The Crooked House – Christobel Kent + guest post + giveaway

Giveaway now closed.

Today’s post has got it all: my review of The Crooked House; a guest post from Christobel Kent about her literary influences; the opening of the novel, and a chance to win a signed copy of the book.

The Crooked House

Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn’t stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her.

Thirteen years previously Alison was Esme. She lived in a house referred to as Crooked House because it tilted on unsteady foundations. She lived there with her family – mum and dad, older brother, Joe, and twin sisters, Letty and Mads. That was until they were brutally murdered as she hid in a cupboard. Her father, alive by a thread, was found guilty after evidence proved he was the last to die. Esme had arrived home early from her friend Gina’s unbeknown to the rest of the household, it was assumed that this was why she survived.

She’s gone on to reinvent herself and is now living in London, working at a publishing house and in a relationship with a history academic called Paul. No one knows her background, she has a short, fabricated tale if anyone asks.

When the novel begins, Paul receives a wedding invitation to the nuptials of an old friend of his, Morgan Carter. Alison’s met her briefly and didn’t get on with her. She’s not invited to the wedding. Paul sorts that though and then there’s a bigger issue to contend with: the wedding’s taking place in Saltleigh, the town where Esme grew up. To make matters worse, Paul’s decided it would be nice for them to make a holiday of it and he’s booked them five nights in a local hotel.

As soon as they arrive, Alison knows she’s going to have to confront her past – both the events of that night and the locals who have plenty of secrets to tell about her family. The local police officer who worked on Esme’s case puts it well:

‘Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with this place, something in the soil, salt or something that stops things growing straight, it’s land where it should all be sea, I don’t know…’ She broke off, feeling his eyes on her, his alarm. She took a breath. ‘You saw those kids we brought in, they’d been chucking breeze blocks off the bridge, just for the hell of it. You might see them running about on a football field, or ten years on chatting some girl up in a bar – they’d give you a cheeky smile, charm you. You can’t see it from the outside but they’re poisoned.

There’s three things I want from any crime novel, whether it be a detective novel or a psychological thriller: I want to be gripped by it, I want to be misled – I want to be wrong about who I think’s responsible again and again, and I want it to do something slightly different to your average crime novel. I’m very demanding but Kent does all three brilliantly in The Crooked House. The plot’s impeccably woven with reveal after reveal and the events of that evening are buried under a whole load of cover-ups. What I found most interesting though is she uses the murders and events that led up to them to look at women and, more specifically, whether a woman who has children could be capable of killing someone else’s child. Gripping and compelling, I highly recommend it.

Christobel Kent

I’m delighted to welcome Christobel Kent to the blog to talk about her literary influences:

When you think about literary influences the only way to avoid sounding crazily hubristic is to divide them, straight away, into two categories. In the first, let’s say unattainable, category would be the writers who first make you see what writing can do, in the hands of a genius (which you are not). These would be, in my case, the likes of Tolstoy (for humane intelligence, for characterisation, for his feel for the earth and landscape), James Joyce (for poetry, for daring, for sheer swashbuckling bravado and courage), John Updike (for exquisite style, for conveying what it is to be human and alive, at the most intimate molecular level), and Raymond Chandler, naturally, for wit and insouciance, for creating as perfect a private eye as ever lived (and thereby awarding himself a get out of jail free card, plot wise) and as marvellously, vividly evocative a noir landscape as the earth holds. These are the writers who first make you want to be a writer yourself, and in the same breath inform you that it is never going to happen.

It takes a while to get around this problem: the problem of whether there is any point in writing your novel if however long you stick at it you’re never going to be Tolstoy. You have to get older and wiser and less ambitious, and you have to read lots of novelists who are not Tolstoy but who can tell a story, whose unashamed ambition is to have readers on the edge of their seats and who invest their work with everything they’ve got.

Namely category two (and Raymond Chandler sits squarely in the overlap of my Venn diagram): writers who can show you how it’s done. In my case these are the entertainers who’ve chosen what is considered by some to be a lower form of art, the genre writers, the genres in my case being jointly the psychological thriller and the detective novel (I’ve written both) the study and enjoyment of which has taught me anything I know about technique, pacing, plot, style, tone and characterisation. The first crime writers I loved were Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith, perhaps as un-alike as two novelists could be but who between them teach that the genre that has room both for a bleak nihilist and a romantic Dante scholar is a capacious and elastic one, that brilliant crime novels just like all the other kind run on good characterisation, and that crime writing is a suitable job for a woman. Barbara Vine, who crossed over from the strict puzzle-solving school of crime writing as Ruth Rendell to something more expansive and atmospheric was another influence, and Henning Mankell, whose leisurely and idiosyncratic unfolding of plot combined with a remarkable feel for the quiet grey flatlands of southern Sweden and the limpid light of the far northern summers, and the gentle, insistent melancholy of his hero all inform us that Chandler is not dead.

It can take a while (I was forty before I began to write) but if you read widely and attentively in both these categories, if you allow your edges to be rubbed off and you keep your eyes and ears open eventually the way will open ahead of you, and it will become clear that there are after all ways of following in the footsteps of the great writers without imitating them or believing that you can rival them.

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Thirteen Years Ago

When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.

Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.

Is this how it begins?

Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.

Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.

Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.

Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.

Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.

Hands over your ears and never tell.

On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.

Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.

She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.

Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.
BOOM.

On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.

The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.

If that’s made you desperate to read the book, all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy is leave a comment below before 5pm (UK) Monday 27th April. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.

Thanks to Christobel Kent for the guest post and to Little, Brown for the review and giveaway copies.

Giveaway Winners

As usual, I’ve assigned everyone a number in order of entry:

1 – Anne Bradley
2 – Cate
3 – Snoakes
4 – Col
5 – Cathy746Books
6 – Helen Clayton
7 – Tina Holmes
8 – Elle
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – uneabeillelecture
11 – crimeworm
12 – Teresa Majury

And the winner is:

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 17.32.14

Congratulations Cate. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering and to Little, Brown for the prize.

Jennifer Close’s Favourite Books + The Smart One Review

I have an absolute treat for you today. I’m thrilled to welcome to the blog Jennifer Close, author of Girls in White Dresses and The Smart One. Jennifer’s kindly written about her favourite books by female writers and they’re corkers.

TOP 5 BOOKS BY WOMEN

Trying to narrow down my five favorite books is nearly impossible! Whenever someone asks me for book recommendations, I always end up rattling off a long list and then following up days later as I remember more fantastic novels. Below are some of my very favorites!

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank has been a favorite of mine for so many years. I first heard about it from a writing teacher in college and fell in love with the writing style and the characters. My copy is very well worn from reading it so many times. It’s just fantastic!

Maine by Courtney Sullivan combines family drama with a beach setting in Maine…what more could you ask for? It’s written from the perspective of four different women in the Kelleher family, and one of those books where the characters feel so real that you find yourself thinking about them well after you’ve finished the book.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is a boarding school novel, which is a subject that I love. There’s something fascinating about the setting and the rules (spoken and unspoken) of boarding schools. The narrator’s voice is wonderful and simple and you won’t be able to put it down.

The Dive From Claussen’s Pier by Ann Packer is a book that I read for the first time in grad school. There’s so many things I love about it—the setting (Madison, WI) is described so well, and as a reader you’re able to picture all the little details of the town from the shops to the restaurants to the houses. It’s also a love story, but an unusual one, and it feels very real. The last thing that’s so impressive is that on the first page, Packer manages to immediately create tension in a relationship and you’re swept up in the story as soon as you start it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is the only one on my list that isn’t a novel. This is a memoir/writing instruction book that I read in college. It changed the way that I viewed writing and my approach to it. I used to always get frustrated when I started to put a story down on paper, and feel like if I was struggling through a first draft that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. But Lamott describes the life of a writer, the challenges and frustrations and the crazy thoughts that we all have. Reading this book made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like I could keep writing. I reread it all the time and teach it to my fiction class at George Washington University. If you love writing, it is a must read.

Thanks to Jennifer for such a great list. I don’t know about you, but I’ve just added several of those to my TBR. While you’re visiting a book shop, there’s another book you might want to add to the list, Jennifer’s latest The Smart One.

Smart One, The

Claire Coffey, 29, NYC office worker is in trouble. Having split up with fiancé, Doug, she’s remained in the apartment they shared although she can’t afford it on her own.

She probably shouldn’t be ordering out, considering her money situation, but what difference did twenty more dollars on her credit card really make at this point? The credit card balance was so high, so unbelievable, that she was able to ignore it most of the time, to pretend there was no way she’d spent that much in the past six months. It just wasn’t possible.

Eventually, Claire has to come to terms with the fact she’s going to lose the apartment and the only real solution she has is to move home.

Already living back at home is Claire’s sister, Martha, 30. Martha’s a manager at a branch of J.Crew. She works hard, considering her job to be as important as any other. It’s a point of pride for her, so much so that when one of her employees quits unexpectedly, she says, ‘I hate it here…You’re like a Nazi’. Martha’s a registered nurse but she quit, moved back home and started seeing a therapist when it began to cause her anxiety:

She would lie awake for hour, wondering if she’d done everything she was supposed to. Had she given all of her patients their medications? Had she measured right? Had she filled out their charts? She was sure she was killing her patients, and that kept her awake, always.

And then there’s their younger brother, Max, college student, apple of their mother’s eye. Although his stunning girlfriend, Cleo, is not so popular with the rest of the family.

Weezy was immediately worried that she was too much for Max. She wanted Max to date someone just a little less stunning, someone who didn’t seem like she would break his heart so easily. And so, although Cleo seemed perfectly polite and nice, Weezy prayed every day that they would break up.

Weezy aka Louise Keller, got her nickname when she met Will, her husband, when they were freshmen. Weezy was a teacher for a year but hated it and wasn’t sorry to give it up when she became pregnant with Claire. Although she’s had jobs on and off since, she prefers being at home, organising the kids and her husband. Will is a lecturer whose had some success with a book in the 1980s which he’s now attempting to recreate.

The family come with a brilliant supporting cast – Claire’s best friend, Lainie; Weezy’s sister, Maureen and her children Drew and Cathy (and Cathy’s girlfriend, Ruth); Cleo’s mother, Elizabeth, and my favourite, Weezy and Maureen’s mother, Bets, who’s the queen of inappropriate comments and gifts.

The Smart One is the late 19th/early 20th family saga transported to the 21st century. Close considers modern issues of single living, career burnout, women’s choices, and the quarter-life crisis. Every character has a distinct personality/voice and the tensions of having an entire family in the same house are portrayed with skill. This is a novel to immerse yourself in.

 

Huge thanks to Jennifer Close for the guest post and to Vintage books for the review copy.

Back to Back by Julia Franck Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Jacqui’s third Independent Foreign Fiction Prize guest review is for a book that sounds brutal yet brilliant; another addition to the TBR shelf for me.

Scrolling through the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist at the beginning of March, one of the books I was particularly looking forward to reading was Back to Back. Julia Franck is a new author to me, but her critically-acclaimed earlier novel The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize and I was intrigued by the prospect of Franck’s latest one.

Back to Back opens in East Berlin in the late 1950s as Ella (aged eleven) and Thomas (aged ten) anticipate the imminent return of Käthe, their mother and only surviving parent. Having been left to fend for themselves for two weeks, the children spend hours feverishly cleaning the house from top to bottom. Thomas prepares a meal of lentil soup and Ella decorates the table with flowers freshly picked from their garden. Surely Käthe will be surprised and impressed by their efforts? But on her arrival Käthe notices virtually nothing of these preparations, choosing instead to snap at the children for failing to heat the soup properly and the lack of a salad to accompany their meal. She is a woman utterly wrapped up in her own world, one who seems to care little for her children:

But Käthe avoided hugging, it was as if she froze in physical proximity to anyone, she would press her arms close to her sides, stiffen her back, shake herself. There must be something she disliked about a hug; Thomas thought that was possible. She often used to tell the children: Don’t cling like that – when they were only close to her. There were never any hugs. (pg. 10)

At the end of this scene, in an attempt to gain their mother’s attention, the children decide to head off in a boat. Ella is confident they will be missed by supper time, but Käthe seems oblivious to the children’s absence, only realising they are missing once they return home days later dripping wet and shivering. Here’s Ella, a few years down the line, as she challenges her mother about this incident from their childhood:

Why didn’t you come looking for us when we were out in the boat? Ella called after her. You didn’t even notice we were missing! Not for three days, not for three nights, and all the time we were out on the stupid Müggelsee until our boat capsized. The water was icy. We were lucky it happened so close to the bank; who knows how long we could have swum in the lake? (pg.51)

This powerful opening gives the reader a taste of the children’s life with Käthe, a Jewish sculptor and avid supporter of the socialist ideology. Käthe, a self-centred and callous woman who cultivates relations with the State to further her career, is a formidable presence in the book. But it is Ella and Thomas who form the heart of the narrative; Back to Back carves the story of their adolescence.

These loving children find themselves on the receiving end of an unrelenting series of abuses, each sibling experiencing his or her own personal atrocities. Ella is subjected to rape and sexual molestation, first by Eduard (Käthe’s lover), then repeatedly by the family’s lodger (a member of the Stasi who has a hold over the family). Unwilling to tell her mother, Ella confides in Thomas but he is powerless to prevent these violations. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching debasement of all is metered out by Käthe herself on Ella’s sixteenth birthday. Suspecting her daughter of pilfering chocolate, nuts and raisins from the pantry, Käthe presents Ella with a mountain of sugar and triumphantly declares ‘you eat your sugar…only when you’ve finished it all up do you get something proper to eat again.’ (pg. 48)

Thomas, the more sensitive of the two siblings, also suffers at the hands of his mother as she forces him to pose for her sculptures naked and shivering in the cold. The teenage Thomas finds a release through poetry; he’s talented and dreams of becoming a writer, a journalist, but Käthe has other plans for his future. Dismayed at his lack of interest in the Party and the birth of a new society, she arranges for Thomas to undertake a ‘manual apprenticeship.’ On finishing school, the young and fragile Thomas is dispatched to a stone quarry to work for the ‘class struggle. The role turn out to be little more than slave labour; he experiences further abuse — both physical and emotional – and comes perilously close to being destroyed altogether.

In the final third of the novel, Thomas finds love in a tender and compassionate relationship with Marie, a ward sister at the local hospital. To reveal any more of the narrative at this stage would be unfair, save to say that this closing section is deeply affecting and worthy of the reader’s investment in this fine book.

Back to Back is an acutely penetrating and haunting book. Not an easy read, but one that will gnaw away at me for weeks to come. In one sense, this novel paints a picture of a heartless and indifferent mother. It gives us a window into the fractured lives of adolescents raised in such an environment, abandoned by their mother and subjected to systematic abuse at almost every turn. In another sense, it can be read on a more allegorical level with Käthe representing the harsh realities of the political system in place in the German Democratic Republic in the late 1950s and early 1960. It’s a regime that smothers the hopes and dreams of those who look to their guardian for support and encouragement in life; Thomas especially feels penned in by the Berlin Wall, trapped by its oppressive presence. The metaphor isn’t quite as straightforward as I’ve described there — Käthe is a complex character and past events have left their mark on her character — but it’s a plausible one nonetheless.

Franck’s prose, especially in the early sections of the narrative, is very much in tune with the tone of these themes. She writes in a style that is quite concentrated, a little close-knit in places and it took me a while to adjust to its pattern and rhythm. However, Franck is a very accomplished writer indeed and Anthea Bell’s translation is excellent. There are segments where the prose opens up and shines, particularly in the final third of the book….and once I fell into step with the cadence of its language, I found myself totally engrossed in Back to Back’s narrative, emotionally invested in Ella and Thomas’s characters. Their story becomes all the more poignant when we learn that Thomas’s poems, which appear throughout the novel, were written by Franck’s uncle (Gottlieb Friedrich Franck) as a young man; Julia Franck appears to be drawing on the roots of her own family history here.

Finally, turning to Back to Back’s chances as a contender for the IFFP…I consider it an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read so far this year. Back to Back has been ripping me apart since I finished it at the weekend; it’s right up there with the best of the longlisted titles for me.

Back to Back has also been reviewed by fellow shadow-group members Bellezza and Tony Messenger.

Back to Back is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.

Source: library copy.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Today it’s Jacqui’s second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize review. I have to say I’m very keen to read this now.

When the independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) longlist was announced in early March, I was thrilled to see Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge among the contenders. Ogawa is one of two female writers from Japan to make the cut this year; the other is Hiromi Kawakami for her novel Strange Weather in Tokyo which both Naomi and I have already reviewed for January in Japan, an annual focus on Japanese literature hosted by blogger (and fellow IFFP shadow-judge) Tony Malone (My review; Naomi’s review.)

Revenge is a stunning yet unsettling collection of eleven interlinked short stories; while each individual tale works as a short story in its own right, they are elegantly connected by a set of recurring images and signifiers threaded through the stories. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective has changed. It’s all very cleverly constructed and part of the satisfaction in reading Revenge comes from spotting the connections between characters, scenes and narrative fragments throughout the collection.

To give you an example, the collection opens with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ in which a woman visits a bakery to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday. At first the bakery appears to be empty, but then the woman notices the patissier standing in the kitchen sobbing gently while talking to someone on the telephone. This story ends before we learn more about the patissier but she reappears in the next tale (‘Fruit Juice’) where we discover the source of her sadness.  And strawberry shortcakes crop up again in a later story (‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’) when another girl buys cakes (from the same bakery, as it happens) for a dinner with her boyfriend.

The stories in Revenge explore some pretty dark themes, and in this respect there’s a clear connection to Ogawa’s earlier collection The Diving Pool, which Naomi and I both read earlier this year. In Revenge we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way. Many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness:

She was an inconspicuous girl, perhaps the quietest in our grade. She almost never spoke in class, and when asked to stand up and translate a passage from English, or to solve a math problem on the board, she did it as discreetly as possible, without fuss. She had no friends to speak of, belonged to no clubs, and she ate her lunch in a corner by herself. (pg 15)

Ogawa often describes characters in a way that suggests a certain fragile quality to their persona. They seem delicate, yet easily shattered or damaged:

The woman fell silent again and sat as still as a doll. In fact, everything about her was doll-like: her tiny figure, her porcelain skin, her bobbed hair. Her wrists and fingers and ankles were so delicate they seemed as though they would break if you touched them. (pg 132)

Desertion or rejection is another theme. In some stories Ogawa uses a forgotten building (like the abandoned Post Office we visit in ‘Fruit Juice’) to illustrate this feature; in others the characters themselves are the rejected ones:

As I walked, I recalled, one by one, all the times I had ever been rejected. This process had become something of a ritual with me since my husband’s affair had started. I would unearth memories, beginning in childhood, of places and occasions when someone had hurt me. In that way, I believed, I would see that my pain was due not only to my husband but to the cruelty of countless others besides. I found it somehow comforting to think that his coldness was in no way special or unique. (pg 124)

This all leads to some very disturbing behaviour indeed. Some of the stories explore the dark, sinister side of desire and how rejection or jealousy can precipitate acts of revenge.  There are some chilling scenes in this book, and one or two of them appear almost out of nowhere which makes them all the more disquieting…

And there are some very macabre images, too. I’ve already mentioned the Museum of Torture and in another story, ‘Old Mrs. J’ (one of my favourites from the collection), Mrs. J unearths from her garden a carrot in the shape of a hand:

It was plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed: five fingers, with a thick thumb and long finger in the middle. The greens looked like a scrap of lace decorating the wrist. (pg 31)

Ogawa uses some of these images to explore the theme of decay and death. We see dilapidated buildings which have faded over the years; tomatoes squashed and splattered on a road following an accident involving a lorry; and a strawberry shortcake is left to rot and harden, growing mould in the process:

‘It was like breathing in death’ (pg. 6)

And I wonder if some of the motifs running through these stories are coded references to bodily secretions. After all, as a character in ‘Lab Coats’ remarks ‘It’s amazing all the stuff that can ooze out of a body’(pg. 56)

Revenge is an excellent collection of short stories, each one adding new layers and connections to the overall narrative. On the surface Ogawa’s prose is clean and precise, beautifully captured by Stephen Snyder’s crystalline translation. And yet there’s an unsettling chill rippling through her work, an undercurrent of darkness if you like, which I find strangely alluring. Some of her stories have the feel of modern-day fairy tales, almost ethereal in their tone. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche and how chilling acts of darkness can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. In this respect, her work reminds me a little of some of David Lynch’s films, especially Blue Velvet which opens with its lead character making a gruesome discovery in a field. And others, including Natalie Haynes one of the judges for this year’s IFFP, have likened Revenge to some of Angela Carter’s stories. High praise indeed.

So, what about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, this is one of my personal favourites thus far, I must admit. Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award going and Revenge – her fourth book to be translated into English – has a great chance of making the IFFP shortlist.

Revenge is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.
Source: personal copy.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir – Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

Today is Jacqui’s (@JacquiWine) first guest post on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist which she is shadow judging, along with several other bloggers. You can find more information about it on my introductory post here.

The first IFFP longlist contender by a woman Jacqui’s reviewing here is Butterflies in November.

Butterflies in November is a quirky and darkly humorous novel narrated by a unnamed woman in her early thirties.  She has a talent for languages and earns a living as translator and proof-reader. The story opens in Reykjavik where our narrator is having quite an eventful day. Having being dumped by her lover she arrives home where her husband reveals he’s leaving her for another woman (a work colleague who happens to be pregnant with his baby).

Audur, a close friend of our narrator, persuades her to visit a medium/fortune-teller who predicts a journey ahead and a future involving money and love. After being told to buy lottery tickets, our narrator soon discovers that she has a double win on her hands, netting her a prefabricated summer bungalow coupled with a life-changing amount of money totalling several million kroner.

As a result of these events, she decides to restart her life by embarking on a road trip around Iceland with the intention of visiting the area she loved as a child, a location where her grandmother once lived. To complicate matters, though, Audur requires a huge favour of our protagonist. Just before the trip is due to commence, Audur, a single mother heavily pregnant with twins, twists her ankle. Complications with her pregnancy come to light and an extended stay in hospital is prescribed. She asks our narrator to look after Tumi, her four-year-old son who happens to be hearing-impaired, and seems keen for him to experience the trip. So, before she realises it, our narrator has agreed to look after Tumi and to take him with her on vacation…all this despite her apparent lack of both maternal instincts and previous experience of caring for a child.

These events form the first third of the book. The road trip itself plays out over the remainder of the novel as the couple encounter a variety of animals, birds and an Estonian choir who seem to crop up repeatedly. These sections of the novel remind me a little of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared with its cast of idiosyncratic characters and slightly surreal journey and I wonder if Butterflies might appeal to fans of this one.

As the story unfolds, we also learn more about our narrator through occasional glimpses into her own childhood and teenager years and these snapshots provide hints and clues as to the nature of her somewhat detached demeanour. If anything, I would have liked further exploration of these elements as they point towards significant darkness and sadness in her past…and I couldn’t quite piece all of these fragments together to form a coherent picture. Some of these recollections are quite distinct, others more opaque:

It’s as if everything were filtered through a veil of white silk or film, giving it a soft and blurred appearance, like the fading pages of an old psalm book or an over-exposed photograph. I think I’m in a white knitted woollen sweater. My cousins are also dressed in white, strange as it may sound, white tuxedos, so removed from reality, so close to the memory.

Butterflies in November is a slightly difficult novel to describe. Everything feels just a little off kilter. Peoples’ limbs and bodies can seem oddly out of proportion and characters (especially the protagonist’s husband) pop up and disappear again in the most unexpected places:

He has stood up and I realise how tall he is, he is literally towering over the table. He hands me a parcel wrapped in gilded paper, after fishing it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I finish the remains of two glasses before opening it, exhausting my annual ration of alcohol in a single day.

There’s a sense of time being stretched and then collapsed, distance too. Here are our narrator and Tumi in the Icelandic countryside:

I drag the little man with me onto the moor, moving swiftly in my leather boots, which sink into the soggy earth. After some initial effort to keep up with me he starts to drag his feet and falter, tripping over rocks, as I tow him over clusters of heather that scratch his calves, and stumbling against something every few metres, because the pile of stones that we are heading towards on this forsaken path always seems to remain at the same distance, at least another hundred years away.

It’s a novel that draws on the senses; one in which scents, smells and fabrics play a role as reminder of specific people or events. Perfumes, after-shaves and items of clothing appear as signifiers and there are other recurring motifs, too.

Darkly comic moments also feature, especially in the initial sections of the narrative, and these slightly surreal touches drew me into the opening scenes. The tone and mood shift somewhat as the trip unfolds and our narrator begins to develop a close and heartfelt bond with Tumi. We can see she’s undertaking and emotional journey as well as a physical one…and perhaps the butterfly (which makes a few fleeting appearances in the novel) is a metaphor for change and re-invention, signalling a transformation in her life as she learns to take more risks?

As Naomi mentions in her review, the novel ends with forty-seven rather unusual cooking recipes and one for knitting, although Ólafsdóttir accepts that some might be more suited to the page than the plate! And this addendum feels very much in tune with the off-beat, slightly surreal nature of the book.

In summary, I found Butterflies in November to be a quirky and enjoyable novel, although I preferred the first third of the book to the subsequent sections involving the road trip where the narrative just lost some of its momentum for me.

What about its chances as a contender for the IFFP? Well, it strikes me as an interesting inclusion on the longlist, but I’m not sure it’s quite strong enough to make it to the final six. There are a couple of other longlisted books by women writers that I’d place ahead of Butterflies in the pecking order – more about those books in future posts.

Butterflies in November has also been reviewed by fellow judge Stu.

Butterflies in November is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.
Source: personal copy.

Guest Post and Giveaway – The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Giveaway now closed.

At the beginning of 2013, I reviewed Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement for Bookmunch where I referred to it as ‘…a skillfully executed psychological thriller that is both charged and satisfying. I read it in one sitting’. I’ve also called it Gone Girl’s ‘grown-up cousin…darker, creepier, more believable’. Now, thanks to the lovely people at Vintage Books, not only can you win one of three copies of the book and discover for yourself just how good it is, I also have the pleasure of welcoming Chloe Hooper to the blog to tell you about the inspiration behind The Engagement.

A woman threatened with a forced betrothal is a perennial gothic storyline, I presume, because it captures women’s deep ambivalence about the prospect of tying the knot, and their desires and anxieties can then be played out in the hermetically sealed world of the novel. Of course, traditionally women couldn’t choose their own partners, but even today there’s plenty about marriage that should make the hair on the back of our necks stand up. Consider that the UK wedding industry generates $10 billion annually, but at least a third of these unions will end in divorce: when you think of the sheer cost, not to mention pain, for those involved these statistics are as scary as any haunted house…

Which is all to say, I wanted to update this old plot, without losing the gothic pile. My heroine, Leise, finds herself retrenched and in debt. She leaves the UK to work at her uncle’s estate agency in Melbourne. Here, she meets a lonely farmer, Alexander, who’s looking for a city apartment. Soon Liese is trysting with him in different properties around town—albeit for a fee.

Alexander invites her to spend the weekend with him at his country estate, and Liese agrees but soon after they arrive, he proposes to her, and she realizes she is trapped not only in his house but in his fantasy. In a way, this is a novel about two common fantasies colliding: Liese has been aroused by the idea of prostitution as an erotic game with easy money, while her client has been getting off on the idea he will save a fallen woman by marrying her.

At the end of the book, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is in control and whose fantasy is actually being acted out—making, I hope, for a psychologically complex modern thriller.

If that’s tickled your reading tastebuds, here’s how you can win a copy of the book. Leave a comment and share this post, either by using the buttons below or retweeting one of my tweets linking to the giveaway. I am accepting worldwide entries on this. The competition closes as 12pm GMT on Sunday 12th January. Winners will be selected at random and notified as soon as possible after entries have closed. Good luck!

Edit: I’ve allocated each entrant a number, in order of entry and put them into a random number generator which gave me the following:

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 12.09.33 Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 12.09.55 Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 12.10.19

 

Congratulations to Claire, Elena and Pooja, an email is on its way to each of you. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

 

The Disappearance of Emily Marr – Louise Candlish

One of the joys of blogging is discovering great writers who I might not otherwise have come across. My latest discovery has written eight novels and a short story collection. No, I’ve no idea how I missed her either. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Emily Marr is so engrossing I read it in less than 24 hours. And, you lucky people, not only do you get a review of the novel by me, you also get to discover the books that influenced Louise Candlish to write (all written by women) and there’s a chance to win a copy of The Disappearance of Emily Marr. Read on…

LouiseCandlish

The books that inspired me to write…in the order in which I read them

All the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books
I’m one of millions who grew up on Enid Blyton’s boarding school series and I know they must have inspired me to write because my first novel, produced when I was about twelve, was set in a boarding school. The title was Chopping & Changing (I seem to remember I insisted on the ampersand). I longed to go to boarding school myself – though now when I meet people who did they almost always say they loathed it.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
After Enid came Agatha. I have read everything she wrote and my favourite has always been Death on the Nile. For me it is the perfect crime novel. I was about eleven when I read it and it was a light-bulb moment, not so much in knowing I wanted to write as in knowing I would never find a greater pleasure than reading good fiction. And I was right, I never have.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
I always mention this one, the story of Sally Jay Gorce, an American in Paris in the Fifties. It was recommended by a friend, my first boss, and we dashed from lunch to a bookshop to hunt out a copy. It influenced my writing in that it made the creation of a good novel feel accessible, like something I could do too. Of course I now know that apparently effortless storytelling like this is one of the hardest things for a writer to pull off.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
I’m a Margaret Atwood superfan; she is the only author I’ve stood in a queue for in the rain to get my book signed. The Edible Woman was the last book I read before I started writing my first published novel, having taken a twenty-year break since the boarding school one. I remember I was in Italy at the time and got into a conversation about books with two Australian girls. I told them I’d started writing a novel but was already downhearted because my writing was so terrible compared to Atwood’s. They said, ‘Well, so is pretty much everyone else’s in the world, so you can’t let that put you off.’

The Country Life by Rachel Cusk
Cusk is one of my favourite writers. She’s very dark and my own books have a certain darkness so it’s likely her influence is in there somewhere. She’s a supreme stylist, very exact and spiky and intense. The Country Life is the story of Stella, who leaves the city for undisclosed reasons to work for a family in the country. The title suggests a rural idyll, but you are never going to get that from Cusk. I often feel shocked by her writing: a marvellous feeling.

Well I’ve definitely added some more books to my TBR and here’s another one you might want to include:

EmilyMarr

The Disappearance of Emily Marr begins with Tabby Dewhurst waking in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar town. Having been dumped by her boyfriend while travelling around the world, she’s found herself penniless in France. Leaving the scene of her one night stand, she finds herself in Ile de Ré and hearing a woman repeating the key code to her apartment door then leaving with a suitcase in tow, lets herself into the flat.

Tabby is fast asleep in the spare room when Emily Marr returns and, in a twist explained later in the novel, allows Tabby to stay. The novel then continues as a dual narrative alternate chapters telling Tabby’s story in third person and Emily telling her own in first person. Like Tabby, we’re placed in a position of ignorance – as Tabby has been away from England for several months, she has no idea who Emily is, although we are soon informed that at least one newspaper has run a story about her with the headline ‘IS THIS BRITAIN’S MOST HATED WOMAN?’ What Emily has done to deserve this and the two huge twists that come during the novel will have you turning the pages as fast as you can read.

Thanks to Louise’s publishers, Sphere, I have one copy of The Disappearance of Emily Marr to give away. Competition now closed. See below for the winner.

You can also buy the book here (and at your local independent bookshop). Louise has also written three short stories available for your Kindle with the first few chapters of The Disappearance of Emily Marr included. Summer Affairs is here for a bargain 99p.

Louise has been on a blog tour for the past week. If you’d like to read more about her and her work checkout the poster below. You can also read more about Louise on her website http://www.louisecandlish.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter @louise_candlish

Emily Marr blog tour poster

My new random generator has selected a winner:

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Congratulations, Cath. The book will be on its way to you shortly. Commiserations everyone else; thanks for entering.

Thanks to Sphere for the review copy.

Kerry Hudson on the Women Who Inspired Her Debut Novel ‘Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma’

One of my favourite books of last year was the amazingly titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. In my end of year top ten, I wrote:

I knew I was going to love this book when I opened it and read the first line: ‘Get out, you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!’ were the first words I ever heard.

This is the story of Janie Ryan’s childhood. It is one filled with poverty, unsuitable men and grotty accommodation. It is also one of humour and ultimately, hope. Some of the book upset me enormously because it was so well written Janie’s life seemed real – I have taught children who’ve lived with/through similar circumstances and they aren’t pleasant. But they deserve to have a voice. This is a true working class novel, showing both grimness and stoicism.

Since its publication last July, Kerry Hudson’s debut novel has been shortlisted for the Southbank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year. If that isn’t enough to convince you to read it then hopefully this post will!

Tony Hogan pbk

On the eve of the paperback launch of the book, Kerry’s kindly written about the women who inspired Tony Hogan:

Like Janie Ryan, the protagonist of my debut novel, I was born into a clan of matriarchal Aberdonian fishwives. There were men around of course but it was the women who dominated the conversation at the pub and who held court around the kitchen table. There were hundreds of family stories dating back generations and as I filled up my belly with mince, tatties and skirlie (a type of oatmeal and onion fried-up mix), a buttery (a kind of flat croissant) or a bottle of coke and bag of crisps my head would be filled by their stories of feuds, love affairs, stormy seas where men were lost and miraculous bingo wins. My favourite story back then was one about my grandma as a child, beloved to the point of ruin to my great-grandda, demanding the biggest Easter egg in the shop and then smashing it over his head during a temper tantrum on the bus home.

Like any close-knit community gossip was rife and my wee ears (a small jug with big ears as my Ma would say) would hear all about who had a row with who, drinks thrown in faces, women taking to drink, kids being taken into care, who had got ‘The big C’, whose Da was off to prison or too ‘handy with their fists’. It wasn’t a malicious type of gossip, not around our kitchen table at least, it was a chatter about the people around them. As an adult I think that gossip was them working out the world around them, trying to understand it. My great-grandma loved sensationalised crime stories with plenty of gory detail, my grandma swore by Catherine Cookson, my ma graduated onto Dickens and Marcus Aurelius…each generation changed and evolved but around a table, after a few jars, it was whoever had the juiciest tit-bit, whoever shouted the loudest who got to tell their story.

As well as those stories were ones from the, to me, mythical fish houses. For generations back the women in my family worked Aberdeen’s fish houses while the men went out to sea (or drank, or gambled, or all three). Born just after the oil industry ‘black gold’ boom in Aberdeen, I was the first generation not to work the ‘hoosies’. But I loved the stories; how my ma, heavily pregnant with me would pack fish till her hands were blue and cracking from the ice water but that the Friday lunchtime treat of fish and chips with ‘the girls’ made that a bit better. Or how fast grandma was with a filleting knife, how, after months of intimidation and mockery from a family of fishwives who didn’t want her there (they were often brutal places, the fish houses) and being called a cunt she held a knife to one of their throats and said ‘I’m a good cunt, I’m a clean cunt and I care a cunt for no cunt, right cunt?’

Me and my ma left Aberdeen when I was five, on a National Express coach, only returning for weddings and funerals, but those stories went with me; stored up in the slats of my rubs, a soft part of my belly. And when it was time to sit down, in Vietnam of all places, and write my first book about that world, I felt all the strong, proud, fearless, hard-working women of my family at my back; whispering their stories as I sat down to write mine.

You can buy the paperback (or the ebook, if you prefer) from all the usual places (click the name of the shop to take you directly to the book):

Amazon

Waterstones

Hive

Or you could enter Kerry’s Twitter competition to win a signed copy of the novel:

‘Want to win a signed copy of Tony Hogan? I’m  trying to put together a Tony Hogan soundtrack. Simply submit your song suggestion to me @kerryswindow on Twitter with the hashtag #tonyhogantune by the end of Monday 8th of July. If your song is one of the ten selected for the soundtrack (and you were the first to suggest it!) I’ll send you a signed copy of Tony Hogan.’

You can find out more about Kerry at her website: www.kerryhudson.co.uk and by following this week’s #tonyhogantour, details of which can be found here. Tomorrow, Kerry will be over at The Little Reader Library talking about the first year of publication.

Thanks to Kerry for such a great post and do read the book, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Twilight – Reviewed by Charlotte Rodgers

We ran a series of competitions in school to celebrate the Reading Week we were staging across our ‘family’ of schools. Charlotte Rodgers won the KS4 Book Review category and was the overall winner, as chosen by our head teacher. She won a Kindle and the opportunity to have her review published. So here it is:

Vampires: Undead, widow-peaked blood-suckers that leap out from coffins and prey on the innocent, right?

Wrong!

Thanks to the bestselling series Twilight by vampire expert extraordinaire Stephanie Meyer, this obviously false stereotype is completely done away with and replaced by what is most definitely a more correct alternative; they now sparkle, live in huge modernised houses and lust after teenaged girls! Oh, how Bram Stoker’s face must be red.

The series follows 17-year-old Bella Swan as she moves away from sunny Phoenix in Arizona to the dreary little town of Forks, Washington. It is there that she meets the brooding, mysterious, somewhat icy (pun intended) and sparkly Edward Cullen along with his equally glittery family. Whilst the hormones of just about any other teenaged boy in school are going wild at the sight of the sullen beauty that is Miss Swan, copper-haired (her words, not mine) Edward shows no interest whatsoever, even appearing to be disgusted at the very sight of her! Poor dear, life is just too cruel.

But anyway. We are treated to a dismal nine chapters of Bella and the chronicles of her adventures in Forks, including meeting the Quileute boy Jacob Black (later revealed to be a werewolf-human boys in this book are rarer than the supernatural ones), who tells her a rather interesting tale about wolves and vampires fighting and killing each other and so on, so forth…

…yadayadayda. It makes Bella suspect that Edward is a vampire. And thanks to a handy little thing called Google, she is able to research the walking/talking icicle before an almost-rape encounter leads to a not-so coincidental meeting between the two.

In other words, he was stalking her. And she finds it incredibly romantic.

She later outs him as a vampire and, despite his warnings (which could have saved a later three sequels and a hell of a lot of paper) the two begin a relationship. A relationship which, according to the National Domestic Abuse hotline, ticks the boxes of all fifteen criteria for an unhealthy relationship. These little gems include: threatening to commit suicide (book two, check.), making all the decisions for the two of them (uh, every book, mega check.), and, of course, threatening to kill you. Something Edward likes to remind Bella he could do at every chance he gets.

Let me put it this way; if I had a penny for every time Mr. Sullen reminds his air-headed amour that he wants to drink her blood, I would have enough money for a refund, as well as something with which to gouge my eyes out and save myself from reading this pile of drivel.

Unfortunately, many other girls my age (and embarrassingly so, mothers of these poor dears) do not share my sentiments. As a series, Twilight has sold over 116 million copies worldwide and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller lists for over 235 weeks. Oh, and have been adapted into five immensely popular films, starring the marvellously miserable Kristen Stewart as Bella. Personally, I think half the time she appears on screen, she is finding the story just as bland and tasteless as I.

Ridiculed and mocked online and in forums, it has even spawned the “still a better love story than Twilight” meme, a comment commonly used as a response towards pairings, animals, or even day-to-day objects, saying that the connection between them is better than the relationships portrayed in the series.

The majority of Twilight’s audience is preteen to teenage girls, and so would not have an inkling of a clue as to how adult relations work, even more so than Bella Swan herself. This, I think, has contributed towards the book’s popularity; because they only see it as a silly, supernatural love story, they continue reading and fuelling sales whilst simultaneously filling Meyer’s pocket. The poor plotline cannot even be saved by decent writing, either. A suitable comparison to Twilight would be that of a fan fiction written by a half-educated tween girl, fawning over a couple and treating the gloomy male protagonist like some kind of statuesque Greek Adonis.

Around 40% of the book is our damsel in distress feeling the need to remind us of just how damn good looking her man is. This is not an exaggeration.

Overflowing with enough lines to make you cringe in embarrassment and a cast full of paper-thin characters, I would only recommend Twilight to those who have but a single brain cell remaining, and for some reason would like to brutally torture it before exposing it to a cruel, slow and painful death.

As for me, I think I’ll stick to Harry Potter, thanks