March was a strong reading month. Through March and April I’ve been very busy at work so finding time to read was a challenge. The answer was shorter, punchier books – books with an impact beyond the mere weight of pages.
I’ve also been trying to catch up on some backlog reading. Like many heavy readers I tend to buy more than I can read, so I’ve consciously taken the opportunity to browse my own shelves a little. That’s been a big success, so I expect to be doing more of that over the coming weeks.
Anyway, without more ado here’s my March reading.
Slimer, by Harry Adam Knight
I read Harry Adam Knight’s novel The Fungus back in January (short review here), and even though I’m not sure I’d recommend it exactly I did rather like it. So, I thought I’d start March with another ‘80s horror shocker.
The Fungus was fun but flawed. The vision of a weirdly post-apocalyptic London entertained even if some of the violence and the treatment of women distinctly didn’t. Slimer just isn’t as good, and is much nastier.
It’s basically a rerun of SF horror classic Who Goes There?. Horror fans will of course know that as the source novella for the equally classic movie The Thing (the earlier movie version of The Thing isn’t nearly as true to the original novella, though it is very good).
Here four castaways find a secret research station set up on a disused oil rig. At first they think there’s nobody there, then they discover what may be some survivors of whatever happened, then they realise that perhaps the only survivor is a creature able to take the forms of those it absorbs.
It’s not a bad concept, but it’s already been done (and better) and here there’s some really unpleasant sexual violence. Not one I’d recommend.
The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, by Violette Leduc and translated by Derek Coltman
This is one from Penguin’s recent and rather lovely European writers series. It’s my personal favourite of those I’ve read from that range so far.
It’s about a destitute old woman, desperately poor and eking out a threadbare existence with a handful of coins; her sole luxury is a small tin of carefully hoarded and measured out coffee beans.
I say her sole luxury, but that’s not quite true, because there’s also her fox fur. Like her it’s a tattered old thing, discarded by its former owner.
The fur is the woman’s only friend, and yet her desperation is so great that she considers selling it. Does it have any value though to anyone but her? And even when you’re starving are there things still more precious than money?
It sounds bleak, but somehow it isn’t. This is partly as it’s beautifully written, partly as it’s incredibly humane, and partly because Leduc never forgets the humanity of her protagonist.
It’s an intense and impressionistic novel, but short and easily read. Highly recommended. Grant’s more detailed review at 1streading is here.
Fell, by Jenn Ashworth
This is a slightly odd one, as I bought this entirely by mistake. I meant to buy Daisy Johnson’s Fen but at the time couldn’t clearly recall the author’s name. This was back when I used to buy books from Amazon (I don’t any more), so I didn’t browse it to see I’d ordered the wrong book.
To make things worse, I’d heard mixed things of Fell, which had been described to me as weak stuff. It’s a ghost story of sorts, though that’s more a narrative device really. A woman in her forties returns home to the fens after the death of her father and stepmother, her mother having died years before. The family house is nearly in ruins, quite unfit for habitation, but it becomes apparent the woman is slightly disturbed and she becomes obsessed with restoring it.
Her arrival wakes her parents’ spirits, for want of a better word. They can only observe, but their observations can track through time as well as place and so they look back to a long-ago summer when their lives and their daughter’s went off the rails.
Decades past, when the girl was just a child, her mother was dying. On one of their last summer outings they met a young man who appeared to have miraculous gifts, the power to heal. He somehow cured the father’s terrible eyesight, something he’d lived with all his life and which had prevented him serving in World War Two. If he can do that what can’t he do? If he can do that, why shouldn’t he be able to cure the mother’s terminal illness?
What follows is a parallel tracked narrative. The present, with the ill-judged attempts to restore the house and a new friendship with a tree surgeon called in to help; the past with the parents, their family of lodgers brought in to pay the bills, and the young man with a miraculous gift he seems curiously unwilling to use.
What I liked here is that while the ghosts are a narrative device, the healing isn’t. The young man has real power, but no real control over it. The book then becomes partly a study of faith, and partly a sort of grim whydunnit. We know from the present strand that he didn’t heal the mother, but it takes time to understand why.
The book becomes a character study – of the father; the mother to a degree; absolutely of the young man with his unwelcome gift (he dreams of being a tailor, but when you can heal with a touch it’s hard to live that kind of ordinary life). It’s also of course an examination of the damage unwittingly done, in the form of the daughter in the present with her memories of that long past summer stirred up by her return.
For me, Fell was rather an effective piece of literary horror. It’s very much in Andrew Hurley territory (who provides a blurb for it I notice). If you like him there’s every chance you’ll like this.
Finally, I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect Jenn Ashworth also wrote Holt House (published under a pseudonym).
The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwartz
I discovered Nina Berberova through Guy Savage’s review here. This was my first by her, but won’t be my last (not least as for some reason I broke my usual rule and bought another by her before reading this one).
Two lovers part on the eve of the German invasion of Paris. One, Olga, stays behind to take care of her uncle who is a famous man of letters. The other, Einar, flees speaking of how much he wishes he could stay or take Olga with him.
Years pass. Berberova captures the war in a handful of pages and in four key visits to Olga’s uncle from the German authorities. After the war and her uncle’s death she travels to Sweden, where she once again runs into Einar and discovers why he never responded to all those letters she wrote…
This is a fantastic novella. It’s an examination of second chances and old loves rediscovered, and of the dangers of trying to rekindle old flames and lost dreams. I’ve said very little of what happens or why, because you should read this for yourself to find out. Very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.
The Waitress was new, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump
Another of Guy’s reviews, here, put me on to this one. It’s the story of Pierre, a middle aged Paris barman whose quietly ordered life is put into mild disarray when the owner of the bar where Pierre works has a mid-life crisis.
That doesn’t sound very dramatic, and to be honest it isn’t. We follow Pierre for a few days as he tries to deal with the fallout of the owner’s absence – keeping the bar going with the help of the cook, the owner’s wife and a new waitress. They manage fairly well.
Meanwhile, Pierre reflects on his customers, on the barman’s trade, and on his own life. It’s incredibly small, quiet stuff. I loved it.
The old woman in The Little Fox Fur is in fact only sixty, hardly old at all by modern standards but her life is essentially spent. Pierre is fifty-six, which now is just middle aged. Still, he’s not in as good position to bounce back as he once was, and he hadn’t planned for having to make a new future if the bar fails.
Guy refers to this as a melancholy and introspective novel, and I can’t better that. I said above that it isn’t dramatic, but in another sense it is. Our lives rarely involve uncovering conspiracies, solving murders, or sudden devastating family revelations. But loneliness, aging, fear of an uncertain future, doing the best you can regardless – these are intensely human concerns. It’s fair to say this is another strong candidate for the end of year list.
Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s Journal also wrote a (typically excellent) review of this here.
After Supper Ghost Stories, by Jerome K. Jerome
Kaggsy reviewed this here, and liked it a lot more than I did. The after-supper ghost stories are only a small part of the overall book. They are very funny – a series of frankly improbable ghost tales with an even funnier framing device.
After that though, the bulk of the book is a series of comic essays many of which are rather rambling and few of which are funny. It’s like reading a series of humorous newspaper columns, but concerned with issues of another century.
I felt a bit had by this one. The title of the book and the back blurb didn’t really suggest that the main part of it wasn’t actually comic ghost stories at all, which was what I bought it for. I’d suggest seeing if you can find another edition with just the ghost stories themselves – there’s probably a free version on kindle.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos
Oh I wanted to like this. I love the film, and it came highly regarded by Jacqui of JacquiWine (here). Sadly, I didn’t.
The novel is written as the diary of Lorelei, a not-so-dumb blonde who travels to Europe with her seemingly sharper brunette friend Dorothy. Lorelei likes to think of herself as civilised, cultured, and of Dorothy as a bit of a savage.
They’re sent to Paris by Lorelei’s patron and admirer Mr Eisman, the Button King. The idea is to give them a little education, but Lorelei isn’t for educating and judges everywhere and everyone unfavourably in comparison to the US and to US gentlemen.
I loved the depiction of England, where a series of impoverished aristocrats constantly try to sell the rich Americans whatever they have nearest to hand. Europe is full of wolves looking to prey on the unescorted sheep they see the girls to be, but what they don’t reckon on is that Lorelei is the biggest wolf of all.
Lorelei cares about jewels and she cares about shopping. She cares about men to the extent they provide those things – Dorothy by contrast actually gets fond of some of them. They work well together, and their adventures are by and large pretty funny.
What didn’t work so well for me were Lorelei’s accidental misspellings and misunderstandings, many of which read to me as a highly literate journalist writing how they thought a less educated person might write. I simply didn’t believe that Lorelei would think she was travelling on “an oriental express”, rather than the rather famous Orient Express the name of which would be plastered everywhere around her.
Similarly, I didn’t buy her thinking she was in a country called The Central of Europe, or at least not for any prolonged period. Too many of her errors felt affected to me, like Loos was laughing at her rather than us laughing with her.
The book does come with delightful illustrations (I’m a sucker for a nice drawing in a comic novel), and the characters are nicely observed. It was just Lorelei’s voice that didn’t quite gel for me and that’s a shame. Still love the movie though.
The Cowboy Bible, by Carlos Velasquez and translated by Achy Obejas
I learned about this one from Grant at 1streading, here. It sounded raucous and unruly and full of barely contained energy, and it is all those things. Unfortunately, for me it also contained a lot of fairly showy writing that looked good on the page, but fell apart after a moment’s thought.
Essentially, this is a collection of very loosely linked short stories set in a fictional Mexican province. The Cowboy Bible is the linking element, but a protean one that changes from story to story. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes a person, later some shoes. Like much in the collection it’s really just some words, without anything particularly underpinning them.
The stories vary hugely, and are often surrealistic. Many are intentionally offensive (international competitive pubic hair carving competitions for example). There’s an intentional shock factor.
That’s not really the problem – it’s a fallacy to criticise a book for doing what it sets out to do, even if you don’t particularly like what it does. What is a problem is that when anything can happen it doesn’t much matter what does.
In the opening story the protagonist is a luchador. Here though luchadors compete not just through wrestling, but also through musical battles (a bit like rap battles). Velasquez slips fluidly in his descriptions from one to the other, with the result that I could read all the words but could form no mental image at all of what was actually happening much of the time.
Worse for me was a tendency to use phrases that sounded great at first reading, but on reflection didn’t really mean anything. “The Cowboy Bible came down from the platform sad and lonely, as if she’d just swallowed some matches.” What? There’s a lot like that – Velasquez loves the little twist at the end of the sentence but while it surprises it doesn’t really do anything more than surprise.
So, it’s not my book, but interesting if you want a dive into a sort of punk/rock-and-roll version of contemporary Mexican culture. Besides, if you like everything you read you’re probably not challenging yourself enough to try new things…