Discoverability Challenge

This year, again, thanks to Jo Hall, I committed to increasing discoverability by reading one women author, new to me, per month. For maximum effectiveness I decided to restrict it to living authors.

So how did I do?

I managed (heh, like it should be difficult or something) to read a book a month but I failed utterly to do many reviews so will do a quick summary here now for the ones I missed reviews on. This will be in addition to the usual end of year statistics about books I do.

January: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sarah Baume

Of course in January I did do a review…

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The book is told as an ongoing ‘conversation’ between a man and his dog, One eye.

You find me on a Tuesday, on my Tuesday trip to town. A note sellotaped to the inside of the jumble-shop window: COMPASSIONATE & TOLERANT OWNER. A PERSON WITHOUT OTHER PETS & WITHOUT CHILDREN UNDER FOUR.

The book explores the friendship of man and beast, with both being outcasts and misfits. It is often lyrical and beautifully developed. It is literary but not self-consciously though, I’ve read reviews that say it is plotless, which is a little unfair. There is a sense of forlorn loneliness that runs through the novel and it could have been maudlin if mishandled. But Baume has a deft touch and it is therefore touchingly melancholy. But it is still a pleasurable read as Baume’s imagery and poetic prose is a delight.

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d get on with the style but I soon settled into Baume’s rhythm and couldn’t wait to get back to the book on the few occasions I had to put it down.

I’d highly recommend this book

February: Into the Mist by Lee Murray

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I picked this up as it was on the Stoker preliminary ballot and I’m not disappointed. Reading like a mix of Congo, Predator and Valley of the Gawnji set in New Zealand, Murray provides a white-knuckle ride from page one. Throw in a hefty mix of Maori mysticism and you have a unique monster tale.

A geological survey team with a military escort is sent into Te Urewera, an area of mostly forested, sparsely populated, rugged hill country in the North Island of New Zealand . The escort is there to investigate some disappearances, including a previous military expedition.

Murray excels at action and the novel has many thrilling page-turning moments. There is a large cast of characters and mostly I was able to keep them straight but occasionally the fast pace made me think ‘who was that again?’ The landscape is evocatively crafted, although, having been to NZ perhaps my memory provided some of the backgrounds. The mists visibly swirled throughout the pages and the unique New Zealand fauna breathed in the margins.

I would definitely read another of Murray’s books and this one gets a recommendation from me, If you like monster movies or military SF you should check it out.

March: My name is Mary Sutherland by Kate Farrell

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The narrator of this tale is a young girl, the eponymous Mary Sutherland, who lived in Aigburth and who had family in Birkenhead. I grew up in Birkenhead so her voice was immediately recognisable.

The book starts with a TV crew coming to interview Mary who is in an institution. Mary then tells the story in her own words of how she ended up in the institution, the trouble started when her mother got sick.

Farrell is great at creating suspense and you know that it doesn’t end well, but you don’t know exactly why until right the last moment. It was an effective little plot tightly told in 170 odd pages.

I didn’t think the framing device (of the TV interview) was needed personally and there was an occasional lapse in voice but overall this is a well-written book.

Recommended

April: The Enclave by Anne Charnock

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Other reviewers like this book because it allows them to live a little longer in the world of her novel A Calculated Life. However I’ve not read the novel, but after reading this novella I would like to. It seems like a well-drawn world and Charnock writes with both grace and heart. This novella is the story of a young climate change refugee, Caleb, who has been sold into indentured servitude to Ma Lexie in The Enclave of the title. Ma Lexie’s crew recycles trash into sellable goods. Caleb demonstrates aptitude and skill in sewing clothes and allowing Ma Lexie to make money in the market. He also has a remote friendship with another such as himself in a neighbouring Enclave who he communicates with by putting messages in a bottle which he tosses over the gap between buildings.

This is an interesting, character driven, social and political science fiction. I will be checking out A Calculated Life based on my enjoyment of this novella.

This is one of four novellas from Newcon Press that are collected in a beautiful box set.

MayThe Three by Sarah Lotz

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From Amazon – Black Thursday. The day that will never be forgotten. The day that four passenger planes crash, at almost exactly the same moment, at four different points around the globe.

There are only four survivors. Three are children, who emerge from the wreckage seemingly unhurt. But they are not unchanged. And the fourth is Pamela May Donald, who lives just long enough to record a voice message on her phone. A message that will change the world.

The message is a warning.

I Read this on a plane journey. Enjoyed it enough. It’s the start of a series.

June: The Poisoner’s handbook by Deborah Blum

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Another I didn’t write a review of at the time. This is a very well-written pop science book with the science being toxicology. I did toxicology as a module on my Environmental Science degree and can attest that this still had the capacity to surprise and entertain. After all who doesn’t love a good poisoner story? The chapters on prohibition and early cocktail making are an eye-opener! Recommended.

July: Bodies of Water by VH Leslie

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I read this one as a judge for the BFA Novella category.

From Amazon – After ministering to fallen women in Victorian London, Evelyn has suffered a nervous breakdown and finds herself treated by the Water Doctors in the imposing Wakewater House, a hydropathy sanatorium. Years later, Wakewater House is renovated into modern apartments and Kirsten moves in, fresh from a break up and eager for the restorative calm of the Thames. But her archivist neighbour, Manon, fills her head with the river’s murky past and with those men of science and art who were obsessed with the drowned women who were washed up on its banks. As Kirsten learns more about Wakewater’s secrets, she becomes haunted by a solitary figure in the river and increasingly desperate to understand what the water wants from her.

This is an enjoyable novella with some genuinely creepy moments. It reminded me a little of Dark Water

August: Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway

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Another first-time author, and another accomplished debut.

From Amazon – Aisling Bloom is a young woman beset by unexplained blackouts, pseudo-seizures that have baffled both the doctors and her family. Sent to recuperate in the Suffolk countryside, she seeks solace in the work of William Blake and writing her journal, filling its pages with her visions of Feodor, an East Londoner haunted by his family’s history back in Russia.

The discovery of a Tudor priest hole and its disturbed former inhabitant lead Aisling into a meeting with the enigmatic Chase and on to an unfamiliar town where the rule of Our Friend is absolute and those deemed unfit and undesirable have a tendency to disappear into The Quiet…

I found it really interesting, mixed William Blake with Le Corbusier and a dysfunctional family. Strong tasting fiction. Recommended.

September: The Burial by Courtney Collins

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This was a debut and one I thoroughly enjoyed. A ‘western’ set in 19th Century Australia inspired by the true life story of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman and narrated by Hickman’s dead and buried daughter. Judging by this debut Collins will have a stellar career.

October: Writing past Dark by Bonnie Friedman

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From Amazon – The first book for writers that explores the emotional side of writing–dealing with everything from envy to guilt to the dreaded writer’s block.

Except it doesn’t really. Friedman uses each negative emotion to riff off but it fails to really get to the meat of the matter (for me). It is very nice prose but ultimately holds no answers if you’re an author struggling with the negative emotions that hinder your work. YMMV – it does get mostly good reviews.

November: The Paper Cell by Louise Hutcheson

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An aspiring author brings a manuscript to a publisher and is rejected. A few days later she is dead. So starts an intriguing and entertaining little book that combines murder with aspiring novelists and the business of publishing. Worth a read if you’re a crime lover.

December: – I’m going to be reading a Grimbold book to review in Far Horizons in February – Scylla & Charybdis  

Anaea Carlisle, raised on an isolated space station populated solely by women, believes the rest of the universe has been plunged into anarchy and ruin by an alien-engineered disease known as Y-Poisoning. On a salvage mission, she helps rescue a hypermental named Gwydion who challenges everything she thought she knew.

Forced to flee the station with Gwydion, Anaea finds herself in an inexplicable, often hostile world, permanently divided between the Galactic Collective and the Pinnacle Empire. She longs for some place to call home, but first, she’ll have to survive…

 

 

The Comforters – A Review

As per my last blog post I was sent 4 Muriel Spark books by Berlinn as part of a Year of Muriel Spark.

The Comforters is the first I’ve read.

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Caroline Rose is plagued by the tapping of typewriter keys and the strange, detached narration of her every thought and action. She has an unusual problem – she realises she is in a novel. Her fellow characters are also possibly deluded: Laurence, her former lover, finds diamonds in a loaf of bread – could his elderly grandmother really be a smuggler? And Baron Stock, her bookseller friend, believes he is on the trail of England’s leading Satanist.

This is the metafictional surrealism that is promised, but Spark delivers much more and the metafiction isn’t the strongest thread. This is Spark’s first novel and her prose style is already accomplished but occasionally it does feel a little undercooked. For example  there is a car crash (minor spoiler) which is over in a sentence. Some of the relationshps don’t stand up to too much scrutiny and the end of the crime caper sub-plot seems a little contrived. But it’s still an entertaining read despite a few flaws because of the prose and the humour.

The granny who hides diamonds in bread, the satanist sub-plot and the bizarre familial relations are reminiscent of Ealing comedies. The plot also relies heavily on a Catholic conversion (Spark converted to Catholicism) and was the metafiction a device or a commentary on mental illness?

In all an odd debut but an enjoyable one. I’m looking forward to diving into her second book: Robinson

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A year of Muriel Spark

Back in October I reviewed ‘Appointment in Arezzo’for Polygon’s Berlinn imprint. They must have liked the review because they have sent me the first 4 of Spark’s books which they are reprinting as part of the centenary celebrations of her birth.

Let me tell you – these are gorgeous editions and I feel a blog thread is necessary. I’ll be trying to keep up with their publication schedule, reading the books and reviewing them here. As long as they keep sending them to me 🙂

As I’ve been taking part in the Librarything Category Challenge since 2010 I’ve often toyed with doing a single author’s body of work. Now i get to do that hete.

So, first up will be The Comforters:

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“Caroline Rose has a problem. She hears voices and the incessant tapping of typewriter keys, and she seems to be a character in a novel . . . A comedy of errors, a crime novel, a book about books, Spark’s debut remains as otherworldly and mischievous as it was when first published sixty years ago.”

I’ll be back with a review shortly…

The rest of the first 4 –

The next 4 seem to be coming in February so that gives me a couple of months to read & review the first four.

That’s a wrap

Happy Halloween!

I succesfully survived October – I did lots of things this month. Showed two films, helped organise Bristol HorrorCon at which I interviewed Kim Newman and organised several panels including the hilarious Celebrity Dead Author Match (if I say so myself – but then the panelists supplied the hilarity) .  helped organise Bristol Festival of Literature which seemed another great success, spooky tales in the graveyard, the flash slam, crime in the caves and so much more and BristolCon for which the feedback has made all the hard work the committee do seem worth it (I don’t include myself in that – the others worked much harder than me)

So what’s next?

I’m going to have a few quiet weeks (while also continuing to write The Certainty of Dust and edit Seven Deadly Swords). The next event I’ll be at is Tuesday 28th November  at the Berkeley Square Poetry Revue where I’ll be performing some flash fiction. Do come along.

As a Halloween bonus here’s a Flash that I performed at the Bristol Flash Fiction day a couple of years back:

Not Alone

I awake to darkness. Secured to a chair. Naked and not alone.

I can hear breathing. Male, excited, heavy, intimate. There is another noise. Fleshy, rhythmic, disturbing, unmentionable.

Can’t breathe, need air. ‘Be strong, be Strong’. I chant to myself. The ropes hurt me. “Please” I say desperately. The rhythm increases speed. Tears fall in rivulets.

There’s a sudden noise. It’s a door bell. He grunts in surprise.

There is a pause. Rustling, zipping, shuffling, annoyed. A door opens nearby. I still cannot see.

He walks away. The door swings shut. I choose my moment. They will hear me. I scream and scream. I pause to listen. I can hear voices. Deep breath, more screaming. I listen and hope.

Is it my rescue? Voices again, shouting… laughing? The door opens again. They are inside now. Oh God, oh, no. These are his friends.

 

Bristol Festival of Literature Flash Slam

So North Bristol Writers came second. The Flash Slam involves teams of 4 writers  and whoever gets the most points goes into the final. The final is a bit of a double edged sword as it means having to come up with a story on the spot.

Here’s the one I read out. We were asked to incorporate Facebook Rehab, Sushi, Smelly Coat and Sea Monsters:

Kraken Krackling came up on my Facebook Advert feed. I’d swore that I’d not click on any adverts, I’d promised to do a Facebook Rehab you see. My Ebay habit had sunk our holiday fund. Amazon was blocked in our house – those Prime deliveries, day, after day, after day. You know how it is.

But Kraken Krackling! Sushi Sea Monster – melt in the mouth salty, fatty goodness – you wouldn’t be able to resist either would you. Would you?

The reason I was in shopping Rehab though? I’m ashamed of my last purchase. Cat Shampoo because our moggy has a smelly coat you see. “Fruity Foam for your Feline’s Fetid Fur.” I’d never been forgiven for that. What sort of idiot thinks a cat would sit still for a shower?

Appointment in Arezzo – Review

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Appointment in Arezzo by Alan Taylor

“This book is an intimate, fond and funny memoir of one of the greatest novelists of the last century.”

Alan Taylor has written a very personal and compelling biography of his friend, the novelist, Muriel Spark. Spark wrote 22 novels which will be coming out from Polygon next year in handsome hardback editions to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Spark’s birth. Best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Spark also wrote short stories, plays, reviews, essays and biographies.

“The Muriel Spark 100 programme will celebrate the life and literary achievements of one of Scotland’s finest and most internationally respected writers across the year, through a series of events, including talks, exhibitions, readings, publications and screenings.”

In advance of the reprints and the 100 years program Alan Taylor’s biography is published in November 2017. I received an advanced copy in return for a review.

Taylor first met the author in 1990 in Tuscany when he interviewed her. They hit it off and Taylor subsequently house sat for her as well as accompanied her on some of her foreign trips. He came to know her well and this is an intimate portrait.

Written in a very companionable style the book creates a colourful picture of Spark. A passionate and fiercely intelligent woman and one of our greatest writers. Taylor includes the contentious stuff – her attitude to her Jewish roots, her failed marraige, her estrangement from her son and her self-exile from Scotland. But the threads of her life are woven into a tale of warmth that shows the great affection Taylor had for her.

It does what a biography should – it brings to life the subject and makes you know them better. Spark comes across as someone you’d like to invite to a dinner party. I’ve read several of Spark’s books and she’s one of those authors you look out for in second hand shops, so a new set of hardbacks is very welcome.

If you are a fan of Muriel Spark then this is a must have biography. If you are just generally interested in writers lives it is also well worth your time. Recommended.