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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.

 
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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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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Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

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Absolutely… positively… really…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 381
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-17211-4
First Published: 9th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 4th February 2019
Rating: 5/5

Eleanor’s life is orderly, if dull – breakfast, work, dinner, The Archers or television, and bed – but it works. She’s been through a lot but now has her own place to live, and apart from the irritating visits from the social workers who gawp at her when she speaks about her history, and the co-workers who joke behind her back, she reckons life is okay. She has her dependable clothes and her shopper bag/trolley, her plant from her childhood, and her mismatched furniture. But when at a concert she ‘recognises’ the singer as the man she’ll spend her life with; she also meets a new co-worker who takes a genuine interest in her, which is difficult for Eleanor to accept because he dresses far too casually and smokes. Life is about to fall away from its schedule and potentially become a lot better, and Eleanor’s not used to that at all.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a book about the effects on adulthood of childhood trauma and a lack of support.

This is an incredibly well-told story. It offers both a first-hand source (if fictional) and a lot of sub-textual information for the reader about what it’s like to be apart from society for reasons that the person in question has had no control over. It offers a glimpse of how ‘othering’ such situations can be, and requests more emphatic assessments of the wider, factual, world.

Honeyman’s book is powerful, showing all the different factors of Eleanor’s life – the upbringing via memories and impact, the here and now, the pitiful ‘support’ she receives. However it is in the plotting itself and the ‘showing’ in the larger sense – show not tell – that the book is so effective. Through the use of the first-person narrative and never wavering from displaying all the socially awkwardness, ignorance, and learned-intolerance that Eleanor has, you get a complete picture of everything – why Eleanor is as she is, how others react and why. (Eleanor describes people’s reactions to what she says, enabling you to see and fully understand what’s happening even when she doesn’t – which is the usual situation.) Honeyman does all this slowly; never losing sight of the fact a novel should provide entertainment of some sort, she ekes out the story itself whilst being bit swifter when it comes to describing who Eleanor is; even if you get a solid idea early on as to what’s happened, not everything is provided until the end, which leaves Honeyman able to show Eleanor’s progression towards healing and remembering exactly why she was put into care.

Of the foster care and children’s homes of Eleanor’s past, Honeyman is blunt, detailing situations that would still warrant question, such as a child being moved on because her grief and trauma manifested in ways that people couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle. Honeyman does not analyse the receptions the young Eleanor received, instead her focus is on how an unstable home life continue to impact her. Of the support the character receives in adulthood, Honeyman states clearly in subtext: not good enough. Eleanor’s been given a flat, filled with second-hand, often inappropriate, furniture. She found her own job. The social workers don’t actually do anything beyond showing up infrequently to check she’s okay and – as it’s often a new person – to simply gawp in surprise at what they read in their files. It’s down to society, who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, to actually help her, and as Honeyman shows, Eleanor is a lucky one, finding people who truly care.

It’s difficult being in the character’s head – her mother taught her intolerance of many different types of people and Eleanor struggles to push away that programming – and for a while in the book, Eleanor’s life is dull, but the writing keeps you going. Due to her mother’s programming, the English is an interesting mix of language, beginning in a fashion most correct and slowly progressing towards a combination of very correct English and very modern phrasing.

Needless to say the characterisation is top-notch, the main characters in particular brought fully to life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is difficult to take in but not difficult to read, the author wanting her readers to understand everything clearly. And it’s worth every moment, the literary features culminating in a fantastic whole but each being enjoyable – in a literary way – in themselves.

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Diana Gabaldon – Outlander

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Make certain the period you are researching was peaceful…

Publisher: Arrow (Random House)
Pages: 851
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75137-1
First Published: 1st June 1991
Date Reviewed: 8th January 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Reunited after WWII, Claire and Frank travel from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands. It’s part second honeymoon, part research trip to find out more about Frank’s six-times great-grandfather who was a British officer for the army in the 1740s. Early one morning, the couple visit an ancient stone circle to witness a pagan ritual and it’s an interesting enough event, but when Claire decides to spend more time at the circle and touches the centre stone, she is whisked inside it; upon waking she is once more in the stone circle but there’s a battle going on outside between a band of kilted men and a small English patrol of Red Coats.

Outlander is an epic historical fantasy romance1 that takes a 1940s nurse back in time to the period her husband is researching. Creating for Claire a new life, including a second marriage, and written from her perspective, it stays exclusively in the 1740s.

The first in what is currently a series of eight books with another in the works, Outlander is a lengthy work, and mostly focused on the relationship Claire has with Highlander Jamie. This is to say that while it is a time travel and includes a lot of historical information, the romantic element is paramount and thus the aspect of fantasy far less used.

The history here is very good; whilst not always completely accurate, and not always developed where you might expect it to have been, Gabaldon’s research is evident. Often the reason any one section is slow – there are a fair few of these sections in the first half of the book – is due to the author’s focus on either information or the wish to detail the day-to-day of Claire’s new life as she settles in (or, rather, settles in whilst still planning to escape back to the stones). There is little info-dumping in the book – Gabaldon includes information well – and apart from the few issues with language the history in the book is enjoyable.

In terms of the language it’s 50/50 between highly believable conversation (word choice and phrasing for the time periods) and not so well written in terms of grammar and general phrasing. There are some sentences that use modern phrasing from across the pond that likely skipped through unnoticed, but overall Claire’s descriptions read well. There are a few Gaelic words and Scots words included, the former not necessarily meant to be understood, the latter easy enough to pick up in a short amount of time.

Looking at descriptions, it could well be said that the book would have been better had it been written in the third person. Claire isn’t particularly compelling – in fact she’s often downright irritating – and because Gabaldon sticks to her perspective, lots of elements you might have expected to be included are very short on the ground. Claire doesn’t often compare her new life to her old one or find any difficulties with it; apart from the times when she decides she wants to escape what is otherwise being developed by the author as a comfortable, romantic, new life, and apart from the handful of times when she knows the medical treatment she is giving to a patient won’t actually help, she doesn’t think of Frank, the 1940s, or modernity anywhere near as much as you would expect.

Due to all this, you never once hear about how Frank is doing back in the 1940s – once Claire time travels, he drops out of the story, to be referred to only in thought. This means that the development of Claire’s relationship with Jamie is a lot easier. Another literary device comes in the form of Jamie’s lack of sexual experience, which neatly side-steps the requirement to discuss STIs, which would surely have otherwise entered Claire’s medical mind.

Romance, but mainly the sexual aspect, is a huge part of the book and generally included ‘just because’ rather than to advance the story. The book is essentially an erotic romance, extremely explicit in places, rarely leaving anything to the imagination. As the book continues, it goes further than consensual sex, with scenes of dubious consent, and graphic, violent, rape (the non-sexual violence is also extreme, and there comes a point near the end when it could be called intolerable2 (and means that something minor in terms of story but crucial to the historical context is left out3).

For this then, then, it is difficult to say that Outlander is a general romance, and it’s not only the concentration on lust at the expense of love but the fact of perspective to blame here. Is there romance in the book? Yes, and a fair amount, but given Claire’s indecision, the romance is mostly in Jamie’s court where development and content is concerned. With no time for Jamie’s perspective, this all has to be filtered through dialogue. (Jamie’s perspective, and more historical context, would have helped explain the clash of cultures that forms one of the common criticisms of the book, which cites a man’s punishment of his wife.) The chemistry between the characters is evident, but not portrayed as well as it could have been, especially as Jamie has no real competition due to Frank’s exit stage right.

Outlander definitely has its good – excellent, in fact – moments, and there are patches of terrific humour to be found as well as a steady sense of duty, family, and kin, but it does spend a lot of time on moments that do not move the narrative forward and on things that don’t inform the premise of the story (there are well over 40 sex scenes in the book, both fully consensual and not) and would have been better edited down by a few hundred pages; suffice to say that when Gabaldon returns from the bedroom to the narrative, the effect on proceedings is immediate, and the story continues well. And the positives do out-way the negatives.

Footnotes

1 The author has noted both that as she was writing the book for herself she didn’t limit what she included (Gabaldon, n.d) and that the book has been shelved in shops under a vast variety of genres (Gabaldon, 2016).
2 On page 735 of the novel, Gabaldon does say the following, through Claire, which goes a fair way towards explaining the reason for the inclusion:

One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling and voilà! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh.

3 Due to the focus on violence, Christmas comes and goes, indeed the days are spent at a Catholic monastery, with absolutely no mention of it by anyone.

Online References

Gabaldon, Diana (n.d.) The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019
Gabaldon, Diana (2016) Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.com, accessed 9th January 2019

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