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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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S J Watson – Before I Go To Sleep

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If I should forget before I wake…

Publisher: Black Swan (Random House)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-552-16413-9
First Published: 28th April 2011
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

She wakes up in a bed next to a man she does not recognise. The mirror shows a woman much older than she is. It’s been years; Christine discovers she’s had an accident that means every night her memory is erased. She must trust her husband, the man in the bed.

Before I Go To Sleep is a fast-paced psychological thriller that repeats itself intentionally and remains a page turner from start to finish.

Christine is an unreliable narrator of a particular kind – if she could be, she’d be trustworthy. She’s as factually accurate as possible; you have to keep your wits about you. Due to Christine’s role as narrator, and the first-person viewpoint that entails, as the reader you are as in the dark as she is about everything. The only advantage you have is that Watson wants and needs to clue you in more than than he does Christine. The character takes things at face value so whilst it’s fair to say there’s an element of growing together – you and her – your journey is particularly engrossing.

The clue is in the genre; Watson doesn’t provide too many red herrings because he doesn’t need to. The success of this book lies in its ability to make you doubt and dissect everything and indeed you come to form most every possible conclusion out there. There’s a section towards the end where the narrative crawls, almost to a halt, and if you didn’t know otherwise you’d say Watson wrote too much; in actual fact what happens is that, having now exhausted all the possibilities, you’re just waiting to find out which it is.

If you worked it out early, you may be less enthused, though it’s likely you’ll appreciate what Watson has done and the work that went into it. This is perhaps where timing comes in – if you’ve read lots of books that sport the same/similar conclusion you likely won’t feel as compelled. This is the sort of book it pays to mull over after finishing, to look again at what Watson has done, at the editing that must have happened, at the timing, the structure, of it all.

The writing is good. There’s no time for descriptive passages and you wouldn’t remember them anyway. There are plenty of questions posed in the book and all are answered. Only one or two plot points may inspire frowns – situations at the end it would spoil the story to write about – the morality of relatives to patients, that sort of thing, if that makes sense. Are parts convenient? Yes. Does it matter? Not really.

Before I Go To Sleep forces you, at some undisclosed point, to look at a tough subject. Its mainstay is, as Renée Knight said recently, something that works because it’s real and could happen to anyone. It’s scary, it’s shocking, and it’s one heck of a ride.

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Linda Stift – The Empress And The Cake

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There’s no way out. There’s every way out.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 172
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-67030-4
First Published: 2007; 30th September 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Stierhunger (Bulimia)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

A young woman is approached by an older woman, asked if she’d share a cake because the cake is too large for one person. The older woman’s clothes are very old fashioned, from the 1800s, and her companion is similarly dressed. Though she avoids rich foods, the young woman agrees to take half the cake; after the purchase the older woman suggests sharing first her own half. The young woman finds she cannot say ‘no’, and whilst she believes it was her choice, it sets a precedent for the future.

The Empress And The Cake is an Austrian novella about three women of different generations who are connected. It’s got a bizarre, strange, atmosphere, a lot of history, looks at mental and physical health, and sports a brilliant uniqueness.

There are four major characters in this book, three in the present and one in the past. The present-day characters are our unnamed narrator, Frau Hohenembs, and the latter’s friend/servant, Ida. The fourth is the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, of the mid to late 1800s. Elisabeth is included via descriptions written by a friend – we view these scenes as reflections – and her presence in the novella is to show the basic ideas behind Stift’s drawing of Frau Hohenembs and Ida and thus the connection she has created between the factual Empress and the fictional characters.

This reviewer would recommend doing a bit of research into the personality and life of the Empress prior to starting the book. The book’s meaning won’t be lost without it but some knowledge of her will really enhance your reading experience and allow you to figure out what might happen, which when you consider the fact the Empress is likely well-known in Austria and this is an Austrian book, just makes sense. Elisabeth’s story is quite fascinating; she was reluctantly married to an Emperor who adored her and spent her time away from the court she disliked, often travelling incognito. Her mother-in-law practically removed her from her children’s lives and she was assassinated by a man who wanted to assassinate a royal and hadn’t been able to get close to his first choice, nor his second.

Part of the connection between the characters and something that is a major theme is an obsession with slimness, which in the unnamed heroine’s case is a disorder, bulimia. The book gets into very graphic detail at times so that Stift can show the way bulimia affects a person. It is a very frank portrayal, Stift’s character telling herself, or us, how this will be her last vomiting session, how she’s going to stop weighing herself so much – she’ll weigh herself several times a day instead of a dozen, for example (a difference the reader sees as inconsequential) – how she’ll start eating more again, only for her to revert almost instantly. The heroine is bound by her disorder but does not see it – she views herself as in control of it. And her increased contact with Frau Hohenembs furthers her it. (What’s interesting here is that the way the passage of time is shown in the book, the rough slowness that can be attributed to Stift’s detailing and repetition of the regular makes it seem as though more time passes between decisions than it truly does.)

Similarly she views herself as in control of her visitations to Frau Hohenembs’ apartment, and in control of the choice to go out, which happens often, with said lady and her servant; the truth is different. Not quite so different is her lack of control of her eating disorder, but a big part of the psycho-thriller aspect of the novella is the dwindling nature of personal agency. This is where the plot thread of cocaine comes in; the drug is not referenced directly for some time and we do not know whether the heroine and Ida take the drug, but there’s a vagueness, an ambiguity, in the story, that lets you imagine what is most likely. What, for example, was in that cake? Stift does not say either way – just sugar, or something more addictive? – that’s up to you to decide. (Does sugar itself perhaps reflect the addiction?)

Empress Elisabeth wanted to be very slim, and favoured being stitched into her clothes. Whilst the present-day fictional part of the story does not go this far, the factual forms a sort of backbone. Frau Hohenembs’s obsession with Elisabeth (does she think she is her or want to emulate her?) never wavers, and as such the heroine falls into line behind her. This thread is not resolved neatly, but then it doesn’t need to be. It’s the connection that Stift wants to show rather than any reason d’etre.

On the gruesome front it should be noted there are visits to a ‘specimen’ museum. These, as well as the vomiting scenes, if the reader finds them difficult, can be skipped because the importance in them lies in the sentiment rather than the scenes themselves – so long as you’ve the cause in mind, flicking past shouldn’t be a problem.

In regards to the translation, it reads well. Jamie Bulloch seems to have opted for a balance between literal word meaning and flow; there are some German words you may want to look up but the rough meaning is there in the text.

It’s hard to say exactly why The Empress And The Cake is so good. It has something to do with the complexity, the number of ideas in it, and the amount of thought that’s gone into it, but enough to say it’s excellent. It’s bizarre, random, and totally unique, and it makes you think, so much.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Frédéric Dard – Bird In A Cage

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Making a U-turn.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 117
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27199-4
First Published: 1961; 2nd June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 3rd June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Monte-charge (The Elevator)
Translated by: David Bellos

Albert has just returned home. His mother has died and after staying away for several years he’s returned without his girlfriend, who has also died. Coming to terms with the changes, he decides to visit the expensive restaurant he’d always wished he could visit as a child. There at a table nearby are a young girl and her mother. The mother is more than happy for him to chat to her daughter and seems interested in him, but there’s something about the woman and he just can’t put his finger on it.

Bird In A Cage is a slick novella that looks at a probable murder from the point of view of a potential conspirator. It’s a book that gets straight to the point and has no room for deviations in its storyline.

How reliable is Albert? That is a question and a half – from the start you get the feeling he can’t be trusted, but is that because of your knowledge of this genre or is it down to the character himself? For that matter how reliable is anyone here? Dard deals with few characters, a grand total of four specific ones, in fact, so there’s lots of room for suspicion. He holds your attention. Indeed due to the shortness of the tale, its pithy structure and overall atmosphere, you’re likely to finish this book within a couple of hours. Perhaps it was created this way, perhaps not, but Dard’s conciseness and detailing means you won’t feel the need to put the book down and that’s really the best way to read it.

A smidgen of mystery drips from the text – is what Albert’s seeing true? Depending on what aspect of the book is taking your fancy at any given moment you may well gain a suspicion as to what’s happening but if you do it will be only a half-formed idea. If you have spotted the clue you may well feel the age of the book more than a reader who hasn’t. This is to say the book is slightly outdated due to its atmosphere and the obvious now-historical nature of it, but it’s just so different and succinct that the age has only a minor impact. Unlike the work of Georges Simenon, who Dard has been compared to (and they knew each other), Bird In A Cage is written in such a way that it’ll likely entertain a wider age range.

The ending is deliciously ambiguous; there’s some wrapping up of the story but it’s only that which directly affects Albert – the rest is left unfinished in a literal way (it hasn’t happened yet). In saying this I’m reflecting on the way the story is told as a whole – whilst the plot is important, it’s Albert’s role in it all that is key, and the ending is one that, if you hadn’t already been doing a lot of thinking, will make you want to interact with the text. It brings a whole different flavour to the book, mixing two opposing tastes in one dish to create something that sounds unworkable but is really a triumph.

Enough with the food analogies. Bird In A Cage is a very solid, good book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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