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Jessie Greengrass – Sight

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Acknowledgement and the desire to know more.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-65237-8
First Published: 22nd February 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our narrator looks back at the part of her life when she was considering whether to have a child, and then the subsequent pregnancy. She interweaves into this story another, of her grief at her mother’s death, as well as the discomfort she felt staying with her grandmother, and the history surrounding the discovery of X-Rays, Freud, and the work of early doctors.

Sight is a sensational novel about one woman’s journey to parenthood and the worry of being good enough; it’s also about longing and grief, and the self.

Greengrass is a master of subtlety and letting the story unfold at its own pace. Never worrying about speed, the tale is very slow but a wonder to read, the writing calling to mind novels from decades, even hundreds, of years ago, that same sense of the narrator sitting by the window at their desk writing, that is most prominent in film adaptations, here in full bloom. To be sure it is a page turner but it’s of that lovely lazy afternoon kind, the book being the perfect companion for a cup of tea and a chair on the lawn as the sun shines overhead. (The writing is similar in its subtly to the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, though the length of Sight allows the author to take her way of executing ideas further than she could in the short stories.)

Yes, that sounds rather at odds with the content of the story – the narrator’s anxiety and grief, the constant struggles she has to work through that her writing of them seems to help but not necessarily conquer. (It’s a somewhat open-ended work, very much a character study that nevertheless sports a conclusion.) And with all the chopping and changing of narrative – one moment in the present day, the next in the past, the next describing history – it can take a little while to find your bearings. But when you find your way (not too far into the novel, it must be said) there is a lot of literary enjoyment to be had.

In writing about Freud and Rontgen and other historical people – which is a factual aspect of the novel – Greengrass has used a particular type of showing. The cause of the narrator’s anxieties and doubtless depression is shown in what she teaches the reader about Rontgen and Freud – she knows about Freud because her grandmother was a psychoanalyst and she knows about Rontgen because she read up on him. These in turn, particularly the information about Freud as related to her grandmother and upbringing, help the reader to understand her nervousness about having a child, the way her mother’s passing affected her and so on. It becomes apparent that whilst, in a sense, the information about historical people reads as an info-dump, irrelevant to the narrator herself, those very facts are things that were not only something to become perhaps obsessed by as a way of working out her grandmother and her own life, but also a way of coping; in the narration of Freud and Anna, the narrator lives wildly through others without perhaps realising it.

Whilst there is no direct historical story in relation to the death of the narrator’s mother, the literary result is much the same.

Taking character further in terms of Greengrass’s subtlety, to the concept of characterisation itself, this is another factor worth looking at. The novel is very much about the narrator, in many ways everyone else mentioned is but a device, and Greengrass engages with this every so often. There’s the place wherein the narrator looks at Johannes’ role in the proceedings to good effect. As the narrator acknowledges – more so points out in terms of social roles – the way Johannes is but on the periphery of the pregnancy – not essential, a bit-player who can stay in the waiting room whilst the pregnancy unfurls, makes him irrelevant to what’s going on. This mixes in with the overall feeling that the narrator is the person to listen to – the others are not so important; whilst they may have affected her, it’s now the narrator’s time to shine.

Sight is fascinating. The narrator comes to a greater knowledge of herself but the knowledge the reader gains about her is the most important thing, and that effect makes the novel what it is. It’s both difficult in terms of content and wonderful in terms of its execution, a very self-contained and meticulously planned tale that is very effective and moving without any sort of pointing to itself to tell you so. An average person with a sad story that, when you look at it, shows just how much depth there is to every one of us and how our childhoods have a colossal effect on who we become, no matter how it pans out.

I received this book for review.

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A J Waines – Girl On A Train

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Sometimes there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 426
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-508-64794-2
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 4/5

Anna gets on the train and finds a seat. The girl next to her won’t stop fidgeting and as Anna considers whether to confront her about it, the girl gets up, gives her a beseeching look, and leaves the train a stop before the one printed on her ticket; minutes later the train slams into something on the track. As all the passengers are told to leave the carriages, Anna’s bag is stolen and then found. She finds a locket inside that she reckons is the girls’.

Girl On A Train is a fantastic thriller; published a few years before Paula Hawkins’ novel, it has been mistaken for it many times, however it is entirely different -a book about a troubled outsider trying to make the most of what’s good in their lives – and very much worth a read in its own right.

Waines uses a dual narrative to tell her story; beginning with Anna, switching to Elly for the middle, and returning to Anna at the end, you get a fully-fledged story without any need to question; it also allows for you to get to know Elly in her own right which is a wonderful element as you can empathise with her even more.

Anything that might seem unlikely or implausible is dealt with well, Waines knowing that may be how it appears and working to overcome it, which she does. The ending may divide opinion as it’s likely not the outcome you were expecting, but in terms of red herrings it’s super; because of the different parts of it and the subtleties, you will quite likely not guess what happened.

The characterisation is very good, with Anna and Elly sharing enough traits to make the narrative work – their thought patterns, for example; otherwise they’re two very different people. The writing is good, too – there are some editing errors, but the use of language is solid and the book flows well.

A few topics bond the stories together – the question of suicide and death in general that is asked two-fold as Waines explores the possibilities of Elly’s last days as well as Anna’s marriage. (You learn about the marriage early – this isn’t a spoiler.) Sexuality has a place. And religion is explored in terms of the possibilities to take money. Anna is well placed to look at topics in detail; as a journalist she’s initially thinking of Elly’s death as one that may make her name.

Girl On A Train is a good blend of page-turning fiction and details that will make you want to take your time; it manages to explore a lot whilst not losing track of its genre and whilst it’s down to each reader as to whether or not the subjects themselves will be memorable, the book itself will stay with you for a while. A very well crafted novel.

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Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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A J Waines – Lost In The Lake

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The words of Rockwell are apt here: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me”.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 388
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-543-16398-8
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 30th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Psychotherapist Sam Willerby is going to be careful about patients in future – she’s had trouble before and doesn’t want that again, but when Rosie is assigned to her care, she is lenient. Rosie was travelling home with her fellow quartet members when there was an accident – following trouble with the vehicle, it ended up in a lake, and Rosie was the sole survivor, her viola the only instrument recovered. She wants to remember what happened by she’s also taken a shine to Sam, believing they can be good friends. There’s a lot to remember, and also a lot to realise.

Lost In The Lake is a psychological thriller with a distinct difference – whilst it is a page turner, the general trend to get the pages turning faster is supplemented here by some fabulously relevant and literarily satisfying detail. An item of work by someone with a background in psychotherapy, it offers a lot to enjoy and rely on, along with some teaching moments.

The detail in this book is most apparent where it comes to character development – instead of the usual idea of a bad person – who you may or may not know from the start – and the resulting race to see what’s happened, Waines gives a definite nod to the structure but then goes into the villain’s mind. In a style akin to Georges Simenon but, it could well be argued, done better, the author shows you Rosie’s background long before she turns to look at the progression towards the finale, taking the reader back to the character’s childhood to show the effect extreme neglect and the loss of parents and constant changes in foster care have affected Rosie’s emotional well-being and stability. It’s a person-first story, a look at the humanity of a character before any literary thriller relish comes into play, a style of writing that you means you not only see exactly (very much) how it gets to the point it does, but also that you can relate – at least on some level – to the character.

Bolstering the effect further are the individual voices. This book is told by Samantha and Rosie, chapter by chapter, and both have distinct voices. You will never be confused as to whose chapter you’re reading and there is no feeling that the author is talking.

The story itself is involved. Full of music, trickery, and a fair dosing of red herrings (it’s apparent from the cover that Rosie is involved in something but whether the crime/accident or whether her villain status is separate takes a while to become known). There’s also Sam’s story; this is both the second story of a series and a standalone, and Waines has spent time on Sam’s background so that the times she does things that will move the plot along are relevant to her rather than mere devices.

As for the writing as an element it is very good and rather literary at times. The editing is solid, with the descriptions not moving towards filler except perhaps if you’ve read the first book (therefore the repetition is understandable) and as said previously, this is a text of showing. The telling that is included is the natural result of a story told in first person narration and particularly in Rosie’s case the words serve to highlight to the reader what Rosie cannot see or understand.

Lost In The Lake is a very good book. By the end you have a full working knowledge of the characters, the plot, and also a good example of a thriller as its own product. The climax is well done and the extent the characters go to make sense. Highly recommended.

I read this book in preparation for my event.

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Orlando Ortega-Medina – Jerusalem Ablaze

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The twisted fire-starter.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 174
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-46570-1
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th September 2017
Rating: 5/5

In Japan, a young man finds himself with blood on his hands and looks back at how he came to be beside the dead master. In Israel, a priest finds himself in a prostitute’s erotic fantasy. And in town, a child finds themselves in the presence of a crowd running towards a tiger.

Ortega-Medina’s Jersusalem Ablaze is a collection of short stories full of darkness, both the humour and macabre, as well as a few stories dotted about that are less so (and can be a blessed relief!) It’s a fantastic collection, devoid of messages, but nevertheless leaves you with a lot to think about.

This is an incredibly well-written book, with a general style of writing used throughout yet the voices of the individual characters are unique. Told through a thin lens, the writer is there throughout, both at a distance from the text – letting the people speak for themselves – and in the definite position of storyteller, the darkness of the narrative as a whole echoing the idea of sitting around a fire listening to spooky tales. It’s at once both a fair boundary – the reader being far enough away from the character to see the subtext – and wonderfully immersive.

Unsurprisingly, considering what I’ve said above, there are many stand outs, which amounts to most of the collection, given the size of it. A particularly good piece, covered briefly in the summary, Torture By Roses looks at the forming of identity and vulnerability in youth, going to the extremes of having the character taken in by a renowned figure who in the privacy of his own home spends his days sitting amongst a mass of dead roses, wounding himself on the thorns deliberately; his promise of an inheritance for his young companion (or, to the reader, servant) causing the boy to stick around even though his mental stability is crumbling under the weight of what the man is doing to himself. After The Storm tells the story of a woman isolated in a lighthouse who, after said storm, finds a body on the shore and takes it home. The title story, Jerusalem Ablaze, again, summarised, puts an impressionable Israeli priest in the house of a prostitute with a specific fetish (that’s putting the whole situation lightly), and The Shovelist studies the way an old housekeeping agreement can continue once the house changes hands, an elderly couple persuading the younger to let them shovel their access routes.

On the subject of a lack of messages, it’s worth noting that the book isn’t something you read through and put down. There are no morals or so forth in the book but Ortega-Medina does provide much for you to think about, sometimes in the fashion of ‘stay in your mind for days pondering it’ and, suitably more often, the content will keep you thinking simply due to its weirdness. On the whole the lasting impact of the book is as a collection – the general quality and interesting ideas.

Jerusalem Ablaze – excellence all round.

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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