Moonglow – Michael Chabon (book review)

26795307I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of this book, but waited until I reread on holiday to review. I have to put in a disclaimer – I love Michael Chabon. Love him. Except Telegraph Avenue, the last of his I read before this. The problem with loving an author is that you get really nervous about their new books (what if I hate this one? What if I hate it so much it puts me off all the previous ones?!) and so I wanted to be sure that I really did love Moonglow and didn’t just feel relief that he had returned to glowing form.

Moonglow begins with an author’s note that states “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it”. The book blends facts and fiction as a writer called Mike Chabon listens to the deathbed confessions of his grandfather in this novel/memoir hybrid that unfurls in no particular chronological order and plays with our perspective at every turn.

This is not a dry exercise in literary fiction however, showcasing technical skill with no soul. We come to care deeply for the characters, and despite hurtling from Baltimore to Florida to Germany to a New York prison, forward and back from the 1940s to the present, it all feels effortless and surefooted. Chabon has such a particular way of describing objects vividly, and occasional sentences that stop the heart “She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand”.

If I had to sum this book up in one word it would be ‘Chabonesque’ – a stunning return to form from one of my all-time favourite authors.

Moonglow is published by 4th Estate (Harper Collins). I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák – book review

The Signal FlameSet in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains in 1972, The Signal Flame is a lyrical, quietly beautiful novel about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War. The family has just lost their patriarch, Jozef Vinch, who survived WWI as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and travelled to American to build a life for his family. If you have read The Sojourn you are already aware of Jozef Vinch, and of the power of Krivák’s writing – but this is not a sequel per se, and knowledge of the events of The Sojourn is not necessary.

“The trees were always the first thing his grandfather spoke of in the morning, weaving a forecast for the day based on the curve of leaves or a bird he might see nesting in the branches. Or he would tell a story that began with the planting of a particular sapling…its root pack bound in burlap and sitting in the front seat of his rig like a passenger…”

The Signal Flame centres on Jozef Vinch’s stoic grandson Bo is left to work the family’s 2000 acres of logging land and hope that this newest war will return his brother safely to him. However, Sam is MIA in Vietnam, and he has left behind a pregnant girlfriend – whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. This isn’t an action-packed plot fuelled rollercoaster – it is something more. I was utterly absorbed in this immersive portrait of a family and community in this wooded territory where the cycles of soil and weather set the rhythm of the days. There is a quiet dignity to the portrayal of grief, endurance, and the importance of forgiveness in The Signal Flame, and Krivák’s sense of pace and place is close to flawless. There is a lot of sorrow in this book, and perhaps January was not the best month to read it – so I have waited until now to recommend it to you. And I highly recommend it.

The Signal Flame is published by Scribner, who provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

41hICu+LvaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I put off reading Undying because I was afraid my usually stone-cold cynical heart could not cope with it. From the queasy raw intensity of his genre defying masterpiece Under the Skin, to the sweeping Victorian expanse of The Crimson Petal and the White, something about Michel Faber’s writing grabs me utterly. His directness of tone and immersive descriptions are a heady combination – and one that made his first slim volume of poetry slightly frightening. Undying chronicles Faber’s attempts to process the six-year battle with cancer; death; and absence of, his beloved wife of 26 years Eva.

How can you say goodbye to the love of your life? How can you reconcile the wonder of finding your perfect partner with the horror of losing them in slow motion? These poems are tender and devastating – there is a vulnerability and a rawness to them that shredded my heart. Read them – and then hug your lover close, call your mother, grab your pet and give it a big snuggle – be thankful you are alive. Faber doesn’t shirk from depicting the ravages of cancer, but even the darkest of these poems are suffused with hope and love. For me, the darkest poems come after Eva has passed, as Faber struggles to adjust to a world without her in it.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

Above all, these are love poems, in the deepest truest sense of the word. I read my first Michel Faber novel 17 years ago, and read all his fiction published since. I never really thought about his private life until I heard his announcement that he would not write any more fiction after Eva’s death and the publication of The Book of Strange New Things. After reading Undying, I feel I know Eva – that she was extraordinary, and that the world is a poorer place in her absence. These poems are more than a searing testimony of grief, they are a celebration of the impact we can make in life, the death-defying ripples of a life lived in kindness:

You worked covertly, nurturing by stealth.
You lifted people up, nudged them to transcend
their limitations…
You’re dead. I know. And it is not for me
to show you death is not the end.
But you left lucencies of grace secreted in the world,
still glowing.

Foster – Claire Keegan

fosterThis short story, recently published as a standalone work, is about as perfect a prose snapshot as it is possible to get. I hope people aren’t put off by the title and the grim cover – despite the appearance of similarity with ‘misery porn’ the Ireland in this story is one blessedly free of rain drenched institutional child abuse. We see the world of Foster through the eyes of a young girl, sent away from her parents and siblings to live with a couple in Wexford. This new home has an abundance of milk and fruit and even extra money – there are clean clothes and baths and apparent happiness. The couple are strangers to our young narrator, although they are family, and we can pick up on the familial politics through her relayed information. Like our narrator, we have no idea how long the foster arrangement will be in place. We are forced to see the world through the naïve eyes of a child, and to learn both the reality of her own home life and the secrets of the home she is placed in along with her. It is both affirming to watch her unfurl like a flower from the care and attention she now receives, and heart-breaking to see her new self-worth buffeted first by the jealousy of neighbours and then by the reality that children are often pawns in a game they do not understand. Not a word is out of place, and it is utterly absorbing. Highly recommended.

Why Blog about Books?

I was absolutely delighted to be asked to guest blog for Ireland’s longest running literary magazine about why I love reading, and why I blog about books. Text below originally published by Books Ireland.

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One of my earliest memories is my eldest sister, passionate about education to this day, teaching me to read the word ‘wheelbarrow’. There must have been simpler words before that of course, but I remember ‘wheelbarrow’ because once that jumbled mess that started with ‘w’ became a word, every word made sense. I could read on my own and it meant that I could go anywhere. I might have grown up on an isolated farm, but I found a kindred spirit in Anne Shirley; triumphed over bullies with Matilda; solved riddles in the dark with Gollum and became a vegetarian before I knew the word as I cried with Wilbur over Charlotte. Before my teens I had realised that books are not only a portal to knowledge, but a chance to go places in your head – anywhere you want to be, a good book can take you there. Books are not about escaping reality, they are a way to improve upon lived reality. George RR Martin said it best “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Studies of embodied simulation have begun to prove what every keen reader knows – reading books alters our perception, makes us more empathic, improves our memory and the flexibility of our thinking. If we are totally immersed in fiction, we become part of that world in ways that are not entirely metaphorical. For example, if you hold a warm drink while reading you are more likely to think warmly about the character in the passage. If you hold an iced drink you are more likely to feel coldly towards them. If you sit on a hard seat rather than a cushion, you are more likely to come to harsh judgements (and juries on hard benches find the accused guilty more often). If you read a book while travelling on a bus or train, you’re more likely to have a sense of racing through a story. This blurring of reality and immersive fiction is why I love reading – but it’s also an intimidating reminder of the subjectivity of book reviews.

Undeterred, I started Eats Plants, Reads Books while nursing a hangover from academia – I missed taking time to stop and think about what I had read.  One of my favourite things has always been getting someone to read a book I know they will love, and book blogging allows me to press books into virtual hands and say “This. Read This”. I try to keep my reviews spoiler free, and prefer analysis to synopsis. I am a passionate advocate for books that I enjoyed, and I get particular satisfaction from writing reviews of books without a big marketing push for that reason. It makes my day to hear that someone has picked up a particular book because of the blog, or to have an author thank me for a review.  I have always been grateful for the worlds, lives and experiences I have accessed through books, and am newly thankful for the wonderful community of readers and writers I have become part of through blogging.

Books Ireland is the only publication of its kind, specifically focusing on books published in Ireland and books of Irish interest. Follow them on twitter @booksirelandmag. Print and digital subscriptions are available via their website.

The Countenance Divine – Michael Hughes

countenancedivine-3_921x1417_acf_cropped-666x1024I hate the word ‘compelling’ in reviews. It is to literary fiction what ‘stunning’ is to the wedding industry – but unfortunately sometimes it’s the word that keeps coming to mind. Michael Hughes’ debut novel The Countenance Divine is a compelling read: clever; multi-layered; riotous and occasionally hallucinatory. I suspect this book isn’t for everyone – if you don’t like David Mitchell you are unlikely to enjoy this – but I found it very rewarding. Please don’t hold the ‘compelling’ against it.

The book starts off straightforwardly enough, in London with mild mannered Chris in 1999. He is a computer programmer working to ensure the Y2K bug doesn’t bring about the end of the world as we know it. He tries to ignore both his growing attraction to his goth colleague Lucy (who kinda hopes the end of the world is nigh), and the return of his childhood belief that he is in fact the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, in 1888 women are being brutally murdered in the East End by a young man who writes graphic letters ‘from hell’ outlining his crimes. In 1777 an apprentice engraver, artist and poet called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience which leads him down an extraordinary path; while in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton sacrifices his eyesight and much more to ensure his name lives through the centuries by completing his epic Paradise Lost. All of these characters are connected through the age old fight between good and evil, between heaven and hell – and in other more concrete ways they could not have expected.

Chris is a lovely warm character, and his story was the one I connected with most because I was rooting for him. The Ripper letters are lurid, nightmarish, and convincingly capture the viewpoint of a disturbed, not very literate individual being manipulated by someone/something else. The William Blake story line was probably the least satisfying – although this is probably only because I’m a bit obsessed with William Blake! The collision of sweet simplicity and the unnerving supernatural does capture the spirit of Blake perfectly however… and indeed the Milton sections have him as the dry pain-in-the-hole he is in my mind! Fair warning though that the ending of the book is mildly unsatisfying, partly because of a slightly fumbled ‘catch’ of all the narrative balls in the air, partly because the distinct idioms of each of the timelines becomes cacophonous when the stories cleave together. This, however, is a relatively mild quibble about a deeply interesting book that could never have been heading toward a pat conclusion. If The Countenance Divine is a highly ambitious debut, it is because Michael Hughes is a considerable talent. Fans of Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell in particular would do well to check this one out.

The Countenance Divine is published by John Murray Ltd. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review

Edge of Heaven – Book Review

edge-of-heaven-220x330Edge of Heaven, an urban dystopia by debut novelist RB Kelly, is the first science fiction novel published by Liberties Press. It also won the Irish Writer Centre’s Novel Fair competition – so it’s safe to say I was expecting big things from it. Set in 2119 in Creo Basse – a bi-level city with over 100 million inhabitants in the dustbowl of what remains of western France – at a time when a deadly man-made plague is beginning to cut its way through rich and poor alike, there are shades of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? here. Riots are common place, and an a-naut (human/machine hybrid) uprising is underway.  Against this backdrop Danae Grant, mourning the loss of her father and facing eviction, meets Boston Turrow, who is struggling to take care of his younger siblings. The intensity of their connection is the only thing more shocking than Boston getting sick… and Danae revealing she has been keeping a monumental secret.

The true test of science fiction writing is the capacity to create authentic worlds, and Creo Basse is a character in its own right – a living, vital, brutal character with an organic dynamism that drives the plot. This city of ultra-high rise buildings and artificial circadian rhythms is dying, and the characters of Edge of Heaven are caught in its death throes. It’s perhaps no surprise that a Belfast native is so capable of describing life in a split city. The relationship of the leads, playing out against the backdrop Creo Basse’s own troubles, is more grounded and natural than what we often find in science fiction. I genuinely liked Danae and Boston, and the emotional connection Kelly creates with these characters is one of the strengths of this novel. The multifaceted issues the city faces are reflective of real world complexity – environmental, financial, and societal collapse occur simultaneously and magnify each other as they do so. Additional realism is injected into the text through ‘excerpts’ from newspapers and academic texts that give background historical context to events. This is not detached and theoretical speculative world building, and it is the better novel for it.

That said – it is a bit of an old fashioned sci-fi doorstopper. As dystopias have come back into the limelight in the last decade, they have become shorter, snappier (more simple?) and almost always geared towards the young adult market. The scope and pace of Kelly’s novel might be off-putting to anyone who does not usually read science fiction for this reason – think along the lines of Dune, not The Hunger Games. It does takes time for the plot to crank into gear – so if you are looking for a brief read this is not the one for you. However, if you like clever, nuanced speculative fiction – particularly if you enjoy JG Ballard, Philip K. Dick or Iain M. Banks – this is a striking novel that is well worth your time. RB Kelly is an exciting new voice in speculative fiction, and it is no mystery why Liberties Press moved out of their usual genre zone to champion her debut.

Edge of Heaven is available in all good bookstores now. I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.