A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

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Sunday Salon: Book lists

The Sunday SalonI love lists. I especially love lists of books where I can tick off the ones I’ve read – which usually, though not always, makes me feel good about myself. I have a few lists that I have created myself, such as the Luke Cage Reading List, plus I have my own version of the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge, heavily edited by me on my many rewatches of the show (which have actually become much rarer for me since the frankly disappointing Netflix reboot).

The only list that I have set myself as a goal to complete is the Classics Club, and even that one is open to being changed over the five years of the challenge. I’m currently a little behind on that but at halfway through the challenge period I’m not too worried.

Every few years I do a quick count of how many books I have read from certain prize lists (I generally do best at the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and one day I will actually store that information in a spreadsheet so that I don’t need to start from scratch each time.

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The delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box

A Little Knowledge
by Emma Newman

This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds, a fantasy series that Newman started in 2013 with Between Two Thorns. This review may contain spoilers for the previous three books.

The story still centres on Cathy – one of the “fae-touched” humans, whose life is controlled by the Fae – and Max, whose job is to protect innocent humans from magical misdeeds, such as being disappeared. Cathy must now live in the Nether, a magical reflection of the human world, known as Mundanus. Though she theoretically inhabits a powerful position in fae-touched society, she is frustrated by the confines of an extremely patriarchal system. Her experience in Mundanus exposed her to feminism and women’s rights – thoroughly foreign concepts in the Nether. But the resistance to her proposed changes is so extreme that she wonders if something else is going on.

“It didn’t help that at social events she just wanted to sneak off and read a book, like she had as a child. Although Cathy understood that wasn’t possible anymore, it was too much of a leap to suddenly acquire all the social delicacy and insight now required of her. Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it.”

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Like a cactus you grow without bothering anyone

Me and You
by Niccolò Ammaniti
translated from Italian by Kylee Doust

Back in 2003 I reviewed Ammaniti’s bestselling novel I’m Not Scared for my student newspaper. I loved it, but I read a lot of great books that year and quickly forgot that particular one. When this novel came out and got positive reviews I recognised Ammaniti’s name but couldn’t place it. So it sat on my TBR for years before I finally picked it up – primarily because I wanted a short book to read.

This does what all good novellas do: keeps the story simple but emotionally powerful. It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me catch my breath in shock. A misfit teenage boy narrator might be an old trope but Ammaniti does something original with it. And Lorenzo is not just any teenage misfit.

One February morning, 14-year-old Lorenzo packs for a skiing holiday with friends. He says goodbye to his family and then proceeds to hide in a rarely used cellar in the basement of his family’s apartment building. For a week.

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May 2017 round-up

Emily, Countess of Kildare

Summer arrived! And it was glorious. It probably did my physical health no good, but mentally I was definitely smiling from ear to ear every sunny evening. I do love a sunny evening. I’d take rainy mornings anytime if I could have those long, warm evenings.

Anyway, this month I finally ran my 10k race. It was really hard (turns out I should have tried to train with my brother at some point rather than discovering on the day that he runs just a little bit faster than me – I kept up for 6k and felt like I might die, but then I slowed down and actually made it to the end without walking and with a PB time) but I’m really pleased with my personal achievement and with having been able to raise a decent amount of money for charity.

We took advantage of the bank holidays and nice weather to have some weekend fun. We went to Tyntesfield, a National Trust property just outside Bristol with nice gardens and remarkably tame cows. We spent a long weekend in Liverpool noodling around museums and art galleries, and concluded that there is too much there to see and do in just one weekend. We went to Cardiff for the Diffusion photography festival, which included some really impressive stuff. And we spent lots of time hanging out around Bristol harbour, particularly the redeveloped Gaol Ferry Steps, which is such a nice place to be.

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Our words are trapped in time

House of Names
by Colm Tóibín

I’ve been meaning to read more Tóibín since I enjoyed his book Brooklyn last year, so I was excited to spot his latest novel on NetGalley. It’s a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Clytemnestra, which I only loosely knew beforehand. Luckily an epigraph sketches it out, so that you start the book knowing how the story will pan out.

In common with some other myth retellings I’ve read, I initially found the language stilted, keeping me at a distance, but I gradually stopped noticing the old-fashioned style and instead enjoyed the beauty of the language. In the story, Tóibín has managed to be much less old-fashioned, primarily by telling much of it from the women’s perspectives. The opening section is narrated by Clytemnestra. Later her younger daughter Electra picks up the narration. But when Electra’s brother Orestes’ story is told it’s from a third-person perspective.

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Sunday Salon: Liverpool

The Sunday SalonI just want to post a quick photo blitz from our long weekend in Liverpool. We had a really fun four days there. Our trip coincided with the tail end of the LOOK/17 photography festival. We didn’t catch all of it but our favourite was Ho Fan‘s photos of Hong Kong at the Museum of Liverpool (which is a lot like the M Shed in Bristol but much bigger).

We took advantage of the sunshine last Sunday to pop up the coast to Crosby Beach to see Antony Gormley’s art installation Another Place. It’s so effective, even surrounded by beachgoers.

Untitled

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Impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state

Finding George Orwell in Burma
by Emma Larkin

When I said I was reading Burmese Days by George Orwell a few people recommended I read this next. I started it almost immediately after the Orwell book, but it took me a while to get through. I agree that it’s a fantastic reference work, but is it a good read?

The title is a fairly good description of the book. Emma Larkin – the pseudonym of an American journalist living in Thailand who has travelled to Myanmar (which she tends to call Burma throughout) many times – used researching Orwell’s time in Burma as a structure (or perhaps an excuse) for her year-long travel across Myanmar, speaking to people there who remembered Orwell or British rule in general, but also to people willing to open up about life in Myanmar.

The first point that strikes me is that this book was first published (under a slightly different title) in 2004, and even this edition with an epilogue from 2011 is a little out of date already. While it’s extremely useful as a recent history, I was always aware while reading it that this probably isn’t the current state of affairs in Myanmar.

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The vast, unsentient reality that’s always present

Thin Air
by Michelle Paver

When this was picked for my book club I was pleased because I really enjoyed Paver’s previous novel Dark Matter. However, this was basically the same story in a different setting and not done quite as well. I still enjoyed it, but there was the missed opportunity here to be a little more original.

Dr Stephen Pearce has joined his brother Kit’s mountaineering expedition at the last minute because they need a medic. But this isn’t just any jaunt up a mountain; this is an attempt to be the first to successfully climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, straddling the border of Nepal and India.

It’s the early 1930s and rich Europeans are obsessed with racing each other to the extreme points of the world. Kit’s plan is to follow in the footsteps of his hero Edmund Lyell, whose disastrous 1907 expedition came the closest to date to reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga. Stephen dislikes this idea and feels they should strike their own path, especially after an ominous warning from the last survivor of the Lyell expedition, Charles Tennant. But Stephen is not only the newbie to the group, but also the least experienced climber, and as such has no real vote.

Stephen is frustrated that fog obscures the view of Kangchenjunga for weeks before he gets his first glimpse. He’s spooked by Tennant’s warning and any reminder of the Lyell expedition. But there’s something else as well, a shadowy figure on the mountain that at first Stephen dismisses as a trick of the light, but later becomes convinced is a ghost, and not the harmless kind.

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