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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. 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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Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze

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Tempted by the fruit of another has nothing on this.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 286
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63116-1
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th September 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Norwegian Mats sees something changing in his marriage to his beloved Nina, and true to his thoughts, she wants to split up. He gets a job in Edinburgh, moves overseas. Meanwhile, Romania Marta, a girl from a poorer family, is lured into a hotel meeting with a man a gut tells her has bad intentions. She pushes past her worries; she is trafficked to Edinburgh to work in a brothel. Mats’ life is unstable, his new wife depressed and relying on alcohol, and Marta is trying to find a way to contact home.

The Squeeze is a fairly fast-moving thriller that looks at trafficking in 90s Scotland – girls from Romania in this case. It uses both regular chapters and a diary format to tell a tale full of narrators (but never too many).

This isn’t a particularly long book – it teeters on the 300 pages mark – but it manages to get through three periods of time without any rush. More an exploration than any edge-of-your-seat action (though due to the subject matter you will be wanting to find out what’s happening), Glaister takes the story beyond transport and prostitution to the home life of the regular person. And this is really what makes the book what it is – the lack of rush and the incorporation of the everyday of 90s Scottish living brings an added horror to what’s going on as well as a nod towards the fact that this goes on where others would not think it. Glaister uses accents to good effect, using a stereotypical Scottish dialogue that makes you think things are okay, normal, before pulling the rug from underneath you.

In this book, the trafficked girls – mostly girl, singular – are main characters. The book looks at both happy and bad times, with Glaister structuring it all carefully, considerately, but still with enough of the hopes of the reader in mind to, well, keep you reading. There’s detail in the book but not too much, again the three periods of time, the progression of it but all you need to know, is done well. There’s also a good mix of plot and character development, enough that it’d be difficult to say which is more significant. Glaister likes both.

The ending perhaps ties the book up a little neatly – it’s personal preference here all the way; does it really matter how it ends when what Glaister had to say has been completely already and achieved with aplomb? The only area in which the book does fall somewhat is in the editing – besides the somewhat broken English of Romanian Marta, which fits her, there are missing words and typos. These don’t make it difficult to understand, but are noticeable.

The Squeeze is good – well, as much as it can be given the subject matter. Glaister has produced a book that deals with a current subject of news but kept it well away from being a report or an opinion. Difficult sometimes but never so much that you feel the need to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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Barbara Erskine – Sleeper’s Castle

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Now I lay me down to sleep…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 530
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-51319-2
First Published: 30th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 28th August 2017
Rating: 3/5

When Andi’s partner dies, she’s forced out of his London home by his ex-wife; Andi moves to Hay-On-Wye to house and cat sit for a friend. Sleeper’s castle, as the house is known, poses a bit of a paranormal conundrum – those who remain there are visited by history, dreaming of the lives of the medieval residents of the house. Andi must balance this mental take over with the looming presence of her partner’s wife, whose home Andi starts to visit in her dreams. The woman seems to have a penchant for violence.

Sleeper’s Castle is an epic novel of history, and a psychological thriller. It requires a lot of time that may be seen as a reward by some but not worth it to others.

The book is effectively two stories melded into one package and it can be a bit jarring when the narrative moves from one to the other; especially where it concerns the time-slipping, the reversion back to thriller can seem an after thought. And as the novel continues, it does drag on, not knowing when to call it a day.

What’s interesting though, is that the historical content isn’t particularly compelling in itself; aside from the bit on Owain Glyndŵr it’s largely an ordinary tale; but the time-slipping itself is a lot of fun to read. The process of it. The theories. The way the cat is a fully developed character, an aspect that has been done with aplomb.

The thriller starts off well enough, with the long-gone wife returning to lord it over the long-standing loyal partner, and the ensuing conversations between the characters affected by the woman, about emotional instability, make for a solid foundation, but it starts to get unrealistic with people leaving things to fate instead of acting on the threat. The ending of the thread is very unsatisfying.

The writing is so so. There appears to have been a very heavy hand in the editing process, a distinct lack of commas and odd grammar choices which are at odds with the author’s longevity and affect the dialogue badly.

So it’s fun sometimes but for the length of it and everything that detracts from the fun, you might be better off reading (or re-reading) Erskine’s previous novel about the town of books.

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Juan Carlos Márquez – Tangram

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Not what you thought.

Publisher: Nevsky Books (Ediciones Nevsky)
Pages: 162
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-8-494-59133-4
First Published: 2011; December 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 2nd May 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Tangram
Translated by: James Womack

Two men visit an ex-actress in order to network but find themselves locked in her basement for weeks. A man looking to commit a crime finds it difficult to do so when his targets turn out to be suicidal. A group of children take to calling names in the belief that people will change if they hear the truth. These stories, together with a few others, make up the details of what could be different narratives or one whole.

Tangram is a short thriller which makes use of fractured storytelling in order to keep you thinking and surprise you at the end.

Carlos Márquez’s use of fractured narrative means that for a good while, until the story starts to cycle round and come together, it could be said you’re reading a short story collection. Stories, linked by a vague theme, suggest something far from a novel-length piece, but as it turns out, the writing and structure is absolutely key to this book, which is interesting because the necessity of the writing is apparent very early on, but more in the sense that you can appreciate it rather than anything further.

The author uses writing – first person, particular types of phrasing and cracks in the fourth wall – to dig deep into the details of his characters’ stories. The author looks at the whole, of course, but it’s almost whimsical – he places a lot of importance on the ending, on getting it right, but he’s so focussed on each character that the book darts back and forth neatly – is this a literary novel or is it genre thriller? At heart, it’s both. In view of the translation, you can see Carlos Márquez’s words underneath Womack’s text, the author’s concepts and workings remaining clear. Footnotes have been included in places where to translate in-text, so to speak, would have slowed the pace.

There is a bit of humour in the book, a thread that makes you wonder before revealing itself fully. It is slight, very slight, and fits the writing wonderfully.

The ending pulls everything together… well, almost – but almost is the point. You’ll discover (likely, at least, unless you’ve somehow figured out where it’s going and I’d guess in this case that’s not likely) that some of what you’ve read isn’t important but that it wasn’t quite a red herring. You’ll discover that some things you thought important were, and those things tend to be the things you’d later decided were probably red herrings. You’ll discover that the things you did think were red herrings were indeed red herrings and that the author included them fully hoping you’d see them as red herrings.

And the ending may come as a shock because it’s really not what everything seemed to be building up to… until you’re reading the ending and working your way backwards. It’s fair to say appearances may be deceptive and the most crafty person in this situation isn’t any of the characters but the author himself.

This isn’t a book about witnesses or suspects, rather it’s a book about people who happen or happened to be in some way affiliated with the people involved at the core of the story. Reading it is a little like playing Cluedo, only with less of an exact sense of where you’re headed; and keeping a check-list of the people you’ve met so far wouldn’t be much help because the author isn’t telling.

The page count is perfect – you wouldn’t want this any longer or shorter, partly due to the effect the details have where you wonder how much information is relevant. Best read for its technique, Tangram is an award winning book and it’s not hard to see why.

I received this book for review.

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Ricarda Huch – The Last Summer

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School’s not just out for summer.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 115
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67034-2
First Published: 1910; 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 25th February 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Letzte Sommer (The Last Summer)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Russia: the students of the university are causing the governor hassle (they’re protesting) and he closes the place down. When he goes on holiday, a plot to assassinate him comes together and Lyu decides to help; under the pretence of security, Lyu joins the governor’s family where he hopes to carry out the assassination. It may prove difficult – the family rather like him, one daughter in particular, and where they assign good work to him he ends up procrastinating.

The Last Summer is a short and somewhat comedic epistolary thriller. Originally published in German in 1910, whilst the time period may have moved on, the sometimes light-hearted (yes, despite the subject) spirit of the book remains as fresh as though it were a new piece of writing.

This is perhaps aided by the translation. Translated into English for the first time, Huch’s book has been well rendered by Jamie Bulloch. The translator of a good few previous Peirene novellas, Bulloch’s language decisions have ensured the text remains steeped in its now historical context whilst being very readable for us today.

The letters – the detailing and wording, the characterisation – mean that you don’t just get to know the people writing, you get to know the recipients too. This is a book of correspondence purposefully lacking in written responses – the characters retort to replies you haven’t been privy to but whilst this may at the outset seem a setback it means the narrative is brisk without any losses. (And it’s interesting that on the whole it seems the receipts do a lot more thinking than our writers, showing the dynamics of the family.)

Because there is a lot of extra detailing beyond the crime at hand – of the good kind. The comedy comes in the form of the everyday quarrelling between the siblings, the responses to the responses of the aunt you don’t get to meet who seems to have suggested trouble afoot for the lovestruck niece who just wrote to her, and even, at one point, the failure of Lyu to come up with a believable reason for a threatening letter to have got past all the security. The comedy fits the time – if you like the classics and other well-known books about everyday life in this period, you’ll enjoy this book. The shortness means you may not get as much out of it but it’s a good couple of hours company.

As for the crime, there is enough if that’s the genre you’re looking for – the ending is rather super. It might often seem as though it’s more a novella of the family but Huch doesn’t forget her premise.

Seeming far from its age, The Last Summer is a novella to look out for. Do the thinking the characters should be.

I received this book for review.

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