7

Two Short Story Collections: George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill

Today, I have put together two reviews of short story collections which I was expecting to love, but which both somewhat disappointed me.

4157xu1loml._sx324_bo1204203200_Tenth of December by George Saunders **
I had yet to read any of George Saunders’ work before picking up his much-lauded short story collection, Tenth of December.  The author won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which, on reflection, perhaps would have been a better place to start with his work.

I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of Saunders’ prose in this collection.  The stories often go off at tangents, and I did not feel as though the different disjointed threads always came together in the end.  The stories here are certainly varied – there are forays into science-fiction, and some writing which verges on the experimental, for instance – but I did not find that a single tale stood out for me as a reader.  Some of the storylines themselves intrigued me, but others ended too abruptly.  The story ‘Sticks’ only covers two pages, and was the tale which I could see the most potential in.

I felt pulled in by very few of the stories in Tenth of December.  I ended up reading the first four pages or so of the tales, and if they had not captured my attention, I moved on.  I was expecting to find moments of brilliance in this collection, but was unable to.  So many people have loved these short stories, so perhaps I’m missing something, but throughout I found so little to connect with.  I’m now unsure whether to read Lincoln in the Bardo based on my experience of this collection.

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill ** 91j2b2bsthmbl
Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection, Don’t Cry, was first published in the USA in 2009, and in the United Kingdom in 2017.  Gaitskill was not an author whom I had read before, but I’d heard such great things about her writing, and consequently picked up Don’t Cry when browsing in my local library.

Described as ‘full of jagged, lived emotion and powerful, incisive writing’, I was certainly intrigued by this collection, which is made up of ten stories.  Gaitskill’s opening sentences are often quite startling and unusual, and sometimes packed a real punch.  ‘College Town, 1980’, for instance, begins: ‘Dolores did not look good in a scarf’; and ‘Mirror Bowl’ opens ‘He took her soul – though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think about it that way’.  They also provide a sense of intrigue. ‘Don’t Cry’, the title story, has ‘Our first day in Addis Ababa, we woke up to wedding music playing outside our hotel’ as its first sentence.

I admired Gaitskill’s skill at creating striking sentences and images, but found that there was perhaps a little too much sexual content, darkness, and grit in Don’t Cry for my personal taste.  I found a few of the stories grotesque, and quite difficult to read in consequence.  Whilst Gaitskill’s stories are largely about everyday occurrences, she twists them around until they seem nasty and unsettling.  Only some of her characters interested me, and I wasn’t that taken by her quite matter-of-fact writing.  The title story in the collection was by far my favourite, but it has not led me to want to pick up any more of Gaitskill’s work in future.

Have you read either of these collections?  Are there any authors whose short stories you would particularly recommend to me?

6

Five Under-the-Radar Books

I was thankfully able to read some wonderful books whilst in the horrid period of lockdown.  To my surprise, I found that many of them, to date, have been seldom read by other bloggers and reviewers.  I thought, therefore, that I would collect together five books, all of which I feel warrant far more attention than they have had to date.  All are relatively new releases, and should be readily available wherever you get your reading material from.

 

52889970._sy475_1. A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly a dark, dystopian story about the sheer power of literature in uncertain times (certainly fitting to read during the lockdown period…)

When a stranger arrives in town, with a bulging blue bag and a whiff of adventure, the neighbourhood takes notice. When he asks for his meals to be sent to his room and peace and quiet for reading, curiosity turns to obsession. Each day he stays there, locked in his room, demanding books: Plath, Kafka, Orwell, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, James, Bronte (the eldest), Dickens, Dumas, Kesey – on and on, the stranger never leaving his room. Who exactly is he? What is he reading? And will it be able to save us from the terrible state of the world?  Written by award-winning author Alice Jolly, and based on an idea by the book lovers of Swindon town, this funny and, ultimately, dystopian tale, reminds us of the importance of literature in an increasingly dark world.

 

2. The Harpy by Megan Hunter a dark novel, very much in the vein of Hunter’s debut, 50433219._sy475_The End We Start From, which feels startlingly original at times

Lucy and Jake live in a house by a field where the sun burns like a ball of fire. Lucy has set her career aside in order to devote her life to the children, to their finely tuned routine, and to the house itself, which comforts her like an old, sly friend. But then a man calls one afternoon with a shattering message: his wife has been having an affair with Lucy’s husband, Jake. The revelation marks a turning point: Lucy and Jake decide to stay together, but make a special arrangement designed to even the score and save their marriage–she will hurt him three times.  As the couple submit to a delicate game of crime and punishment, Lucy herself begins to change, surrendering to a transformation of both mind and body from which there is no return.  Told in dazzling, musical prose, The Harpy is a dark, staggering fairy tale, at once mythical and otherworldly and fiercely contemporary. It is a novel of love, marriage and its failures, of power, control and revenge, of metamorphosis and renewal.

 

46258455._sx318_3. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons by Laura Cumming – an engrossing memoir of the brief disappearance of Cumming’s mother, and the tumultuous history which the pair discover of her past

‘Uncovering the mystery of her mother’s disappearance as a child: Laura Cumming, prize-winning author and art critic, takes a closer look at her family story.  In the autumn of 1929, a small child was kidnapped from a Lincolnshire beach. Five agonising days went by before she was found in a nearby village. The child remembered nothing of these events and nobody ever spoke of them at home. It was another fifty years before she even learned of the kidnap.  The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.  On Chapel Sands is a book of mystery and memoir. Two narratives run through it: the mother’s childhood tale; and Cumming’s own pursuit of the truth. Humble objects light up the story: a pie dish, a carved box, an old Vick’s jar. Letters, tickets, recipe books, even the particular slant of a copperplate hand give vital clues. And pictures of all kinds, from paintings to photographs, open up like doors to the truth. Above all, Cumming discovers how to look more closely at the family album – with its curious gaps and missing persons – finding crucial answers, captured in plain sight at the click of a shutter.’

 

4. You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken a thoroughly 52759381._sx318_sy475_enjoyable novel about three friends set in the Republic of Ireland, and their formative years

Katie, Maeve and Evelyn – friends forever, united by their childhood games and their dreams of escaping the tiny Irish town of Glenbruff. Outspoken, unpredictable and intoxicating, Evelyn is the undisputed leader of the trio. That is, until the beautiful, bold Pamela Cooney arrives from Dublin and changes Glenbruff forever… Told from Katie’s witty, quirky perspective, Frances Macken’s debut beautifully captures life in a small town and the power of yearning for something bigger. Filled with unforgettable characters and crackling dialogue, You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here takes a keen-eyed look at the complexities of female friendship, the corrosive power of jealousy and guilt, and the way that life can quietly erode our dreams unless we’re willing to fight for them.’

 

43447542._sy475_5. Attraction by Ruby Porter – so much more than a road trip novel set in New Zealand, there is so much to admire within this collection of fictional vignettes

Three women are on a road trip, navigating the motorways of the North Island, their relationships with one another and New Zealand’s colonial history. Our narrator doesn’t know where she stands with Ilana, her not-quite-girlfriend. She has a complex history with her best friend, Ashi. She’s haunted by the spectre of her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. And her period’s now weeks late.  Attraction is a meditative novel of connection, inheritance and the stories we tell ourselves. In lyrical fragments, Porter explores what it means to be and to belong, to create and to destroy.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which pique your interest?

2

‘Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life’ by Will Schwalbe ****

Some years ago, I was on a cruise around the Mediterranean.  On a day spent at sea, I devoured Will Schwalbe’s moving debut memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, much of which has stuck with me to this day.  I requested his second book, Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life from my local library with high hopes, and settled down to read it amidst the mounting pre-lockdown panic which Covid-19 brought with it.  Books for Living proved to be a wonderful piece of diversion from current events.

The New York Times deems Books for Living ‘inspiring and charming’, and Publishers Weekly comments ‘Schwalbe’s tremendous experience with reading and his stellar taste make for a fine guide to the varied and idiosyncratic list of books for which he advocates.’  Publishers Weekly also promises that ‘By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.’  (I certainly did this.)  The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity’ – or, as I found, in the midst of a pandemic. 37831664._sy475_

For Schwalbe, as indeed is the case for most of us, I expect, reading is a way ‘to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions’.  In Books for Living, he has therefore compiled a list of books ‘that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world.’  He has chosen to split the book into quite a few different sections, entitled in such ways as ‘Searching’ and ‘Trusting’ to ‘Quitting’ and ‘Disconnecting’.  Each of these sections focuses on a specific work.  Books for Living opens with a recurring dream of Schwalbe’s, in which ‘the thought of being bookless for hours… jolts me awake in a cold sweat.’

The books which he selects are wonderfully varied; he considers running and napping with the aid of Haruki Murakami; the enduring characters in Dickens’ David Copperfield; the core message of the delightful Stuart Little by E.B. White…  There are books here which were originally written for children and adults, and which take place in fictional worlds.  There are gems of non-fiction, and even the odd self-help book. He writes of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and of those books which he feels have been unfairly forgotten, or have slipped under the radar of the reading public.

Not all of the books which Schwalbe addresses and comments upon in Books for Living are his favourites, but each has either spoken to him, stuck with him for a particular reason, or allowed him to see things from a perspective other than his own.  Some of these books helped him through incredibly difficult periods in his life, primarily the death of friends from HIV, and the passing of his mother.  One of the most touching chapters, I felt, is ‘Giovanni’s Room’, where a beloved librarian in his hometown quietly selected a lot of LGBTQ+ literature for Schwalbe to read, to help him realise and come to terms with his homosexuality.

Schwalbe continually asserts how the reading process of any book changes him as a person.  He writes: ‘I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started.  Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones.  Every book changes your life.’  He goes on to comment: ‘I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.’

Schwalbe wonderfully demonstrates the power which books hold over all of us.  It is a joy to encounter a book like this, written by someone who reads so widely.  Not all of the individual tomes appealed directly to me as a reader, but I read Schwalbe’s own commentary with a great deal of interest.  I appreciate his honestly and openness throughout.  So much of Books for Living was relatable for me as a fellow bookworm.  It is a book which is as entertaining as it is full of heart.

I shall end this review with perhaps the most enduring message from the book: ‘When I most enjoy reading, I’m not really conscious that I’m reading.  It’s at those moments when I’m so wrapped up in a book, so engrossed, so moved, so obsessed, or so fascinated, that the part of my mind that is watching me read – maybe keeping track of the pages or trying to decide how much longer I should keep on reading – that part of my mind has gone away.’

 

4

‘Agatha’ by Anne Cathrine Bomann ***

I had not heard of Danish author Anne Cathrine Bomann’s debut novel, Agatha, before spotting it in my local library.  Bomann’s 2017 novel became an international bestseller by word of mouth, and has been translated into over twenty languages to date.  Its English translation has been nicely handled by Caroline Waight.

50774470._sx318_sy475_Set in Paris during the 1940s, Agatha focuses upon a crotchety unnamed psychiatrist and one of his patients.  The psychiatrist is counting down the days until his retirement, quite literally marking the hours of consultations off from one day to the next: ‘Retiring at seventy-two meant that there were five months still to work.  Twenty-two weeks in total, and if all my patients came that meant I had exactly eight hundred sessions to go.  If somebody cancelled or fell ill, the number would of course be fewer.  There was a certain comfort in that, in spite of everything.’  He laments being old, and the myriad ways in which his body has altered: ‘And just as the record came to an end and the silence left me alone in the front room, came the fatal blow: there was no way out.  I had to live in this traitorous grey prison until it killed me.’

Throughout, he continues to reflect on the following, the fear which he feels in finishing work and being at a loose end: ‘Imagine if it turned out life outside these walls was just as pointless as life inside…  It occurred to me that I’d been imagining my proper life, my reward for all the grind, was waiting for me when I retired.  Yet, as I sat there, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what that existence would contain that was worth looking forward to.  Surely the only things I could reliably expect were fear and loneliness?’

His plans to wind down, however, are disrupted when a woman named Agatha Zimmermann, who has a history of rather severe mental illness, walks into his practice and demands to be seen.  Agatha is a young German woman, who has suffered from ‘severe mania after a suicide attempt a few years ago.’  She is striking to the psychiatrist; he notes that ‘Her brown eyes shone fever-bright and her gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms.’

There is a moral element at play in the story.  Bomann has focused upon the ways in which the psychiatrist and Agatha help one another – the psychiatrist in terms of alleviating Agatha’s symptoms, and Agatha with regard to helping him out of his shell.  Until he met her, he kept a distance from everyone, choosing to have no friends, and to live entirely alone.

I did like the focus upon the psychiatrist, and his own foibles and problems, here.  As novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes, ‘it is with pleasure that we find ourselves analysing the psychiatrist rather than his patient.’ One gets the impression, from very early on, that the psychiatrist, who has been practicing for almost fifty years, has no passion whatsoever for his profession, or for his patients.  In his rather grumpy, almost offhand narrative, he tells us: ‘Many years’ training helped me to murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered one single word by the time she left the room.’

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, split as it is into very slim chapters.  The narrative is interspersed with Agatha’s patient records, a simple yet effective tool.  Agatha is a novella, really, standing at just under 150 pages.  This length does lend itself well to the story;  the compactness of the book, and what has been left unsaid, perhaps makes one consider more about Agatha than they might otherwise.

I was relatively interested in the characters, but for me, what let the book down was the sheer lack of setting.  We are told in the book’s blurb that it is set in Paris during the 1940s, but this does not come across at all in the prose.  There are very few descriptions of the world beyond the psychiatrist’s office, and no mention whatsoever of the Second World War, or the Occupation of Paris; to me, these are major historical events which should at least be touched upon, or mentioned.  The novel feels rather ‘everyman’; it could, really, be set in any historical period, or any place, as there is so little detail within it that is not focused upon its characters.  There is, consequently, very little atmosphere to be found within Agatha.  For me, this let the whole down somewhat, as did the way in which the book felt far more modern to me than it should have.  I would have liked Agatha to be better rooted in history.

Agatha is certainly readable, and I flew through it, reading it in just a couple of hours.  The story is quite a heartwarming one, and there is much reflection as to how each protagonist changes over time.  At times, though, the prose is a little light.  Agatha is sweet enough, but since finishing the book, I do not feel like I have taken a great deal from it.  It lacked a little substance for me as a reader.

3

Eight Author Discoveries of 2020

Throughout this strange year, I have tried, on and off, to read books by authors I hadn’t picked up before.  Sometimes these authors were on my radar but I had been unable to find their books through my usual channels; at other times, I chose to pick up one of their books on a whim, whilst browsing in the library or on Netgalley.  I have undoubtedly read work by more than eight new-to-me authors throughout this year, but this post is comprised of those who have really stood out to me for one reason or another.

 

1. Elly Griffiths 2541526
I had seen quite a few people reading Griffiths’ books on Netgalley, but I tend to be put off by enormous series, which stretch to over ten or so books.  I have started different series in the past, but have rarely continued to the end; normally I lose patience with the characters, become disinterested in their stories, or just notice how many similarities there are from one book to another.  Of course, this is almost inevitable in a character-based series, and with a couple of notable exceptions – Miss Marple and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series – I tend to stop reading series after the first two or three books.

I have got through three of Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels to date, all of which I listened to on audio through my library’s app.  I was initially drawn to the premise – that of a Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist aiding the police whenever they discover a new body – and found the first two books rather engaging.  However, I made a mistake by listening to the third book directly after the second.  I would ordinarily have left myself a few weeks between books, but my library reserve came in, and I only had a limited amount of time to finish it.  Whilst the Ruth Galloway series may not be one which I finish – there are a lot of similarities between the second and third books, and the characters do not become any better developed, I felt – I really do enjoy Griffiths’ writing.  I am going to be hunting out her standalone novels next.

 

elizabeth_berridge_1547558f2. Elizabeth Berridge
I could hardly create such a list without including Elizabeth Berridge.  She has been on my radar for a number of years now, but I have never been able to find copies of her books when I have searched for them.  Thankfully, a couple of publishers are beginning to reprint her work, and I was able to find three further copies of her novels on the wonderful AbeBooks after reading, and loving, Across the Common, which I received for my birthday.

Berridge has been a wonderful discovery this year, and I am pleased to see that she is gaining a lot of recognition on other blogs too.  She writes wonderfully, and has such an understanding of her protagonists, many of whom are women verging on middle age, who have something to overcome before they can move forward.  Her books are always a treat, and I am going to try my best to pick up the rest of her oeuvre next year if I can manage it.

 

3. Jean Sprackland sprackland
Sprackland is a non-fiction author and poet, whose topics of choice really interest me.  I have only read These Silent Mansions to date, a musing on the English graveyards which have, in a way, shaped Sprackland’s life.  I will have a review of this up next year.  Her other non-fiction book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is high on my wishlist, obsessed as I am with the seaside.

I am also really interested in trying Sprackland’s poetry books in the near future.  Her prose in These Silent Mansions is gorgeous, and you can tell from the outset that she takes such care about her vocabulary, and the imagery which it shapes.

 

77793744. Robbie Arnott
Australian author Robbie Arnott is a real gem.  I had wanted to read his work for a year or so before I found a gorgeous hardback copy of Flames in my local library; it was every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  He uses magical realism to great effect, and his writing and characters feel so original.  I am so looking forward to picking up more of Arnott’s work in the near future, and hope that his other novel – The Rain Heron – and his short story collection will be published in the UK very soon.

 

5. Shirley Barrett 1024
Barrett is another Australian author, whose work I found out about on Savidge Reads’ YouTube channel.  Her work is strange and fantastical, but I was hooked throughout both The Bus on Thursday and Rush-Oh!, which I reviewed back in October.  The novels could not be more different on the face of it – the former is a contemporary novel which charts the journey of a schoolteacher to a remote part of Australia, and the latter is historical fiction which focuses on whale hunting – but both are so exciting.  I could not put either novel down, and can only hope that more of her work will be made easily available to me soon.

 

duncan20barrett20author20photo6. Duncan Barrett
Barrett is a non-fiction author, whose book, When the Germans Came, I found masterful.  I have always been so interested in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, and this is by far the best book which I have ever read on the topic.  Barrett follows many different residents of the island throughout, revealing their hopes and dreams and, quite often, their bravery.  His prose is engaging, and never does the book feel too crowded with different people; rather, it is accessible, and really does the subject justice.

Thankfully, Barrett is rather a prolific author.  Whilst I probably won’t be picking up his ‘GI Brides’ series of novels any time soon (or ever…), he has written a few more non-fiction books which look fascinating, ranging from the post office workers throughout the Second World War, to true stories of the women who really made a difference during this period.

 

7. Jo Baker 3796
Baker is a writer of historical fiction and, being one of my favourite genres, I have always meant to pick up her books.  I requested her newest book, The Body Lies, from Netgalley, and settled down to read it in January.  Whilst it does not fit the genre of historical fiction, and is more of a contemporary literary thriller, I was invested in the main character from beginning to end.

Baker writes beautifully, particularly with regard to the landscape and physical settings, and she handled every element of the story in The Body Lies with grace and deftness.  I have my eye on her historical fiction next; of particular interest to me are A Country Road, A Tree which is set during the Second World War, and family saga The Undertow.

 

pamela_hansford_johnson_as_a_young_woman8. Pamela Hansford Johnson
Last but not least, Hansford Johnson has been a wonderful discovery this year.  I have settled down with a couple of her novels – An Impossible Marriage (1954) and The Holiday Friend (1972) – and posted full reviews for them both.  Hansford Johnson wrote wonderful literary thrillers, which are enthralling from beginning to end.  She has such insight, and her characters feel so realistic.  Both of these novels could be termed domestic noir, and I cannot wait to dive into the remainder of her oeuvre, which is thankfully quite extensive.

 

Which are your favourite new author discoveries of 2020?

3

‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
9781529110104

The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

0

‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ by Tilly Smith ***

Tilly Smith’s Reindeer: An Arctic Life, which has been recently reissued in a lovely hardback edition, was a book which I wanted to incorporate into my winter reading.  Thankfully, I found a copy whilst browsing in the library, and settled down with it on a chilly Sunday afternoon.  The book was first released in 2006, and was originally entitled The Real Rudolph.

61sblxjsxjlI love books about animals and the natural world, but have never read anything specifically about reindeer before.  The blurb describes Smith’s memoir of sorts as follows: ‘In this enchanting book, self-confessed “reindeer geek” Tilly Smith leads the reader through the extraordinary natural history of the reindeer with charming anecdotes about her own Scottish herd.’  Smith is the owner of Britain’s only ‘free-living’ herd of reindeer, which roam in the Cairngorms in Scotland, an area which provides ‘Britain’s only sub-arctic habitat’.

Reindeer have lived in the Cairngorms since 1952, as part of a move to reintroduce the species into Scotland.  The country ‘offered a habitat very similar to their homeland [of] Lapland’, and as a result, the herd thrived.  One of the really interesting elements of Reindeer: An Arctic Life is the information about the couple – Sami Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel John Lindgren – who were responsible for reintroducing the animals.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life has been split into 15 chapters, which feature details about Smith’s reindeer.  It also, quite sweetly I felt, includes a reindeer family tree, with not a Rudolph in sight.  In her first chapter, Smith writes of the adverse weather conditions about to hit the Cairngorms, complete with 100mph winds.  She then comments: ‘In Alaska, one of the countries where caribou are naturally found, they say there are only two seasons, “snow” and “no snow”, and caribou thrive there.  They are lowly Arctic animals, totally at home in the coldest places in the world.’  During the wintry storm, therefore, the reindeer are quite in their element.  Reindeer, Smith tells us, ‘are amazing creatures; their coat is so well insulated that they can lie on the snow without melting it.  Also, snow that lands on their backs doesn’t melt – it remains frozen and can itself add to the insulation…’.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life is peppered with lovely woodcut illustrations.  Interesting facts about reindeer – called caribou in some countries – have been placed into small grey text boxes, and placed throughout.  Whilst I did enjoy reading these, their random placement was a little off-putting, and it was a little difficult to concentrate on the main body of text in consequence.  These facts could have easily been incorporated into the narrative, and did sometimes repeat details which had already been written about.

Smith’s writing is fine, but at no point did I feel blown away by it.  She does include a lot of information and detail – different species of reindeer and their habitats, as well as the way in which the creatures have adapted over time; how different seasons affect the herds; how reindeers socialise with one another; and the human influence upon reindeer, from the destruction of vital habitats, to the close bonds which can be formed between human and reindeer – but I felt that there was a strange lack of emotion throughout.  Some of the chapters end very abruptly too.

Whilst Reindeer: An Arctic Life is a nice enough wintry read, it lacks a little something – perhaps due to the overall detachment of Smith’s commentary.  I would recommend it for anyone keen to learn more about reindeer and their reintroduction to the United Kingdom, but it is by no means the best written book which looks at a single species.

2

An Abandoned Book: ‘Golden Child’ by Claire Adam **

I had been intrigued by Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, since its publication.  There is very little literature set in the Caribbean – one of my favourite regions on earth – which I have found readily available to date, and thus I was pleased when I found a copy of the quite delightfully designed hardback in my local library.

39731604._sy475_Golden Child is set in Trinidad, and deals with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy.  The book’s blurb does not give a great amount away; it simply says that its protagonist, Clyde, has to come to terms with what it means to be the father of twin boys, and is made to discover ‘truths about Trinidad, about his family, and about himself.’  Whilst I enjoy familial sagas and mystery novels, and was intrigued by the blurb, I found the novel itself very difficult to get into.

The descriptions within the novel were not as I was expecting.  Rather than drawing attention to the lush landscapes and tropical weather of Trinidad, I found Adam’s prose rather plain.  For instance, when Clyde begins to go and search for his son, she writes: ‘Shorts and slippers are no good for that bush across the road.  Before, when Clyde was small, he used to go in there barefoot: by daylight you can easily pick your way along, avoiding ant-hills, sharp stones, prickers and whatever else.  But it’s a long time since he’s been in there, and also – who knows what will be out now, at night?  Snakes, frogs, agouti, all the night-time creatures, or spirits, or whatever they are.’  There is so little beauty within the novel, even with regard to the natural world.

When I examined the thoughts of other readers on Goodreads, I found that Golden Child has very mixed reviews; some have absolutely adored it, whilst others have either abandoned the reading process, or given it just one star.  This is, of course, markedly different to the reviews adorned on the book’s cover, which laud it variously as ‘intensely moving’, ‘quietly powerful and compelling’, and draw comparisons between Adam’s writing and that of ‘icons of her tradition like V.S. Naipaul’.

To me, Golden Child felt like something of a missed opportunity.  The novel did nothing to draw me, as a reader and observer, in; rather, I found its characters two-dimensional, and its settings rather drab.  The dialogue between characters is dull and repetitive, and the pace is plodding.  So little atmosphere and tension have been built, which I find peculiar for a novel which sees itself as a mystery, almost a thriller.  There is a real lack of emotional depth here, and too much superfluous detail; Adam focuses more on what characters are wearing and drinking than how they feel.  There is very much a ‘tell, don’t show’ mentality in place, it seems.

I read several chapters of Golden Child, but found myself reluctant to return to the novel whenever I put it down.  The story did nothing to draw me in, and I could not get on with Adam’s very matter-of-fact writing style.  I did stop reading before I found out what happened to the missing teenager, but a mixture of disinterest and the hint at disturbing elements which other reviewers mentioned put me off.  I am sure that there will be readers who really get on with this novel, but I, alas, am not one of them.

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‘Saraswati Park’ by Anjali Joseph ****

I travelled to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a cruise last November, and have been eager to read more books set in the city – and, indeed, within the whole of India – ever since.  I therefore requested Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, from my local library, and settled down with it immediately.

8517801Although it seems underread, with less than 100 reviews and just 600 readers on Goodreads, the novel was well received upon its publication in 2010, and won both the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the Betty Trask Prize.  The Guardian writes that this ‘subtle novel is infused with multiple regrets.  How true to life it seems…’, and The Times calls Joseph ‘a latter-day Mrs Gaskell’.  The Literary Review takes a wider view, noting that the author ‘perfectly articulates a growing sense of alienation as the old, socially fractured – yet transparent – India is superseded by modern democracy.’

The protagonists of Saraswati Park are married couple Lakshmi and Mohan Karekar, who live in the quiet suburb of Saraswati Park in Bombay.  Mohan works as a letter writer, and Lakshmi is, to all intents and purposes, a housewife.  They are settled, with their children grown and living elsewhere.  When Mohan’s young nephew, Ashish, comes to stay with them, however, the lives of all three are changed.  Ashish is ‘an uncertain 19-year-old’, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and is struggling to make sense of himself.  Within the family, tensions begin to grow, and Mohan and Lakshmi ‘start to question the quiet rhythm of their lives – and discontents, left unspoken for many years, begin to break the surface.’

The sense of place which Joseph has created here is wonderful.  From the outset, one can feel the constant buzz and heat of Bombay, and the always moving stream of people which fills its streets and alleyways.  The novel is also highly evocative of its characters; we are aware of Mohan and Lakshmi, their motivations, and their relationship with one another from very early on.  Ashish, too, is presented as a daydreamer, rather vague and unable to stick to one path.  We learn about the past lives of each of the characters in turn, which gives them more solidity.  Their interactions with one another have been shrewdly imagined, and just as much importance is given to what is unsaid.  One gets the sense that Joseph really sees her characters.

Joseph makes one continually aware of old and new Bombay, and the sense of tradition and change within the city.  She writes, for instance: ‘A hundred and fifty years earlier this had been the beach, before the land reclamations; perhaps it was the murmur of the waves one heard on the busiest of days, through the endless talking… and the rumble of the red buses, the taxi horns, the metallic steps of each person hurrying through the Fort.’  The contrasts between rich and poor are, as one might expect, apparent throughout.

I love character-focused novels, and fiction set in India is a real favourite of mine.  It is therefore difficult to imagine how I would not enjoy Joseph’s novel.  Although parts of Saraswati Park are really quite slow, the overall novel is a delight to read.  The exploration of Ashish’s sexuality is one of the best handled elements in the entire book.  Saraswati Park is a lovely piece of escapist fiction and, with the rich picture Joseph creates of life in modern India, it would be the perfect choice for the even the most discerning armchair traveller.