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.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

For Review (Or Something Like It): The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ~ Haruki Murakami

The review of this book has come somewhat delayed, because I'm still not sure how to tackle this book. It's the kind of book that really you need to sit down with someone else who has read it and explore little bits and pieces of ideas and characters and to discuss it in a much less linear way than in a written review. Alternatively, going to see Haruki Murakmi himself discuss the novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival would be perfect - but tickets sold out before I could get to them, despite myself and my brother desperately trying. As it is, I have my own little corner of the internet to discuss the novel, and I'll do what I can, though I can guarantee I won't be able to touch on everything there is to want to talk about.

Toru Okada is thirty years old and unemployed. He worked in law, but decided that it wasn't for him, so he stays at home to cook, clean, and read books. At the start of the novel, Toru's wife Kumiko asks him to find their missing cat, and he also receives a phonecall from a woman that he doesn't know. His search for the cat and his time spent out of the house leads him to May Kasahara, a teenager with an obsession for sunbathing and thinking about death. Soon after, Toru's wife leaves him, and strange women appear in his life claiming to help him find his cat, and talking about worlds that exist purely mentally, in a dimension of their own. Over the course of the novel, Toru encounters a series of strange characters who open up surreal possibilities for him. All the while, he is trying to find his wife, and bring her back, while having to contend with worlds that he can't quite fully comprehend, but with which he is thrown into and having survive.

If that sounds vague, it is because I could probably write a synopsis that would be a thousand words long and still only cover basics. There are just over 600 pages to WUBC, and the plots twist and move in so many ways with sometimes the most mundane thoughts and occurences becoming somehow vital or important. There are several narrative threads running throughout Wind-Up Bird. There's the story of Toru himself, then the series of letters that May Kasahara sends him. There are stories about a brilliant fashion designer's life, alongside with Lieutenant Mamiya's accounts of war time Manchukuo. Then there's Toru's tangible world and a strange hotel that he seems to have access to from the bottom of a well. From what I understand, the Jay Rubin English translation is adapted somewhat differently from the Japanese, but I imagine even then the chapters are not necessarily completely linear, and that the narrative also criss crosses from one story to the next. The narratives themselves are not completely separate - characters appear in more than one place, ideas exist in one world and the other, and there a motifs that exist in all of them, namely that of the mysterious wind-up bird.

As such, the ideas of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle felt like precursors to the worlds that exist in 1Q84 (of which I have reviewed each volume).  In 1Q84 the rules appear more concrete, and there's a more solid concept of two parallel worlds that seem to be in place in WUBC, but in a way that is less clear cut and more difficult to grasp. In so thinking, I was particularly excited when Ushikawa appeared in WUBC. He is a hideous, creepy, and self-pitying creature who plays a larger part in 1Q84. I may have read the latter book first, but I love that Murakami has developed his ideas and chosen to continue to character some ten years after his first appearance. Not my favourite character, but he's certainly an interesting, and rather discomforting, one.

Toru Okada starts The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as a rather flat, two-dimensional character. He seems to have no real personality of his own, just plodding along day to day, very concerned about the foods that he buys and how he cooks them. But the more weird and wonderful characters he meets, the more his world and his mind expands. By the end of the novel, Toru has learned, has grown and suffered, and has had to deal with some utterly bizarre surrealist stuff. We're talking crossing over between the mental and the physical, strange marks that have unknown powers, manipulative politicans, and psychic soldiers. The complexity of the world as Toru knows it by the end is tenfold his existence at the start.

There are several interesting and strange characters in WUBC, but my particular favourite is May Kasahara. In many 'adult literature' novels, teenagers exist as someone's son or daughter, or as the source of some kind of problem. Here, though, May Kasahara is one of the strongest characters, and she is the one that I was interested in the most. She is, on surface level, a typical teenager - sunbathing, bikinis, magazines, lemonade, a few cigarettes. But she walks with a limp that she no longer has, she doesn't go to school so spends much of her time observing and thinking about the goings on in her neighbourhood. She works for a wig factory doing surveys, but thinks deeply and seriously about the concept of death. May is responsible for the death of a boyfriend after putting her hands over his eyes to see what it was like, to test out the possible consequences. She is instrumental in probing Toru's own thoughts, always asking questions and prompting him to think about things which, towards the start of the novel, he seems to have no thoughts or opinions of. May is adorable, but refreshingly honest, and unafraid to speak her mind, however appropriate or not that may be. By the end of the novel, May's future was the one that I cared about most deeply. If the world really is as crazy as Toru discovered it to be, then I wish her all the best.

So there we have some thoughts of some of the stuff that happens in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The content and the complexity are dissertation worthy, no doubt, and the ideas would span from history, to philosophy, from pyschology, to literature studies. It is 600 pages of increasing surrealism, and therefore not the kind of book you keep by your bed for a little bit of 'light night reading'. You need your brain switched on for this one, otherwise weird things might start happening in your head. If mental/psychical world crossovers and surreal characters and ideas are your thing, then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is for you. If those things are of no interest to you, then I don't know what you'd be doing with Murakami in the first place. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a must for the Murakami fan, and should be followed with the world of 1Q84.

Vintage Books, English translation, 2003;
First Published 1994;
Paperback;

607 pages.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

For Review: The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce ~ Paul Torday

Wilberforce is in his thirties when he gets himself embarrassingly drunk on two extremely expensive bottles of wine in a restaurant. He is not, he insists, an alcoholic by any means, but simply a wine connoisseur who enjoys tasting lots of fine wines. By lots, he means that he averages between six and seven bottles in a day. This much the reader knows from the start of the novel. The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, however, cycles backwards from 2006 to 2002 to see how his life and his relationships with others have lead him to this place.

Wilberforce narrates the novel and is often very unreliable in doing so. He argues his case for not being an alcoholic, but then his behaviour and conversations with others reveal that he certainly is. He discusses the death of his wife in one manner, and the reader believes him until time cycles back and it's discovered that he wasn't telling the whole truth about that either. What is true is that Wilberforce spent years building a large software business, which he then sells. His motivation behind this is to buy Francis Black's extensive wine cellar, also known as 'the undercroft'.

There are not many relationships that Wilberforce has in his life - a colleague, a few acquaintances, his foster mother, Francis, and Catherine. Francis is the dying man who owned the property containing the revered collection of wine, who Wilberforce feels an affinity with, as well some pity for the way his life has turned out. And Catherine is his beautiful wife, who he struggled to gain, and struggled to keep. Essentially, Wilberforce is a man whose main events in life are ruled by alcohol, whether the drinking, gaining, or lack of it.

At many places, Wilberforce isn't a pleasant character. He rarely thinks things through, disregards consquences, ignores the concerns of his friends, and is selfish to a degree that it essentially ruins his life. How much of these behaviours can be blamed on the wine, and how much is his personality is up to the reader to decide. But for all of those, I don't think I disliked Wilberforce. I was troubled by him, and in parts I even pitied him, like the kind of person that you hear about and people say, 'Aww, that's a shame.' His existence isn't so brilliant that everyone does what they can to know more about him, and his thoughts, and yet it isn't so empty that no one cares at all.

Torday's writing is, as ever, skilled. The narrative structure, the attention to detail, and the hints and reveals are all compelling to read. But its the characterisation that I really love about his novels - just ordinary folk going about their business, but the lives inside the minds of these people are fascinating, disturbing, and also very sad. There's a brilliant blend of liking and disliking the various parts of his characters that make them so interesting to read about. This is all very true of Wilberforce, and I haven't felt pity for a character in quite the same way for a while.

I've read a few of Torday's novels (not including Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and I've been fascinated by the characters in all of them. I was sad to learn of Torday's death late last year, but he has left behind him a rich library of vibrant characters - there are more for me to read, and I'm glad. If they are anything like , they'll be clever, tender, and funny.
Wilberforce