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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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Zoë Duncan – The Shifting Pools

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What you see will be.

Publisher: Lightning Books (Eye Books)
Pages: 346
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-63036-1
First Published: 6th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 14th July 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Eve’s family lived in a country that was torn by war; in childhood Eve lost them all and suffered further trauma. She moved to England where her well-meaning aunt never stopped trying to cover up any news of the war and never referred to the family. Now in her adult years, Eve is yet to confront her memories and her grief continues as strongly as ever. Her dreams are nightmares and she’s not living anywhere near her potential, but her imagination believes it’s time to heal.

The Shifting Pools is an incredibly moving novel about grief and learning to live despite it. Using many different styles of storytelling, referencing, and ideas, Duncan has created something very different and very special.

This is a slow-moving book. The pace echoes the way utter loss, grief, can take over a life, and Duncan never moves the narrative away from it. Every detail is examined, every thought spoken, in the way it naturally occurs in life, Duncan doing away with the very notion that being repetitive in fiction is bad – she shows well how it is important to delve into grief and give it the time it needs.

One of the first things of note is Duncan’s writing – it’s wonderful. It keeps the pacing constant, it stays steady during tense changes, and it brings something very beautiful to the work. It’s not difficult to fly through this book, despite the subject, and the writing and Duncan’s overall handling of the situation is why. And there is a lot of wisdom here that anyone who has lost someone or been in an awful situation will be able to relate to.

The style of the text as a whole is intriguing. Sections about Eve’s childhood are narrated in the third person. The first person is used for everything else: the ‘present’ as Eve lives through her days and details her thoughts; the vignettes of dreams dotted throughout the book, that explore Eve’s mental state in various imagined situations; the sections in war-torn Enanti, the fantasy world that may or may not be real. And then there are several well-known and not so well-known poems, generally a single verse of each, spread throughout, included in the text as vignettes in their own right. It’s almost of collage, a multi-media project, full of different ideas and voices, and works very well. The term ‘fractured narrative’ comes to mind.

The Shifting Pools uses nature, drawing comparisons between it and the themes of the story, and using its beauty as a way to help Eve. Of note is the character’s name, which, after you have spotted potential influences of other texts and concepts (including Narnia and The NeverEnding Story) does bring forth the question of Eve’s faith. Is there a comparison to be drawn between Eve and the Eden of the Bible? Of Heaven? Quite possibly.

Eve is always at war with herself; as much is said in one of the sections. Her dreams concern various war or battle or prison situations. Of the war that tore apart her family, little is said. Duncan never tells you which war – if any, in reality – she refers to, though there are glimpses of a couple of possibilities; it’s more the basic idea of war that is important.

Reading this book is something of a honour, and a surreal experience. It feels fantastical from the very first page and the amount of research, knowledge, and detail Duncan has included is excellent. She unapologetically runs straight past the border between what we are told is the ‘right’ amount of time and energy to spend grieving to show that the idea of a ‘right’ time never works. This said you can see the thought that’s gone in to getting it right in terms of the reading experience, empathy, and not repeating what has been said unless to view it differently – something that wouldn’t work in many cases but does here.

The only thing that may work against the book is the amount of time spent on the journey in Enanti. It depends on your enjoyment of the fantasy world being included alongside the real world, how much you’re invested in that genre, and how much you personally feels it all relates.

The Shifting Pools is a fantastic reading experience, full of care, love, and, ultimately, hope.

I received this book for review.

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Amanda Craig – The Other Side Of You

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Tale as old as time.

Publisher: Abacus (Little, Brown)
Pages: 100
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-349-14172-5
First Published: 2nd February 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Will discovers his aunt has been killed in their flat, he runs away from those who did it. Leaving his estate behind he finds sanctuary in the middle of a residential square, climbing over a fence into a a garden that’s running wild. Dirty, scarred, worried and self-conscious, he begins to learn about gardening and stays hidden, pruning back the plants to bring the place to its former glory. But although he has food enough he lacks the money for other things and so he starts to venture outside the fence.

The Other Side Of You is a novella written for the charity Quick Reads. In keeping with the context and mission, the book sports simple language; it also has bigger print and a hundred pages. The idea is to produce a book that is accessible as well as good for those who want to read but may not have much time.

As you will expect, Craig’s book satisfies these well. The book fits the current recurrence in literature of fairytale retellings; the story is set in present day London with all the realities, hardships, rich spots. It leans on the basic traditional tale for its names – making it easy to see where Craig has chosen to stick as well as deviate in her retelling – as well as the message, but beyond that crafts a different story.

You have to suspend belief to read this book. Craig unapologetically nods to dreams and the almost impossible, blending difficult and achievement in interesting ways, with Will gaining something incredible at the end that in hindsight you see Craig’s workings towards it. It’s the awesome lucky happenstance she seems to say, ‘work at it and things will come’ even if your own is more realistic. Secondly, in terms of realism there is a lovely magical realism/paranormal aspect to the book where Will hears a voice that carries him on, helps him get over impossible fences and so forth that looks to a phenomenon called Third Man Syndrome.

Due to the book’s shortness character development is understandably swift but it’s good, Will beginning with a major lack of knowledge of many things and quickly picking up meanings and concepts. The other characters are devices and this works well. All focus on Will.

The Other Side Of You is a great little book. This slow reader loved it.

I received this book for review.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Max Porter – Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

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Dealing with sadness (crow).

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 112
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32723-2
First Published: 24th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 9th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

A family in mourning is visited by a crow. Crow brings some havoc with him but he’s also there as Dad gets through the days without his wife – struggling to finish writing his book on Ted Hughes – and as the boys come to terms with life without their mother.

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is a rather experimental book steeped in literary history. Looking at grief both as a process and in the various guises it takes, it blends prose and poetry together with semi-autobiographical elements – Porter lost his father as a child – to become something very unusual indeed.

There is a lot to this book; it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with the style: Porter opts to eschew convention, deciding not to choose between poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, commentary, study, fully-fledged plot, vignette. His book is the result of a vast mixing pot that is both confusing and compelling. Mind-blowing concepts within the whole compete alongside aspects that are difficult to define. It’s safe to say this book requires a lot of attention.

And a fair bit of knowledge. Whilst the book can just about be read without knowledge of its background subjects, your reading of it will be immensely improved by your having at least a basic idea of the lives and work of those who have influenced Porter. Chief amongst these is the poet Ted Hughes, whose book Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow is, not surprisingly, a major factor. Porter’s general interest in Hughes means that any knowledge is useful – and it pays to know about the poet’s relationship with Sylvia Plath.

Porter takes his inspiration for his Crow from Hughes but also from the bird itself. It is the sections written from Crow’s point of view that invite the most bafflement – the sentences are often a mess of words, onomatopoeia-like creations, and a general strangeness pervades. There is the idea of a metaphor – who or what Crow is, and how much he/she/it is related to Hughes’ Crow is a question that spans the entire book. Is this Death? Is this grief itself? Is it, even, Sylvia Plath? And why does Dad see Crow – because it suits Porter or because he’s working on a Hughes commentary?

On the stylistic note, the book uses three narratives – Crow, Dad, and ‘Boys’, the latter of which concerns the two sons but is written from one point of view, potentially to infer that at their young age the boys’ grief could be considered interchangeable, or maybe that their experiences are the same. Sections by the Boys are written in verse and meanings are split over a couple of lines. Much whitespace between narratives as well as lines and sometimes words mean that the book is even shorter than it appears, physically. And in many ways this is a good thing because of the amount of detail and commentary Porter has packed in.

To the stated grief, then; Porter has spared nothing. The book is at its most powerful when it’s examining the forms grief takes and how different people deal with it. Again metaphors and explorations take centre stage, with stereotypes and the idea that one must get over it always lingering nearby.

Take this, the Boys’ reaction to their father calmly coming into their room to tell them their mother has gone:

Where are the fire engines? Where is the
noise and clamour of an event like this?
Where are the strangers going out of their
way to help, screaming, flinging bits of
emergency, glow-in-the-dark equipment
at us to try and settle us and save us?

And this, wherein Dad works through both the metaphorical and literal detritus left in her wake:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

As said, this book requires all your attention. It’s incredibly easy, even with context behind you, to lose your way and it can take work to find yourself again. This is where Porter’s leaving of titbits comes in handy, most noticeably around the middle where comprehension questions, of the English Literature lesson type, are added as part of the narrative.

So Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is hard work but can be very rewarding. But it is also a very unusual beast and fits a specific, niche, category. You have to be happy with the very experimental style.

A difficult book to recommend outright, Porter’s début will intrigue most, delight many, and confuse just as many too and your experience of it won’t necessarily lie in how much you do or don’t know of Porter’s literary interests.

Keep a look out for it, go after it even, and see what you think. It’s quite an experience.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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