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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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Louise Douglas – The Love Of My Life

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The tree makes the apple fall… and calls itself lighter for it.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 328
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-330-45358-5
First Published: January 2008
Date Reviewed: 8th November 2017
Rating: 4/5

After Luca died, Olivia decided to move back up north, where she and her husband were originally from. She wanted to be close to their childhood homes but true to form his family are not at all interested in seeing her return, in fact they really don’t want her to come back. Olivia’s childhood was not a happy one and the choices she made were seen as rebellions. Only Marc, Luca’s twin brother, is happy to see Olivia, and they find themselves becoming closer in their grief, a dangerous thing in the situation they’re in.

The Love Of My Life is a short novel with a dual narrative, Olivia speaking of the present in tandem with the past. The book is somewhere between a contemporary novel of social issues and a work of suspense, the reason for all the hate unravelling slowly but the slowness being rather apt as Douglas has something she wants to talk about – the way Olivia was brought up and the effect her mother had on her maturity. Olivia is only somewhat a heroine, often remaining passive and often quite annoying to read about, her decisions being the sort we call wrong; however your like or dislike for her is not the point in this book, rather the importance lies in how Olivia has come to be in the situation she is in.

Olivia was, is, and likely will always be the black sheep of the family, her mother spitting out such phrases as ‘you’re just like your father’ and demeaning her. Because Olivia was not as talented academically as her sister and because she often made very normal mistakes for her age, she was belittled. The town being small meant that this hatred from her mother spilled over into society, with adults believing Olivia was trouble. And so as she aged she rebelled, but there were also a lot of things she did that weren’t her fault at all.

So Douglas looks into the effect of this treatment. Struggling in a place that hates her, Olivia’s choices often look bad but aren’t. A good example that doesn’t spoil the plot – because it’s known from the start – is the way she ‘stole’ Luca from his family, ‘ruining everything’ by starting a relationship with someone who she’d known since childhood and who loved her very much. Olivia wasn’t good enough for their family.

The only possible point of contention with this study is how it continues into the ending of the book, the climax being perhaps not as satisfying as you might have hoped and Olivia leaving things be that she could very well fight against. Whether or not you like the ending will largely depend on how much you’re willing to suspend bookish enjoyment for what Douglas is trying to do, however either way you will likely see and appreciate it for what it is.

Interesting to consider is the way the author balances showing and telling. As a first-person narrative, Olivia obviously tells the reader a lot but Douglas’ look at grief and its effects allow for a lot of showing. There’s a lot to Olivia that she, the character, may or may not realise – things that the reader is privy to. As much as she can be difficult to emphasise with on occasion, you will feel a lot of understandable pity for her and the desire for her to spend her time with those who support her.

It’s a book steeped in grief but there are happy times. Douglas’ flashbacks and writing of Luca are so winsome it’s easy to forget you’re reading about a character who is no longer there; whilst Luca doesn’t ‘haunt’ the book, so to speak, his personality makes the pages brighter. Luca’s inclusion provides extra ‘evidence’ alongside Olivia’s descriptions and the phone calls with her sister as to the way the protagonist has been manipulated and split as black, the scapegoat everyone uses to take all their issues.

As for the writing, it’s rather lovely, and is enough to keep you reading when things are difficult. Douglas’ careful prose and attention to detail makes the pages fly by as you seek to know what happened all the while feeling at ease with the pace she’s set.

This is a book that exposes why things that seem so trivial or different on the surface affect people – a lot of the conflicts are small on the surface but big for the characters. It’s a book with a lot of romance but balanced by a massive dose of reality. But whilst it may be difficult at times it’s never too much to handle, Douglas’ expertise ensuring a good reading experience.

I read this book in preparation for my event.

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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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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

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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Terri Fleming – Perception

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Redux.

Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
Pages: [to come]
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-409-17062-4
First Published: 13th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

With Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia married and away from the family home, only Mary and Kitty remain. When Mr Montague arrives in town – single, wealthy, – Mrs Bennet sees possibilities ahead. Mary is inclined to believe marriage is not for her, but the man proves bookish, has a large library, and may have taken a shine to her.

This is a superb book, a fine follow up to a famous book by someone else.

Fleming has chosen to stick with Austen’s way with words; the language is Victorian and the effort to get it right practically leaps off the page – but it’s never overwhelming: Fleming blends in. Are there occasion moments of modernity? Yes, but more often than not it’s a discrepancy with grammar, wherein one could say that perhaps, maybe, Austen or her contemporaries might have said whatever it is. It would be impossible to say that this book has not been gone through with a fine tooth comb and that those few errors are not the equivalent of the odd typo found nowadays. (Indeed there are far fewer errors here than there in new books sets in our present era.)

The overall literary atmosphere is also Victorian, with Fleming keeping to the same relative lack of action as Austen. In terms of physical movement, nothing much happens – it’s all in the character development, which is rather good. It’s also an easy read, a book that makes you want to keep reading and isn’t at all difficult to resume reading when you need to take a break. It can be read in short bursts to no ill effect.

As said before, the character development is good. Fleming’s got them just right – they match Austen’s well yet Fleming manages to bring a bit of our present day feeling into it without distracting from the original context. Where, for example, some now say that Mr Bennet did not treat Mrs Bennet well (I’m personally of the opinion that they are a bad match and Mr Bennet is dealing with a lifetime of unnecessary drama), Fleming slides this idea in finely, looking at the question without detracting at all from the surface dressing.

There are a few characters that the book could have done without, namely the two shopkeepers whose role doesn’t have any true impact and who could have been edited out without issue. Thankfully their chapters are very short and there are only a handful of them. (They are also two of the purely fictional people so that combined with their lack of impact renders them completely irrelevant.) The other new characters work well and the original characters have been handled carefully, Fleming putting her own spin on proceedings and detracting from the original context as little as possible.

This is a book for book lovers. In addition to the major factors of the book, the story revolves around libraries, with Mary’s bookish nature allowed full reign. Whereas Jane and Lizzie’s stories are full of sweeping romance, Mary’s is more quiet (though no less compelling). It could be said it wraps up a bit too neatly but the same could very well be said of Mansfield Park.

Kitty’s romance is a lot less important in context, and isn’t as developed – at least in terms of time – as Mary’s, but given the relative shadow over her from Lydia’s presence, it’s not so out of place, so to speak. That Mary is provided more time, with all things considered, does make sense.

Perception is fantastic. It looks to conquer any language and structure issues head on, and creates a story that whilst factually unnecessary, does provide a lot of value, enough that you can say that its worth goes far beyond the simple idea of continuing a story very much loved. It’s also an excellent read just for the effort put into it, Fleming’s time spent researching and getting it all right being a delight to witness for itself.

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