Category Archives: Fiction

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, £10)

swornvirginYears ago, a book group in Mansfield introduced me to the work of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, still the best known Albanian writer, who writes a foreword to this novel by what must be one of the few female Albanian writers published in English. Dones covers some of the same ground as Kadare, the rigid behaviour codes in the north of the country – the Kanun. In this book the code means that the female Hana Dona takes over her late uncle’s farm but she has to dress as a man, drink and smoke like a man, act in every way as a man – but must remain a virgin, a sworn virgin, to uphold the honour of the family as she is the only person left to run the place. To do this she gives up her sophisicated life in Tirana to become Mark. Her becoming a man is celebrated in her village of 208 souls, and she is honoured for so doing, no longer treated as second class, the usual female role.

Fourteen years later – after the downfall of Enver Hoxha (in a nice touch her uncle’s goat was secretly called Enver) she joins her cousin in America, one of the million Albanians who left the country in search of a better life and, after some hesitation, Hana gives up her life as a man. The book switches between the two eras. In due course she settles, becomes independent and grapples with the issue of sex.

Having had recent discussions with some people about our “binary” culture, this novel was timely. People like Hana/Mark did exist in Albania and a film is planned. The author interviewed many of these (wo)men including one who did migrate to America.

The book itself is strongest in its Albanian chapters. Life in America was not so believable, not least when Hana became a bookseller and took a prospective boyfriend out for a posh meal. Booksellers taking someone out for a posh meal? No chance. But while Hana’s wrestling with sexuality is not an issue, she was always a woman in man’s clothes and adopted behaviour, her attempts to deal with sex itself did not ring true. The translation could have done with a polish at times, occasionally being a little cliched in its language. Nevertheless the novel is an interesting read. But you will have to wait – the book is not published until 4 May.

Ross Bradshaw

The Good Wife, by Elizabeth Buchan (Penguin, £15.99)

goodwife‘Never judge a book by its cover’ may be old advice, but it’s also a tempting piece of self-deception when you’re browsing the books section of a charity shop, feeling in need of an easy read.

The twee cover of The Good Wife shouts Chick-lit for Forty-somethings, with a little line of squeaky-clean washing suspended between two arty trees, beneath which a cat is dozing on the remaining washing in a basket. So, being somewhat over forty and not having read Elizabeth Buchan before, I bought it.

It soon becomes apparent that Fanny (short for Francesca in this case), the Good Wife of the title, does indeed consider herself to be a good wife to her husband, Will. But Will is about to stand for Parliament, and politicians’ wives are expected to take on the duties of that role. Fanny dislikes the prospect of endless coffee mornings and listening to Will’s heart-searching about his ambitions and his Party’s policies, and so the stage is set for her to walk out and take over her father’s wine business – a world which she has loved all her life.

But fortunately for my expectations, it’s not as simple as that. Descriptions of the minutiae of life in politics rang true and were fascinating in the first half of the book. Fanny has the additional problem of her alcoholic sister-in-law coming to live with them, but although this should provide extra incentive for her to go, her loyalty to Will keeps her there. Unfortunately, as the book passes the half-way mark and the inevitable crises encroach on the marriage, Fanny’s indecision gets a bit tedious. Her interest in the wine business (initiating too much detail about wines) almost resolves the situation, but somehow I didn’t find the ending convincing.

 Viv Apple

Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Poetry Society and Nottingham Writers’ Club

In the Dark by Deborah Moggach (Vintage, £8.99)

inthedarkThis year, 2014, will be notable for its commemorations of the Great War, but Deborah Moggach’s novel In the Dark (first published in 2008) was not written with this in mind, though it could have been. Set in 1916, it has no scenes in the trenches but is about the war from a refreshingly different viewpoint.

Young Eithne Clay runs a boarding house in London, assisted by her fourteen-year-old son, Ralph, and their ‘help’, Winnie. By page four Eithne is a war widow, and the story of how the family and its assortment of lodgers cope with life in the house is seen through the eyes of the adolescent Ralph – but not in a mawkish way. As Eithne struggles financially to keep things together for her son and the lodgers, she accepts the attentions of the local butcher, Mr Turk, who woos her with extra rations of meat and promises of a better life. The old house is transformed when Mr Turk moves in and installs electricity, gradually throwing light, literally and metaphorically, on the lives of its occupants. Ralph learns what it means to grow up through his interactions with Winnie, with blind Alwyne – invalided out of the army – with Boyce whom he regards as friend and mentor, and with the other lodgers. Each character is so brilliantly drawn that we can identify with their situation in 1916 as clearly as if it were happening now.

For some reason, Deborah Moggach’s two most popular novels, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Tulip Fever, seem to overshadow her others. Much as I enjoyed Tulip Fever, the emotional involvement I felt with In the Dark made this book far more memorable. It would make a wonderful film to add to the already long list of reminders of WWI.

Viv Apple

Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Writers Club

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books, £12.99)

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanI bought this at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (before the Five Leaves Bookshop was a gleam in Ross the Boss’s eye, I hasten to add) on a whim, purely on the basis of the cover and the title. A 24-hour bookshop… now there’s an idea… (sorry boss)

Clay Jannon loses his job as a web designer. He accidentally finds a new job on the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s Bookstore, and soon realises that this is no ordinary bookshop. Part of his training involves how to climb the ladders to the ridiculously high bookshelves, which customers aren’t allowed to access. Customers, there’s another thing. There aren’t many, they’re all very odd, and they only ever borrow the books. Clay is determined to work out what’s going on, so he applies modern technology to the problem and soon works out that the customers are trying to solve an ancient riddle. Of course, he tries to solve it… then Mr Penumbra disappears…

If you asked me what genre this book fits, I couldn’t tell you. Amazon UK has it tagged as contemporary fiction, Amazon US places it in metaphysical genre fiction. The lone copy at the Five Leaves bookshop has wandered all over the place, and I think it’s now residing in the ‘books about books’ section. I guess magical realism just about covers it. It’s a fun read – kind of a Da Vinci Code for people who have brain cells to rub together. I loved it.

Pippa Hennessy

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (Canongate, £14.99 HB)

The Last Banquet by Jonathan GrimwoodThis is a novel that shouldn’t be enjoyable. It purports to be the journals of Jean-Marie d’Aumout, a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. We first meet him as an orphan eating beetles (the black ones taste nicer than the brown ones) outside the house where his noble (but stupid) parents have starved to death because they were too proud to beg for food. Throughout his life, Jean-Marie is obsessed with food, more particularly with the taste of food. He isn’t a glutton, he just wants to taste everything at its best. His journal entries are interspersed with his recipes for the various foodstuffs he encounters. Through a series of adventures he becomes friends with Ben Franklin, Voltaire and de Sade, and achieves some prominence at Versailles. He marries and has children, is aware of the unfairness of French society but fears the revolution which he can see is approaching.

It shouldn’t be enjoyable because it dispenses with little details like plot arcs, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, tying up all the loose ends… it’s written exactly as if it’s the journal of one man’s life. But despite that, and despite the inherent ickyness of a boy/man who will describe eating anything and everything, I loved this book. Jean-Marie was beautifully developed and totally believable, and the surrounding cast of characters are still living in my head. The tawdry not-quite-splendour of post-Sun-King France is presented in the matter-of-fact manner one would expect of someone who lived there, but that someone has a way with words that takes all your senses from the present day and plonks them down in eighteenth-century France.

I’m looking forward to Grimwood’s next novel – I hope it is equally mould-breaking. (Jean-Marie doesn’t mention eating mould, but I’m sure he would have done)

Pippa Hennessy

Stoner by John Williams (Vintage, £8.99)

By now, the story of this novel is as well known as the novel itself (see and Private Eye has commented about the way the book has been promoted by Waterstones and a bunch of mates. So maybe it is not such a word of mouth sensation as first thought… But it was a non-Waterstones bookseller who gave me a copy months ago, saying that I’d like this, and not to worry about the title being Stoner, it was unrelated to my hippie past.
So, this is a novel about an obscure American academic’s career, first published in the 1960s to small attention, which hung round Vintage for ten years not selling well, went into the limbo that is Print on Demand, then came back to life and has now sold squillions, and is all over the front table at Waterstones (and Five Leaves). But is it any good?
I think it is, but with qualifications. The shy and awkward William Stoner is from a hardcrabble family, who goes to study agriculture, falls in love with literature and spends his whole career at the same college as a student and a teacher of literature. Along the way he finds a wife who makes his life a misery, is made miserable by a secret relationship with one of his students (more on this in a bit) and is bullied at work by a disabled supervisor because he did not give a pass to a disabled student who his supervisor favoured. And the daughter he loved turns to drink. Sounds pretty awful then. On this basis the book sounds like a cross between JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain with a bit of David Mamet’s Oleanna thrown in. But it is a slow build and while Stoner is persecuted it is clear that his relationship with his grad student is loving and only fell apart because of the mores of the era (but still.. the book is being boosted by a lot of late middle aged men connected with academia…). Stoner fights back against the bullying, but subtly, and his boss does not speak to him for twenty years and even then is still trying to get him out of the college.
Hmm. I don’t think I’m convincing anyone in any direction here. Maybe just read it. Let me know what you think.

Ross Bradshaw

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris (Black Swan)

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s best read novel of 2013.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne HarrisLooking back over the novels I have read in 2013, without a doubt my best read is Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange; a bitter sweet unravelling of wartime secrets and taboos in northern France. The heroine, Framboise Dartigen, is the sort of dour old French widow I knew as a child in France. Yet even in the 1970s whether playing on the beach in La Baule, cycling round the salt marshes of Guerande, or hanging out in cafes in Tours, a sixth sense told me there were things that one did not ask about the War.

When Framboise buys up her mother’s abandoned farmhouse and returns to the village of her childhood, she takes care that no one recognises her lest they discover her terrible wartime secret. She has inherited nothing from her mother but her old recipe book written in a strange language. She uses it as a basis to start a Creperie, and the little restaurant becomes a success. When her nephew and his wife come down from Paris to persuade her sell her mother’s recipes so they can market them in their Paris restaurant, her cover threatens to be blown.
Just as the nine year old Framboise laid traps and lines to catch “Old Mother” pike on the River Loire, so Harris weaves her story lines around the war memorials, orchards, markets, cafes and farmhouses of the Loire. Deprivation, love, black market wheeler dealing and hardship; all the complex emotional landscapes of the characters are narrated through the symbolism of food and the rhythms of rural life. I tasted the buckwheat pancakes, cider, jams and rilletes. I shivered at anchovies drowning in barrels of olive oil in the cellar, in which the young Framboise hides the forbidden oranges she uses to torture her mother.

The storm scenes over the Loire and ruined harvest, which herald the unravelling of the tragedy, remind me of the best of Francois Mauriac; Mauriac’s Bordeaux pines and rain beaten grape vines are Harris’s Loire Valley fruit trees and wheat fields. I gasped when at last the identity of Framboise is revealed and formality falls away as someone simply calls the old lady by her childhood nickname, “Please Boise.”
This is a brutal yet gentle masterpiece on the nature of the hard part inside- grief. It is a story which in some ways answered some of the questions I myself as a child never dared to ask about life in German occupied France.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is the author of The Woman Who Lost China, published by Open Books in June 2013 She lives in Nottinghamshire.

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate)

The Howling Miller by Arto PaasilinnaI read this book last night. Started to read at 11.45pm, fell asleep on it a couple of hours later, woke up at about 4.30am and switched the light on and finished it. Couldn’t not. It’s funny, touching, mad, sad, and totally un-put-downable.

Gunnar Huttunen comes to a small village in the north Finnish backwoods soon after the Second World War. He sets to repairing the mill, and to start with seems to settle in. He entertains the villagers and the children by imitating various animals and birds, and apart from the odd period of depression when he howls in the woods all night long, waking the village dogs and setting them to barking, he makes friends. He falls in love with Sanelma, the horticulture advisor, who persuades him to start a small vegetable garden. This idyll doesn’t last, however. Gunnar lapses into manic behaviour on a regular basis, upsetting his neighbours and incurring their wrath. For instance, when his vegetable garden is still bare earth after a few days despite his care and attention, he mulls over the problem then races up to the farm where Sanelma is lodging in the early hours of the morning and demands to speak to her there and then. As a result of a bizarre yet seemingly inevitable sequence of events, the fat farmer’s wife is tumbled down the stairs and claims to be deaf and paralysed thenceforth.

Can’t recommend this highly enough. The copy I read was produced by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in – in conjunction with Canongate – one of the best small publishers I’ve come across – in a limited hardback edition. It was my mother’s copy – I may have to acquire my own.

Pippa Hennessy

Gathering the Water by Robert Edric (Black Swan)

Gathering the Water by Robert EdricRobert Edric is a good example of a productive mid-list author who, perhaps unusually, continues to be published despite what can only be modest sales and limited reviews. Save for his three Hull-based crime novels, he is also unusual in that all of his novels seem to be utterly different to each other. His The Kingdom of the Ashes (Doubleday), for example, is set in Allied-occupied post-war Germany where a British officer tries to make sense of those in his charge while Gathering the Water (Black Swan) concerns a washed-up nineteenth century engineer supervising the flooding of a valley on behalf of an un-named Water Board.
Charles Weightman is never sure of his role, knowing only that those whose land is to be flooded resent him. Indeed, he is known as “flooder”. The Board is making money out of the dam, giving little compensation to locals for houses that anyway have little value other than that was their home. Few will speak to Weightman save for an older woman, Mary, recently returned to the area with her mad sister Martha, who we learn will shortly be returned to an asylum. Mary is the only person who sees that “Mr Weightman” as she always calls him, carries his own burden – the recent death of his fiancee – and has no responsibility for what is happening to the land. As the water rises steadily, so does the tension and people leave as refugees in their own country knowing they have been defeated by the Board. What will happen to Mary once her sister goes back to the asylum?
Gathering the Water is – as I’ve indicated – a sombre book. It is a short book, easily read in an evening, which, with only a rare intrusion of an inappropriately modern-sounding word, carries the feel of mid-nineteenth century industrialisation clashing with its victims, including Weightman himself.

Ross Bradshaw

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst (Canongate)

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug DorstYesterday the staff at the bookshop could not bear the suspense any more and ceremoniously gathered round to break the seal on S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst (Canongate, £28), which has been intriguing us since it arrived. Inside the slipcase is a slightly battered looking “library book”, with its own Dewey decimal sticker, and date stamps. The novel is full of side notes, in different hands, debating the text, commenting to each other. Scatttered throughout the book are postcards, old posters, a cloth map, typed and handwritten letters, old newspaper cuttings. Reports are that the novel itself is worth reading, but not brilliant, but what we loved was the attention to detail in the whole package, and the absurd variety of material tucked into the book. A printer was in the shop last night and could not keep his hands off it. How did they do it all for £28, he said. As a publisher, I want to know as well. I hope the novel is good – but really, I don’t care. The whole book is such a masterpiece.

Ross Bradshaw

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst - contents

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst - inside