Kirsty Logan, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014)

Rental HeartI have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kirsty Logan‘s debut story collection The Rental Heart, from Salt Publishing. This is a lovely set of stories, the kind of lush fantasy you can file alongside Lucy Wood and Jess Richards.

Let me also point you towards a review in the Independent by my fellow Desmond Elliott shadower Kaite Welsh; she loved the book as well.

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.


What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reading round-up: late January

The ThiefFuminori Nakamura, The Thief (2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, 2012

Nishimura is a pickpocket, and so spends his days blending in even as he stands apart. He was once part of a group brought together by a man named Kizaki to rob a set of documents from a speculator’s house – or, rather, to be the expendable distraction, as the speculator was killed soon after. Now Kizaki is back, and has a new proposition for Nishimura. In this lean and spare novel, Fuminori Nakamura is concerned to explore what it means to live a life like Nishimura’s. The title of The Thief may not just refer to its protagonist; it could also be seen as applying to Kizaki, who has stolen Nishimura’s control over his own life. The layers of theft and manipulation go all the way down.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, Further Confessions of a GP (2014)

This is a follow-up to the first book in The Friday Project’s ‘Confessions’ series, whose (usually pseudonymous) authors pull back the curtain on their various professions with a collection of anecdotes. I’ve enjoyed all of these books that I’ve read; but I find there’s something particularly special about Daniels’ titles. He’s a good raconteur, that’s for sure; but he also controls tone superbly. He goes from telling  amusing stories, to expressing heartfelt opinions on particular aspects of healthcare, to poignant reflections on the patients he knows he can’t save. Both his books are well worth reading.

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (1990-1)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2008

A collection of three novellas by the author of Hotel Iris; as in that novel, Ogawa explores some dark psychological territory in a way that belies the spare tone of her prose. The title story’s narrator is infatuated with her foster-brother, and prone to a blank cruelty which is unlikely to lead anywhere good. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, a girl chronicles the ups and downs of her sister’s pregnancy, which she seems to regard with equal parts fascination and contempt. ‘Dormitory’ is more dreamlike (or nightmarish), as a woman returns to her old college dormitory, finding it a very strange place indeed. (For more on The Diving Pool, see Tony Malone’s readalong at January in Japan.)

Skinning Tree

Srikumar Sen, The Skinning Tree (2012)

As Japanese forces encroach on India during the Second World War, young Sabby is sent from his family in Calcutta to a boarding school in the northern hills. Sen’s novel is a portrait of Sabby’s illusions being comprehensively shattered, and the consequences that follow. Not only is school discipline harsh; the bright world which Sabby imagined himself to inhabit is taken from him. He has become Anglo-Indian without ever knowing what England means. And where the school’s regime fosters violence, so the boys follow – to a tragic end that Sabby can barely bring himself to recall.

Lee Ki-ho, At Least We Can Apologize (2009)
Translated from the Korean by Christopher J. Dykas, 2013

Jin-man and Si-bong met in a psychiatric institution, where they were routinely beaten by the caretakers for… well, they didn’t know; so they started coming up with their own wrongs to confess. When the institution is raided and shut down by the authorities, the two stick together because Jin-man has nowhere else to go. They set up in business, offering apologies on behalf of other people; and, if there’s nothing to apologise for, Si-bong and Jin-man will find something – or create it. The pair go to ever greater lengths as Lee’s novel progresses; and the book never quite turns in the way you might expect, up to the very end. (This book is part of the Library of Korean Literature series from Dalkey Archive Press.)

Sunday Story Society: ‘Ofodile’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story.  The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.


Ofodile‘ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published by the Guardian in their recent series of Christmas ghost stories – though there isn’t necessarily just one ghost, or only one type of haunting.

The scene is a house in Nigeria, where the narrator Chinelo’s younger brother, Ofodile, is kept shut away in his room; the pink pills his mother gives him are just about the only thing that quietens Ofodile’s constant screaming. There is a sense in which Ofodile and his parents are ghosts who haunt each other: the mother and father don’t really know (or at least aren’t interested in) how to look after Ofodile; though he is aged six, his cries are the only way he can respond. Chinelo says: “With Ukalechi [the nanny], Ofodile had screamed and screamed, but with my mother he screamed and slept.” That’s about as much as can be hoped for under the status quo.

As the story begins, new neighbours – a doctor and his wife – come around to introduce themselves. It’s possible to read the woman of this couple as a supernatural entity; even if we don’t, though, the neighbours are a disruptive presence in the narrator’s household, who provide the impetus for the story’s decisive change. We might say that Adichie uses the structure, the movements, of a ghost story to portray this family’s moment of crisis.

Adichie has an eye for telling detail in the story. At the beginning, the attitude of Ofodile’s parents towards him is underlined by points such as “the foam-carpeted floor that caught his falls” (because his mother and father don’t catch him), or his mother’s “movements thick with duty” (but not with care) as she feeds him. At the end, it’s the little details that bring Chinelo closer to her brother: “His mouth was slack but he looked like me, the sparse eyebrows, the nose that flared.”

Chinelo decides that she is going to feed Ofodile now, in the dining room. The small detail of the location is important to her, become a symbol of the change: the boy who haunted his room will finally enter the heart of the home.

Reading round-up: mid-December

The books in this round-up post are all debut novels from independent publishers.

Albert Alla, Black Chalk (2013)

Black ChalkThe sole survivor of a classroom shooting, Nate Dillingham becomes something of a media celebrity, and can’t escape being asked about what happened wherever he goes – to the point that his memory starts to blur. Several years later, Nate is back in Oxford and embarks on a relationship that takes him back to the fateful day. The novel takes a reflective tone, chronicling Nate’s changing thoughts over the years, and exploring the effects on him of both the shooting and having to replay it over the years – until the truth is finally revealed. Published by Garnet Publishing.

Michelle Flatley, My Beautiful England (2013)

This novel tells the stories of three women who meet at an English-lanuage class in Burnley: Sumalee from Thailand, who married a middle-aged Englishman after losing her husband in the 2004 tsunami; Samina fom Pakistan, who lives with her husband and nine more relatives; and Lenka from Poland, whose abusive husband has left her. Flatley shows how the reality of life in England does not match up to what the women had imagined it would be; and examines the tensions at work as her characters try to adjust to living in a new culture. The result is a tale that’s harrowing and uplifting by turns. Published by Cutting Edge Press.

Saga Takeshi, Crashman (2013)


This is a short, fragmented novel whose narrator appears variously to be caught up in plane crashes; going through life unnoticed by others; working listlessly in some office job; and imagining/remembering a beautiful woman. Is the narrator dead? Caught in a nightmare? Something else? As the book progresses, the author weaves in transcripts of actual cockpit recordings from crashing planes; though these seem a little out of place at first, the technique pays off brilliantly at novel’s end, when we finally gain a devastating insight into what happened to our man. Published by Gigolo Publishing.

Kirk Kjeldsen, Tomorrow City (2013)

When a job he’s on goes wrong, crook Brendan Lavin steals his cousin’s passport and flees New York. Twelve years on, he has a new family in Shanghai and his life of crime is behind him – or so he thinks; his old crew have other ideas, and need him for something. Tomorrow City is a short thriller whose pace never lets up; it’s also an effective portrait of a (not always sympathetic) character trying to make the best he can from life in tough circumstances. Published by Signal 8 Press.

Reading round-up: books for Christmas presents

This isn’t meant to be a guide to Christmas gift ideas as such (for that, let me direct you to Kim’s excellent series of posts over on Reading Matters). It’s more that I’ve read a few books lately which, it struck me, would make good Christmas presents; so I thought I’d put them together into a blog post, and add in some other titles that I reviewed earlier in the year.


Letters of Note, ed. Shaun Usher

This huge, lavishly illustrated collection of letters (based on the website of the same name) is an ideal gift for anyone interested in the personal side of history, or who likes letters and books as objects. Read more about it in my original review.

Wordsmiths & Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal

This is an illustrated travelogue of significant places in the history of the English language in Britain. I haven’t seen the finished book, as I read a proof version when I reviewed it; but I’ve no doubt that it will look beautiful.

Fred's WarFred’s War by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson’s grandfather Fred was a medical officer of the 1st battalion Cameronians during World War One. Although photography was banned on the front line, Fred and several other officers had cameras with them, and took photographs of their lives at war. Davidson uses these images to tell the story of the 1st Cameronians during the year that Fred was a serving officer. It’s a vivid and intimate account; there’s a real sense of the war gradually coalescing around the men as they march through France. Though Davidson refers to the photographs, he doesn’t caption them, which adds to the sense of this being an unfolding story for the men involved. Fred’s War gives a personal portrait of the conflict which is not quite like anything I’ve come across before.

Girl from Station X

The Girl from Station X by Elisa Segrave

Here’s another book based around personal wartime accounts, this time the diaries of Elisa Segrave’s mother Anne, who was stationed at Bletchley Park during World War Two. Again, it’s a fascinating glimpse into history, seeing Anne move from her privileged girlhood world into her wartime career; but this is Elisa’s story as much as Anne’s. Segrave describes how Anne’s diaries revealed to her a side of her mother that she had never known, and enabled her perhaps to understand Anne as she had not previously been able to. This double story is what particularly intrigues about The Girl from Station X.


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Yes, I know: any excuse to enthuse about The Luminaries. But it is just the sort of big hardback novel that would make a great Christmas gift, especially for readers who may have been undecided about trying it out for themselves (it may take them well into the new year to read it, too).

If not The Luminaries, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity may also fit the bill (I have heard great things about both, but haven’t read them, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).

Crystal MirrorThe Crystal Mirror by Tim Malnick and Katie Green

From three long books to a much shorter one. This is a crowd-funded collection of “timeless tales for children and grown-ups alike”, written by Tim Malnick and illustrated by Katie Green. The five stories are all about characters changing their outlook on life to find a way forward, from the painter imprisoned in a bare tower room, to a bat fascinated by daylight. Malnick’s prose has the rhythms of a classic fairytale, and Green’s illustrations are gorgeous. I may not be quite the intended audience for The Crystal Mirror, but I found the book absolutely charming.

Non-Fiction about Fiction

Novel Cure

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Subtitled “An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, this book has suggestions for reading to help alleviate a variety of ailments. Some are quite tongue-in-cheek (David Vann’s Caribou Island as a cure for enthusiasm with DIY; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson to treat fear of doing your tax return); others more serious (Wuthering Heights to cure a desire to seek vengeance; Mrs Dalloway to tackle that Monday morning feeling). But the entries are always written with wit (I especially love the entries which spoof the style of the book being recommended; my favourite is the one for House of Leaves) and enthusiasm. After reading The Novel Cure, or even just dipping into it, you’ll almost certainly have some new books that you want to try. Now, what’s the cure for an exponentially increasing to-read pile..?

Sunday Story Society: ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ by Doris Lessing


Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story.  The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.


‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ was Doris Lessing’s first piece of work to be published in the New Yorker, in February 1955. It’s also the first work of hers that I’ve read, so I came to it knowing little more than that it was one of Lessing’s many stories set in Africa. We see events through the eyes of Margaret, a city woman married to Richard, and now three years on the maize farm of Richard’s father Stephen. For all her time there, the ways of the farm remain a mystery to Margaret:

She still did not understand why they did not go bankrupt altogether, when the men never had a good word for the weather, or the soil, or the government. But she was getting to learn the language. Farmers’ language. And she noticed that for all Richard’s and Stephen’s complaints, they did not go bankrupt. Nor did they get very rich; they jogged along, doing comfortably.

Whatever Margaret may have experienced on the farm so far is nothing, though, compared to what is coming now: a swarm of locusts which destroys the entire crop.

Two things strike me in particular about this story. One is Lessing’s descriptive language, the way she evokes the vastness and implacability of the swarm:

When she looked out, all the trees were queer and still, clotted with insects, their boughs weighted to the ground. The earth seemed to be moving, with locusts crawling everywhere; she could not see the lands at all, so thick was the swarm. Toward the mountains, it was like looking into driving rain; even as she watched, the sun was blotted out with a fresh onrush of the insects. It was a half night, a perverted blackness.

I love especially that image of trees ‘clotted with locusts’, making the swarm seem less a collection of living creatures than some sort of viscous substance that happens to move under its own volition. The imagery here emphasises how vast and overwhelming this attack is: the locusts make the land disappear, act like a weather system, turn day into night.

The second aspect that strikes me is what the attack reveals about the characters’ relationships with nature. Even though the locusts have eaten everything, the men of the farm still work to drive them away, because they know the difference it could make: it could stop their locusts from laying their eggs here. Attuned to the rhythms of the farm, the men call this attack mild – not because minimal damage has been done, but because they are resigned to paying a price, and know how much greater the cost might have been. In contrast, Margaret is still only beginning to comprehend the situation: ‘if this devastated and mangled countryside was not ruin,’ she wonders, ‘what then was ruin?’ Lessing shows life on the farm to be a constant battle against nature, fought in the knowledge that any reprieve is only temporary.

Sunday Story Society preview: December 2013


So far, the revived Sunday Story Society has been all about recent stories, but next month I want to do something different. It occurred to me when Doris Lessing died last week that I’d never actually read anything by her (I know, I know…) – so I went looking for some of her short stories online.

I’ve picked out ‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’, which was published in The New Yorker in 1955 (and is now available to read on their website). I’ll be blogging about it on Sunday 1 December, and you are welcome to join me for a discussion in the comments.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Ross Raisin

My Ross Raisin anecdote goes like this: I heard him read from his second novel, Waterline (during which he gamely affected a Glaswegian accent to match the narrator), at the first Penguin General Bloggers’ Night. We got talking afterwards, and I mentioned that we were from the same county – though, as an ardent supporter of Bradford City FC, he wasn’t best pleased to learn that I was from Huddersfield (all in good humour, though, I should add!).

Anyway, Raisin is one of the Granta novelists whom I’ve meant to read, but not yet got around to (I’ve heard such good things about God’s Own Country, I really must read it). ‘Submersion’ is a new and complete story to end the Granta anthology; it sees a pair of siblings heading back to their flooded home town when they see news footage of their father being carried away by the water, still sleeping in his armchair. It’s a strange story that floats on reality like debris caught in the flood. It underlines that I should read more of Raisin’s work – as is the case with a good number of the authors on Granta‘s list.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Sunjeev Sahota

It is just about a year since I read (and liked) Sunjeev Sahota’s first novel, Ours are the Streets; he’s another on my list of authors to keep reading. Sahota’s Granta piece, ‘Arrivals’, is taking from his forthcoming follow-up, The Year of the Runaways – and I think it works quite well as a stand-alone story.

We begin with one Randeep Sanghera showing a woman into her new flat in Sheffield; is he an estate agent, or perhaps her landlord? After seeing his living arrangements and work as a builder, we find that the truth is somewhat different – Randeep is one of several immigrants living in the same house, and the woman is who he married as a means of obtaining a visa. ‘Arrivals’ is an interesting set-up for the novel, but that’s what it feels like – a beginning. Still, Ours are the Streets worked best as a whole, and I suspect that The Year of the Runaways will be the same. I’m looking forward to finding out.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.