This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Category: Blog Tour

Himself by Jess Kidd

It is a tremendous privilege to review the wonderful Himself on publication day.  And what better time to discover this fantastic debut, immersed as it is in the dead and a forest borrowed from the Brothers Grimm, than a dark autumn evening?

The story begins in that same forest in 1950 and then fast forwards to 1976, just like two other wonderful recent novels, Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions For a Heatwave and Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.  Furthermore, like those two novels, there is a mystery to be solved. The mystery relates to the parenthood of one Mahony, who arrives dirty and hippyish from the streets of Dublin with only a note and a photo as proof of his origins.  The villagers are adamant that Orla Sweeney departed Mulderrig twenty six years ago in the direction of Ennismore, and they will hear no more about one who, with her brazen ways, was so unpopular.  But Mahony and the eccentric old Mrs Cauley believe differently.  What happened to Orla? Did she leave Mulderrig alive? And if not, who killed her?

Himself is a truly stunning debut. Kidd’s writing is humorous and delightful; it’s original whilst still maintaining that beautiful Irish intonation.  If you like Angela Carter and Roddy Doyle, you will love this. 

Today Will Be Different: Maria Semple Q & A, Review and Giveaway

Hello all!  I am very excited about this blog post.  Not only am I reviewing Maria Semple’s new novel, Today Will Be Different, I am also posting a Q & A with the author and giving all you lovely readers a chance to win a copy of the novel.  All you have to do is RT my tweet today mentioning the giveaway, so keep an eye on my feed: @AmyPirt.

So, to start with, here is my question to Maria:

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And here is her answer:

Because it’s mine for the taking. I write my first drafts in a fevered rush. I don’t keep notebooks of ideas and observations to draw from. I’d say half the details in Today Will Be Different I threw in because they happened or occurred to me that day. If I didn’t set the novel in Seattle, it would be stripped of caprice and vitality.

If this Q and A has whetted your appetite and you fancy finding out just why Today Will Be Different, why not read my review of the novel below?

Today Will Be Different will appeal to all of you who wake up every day, vying that today will be the day you actually live out the #MotivationalMonday quote you post, that today you will complete your to-do list, that today you will be Wonderwoman.  And whilst I hesitate to designate books to particular genders, Today Will Be Different will certainly appeal to mothers, sisters, wives and partners, because Semple nails exactly what it is to be a woman today.  Because, despite the triumphs of feminism, it is still women who feel they have to try harder, and it is still women who shoulder the burden of the past more than men, arguably. (But do feel free to argue with me about that; I love nothing  more than a debate).

The novel starts and ends in the same way: our protagonist, Eleanor Flood, determines, in the words of the title, that, ‘Today will be different’.  She will, in essence, be the perfect woman: a great mother, a great lover and her ‘best self’.  Whole industries have been built around women’s desire to be the best in all their incarnations; magazines, books, websites, personalities.  Witness Sheryl Sandberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marissa Mayer.  And to me, this is so clever, because despite the journey on which Eleanor goes and the knowledge she acquires, in some ways, she does not change at all.  For she is still that perfectionist woman at the end that she was at the beginning.  The woman who believes that she must constantly be all things to all people.

Like Ulysses, Today Will Be Different takes place over a single day, but it recalls things from Eleanor’s past which inform her present, such as her unpublished, autobiographical graphic novel, The Flood Girls, and her complex relationship with her sister, Ivy.  There are points where I would have liked the novel to be a little sleeker, but the sheer originality, bizarreness and truth of it all more than made up for this.

There are several mysteries in Today Will Be Different: where is Eleanor’s husband Joe and why is he not at his office?  Why does Eleanor not speak to her sister?  Why does Eleanor hate her ‘friend’, Sydney Madsen?  And why is her son called Timby? (Sorry Maria, but that is a bizarre choice, even in America!)

I must say, I struggled with Semple’s style at points, and it took me a while to get into the novel and to warm to Eleanor.  But I ultimately loved this novel about sisters, marriage and motherhood.  Semple’s observations and stunning and so true:

I knew then: if under all anger was fear, then under all fear was love.  Everything came down to the terror of losing what you love.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Orion for the review copy and chance to be part of this blog tour.

 

Blog Tour: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

  

As Costello watched the scene, he smiled.  It was a twisted, sadistic expression.  The smile of a killer experiencing a cruel sense of satisfaction at a job well done.

I’ve got to be honest: Wicked Game is not a novel I would normally pick up. I think we all have ideas of ourselves when we walk into a bookshop; I tend to head for anything looking quirky and a bit obscure, a bit Iris Murdoch. So I’m really glad that I was asked to read Matt Johnson’s debut novel. Not only did it totally destroy my pretentious, narrow-minded idea of what I ‘should’ be reading, it also allowed me to become more familiar with PTSD, which interests me as I work in and am passionate about mental health.

Wicked Game begins in India, and the setting as well as the style reminded me of an earlier Orenda Books novel I reviewed, The Abrupt Physics of Dying.  Johnson artfully and yet sparsely sets the scene, masters the foul-mouthed conversation of two middle-aged men and, setting the tone for the rest of the novel, throws in a surprise just when you think you know what is about to happen.  Just as you get acquainted with one set of characters at a particular time, the scene switches to another decade and another country.  

I developed quite a fondness for the novel’s protagonist, Bob Findlay. Ex-SAS, he attempts to shed his past and find a role which fits in better with family life, and so he becomes an Inspector in the Met Police. But of course, there is a catch: Findlay’s past is about to come after him.   As not one, but two colleagues from his SAS regiment are murdered, he realises that he is likely to be next. Yet who exactly wants him dead? Is it a forgotten enemy from the Iranian Embassy siege? Is it an MI5 acquaintance? Or is the truth, in fact, much more complicated?

I devoured Wicked Game on a gloriously silent April afternoon.  I hope you too will devour it (even if, like me, you’re a sucker for Iris Murdoch).

Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy.

 

Blog Tour: The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas by David F. Ross

  
  

On Christmas Day, 1995, The Miraculous Vespas appeared on the live festive edition of Top of the Pops.  After more than ten years in the musical wilderness, the band’s re-released, remixed debt single ‘It’s a Miracle (Thank You)’, was back in the UK Top Five……

Those of you who have read David Ross’s debut, The Last Days of Disco, will already be familiar with some of the characters in The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas.  However, Vespas, as it is not a sequel to Disco, but rather a parallel story, can be read independently without prior knowledge of Disco being required.

The novel begins with an interview with the manager of the eponymous band, The Miraculous Vespas, the pretentiously named Max Mojo.  Mojo is certainly the quirkiest character in the novel.  As a result of an attack, he has developed a combination of what appears to be Tourettes and schizo-affective, and is pretty rigid when it comes to control of the band and its image.  In terms of structure, the novel alternates between the band’s infancy in 1982 and the interview, which takes place in 2014.

Those of you who are unfamiliar either with Ross’s earlier work or Trainspotting, for instance, may struggle initially with the Scots dialogue, but do read on: there is both much humour to be found in the rise and fall of the band, and darkness in the shape of Alzheimer’s and gang warfare.

I enjoyed Vespas enormously; Ross expertly details the pitfalls of being in a band, namely playing grotty venues and being the support act to a nobody.  He also doesn’t shy away from depicting the realities of teenage love, as proven in the love scenes between the band’s lovebirds, Maggie and Grant.  Moreover, it was good to see the return of Disco’s lovable rogue, Fat Franny Duncan, battling to find who has stolen his money and unsuccessfully trying to get his girlfriend to move in with him.

Many thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for the review copy.

Blog Tour Day 8: Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey With A Guest Post From Melissa

9780099584957If I came face to face with a mermaid, I will hand her the jar, my heart bottled and    stoppered and offered freely.  And if she sees how much I love you, perhaps she shall speed me on my way.

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I’m so excited I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

I wish Mum could come with us.

But I can tell her all about it when she’s back.

Freya, grieving widow and mother, packs in her job and returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on the Scottish island where she, her husband and son, Jack and Sam, spent so many happy summers.  Her parents and sister are amazed at her decision; after all, it has only been a year since Jack and Sam went missing at sea, presumed drowned.  But Freya feels she must be near them, even if they are no longer here, as those of you who have grieved will understand.

However, despite losing the two loves of her life, Freya is not alone for long.  Soon enough, her foul-mouthed, fiercely independent sister Marta descends on her, and provides some much needed comic relief from Freya’s grief, which has supposedly turned her hair white overnight (flippant as it sounds, this was yet another thing which made me feel sorry for her).  Opinionated and straight to the point, she is the perfect foil to our introverted protagonist.  One of my favourite moments in the novel occurs when Freya and Marta have just visited Fingal’s Cave, one of the trips Sam and his father made and which Sam mentions in the diary Freya discovers.  Freya thanks Marta for accompanying her, to which she replies: ‘No problem.  It’s amazing.  As Sam said, even the guy who got nits still enjoyed the visit.  So it says a lot for the cave.’.

Another foil in the novel comes in the shape of Daniel, the haunted-looking man whom Marta and Freya rescue from his storm-wrecked boat one night.  Compared to Pol, the initially gruff but kindly man from the lighthouse board, and Callum, island tour guide who offers Freya a shoulder to cry on (and without whom the novel could have ended very differently), Daniel seems secretive and even offhand at points.  I was surprised somewhat at how suddenly his character changed, but arguably, he is the catalyst for Freya to accept that she cannot change the past, but she can, if not embrace, then at least hold the future’s little finger.

I underestimated Beyond the Sea initially; I dismissed the writing as too Anita Shreve, a bit ‘mid-brow chicklit’ (I appreciate that makes me sound like a book snob).  For the novel is beautifully researched (I loved discovering how Irish and Scottish folklore intertwine), and captures fictional grief as precisely as Cathy Rentzenbrink captures true grief in The Last Act of Love.  What’s more, how could I fail to love a story which brings to mind the great J. Alfred Prufrock?

 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

To paraphrase the great Will Shakespeare, ‘though [it] be but little, [Beyond the Sea] is fierce’.

Many thanks to Melissa for the review copy and asking me to be part of the blog tour.

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And here’s a guest post from Melissa – enjoy!

My top five books

I hesitate to say that these are my five favourite books of all time – that choice is perhaps too difficult to make – but they are five of my very favourite books. So on that basis here they are:

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This strange and surreal tale follows the life of everyman Toru Okada, after first his cat, and then his wife, disappear. Okada’s mundane world, in which he cooks spaghetti, drinks beer and listens to jazz, is suddenly transformed by a succession of exotic and menacing characters who propel him on a dangerous odyssey of self-discovery. Set in contemporary Japan, still haunted by the brutality of its past, it is a tale of love and war, dreams and reality, of what has been lost and can never be recovered. It is a powerful, philosophical story, told in Murakami’s perfectly pared down prose. And I promise, if you read it, you will never look at a well in quite the same way.
  2. Under the Skin is Michel Faber’s first novel and has one of the most exciting opening chapters I’ve ever read. Isserley, driving through the Highlands of Scotland, in her decrepit little car, is eyeing up hitch-hikers. But not just any old hitch-hiker will do. She wants a buff one, a hunk on legs, as she says. What does she want them for? As the novel takes off, and that question is answered, the reader is taken on a journey they could never have predicted. A twisty turny sci-fi fantasy adventure, it’s a wild rip roaring ride.
  3. The Passion is my favourite of Jeanette Winterson’s novels. An eclectic blend of history, fantasy and dark fairy tale, it follows the intertwining paths of Henri, a young French soldier cook, tasked with satisfying Napoleon’s immense appetite for chickens and Villanelle, the web footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, who miraculously can walk on water but who has lost her heart to the mysterious Queen of spades. ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories,’ is the self-referential refrain the characters repeat. And trust me when I tell you that this story of love, betrayal and passion, exquisitely told in Winterson’s spare yet poetical prose will not disappoint.
  4. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best ghost stories ever. At its heart is the governess, despatched to an isolated house in Essex, to care for two young orphans. She soon begins to suspect that the children are being haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Written from the perspective of the governess, the novel’s brilliance lies in the way it sheds doubt on the reality of the ghosts, questioning instead her sanity. James ratchets up the tension and the book’s thrilling denouement still haunts me to this day.
  5. Owen Meany, small in stature, with a damaged larynx and a permanently high-pitched voice, is the unlikely hero of my favourite John Irving novel (A Prayer for Owen Meany). At the outset of the book, Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball match, which accidentally strikes and kills his best friend’s mother. But Owen doesn’t believe in accidents. He believes he is God’s instrument. A story of faith, fate and friendship, comic and tragic by turns, this is a perfectly plotted novel in which the ending, although foreshadowed throughout, feels not predictable but simply inevitable. Irving himself said, ‘I have the last chapters in my mind before I see the first chapters…I usually begin with endings, a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first?’