This week’s book haul


Olivia Laing’s ‘Crudo‘ has been much hyped and praised in the press, so I really had to buy a copy. It’s a short novel (which is always a bonus in my eyes), the only drawback being that the main character may (or may not) be (or be based on) the author Kathy Acker, who died in 1997. I’ve never gotten along with Acker’s work which often seemed like the work of a petulant teenager, forever rebelling against quite what, they aren’t too sure. Many people do rate her work so maybe it’s just me? (I recently read Chris Kraus’s recent book ‘After Kathy Acker’ to see if would ignite any temptation to return to her fiction: it didn’t). However, I’ll come to this book with an open mind and hope for the very best – which is how I try to approach any book!

A couple of charity shop finds from this morning. Firstly, a nice first edition of Michel Faber‘s debut, ‘Under t20180707_120408_resizedhe Skin’. A strange and bleak novel concerning an alien, disguised as a human woman, travelling around Scotland to entrap humans. The beauty of this book is that it comes wrapped in transparent paper, oddly fleshy in colour…perfect. I can wholly recommend this book if you haven’t read it – and the film from 2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer is an equally unsettling – and extraordinary – experience.

The second charity shop purchase is a book I’ve fingered numerous times but never actually read: ‘Constellation of Genius‘ by Kevin Jackson. The idea behind this book is a simple one: By the 1920s, the new century began to present new possibilities in thought, art, science and technology. Via reportage and diaries, Jackson’s book presents us with a day by day account of 1922, a year in which much ground was broken and new paths discovered by those who would influence the brave new world to come. As you can see, it is also laid out quite beautifully…20180707_163649_resized20180707_171629_resized









‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata is a book which attracted me simply by its cover and the blurb, which in which something a little bit John Waters, a little bit Pedro Almodovar suggests itself…20180714_105125_resized

‘Keiko isn’t normal. At school and university people find her odd, and her family worries she will never fit in. To make them happy, Keiko takes a job at a newly opened convenience store where she finds peace and purpose in simple daily tasks…But in Keiko’s circle it just won’t do for an unmarried woman to spend her time stacking shelves and ordering green tea. As the pressure to find a new job – or worse, a husband – increases, Keiko is forced to take desperate action…’

And finally, Edouard Louis whose first novel, The End of Eddy’ I really liked. Louis has returned with another ‘factional’ offering, this time built around the rape and attempted murder he suffered while living in Paris. So, no great comic masterpiece, but I hope it will be as gripping and pertinent as his first work.

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Outline/Transit/Kudos – Rachel Cusk


Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’ trilogy is something I have come late to: The first volume, ‘Outline’, was published in 2014, with the final volume, ‘Kudos’ published earlier this year.

I gobbled up ‘Outline’ in Mallorca, intrigued by Cusk’s narrator (a famous writer)travelling across Europe, revealing little of herself bar the snippets and clues revealed in the interactions, conversations, reflections and reactions which fuel the narrative: glimpses of a life lived and left behind, all the while commenting on the nature of fiction, the art of literature: What is fiction: art, lies, truth…or something between all three?

‘Transit’ brought our narrator home but continued in the same vein: a stream of meetings which make the reader feel like an eavesdropper on a mobile phone conversation: only hearing one side of a conversation, listening intently for clues to fill in the blanks, to enable us conjure up a our own fiction to satisfy our urge for the truth, the whole truth, a truth…and Cusk provides just enough information to keep our interest, to keep reading to find out exactly what it is that makes this woman (any woman?) so invisible, so without voice that we can only discover her tale through the words of others?

‘The translator was a woman of about my own age who lived in Warsaw. She had emailed me several times to ask questions about the text: I had watched her create her own version of what I had written. In the emails she had started to tell me about her life – she lived alone with her young son – and sometimes, talking about certain passages in the book, I would feel her creation begin to supersede mine, not in the sense that she violated what I had written , but that is was now living through her, not me. In the process of translation the ownership of it – for good or ill – has passed from me to her.’

Is Cusk trying to sum up the position of women both with in the narrative and within the structure of the novel? Is she trying to make us feel what it is like to be a woman in the modern world; to display, like Louise Bourgeois attempted in drawings long before, an

‘…example of female invisibility… in which the artist herself has disappeared and exists only as the benign monster of her child’s perception.’

‘Outline’ seems to present us with thoughts about relationships and lovers, with the narrator talking through the passions and sorrow of those she meets and the repercussions:

‘But it was true that he hadn’t seen his daughter or several years, as she hadn’t returned to Greece. It seems success take you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it. I asked whether she had any children, and he said that she didn’t. She was in a partnership – was that what you called it? – with another woman, and other than that her work was everything to her.’ 

‘Transit’, in contrast,  seems concerned with children. We find the author at home with her sons, living on above the vile Paula, a woman who takes pride in tormenting and abusing the writer, obsessing over her ‘dancing around in your high-heeled shoes, throwing yourself at men.‘ The author worries about her sons and the scars she and their shared past may have left on them. In one sequence, she realises just what that might be:

”This show of violence, the like of which had never happened in our house before was not simply shocking – it also concretised something I appeared already to know, to the extent that I believed my children has merely acted in the service of this knowledge, that they had been driven to enact something that they themselves didn’t realise or understand. It was another year before their father moved out of the house, but if I had to locate the moment when the marriage had ended it would be then; on that dark evening in the kitchen when he wasn’t even there.’ 

And later, in ‘Kudos’ in a nightmare dinner party, full of spoilt children and hopeless parents, the writer faces her fears head on… and begins to realise the frightening power of the child to reflect their parent’s ‘own feelings and misdemeanours.’ until the children present resemble creatures from hell…

‘There was a cry from the other end of the table. We turned to look and saw one child after another was rising to its feet beside Angelica, until all of them were standing before their plates, tears pouring down their faces. They stood in a row, their mouths emitting sounds that were indistinguishable as words and instead merged together in a single chorus of protest. The candles flamed around them, streaking them in red and orange light, illuminating their hair and eyes and glinting on their wet cheeks, so that it almost looked as if they were burning.’

…or are the creatures banished to hell?

But to reduce these three novels down to basic themes is doing them an injustice. To be honest, I suspect that these are books which will continue to bear fresh fruit on reading after reading, so full are they of new leads and pathways. In some ways they are rather like those ‘game-books’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, in which the reader makes plot decisions which create new narratives each time.

And don’t think that these are pretentious novels without wit or self awareness:

‘All writers, Julian went on, are attention seekers: why else would we be sitting up here on this stage? The fact is, he said, no one took enough notice of us when we were small and now we’re making them pay for it.’

Cusk writes in a very clear, easy style which makes these three novels slip along. Of the three, I felt that the final volume’ Kudos’ sagged by focussing rather too20180528_150603_resized heavily on the writer’s lot…but that is a small criticism of a trilogy which ends with an image which is so startling and yet so right that I was amazed that no one had used it before.

As I write this review I realise that Cusk has produced something quite extraordinary, something which I am finding very difficult to sum up and discuss. I doubt myself: have I understood them? Did I admire rather than enjoy them? Have I missed something? Perhaps Cusk has created a new form of novel which I am grasping to understand? But beyond my struggle, I would heartily recommend these strange, addictive, puzzling novels – they will stimulate and tantalise but I couldn’t, hand on heart, guarantee that you will actually enjoy them.

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Pride: some lesser known(ish!) reads

Recently I’ve been seeing lots of online posts showing the books which people are reading to celebrate the LGBT+ Pride ‘season’. (Although I’m not sure that ‘season’ is adequate anymore: surely Pride exists all year round to let business get their mits on queer hearts, minds and money?). Many of the recommendations are the usual suspects…so here I’ve pulled together some less well known(ish), but no less great LGBT+ titles…

‘The Emperor Waltz’ by Philip Hensher (2014) is a great doorstop of a book which threads together a number of narratives to present a kind-of queer history. In the Roman Empire, a wife becomes intrigued by a persecuted minority; in Weimar Berlin Christian joins the Bauhaus school which intrigues with new, radical ways of looking at life and love; in 1970s London Duncan opens the first British gay bookshop, an act which brings him to the front line of the battle for queer existence. Always witty, sharp and clever, this Hensher tome is no exception.

Brigid Brophy‘s ‘In Transit’ was published in 1969, subtitled ‘A Trans-sexual adventure’ and is quite extraordinary; a literary adventure in which language is treated in as fluid a way as gender. Brophy’s heirs could be Ali Smith or Nicola Barker who both share her ways with words – although Brophy is a more ‘difficult’ read than either, but why let ‘difficult’ put you off ‘In Transit’ which…

‘…is a dirty book that is funny, thrilling, fetching and perceptively accurate about the mind of the contemporary traveling human being’

‘…is lanky, elegant and very nice – a rare tract for unisex – enormous fun to read – and read – a labyrinth, a puzzle, a game of hide and seek’

…is not straightforward. Who is?’

Max Schaefer‘s ‘Children of the Sun’ (2011) is bold and tough, telling the story of Tony, a young skinhead who becomes seduced by the brutal racism of the far right and from which he has to hide his queerness throughout the last three decades of the twentieth century. At the dawn of the twenty first century Tony crosses paths with James, a screenwriter who, during his research into the hidden homosexuality of the far right, becomes increasingly obsessed – infatuated – with what he finds. A rare queer book which dares to think about how the male urge for fast, furious, violent sex can cross over into fetishism, politics, and back again to tenderness and love. A heady mix.

A new novel by Andrew O’Hagan is always something to celebrate, but ‘Be Near Me’ (2006) is my favourite and his best. An English Priest takes up a new position in a small Scottish town and befriends two young people, Mark and Lisa. An opportunist, Mark takes advantage of the priest’s naïve sexuality, leading to a scandal and a very public clash of perspectives. O’Hagan has conjured up a culture clash which tells us much about where we are in the world today as well as a reminder of the terrible prejudices which hides beneath the surface of ‘civilisation’…and he does this without taking any easy options or providing neat, cartoon heroes and villains.

When first writing about ‘The Lauras’ by Sara Taylor I learned a lot about writing in a non-gender specific way – and just how difficult it is. But that didn’t take away from the fact that this is a great book, a wonderful road trip through the past lives of a mother and child. I loved it then and I love it now.

If you had asked any self-respecting queer in the 1980s and 1990s to list the best queer books, then ‘Rubyfruit Jungle’ (1973) by Rita Mae Brown would have been on most people’s list. Since then it seems to have disappeared, which is a shame as it is a rip-roaring, ground-breaking romp through the life of Molly Bolt, ‘just another dirt-poor little ole Southern Girl who played doctor with the boys and lost her virginity to her girlfriend in the sixth grade…she’s funny, reckless and doesn’t give a damn. An all-American, true-blue gay – and proud of it!’

‘London Triptych’ (2010) is just that, a trilogy of sketches by Jonathan Kemp– a rent boy from 1895, a painter of the 1950s and a defiant queer of the 1990s – woven together to present a history of gay men’s sex lives across a century of underground existence; a secret history which reveals, via the interconnections of these three worlds, the extraordinary society which queers created and which sustained us for many, many years: something we must protect from the beast of business before it is irretrievably lost forever.

I sometimes think that Paul Magrs is one of our most underrated queer writers. Defiantly queer, down to earth and packed full of wit and charm, Pauls’ work covers a myriad of genres, from Doctor Who adventures to magic realism to science fiction and comedy, and some cover all four and more! Paul was also one of the founders of the ‘Green Carnation’ Prize for LGBT fiction (although you wouldn’t know it from the official blurb). For me, ‘Strange Boy’ is one of his finest books. Set in Magrs’ native North East of England, Strange Boy’ is about coming out and coming to terms with it, in this case by pretending to be a comic superhero. Funny, touching and true, ‘Strange Boy’ was published in 2002 and broke much ground, being an LGBT booked aimed squarely at young adults at a time when this was unheard of: I believe there was quite a struggle to get it out there. And if you like this, there are many other Magrs flavoured treats out there, most recently his ‘Lora’ Trilogy which opened with ‘Lost on Mars’

And finally, Sarah Waters. I do love Sarah Water’s books, from the sexy romp of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ to the gothic melodrama of ‘Fingersmith’, she never fails to amuse. But my favourite of her books is her last one, ‘The Paying Guests’ (2014). Her writing is on top form, cranking up the tension as Frances Wray, whose widowed Mother is forced to open their house to paying guests, gets closer to one such: Lilian, who has moved in with her husband Leonard and brought with her a breath of fresh air, new exciting signs of the times and an allure which intoxicates Frances and releases unexpected passions which threaten the lives of everyone under the one roof.


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Shortcuts: Tangerine/ Death in Spring

At the moment I am wrestling with Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’ trilogy of books and will have a review for you shortly. In the meantime, here are some brief snapshots of other books I’ve recently read…

‘Tangerine’ – Christine Mangan

With Patricia Highsmith, Alfred Hitchcock, Donna Tartt and Gillian Flynn invoked on the cover I so wanted to love this book.

Alice lives in Tangiers with7F61R63Qth her new husband, John. One day when Lucy, a friend from Lucy’s college days arrives unannounced, bringing with her the memories of a terrible tragedy and stirring up hidden emotions and shunned realities. Then one day, John disappears and the past and present begin to unravel…

And yet it never felt quite exciting, enticing enough to pull me into what should have been a pulsating, sticky psychodrama wrapped in a sharp and dangerous mystery. Maybe the fault lies in the structure of the book, in that it utilises the ‘he said/ she said’ (or, rather, ‘she said/ she said’) style so perfectly orchestrated by Gillian Flynn in ‘Gone Girl’. As we know, Flynn was able to get around the restrictions of this structure by reorganising narrative flow: hence, the first part of the novel begins with the revelation of the ‘crime’ and works backwards in time to the start of the plot. Then we begin a further journey from the ‘crime’ and its aftermath. In Mangan’s book the narrative flow is a straight A-to-B-to-C which meant that revelations clearly intended to surprise were simply reiterations of what is going though the reader’s mind.

In short: I have never been a connoisseur of crime fiction, so when I am able to deduce the murderer or plot twist I presume that what I am reading can’t be that good. Unfortunately, ‘Tangerine’ is one of those novels.

‘Death in Spring’ – Merce Rodoreda 

Merce Rodoreda is viewed as one of the foremost Catalan novelists of the twentieth century, with ‘Death in Spring’ published posthumously (1986) and probably one of her darkest books: A teenage boy comes of age in a remote Catalan village which perches precariouslyguernica-refugees-photo-e-1024x979 above a surging underground river, beneath the mountaintop house of ‘Senyor’ and populated with shadows, myths and the faceless ones..

‘Death in Spring’ is very European in style, in that it uses the ties which bind the people to the land, folklore and the everyday to conjure up something more than a sum of its parts. Rather like the cinema of the Eastern Block of the 1960s and 1970s, which commented on and subverted the ruling ideologies – be they political or religious (see ‘Valerie and her Week of Wonders’ for starters) – here Rodereda conjures up the fear and dread which came with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship:

‘Doors were closed, windows open, the pebbles on the pavement beneath my feet hot. I felt someone staring at me from behind a window. It caused me more anguish than the anguish caused by the sleeping people.’

We find the town haunted by the ‘faceless’ men: men who have taken part on the yearly clearing of the river which runs beneath: through the torrents they move to remove the rocks which build up and put the village at risk from flood. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they return damaged, faceless, left to roam the streets, like soldiers returning from war…

‘The faceless men would be sweeping the streets, drawing on the last bits of straggling darkness, and they frightened her’

And Rodoreda comes at the story with wit and invention, often mixing in imagery which slaps the face of the jaded reader:

‘Everything looked burnt: grass, ivy, wisteria. Courtyards were full of dead bees. Grey, white-bellied snakes from Pedres Baixes slithered into corners. They hid wherever they could, as a nursing mother realized one morning when she found one attached to each breast.’

A slender novel, ‘Death in Spring’ is a dark and sinister fairytale from a land not too long ago and never far away…

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This week’s book haul

20180609_122830_resized (2)‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald has been around for a while now (2014) and has been garlanded with praise. When I saw this lovely first edition in a charity shop, I had to get it and am so pleased that I did: anything with the merest whiff of ‘Kes’ (or ‘A Kestral for a Knave’ as the novel was originally called) can be no bad thing: ‘As a child Helen MacDonald was determined to become a falconer…When her father dies and she is knocked sideways with grief she becomes obsessed with training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge…to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.’

‘Trans-Europe20180615_063700_resized Express: Tours of a Lost Continent’ is the latest architectural tome by Owen Hatherley…and what a beautiful volume it is too. Measuring a compact 10 x 20 cm it is margi20180615_064007_resizednally bigger than a classic Penguin book (see picture) which, coupled with the modernist design makes it pretty special in my eyes. The interior doesn’t look bad either: Hatherley has written some wonderful books about post-war modernist architecture (‘A New Kind of Bleak’ covered my beloved Teeside and even my hometown of  Billingham), and coming in the eye of the chaotic Brexit storm, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ couldn’t be more timely: ‘Just what is it that makes Europe’s cities so exemplary? What is the ideal ‘European City’ anyway – and what isn’t? Travelling across the continent from Leipzig to Lviv, Stockholm to Stopje, Hull to Hamburg, through cityscapes both sublime and philistine, Owen Hatherley sets out to test our vision of Europe – and show another, more unexpected side to the urban dream.’

And finally, some fiction.20180623_173555_resized (2) ‘Mary Lavelle‘ by Kate O’Brien sounds like a perfect summer read: Mary Lavelle ‘and Irish girl of great beauty’ becomes a governess in Spain.

Little by little Mary loses her heart to the landscape, the light, the enchantment of Spain. And when she meets Juanito, the brilliant but married son of the household, she loses her heart to him too.’

Originally a playwright, O’Brien was born in Limerick, Ireland and would go on to write 8 successful novels. ‘Mary Lavelle’ was published in 1936 and censored by the Irish Censorship Board on account of its ‘immorality’.


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