The Woman At 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason translated by Brian Fitzgibbon

The Woman at 1,000 Degrees book cover

Go Cantankerous and Hacking Your In-Laws Emails Into That Goodnight

Herra, now an old woman in her eighties, lives crippled with arthritis in a garage, and tells us the story of her life – with no holds barred, and no triumph, tragedy or indignity left unexamined. And Herra has much to examine. She briefly knew (and snogged) John Lennon, she survived the second World War (just), she has had children (who now very rarely visit her, which she doesn’t really mind because there have been betrayals on both sides), and her company is the Internet (which she uses to stalk and hack her in-laws, among other, less reputable, things).

She is a crotchety, foul-mouthed old woman, though perhaps this is unfair as her foulness is really just an amused and experienced distance from life. She says of her nurse-cum-help ‘Poor Loa says she drinks beer only on those few occasions when she bares her beaver.’

It’s a completely lovable book, winding and rambling in parts (like the favourite old great aunt you wish you had, and whom you know you would adore), and at times Herra is utterly repulsive, annoying and outrageously offensive (again like that fictive old great aunt).

Herra looks forward to enjoying her end with the same frankly amused relish with which she has enjoyed her whole life. When she begins to plan her own cremation (which she wants to take place mid-December because she can’t abide the thought of one more bloody Christmas), the ‘dim-witted’ girl who takes the unusual booking is bemused but extraordinarily helpful, under the circumstances.

‘I don’t want to be half-cooked. A thousand degrees, you say?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t worry, we can heat it up well in advance before…’
‘Yes, and I go in headfirst, right?’

The Woman at 1000 Degrees is an account of the highlights and lowlights of the twentieth century viewed through the lens of the cantankerous, amoral and smartly louche Herra, who looks on the chaos of life’s mistakes, joys and evils with exasperated tolerance and amusement, and her relationships as fleeting joys to be relished in the moment then let go. She dismisses Nazism as one long birthday party for an attention-seeking Hitler, who, she says, was obviously in want of love.

The terrible, beautiful heart of the novel lies in the journey of Herra’s early life as a young girl surviving alone in the midst of the Second World War. These parts of the book, surrounded by artefacts of the stories of her later years and the unselfconscious, unselfpitying depth of experience with which the character imbues them, are a long, slow gaze into the depths of humanity.

The novel is often a little slow and rambling, drifting from one of Herra’s tales to the next, jumping from country to country as she wends her way through the world, but all of her tales, in the end, come together in a fantastically shattering crescendo, like an orchestra with perfect timing, perfect skills, perfect pitch. Helgason has captured  perfectly this character (based loosely on a woman he spoke to accidentally and incidentally in 2006), and she is not only unique, but is also almost a grand collective voice, speaking – and laughing – for us all.

Herra’s is an ancient voice, the voice of a pragmatic (and often, realistically, reluctant) mother: ‘On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that they will even attend their mother’s funeral. They’re busy men’; the voice of the party girl who snogged John Lennon in 1960, and the voice for all of us who, when the time comes, which will hopefully be later rather than sooner, do not wish to go gentle into that goodnight.

Published by: Oneworld. Publish date: 1st February 2018

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

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Book Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translation by Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad cover

Magic Realism and Gothic Horror in a Devastated Iraq

Elishva is an old woman who lost her son, Daniel, twenty years ago, but pretends he’s still alive. She knows it’s all pretend, of course she does, but she hopes with every cell of her body that somehow it isn’t. That somehow, somewhere, Daniel is still alive, and that one day she will find him. She unwittingly helps to reanimate a patchwork corpse that Hadi the junk dealer made from body parts of people killed by acts of terror, and calls him ‘Daniel’, pretending to herself that it’s her son. And if Elishva notices that there are suddenly quite a lot of dead cats turning up around the place, well, death is an everyday occurrence in Baghdad.

Hadi is a scavenger, well-known as a liar and teller of tall tales. But he really did witness the explosion caused by a suicide bomber, and he really did collect all those disparate, scattered pieces of corpses and sewed them together to make a whole so that the state would afford a proper burial.

And then there are the journalists, and bureaucrats, and a sprawling cast of many, many other characters – the shopkeepers and stallholders, families and homeless beggars, not to mention the shades of the dead. Ordinary people trying to scratch out a liveable life – or death – in a war zone.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is immediate, shocking, gallows-humour-funny, and empathically recognisable even though the action is taking place some three and a half thousand miles distant from my reading chair in the UK. It’s a warning and parable of escalating violence, and the shocking down-to-earth realism sits comfortably with the traumatised surrealism of the townspeople, who soldier on with everyday life because what else can you do?

At times it’s a challenging read, and by no means straightforward, but Saadawi writes in a refreshing and welcoming way, that enfolded me in to the lives of the characters and made me feel at home with them. It’s an insane and wonderful gothic horror masterpiece – something very special, which was recognised in 2014 when it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

I highly recommend this ambitious book: it’s a major feat, and Sadaawi has written a stunning blend of humour, the reality of war, and contemporary literature that’s at once playful and hauntingly meaningful.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Swansong by Kerry Andrew

Swansong book cover

I’m not the intended audience for Swansong, and I found it grating. The blurb and quoted praise misled me – I was expecting a moody and atmospheric novel with a hint of Scottish ghost story and some really great writing, but found it closer to a mash-up of YA and Chick-Lit.

Wild child university student Polly Vaughan thinks she may have killed someone: having forcefully persuaded another student she met in a club to take some MDMA; when he then turns out to be epileptic and fits in the street from the drugs, Polly and her friend run away.

Overcome with a strong desire to keep her sex-and-drugs-and-clubbing life on the right side of prison walls, she runs away to Scotland, where her mother has rented a cottage. Despite her utterly charmless and mean-spirited nature, Polly instantly befriends most of the village.

But Polly is not heartless. She looks up the possibly-dead-possibly-in-a-coma student on Google a couple of times, in between having sex, smoking some pot she found in her mother’s rented cottage, and drinking.

The writing is patchy – much of it is clichéd and forced – though I did get drawn in sometimes and thought the novel was opening up and Polly was starting to grow and change, but the characters remained shallow and charmless and the writing couldn’t sustain its promise. The love interest is seedy and made my skin crawl, and the ghost story is ludicrous: it goes nowhere and has no point. The ending is not so much an ending, as somewhere Andrew makes a half-hearted attempt to wrap up a couple of the plot threads then stops writing. I felt like Andrew had perhaps published too soon and forced a genre that her writing style doesn’t quite fit.

Publish Date: 25th January 2018. Publisher: Jonathan Cape, Random House

I received a review copy of Swansong from the publisher, via NetGalley

Book Review: The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow by Danny Denton

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow Book Cover

‘All stories are meaningless,’ Sweeney said. ‘Only you yourself put meaning on them.’

In a dystopian Ireland bursting with allegories, parallels, and misty touchpoint shadows to the whole wide range of Irish history and culture from ancient to the twenty-first century, in a hazy, mazy, dark-grim fairy tale, The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow is a strong contender for my favourite book of 2018 – no matter what else comes along this year. Denton’s writing is gemstone special, weaving words and making pure poetry of prose, but retaining a dry, wry humour about the mess and trouble of life.

Ireland’s light has dimmed, the sun hidden behind an overwhelming deluge of rain that never stops, which floods the whole land and seeps into homes and soaks wet-through the people, who have taken to wearing plastic ‘skins’ to combat the ever-damp, ever-dripping, ever-falling rain, and taken to drink and drugs to numb the pain of abject bone-deep poverty and desperation, the economy, the industry and the people having fallen apart more than two generations ago, leaving nothing but the black market to get people through their torrential days – and from this sodden circumstance has emerged a dank community, crawling with gangs calling themselves the Earlie Boys, that are beholden to the strange, death-bringing figure of the Earlie King.

These shady, shifty street gangs rule Ireland now, and people disappear with terrifying regularity for the most innocuous crimes and mistakes, their relatives informed by the reporter O’Casey, who keeps a secret coded ledger of the what he hears about the ultraviolent and frighteningly matter-of-fact deeds of the Earlie Boys.

Official law enforcement officers are helpless to stop the gangs; the technology, the surveillance, is pervasive, and cameras are everywhere, but cameras are useless in the face of the Earlie Boys and young ‘runners’ – who have nothing to lose, and many slippery ways of evading identification.

And among the dank and the endless wet, and the half-light and the terrifying gangster-filled and fuelled life of the country, the Kid in Yellow fell in love with the wrong girl, and she with him, and this young pair had a baby. This is their story.

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow is a strange book – a dark and seedy legend of a despairing future, written in earthy and lyrical prose. Denton casts a spell and his dystopian vision, as charmless as this dank and violent Ireland is, is shot through with a deeply moving story and vivid, haunting characters. There have been many great strange, dark novels out of Ireland – as from any country though perhaps Ireland is entitled to the crown, having birthed O’Brien’s Third Policeman, Beckett’s Watt, McCabe’s Dead School, and Joyce’s, well, everything that Joyce ever wrote – and this is an emerald in that crown, glinting not quite wholesomely but sharply, darkly wonderful.

Publish Date: 25th January 2018. Publisher: Granta.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

The Woman in the Window book coverThis is the one. Think Hitchcock, New York Noir, and a life teetering on the edge of a dark hidden past and a claustrophobic, terrified future. With the same title as the 1944 Fritz Lang movie starring Edward G Robinson, which was named by Paste online magazine as the best noir film of all time, and a lead character, Anna, who spends her days sinking strong psychotropic pills and watching black and white movies, the connotations of this book are deftly playful, opening up a dimension that’s at once wry, wistful and dark.

When a genre’s been around the block and back again, and you feel like you’ve read every twist and turn that anyone can rustle up on a dark and stormy night you get jaded. There are no thrills or surprises left, and the nights you stayed up till four a.m. rubbing your eyes and scratching through one last page … they’re gone. Consign them to the days of your misspent youth and forget about it.

Then this book comes along and you open it one Sunday afternoon. And the next thing you know it’s four a.m. on Monday and you’ve got work in four hours – but you finished the last chapter and feel faintly triumphant as the dark noir atmosphere, along with the faint afterglow of an imaginary old and flickering black and white TV, follows you upstairs to bed.

Anna’s life as an extreme agoraphobic, suffocatingly claustrophobic but comfortingly known, safe and controllable, comes to parallel the old black and white movies she loves after she witnesses something she should never have seen, and a dark shadow, as well as her own past, begins to unwind around her. The dual threads of the book – her past and the growing menace of the present – twist together, always overlaid with the old noir movies she watches over and over obsessively and the wine and pills on which she grows ever more reliant.

Finn ratchets up the tension inch by inch, slowly at first then Boom! – all the things you’ve been half-wondering about the likeable misfit recluse Anna suddenly fall into place – but you’re only halfway through the book, and Finn has barely started to reveal the real shocks and tensions. Finn is not just a master of pacing and action, and a magician with the reveals, which come out of leftfield but feel so right – of course! Of course it was that! Of course she— but he’s also a master of character – and his characters are so very real, their actions and motives all too believable.

There were one or two plot points that tested my suspension of disbelief, but there was so much else to love about the book, and the writing really is so spot-on, that I could look past them– I was too wrapped up in the story, and too drawn in to the characters, to try to second-guess what was coming or to be distracted from the central story.

Finn’s writing is lush and clever, conjuring up atmosphere, place, and time; the characters are intelligent and warm, and the plot is as tight as a drum – I fell deeply into the book and, as with all brilliant books, was ready to believe that these were real human beings, real lives, and that this was happening right now. The background thread running through the novel – the old black-and-white movie references – is a genius hook that reeled me in and made it a truly top-notch thriller read. I’m positively jealous of anyone who hasn’t yet read this – who will reading it, mesmerised by its darkly glittering noir gems, for the very first time.

I received a review copy of The Woman in the Window from the publisher via NetGalley.

Audiobook Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

The Silent Companions Book Cover

I love reading. I love paperbacks, hardbacks, e-books on my Kindle, and full-colour e-bookish showiness on my iPad. I love the stories and the words, the strange other worlds, and walking a mile or two in someone else’s boots.

But on a midwinter night perfect for reading, the dregs of work and stress conspired to leave me incapable of focusing on the words on the page, so I spent the night listening to Audible samples of the some of the books I’ve been hoarding in my To-Be-Read pile … and found this.

The Silent Companions harks back to the stories we told each other in the dim fizzing gaslight long ago, as the wind howled in the chimneys and the January snow fell softly, silently to the frozen, bleak, ice-hard ground, the flakes catching the white-cold light of the moon, filtered hazy through high and wispy desolate clouds.

A Victorian ghost story set across the lives of two women who are at a distance from each other of two hundred years. The silent companions themselves are – well, we don’t quite know what; the shadowy, creepy and insistently real wooden figures enter our protagonist Elsie’s life in the form of curiosities kept behind a locked door. They came with The Bridge, her late husband’s inherited, crumbling estate – one he never much referred to, and the near-abandoned state of which comes as a shock to his pregnant widow. Once at the house, looking forward to the approaching birth of her baby and finding a friend in the sweet and serious girl who is her late husband’s cousin, Elsie begins to feel a future is possible and starts to make plans to help the impoverished and highly superstitious nearby villagers. But the events of two centuries earlier shift to block our own and Elsie’s clarity and reality: the past is mirroring the Victorian present, toying with lives, and twisting solid, unmistakable facts until they scream.

The narrator Katie Scarfe, who is an actress as well as veteran audiobook narrator, is pitch-perfect for this – incredibly good – tale, and her voice is exactly the voice I’d have in my head reading this: laced with a faint, dark, off-kilter tint of foreboding, her tone saying more about the characters than the straightforward words ever could.

I don’t just recommend this, I urge it upon anyone who has ever yearned for an unnerving gothic ghost story to warm them – and chill them to the bone – on a cold winter’s night. God, yes, it’s that good.

Pub date: 5th October 2017. Publisher: Raven Books, Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought the Kindle and Audible versions.

Book Review: Our Senses by Rob DeSalle

Our Senses Book Cover

What was the first ever sensory experience, way, way back in evolutionary history? One of the most fascinating and plausible theories is that it was simple osmotic pressure caused by different salt concentrations inside and outside the cell in ancient, simple single-celled organisms. Not the most exciting experience, perhaps, but in the current human landscape of information and sensory overload such a simple little beginning in the primordial murk, it is quite a meditative thought.

The vast majority of life on the planet is made up of brainless bacteria, DeSalle tells us, that can nonetheless have sense-experiences and interpret their environment. More recently – by almost four billion years – we human youngsters in the evolutionary stakes are using our brains to develop technology that will restore sight and hearing to people who have lost – or have never had – those senses.

We have learned, and continue to learn, about our sense of hearing by comparison to bats’ echolocation, and we are exploring our sense of smell by studying the olfactory differences in as widely diverse creatures as bacteria and elephants.

Our Senses is fascinating stuff, crammed with a very accessible – though nonetheless scientific – story of our senses: how it came to be that we, and every other life-form, even have senses in the first place; how we use our senses to interpret our environment; how our senses may be filtered and changed by our memories and emotions – or maybe, vice versa, how our senses filter and change our memories and emotions – or maybe both, working as a feedback loop that in some way, in essence, creates our world, or at least the world we perceive.

Arguably, the most fascinating chapters of Our Senses look in-depth at what’s happening when our senses go wrong. When things are trundling along just fine, most people on a day-to-day basis take eyesight, hearing, and the senses of touch, taste, and balance as a given – they’re great, but they are stuff we just innately have – but when one or more – or indeed all of them – are damaged by disease, injury, stroke, or even, in the case of hearing, simply by day-to-day noise pollution, that’s when things get interesting in the laboratory, and most especially in the area of fixing sensory problems – fixes that range from the counter-intuitive and, as at the time of the book’s writing still at experimental stage, specialised noise therapy for tinnitus, to using colour as a means of marking margins to help stroke victims who suffer from peripheral dyslexia. There are also more drastic interventions detailed by DeSalle, as in cases where children with epilepsy have a hemispherectomy performed upon them, which surgically removes, either completely or partially, one half of the brain – a fearsome procedure, but DeSalle assures that because of the brain plasticity of young children, those children go on to ‘lead very normal if not exceptional lives’. In this slightly gruesome but riveting section of Our Senses, DeSalle also looks at brain study, and brain surgery work from the late nineteenth century up to the present day, especially in relation to epilepsy and the split-brain surgery that sets out to cure the sometimes debilitating condition.

DeSalle’s language and explanations tread a difficult path with elegance. He remains light and simple without skimping on the science or sacrificing deep interest, and explains the science without lecturing or dumbing-down – the explanations of, for instance, the properties of light and sound waves, and the interaction of our senses with these is simple enough for those of us without heavy-duty scientific training, but does not sacrifice accuracy for simplicity. He explores the consequences of disease, structural flaws, and trauma on the senses, and how these problems can be righted in some cases – and how in others they have become the fount of artistic and musical expression that is extraordinarily beautiful and sometimes exquisitely strange.

Some of the illustrative examples of experiments of how our brain detects and interprets sensations have potentially far-reaching consequences once further research has explored them more fully: the brains of women and men, for instance, are wired slightly differently (though DeSalle cautions against drawing any conclusions from these subtle differences); and, surprisingly, left-handed and right-handed people interpret a certain hearing experiment in different ways. In fact, Our Senses is full of examples and evidence that give us clues about how our brains work in conjunction with our senses in unexpected ways, and  experiments showing that although they are the primary, in fact the only way we experience our environment, they can by no means always be trusted to give us a true picture of our reality.

Publish Date: 9th January 2018. Publisher: Yale University Press.

I received a review copy of Our Senses from the publisher, via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Truth and Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr

Truth and Lies of Ella Black Cover

The central plot of The Truth and Lies of Ella Black is a great one – Ella is a teenage girl on the edge of adulthood, and as well as having unaccountable, uncontrollable rages and destructive emotions, she also has a secret past about which she knows nothing. Her parents, with the knowledge of what that past is, take her – suddenly and inexplicably – out of school and away to Rio. The big questions are: what is wrong with Ella, and why was it so important that her parents get her far away from her comfortable life in England so quickly? The answers to these questions are revealed slowly, and amidst the dramas of her late teenage life a darkness unfolds; a darkness with roots in very disturbing events from long, long ago.

What didn’t resonate with me was the rich, spoiled, apathetic protagonist, who is written a little too inconsistently, often acting, thinking, and behaving more like a child than a young adult. I also blanched at the contrived nature of many of the plot twists and turns: whilst the main thread (which I won’t spoil by revealing) is fairly solid and shocking, there is also a lot of contrived wish-fulfilment going on – a bit too much luck falls into Ella’s lap at key moments, so that any miss-steps she takes are caught and fixed without her lifting a finger or having to grow and change and take responsibility.

The Truth and Lies of Ella Black was a bit of a ‘miss’ for me. Taken at face value it is a fun, pacey and intriguing novel that carries the reader to a satisfying conclusion, so I think many readers will enjoy it as a fairly light read – me included! But there is little to really make us think, and little insight into any of the characters beyond the observation that an injection of (sometimes stolen) cash will help us overcome most of life’s hurdles.

Publish Date: 12 October 2017. Publisher: Penguin

I received a review copy of The Truth and Lies of Ella Black from the publisher via NetGalley.

Adventures in Audiobooks

Audible Silent Companions Image

The last time I listened to an audiobook was in the autumn of the year 2000. First, I listened to Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter (I don’t know which one, I was rather out of it), and then I listened to The Hobbit (no idea who was the narrator for that one, and the tape (yes, tape. Tape!) has been lost in the murky mists of about 10 house moves since then).

I had become sick in the spring of 2000, and things had got worse and worse, until by the first week in September I had double vision, a fever of 104, wild hallucinations of libraries, and I couldn’t move, speak, see, or feel. I was stuck in bed, unable to do anything more strenuous than listen to a story for ten minutes at a time before drifting back into a sick sleep. Since that rather dull time in my life, I’ve never really been fond of listening to audio narration.

However, I resisted e-books for years, because only paper makes real books and yada yada, but when I finally got a Kindle in 2015, I took to it like a duck to a l’orange. So after a particularly stressful week in work, this evening I went browsing for audiobooks.

The thing about audiobooks is that the voiceover has to be absolutely, utterly, without a shadow of a doubt spot-on. If Stephen Fry could find the time to read all audiobooks, I would take it as a kindness. Alas, he has other plans. So for the last five hours or so I’ve been listening to sample clips. In the end I chose two: The Bear and The Nightingale (which was my free hook into the Audible trial), and The Silent Companions. It’s not that there was anything wrong with all the others, but if I’m going to spend ten hours with a voice in my head I really have to click with it.

So now I’m all set. I have my dream audiobooks on my iPad, some melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding in the fridge, and no time at all left of the evening, because I spent it all listening to samples.

Book Review: The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretser

The Life to Come Cover

The Life to Come, to be released on 4th January 2018, is a minutely, warmly observant novel about criss-crossing, intersecting lives. The characters’ pasts, presents, thoughts and dreams are unfurled slowly through their actions and thoughts, until the whole of the person is laid out: what made them what they are, what small and large incidents and events brought them to this point in their lives. It’s a beautiful book, drenched in realism, but alive with possibilities, wishes, and what-ifs.

The narrative drifts, focusing on a character’s story by turn, and subjecting a life to scrutiny before moving on softly but swiftly to the next. The overarching arc of the book is simply the lives of the characters, and how their acts and misunderstandings have far-reaching consequences for each other – the inner life that can be glimpsed only through the character’s actions and reflections, the reactions of their friends, and the public impression, all often misunderstood even by those closest to them.

It is a strange and twisting book, with many small stories highlighting aspects of the characters that reveal who they are, and how they have come to be. Reading this was like floating along on their lives, sampling exquisite episodes, emotions, high and low points. In parts, the story drifts languidly until it suddenly pauses to dive deeper; taking in this and that, like a tourist, then bursting with sudden clarity and focus as the vital heart and inner clockwork of life is revealed in the climax to each of the individual lives.

Wry, sly, touching, heart-breaking and uplifting. I was stunned by the time I’d finished reading this book, my emotions torn this way and that. De Kretser is a master at literary manipulation – everything is running along swimmingly until you hit certain parts that get you right there.

It’s a slow starter, but once I’d really clicked with the characters, I was pulled under the waves of de Kretser’s hypnotic storytelling – The Life to Come is like the tides and eddies of a sea current, focusing on lives and small events, and single, beautiful moments before rushing off to look from another angle, at another life.

There are five distinct stories, but the lives of the characters in each intersect and entwine with each other, weaving together to form a needle-sharp, overarching point.

The characters and events are complex and winding – so much so that I want to re-read this straight away to explore the interior stories I didn’t fully catch the first time, and to revisit my favourite characters – for although many of them are unlikeable, and one in particular is a posturing, self-important mare wholly ignorant and dismissive of everyone around her, they are each drawn with utter realism, and I want to spend more time with them.

The Life to Come is written almost like the gossip of a very literary and knowledgeable friend, and the invisible narrator is dryly unjudgemental, giving few outright clues as to what the reader should be feeling about the events and characters, so that when the shocks, revelations, and surprises came, I felt unprepared and side-swiped – and all the more delighted at each and every turn, for that. I recommend, no, urge this book onto almost anyone, and I’d guess it has a fair number of literary prizes on its horizon, and that it will become a firm favourite among Book Club reads.

Release Date: 4th January 2018. Publisher: Allen & Unwin UK

I received a review copy of The Life to Come from the publisher via NetGalley