Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams

As the title suggests, Attrib. and other stories is a collection of works that delights in examining and redefining the often surprising characteristics of people and things, particularly in terms of their etymology. Many of the stories echo with birdsong, and many burn with the intensity of emotions associated with falling in and out of love. They reexamine the periphery of events, so that saying goodbye to a loved one is set against the simultaneous loss of a man’s toupé caught up by the wind and blown into someone else’s face (‘Platform’), or the view of another goodbye scene is reimagined through the witness of a spider in the corner of the room (‘Spins’).

Perversely, because this story is not typical of the collection given that it isn’t in first person and doesn’t overtly play with words, my favourite story of book is ‘Spines’. It’s about a family who discover a hedgehog in the pool of their French holiday home. Their life is lived around the creature’s struggle to survive. Continue reading

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Lina is a writer and PhD student from Chile, living in New York. The book opens as the veins in Lina’s eyes hemorrhage. An event long dreaded from childhood, the incident leaves her blind, but for how long?

Seeing Red follows Lina as she waits to see if she will ever see again. Looking through her fingers, her writing so reliant upon those fingers to shape it, Lina complains that she can’t write if she can’t see. And as the days and weeks go on who can she rely on? Her relationship with her parents is complicated by the history of her illness and the guilt and resentment it generates. Her relationship with her boyfriend is now equally fraught. Whose eyes can she now see through? Who will give her their eyes? Continue reading

Autumn by Ali Smith

Daniel is sleeping in his bed at the care home. He is slowly making his way closer to death.

Elisabeth, a girl who used to live next door, whom Daniel babysat and inspired while Elisabeth’s mother went on dates, discovers his care home is not far from where her mother now lives and comes home more and more often to visit Daniel, pretending to be his granddaughter, waiting patiently for him to wake. Continue reading

First Person by Richard Flanagan

Kif is desperate to be a writer. Taking odd jobs and shift work, he spends every last minute scribbling or tapping away at an old computer in the tiny spare room regardless of his baby daughter and pregnant wife. Unsurprisingly, the lack of money begins to press heavily upon them.

Then Kif’s old childhood friend, Ray, gets him a job ghostwriting the autobiography of Ziggy Heidl the notorious Australian fraudster. The chance to be spoken of as a writer, but mainly the offer of a large sum of money, takes Kif from Tazmania to Melbourne into the frustrating world of Heidl whose stories play upon the sympathies of the listener, encouraging them to create their own version of Heidl’s past, one which hangs upon a few cleverly chosen but mundane words that fail to withstand any historical scrutiny. Continue reading

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a beautifully written novel. There is an atmosphere that draws you in, a sense of being in and of the landscape that feels both gritty and timeless, putting human beings onto a level with the animals and foliage of England’s wooded land. At the centre of this wood are Daniel and his sister, Cathy.

Daniel and Cathy haven’t had a stable upbringing. Their father and mother move in and out of their lives and they are cared for mostly by their grandmother. When she dies and their mother has moved out for last time, their father pledges to stay with them always and to build them a home where they’ll be safe. A home, it turns out, in the woods on land that once belonged to their mother.

Divided between an italicised account in which Daniel searches for a her that you soon realise is Cathy, and an account of the events that led him to this search, there is a taut line of telling that flexes over the bones of a story about relationships between people, land, family, community and society. It is bleak and it is raw – drawing attention to those who live at the edges of official society, those who are poor and easily exploited – but it is also thoughtful and articulate, weaving a kind of magic of the faery tale into the modern world. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read it and let me know what you think.

Next week I’ll be reading First Person by Richard Flanagan.

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses

Over the course of one long day and night, we follow the life of a married couple, Tom and Helen. They moved to the countryside with their young twin daughters after Helen discovered Tom had a brief affair with his boss.

Helen still works in advertising, exhausting work and part-time only in pay. Tom is a journalist in the city, waking early – often sleeping on the sofa fully dressed – to commute back and forth each day.

Both Tom and Helen are tired from moving, working, parenting, worrying about money and keeping secrets from each other.

Helen is angry at how motherhood and moving has isolated her and devalued her. Tom is overwhelmed by the energy it takes to keep his secret hidden. They are worried the people they have become will destroy any last remnants of affection between each other. They are worried they’re not sure if they even care anymore. Continue reading

Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a social media star, a vlogger with a million subscribers and six hundred thousand followers. With a pretty face, inoffensive views and constant sunny, silly updates, David is the epitome of modern celebrity. But is it enough? How long can he stay on top? How long will his fame last?

When the technological genius that is Xan Brinkley wants to meet David to discuss his latest project, MindCast, David’s agent has him there straightaway. But what is MindCast and how does it threaten vlogging? Continue reading

Reconciliation by Guy Ware and Book Giveaway

Reconciliation takes the transcript of a diary from the Second World War, written by an English spy describing his deliverance from occupied Norway, and creates a delightfully playful novel about the difficulties of accounting for past and present, fact and fiction, in national and individual identity. Set in the 1990s during the Iraq war as well as the 1940s, one woman’s grandfather’s diary becomes the subject of several different retellings and reframings that never quite seem to grasp the skirts of truth, constantly questioning a reader’s grasp of authenticity and our desire for fiction to say something true.

The novel feels wildly relevant, questioning the wisdom of all governance and the clarity of individual allegiance to a political ideology. It forces us to accept a reconciliation between history as fact and history as interpretation. Some things we can only ever speculate upon, but speculation is attempted empathy, a compromise that allows us to move on.

Because the novel progresses from one seemingly authentic account of the transcript’s discovery and subsequent exploration to another, we are forced to continue to question our expectations of narrative. Outlining the plot would spoil the novel, but let’s just say there is enough intrigue in the past and present, as well as a thoroughly forensic exploration of the minutiae of daily living – the reheated ready meals, the workplace banter, a clear vision of Scotland, Norway, Cambridge and London, as well as plenty of whisky – to create a page-turning novel that has the reader constantly on the hop. That’s what makes it such a delight. You’re never quite sure where you are, and yet all of it feels relevant, meaningful and real. Literary critics would have a field day with this novel, despite it also being a book you would be happy to read in one sitting on a long journey or tucked up in a comfy chair by a warm fire.

Nicholas Lezard called Guy Ware’s previous novel, The Fat of Fed Beasts, ‘The best debut novel I have read in years’. Reconciliation consolidates Guy Ware’s reputation as a writer whose observations of modern life are witty, precise and provocative. It’s brilliant. Read it and see for yourself.

Speaking of which, I am delighted to say I have 5 copies of Reconciliation to give away to the first 5 people who reply to this blog post requesting a copy. Good luck!

If you miss the giveaway, you can buy a copy, published by Salt on the 5th October 2017, here.

Compass by Mathias Enard

Compass is one of those novels that requires high levels of engagement, whose scope of knowledge is scintillating and baffling.

Franz, the narrator, is seriously ill. Set in one sleepless night, we follow his thoughts as he contemplates his mortality and his failed loved life. He has had two obsessions in life: the workings of Oriental music within the European tradition – both Europeans using Oriental motifs or Oriental composers working in Europe – and Sarah. Continue reading

The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

After reading We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, I wasn’t sure I’d be tempted to read another novel by Lionel Shriver. I’d found We Need to Talk About Kevin an issues based novel whose characters didn’t quite convince me and I seem to remember feeling mildly unmoved by The Post-Birthday World. Reading The Mandibles brings all the good sides of Lionel Shriver’s fiction – her snappy dialogue, her delight in conflict, her interest in topical issues – and shows them off to their best. My readings of her previous novels feel harsh and I begin to understand what it is that motivates Shriver and what makes her a fascinating writer to read. Being provocative isn’t just about getting people to read your book, it’s about getting people to think and The Mandibles really does get you thinking.

My scepticism of her previous work is one confession over with, the next is that I know very little about economics. Given that The Mandibles is all about the economy on a local and global scale, how it drives all aspects of governance and society, my reading of the novel will undoubtedly be different from someone with sound economic knowledge.

Ok, now I’ve confessed it all, you’ll know where my review is coming from.

The Mandibles are an American family whose head, Great Grand Man, has a fortune (from his forebears) to leave to his children and their children’s children. At the start of the novel his family are living with the knowledge that one day they may receive some of this fortune, though none of them seem to know how much money there really is. Some of children and grandchildren have done well for themselves, some struggle.

Then the dollar collapses.

In one fell swoop the fortune has gone and different echelons of the Mandible family are thrown together in ways they couldn’t have expected. Continue reading