Brickmakers by Selva Almada

Charco Press does it again. I have a bit of an obsession with Latin American literature at the moment and hadn’t read any of Selva Almada’s work yet. This was a fantastic place to start.

Two young men, Pájaro Tamai and Marciano Miranda, lie dying amidst the dry grass and rubbish of a local recreation site currently being used by the fairground. Two men whose fathers were enemies. Two men who, briefly, were best friends as children and leant to become enemies through the prejudice of their fathers.

Both men are brickmakers and both are visited by their dead or missing fathers in their last minutes as we learn the history of their short lives and the feud between them, until they finally collapse. Masculinity comes under scrutiny in this lyrical and visceral tale in which love comes with costs.

It’s a beautifully written and translated (by Annie McDermott) book and I can’t wait to read more of Almada’s work. I’m a huge fan of Charco Press. The commissioning editors have excellent taste, the translators are top notch and I would be impoverished without their endeavours to bring Latin American contemporary writing to English readers. Thank you Charco Press and if you haven’t, buy one of their books now.

I’ll be reviewing Seven Steeples by Sara Baume next.

Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro

Three university friends, Zainab, Funmi and Enitan, meet all together for the first time in thirty years at the wedding of Funmi’s daughter, Destiny. Though the friends have maintained their friendship through WhatsApp and email, the complications of busy lives have kept them from all meeting in person. 

Enitan has been living in New York after eloping with a white man, hasn’t spent much time back in Nigeria, and is returning with news of her impending divorce and her daughter, with whom she has a fractious relationship. Zainab is caring for a sick husband and her four sons and is exhausted and no longer financially comfortable. Funmi is living in luxury thanks to her rich husband and his undoubtedly shady business deals, and is more concerned with how things look than how her daughter feels.

Continue reading Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

1518, in and around Strasbourg, one starving, desperate woman starts to dance in the market square. It’s not long before others join her.

In the meantime, Lisbet, mistress of the bees on a farm outside the city, is waiting for her sister, a woman she has never met, to return from her punishment in the mountains. No one has told her why Agnethe was sent away, not even Lisbet’s best friend Ida.

Continue reading The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soliders of WW1 by Lindsey Fitzharris

This is a fascinating book exploring the work of Harold Gillies, a pioneer in the medicine and art of plastic surgery, developing in response to the horrors of the industrialised war of World War I.

New weapons led to facial injuries rarely seen before, certainly not on this scale, and this required new practice to provide soldiers and veterans with a chance, not only to eat and close eyelids, but also to live with themselves. Facial injuries weren’t viewed with the same level of heroism as other forms of injury and often led to depression and social ostracism. The bloody toll of WWI is recounted alongside the professional lives of Gillies and others working to heal the most taboo of wounds that turned men into monsters when the real monster was war itself.

I can’t say this book is enjoyable to read, but it is a fabulous introduction to a truly fascinating area of surgery and provides a different perspective on the Great War and its legacies.

I was meant to be reviewing Reverse Engineering from Scratch Books and I will get on to that soon. I’ve found the blog harder to maintain since working on the PhD but you have reviews of The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Dele Weds Destiny by Tomi Obaro to look forward to very soon.

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

Set in and around Bannin Bay in Western Australia in the late 1800s, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter follows the journey of young Eliza Brightwell as she goes in search of her father who disappeared from his pearling vessel the night before he was due back on land.

Eliza came with her family to Bannin Bay when she was still a child. Her father came to make his fortune. A kind man, he encourages her to investigate the new land they live in and arranged for Eliza to learn the land and creatures from a native man now accused of her father’s murder.

Is her father really dead? Can any pearler truly be kind? Who can she trust in this hard, hot world?

Continue reading Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

This is a really thought-provoking collection. Sayaka Murata has a way of shifting the ground beneath your feet without you really noticing. Suddenly you look around the fictional landscape and realise it works in ways you really hadn’t considered and these ways reflect on the real landscape and make you question your assumptions there too.

Most of the stories have domestic settings that look at the finer details of relationships between couples, close family, friends and coworkers. What humans eat, wear, fuck and what is considered normal or acceptable, is Murata’s territory, from a world in which people are turned in useful objects at their death – ‘A First Rate Material’ – , to a world in which it is normal to eat the flesh of the recently departed as part of a life ceremony in which the old life gives birth to the new as people couple off and copulate in the streets – ‘Life Ceremony’ – every story introduces an element of the unfamiliar into the meticulously observed detail of daily life. It is the stories that humans tell that justify their behaviors and make them acceptable to others. We can understand how children might care for a dog that is really a middle-aged salaryman (‘Poochie’) but can we understand grown-ups admiring human bone wedding rings (‘A First Rate Material’), or two women living together and bringing up children as friends, not lovers (‘Two’s Family’)? Where does our ability to accept cultural shifts end? What is reality?

This investigation of shared truth is one that I delight in.

Continue reading Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

I loved this book. With all the hallmarks of Ali Smith – word play, interpretive attention, great dialogue, a sense of shifting times and a re envisioned female history – Companion Piece felt exactly like its title; it offered a sense of companionship, a book that stretches out its hand in greeting to its reader. I wouldn’t say that I’m naturally drawn to reading fiction that deals head on with the pandemic, but this novel somehow achieves a straightforward depiction that tugs at the sense of unmooring it unleashed without trying to offer the kind of historical perspective it would be very hard to give when we are still enmeshed in its effects.

Everyone comes to Sandy for stories, for interpretations. As she worries about her hospitalised father to get better, occasionally able to visit, often speaking to him through the internet with kind nurses holding up a screen in the hospital where her father was lucky enough to get a bed in a cupboard, an old acquaintance from university rings her up out of the blue. Sandy has to stretch her memory to unearth this acquaintance who once came to her for her interpreting an e. e. cummings’ poem. Martina has called her because she can think of no one else able to untangle her recent experience as she was transporting the famous Boothby Lock to the museum she works for.

Continue reading Companion Piece by Ali Smith

A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers

The protagonist and narrator of A Certain Hunger is a sassy, female serial killer and food critic who likes to eat her kills. In a sense there is very little more I need to say. 

She is writing from prison. Slowly she reveals the reasons and methods of her murders, along with some sumptuous writing about food.

I have no doubt that the book will sell incredibly well, but it wasn’t really for me. It is salacious. It does exactly what it sets out to do and it is fast-paced. If the description tickles, you’ll know if it’s for you. 

I’ll be reviewing Companion Piece by Ali Smith next.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursual K. Le Guin

Genly Ai is an ambassador, an envoy from a confederation of planets and peoples, the Ekumen. He has been sent down to the planet, Gethen, to see if they will join the Ekumen. 

It is a winter world, cold and alien to Genly who nonetheless almost blends in with the humanoids. He has learnt their languages. He is learning about their cultures.

The novel is a famous, classic of science fiction, mostly because the people of Gethen are genderless. They only develop female or male sexual traits at the peak of their sexual cycle and do not always become one over the other, meaning that they can both father children and gestate and birth them. When not at that point in their cycle, they do not engage in sexual intimacy.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about gender and sex, it is about cultural misunderstanding, the weight of preconceptions, the wheels of power and politics, and the trust and honesty required for love.

It is a dense book that would reward multiple readings. It has all the joys of Le Guin’s ability to invent alternative mythology and legend. Inventive, awkward and provocative. It is a book that lingers in the mind. As well as politics and philosophy, there is adventure and a long journey across an extreme winter landscape. The wild fantasies of interstellar travel are brought down into the minutiae of food rationing and frostbite. I hope I will return to it.

I’ll be reading A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers next.

Ghostcloud by Michael Mann

Twelve-year-old Luke has been kidnapped and taken to Battersea Powerstation, forced to shovel coal and hidden from the outside world of a reimagined smog-filled London. With his friend, Ravi, he is desperately trying to earn an amber ticket, a way out of the station and back to his family. Then a new girl, Jess, turns up on their line and threatens to ruin everything.

But that’s not all…

Punished for trying to help Jess, Luke and Jess are sent to clean the sewage from a room full of pipes. Somewhere inside one of these pipes is a voice, calling to Luke. That voice is Alma and she is a ghostcloud. 

What is a ghostcloud? How did Luke hear her? Will they ever escape?

Continue reading Ghostcloud by Michael Mann