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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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Nicholas Royle – Ornithology

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Anthologies for birds, now in 140 characters or less.

Publisher: Cōnfingō Publishing
Pages: 177
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-59660-3
First Published: 2nd June 2017
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

A man obsesses over a woman he meets on Twitter whilst his neighbours seem to follow each other around. A man puts up shelving with his girlfriend as a man in a second block of flats across from him puts up shelving with the same girlfriend. A person who admires the ever-rarely seen birds about his house gets sick and finds an unknown entity inside him.

Ornithology is a collection of short stories on variations of the concept of birds and what they are. Individuality, identity, the modern world and phrasing, and the difference and likeness between birds and humans are all considered in what you will come to find a strange, weirdly horrific collection.

The collection bares a resemblance to Max Porter’s recent Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, in fact for those of you who’ve read that book referring to it is a fairly good way to describe Ornithology. That eerieness of Porter’s book and its is-it-really-happening factor is here, too, in Royle’s collection. It’s a weird mix of respect for wildlife and the destruction of it, in many ways presenting an extreme version of the mix of protection and moves towards extinction we see today, with its often literal gobbling up of animals and transposing of what birds do to their prey onto the human condition. Different levels of strangeness appear throughout with the stories arranged in such a way that you start with the hint of magical realism and end up in the realms of science fiction and literal horror.

Some stories barely approach the main subject, using it more as a lean-to, whilst others are heavily invested. The first story, Unfollow, is a particular highlight and its placement sets the tone for the rest of the book; it’s a story in which social media and our appropriation of an onomatopoeic word are at the forefront of a tale that looks at a person’s worry that they are stalking someone online against a backdrop of people physically stalking each other. The Obscure Bird, a few stories in, looks at our relationship with each other and with birds, in a literal, all-consuming, way.

When it comes to the horror stories – in particular – some are better than others. There’s a reason for this – the book is a collection spanning years of work. The unfortunate fact is that these works on a theme inevitably include plots that are similar, resulting in a lessening of impact as you go along; on their own, each story is very good, with the usual slight differences in literary enjoyment you’d expect. It’s best to read this book slowly; it favours a dip in, dip out approach.

Overall, this is a top notch collection that keeps you thinking and provides a lot of literary pleasure. If consumed more slowly than a rogue human eating birds, it’s a strange beast, but there’s much beauty in it.

I received this book for review.

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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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Tove Jansson – Letters From Klara

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To quote Moominland Midwinter: ‘One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.’

Publisher: Sort Of Books
Pages: 129
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-74561-3
First Published: 1991; 1st June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 19th July 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Swedish
Original title: Brev Från Klara Och Andra Berättelser (Letters From Klara And Other Stories)
Translated by: Thomas Teal

Letters From Klara is a collection of short stories that are very subtle in their points. The creator of Moomins, Jansson is quoted as saying, “I love the short story concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it. One must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand”, and she stays true to form in this collection. What this means is that some of the stories may strike the reader as missing something – Jansson holding on so much to minimalism that it can be difficult to see exactly what she wants to say, but there are others that are profound. Those more average in their storytelling still make for a good read.

There are thirteen stories here and most are confined to a handful of pages. Standouts include the title story, entirely epistolary, in which a person’s first letter (so far as the story is concerned) sets out how someone else should become less critical and then goes on to show that perhaps it’s the letter writer’s own traits, projected; another is The Train Trip, wherein a man who very much admired an old classmate meets him and discovers his admiration pails in comparison; and Party Games in which a group of what we might now call ‘frenemies’ in school meet up again as adults, having changed little. A variety of themes, as subtle, often, as the overall reasons for the stories, rounds it off well – who one is, one’s place in the family (often too burdensome!) and other groups and communities, how one relates to others.

Something not covered in the stories listed above is the oft-used theme of art. An artist herself – in fact Jansson saw the art as more important – a few of the stories look at different types of artist, and the different reasons, ways, and places for drawing and painting. An isolated, prison-like place where a young adult nevertheless cannot escape the idea of home; a classroom of budding artists where one person stands out for seeming to misunderstand the concept of friendship and closeness, later revealed to be part of something else about him.

As a translation the book reads well, in fact it’s difficult to note anything particular about it simply because Teal has done such a good job. He’s kept it steeped in time and place and the tone and word choices, feels very right, an echo of many English-language counterparts, if you will, dialect from a few decades ago and matching the phrasing of an older generation.

This is a book to read at a pace that feels comfortable to you – there’s the feeling that Jansson, whilst of course having a reason to write and a desire for you to know certain things, has left the reading experience itself open to choice.

Letters From Klara shows off Jansson’s ability beyond children’s literature, just as deserving of accolades.

I received this book for review.

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Jessie Greengrass – An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It

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A long title well worth typing out.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 179
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-61085-9
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 18th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

A sailor/explorer tells the story of a species’ extinction; a child wants to go back in time, further than the years spent in a neglectful home; a visit to the zoo reiterates just how little a girl’s father cares.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is an incredible collection of short stories that share basic themes – some, human intervention, others, choice. Spanning from the medieval period to some decades into the future (2050, to be exact), Greengrass’s book is one of beautiful writing and subtle shocks.

The overall reading experience of this book is one of ‘clicks’, or ‘ah ha!’ moments as we often call them. Light bulbs over heads. Greengrass’s general process, the ‘subtle shocks’ referred to, means that after a few stories have been completed you get into the habit of looking closely at the narrative to see what the nub of it all is; even the few unassuming tales in this book have at least a small moment behind them. Sometimes you get answers, a more or less bluntly-spoken meaning. Other times you have to piece it together yourself. The storytelling means that there is always something there to keep you reading; even at those times it seems the story is lengthy (in relative terms) you know that there’s a reason.

And these shocks, these points, that Greengrass includes… they could never be called brilliant, exactly, because they tend to be harrowing, but they do lean towards the exceptional in their telling. A few stories tell of cold climates and the harm done to them so you get those tales of extinction in all their violence; the author spares nothing.

To collect the feathers, there were different ways. We could not take the bodies all the way back across the Atlantic because they would spoil. At first we killed the birds and plucked them, and we tossed the corpses off the cliff and they fell into the sea. The birds looked so much smaller without their feathers on. Then we told ourselves this method took too much of our time.

The title story does this best, containing precisely the sort of information you would think it does. A report of how the Great Auks fell into extinction, which echoes the stories of the sailors of 1840; Greengrass writes from the explorer viewpoint but her thoughts of protection, environmentalism, seep out from the text. The story is full of human destruction, how in exploring and charting we are inevitably, for all our good intensions, bringing harm to places humans had never previously been and, it could be argued, should still stay away from. Echoes of the future abound – will this happen more in time? Greengrass gets to the point, and yet the story is purposefully vague. And full of excuses of the sort seen constantly – it’s not the humans’/this particular group of people’s fault this happened!

Another standout is On Time Travel, in which a child speaks of her longing for the distant past whilst recounting episodes in her dysfunctional family’s life. Rose-tinted glasses abound as the girl explains the benefits of that past time; the reader sees the flaws but then it doesn’t seem to matter when it’s just a dream. It would spoil the effect to discuss anything further, but it’s enough to say that Greengrass’s ending is surprising and incredibly poignant.

Although I am not able to deviate from the set scripts, I do sometimes alter my voice when I speak to the people who call premium phone lines in the thin hope that I will be able to help them. I do this on the occasions when I am for some reason unable to dissociate my mind from my body to the extent that time can pass over my unhindered. On these occasions, my awareness of my existence within the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves; it throbs in my temples and fills my mouth with the taste of sour milk…

Something that may or may not work in the book’s favour depending on what you think of it is Greengrass’s use of the same basic voice and writing style throughout. It’s an incredibly literary style that harks back to Victorian monologues, first-person narratives – her words are not historic, rather it’s a gentle, flowing style, full of beauty. The potential issue then is not in the style itself but in the constancy of it. Some may enjoy the stability of it as well as the way it can suit a person looking back on their life, using adult language to explain their childhood. Others may not find the maturity of the vocabulary matches the ages or personality of the narrators and that that is problematic. It’s very subjective – Greengrass has a lovely style, but does it fit the book as a whole? In regards to the first-person, on occasion the author defers to third. It appears a choice made in order to tell the story in the most expressive way each time and the switching points of view do not seem out of place.

This book warrants your attention but never demands it. It has a lot to say but it can be wistful, both an escape and a work-out for the mind. If you like the sound of the narration you will most likely find it a wonderful reading experience that is difficult to sum up – the way it can leave you speechless has a real-world impact.

An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is a very fine collection by a very talented and thoughtful writer. One to savour… and potentially scribble all over.

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

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