Fantasy with a healthy dose of reality: Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith

Ivy is not having a good week. She’s just lost her job at the Eirecom call centre. Strange men are loitering outside her flat. And now, her reclusive, plant-obsessed flatmate has disappeared, and Ivy might be the only person who can find her.

Court of Twilight Mareth Griffith.png

Blending contemporary life with ancient mythology, Court of Twilight is an inventive fantasy novel set in modern-day Dublin. The book follows 20-year-old Ivy, newly unemployed, as she searches for her flatmate. Along the way she relearns everything she thought she knew about fairytales.

The success of Court of Twilight hinges on the characterisation of Ivy. Thankfully, Ivy is convincing and extremely relatable. She is doggedly determined, and takes everyday and otherworldly challenges in her stride. I love the blending of normality with fantasy here—Ivy is as likely to be hunting for a new job as she is hunting down fairytale life forms. There’s a grounded realism you don’t often experience in fantasy novels.

Occasionally Ivy is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to acknowledging the magic being revealed around her. But just because I know Ivy’s in a fantasy novel, doesn’t mean she does. I expect magic around every corner, but she’s more worried about how annoyed her flatmate will be if she kills of all her plants. I loved Ivy’s relationship with her flamate, Demi. These are not sisters who have sworn to defend each other until death. They’re two people who have been thrown together by circumstance, whose friendship has slowly blossomed in spite of their various idiosyncrasies. But Ivy won’t let anything or anyone stop her from helping Demi.

Characterisation elsewhere was also strong. Each person has their own individual agenda, and even the characters we like the most act questionably. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity, which makes Court of Twilight an arresting and unpredictable read. There’s a level of threat beyond classic “good versus evil”, which was refreshing. Pacing is leisurely, but this was never a problem for me, particularly as the build up to the denouement was excellent.

Everything about this felt new and imaginative—the concept of the novel as a whole, the kind of threats faced by the characters, the concept of the fantastical elements. I never knew where it was going and I’m desperate for the sequel so that my questions can be answered.

Favourite quotation: “Ambrose, for his part, didn’t look terribly happy, either…Then again, Ivy had never seen Ambrose in anything remotely close to a pleasant mood. Perhaps being irritable was simply a permanent feature, like a receding hairline, or a bulbous nose.”

Mareth Griffith, Court of Twilight (Parvus Press, 2017)

Thank you to Mareth Griffith and Parvus Press via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Innovative magical textbook: Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Owen Macready is your average 13-year-old boy. In fact, he prides himself on his averageness: average grades, average looks, average life. When Owen obtains a magical spell book, however, his life becomes anything but average. He must keep the book safe from the evil Euclideans and mafia henchmen, protect his friends, and try to bring his family back together.

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Boy finds spell book, boy finds he can do magic, boy must fight evil in order to save the world. It’s been done before, you might think. But Sorcery for Beginners, like its protagonist, is far from average. The book is formatted as a textbook, so that the reader can learn magic along with Owen. Owen’s story is presented as a case study, demonstrating the practicalities and pitfalls of learning magic, and the values expected of magical candidates. Accompanying the case study there are instructions for spells, diagrams, and tidbits of trivia.

It’s a clever way of presenting a classic good versus evil story in a refreshing way. The illustrations and typography by Juliane Crump are fantastic—I especially love the pages outlining how to do spells, and the images of the Codex Arcanum. The trivia asides are often very funny:
Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence has not been proven (or accepted) by the world at large. It is but one of many so-called Arcane Fields, which include Sorcery, Alchemy, Time Manipulation, Paranormal Studies, Inter-Dimensional Travel, and Cryptocartography. Each is deserving of its own easy-to-read help guide, but I do have a life, you know. (p.402).
Occasionally, however, both trivia and illustrations were a little distracting. I found it off-putting that sometimes the illustrations do not match up with what is described in the text (on pp.359-360, for example, a “line of dark figures” is replaced with a helicopter in the illustration). When in a particularly tense sequence, having to break the flow of the story to read an informative footnote broke my sense of immersion. This could have been helped by having more trivia towards the beginning of the book, and less at key plot points.

The plot itself is action-packed with plenty of excitement to keep you reading. The prose is lively and accessible, and the characters engaging and relatable, especially Owen and Perry. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative spell-casting, which combines some sort of Tai Chi-inspired somatic movements with magical objects and incantations in various languages.

There were a number of formatting issues in the kindle edition I read, which I understand have now been resolved.

Overall, a hugely enjoyable read, ideal for fans of Eoin Colfer and Lemony Snicket.

Favourite quotation: “Old English is an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate.” p.28.

Matt Harry, Sorcery for Beginners (Inkshares, 2017)

Imaginative and unpredictable: Keith Rosson’s Smoke City

This book is mad. And I mean that in the best way. I don’t think I’ve read anything this imaginative or unpredictable in a long time. Smoke City has three interweaving narratives. Fistly, we have the story of Mike Vale, a self-destructive, alcoholic, washed-up artist. Secondly, we have Marvin Deitz, an unassuming record shop owner, who’s trying to convince his therapist he only has one week left to live. Finally, we have the mysterious spectres (smokes) who are appearing all over the country – silent, insubstantial, vaguely ominous. By the way, Marvin is also the reincarnation of Geoffroy, the man responsible for the death of Joan of Arc. The book traverses the 15th and 21st century, as we learn about Geoffroy’s experiences of executing and torturing: “The prisoners themselves became interchangeable. Bodies were interchangeable. There was little to differentiate one man from the next; such was the raw honesty of the flesh.”

Smoke City Keith Rosson

I spent much of the first part of the novel wondering how on earth all of these rather disparate storylines would weave together. Even though I was unsure of where the story was heading, I felt in safe hands, as Keith Rosson’s writing is just fantastic. It’s not every author who can cover the topics of death, torture, and art, and do so in a way that’s lyrical and vivid. His descriptions of the troubled lives of Mike, Marvin, and Marvin’s previous life, Geoffroy, are raw, brutal, and honest. In these two (two and a half?) characters, we have some of the least appealing protagonists I have perhaps come across. A reincarnated torturer and executioner. An artist whose reliance on alcohol has lead him to betray himself and those closest to him. And yet Rosson’s brilliance is in getting the reader to empathise with these characters, even cheer them on their way.

When those storylines finally weave together, it’s eminently satisfying. Everything finally makes sense. Of course this book is about a failed artist, ghosts, and a reincarnated executioner. What else would I want to read about?

Favourite quotation: “I was intimately familiar with death and its equations. I had long been intimate with the stilled architecture of the corpse. The decay, the sugary-sweet stink of it all, the odor like a mixture of shit and rotten fruit. The primacy of rotted meat. The simple subtraction of animation pulled from a body, a face. Doing all I had done throughout the centuries, I knew death. I wanted it. I sought it, courted it. And yet none of that mattered when I stepped onto the fourth floor. There, I raged against death, I leaned snarling against it.”

Keith Rosson, Smoke City (Meerkat Press, 2018)

I received a free advance copy of this book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. 

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

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Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)

 

Books with pink covers – Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

Ever the admirer of Desert Island Discs, I found myself listening to Marian Keyes one day. I’d never read any of her books, but writers talking about life and books and music has to be one of my favourite things, so I gave the episode my full attention. I was captured by how warmly and openly she spoke about mental health and addiction and how this finds its way into her writing. Early on, she talks about being pigeon-holed as a “popular” writer, and Kirsty Young asks her why she thinks she’s put in such categories:

“Because I’m a woman. And because, for good or for ill, lots of women enjoy my books, and they relate to them. And in my own little way I feel that they are quite empowering. And I think that anything that empowers women […] has to be slapped down. And so if we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish, it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place. And I know so many men will be listening to this and thinking, ‘that’s not true’. But it absolutely is true. […] I am very proud of the books I write and the reach that they have. I’m prepared to put up with a pink cover if it makes me more accessible. I don’t see anything wrong with being accessible. It would sadden me to write a book that was only read by seven people. It’s that choice. But it means then that I am patronised, and categorised as […] not terribly clever.” (5:40-7:40)

Guiltily, I remembered how doggedly I avoid any book with a pink cover. “My God,” I thought, “I’m part of the problem.” My solution: to immediately go out and acquire a book by Marian Keyes. Lacking the funds necessary for a trip to the bookshop, I set off to my local library. I found three books by Keyes. This Charming Man was just too pink. I baulked. The Woman who Stole my Life seemed an improvement, but didn’t immediately grab me. The final book I found was Sushi for Beginners. Not too pink, and about editing, a topic I love reading about. Perfect! The editing of a women’s magazine, to be sure, but better than nothing. It’s also a decidedly thick book at 564 pages. I took this as a good sign.

Sushi for Beginners Marian Keyes

During the first few pages I was nervous. The women in the book talked a lot about shoes and make-up. Horoscopes were mentioned. I was out of my depth and dangerously close to becoming judgmental. I can spot the precise moment Keyes converted me. It didn’t even take long. 18 pages, in fact. “Trix…had the glittery, luscious-sticky look of a devotee of the more-is-more school of slapplication.” I laughed aloud, disrupting my fellow quiet café-goers with my unrestrained mirth. Soon I found myself abandoning the other book I was reading (The Long War) in favour of Sushi for Beginners. Me! Abandoning science fiction for women’s fiction? What was happening to me?

The short answer is that I had discovered that not all women’s fiction has to have bland, stock characters, or predictable storylines. Keyes’s writing is witty and knowing, accessible but not patronising. And the characters are just so likeable. At numerous stages I found myself wishing I were their friend, or thinking, “other people feel like this? I didn’t know!” Yes, the characters talk about men and handbags and lipstick. But they also talk about depression and homelessness. Even the obsession with horoscopes has a genuine, character-driven reason for being there. It’s about the character’s need for control and order, growing out of her disordered, disrupted childhood. It’s not just, “because she’s a woman. And women who read books with pink covers like horoscopes”. Here’s one of my favourite moments of Keyes putting into words those feelings that don’t get talked about:

“She was surprised to find she was happy to be with a crowd and happy to be on its edges. Such contentment was rare: all Ashling knew was that she almost never felt whole. Even at her most fulfilled, something remained forever absent, right at her very core. Like the tiny, pinprick dot that remained in the wash of black when the telly used to shut down for the night. But tonight she was calm and peaceful, alone but not lonely.” (p.45).

There are so many insightful moments like this. Moments that hold a mirror up to your life, for better and worse, and then tell you it’s all ok.

Not all the characters are likeable. They are real people, bitchy, selfish, and they make mistakes. One of the characters ends the novel learning that not all of those mistakes can be forgiven. It shocked me that one of the main characters didn’t end up with the rose-tinted (pink) ending that I was expecting. It stayed with me for quite some time.

My name’s Anouska. I’m a feminist, and I like books with pink covers.

Favourite quotation: “He didn’t know much about girls’ hair, but he had a feeling that it was usually more elaborate than this one’s. Wasn’t it normal to have a kind of interfered look to it? Surely it shouldn’t just hang there on her shoulders, being brown?” p.20.

Sarah Taylor (producer) and Kirsty Young (presenter), ‘Marian Keyes, Desert Island Discs’, BBC Radio 4, 17 Mar 2017 [accessed 25 April 2017]
Marian Keyes, Sushi for Beginners (Michael Joseph, 2000)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians follows the standard fantasy arc of: boy discovers magic is real, boy goes to magical school, boy and friends visit magical worlds and have magical adventures. But the difference here is that Quentin Coldwater is as angst-ridden a teenager as you’ll ever come across. This is not just a book about magical adventures, but the sex- and alcohol-fuelled adventures of growing up. The concept of a mopey, depressed hero who is constantly dissatisfied with life is one I find rather appealing. Add magic into the mix, and I figured Lev Grossman was onto a winning combination. However, on reading The Magicians I found myself disappointed at every page turn.

TheMagicians by Lev Grossman

Grossman is deeply indebted to various other fantasy franchises, and is hyper-aware of this. His central character, Quentin, constantly compares his own magical experiences with a series of children’s books he never quite grew out of – the “Fillory” books by Christopher Plover (which are modelled on C. S. Lewis’s Narnia). The Magicians felt to me like it lacked really detailed world creation. I feel like I could ask J. K. Rowling any question about how magic functions in her world, and she’d be able to give me a detailed answer, probably with citations of magical academics of her own invention. I’m not sure Grossman would be able to do the same. What lore there is seems to have been borrowed from other sources. Grossman writes in depth about the various allusions in The Magicians:
“I had a rule for myself with The Magicians, which was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in the Magiciansverse. So for example, even though the characters go to a college for magic, I also thought that they all should have read Harry Potter. Inevitably little references to him creep into their conversation. I didn’t go overboard with it, because that would have gotten too cute and meta. I just thought it was realistic. Like Hermione hasn’t read the Narnia books a million times! But she never talks about it.”
I get it, I do, it’s a good rule. But the fact that Grossman has to break his own rule about Narnia, because he’s borrowed so much, just undermines it. To be fair, he admits this himself: “(Though if I’m being honest, I broke my own rule with Narnia. In the Magiciansverse, C.S. Lewis was never born. If he had he and Christopher Plover would have collapsed into each other and formed a space-time singularity. Which would be cool in a different way. But that would have been a whole other novel.)”

Despite his borrowing, Grossman seems to buck the trend by creating a hero/anti-hero who is not ‘chosen’ to contribute to a cause greater than himself. Grossman, then, is attempting to do something really interesting – creating an almost anti-fantasy novel. But his indebtedness to the books he’s attempting to rewrite just undermines his attempts. He invites comparisons with Rowling, C. S. Lewis and others, and does not come out on top. Unfortunately his writing often comes off as heavy-handed fan-fiction.

There was a lot to like about Grossman’s prose style. But I felt it was spoiled by his obsession with being ‘gritty’ (gratuitous arctic fox sex, anyone?). The other problem I had with The Magicians is the narrative itself. It is told in a series of anecdotes, or vignettes – with the first four or so years of Quentin’s magical education crammed into the first half of the novel. Any time you think the story is going somewhere, following a traditional story arc, the incident is abruptly closed off, unresolved. (This is perhaps also because of its ‘anti-fantasy’ leanings – because Quentin hasn’t been ‘chosen’, there is no driving force.) An example of this is in the magical “discipline” each student has a particular aptitude for, determined during the first few years of the student’s magical education. After the standard tests, Quentin’s discipline remains undetermined. It’s intriguing, and one of the occasions I finally thought the novel would have a sense of purpose. But after Quentin is temporarily assigned a discipline for the purposes of teaching, it’s never mentioned again. It creates no further tension or interest. After not being mentioned at all, it’s brought up in the last few pages of the book, as a bizarrely underwhelming cliffhanger.

The lack of direction certainly reflects Quentin’s meandering attitude to his own life, but it makes for uncomfortable reading. Most of these incidences are wrapped up in the final quarter of the novel, but by the time they are, I’d stopped caring, when I could even remember that far back. The loose ends, or most of them, are tied up. The pay-off, when it comes, is nearly worthwhile. But for me it was undermined by Grossman fairly immediately afterwards brutally killing off one of the main characters. Any sense of satisfaction at the resolution is immediately replaced by a sense of futile emptiness. It’s almost like Grossman is aware of the escapism we readers crave, which Quentin craves, and has decided to punish us for it. It’s clever, and I won’t deny it had an emotional impact on me (beyond frustration). But it results in a deeply unsatisfying read.

 

 

 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon tells the story of Leon, a nine-year-old with a black father and a white mother. His mother is heavily reliant on drugs, and as such, is unable to take care of Leon and his baby brother, Jake. Put into the foster care system, cute white baby Jake is soon adopted, but Leon is sent from one place to another, unable to settle. Leon manages his anger at losing his mum and Jake by stealing from the adults around him, hoping to save up enough money to go and rescue his mum and baby brother.

My Name is Leon.jpg

I probably would never have chosen to read this book. The story of a mixed race boy growing up in 1980s Britain doesn’t immediately fit into the mould of books I normally read. I read this through Penguin’s Bookmarks, and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed its style and its sensitive handling of some very difficult topics. I also liked its cast of extremely relatable characters, including Maureen, who adopts Leon, Tufty, who teaches him about gardening, and of course Leon himself.

This is a story that deals with incredibly difficult issues – racism, addiction, anger, and loss. But it does so in a very accessible way.  My Name is Leon is primarily a story about a young boy growing up, and it is through his eyes that we experience each of these challenging topics. It’s a story about an individual, not a manifesto, and yet it leaves you with a greater understanding of these issues than I think a manifesto might. The question of race, for example, is a subtle thread woven throughout, which is very effectively brought to the foreground in the climax of the novel.

One of the things that appealed most to me was the style – the way it was written with a slightly naive voice, as though Leon’s thoughts. It’s a wonderful example of “show not tell”, as we learn things through the narrator. We learn how Leon’s mother, Carol, is unable to cope with parenting, we overhear snippets about her relationships, but all without the narrator/Leon ever fully understanding. It’s a way of being able to really relate to Leon and his situation, and to understand his anger and desire to steal. Seeing his unconditional love for his mother through Leon’s eyes was particularly touching. Despite her failings, her inability to cope, Leon never considers giving up on her.

In amidst the naivety are some mature motifs – when Leon is given an allotment, his care for his baby brother transfers to caring for plants. There is also the question of identity – one of the first things Leon says is “My. Name. Is. Leon.” to baby Jake. And yet so many people fail to get his name right throughout the novel, and in the same way they fail to understand his needs and desires. It’s a symbol of how his identity is so difficult to nail down, both because he’s mixed race and because he has to move from one home to another.

Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016)

 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the exquisitely crafted, exquisitely sad tale of a man, Ray, and a dog, One Eye. Both outcasts from society, they become companions in loneliness. When One Eye attacks another dog, Ray panics; packs up their lives and takes to the road.

This post discusses the end of Spill Simmer Falter Wither in detail. It also makes liberal use of quotations, but they’re too beautiful for me to apologise for that. 

spill-simmer-falter-wither-sara-baume

I found this book utterly absorbing, moving, even devastating. Much of this is down to Baume’s beautiful writing style, which is well-crafted without ever feeling laboured, as well as her characterisation of Ray and his relationship with One Eye. The two take almost equal roles in the narration. Third person descriptions of One Eye bookend the narration. Ray’s first person narrative regularly breaks into second person, as he addresses his observations and recounts his memories to One Eye. Then Ray’s dreams about One Eye’s past, in which Ray sees through One Eye’s eye(s), transform second person into first person, narrowing the distance even further between these two lonely figures.

One of the things that has stayed with me most in the weeks and months following reading this is the depiction of Ray’s sadness and isolation. “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental note of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.” (p.13). He’s afraid of the impact he will have on other people: “We can’t be spotted by such cheerful strangers. We mustn’t dare to mar their joy with our shabby faces, our carload of stolen nests, dead bears and decomposed fathers on such a day.” (p.265). Ray’s fear mirrors One Eye’s own – every object One Eye sees has the potential to be used as an instrument of torture:”Plastic bags with their rustle and squeeze, aluminium foil with its twinkle and gash, dishcloths with their thrash and wallop.” (p.35).

Ray is defined by his sadness. “My sadness isn’t a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop.” (p.51). Sadness impacts the narrative too. There is a refrain of, “And suddenly, it’s a sad place, don’t you think?” (p.222, p.274) as possibility is blotted out by regret. The extreme beauty of Baume’s writing contrasts with the frequent brutality of what is described and the way it is described. I realise part way through reading that this seems to match the narrator’s negative view of the world. Berries leak “black blood” (p.178.), branches are “severed, bark stripped” (p.168). One imagines that Ray doesn’t see a bunch of flowers, he sees a massacre of stems. It’s such a brilliant way of introducing us to his point of view, a way of allowing us to actually see through his eyes.

Even the gruesome can be lyrical under Baume’s influence: talking about roadkill she writes “creatures pancaked and sundried to a ship’s biscuit of their former selves.” (p.147). And she makes the ugly beautiful: “Dandruff falls from her scalp onto her shoulders. It shows up like glitter through the dark, as if she is sporting a sequinned mantle.” (p.188). And this gruesomeness prepares perfectly for the moment at which Ray’s ultimate secret is uncovered, when we find out he watched his father choke to death, put the body in the attic to be eaten by rats, and then dismantles his skeleton to dispose of it.

Ray describes himself as, “fifty-seven. Too old for starting over, too young for giving up.” (p.12). And yet over the course of the novel, we see him do both. He starts over in adopting One Eye. He complains, “Sometimes the vans collide with my hanging baskets as they leave. We watch as they carry the scarlet heads of my geraniums to their next delivery. Now even the geranium heads are better travelled than I.” (p.34). And yet, again, the novel sees him starting over, packing up his life and travelling with One Eye.

But we also see Ray give up. The ending is ever so slightly ambiguous, incorporating a flash-back to domestic happiness with One Eye just as Ray apparently commits suicide. But the lack of definitive resolution is effective on a number of levels. Firstly, it stays with you, eating at you as you attempt to decipher precisely what happens. Not least because what is likely to have happened is exactly what you want not to have happened. You cannot let it go. You cannot mourn its ending, nor the ending of Ray’s life, because you do not explicitly see that ending. It ends in euphemism, at once despairing and hopeful, as One Eye charges off into the distance, the book’s ending his new beginning.

But the lack of resolution also hammers home the sheer futility and unfairness of Ray’s death. As approached the final pages, I really couldn’t see it ending any other way. And yet Ray’s brilliance – his knowledge, internalised eloquence, his boundless love for One Eye – genuinely make the world a brighter place. Appropriately, given his name is the “same word as for sun beams”.

Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill Books, 2015)

But where are the chickens? A novice’s look at chick lit

Katie Fforde’s A Vintage Wedding (2015) tells the story of three women in a Cotswold village who set up a business planning vintage weddings. But who could have guessed from the pink and flowery book-cover that romance would lie around the corner?

This post contains spoilers. But we all saw those plot points coming a mile off, so I don’t feel too bad.

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I hope this chicken compensates for the paucity of chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I just don’t get it. I want to. I want to go with my heart and immerse myself in the indulgent, chocolate-box romance of it all. I should relate to it. I like love. I’ve even had my fair share of dramatic wedding planning, from altering a bride’s dress the day before the wedding to improvising a wedding cake when the first one collapsed just hours before the reception. But there’s something preventing me from taking that leap of faith and falling in love with A Vintage Wedding. Katie Fforde’s novel is marketed as “The Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller”, so it seems that there are plenty of people who do get it.

So I’m going to take a moment to try to understand its appeal. It has three very likeable, well-rounded main characters. There’s Lindy, a young mum with two small boys and artistic flair. There’s Rachel, the neurotic recent divorcée who’s just moved into the village, who has a talent for organisation and choosing between different shades of white. Then there’s Beth, who also recently moved to the area after quitting university, and who believes there’s nothing YouTube can’t teach her. Within a few days of meeting each other they realise that between them they have the perfect skills set to start a business helping people achieve the perfect vintage-wedding-on-a-budget. We’re gradually introduced to their mostly inoffensive romantic interests who perfectly complement each of their foibles. The story doesn’t ever do anything unexpected (apart from a few things working out ridiculously easily) but I suppose that’s part of A Vintage Wedding’s charm. It’s comfort-reading: easy, predictable, the perfect escape. And the story is carried forward if not by plot than by a whole host of likable characters. I particularly enjoyed the cameo by Lindy’s Nan, who responds to a question about how long a wedding veil will take to clean with:”Well, when I’ve gathered the right herbs, when the moon is on her back and the nightingales are singing…” (p.343). I found the tension between Beth and her controlling Mum believable and the way they grudgingly come to understand each other is genuinely heartwarming.

So what do I have to complain about? It was partly that I found the writing incredibly simple. Its style bears most resemblance to a novel I read recently for 8- to 12-year olds (maybe Fforde knows the chickens aren’t very good at reading yet). And I think partly it annoys me because it’s so focused on romance. Yes, I did know that’s what I was signing up for. But I think it’s problematic because the novel pretends to be about female independence and female friendship, but we all know the story wouldn’t be complete without each character getting partnered off. The story attempts to be empowering: “even without our blokes, Vintage Weddings is still amazing!” says Lindy (p.454), but we all know entrepreneurship is not what we’re here for, and it’s no use pretending otherwise.

It was also the fact that the romantic storylines were so predictable. If a man is introduced just with his name, he’s not going to be a love interest. But if a man is introduced and his voice or hair are described, he’ll be a love interest. I wrote down my predictions on p.79 (of 454) and I’m giving myself a 90% accuracy score (I don’t want to spoil anyone else who wants to make predictions, so I won’t say what I got wrong). But I absolutely adore Georgette Heyer, and her novels abound with these “faults”, so it can’t really be that.

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This chicken is lonely because there aren’t enough chickens in A Vintage Wedding

I don’t know if it’s because I was looking for things not to like, but I found sections of it to be bordering on offensive. The first I’ll accept as personal bias, and focuses on an encounter with one particularly unpleasant woman. She’s a bully, and horrible to everyone. But more important than the fact she was horrible, or even that she wore too much make-up, was the fact she was fat. Throughout the book (and she’s referred to a number of times) she’s not called “the horrible bridesmaid” or even the pleasingly alliterative “bitchy bullying bridesmaid” but “the fat bridesmaid”. As if the beautiful waif-like women in the novel (like the one pictured on the cover) simply must be nice, because they’re thin.

My second issue is the depiction of Rachel. Rachel likes things neat and tidy, and she doesn’t like other people coming over and messing up her nice, white house. Over the course of the novel Rachel and her new friends accept her eccentricities and even find them useful—she finds herself well-equipped for dealing with fussy B&B guests, for example, because she’s preempted all of their potential complaints. But Rachel’s neatness and cleanliness are often referred to as both “neuroses” and “OCD”. I’m all for sympathetic characters with mental illnesses being portrayed in popular culture. But I’m not for the casual use of clinical labels without properly addressing the issues. It’s briefly suggested that her compulsive behaviour is to compensate for her lack of control in her previous relationship. It makes sense then, that without the presence of this relationship, she would begin to relinquish her obsessive compulsive behaviours. But I’m still left feeling uncomfortable, and while the message isn’t quite “get yourself a man and you’ll be fine”, I can’t quite shake it from my mind. As a contrast, for a positive view on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder see the Guardian’s take on the realistic portrayal of OCD in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Or alternatively, see this article in CBC News about using OCD as a punchline in popular culture (something A Vintage Wedding is guilty of).

My final issue is with sex. I don’t mind too much the romanticised portrayal of women whose eyes are suddenly opened to the wonders of sex through their new partners. I mind that a certain type of behaviour is advocated in the book. Be keen, but not too keen. Show a man you’re interested, but not easy. Outgoing in all other respects, each of the women suddenly become shy and unsure of themselves when speaking to men. When one character does sleep with a man after only seeing him socially a couple of times, it leads to  multiple pages of self-doubt. “In her sane mind she would never have slept with anyone she’d only just met and hadn’t even been out with. It was crazy.” (p.299). “Easy didn’t describe her…The thought of it made her cringe…” (p.300). Ok, you think, the character’s quite traditional, and she’s scared of anything moving too quickly because she wants to put her children first. But the casual judgement extends to other characters too: “Lindy and Angus seemed to have got together quite quickly…but that was sweet. He was her first love, after all.” (p.421). It’s as though Fforde is saying, “I know, it’s a bit damning that a woman is so keen to have sex, but look, it’s ok because she’s had a crush on him for ages.” Perhaps this is one reason I enjoy Georgette Heyer’s novels so much—the sexual mores are unambiguous because they’re set in a time when there were such clear behavioural rules.

In spite of my reservations, reading A Vintage Wedding was an enjoyable few hours. Since my recent experience of romantic fiction is limited to the aforementioned Georgette Heyer as well as Fifty Shades of Grey, perhaps I need to read a few more to understand the genre and get past my own biases. And maybe next time there’ll be more chickens.

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