This Little Bag of Dreams

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

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.

 

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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.

The Followers by Rebecca Wait

The Followers

Stephanie, a single mother, lives a dreary existence with her daughter Judith.  Working in a coffee shop and getting pissed every so often is, it would seem, as exciting as it will ever get for Stephanie.  Meanwhile, Judith, her precocious 12 year old, goes to school and has her friend Megan round for tea.  A future lawyer in the making, she is always asking questions.  And that endless curiosity which children have, which most adults sadly lose, is really what is at the crux of The Followers.  If you stop asking questions, you lose not only that curiosity, but also self esteem and identity.  You stop thinking your voice deserves to be heard.  You become vulnerable to those seeking followers.  And what does a manipulator, a leader of cults, need but recognition and worship from such followers?

Enter gorgeous and charismatic Nathaniel.  Everyone in Stephanie’s coffee shop fancies him, but it turns out he only fancies Stephanie.  They begin to date, and soon he makes an offer to Stephanie of a new life for Judith and her.  But there’s a catch: they must leave their old life behind.  Forever.

Once they arrive at the Ark, Stephanie, being needy and vulnerable, adjusts fairly well.  Despite questioning the fact that the women never leave, and that Nathaniel appears to have clandestine night time activities, she soon learns to stop asking questions.  Judith, however, is not so ready to accept this new life.  She refuses the new name she is offered, makes only a feeble attempt at adopting the Ark’s zealous religiosity and even tries to run away.  What’s more, the arrival of Judith and Stephanie sets in place a chain of events, the repercussions of which both women will struggle with for years.

I had never really thought very much about cults before I read this book.  Sure, I’d heard of Charles Manson, and I remember vaguely some plot involving cults on Eastenders years ago.  But Wait has proven to me in this novel that despite there being nothing glamorous or heroic about them, anyone can fall victim to their charms.

I devoured the final 2/3 of The Followers today, and my partner will testify to the fact that I’ve not talked so much about a novel for ages.  This is even better than The View on the Way Down: I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Many thanks to Francesca Main at Picador for the review copy.

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

The Seed Collectors‘I have no idea why everyone thinks nature is so benign and glorious and wonderful.  All nature is trying to do is kill us as efficiently as possible.’

I could easily do a one line review, Twitter-style, for this novel: Like sex and plants?  Then you’ll love The Seed Collectors.  (Fear not, at no point in The Seed Collectors do carnal relations between humans and plants feature.  That would be a mite odd, even for Thomas.)

But a one line review would fail to do justice to this dazzling novel.

The eponymous Seed Collectors were Grace, Plum, Quinn and Briar Rose: Clem’s and Charlie’s mum, Bryony’s parents and Fleur’s mother, respectively.   They went missing on an expedition in the Eighties where they were trying to find a miracle plant.  But this novel is less about these Seed Collectors, and more about their children and their children’s children: in other words, it is less about their lives, and more about their legacy.  And what ‘legacies’ they are: Clem is, like Thomas, a university lecturer, who was Oscar-nominated for a film about the walking palm; Bryony is, rather less interestingly, an estate agent and part-time literature student; Charlie is a botanist who works at Kew; and Fleur runs Namaste House, a celebrity retreat.  Successful as they all are, like nature, they are not as pretty and glossy as their surfaces initially suggest.  Underneath it all, they are fickle, vain and rather quite nasty at points.  It is to Thomas’s credit that, despite her characters being intensely unlikeable, the novel is nevertheless a great success.

I read an article in the Guardian weekend a few months ago in which Thomas detailed her increasing obsession with her Fitbit.  Surely, herein lies her inspiration for her Madame Bovary-esque character, Bryony?  Conversely, however, it is not fitness Bryony is obsessed with, but food – and shopping. (I’m guessing she’s seen the magnificent play, Shopping and Fucking.)  In my favourite scene in the novel, she embarks on a post-prandial, drunken shopping spree which culminates in a rather hot scene in a Southeastern train toilet (I’ll let you read it, rather than reveal anymore.  Let’s just say, you’ll never look at those loos in the same light again.)

My one issue would be that, as with Laura Barnett’s fantastic debut, The Versions of Us, I had to keep flicking back to the family tree at the beginning to remind myself who people were and how they were related.  (N.B. There is a more accurate family tree at the end – but no peeking!)  But then, social media has arguably addled my brain.  Clearly, this is never an issue for this original, and shocking as ever, writer.

Many thanks to Anna Frame 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?’

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

 

VErsionsOfUsCover

 

It was as if she had been split into two, even three versions of herself – living, breathing simulacra – and lost sight of the original. 

The Versions of Us has been called the new One Day.  Well frankly – and don’t tell David Nicholls – I think it’s better than that.  (Plus I have great hopes that it will be made into a great film, unlike One Day.)

I was very privileged to attend the launch for Barnett’s debut at Daunt Books.  It was not only my first trip to this bookselling Mecca, but also the first time I had felt such a concentrated shock of love within one room for a book.  There was a very fitting sense that this much-awaited novel, fought over at auction by so many publishers, had been a long time coming.  (You will know what I mean by ‘fitting’ if you have read the book.  If not, what are you waiting for?)

The novel, as you might have guessed, tells three different ‘Versions’ of a relationship.  The ‘Us’ of the title is Cambridge students Eva and Jim, who meet by chance one day when a cycling Eva swerves to avoid a dog.  Thereon in, Jim and Eva’s lives are in some way intertwined, whether as acquaintances, lovers or spouses.

What I found particularly clever, and what made the novel far more plausible, was Barnett’s easy way of incorporating events in more than one version of the story.  For example, early on in the novel, in Version Two, Jim’s friend Peter tells him about a girl’s failed suicide attempt (she is saved by her ‘billowing’ skirts, which form a sort of ‘parachute’).  Much later on, the same story is told again, only this time, Jim merely overhears it in the pub, and yet the man’s face is strangely familiar to Jim.  This strange familiarity, or deja vu, which Jim experiences is something we have all felt at times, and emphasises just how true to life Barnett’s characters are.

My only quibble with The Versions of Us would be the concentration required to keep abreast of the three different versions.  So do not read this too late at night!

It’s difficult to say much more about the novel without giving the plot (or plots) away.  Suffice it to say, this is a truly sparkling debut, and the honesty and love within will break your heart not once, not twice, but thrice.

Many thanks to Rebecca Gray at Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the  review copy.

You can see the different covers Weidenfeld & Nicolson toyed with here and also a fabulous blog on how they decided on the final cover here.

There is an interview with Laura Barnett on the W H Smith blog which you may find interesting.

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I had a brother. I learned about love by loving him. He had the first bits of my heart. He died.

I wanted this book to be a work of fiction.  It would make a wonderful, albeit incredibly sad, story. But unfortunately, it is true.  Fortunately for us, however, Rentzenbrink writes so gloriously that we are glad, for all its tragedy, that she has shared her story – Matthew’s story – with us.

It was a summer’s night in 1990, much like any other one for Cathy and Matthew Mintern, a sister and a brother with barely a year between them. They had worked a shift at their parents’ pub and then carried on the night at a disco nearby. The turning point for Cathy was when a friend offered her a lift home. With awful irony, Matty declined, saying that he ‘might get lucky’.  Barely a couple of hours later, he was knocked down by a car, and Cathy prayed that he would not die. Little did she know that death would be a better fate than what lay ahead for Matty.

For Matty did die – but only after the Mintern family brought a court order seeking permission to withdraw all hydration and nutrition. This was after 8 painful years of no progress, and their parents looking after him 24 hours a day for most of those 8 years.

This is a truly tragic, but nonetheless inspiring, story.  I am so glad that Cathy shared it with the world, that she realised it wouldn’t be ‘imposing…heartbreak’ on us, but rather encouraging others to share their own tragedies. What’s more, her writing is stunning, and I very much look forward to seeing what she does next. (I have a feeling it will be fiction.)

Many thanks to Francesca Main at Picador for the review copy.

We Shall Inherit the Wind by Gunnar Staalesen

We Shall Inherit the Wind Blog TourLong time, no blog.  But you have a treat in store with my review of the fantastic We Shall Inherit the Wind.  And what an honour to host the final day of the blog tour!

The novel opens in the late nineties.  Our alliterative hero, Varg Veum, sits by the bedside of his critically ill partner, Karin.  How did she get in this state?  Is it because of Varg’s private investigations?  And does she recover?

Rewind to the week before, when Varg is summoned by Ranveig Maeland to investigate her husband’s disappearance.  They had argued and he had stormed off; so far, just like any other marriage, and just like any other disappearance.  However, when no trace of Mons Maeland’s mobile phone or banking records can be discovered, and when it comes to light that Mons was on the cusp of changing his mind about his company’s planned wind farm, Varg begins to fear the worst.

Soon enough, the plot thickens.  It comes to light that Mons’ two children, Kristoffer and Else, are on opposing sides of the wind farm debate.  Whereas Kristoffer is firmly for the wind farm, Else is, like the zealous preacher Lars Rordal, decidedly against it.  This, of course, suggests either child as an accessory to Mons’ disappearance, depending on his views on the wind farm at the time of his disappearance.  What’s more, when we discover that Ranveig is, in fact, Mons’ second wife, and the children’s mother, Lea, went missing in the eighties, another motive is suggested for Mons’ own disappearance: revenge.  And as with all excellent crime, you will never guess what has really happened.

What I really enjoyed about We Shall Inherit the Wind was Staalesen’s incorporation of religious themes; indeed, these are themes which he has been exploring for more than twenty years, as discussed here.  Unlike other proponents of Scandi crime, such as Stieg Larsson, where misogynistic violence is a recurring theme, Staalesen instead places his novel in a greater context, using his character, Lars Rordal, to implicitly ask the question, ‘Who owns the earth – mankind or God?’

‘This land is the work of Our Lord.  He’s given it to us, but not so that we let it rot as we’re doing at the moment.  It’s an abomination in God’s eyes, and He will strike back with a vengeance.  Pestilence, destruction, storms, flames and other catastrophes will smite us all if we don’t change course and learn to live according to God’s word.’

Also, like Larsson, he shows us all sides of a woman: usurper, whore, angel and victim.  I very much look forward to what he does next.

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

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke-Davis-Lost-Found1

Lost & Found has been described by many as that ubiquitous thing, ‘quirky’.  Well, yes, it is certainly that, but it is also honest, funny, lovely and downright bizarre at times.  The main plot – small child is abandoned by mother – is pretty fairy tale in nature, and the quest on which the characters embark is also standard, but otherwise, I found this to be a delightfully unique read.

Millie Bird finds herself an ‘almost orphan’; her father is dead and her mother has left her in a department store, with only a little food and only a little hope that she will actually come back for her.  Luckily, despite what the makers of Father Ted may claim, she is discovered by the shop manager, and arrangements are made for foster care.  But Millie is no ordinary child, and refuses to go meekly and give up on her dream to find her mother.  Befriending Karl the Touch Typist, who spends his days lurking in the department store café, the enlist the help not only of ‘Manny’, an unsurprisingly mute mannequin, but also Agatha Pantha, a rather angry old lady who is housebound by choice since her husband died.

What I loved the most about Lost & Found was that honesty I mentioned earlier.  Davis doesn’t shy away from the taboo, and that is evident mostly in Millie, in the fact that her mother, usually the most important individual in a child’s world, has abandoned her.  But there is also love, and yes, sex, which can be extraordinarily difficult to write about well.  Yet Davis manages this with ease, portraying passion balanced with the inherent messiness of relationships.

Lost & Found is a fantastic debut, and I very much look forward to what Davis will do next.  Many thanks to Hutchinson for the review copy.