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Josephine Johnson – Now In November

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Farming during the Depression.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 198
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97075-8
First Published: 1934
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Marget and her family travel to their mortgaged land, becoming farmers. It’s a difficult time and beyond the stress of growing and selling the crops for less than hoped, Marget’s sister Kerrin is becoming more and more difficult to live with. Things start looking up when Grant arrives to help out but the worst is yet to come.

Now In November is a short novel focused on the land and a family’s relationship to it. It’s a gracefully written novel, tragedy detailed in beautiful language, that whilst often painful has a stunning atmosphere not unlike the Brontës and their moors, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This is a simple tale, and relatively small in scope – the years both go by and stay still (there’s a sort of time-focused dual narrative going on you’d have to see yourself) but not so many as to cover too long a time, at least it seems so from what happens. It’s also not a happy book but as said above this is where the language has a lovely effect, not glossing over the events by any means but making it so that you can continue reading, so that you want to continue reading. The shortness of the novel aids in this as well.

A great deal of the book is focused on nature. In the context of its entirety, Johnson spends paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the weather, the colours, the flora and fauna. This boosts the book a little, sometimes, above its general sad atmosphere, and helps to ground you in the scene, though some may find it too much depending on mood – this is a book for which it pays to choose your reading time wisely. A story for a hectic day this is not; a lazy afternoon, as much as it may seem at odds with the text, is your best bet. There is action in the events but the language flows along softly, an interesting effect and choice which means the book transcends its subjects.

The family is a good one to read about because they are so mixed in temperament. Marget, her mother, and younger sister Merle, do a lot of the household work. The father does all the manual labour, most often with a single helper. Oldest sister, Kerrin, brings to the book a different subject – seeming first to be very obnoxious then, in turn, dangerous and finally mentally ill (Johnson writes the progression of Kerrin’s mental capability very well), the use of such a character shines a particularly almost-modern light on mental illness which when mixed with the lesser medical knowledge of the time becomes quite something. Whilst Now In November may well have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction due to the the story of the Depression, and perhaps its author’s young age, it’s the characterisation and development of Kerrin that is perhaps its strongest element for us today, something that speaks very much to our present values and discussion.

Minor points are unrequited romance, the effects of industry on farming (in the event this is a major point, it’s just that it’s confined), the integration of black people. These round the story off, adding to the atmosphere and general demonstration of the time.

Now In November can be difficult to get into and the story itself is rough going, but the whole is an excellent creation with a lot to recommend it. Its themes are relevant today and it’s an interesting source for historical study and information.

I received this book for review.

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Samantha Sotto – Love & Gravity

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The apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.

Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Pages: 284
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-399-59324-6
First Published: 7th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Andrea sees a boy seemingly inside her wall whilst she plays the cello, she knows he’s real, but a resent loss in her family’s life means her explanation is not taken well. In time she starts to push the event out of her mind but one day it happens again and it’s impossible to ignore. As Andrea becomes an adult she tries to work out what’s happening and who the boy is. At the same time 400 years in the past, a young Issac Newton attempts to use science to understand the girl who he realises is from the future.

Love & Gravity is a story of time slip and travel that takes the idea of an undiscovered box of papers and crafts a bold tale from it.

Sotto has based her story on a factual person, inviting interest because her tale is fantastical and ascribes the person with a purely fictional romance. However despite the obvious implausibility of it, Sotto has surely chosen the right person for the job. Using Issac Newton works well; it’s hard to dispute the thought that Newton could have been interested in time travel, a subject of scientific interest.

And beyond the travel, as much as it may sound an oxymoron, Sotto has stuck to reality. The amount of research and the effort to get things correct is evident – though the author doesn’t info-dump. Sotto has woven all her ideas around and in between Newton’s own, always defaulting to a mathematical or scientific reason or method for what she creates. She incorporates Newton’s theories and discoveries in such a way that even a person who dislikes fantasy may be interested in the book.

The writing is at times overly descriptive. There is a lot of use of that construction wherein a reference is made to something and then the next paragraph re-describes the item in other terms – think ‘cake’ and ‘the pink sugary confection’. A few contemporary phrases have crept into the historical sections. But the writing does the job and isn’t bad at all.

The mystery surrounding the ‘postman’ could be considered predictable – there’s a good chance you’ll guess correctly immediately and there’s also a chance, no matter whether you guessed or not, that you won’t like this particular element.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, this book is very difficult to put down. The readability of it doesn’t excuse the flaws, nor will you gloss over them, but the novel is enough of a page-turner that you’ll want to keep reading regardless. Sotto has upped her time travel game – this, her second book, has a lot less going on which means that whilst a lot going on wasn’t a bad thing in the first, this new book is more refined. Suffice to say that if you like time travel novels, it’s very likely you’ll like this one.

There’s a lot of romance towards the end; at times it seems the whole atmosphere of the book might get taken over by it but this is not the case. Sotto is always aware – it’s evident as you read – that a balance must be struck between providing a satisfactory time travel experience and sticking to the concepts we as a society have come to see as important were time travel possible, namely that one shouldn’t change history, should be wary of changing themselves, should consider doing things that would have a very minor impact.

Of note is the fact that the characters may not be forever memorable – they may be, they may not be – but that it doesn’t matter. The focus here is on the fantasy, the history, the possibilities of science and the power of music, and these objectives hold the novel together and keep it going. This is a book steeped in time and cultural history and references, very aware of it, using them openly and to good effect.

It works very well.

Love & Gravity is that rare book – it may have flaws but you may well find you can forget them. Recommended? Yes!

I received this book for review.

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Paul McVeigh – The Good Son

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The Milkybar kid is strong and tough.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63023-2
First Published: 15th April 2015
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Mickey Donnelly lives in Troubled times. Northern Ireland is at war and he can’t go too far from home or he’ll end up on the wrong turf; he has to be careful of the Protestants. Living with the shadow of a new, unwanted, school in front of him he tries to get to grips with girls and with being cool, particularly as the other children believe him to be gay. And there’s always his Da upsetting his Mammy, the parent he loves most.

The Good Son is a book set some time during the 1980s and 90s that looks at the conflict but concentrates on its coming-of-age storyline, blending profound commentary with the ordinary.

It would be quite natural to expect this book to hinge on the conflict but whilst it doesn’t quite do that, there is a fair amount in it that shows how life was, how split the country. McVeigh never shields the reader from the violence and he makes it clear in the way the fighting effects Mickey, physically most often, that he’s going to be blunt. Mickey takes a lot of metaphorical and literal punches, including from his mother. McVeigh also includes raids and the British – English – actions in the conflict, the disturbance of the regular people due to the worry, often founded in truth in the case of this book, that there were weapons and IRA members around.

But McVeigh’s setting acts more as context, as the difficult background information that shows what fuels Mickey’s behaviour. Violent evenings preface run-of-the-mill days in the streets, skipping and playing chase with the neighbours. Neighbours who may be harbouring army members. Just as Mickey’s family could be.

Mickey is ten years old so there are a lot of sudden changes of scene and a lot of talking about things that he doesn’t understand. McVeigh has written the book in the first person in full Belfast dialect; it’s quite unusual especially when joined by everything else and makes the book a little like Marmite – you will likely either love this book or dislike it (‘hate’ is a bit too strong). What’s true across the board is that Mickey comes across clearly, enough that one could speculate some autobiographical elements to his character. And the rendering of a ten year old is perfect in all its minor pomposity and silliness.

The drawbacks to the book rest in the structure, that use of childhood amongst the conflict. It’s that Mickey’s story takes place during one summer and whilst there is an ending the relative shortness of the book means that it’s relatively minor. It’s more ten-year-old character study than story, the voice being superb but the plot – away from the conflict – being pretty average; whether it works for you will rest on how much more you want to hear about the social history rather than the growing up. It’s your evening television series rather than a film destined for the cinema, an apt comparison to make considering the number of then-popular cultural references included (there are enough that one could argue there are too many even if it does show Mickey’s love of television).

The Good Son is good but as is often the case in situations where labels are assigned, there are also not-so-good times. It is best to go in with few expectations so that what works will work very well.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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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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Andrew McMillan – Physical

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In all its flaws, in all its beauty.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Pages: 45
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-224-10213-1
First Published: 9th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Physical is a short collection of poems that’s focused on the male body and sexuality – relationships, encounters, day-to-day life. It uses a specific style to focus attention on a few ideas at any one time. (It is also apparently inspired by poet Thom Gunn – I don’t know enough about his work to comment on this properly; I can only say there is similarity in the themes and the approach to them.)

There are some fantastic passages in this book that have the power to leave you a little stunned in the way of all great poetry (that sort of pause effect this reviewer is coming to love). As it’s short it can be good to read it slowly and it pays to take your time over the lines, to really read into what is being said; McMillan often uses double meanings that are rather clever, a line ending acting also as the start of the next line.

taken allegorically     he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word grace
runs passed and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth

One of the stand outs is the very first entry, Jacob With The Angel, which takes a biblical tale, looking at it from both the usual and another angle. It’s a variation full of artistic license and provocation that asks you not to look at the story in another way exactly, but in a way that asks you to consider a potentially different meaning or possibility behind the words. McMillan explains himself outright, saying, “taken literally” then “taken allegorically” – it’s a story exploration of possibilities that makes you admire the thinking behind it.

At the risk of making it seem as though this review only concerns the very first few poems (because an example of style using the third poem follows this paragraph), another stand out is Urination. The whole being just as blunt as its title, this piece looks at discomfort in public situations, childhood memories, having to use the toilet at home when in a relationship. It seems an almost odd choice of subject but McMillan makes it important, stylist choices making it so much more than you’d think it might be. (And to get away from the first poems the multiple-page-spanning-or-is-it middle section of the book is worth reading just for the use of white space.)

In terms of McMillan’s use of pause, white space, to denote meaning and so forth, The Men Are Weeping In The Gym – about power and things that are seen as weaknesses – is one poem that illustrates the method constantly and consistently, so that you can just extract a couple of lines from the rest to show the method in action. For example:

the bicepcurl     waiting     staring
straight ahead     swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration

A good use of language, a play on grammar, sentence clauses, and when added to McMillan’s tendency to put words together that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be together but could be – twelveyearold; slowpunctured; shortflightstopover – words that in McMillan’s collection become their own entity, it’s quite something.

Quite something – that’s it in a nutshell. Physical is powerful, stunning, mind-blowing, but not quite perfect – a word which of course has value here because in the context of the collection not being perfect is sometimes the point. The collection repeats itself to interlink, to draw connections between poems, but it also repeats itself literally, subjects that are in reality separate scenes but on the page sound very similar. Is that a problem? The answer is subjective – it really depends on how much you’re enjoying reading about the themes; McMillan’s writing itself never waivers. It’s another reason to take your time.

However you feel, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s book is a valuable addition to the world of poetry. To be taken literally.

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

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