Book Round Up: November 2022

I’ll admit not a great month. The one true highlight being Paul Stanbridge’s – My Mind to me a Kingdom is

Liberties was very good, and, for the first time I enjoyed reading a Helen Oyeyemi novel. Peaces was a fun read.

Some credit to English Animals because I was almost to enter a slump and that pulled me out of it

The rest were good and solid but that’s all.

What’s next

Review copies, Backlisted Books and my TBR stack. I thought of ditching the TBR jar but I just can’t – we’ll see in January.

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Laura Kaye – English Animals (2017)

When your reading schedule is dominated by fate (I have a TBR jar) , there are times when I think that the jar has a cruel sense of humour. Many times after a big chunky novel, a dense book crops up or a book by that same author but this time, the jar did a great job as English Animals came after a big slog of a novel. The topic is one that interested me, it was easy to read and I liked the way the book progressed.

Mirka is a Slovakian immigrant who is hired by eccentric country couple, Richard and Sophie, as an assistant taxidermist (unbeknownst to her – she thinks it’s just helping with housework). She discovers that she’s pretty good at it and develops her talent. As she fits in the household, she falls in love with Sophie. which is reciprocated. As the crush deepens it does put Mirka in an uncomfortable position and may affect her place in the household. The question is who are the real animals?

English Animals is a study of human relationships and the complexities which may arise. Each character views love differently and it makes an interesting mix. Also there are hints of racism and intolerance towards the LBGTQ+ community – not only in Britain but in Europe as well. In a way there is a nudge to Brexit but the book proves that bigotry is not only limited to one place.

The novel is not perfect, sometimes it’s a bit soap opera-ish but it’s not in great doses so that didn’t irritate me so much. I was going to be in a slump and English Animals pulled me out of it so that’s definitely a good thing.

Peter Bennett – Liberties (2022)

Although this could be a generalisation, I find a lot of Scottish writers have this knack for setting up a serious and potentially dangerous situation and then making the reader laugh in the process: James Kelman , Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway , Ali Smith and this is not limited to fiction, Alan McGee’s account of his time as a head of Creation Records, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gilliespie’s impoverished childhood and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite’s shenanigans all made me laugh.

Peter Bennett’s novel Liberties is no exception.

The main focus is on two protagonists Arthur and Danny Coyle. The former is a pensioner and is struggling to keep up with life having lost his wife and son. The latter, Danny is Arthur’s grandson, a university dropout, dodging jobs and hanging out with his childhood friend. He harbours thoughts that his dad (Arthur’s son) might have died in unusual ways. This is also 1998, two years into the Blair administration and things aren’t looking so great.

To make matters worse, Arthurs’ mixed up with the loan sharks due to the poor economy and he cannot pay it off and needs Danny’s help. In helping out Danny finds out he is linked with the mobsters in an odd way, which may shed some light on his past.

Yes, there is a plot but Liberties is mainly a novel about the strength ties between family and friends. Danny’s two best friends may be trouble but there’s an unbreakable bond between them especially when one of the friends experiences a loss. Danny also realises that, no matter how fragmented, a family should stick together and both Danny and Arthur learn from each other.

Liberties is also a commentary about social class and the divides that occur, which exposes the so called labour government as a sham. Half of Arthur’s problems would not have occurred if the pension was stable. In one scene Danny and his friends go out for a walk and all three observe what is happening to their lives due to the political situation.

As I said earlier, one trait of Scottish fiction is that there is humour. One of the funniest scenes in the book happens earlier on when Danny finally is employed by a company only to be reprimanded by a senior worker the second he enters the place. The fact that Peter Bennett’s characters uses Scottish dialect just makes the laughs come out louder. There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy and it’s crossed quite a few times here and I’m glad it does!

There are tender moments too, my personal favourite being Danny coming to terms with his past while James’ Tomorrow is playing on his stereo. It’s gooseflesh inducing and cinematic. if Liberties were to be adapted, I could see this scene having a chilling effect on the audience.

Humour, Pathos, Scottish dialect and bear hug moments. What more could you want from a book? Liberties has it all. it’s a fine read.

Many thanks to the author for providing a copy of Liberties

Nino Haratischvili, Charlotte Collins (Translator) and Ruth Martin (Translator) – The Eighth Life: (for Brilka) (2014, English Translation 2020)

There comes a point in big thick novels, where I hit my stride and I really PLOUGH through the whole thing at an alarming rate. It’s happened with The Books of Jacob, A Fine Balance, A Little Life AND To Paradise I even whizzed through the last 200 pages or so of the almighty Ducks, Newburyport but that never happened once with The Eighth Life. It wasn’t a slog but it wasn’t exactly the best thing I’ve ever read either. Let’s get into the good:

The book is a family saga spanning a century and a bit (1900 – 2007) what differentiates it from the books typical of the genre is that the family are from Georgia (the Eastern European country) so the reader gets a snapshot of Georgian history, which is tied up with Russian history. Saying that, there little paragraphs explaining all the other world events of a particular year or decade. There is also a magical realist element via a secret chocolate recipe that is passed down from this family, which carries a curse if overindulged.

I will say straight away that the translation is excellent. The English flows and is organic. If one told me that it was originally in German, I would have been surprised. My problem with the novel stems from the actual story as it falls into repetition pretty easily. Here’s the formula (yes it is a formula)

Protagonist meets a member of the opposite sex

Protagonist commits

Protagonist has other children from another character (There’s a ton of cheating in this novel)

Now, maybe the author wanted to show how cyclic life can be, if so then it’s a terrific job but, for me it got a bit boring and saw it as one long, melodramatic soap opera.

My other gripe is that the cursed chocolate recipe. It feels like a tacked on idea as it makes an appearance in the beginning, disappears completely and then makes a fleeting cameo towards the end. Personally I like magical elements in a book to be more consistent.

For a book that’s 935 pages, I sort of expect the length to be justified but too many sections drag due to the constant wife swapping so it did become a slog. It could have easily been a 400 page novel and would have been more satisfying.

I guess I am disappointed by The Eighth Life. In some ways it works as a novel but there were many elements, which I think, could have been improved. Definitely not a book I dislike but not one I’d return to.

Helen Oyeyemi – Peaces (2021)

I have never really gelled with Helen Oyeyemi’s books. I tend to find them too forced. Sure her takes on fairy-tales are innovative and have this post-modern feel to them but I just get bored reading her work. There are exceptions though and Peaces is one. Now whether it is because it’s not based on a fairy-tale, I don’t know.

The plot itself is a bit difficult to describe, it’s two main protagonists are a couple, Otto and Shin who are on a non honeymoon, honeymoon and their aunt has book a train ride for them. The other people in this train consist of the owner, Ava Kapoor, her girlfriend Allegra Yu and the conductor, Laura. There’s also the mysterious Prem but more on him later. Oh and one must not forget the two mongooses, which have quite a role here.

As otto and Shin explore the train they discover that each compartment is a world unto itself. The more they explore, the more secrets are revealed about their past and the other three passengers, I guess, at this point it’s Snowpiercer meets Darjeeling Ltd. Coincidences entwine and, somehow all five protagonists are linked to each other through past events.

However, to use an Aristotelian term, the prime mover is Prem and through a series of letters that form testimonials, we see how important Prem is to the plot. All leads to a bizarro-type conclusion.

Peaces does have some themes, There LGBTQ+ is prominent, and , cemented by a little speech, the different manifestations of love but I saw this more as a book about technique: One chunk, as mentioned consists of five testimonials, another section is a chapter, which is more conventional, deals with a couple playing Go. Long descriptive passages dominate and sometimes characters converse with each other without really realizing who is talking. Then there’s the way all details, great and small have their significance in the narrative.

Most importantly this is a VERY FUN book to read. There are quite a few times I laughed but mostly the book moves at such a pace that one can’t help joining in the fun. The only other adventurous writer who manages this is Nicola Barker and Peaces does remind me of that carefree experimentalism that Barker has perfected.

I guess this means I should check out Helen Oyeyemi’s earlier works as I think I can consider myself a convert. We’ll see.

Stuart Braithwaite – Spaceships Over Glasgow: Mogwai, Mayhem and Misspent Youth (2022)

Mogwai was one of those bands which I read a lot about but did not have a chance to listen to their music. I was a teenager in the 90’s and it was difficult to come across their music at the time as record stores in Malta only focused on major label bands . Finally in ’99 , NME issued a best of the year compilation and Cody was on it and I was smitten.

Later on I managed to hear more tracks, with the Hunted By a Freak being shown on MTV occasionally and finally in 2008 I got to see them perform their debut in full at Summercase, which is documented in the book, and yes The Sex Pistols sound bled into their set.

As one can guess from the title, this book is lead singer Stuart Braithwaite’s autobiography from his childhood and burgeoning love for alt rock , the formation of Mogwai up until the release of their album Hardcore will never Die but you Will. If you thought that the band were all serious like their music , think again. This is a drug and alcohol fuelled hedonistic ride of a book. Tons of japes, madness and some pretty weird situations.

As a reader of rock biographies, these are things which feature in a lot of them but what makes this one different is Stuart Braithwaite’s honesty. These are the words of a genuine music fanatic who has a goofy sense of humor. It also helps that Stuart Braithwaite is also observant and is quick to notice people’s idiosyncrasies. I also liked the fact that he doesn’t waste time. I’ve always hated it when music bios start with the singer’s grandparents. Here, there’s a brief description of Braithwaite’s parents’ background and the rest of the focus is on him. Future bios please take not of this.

Spaceships Over Glasgow is a fun and entertaining read. If you’re a Mogwai fan you’ll love it and if not you’ll soon gravitate towards their music ( my personal fave is Happy Songs for Happy People and their latest As the Love Continues is a great entry point as well)

Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams – Diego Garcia (2022)

Diego Garcia is one of those books which is a one of a kind read but it also, for me, falls into the ‘admire but not love’ category.

The titular main character is a person that a couple meet in a library. We find out that Diego is named after an island in the Chagos archipelago, which is near Mauritius and was part of a British colony and had a turbulent history.

The couple then want to atone for this gross chapter in history and want to tell the story, yet this brings up a paradox as it’s technically not their story to tell, which is where the book goes into a lot of interesting territories.

Using interviews, simultaneous conversations and reports. Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams create a mind warping read which surprises the reader with each page turn. On top of that there’s a lot of references to both popular and underground bands ( kudos for mentioning Big Joanie, who released a new album the week I read Diego Garcia).

Unfortunately the book didn’t grab me. I understand it is a post modern look at colonialism and it is definitely a unique read but I just couldn’t get invested and got bored quite a few times. I know it’s just me and it’s a pity as there’s a lot to admire here.

M. John Harrison – The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020)

Now and then I come across a novel which leaves me confused, by this I do not mean whether I understood it or not but rather there will be conflicted feelings. The Sunken Land begins to Rise Again is such a book.

As for some background knowledge, I tried reading this book exactly a year ago but I abandoned it. I picked it up again for two reasons. M. John Harrison was a judge on this year’s excellent Booker prize and this is the only Goldsmiths prize winner I have not read (well that’s solved now)

The book focuses on two characters. one is Shaw who has trouble with relationships, and has a mother who does not recognise him. The other person is Victoria, who is sort of dating Shaw and decides to renovate and sell her recently deceased mother’s house in Shropshire.

Both characters then go on an inner journeys of discoveries. Shaw decides to take on a new job on a barge as a sort distributor. Mainly his boss’ book, which people do not want. One day he is assigned to meet a medium and film her for his boss’ blog, which leads to certain personal revelations. For Victoria, the eccentric characters in her mother’s village help her open her eyes.

All events have roots in Charles Kingsley’s political tale, The Water Babies.

Did I like the book? there were moments where I just had a lot of fun reading but with every joyous moment, a dull passage or two would crop up and I kept yo-yoing like this throughout the novel. I am also not sure about the main message. Is this a commentary on the state of England. Is the book insinuating that post Brexit Britain will be recover? or is it stating that the past is a different place? I’m not sure.

Generally I love all the Goldsmith prize winners but this one did leave me muddled in places. What did you think?

Paul Stanbridge – My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is (2022)

I have always held that the ghost of W.G. Sebald lingers with a lot of adventurous literature, and most of the time he is credited in the process, which is something I like. The Sebaldian style consists of interesting facts and trivia which link into each other, giving the impression that the author is going on a long ramble and then at a crucial moment a traumatic life event is dropped into the narrative and all along all those facts are connected tot he traumatic event.

My Mind To Me A Kingdom is, starts with a description of the author looking up the North Sea and discovering that it went under a different name, which prompts him to investigate further and it leads into a fascination with rivers and caves. The book continues with discourses on horses, mathematics and trees.

The central theme of the book and the one all the discussions revolve around is Paul Stanbridge’s brother’s suicide. One can feel the loss and confusion Paul Stanbridge went through when the narrative shifts to this topic. Despite all the sections about lakes, horses, trees – living things, death does permeate the book. One feels that although we are in a world that evolves, shifts and is full of mystery, death is finite and lingers.

My Mind To Me A Kingdom is, is a personal book, one that has some decoration but one can plainly see this is Paul Stanbridge’s way of grieving, In fact throughout the book every time Stanbridge presents a different topic, it is because he remembers is brother, be it living in a run down cottage or staying with friends, the impact of his brother’s actions stick.

If this book is a form of catharsis, it is definitely an educational one but it is also proof how fragile the world we live in is – from people renaming a lake, interpretative drawing of horses to the end of life itself. There’s a fine balance and Paul Stanbridge brings that out excellently.

Sara Baume – Seven Steeples (2022)

The passing of time is a topic I tend to reflect about. Not nostalgia but rather how things have changed. Having now lived in the my house for nearly 30 years, I tend to walk down my street and see which buildings have been destroyed, moved, refurbished, and in a couple of rare instances, have stayed the same. Seven Steeples hones in on this aspect.

Bell and Sigh are a couple with two dogs who decide to live together in a cottage near the foot of a mountain. Once they move in, they are subject to the ebb and flow of time. They neglect the house and slowly things start to fall apart. At the same time the natural world they are surrounded by also dominates, no matter how Bell and Sigh try to ‘tame’ it by growing their own vegetables, building fences or capturing the family of mice in their house. The cycles of the seasons bring the same problems, Bell and Sigh’s lives become more in tune with nature.

Throughout the book Bell and Sigh intend to climb the mountain near them and finally they do and is a culmination of their lives throughout those seven years in the cottage.

Sara Baume’s prose ranges between delicate and poetic. Like time the words flow and whirl themselves around the reader. We are supposed to be observing Bell and Sigh but as the book progresses, the reader becomes a firm part of their lives in the process. Although not a funny novel, there is something fun about Seven Steeples, which makes an easy read. Baume has spoken about nature before in her previous novel A Line Made By Walking but that focused a lot on decay, whereas this one celebrates life in all forms.

Like other books which mention nature and time namely: Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, Jon MacGregor’s Reservoir 13 and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, ultimately the natural world will be the dominant one and we have to succumb to it.