolves around it but Lee never lets it take over the text itself – there’s the sense that she wants to make her point but in a way that means you get a positive experience alongside the bad, a good experience of the south of the time in both general life and the way many people supported black American rights, and in order to stay true to her narrator. The impact it may have today may not be as much as it would have been – this is where you need to consider the context in which it was written because as a look at what had been happening earlier in her life, the book is very powerful.

Lee incorporates various social circles into the story, mixing them together. Not too much – the book stays true to reality – but in ways that further support what she’s trying to do, such as Scout and brother Jem sitting with the reverend of the black church when in the court room – for Scout she’s sitting with friends, for the author it’s an extra show of support for the defence. (On that ‘not so much’ I’m thinking of the lack of time given to Tom Robinson directly – he says very little in the book, the focus there is more about how the white, privileged, people are helping him, which of course puts across the idea of tolerance in general and the way in which things had to change.) Lee’s fictional community includes people of many backgrounds and by the end a number of economic and social issues have been covered. Most of note, perhaps, is the story the children construct in regards to Boo Radley and the ultimate revelation of who he is, a well-crafted few segments that display childhood thoughts and kindness with a lot of heart.

The overall quality of the book is evident from early on, but it’s one that’s good to mull over because the more you consider it, the more you see.

I’m keeping this short – there’s only so long one can carry on in review form about a book that has been studied for years, especially when it’s their first read – but suffice to say To Kill A Mockingbird is a very good book.

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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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