Review | Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer | Book of the Week

We aged a hundred years, and this
Happened in a single hour:
The short summer had already died
The body of the ploughed plains smoked.

Anna Akhmatova

Letter-writing may be a lost art today, since we tend to email rather than sit down and write longhand to a loved one or a friend, however epistolary novels have been with us for centuries  — from Montesquiou’s Persian Letters, Choderlos de Laclos Dangerous Liaisons and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; to Stephen King’s Carrie and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple — and are still popular. To read personal, private correspondence smacks of voyeurism, (etiquette dictates that to do so is unacceptable), hence the frisson of pleasure it affords. Suspense is created by what is revealed and concealed. The letters are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and dramatic irony keeps the reader hooked until the very end: Will ‘it’ or won’t ‘it’ happen? The Last Summer, superbly translated by Jamie Bulloch, is a welcome discovery thanks to Peirene Press.

Continue reading Review | Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer | Book of the Week

Review | Landing, Laia Fàbregas | Book of the Week

When you’re rooted in yourself, you feel settled wherever you go. I guess to feel good we need to find places to adapt to. Except once we’ve adapted we need to move on, to find a new place to adapt to. But once you’ve adapted to several different places, you no longer have one place where you belong. That’s when the place where you belong becomes the space between those two different places. Moving around and seeing new places — that’s my natural habitat. The truth is I’m a nomad.” So speaks Roberto, train steward on the high-speed Talgo.

Modern society is becoming increasingly rootless and uniformist, as the forces of global capitalism, increased migration and social pluralism influence work, lifestyle and beliefs. Economic migration is spurring rapid social change, leading to ambiguity about identity, sense of place in the world and a cultural dissonance. As governments lose touch with their citizens, they ignore to their peril how groups that are ignored, or ostracised, become desperate, rebellious and take direct action. Humans need to belong to a social group, to be heard, make sense of their identity, and develop a sense of belonging — a sense of purpose. In a shifting world, no wonder social networking on the internet is so huge.

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Review | Four Points Fourteen Lines, Tony Chan | Book of the Week

‘You doing this for charity?’
‘No, it’s entirely selfish’, I reply, ‘A wish to live, before life passes by’.

Tony Chan – originally Australian, but now living and working in England – composes a poem a day as he treks between the four extreme cardinal points of the British mainland. His walk begins on 3 January, 2015, at the northernmost point, Dunnet Head, continuing on to Ardnamurchan Point and Lowestoft Ness, before ending at Lizard Point on 21 March.

There were times, at bedtime, when my daddy
Told the one lonely tale that he knew best,
The sino-story, Journey to the West,
With its magi heroes, Monk and Monkey.
Here I stand, having chased my father’s voice,
Rock under my feet, waves against the rock,
And waves all through the line of nine o’clock:
At journey’s end, there is only one choice.

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Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week

On their first date, in the park, they got down to some serious petting. He gave Tianyi a blow-by-blow account, making her blush with his frankness: ‘She undid her bra so I could feel her breasts,” he stammered. ‘Then she pushed my hand down there . . .’
‘Is she pretty?”
‘No, but she’s curvy, and she’s really hot.’
‘So she fits the bill?’ Tianyi asked with a touch of sarcasm.
‘Yes, she does,’ Jin went pink. ‘So I need your help, I’ve been wanting to do an experiment, to watch a girl’s reaction to having sex . . .’
‘That’s not fair, if she really loves you . . .’
‘But I might fall in love with her during the experiment. So there’s nothing unfair about it . . .’
‘It’s crazy.’

It’s not every day you come across a novel in which a mainland Chinese author writes openly about women, sex and corruption − affording the reader a voyeuristic glimpse into intimacy and relationships, Chinese style.

Continue reading Review | Crystal Wedding, Xu Xiaobin | Book of the Week

Review | Oh, Freedom! Francesco d’Adamo | Book of the Week

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ − one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” The spirit of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech made on 28 August, 1963, underpins this captivating and lyrical children’s book, deftly translated from the Italian by Siân Williams. The Oh Freedom! playlist at the end of the book is a natty touch.

Freedom of thought, religious freedom, freedom to live a fulfilled and happy and better life . . . People fleeing from the violations and abuses of tyrannical regimes all around the world dream of it. Oh Freedom! How precious you are!  To what lengths will people go, in the hope of starting a better life?
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Review | Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro | Book of the Week

A new literary genre: paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued,” Ricardo Piglia (published by Deep Vellum & Duke University Press).

Beef, gauchos and the tango. Eva Perón, military dictatorship and The Disappeared. Maradona, the 1986 World Cup and Thatcher’s last stand for Empire. Such are the answers of friends when asked what images Argentina conjures up in their mind’s eye. To which I would add, bookishly, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sabato.

Crime novelist Claudia Piñeiro is a welcome discovery. All Yours, A Crack in the Wall, Thursday Night Widows published by Bitter Lemon Press, and now Betty Boo, give an alternative, very contemporary view of Argentina. The abuse of public power for private benefit is increasingly a global problem, manifested in myriad nuanced ways at a local level. Corruption is invariably intrinsic to the way power is exercised. Just recently, the name of Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, appeared in the Panama Papers leaked files. Continue reading Review | Betty Boo, Claudia Piñeiro | Book of the Week

Review | A Bad End, Fernando Royuela | Book of the Week

Life has always loomed large over us dwarves. Some take to it like a fish to water despite their diminished state and are even happy, while others tramp along the shores of existence like dogs driven wild by urban detritus, licking the sores of their own resentment, tempered by the terrible lash of indifference, as they tumble and stumble toward their tombs.” Goyito, in A Bad End

Historically, midgets often served as jesters, or entertainers in the courts of kings and aristocratic households. Isabella d’Este designed part of her palace for them and remembered two in her will. The paintings of Velázquez record the appearance of dwarves at the court of Philip IV of Spain. In the 18th and 19th centuries Russian tsars and nobles kept innumerable dwarfs; in 1710 a dwarf couple spent their wedding night in the tsar’s bedchamber. American showman P.T. Barnum publicized Charles Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”) in 1842 and he became an international star.
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Review | Vegetarianism: A History, Colin Spencer | Book of the Week

The history of evolution is reflected in the human diet. “What people eat is a symbol of what they believe,” writes Colin Spencer.

BSE or ‘mad cow disease’; ‘Frankenstein foods’; GM crops . . . the food on our plates and how it is reared, produced and sold is becoming an increasingly Big Issue and a contributing factor to why more and more people are espousing vegetarianism. There was a time when if you were a vegetarian it was considered kooky or cranky, but no longer. Colin Spencer’s comprehensive book, reissued in paperback for the first time in fifteen years, explores the psychology of abstention from flesh and attempts to discover why omnivorous humans at times voluntarily abstain from an available food. He begins in pre-history and ends in the present day.
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Review | Skies, Alison Brackenbury | Book of the Week

“Alison Brackenbury loves, lives, hymns and rhymes the natural world and its people like no other poet.” Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales

Brackenbury’s latest (ninth) collection, Skies, reflects on childhood memory, Christmas in the country and stories from the WW1 passed down by relatives and friends.

It was the First World War.
Her husband was away.
She knew fear, but also found
new freedom in the day . . . Continue reading Review | Skies, Alison Brackenbury | Book of the Week

Review | Beneath the Surface, Heidi Perks | Book of the Week

Abigail, a pretty, rebellious seventeen year old, gets home from school to find her family gone. Her toddler twin stepsisters’ room is empty, save a blue teddy. The police do not believe her shock and despair at being abandoned by her mother, Kathryn. To them the girl is trouble − as she is to her ruthless, narcissistic grandmother, Eleanor: the lynchpin of the family.

Home is where the heart is: but what if there is no heart? Women who suffer neglect as children often grow up to become mothers who neglect their own, even if they do not want to on a conscious level. Thwarted female energies cause depression. Mental abuse is as serious physical abuse, and its long-term effects can be greater. Keeping up appearances at all costs − resulting in shame, secrets and lies being passed down from one generation to the next − lies at the core of this skilfully crafted, debut novel.
Continue reading Review | Beneath the Surface, Heidi Perks | Book of the Week