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‘I Have Lost My Way’ by Gayle Forman ***

I shall open this review of Gayle Forman’s newest novel, I Have Lost My Way, by saying that despite reading and quite enjoying a couple of her books to date, I have found that they are a little lacking in places.  As with Forman’s other books, I Have Lost My Way – the rather cheesy tagline of which is ‘They lost their way but found each other’ – deals with the notion of fate, and questions how different decisions can have lasting impacts, both on our lives, and the lives of others.

9781471173721The storyline here intrigued me, following as it does three different characters who randomly meet, and then play a huge part in each other’s lives during that single day.  Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel meet one another following an accident in New York’s Central Park, in quite unlikely circumstances; Freya slips from a bridge, falls onto Nathaniel and knocks him out, and then requests the help of passerby Harun to get him to a medical centre.  All three are teenagers, roughly exactly the same age, which makes it feel even more of an unlikely occurrence.  They are also all struggling, in one way or another, with problems which come to light as the novel goes on.

Freya is a singer, who has been signed up by a fame-hungry manager, and deemed the ‘next big thing’.  However, she begins to have problems with her voice during the recording of her first full album.  The book’s blurb, and some of the early narrative, states that she has ‘lost her voice’, but this is not entirely true; rather, she is just unable to hit some notes.  She comes from a fractured family, her father having moved back to the Ethiopian town where he grew up, when she was a young girl, and her sister not speaking to her for reasons to do with Freya’s musical career.

Harun is a young Muslim, with a loving family who worry about him if he is five minutes late getting home after college.  He is keeping a vital secret from his parents and siblings; he is in love with a boy named James, and the pair have been meeting every single Thursday when Harun should be studying.  ‘Thursdays were their day to be together in Manhattan, where they can slip through the streets like ghosts’, writes Forman.  They have just broken up, and so Harun feels rather despondent, unable to concentrate on anything but his memory of James.

Nathaniel is the most mysterious character of the three, having fled to New York from Washington state with the little money he has.  The only inkling we have of his problem at first is that his family have suffered a tragedy, and he had no choice but to escape.  We learn that he had to grow up very quickly indeed after his mother moved away to California, and his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.

After the three of them quite literally collide with one another, they slowly reveal their pasts, ‘which they have been unable up until now to confront, and together, find their way back to who they’re supposed to be.’  Several chapters encompass all of the characters together, detailing their conversations with one another, and subsequent chapters are then told from the perspectives of Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel.

The levels of trust which the characters exhibit for one another in the space of just a few hours are, frankly, ridiculously unlikely.  Had the narrative unfolded over several weeks, rather than just taking place in the space of a single day, the whole may have been more believable, but this aspect really began to irritate me.

The way in which Forman brought such different and disparate characters together here is an interesting one, but at the same time, it feels so calculated, and thus cannot be fully believed by the reader.  Its ending feels particularly predictable, and whilst the writing was of a good standard throughout, I did not feel as though the character voices were distinctive enough.  In I Have Lost My Way, Forman has clearly been ambitious, but it does not quite pay off.

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One From the Archive: ‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

First published in July 2015.

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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Penguin Moderns: Ralph Ellison, Jean Rhys, and Franz Kafka

The Black Ball by Ralph Ellison **** (#12) 9780241339220
Four of Ralph Ellison’s stories – ‘Boy on a Train’, ‘Hymie’s Bull’, ‘The Black Ball’, and ‘In a Strange Country’ – have been collected together in The Black Ball, the twelfth Penguin Modern book. These are ‘stories of belonging and alienation, violence and beauty, racial injustice and unexpected kindness, from a writer of searing emotion and lyricism.’ The majority of these stories have been taken from a collection published in 1996, and entitled Flying Home and Other Stories. I had somehow not read any of Ellison’s work before picking up this selection, but found it highly engaging. His prose is quite startling in places, and he is an author not afraid to poke into the darker elements of life. I am so looking forward to reading more of Ellison’s books in future.
9780241337585Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys **** (#13)
Unlike many readers, I have not yet been blown away by Jean Rhys’ work; thus, I was both looking forward to, and felt a little sceptical about, the thirteenth Penguin Modern book, Till September Petronella. This collection includes ‘four searing stories of women – lost, adrift, down but not quite out – that span the course of a lifetime, from a Caribbean childhood to ruinous adulthood, to old age and beyond.’

The stories here – ‘The Day They Burned the Books’, ‘Till September Petronella’, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel’, and ‘I Used to Live Here Once’ – were published in 1968 and 1976. I thoroughly enjoyed each of these searching and multilayered tales, and am very much looking forward to immersing myself into the rest of Rhys’ short stories in future; these are by far my favourites of her work to date.
Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka ** (#14) 9780241339305
I was not much looking forward to the fourteenth Penguin Modern, Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog. I am not a fan of The Metamorphosis, and have not enjoyed the short fiction of his which I have read thus far. I am also far more a cat person than a dog one. However, I tried to go into this with an open mind. The blurb states that in this ‘playful and enigmatic story of a canine philosopher, Kafka explores the limits of knowledge.’ The story was originally written in 1922, and published posthumously in 1931.

Investigations of a Dog is told from the imagined perspective of a canine who has, it must be said, rather an impressive vocabulary. Whilst intrigued by the style of the story, it did not capture my attention as I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough. Investigations of a Dog is well written, but it was simply not enjoyable for me in terms of its subject matter. I also found it rather meandering as it went on. I may try another of Kafka’s books in future, but at present, I am of the opinion that he is not an author for me.

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‘Devotion’ by Nell Leyshon ****

I very much admired Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk upon reading it a few years ago, and was eager to read more of her work.  It has taken me a while, but I was able to find a copy of her second novel, 2008’s Devotion, online, and eagerly read it whilst on holiday during the summer.

9780330426428Devotion sounded more traditional in terms of its plot and setting than the aforementioned The Colour of MilkThe Observer has described it as ‘a moving tale of a family falling apart’, and author Catherine O’Flynn writes that it is ‘a compelling study of a family cast adrift; written with subtlety and sensitivity, this deceptively simple tale pulls the reader closer with each page.’  The Times Literary Supplement says that Devotion questions ‘how we understand situations and feelings, and how we read the story of ourselves.’

Rachel, the wife of Andrew and mother of two girls named Grace and Tilly, decides at the outset of the novel that her marriage is no longer working, and asks Andrew to leave.  At this point, she feels as though she is in control, and knows what she is doing, ‘but Rachel is wrong, and her decision has consequences no one could have foreseen.’

The entire story is told from all four of their perspectives, an approach which adds an awful lot of depth.  Tilly, the youngest family member at six years old, is the one who struggles the most with the decision, not really understanding what has happened, or what has caused it.  At the end of her first piece, she says: ‘His books are still here even though Dad isn’t.  I watched him drive off with his car full of insects and suitcases and books, but I don’t know where he went.  Teenage daughter Grace is the one who discovers quite how quickly her mother has moved on after going to deliver a cup of tea to her bedroom one morning: ‘My mother’s dyed red hair was spread over the pillow.  Her skin was tanned and she wore her silver bangles on her arm which was draped over him.  Her arm, over him.  This person I had never seen before.’

Devotion is a highly immersive contemporary novel.  One quickly gets a feel for the characters; the girls particularly have a vividness and vivacity to them, and their voices feel like realistic ones.  Leyshon is incredibly perceptive, and so understanding of emotions; she notes how each character changes as the novel goes on, and how they are forced to change by others.  She demonstrates the ways in which people can protect others, and also how they can put them at their most vulnerable, and their most alone.  The feeling of unease which begins to creep in has been placed so well.

It is tempting to speed through this thoughtful and searching novel to its cataclysmic ending, merely in order to see what happens, but this is a novel to savour.  Leyshon’s writing has a quiet beauty to it, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the natural world.  The highly accomplished Devotion is a book which I likened to Ali Smith’s wonderful The Accidental as I was reading it, and I hope it is one which many readers discover sooner rather than later.

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Penguin Moderns: Stanislaw Lem, Patrick Kavanagh, and Danilo Kis

9780241339398The Three Electroknights by Stanislaw Lem ** (#9)
I would not have picked up Stanislaw Lem’s The Three Electroknights had it not been collected as part of the Penguin Moderns series. The stories here rest in the genre of science fiction, which is not one that I enjoy. They feature ‘crazy inventors, surreal worlds, robot kings and madcap machines’. Originally written in Polish, they have been translated by Michael Kendall. Collected here are the titular story, along with ‘The White Death’, ‘King Globores and the Sages’, and ‘The Tale of King Gnuff’.

Lem’s tales are well written and translated, and it cannot be said that they are not highly inventive. As I suspected, the collection was not to my taste, and I read it through to the end only because it was short. The final story was by far the most interesting to me, but I was left feeling largely indifferent by the others.
The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh *** (#10) 9780241339343
These poems, selected from the oeuvre of the man said to have ‘transformed Irish verse’, span the period between 1930 and 1959. I do not think that I had read even a single poem of Kavanagh’s before picking up <i>The Great Hunger</i>. I enjoyed some of the poems here more than others, but was mesmerised throughout by the lingering presence of the Irish countryside, which so many rely upon for their livelihoods. Kavanagh’s poems are heavily involved with nature, as well as the turning of the seasons; some of the corresponding descriptions are absolutely lovely. Whilst I did enjoy reading this collection, it has not made me want to rush out and read the rest of Kavanagh’s oeuvre immediately.
9780241339374The Legend of the Sleepers by Danilo Kis ** (#11)
In these two stories, ‘sleepers awake in a remote cave and the ancient mystic Simon Magus attempts a miracle’. The blurb also heralds Kis as ‘one of the greatest voices of twentieth-century Europe’. I was unsure as to whether I would enjoy these stories, as I’m not the greatest fan of magic, but was suitably intrigued. Throughout, I found Kis’ descriptions to be rather sensory ones, which certainly helped to build the mysterious elements of his stories. The first story, ‘The Legend of the Sleepers’, held my interest throughout, but the second, ‘Simon Magus’, was a little too religious in tone and plot for my personal taste. The collection was interesting enough, but I do not feel eager to read more of Kis’ work in future.

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