Tag Archives: book review

Review of On the Edges of Vision in Gutter

It’s been a long time – I’ve been travelling, and writing (writing and writing very slowly, and thinking about writing while the world spins on its terrible path) but today, some news. There’s a review of On the Edges of Vision up on Gutter, written by Laura Waddell:

 

Free from the debut trope of self-reference and loosely-disguised autobiography, McClory engages in a kind of inquisitive modern mythmaking. Within settings as diverse as forests, airports and ideal homes, a pleasing jumble of styles and references emerge: fantasy, horror, classicism, fairytales, and other dark flavours. Such macabre turns bring to mind the terror of Ann Radcliffe or poetic justice of Roald Dahl.

 

Read more here!

 

There has been little to report of my writing life, mostly because I’ve been working away on the witchy novel, which will hopefully be done by late next year. It evolves away from me, first a moth then a snake, then sometimes just pages that I have to let slip from my hands and fall around me and gather again. I’m happy with the work though. Time taken is time (and hopefully text) made richer.  The biggest thing ahead is the emergence of my debut novel, Flesh of the Peach. That’s April, next year, out from Freight. Less than six months away. I hope to share the cover here as soon as I am allowed. A cover makes it real, doesn’t it?

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Endless Reads Review: Fractals by Joanna Walsh

I’ve lost the last five or so days to feeling rotten with a feverish cold, so this post is rather overdue. My review of Fractals is up on The Female Gaze:

 

Imagine prose with a kind of precision haze to it. Opaque and crisp at once. A breath of rich perfumed air hanging over a city built and long inhabited only by women. Or else imagine a spell, an incantation, that goes through numerous iterations and leaves the listener rapt, but gives no answers as to what was being powered through enchantment – only the certainty that enchantment is occurring. I am being vague, I know – but it is hard to speak of Walsh’s collection of short stories without grappling with the delightful contradictions wrought by each story.

READ MORE…

 

I have also received some exciting but tenuous news about my first ms Kilea. A press is strongly considering it, and in the coming weeks will be working with me on some suggestions on how to improve the manuscript. There’s no guarantee of anything, no contract promised, so I won’t name the press at this stage. But I am hopeful, really. I have a great deal of respect for this press and love what I have read of the books they have put out. So I will have to do my best to tighten and polish Kilea, turn and tune it until it gleams.

 

I have had some positive feedback on my second ms, Flesh of the Peach, and await word back from agents who are considering both it and Kilea in the light of this opportunity. For the time being, there is the third novel in progress, which I’ve had no time at all for, between Rome and being knocked flat by sickness. Maybe today or tomorrow I can finally get back to it. I’m excited to see where it’s going – characters beginning to form out of the fog and the muddy snow, narrative glutting and reaching out and dividing like cells, to make something whole. While I wait, this is, always to me, the best sort of work.

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Endless Reads Review: Mother Ghost by Casey Hannan

 

mother ghost by casey hannan

 

I said a little while ago on Twitter, as I slowly made my way through this collection, that I wanted to put Mother Ghost between two slices of brioche and eat it. The stories are packed like sardines in oil, or stone-dry, air cured jamon. Tender and pinboned and unctuous or else small and salty on the tongue. I had to take my time with each, otherwise I felt the texts would stop speaking for themselves and the reading of them become more an act of consumption than, as it should be, an act of marking their fine intensities.

 

Several of the stories I had read before in other places, and these remain as good as ever, and happily can dwell with me: ‘Piano Hands’, ‘Horse Street’, ‘Water People’ and more. A few were knew, and it will take me a while to get to know them. Most immediately I was struck by ‘Soft Monsters’, a story of art and perception and :

 

The curator is hot. He’s wearing a nice suit. I can tell it’s a nice suit because it doesn’t make any noise when he walks. My suit sounds like a handful of grocery bags even when I’m standing still. There’s a breeze and my pants flap.

The curator asks me if I like art.

I suck on my cigarette. I have epilepsy. If I suck on my cigarette too many times, I’ll have a seizure. I suck on my cigarette again.

 

There is at times a deadpan quality that curiously both masks and draws out dark depths, gothic elements. The stories are full of smoke and mother-cruelty, porches and lakes and beaches and islands. Water and liquor mark and blur the edges. Action takes place on lines of demarcation between differing elements or in spaces that have been designed for constant change, like galleries. While sometimes the stories slam to an abrupt ending, it feel right for the style. Like a lid clacking closed on your fingers; you are not allowed to take away with what is inside so easily.

 

If I’ve relied on metaphors of the senses in this review even more than I do than normal, it’s in response to the slenderness of the stories and my desire to pick at them rather than let them be whole. A collection to return to, to sit with on a dusky night while the moths are out.

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Endless Reads Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

 

 

The Year of the Flood is the story of Toby and Ren, two women separated by circumstances, but united in one thing: they are, or they believe themselves to be, the last people on earth. Toby, older, is hiding out at the irksomely-named upmarket spa where she used to work: Anyooo yooo (apologies if I’ve put too many ‘o’s in there – my copy is hidden in the newly-unpacked clutter).  Ren is stuck in the ‘sticky zone’ of the exotic dancer’s club (‘Scales N’ Tails’) she also used to work at before the end of the world. The sticky zone is a decontamination suite for girls who inadvertently came into skin-or-blood contact with a client.

 

Both women knew each other from their previous lives in the Gardeners’ cult, a charmingly eco-friendly apocalypse-now sort of scientific-Christian hybrid that managed to instill in them both an instinct for survival. Throughout the novel, we see their lives in flash-back and are given sermons by the cult’s leader, Adam one, along with hymns from the Gardeners’ handbook. The sermons detail the particular feast days dedicated to saints of science, and the story of the gardeners’ lives in the pre-fall world of economic and environmental degradation just a nudge worse than our own. While the gardeners’ preach (mostly to themselves) a message of frugal self-sustainability, the inner city in which they live is wracked with crime, and the government of their country playing second fiddle to a mass of corporations who view ethics as a cosmetic issue. And the field of genetics a free-market playground.

 

The upshot of this are that there are creatures wandering the overheated Earth with names like Rakunk and Liolam, skunk/racoons and lion/sheep hybrids respectably. Likewise, there is a sheep with ludicrously long human-like hair in trendy pastel colours. I don’t entirely know why, as it seems natural hair wigs could be grown just as easily than full animals. But Atwood revels in these oddities. She also is fond of strange and sometimes cringy names for new products and activities. Happicappuchino, Painball and secretburger as names do sound feasible, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy reading them. It’s the ipad/Wii U school of corporate tin-earedness.

 

In that way and in others, I am reminded of J.G. Ballard’s Hello America, which I read last year I think. Post-apocalyptic novels set in the North American post-urban landscape, with slightly dateable details (here I am being hopeful that we will move beyond corporate idiocies, perhaps I am misjudging things).  Atwood’s vision is much more fully realised and believably horrifying. Her religious and philosophic explorations add welcome depth, though the book is rather let down by the end, which I won’t spoil here. Nothing to do with the fact it is part of a trilogy, I should add. Just that a certain unlikeliness of things creeps in.

 

Overall, a good start to my first forays into apocalyptic fiction. What next? The new library two minutes down the road awaits…

 

 

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Endless Reads Review: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

 

I deliberately sought out this book after my boss suggested it – and spoiled all the twists. But I’m never one to be put off by this. After all, if a book could be destroyed by a quick summation, would would be the point of it’s having been written at all?

 

Here, I’ll save you the trouble of reading some of the greats:

 

1.An imaginative, easily bored woman has an affair (or two). At first this seems a good idea, then; suicide.

2. Aristocratic people are fun to hang around with until they are careless (i.e . murderous).

3. War is Hell and writing about it doesn’t help.

4. Reality is off kilter because the politics of the country are inherently absurd.

5. It’s pretty much just World War Two set in a fantasy landscape stand-in for England.

 

Yes, well. I am being deliberately vague. None of it matters! The writing is the heart and the soul.

 

Right now I am deciding, do I tell you the story of Under the Skin, or do I give away as little as the blurb on the inner flap does?

 

Here is the blurb, roughly: Isserley spends her days driving to and fro across the Highlands scouring the roadsides for hitchers. But they have to be the right sort of hitcher: male, muscular, suitable for her needs.

 

Once she gets them in her car – you won’t believe what happens next. You. Will. Be. Shocked.

 

I think I’ll tell you: it’s aliens. Isserley is an alien woman, once a four-legged, tailed and furry and snouted ‘human being’. Now carved up by the knives of the corporation that has sent her to Earth disguised as a ‘Vodsel’: one of us. She is in chronic pain, lonely, riddled with dysmorphia, and disdainful of both sorts of ‘humanity’. But why exactly is she trying to lure male vodsels into her car?

 

You might guess. Isserley is a cog in a highland-based, alien-administered agribusiness. Oh, and they aren’t there to grow tatties or oats. The meat being cultivated and butchered is, of course, people, but in Isserley’s mind, she is the only ‘person’ around. It’s pretty much an allegory for the cruelties and capitalism-fueled delusions of the food production industry.  Do not read while eating.

 

So far, it might seem as if this novel might be a hearty romp in button-pushing territory and nothing more, but Faber never allows the morality of the novel to blare out, filtering the narrative through Isserley’s bleak, pained and furious perspective, and refraining from delivering any simple ray-of-gold moment in which she can be redeemed as heroine. Though he never lingers over scenic description (sadly), Faber uses the natural beauty of the North of Scotland to good effect, adding a touch of salt to the air, a hit of wideness to contrast the narrow, subterranean horrors of Ablach Farm. Though the wrap-up felt a little unsatisfying, and the sci-fi nightmare plot not something I would normally take to, The complexities of Isserley’s situation, her disability, tender wonder and shifting prejudices, kept the hooks in me until the bitter end.

 

Under the Skin has been adapted for the screen and will star Scarlet Johansson. If nothing else, I think I will see it if it has indeed been filmed in the Highlands. Spoilers are no issue – but will having read the novel help or tarnish my enjoyment of the movie? Perhaps I will write a follow-up piece wrestling with the overlaps and discombobulations of the experience.

 

Or perhaps I’ll just sum up the bones of the story and pretend I’m giving you prime rare steak of a moat of blood.

 

(but seriously: after this novel, I shan’t be eating red meat for a while).

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Endless Reads Review: Burnt Island by Alice Thompson

I went out to buy Burnt Island at the urging of a review by John Self in the Guardian – you can read his take here, if you like. It’s a toothsome take on the novel, summing it up on a quick heel-turn.

 

In short, because you might have taken my advice and gone off to read Self’s review (thank you for returning, by the way) Burnt Island is a weird, unsettling shard of satire, specifically on the writing life. The protagonist, Max Long, a long-term writer low on grand successes, wins a place on the mysterious, other-Atlantic Burnt Island.This is to afford him three months writing time, in which he plans to embark on shoving aside his literary principles and creating the ultimate horror best seller. Of course, the crumbling begins right away with Long encountering the warm, suspiciously welcoming recluse-author James Fairfax. and is beautifully done.

 

But where is the line to be drawn, between Long’s fictional reality and his fictional design?  Little acidic drips referencing The Shining fall early and with a Jack Nicholsonesq wink, as do echoes of many other film and literary horrors. The levels of rooms, the seabound setting of The Bloody Chamber. Though not strictly horror, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, as Self mentions. And The Wicker Man, with the isolated setting and slightly off-kilter locals. But why is Thompson signaling these parallels? When odd sights – or are they delusions? – start to plague Long, is this par for the course for a writer on the edge, or are we the readers submitting to the self-aware tugs of authorial intent? And why? The ground is tricky, but a tricky we can navigate, like a bog made of raincoats and signs pointing the way. The text remains slippery.

 

Yet Thompson rolls her tiny, dry sentences at us like circles of bone, all white and hard with marrow inside. Often with a dark, urbane humour. After Max is attacked by Skuas, he takes a visit to the doctor, who dabs the cuts on his scalp some TCP. The sting seems to hurt him worse than the earlier Hitchcockian incident:

 

He felt he had never known such pain since his agent, on reading his recent manuscript, asked him where the rest of it was.

 

The self-pitying writer is both willing and unwilling victim of his actions – as writer, as failed husband, as failure at faking his way to a blockbuster, as possible dupe – just as the police officer from The Wicker Man condemns himself by his investigations, and cold blind piety. And we await with puzzled glee the unraveling, in all its ambiguities. Receptive in the way of large, wheeling sea birds, above the jut of a stony, sinister coastline.

 

 

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Endless Reads Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

 

You are born – hopefully not too strenuous a process for you. You grow up – living through various trials and joys and books and exams and pains of all sorts. You near the end, though you may not be old when the end comes – and you die. Again, hopefully not too strenuous a process for you.

 

But plenty of people believe the end is not the end. That you get a second chance; reincarnation. In the case with the life of Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life, reincarnation means a re-fleshing into the same life (small note for spoilers ahead).

 

Ursula, the ‘little bear’ is born countless times on a snowy February in 1910. She grows up in a charming English home called Fox Corner, plays with her variously boisterous and sweet and confiding siblings, lives through both World War One (though it has less impact on her) and World War Two (which has – several times – a literal impact on her), and, at some point along the way she dies. Over and over again. Sometimes with drama, such as her first death at her moment of birth. Sometimes the going is peaceful. Sometimes harrowing – London in the Blitz. Germany too. After each death comes the black bat of darkness, followed by an image of the snow that fell on her very first birthday.

 

There is reference made to the ouroboros. But throughout these reiterations of life, there is not the sense of smoothness implied in the image of the snake that eats its tail. At least not for the solidly enduring Ursula: she is not privy to the full story. She has only snippets, dreams, omens, to guide her. She makes mistakes. Lives that shatter and fragment too early. Cruelties relived when they could be avoided.  I started to wonder if the ouroboros referred not to her fate, but to that of the reader, rotating at a remove through all the lives lived. Though, of course, all books must end and none infinite, so maybe my analogy falls apart.

 

While I was disappointed with the lack of philosophical depth and the occasionally obvious turns – World War Two+what is effectively time travel = you guessed it: Let’s Kill Hitler – the story was so seamlessly put together that it was hard to object too much. All in all, Life After Life was in many ways the perfect book for my Hamilton-Edinburgh commute. Non-nonsense, fast-paced and written, in the way all of Atkinson’s books seem to be written, with an eye to the reader and a competent grip on the story, like a person driving with one hand on the wheel, another on the dog that is lolling its head out of the window gazing at the fascinating scenery, threatening to tumble out.

 

 

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