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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I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg

This book is described in the publisher’s PR as a comedy, and while it has comic moments, that’s not really how I would describe it. Or at least, it’s not how I experienced it. I did, however, really enjoy it.

This is the story of Andrea, a woman living in New York at that point in life (39, turning 40) when she interrogates her life choices – how she stopped pursuing art and took a job in advertising that she dislikes yet is somehow still doing 10 years later; how despite a string of love affairs she is basically single and basically fine with that; how she has fallen away from friends and family who have got married and had children as she has realised that she doesn’t want those things for herself.

“A book is published. It’s a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married, and it is a critical yet wistful remembrance of her uncoupled days. I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know. Regardless, everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in modern Manhattan. Nothing will prevent them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic.”

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In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

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You see nothing but what you’re looking for

summer bookThe Summer Book
by Tove Jansson
translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal

This Scandinavian modern classic isn’t well known over here. I forget which book blogger alerted me to its existence but whoever you are, thank you! It is a thoroughly lovely book.

It’s the story of young Sophia (her age is never given exactly) and her grandmother over the course of a few summers spent at their family home on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The events are mostly small, such as Sophia’s first camping experience or going “gathering”. (Note: I’m not sure if the quotes I’ve chosen convey this, but I did find the writing style took some getting used to. It feels a little simplistic, as if a child is being addressed. But once used to it I enjoyed this style.)

“Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones…Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk.”

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Sunday Salon: Merry Christmas!

The Sunday SalonI hope you are all having wonderful Christmases/end-of-year breaks. It’s still unseasonably warm and our time with family was brief, but it’s been lovely. We had a big family party at my Grandad’s yesterday for the first time in years and it was just like the Boxing Days of my childhood – completely wonderful.

Did you get any good presents for Christmas? I got the usual mix of DVDs, CDs, chocolate and random awesomeness, such as a diary stuffed with tickets for awesome events throughout 2016 (Tim’s pretty great at gift-giving). And of course, as usual, I got lots of books. I love getting new books, always.

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I am more than I can dream of

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

The Looking-Glass Sisters
by Gøhril Gabrielsen
translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Once again, I feel that I haven’t given a Peirene book a fair chance. These short novels are intended to be read in a single sitting and those I have read in a couple of large chunks do seem to be those I have enjoyed more. I haven’t had huge chunks of free time lately, so my reading has been split into 20 minutes here and there, which I don’t think really does any book justice.

But I digress. I should tell you about this book.

It’s the story of two middle-aged sisters, Ragna and her younger sister, who narrates the book. The narrator suffered a childhood illness that has left her body severely weakened, so that she never leaves the house and is largely dependent on Ragna. They have lived together alone since the death of their parents and their relationship is bitter and twisted, but it works…until a man comes into Ragna’s life. Johan upsets the delicate balance, revealing alternative paths for the sisters.

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This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

usUs
by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

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It became frightening to step back onto firm ground

getting-the-pictureGetting the Picture
by Sarah Salway

When new publisher Dean Street Press offered up any of their books for review, I picked this one partly because the synopsis sounded good but mostly because they had a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. Not the greatest reason but I think it worked out.

The book opens with Maureen accompanying her model friend Pat to a photographer’s studio. Maureen is married with a young child and the photographer, Martin, specialises in nude portraits – tasteful ones, but nudes all the same – so Maureen is nervous to be there but undeniably attracted to Martin. Cut to 40 years later and Martin is moving into a retirement home. He writes a letter to Maureen to tell her that he picked the same home that her husband George is in, because he wants to finally understand why she went back to her husband after their affair ended.

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