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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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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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April Munday – The Heir’s Tale

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More to learn after the war.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 150
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: B075KQ3HX4
First Published: 29th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th January 2018
Rating: 3/5

Ancelin returns home from the war he fought alongside his brothers. His betrothed, Emma, has been waiting a long time and is happy to see him, but so is his sister-in-law Alice, whose husband is now dead. Ancelin has always loved Alice and her sudden interest in him causes him to rethink his betrothal.

The Heir’s Tale is a coming-of-age romance set in the medieval period, and the start of a series of books about a set of brothers.

The research in this book is of a very high standard. Munday strikes the right balance of detailing and holding back to the extent that there are a good few times when it’s easy to get lost in the history. The amount of research is evident but only on consideration, leading to the best of reading experiences where you can relax into it without any worries of the author including too much or any errors. The writing backs it up; it’s solid. There are no anachronisms and the text reads smoothly.

It’s apt to talk about Ancelin’s growing maturity in terms of relationships. The character continually darts back and forth – one minute he knows he likes Emma, the next he’s tempted by his sister-in-law – and it’s a long-term thing, the main conflict in the book. On the surface, Ancelin is a frustrating person to read about however upon reflection it’s quite realistic – it’s all too easy to ascribe modern notions to this young-twenties man and think that he should be better, but when put in the context of his lack of experience and the sudden turnabout of his romantic situation, wherein he has loved Alice for years without her paying any attention and now she’s turned full circle, it makes a lot of sense. The continuation also has another role – it allows Munday to look at the character further.

Here the best example is probably in the character’s gender. Rather than look at Ancelin with an eye to the sort of romance that’s often included – where the male character will act in ways that’s romanticised and dreamed about but not often true to reality – Munday unashamedly puts sex before romance, so that there is more physical action (aside from sex itself which, true to history, doesn’t happen during the betrothal) in places where you might have been expecting roses. This said, there are also roses.

The characters as a whole are good – Emma is very patient with Ancelin but is by no means meek, in fact she’s the strongest character. Ancelin’s brothers get a lot of look in to set up the other books but it doesn’t actively detract; his father is a fair secondary character. Alice however does present a problem.

Alice has very good reason for suddenly showing romantic interest in the brother-in-law she’d previously not spent any thought on – she’s a widow in the medieval world and about to be sent off to a convent against her wishes. It’s obviously rather wretched that she’s trying to break up a prior betrothal, but she doesn’t have many options and as caring as her father-in-law is, society rules will go on ahead.

Where the issue lies is in the actions, the way Alice goes about trying to get Ancelin. You know from the moment Ancelin arrives home from war that Alice is the villain and she’s quite cardboard cut-out. In itself she is just one character but as this becomes part of the conflict of the book, the continuation makes it difficult. It comes to a head towards the end, where it’s obvious to the reader what’s happening but the characters don’t put two and two together. It means it’s a bit too angsty.

There is a lot to like about The Heir’s Tale but it can be overshadowed – the scenes in which Alice is absent, and there are many, are good and show Munday’s work well.

I received this book for review. The author is a friend.

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Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Genesis.

Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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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 affect 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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