“Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It” by Maile Meloy (2009)

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“Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.”

Life is an endless series of choices. We find ourselves an endless number of futures ahead of us, and then the decisions we make whittle down the options, but there will always be more. Left or right. Buy or sell. Stay or go. Hide or seek. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in time travel fiction, the heroes are always so concerned that any actions they make in the past might affect the future, but we never seem to pause in our own present to realise that the decisions we make now are making big changes in the future. There’s no time travel in this book, however, just simple people with big decisions to make.

Meloy’s book is a collection of eleven short stories, each of which centre around a person who has reached a figurative crossroads in their life and need to decide what they’re going to do about it. Chet Moran is worried that he’ll never see Beth Travis again, unless he does something about it. Aaron needs to decide whether or not to continue his relationship with his tiresome brother George. Naomi has to choose what action she takes when her friend confesses that she thinks her husband is having an affair. And Everett and Pam have got to make up their minds regarding the strangers they found in the snow.

Some of the same themes recur over and over, and there is definitely some repetition of situations, with affairs and relationships between parents and children, but they all feel real and raw. The silliest one, and probably my favourite, is “Liliana”, which is about a man who finds his grandmother alive and well on his doorstep, despite her death and autopsy two months previously. It turns out that her death was all something of a “misunderstanding” and so she has returned to check up on him and his family. Many of the other stories are quite tragic, such as “Travis, B.” which is about a young man struggling with feelings of love for the first time and not having the ability to do anything with them, or “Red from Green”, which is about a father failing to stop the molestation of his daughter and how their relationship drifts apart afterwards.

Curiously candid and not overly flowery, the stories are short and punchy, and I think all of them left me with a sense of wanting to know what happened next. Intriguing little nuggets of fiction that tap into those bits of being human that we don’t always like being tapped. Worth a read if you’re after something quick.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

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“The Possession Of Mr Cave” by Matt Haig (2008)

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“Of course, you know where it begins.”

I’ve been a big fan of Matt Haig’s work since I first read The Humans. I’ve since worked through most of his adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, but I realised that there were a few of his earlier works that I’d not got to yet, so here we are. Haig has become a loud and important voice in the world of mental health, and I think some people only know him because of his memoirs, such as Reasons To Stay Alive. I think sometimes his fiction gets lost behind this, which is a dreadful shame, as he’s one of the finest writers working today.

Antiques dealer Terence Cave has suffered three great losses in his life. As a child, his mother killed herself. As a young man, his wife was murdered. And now, he’s just seen his son, Reuben, die in a terrible accident. All he has left is his daughter, Reuben’s twin, Bryony, a teenage girl who is beginning to find her place in the world. Cave begins to realise that he must protect Bryony from the outside world, whatever the cost.

As Cave’s rules become more and more draconian and he goes to more extreme lengths to keep Bryony in line and away from a boyfriend he deems unsuitable, it appears that Reuben has some unfinished business, and Cave realises that the word “possession” has more than one meaning…

So, here’s the really weird thing. When the supernatural elements began to kick in, my first thought was, “Oh, this is something a bit different from Haig – all his other stuff has been pretty normal,” but then I realised how wrong I was. He’s written about aliens, vampires and immortality, and narrated a novel from the point of view of a dog. This is his magic. He makes the really weird stuff seem totally plausible and normal. How he does this, I can’t quite be sure, but it’s certainly a very special talent.

The novel is, at its heart, a story of obsession, and the troubles of fatherhood. There’s no denying that Terence Cave has been through some horrific things in his life, but I’m not sure that any of them excuse his behaviour. I was reminded at several points of You, a Netflix series that I recently watched that has similar themes of obsession and desperation. (If you’ve not seen it yet, I would strongly recommend that, too.) Cave is not necessarily a likeable narrator, but he’s certainly beguiling and you find yourself drawn into his sticky web of lies and paranoia. I’ve no idea what it’s like to raise a teenager, but Bryony certainly seems pretty realistic, and you do sympathise with Cave’s frustrations as his daughter grows away from him.

A moving and magical novel from one of the masters of the speculative fiction genre that will keep you gripped until the final page.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Concrete Island” by J. G. Ballard (1974)

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“Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London.”

They say that no man is an island (except for the Isle of Man, of course), but even in this world that is more connected than it has ever been, it’s still possible to feel alone, surrounded by people who don’t understand you or maybe don’t even notice you’re there. Coming from an island nation myself, I do wonder if all that living apart does something to a society’s psyche. Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Cuba … they often have some of the most interesting and unique histories. But we’re not here to talk about natural islands – this one is entirely man made.

Robert Maitland is driving out of London at just over seventy miles an hour when his front tyre blows out and his car smashes through a crash barrier and down into a patch of grass, ignored by every motorist who passes by on the three motorways surrounding it. He manages to pry himself from his Jaguar and clambers back up the embankment, hoping that he’ll get picked up. But there’s nowhere here to stop, or at least no one willing to do so. Still in shock, he considers making a break for it, but he’s hit by a car before he has a chance and tumbles back down onto the traffic island, cut off some his old life – his wife, his mistress, his job, his friends… Now he is a resident of this concrete island and he needs to work out how to get off. Will he end up here forever? And is he even the first person to have made it onto this forgotten land?

An allegory for how we’re all really, at the end of the day, on our own, and selfishness remains an endemic problem of humanity (unless I’m entirely missing the point), the novella sees Ballard deal with the constraint of having all of his action take place in one very small area. With very little dialogue, Ballard is tied to letting the world tell the story. Maitland initially seems to have very limited resources, but I do feel that there’s a cheat when he discovers the remains of the buildings that used to stand here and finds that some of the basements are still in working order. In fact, the whole island itself is much larger than I had gathered from the premise, which again feels like a cheat.

There’s little characterisation for Maitland, too, and we never really find out all that much about him, save the facts he’s a rich businessman and has two women in his life who may or may not be aware of one another. A lot is left vague, and actually some of that works, but it’s hard to feel too sympathetic for him. The premise as a whole is a little far fetched, too. I’m not against a weird plot – not by any means – but it’s hard to believe that not a single person sees him down there. Even if they thought he was a tramp, surely a police car or concerned motorist would double check? Ballard is at pains to make sure Maitland can’t just walk across the empty roads at night by giving him an injury, and like the island and its surrounding roads, it all feels a little too artificial.

Robinson Crusoe for the modern era – a weird story with some interesting ideas behind it.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume (2015)

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“He is running, running, running.”

Once again, I turn my attention to a book about loneliness. I didn’t really intend to so early into the year, but here we are.

Ray is fifty-seven and can easily be defined as a loner. Treated as something of a pariah in his village – although how much of this is self-inflicted is up for debate – he knows that people think he’s weird and don’t like having anything to do with him. Since his father died, he’s been alone in his house and keeps his interactions with other people to a minimum. But then he meets One Eye, a vicious little dog looking for some company, but who is also used to being alone and ignored.

Now bound together, Ray and One Eye begin to explore the village and the beach together, growing accustomed to one another’s company. But when One Eye attacks a smaller dog on the beach, it seems that Ray might suddenly lose the one thing in his life that he actually cares about. That is, if he doesn’t do something drastic to stop it…

Baume has, to all intents and purposes, written a prose poem here. I’m exaggerating a little, but in truth this is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing. The heartstrings are tugged for both Ray and One Eye, who might not be the most appealing characters, somehow still are written with a certain warmth that ensures you’re invested in them. Every page is laced with metaphors and images that stagger over and over again with a beautiful simplicity.  The small world around Ray feels vivid and thoroughly realised. All five senses are in play, with Baume really seeming to enjoy describing the minutia of the landscape. She’s not afraid to spend a sentence focusing on a banana skin, or a withered plant.

The lack of dialogue is a little disconcerting at first, as I’m someone who’s big on characters and their interactions, but in this case there can’t be too many or it ruins the whole thing. What there is, works perfectly. It all adds to the sense of loneliness, and the general unease. In fact, uneasiness is definitely a key element here. You never get the impression that Ray is a bad man, but there are definitely things that he’s choosing not to tell you, and while some of them do eventually come out, there are still some answers that he takes with him beyond the final pages. He is human without question, and Baume manages to resists anthropomorphising One Eye, instead never letting us into his mind. We only have Ray’s interpretation of the dog’s actions to take a guess at how he feels. As such, he gets to remain a wild thing, unfathomable and undomesticated.

An utterly tragic tale that delves deep into a man on the fringes of society.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“If Cats Disappeared From The World” by Genki Kawamura (2012)

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“If cats disappeared from the world, how would the world change?”

There seems to be an arbitrary divide in the world between “cat people” and “dog people”. Much as I do like dogs, I am definitely a cat person. There’s something endearingly sweet about them, and I like their nobility, which is often rudely punctured when they fall off something. We don’t keep cats – they just tolerate our presence. Of course they can be affectionate and loving, but I think it’s not possible to entirely tame a cat. The world would be a worse place without them, for sure.

In this Japanese novel, our protagonist is a postman who has just discovered that he has a brain tumour, and a matter of weeks or even days to live. Returning home to his pet cat, Cabbage, he struggles to think of anyone he needs to tell about this. He doesn’t have many friends, he’s been single for years, and he doesn’t speak to his father anymore, not since his mother’s death. While pondering, he finds that someone else has entered his house – it’s the devil, and he’s got an offer.

Our hero will get an extra day of life for everything he makes disappear from the world. The devil chooses something and he gets the option – get rid of it forever, or die. Desperate to stay alive, he agrees and over the course of the week, phones, movies and clocks are wiped out of existence. But when the devil suggests getting rid of all the cats, our hero is overcome with emotion for his beloved Cabbage. Can he really wipe out all the cats, just for an extra day of life?

There’s something almost melodic about Japanese writing. My previous encounters with it have been via Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom is actually British, but was born in Nagasaki), both of whom produced some books that I utterly adored, and again, Genki Kawamura does it again here. This is perhaps down to the translator, but there’s got to be something good beneath it, too. Casual in style and quite funny and irreverent in places, despite their being some deep themes here about making the most of every day and understanding what’s really important in life, I never felt I was being bashed over the head by the morals. The main character is sweet and I had a great deal of sympathy and fondness for him.

There is a certain amount of mystery regarding the novel – only the feline characters and one human get names – and no locations in Japan are explicitly given, but I didn’t really notice until I came to write this review and noticed I didn’t have any character names to hand. While the premise could be unbearably tragic, it isn’t, and while a “deal with the devil” story line is hardly new, it still seems fresh here and the version of the devil Kawamura produces is interesting, taking on whatever form the human he’s appearing to expects to see, rather than having one of his own.

A beautiful and thought-provoking novel about the important things in life, and living without regrets.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)

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“Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.”

A friend of mine raved about this book for months before I got hold of it. She kept sending me passages and telling me how great it was and, intrigued, I bought it and settled down. Another friend said that the title sounded like I was revising for social situations. But no, just a piece of fiction from a new Irish writer.

Frances is a university student in Dublin, who spends her evenings performing spoken word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances is considered by some to be a little aloof, but she’s just an observant person who doesn’t always feel like she has much to say. The pair meet photographer and journalist Melissa. She loves their performances and wants to write a piece about them, with photographs to match, so the pair visit her house. She’s sixteen years older than them, and married to the effortlessly handsome Nick, a jobbing actor, and so begins a four-way friendship.

Things get complicated, however, when Frances begins sleeping with Nick and can’t work out exactly how she feels about him. She decides not to tell Bobbi about it, and hopes that Melissa doesn’t find out. They communicate mostly via e-mail, and Frances isn’t begins to doubt whether she can keep it up. Unfortunately, she and Bobbi have just been invited to Melissa and Nick’s holiday home in France, so the relationship takes on a new turn on the continent. The relationships between the four main characters drive the plot along as everyone tries to work out what they want and how to get it.

First up, the writing is beautiful. It sings. That was the overwhelming takeaway I had from the book, even early on. It’s no surprise to say that none of the characters are especially pleasant, but the Sally Rooney has something special going on. Her prose is finely balanced, startling and charged with emotion. In many ways, it’s quite poetic. Among these, I don’t think there’s actually that much plot happening. It’s mostly about a couple having an affair – a common plot point in fiction – but it’s explored with great pathos and I found that, somehow, I couldn’t entirely hate the characters. Bobbi and Melissa are more unlikable to me, and I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with either of them: Melissa is snooty and selfish, Bobbi is pretentious and thinks she’s more alternative than she is. Nick starts off simply being dull, but redeems himself with a collection of interesting traits later on. Frances is the most intriguing character, perhaps simply because she’s narrating. She is always watching people and is quick to judge, even if only inside her own head, but she’s evidently talented. She is, however, also irritating, lacking any direction or indeed any desire for direction in her life. She’s one of those people who blunders along assuming that everything will sort itself out without any input from her. It’s a trait I know well – it describes me too. In fact, like with Not Working that I read the other week, there are a few too many home truths here.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes, too. These range from emotionally uncomfortable incidents where Frances and Nick try to work out what the other wants, but both are equally incapable of expressing themselves properly, to the physically uncomfortable, with Frances’s occasional bouts of self-harm, and an ongoing medical problem that she can’t bring herself to admit to people.

It is a wonderful book and the writing cannot be faulted, but the emotion I’m left with at the end of it all is sadness. It’s a tragedy, with characters doing bad things to one another behind their backs, and none of them ever changing or learning from their mistakes. However, I still enjoyed it, and I feel somewhat hollow now it’s over. A blisteringly truthful book, with angst peppered over every page.

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