Sunday, July 27, 2014

For Review: The Murder Farm ~ Andrea Maria Schenkel

No prizes for guessing the key components of this novel - murders happen on a farm. Of course, that's giving nothing away. Though not so obviously stated, the reader discovers that a family have been murdered on a farm, and the story sets out to discover who did it, and why.

What makes The Murder Farm so interesting as a whodunnit is that each chapter is narrated by a different character. Some chapters are told as by a detached narrator, and the style of these sections is direct and sparse. Other sections are narrated by the characters themselves to a former resident, each of them discussing the family that were murdered and their own take on what might have happened that night. In between the storylines are lines of prayer, which the reader may choose to take as clues connected to some of the characters.

The conclusion of The Murder Farm wasn't mind-blowing, but that was likely due to the nature of the characters. What the characters said about others, and what was in turn said about them, set each of them to be rather odd, and therefore several of them could have been potential suspects perhaps. I'm not sure that I was overly preoccupied with who did it, more just how the characters related to one another, but I enjoyed coming up with various possibilities as the story went along.

Though a short novel, The Murder Farm was intriguing and interestingly told, and a great way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon with leftover birthday cake.

Quercus, 2009;
Paperback;
181 pages.

Friday, July 25, 2014

For Review: Skagboys ~ Irvine Welsh

Last year at the EIBF, I attended a talk that Irvine Welsh presented about Skagboys. He discussed the novel, how it relates to Trainspotting, and read from the novel. There was a scene involving a competition that measured the size and shape of faecal matter on newspapers. Funnily enough, that particular reading stuck with me, and it was equally as amusing to read in the novel. A fan of Trainspotting, I was really looking forward to Skagboys. In the end, I think I enjoyed it more.

Living in Edinburgh, I find it difficult to imagine that there are people in the world that don't know what Trainspotting is, even if they haven't read it. Put to its absolute simplest, it's the story of a group of young heroin addicts living and how they deal with it, positively or otherwise. Skagboys, then, is the prequel. Early 80s, and Mark Renton, Simon 'Sick Boy', and Danny 'Spud' find themselves isolated and disenfranchised under the unemployment epidemic of Thatcher's rule. Among dysfunctional families and relationships, anger and depression, the boys find their way to heroin. It's the new drug that gives users a high unlike anything they've ever experienced, taking away all the struggles and negatives in their life. Of course, we know how heroin goes - it's an addict, it ruins bodies and minds, and the sharing of needles spreads AIDs.

Throughout the novel, Welsh narrates the stories of various characters - the above mentioned early twenties, and their families, friends, and girlfriends. Some of the chapters are narrated by the different characters, some appear as diary entries, and others are handled carefully by a narrator. For a large novel with tiny text, the differences and the movement from one narrative to other mean the story still moves with good pace. For anyone unfamiliar with Welsh, it's important to say that his dialogue doesn't use the traditional speech mark punctuation, which can take some getting used to. That, and some chapters are told entirely in the Leith/Edinburgh accent and vernacular. Not everyone lives in the city, so there might be lingo that's unusual to others, but 'barry' is not a person, and 'chorre' is not the same as 'chore'. Some of the words and phrases used I only know myself because my teenage pupils use them. [As an aside, I spent two or three days solid reading this book, and the manners of speech actually effected how I spoke. My boyfriend said to me one day, 'Who have you been talking to?' Then I realised I'd picked up Spud's 'likes' at the end of my sentence, which is a central belt habit I lost a long time ago.]

Given the gist of Skagboys, it goes without saying that it's not all rainbows and puppies. There were some deeply upsetting scenes, and I felt rather icky when reading about heroin injections and the resulting wounds. That said, again, this is Irvine Welsh we're talking about here, so expect violence, sex, sexual violence, plenty drugs, and a lot of swearing. If the C word will offend you, there's no sense in even trying to read this (particularly Matty's dialogue, as he uses the word like punctuation, as many Scots do). This reminds me of hearing Welsh doing another reading at the EIBF and there being some disgusted members in the audience. It's Irvine Welsh, people, what did you expect?

The hardest part for me, though, was the disappointment. Skagboys is populated with characters who meet disappointment after disappointment. It doesn't matter where they are in life (a father to be, at university, a professional footballer), there are plenty of things thrown at them to break them (death, drug addiction, jail). For all their flaws and their tendencies, my heart really felt for these young men, shattered by lives that offered nothing of what they'd been promised, what they know they have the potential for. Every time things start to look better, some other misfortune rears its hideous head, and by the end of the novel it was ultimately crushing because the reader knows the sequel. The reader feels the good intentions of the characters, but knows exactly what is in store for them between the covers of Trainspotting.

Despite all of the above, there were places where I actually laughed out loud, and rather loudly too, and plenty of moments of witty and funny banter and circumstances between the lads. The group of friends are viciously loyal, pulling each other from horrible situations, and sticking through the worst of times, even if it's not always the most helpful of ideas. Any warmth and hope the boys have , though often related to the drugs they take, is also to be found with each other. Maybe that sounds like an overly mushy thing to say about a book titled Skagboys, but it's the characters and their relationships with one another that keep the novel strong.

It's probably perfectly reasonable to read Skagboys before Trainspotting, as that's the way the story works, but I think there's an extra layer of storytelling to reading Trainspotting first, as it was published. Might be interesting to see how it works for someone approaching the books in a chronological way. Regardless, Skagboys is an absolute must for anyone who has read Trainspotting. And if you havenae read either, then dae something about it, likesay. Dark, and harrowing, but with small silver linings, if you know where to look.

Vintage Books, 2013;
Paperback;
548 pages.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

[Untitled] at For Falkirk's Sake

That means that this time next week, I'll be in Falkirk ready to read at this amazing event! I love having the opportunity to read my writing at events, and I'm especially excited to be part of such a brilliant line up. Seeing my name on the line up is great (even if my name is ridiculously long)! If you can't make it along to the event, then be sure to get stuck into some of things these Falkirk super stars have written. On my blog I've recently reviewed Shop Front, by Samuel Best, The Red Man Turns To Green, by Dickson Telfer, and a bunch of Alan Bissett's titles - though Death of a Ladies' Man is my favourite. Proud to be a Falkirk writer, and really looking forward to next week - it's going to be a great night!

Monday, July 14, 2014

For Review: Dirty Work ~ Mark SaFranko

Max Zajack is in his early twenties and wants to be a writer. Not just any writer, but a great artist. So he says. Trouble is, as well I know, writing takes time, and it doesn't pay the bills. So Max sets out on a series of jobs that he hates so that he can make ends meet and pursue his life long dream career. Dirty Work, by Mark SaFranko looks at just how difficult and depressing that can be.

At the start of the novel, Max drops out of university with seemingly no particular reason, and thus begins the series of jobs that he hates. Throughout Dirty Work, Max sweeps broken glass, works in a bank, plays in a dead end band, becomes a landscape gardener, delivers phone directories, and flips burgers for just a few hours. Each of these jobs comes with its own problems, be it not actually knowing how to do the work, issues with colleagues, and his own enjoyment of too much alcohol. Essentially, Max narrates how it is he goes from one soul-destroying job to the next.

For most writers, much of this might be identifiable - the concept of the penniless writer isn't a new thing, and is definitely a real thing. Been there, done that. And so Max also has to deal with horrible colleagues, and difficult members of the public in order to make money when all he really wants to do is write. That said, over the course of Dirty Works, the only writing Max actually does is part of his job as a journalist.

While Max finds himself in situations with nothing but the clothing on his back and an old guitar, it was difficult in places to feel sorry for him. Some of the scenarios in his jobs were fair enough - horrible work conditions, mundane work, and bad pay too. But Max actually lands himself some pretty good deals, but loses them through his own fault. He becomes disaffected with his work, chooses to get drunk a lot instead, and therefore makes some errors in how he deals with his managers and colleagues. In those situations, when Max was struggling again to find another job, I was frustrated with him. Maybe because I've been there myself, and I recognise that writers sometimes need to do jobs they don't like so that they can eat and pay rent. He is ungrateful for these situations, and he chooses not to work as hard as he can, taking the easy way out instead. So while there were times that I could sympathise with his loathing towards his job, there were others when he was really being spoiled.

For these reasons, I still wasn't sure by the end of the novel whether or not I liked Max. I definitely didn't dislike him, but I didn't think fondly of him either. He was having a difficult time with the people around him, including his encounters with women, and he went about his daily observations with dry wit. I liked that. But when he was spewing all this grandiose nonsense about being a great artist, thinking himself better than everyone around him, I wanted to give him a slap. SaFranko has created a character that isn't particularly loveable or wonderful, but I also don't think he's supposed to be. Still, I enjoyed the string of situations that Max found himself in so I was keen to read on, to see what happened next, and to see if he could find himself something that had the potential to make him happy. He became more endearing, for example, in his role as a companion to an elderly lady.

For any writer that's ever done a job that they really haven't liked, Dirty Works is amusing and familiar. For any reader that likes watching someone chase and fail to realise their dreams, Max Zajack has several sad, but also cruelly funny, stories to tell about his life thus far. Beyond Dirty Works, there is Hating Olivia.

Thanks to Murder Slim Press for providing a copy, 2014;
Trade paperback;
252 pages.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

For Review: The Red Man Turns to Green ~ Dickson Telfer

Dickson Telfer is a fantastic storyteller. His stories are both funny and heartfelt, and are performed with enthusiasm. In The Red Man Turns to Green, this is translated on the page. The short stories here vary from the everday to the bizarre, and are sometimes a mixture of both.

In his debut collection, Telfer's stories consider 'the average guy' - men and women who just go about their daily lives, doing the shopping in the rain, disliking The Beatles, and filming for their YouTube channels. But what makes the stories so interesting are the unexpected twists and turns the stories take. Sometimes that can be a coincidence, a chance meeting with a stanger, or a divulging of a character's inner thoughts and fantasies. Telfer makes keen observations of our daily lives and turns them into something different. For example, I had to laugh at the story 'Pop' because, as a former supermarket employee, I was guilty myself of the old 'popping'. That, and really, when did Marks and Spencers do away with cardboard boxes for shoes? Telfer has a good eye for the strangeness of daily life, and can voice it in a way that does actually prompt lols.


'Cake Mixture' is a favourite, about the anticipation and excitement of being around someone you're incredibly attracted to, and what happens when that kiss finally happens, the story interspersed with a cake recipe. Title story 'The Red Man Turns to Green' considers how, as human beings, we can watch a situation in fold in front of us, imagine several ways it could unfold, but reveals what often really happens when confronted with a scenario we are safer to ignore. My particular favourite, though, is 'Retail Therapy', in which the narrator is shopping with his girlfriend, who is looking for new shoes. Meanwhile, in his head, he is conjuring all kinds of sexual fantasies. When he bumps into a childhood friend, though, these are interrupted by memories of teenage experiments with pornography. The interlacing of three different narratives is brilliant, and is a confusion of sexiness, disappointment, and love.

Telfer's debut collection of short stories move with exuberance, and with the drop of a line or an instance, he pulls the reader along from thoughtfulness to laughter. Although some stories startle and stand out more than others, 'The Red Man Turns to Green' is an enjoyable examination of life as it is, and isn't.

Dickson Telfer is part of the team that have created For Falkirk's Sake - an arts festival based in Falkirk - and he will be performing as part of Untitled's spoken word evening on 30th July.

Fledgling Press, 2013;
Paperback;
208 pages.

Monday, July 07, 2014

For Review: More Than This ~ Patrick Ness

My ticket to see Patrick Ness at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival turned up this morning. This is very exciting. My previous reviews of any Ness titles usually started with some kind of comment on how great I think he is, so I feel like I've done that plenty. So suffice to say, the man is an amazing writer, and More Than This was no different.

Seth wakes up after he has drowned and died. He's in his old neighbourhood in England, even though when he died he lived in America. He soon recognises his old home, and horribly painful memories connection with the place come back to him. Seth is all alone in this abandoned, empty, overgrown landscape. Every time he sleeps he relives memories of his life - friendships, family, love - and when he awakes he is entirely alone. This has to be, he thinks, his personal version of hell.

However, he eventually meets two others who claim to also have died and woken up in the same town. Tomasz is a young, energetic Polish boy, who is utterly adorable, and Regine is a fiery seventeen year old girl with a stubborn determination. Complete with Seth's curiosity, thoughtfulness, and a certain degree of angst, the three teenagers make quite the team. But as well as having to survive on mouldy foods, the group are also constantly chased by the mysterious visored Driver, who follow in a black van in his attempts to find them and kill them.

As the novel progresses, Seth begins to think more deeply about this new reality that he's living, and with the help of Tomasz and Regine, the three discover possibilities that, when revealed midway through the book, are quite mind blowing. What they discover is enough for the reader to enjoy one of those, 'Whaaat? Whaaaat? No way. No way.' moments. Plausible and conceivable, but it does makes the reader consider the realms of reality quite differently. Not that what Ness suggests is necessarily groundbreaking theory, but it presents an idea that, when fully considered, forces the reader to think about more possibilities than just one that is taken for granted.

The narrative, told from Seth's point of view, follows events as they happen, as well as including memories of his 'living' life. Ness is spot on with pace, and really knows how to spin a yarn that involves both action and heart-felt reflection. The reader is strung along and fed ideas and snippets of memories now, of which most are ironed out and revealed towards the end. There's no complete tying of knots, and the open possibilities of the ending sum up the themes of More Than This.

Probably don't have to tell Patrick Ness fans to read this - it is more fantastic story telling, more characters to really care about. For anyone who hasn't read anything by Ness, I don't know what you're doing with your life, because it is less great than it could be by not having read any of his novels. If launching into the Chaos Walking trilogy seems too much for a starter, then have a read of this one. More Than This is brilliant, emotionally tough, and philosophically thought-provoking.

Walker Books, 2013;
Paperback;

478 pages.

Friday, July 04, 2014

For Review: Any Other Mouth ~ Anneliese Mackintosh

For a start on this one, I have really enjoyed carrying around and reading such a pretty and brightly coloured book in the summer sunshine. That is superficial, but it's true.

Any Other Mouth is a collage of stories based on Anneliese Mackintosh's life. They're not always linear, they criss cross over, and some are more startling than others, but they're all part of the same thing. That the collection is offered as so obviously taken from real life scares me. Before even getting to the content, as a writer, the idea of so boldly presenting truths of yourself is frightening. These stories are reshaped and made different, and the 'I' is a young woman called Gretchen, rather than Anneliese, but Mackintosh has brought these into the world without worrying about saying 'Oh, don't worry everyone, nothing in here has ever happened to me'. I find that very brave.

The content in Any Other Mouth isn't easy - the tales being told here cover many of the darkest parts of being human, from grief and depression, to addiction and sexual abuse. There were points while reading this that I wondered if it was better just to put it down and have a cup of tea. The material was raw enough and, at points, got close to home so swiftly, that reading Any Other Mouth was unnervingly moving. Not in any sentimental way, not deliberately made to make anyone cry, just very open and bare. Perhaps because Mackintosh is exploring her own life in these stories, or perhaps by stylistic choice (or both), the narrative itself is abrupt, straight forward, and often distant. There were some stories where I wanted more, rather than less, of the thoughts and feelings that were going on inside the character's head as well as minimal descriptions. I'm still trying to decide if the discomfort is one that I like, or don't.

That said, there was a thread of hope that made its way through these stories, and there were amusing details and incidents between the characters. Towards the end of the collection, there was a definite sense that I wanted Gretchen to reconcile with the events of her past, and to be able to feel capable of enjoying life. When things turned out badly for her, I felt it, when things turned out well for her, I felt it. By page two I cared about her, and I think that's all the more reason why it was difficult to read what she was going through (though a reader perhaps can always care a little more when they feel they can identify in places).

Any Other Mouth was heart rending - personally, I find reading about daily disappointments very difficult, maybe even more so than the huge, traumatic ones. Mackintosh is brave with her content, and styles it in a way that is both simple and dramatic. There is an honesty throughout the stories that is almost horrible. (But I know that it is true because of this: "We talk about weighty issues like the correct use of a semi-colon; we drink a lot of cheap wine... We constantly dicuss how little work we're doing..." That made me smile, because it is exactly my own experience of doing an MLitt in creative writing.) Though I finished Any Other Mouth a few days ago, I still get quite sad when I think about the stories, but if anything this is testament to how clearly and effectively Mackintosh can communicate experience and feeling in words.