History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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History of Wolves is one of three debut novels on this year’s Man Booker longlist. Ever drawn in by a beautiful book cover, I love it when the cover fits the contents as perfectly as it does in this case. The Minnesota scenery and the small town of Loose River and its many lakes form an incredible backdrop to this novel.

Linda is fourteen, at high school, a loner. She lives with her parents in an ex-commune beside a lake. She has no friends since the other commune inhabitants left some time before. When a family move in across the lake, she finds herself fascinated by them. Patra, the wife, is a young twenty six, childlike and immature. Her husband, Leo, is away for much of the time and Paul, her son is four years old. Linda, despite not really liking children, jumps at the chance to babysit Paul and becomes a regular visitor. From the first page we know that Paul is no longer around, and by page two Linda is clearer: he is dead.

In April, I started taking Paul for walks in the woods while his mother revised a manuscript of her husband’s research. The printed pages lay in batches around the cabin, on the countertop and under chairs. There were also stacks of books and pamphlets. I’d peeked at the titles. Predictions and Promises: Extraterrestrial Bodies. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The Necessities of Space.

“Just keep clear of the house for a few hours” were Patra’s instructions. I was given snacks in Baggies, pretzels wound into small brown bows. I was given water bottles in a blue backpack, books about trains, Handi Wipes, coloring books and crayons, suntan lotion. These went on my back. Paul went in my hand. His little fingers were damp and wiggling. But he was trusting, never once seeming to feel the shock of my skin touching his.

He wasn’t like animals. I didn’t have to win him over.

At first this novel reminded me most of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, from the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Eerie winter backdrop – tick. Small town America – tick. Loner female protagonist living in a weird family set up – tick. Newcomers who bring trouble with them – tick. As the novel drew me in, I began to feel differently, though the premise is similar. In both books the reader is drawn on because of a need to know what exactly happens, having been promised a moment of huge significance at the very start. Where I found Eileen calculating and intentionally tricksy, there is an authentic honesty to Linda’s narration.

Having read some other reviews, I do agree that the subplot involving Mr Grierson, a teacher at Linda’s school, and Lily, a fellow student, to be a bit meandering and oblique. Although the main action is set while Linda is fourteen, she tells us that she is now thirty seven, and we get snippets of her life at twenty six. Linda spots that Grierson treats Lily, widely acknowledged to be beautiful but a little odd, in a different way to the rest of the girls in class. She seems strangely drawn to both Lily and Grierson and, much later, writes to Grierson after he has moved away. I thought that her preoccupation with Grierson had a lot to do with her loneliness and a need to fit in. Just as her motivation in babysitting Paul has more to do with wanting a relationship with Patra, she wants someone to look at her the way that her teacher looks at the girl across the classroom. It is all conducted at such distance that I think this is where it lost focus a little.

The writing of this book is incredibly accomplished and beautiful. Fridlund recreates entire acres of scenery in a few words, and this is what elevates the novel from what, in other hands, could have been a rather straightforward story. I think it will struggle to make the shortlist but I have a lot more books to read yet.

See my reviews of other longlisted books here:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

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Shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize, this slim novel is the story of Neve, a writer in her mid-thirties who is married to an older man, Edwyn. It is not a happy marriage. I wasn’t drawn to this and, had I not wanted to finally get round to finish reading the Baileys shortlist, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. I went in with an open mind but had a feeling that it was going to be very beautiful and that not very much would happen. I was sort of right.

I read the blurb and expected this to be a short and claustrophobic tale of a marriage gone wrong. Really this is a rather disjointed tale of Neve’s life up to the current moment. I picked this up to take on a three hour coach trip, thinking that with only 167 pages it might get me through most of the journey. Instead, I found myself frequently putting it down, then getting confused when I next picked it up as to when or where Neve was. Riley flits around Neve’s life so quickly that I often had to reread passages just to remind myself if we were in Manchester, London, Glasgow…

I enjoyed most the fraught relationship between Neve and her mother. Often comic, I found this far more interesting than Neve with Edwyn which felt rather one-note – he says something vile; she tries not to provoke him further. In some ways Neve was a younger reflection of her mother. Both of them flitted around, moving from place to place. In some ways I felt that Neve was only with Edwyn because she feared becoming like her mother, ditching relationships and having to start afresh each time. There were also some interesting scenes between Neve and her father, a bully who was reminiscent of her husband, which I wanted to be explored more.

When Neve and Edwyn do have a proper conversation (as opposed to the sections where he’s basically having a childish trantrum), these are full of tension and bile. Edwyn harps on about a time years ago when Neve drank too much and was sick, in every room of their flat if he’s to be believed, and Neve doesn’t, though she can’t remember. As much as he picks fights with her it is only when he tells her that he won’t forgive her, that he never forgives, that it feels as though Neve’s breaking point has been reached. I found their relationship a curious one. He is older than her, though by how much I was never quite sure. At times it seems that he is taking the father role – they don’t have sex, or not very often. There is no desire and only a few moments of affection which seemed to be habitual rather than truly emotional.  He constantly refers to her using him to keep a roof over her head.

It is Neve’s dependency on others that I found so frustrating. She is a person who seems to fall into situations rather than having any control. She is always living a few quid from destitution. The relationship with Edwyn balances on her need for financial support while he, ageing and suffering from heart disease, relies on her for companionship, someone to care for him rather than act as a lover. I wondered what brought them together in the first place.

This is the sort of book that you will enjoy if you like short story collections – this reads a little like one, a series of vignettes taken from Neve’s life. As a novel, it was a little too flighty. I often lost track of time and location and, reading the reviews of others, this is a common experience rather than as a result of me reading in several sittings. Perhaps my expectations were too far removed from what the author was trying to achieve, but for me I found this an unsatisfactory read.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

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On to Book Two! So, after quite enjoying Rivers of London, the set-up more than the actual plot perhaps, I decided to try the second book in the series and see how it developed.

We pick up just after Rivers finishes. PC Peter Grant is driving down to Essex to visit his old WPC mate Lesley May who suffered a catastrophic injury at the end of the first book and is trying to come to terms with it. She’s in comparatively good spirits but Grant’s almost relieved to be called back to London to deal with a suspicious murder in Soho – a jazz saxophonist who fell down dead right after a performance. As it turns out, he’s just the first in a long line of London jazz musicians who have died mysteriously over the last five years, their deaths all coming within hours of a gig.

I found myself enjoying this instalment more than its predecessor. The magical world was already set up and the plot was much less convoluted, perhaps a little easy to predict, but in the lead-up to the Man Booker longlist I was quite glad for a light read. Grant is an engaging main character, though he makes so many terrible decisions that you have to wonder whether he’s not a liability with his haphazard magical skills. He also has zero willpower when it comes to women which lands him in even more trouble in this novel than in the first. We also learn more about Peter’s parents, especially his jazz musician father who he turns to for help with the investigation. I liked these scenes and felt they added another dimension to the book outside of the Folly. I was also grateful for more of Stephanopoulos who, in the absence of Lesley, was the only person who seemed capable of keeping an eye on Peter.

One of the features of a good series is that really there should be enough carrying through from the previous book, and some unresolved issues to give the reader a nudge on to the next. I didn’t think that there was too much going over of old material and there are a couple of great set-ups that had me logging on to reserve the next instalment from the library immediately (another benefit of coming to a series late is that you have a pile of books to look forward to!). What I’m hoping for is a bit of growing up from Peter (who, when you think about it, is just your typical mid-twenties bloke so I should cut him some slack) and I have high hopes for Lesley May. I missed her a little and she would definitely have stopped Peter from making quite so many daft errors. I’ll be picking this up alongside Paul Auster’s 4,3,2,1 – some light relief for when the weighty tome becomes too much!

Shelter by Sarah Franklin

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Sarah Franklin has an incredibly impressive literary CV and yet this is her debut novel. In 2014 the opening pages of this very novel won Sarah a Jerwood/Arvon Mentorship, working with Jenn Ashworth and others to finish the project.

Set in 1944, two out of place strangers meet and find common ground. Connie is a city girl from Coventry. After a devastating bombing raid, she escapes the city and finds refuge in the Women’s Timber Corps, learning to fell trees in the Forest of Dean. Seppe is Italian, sent to a POW camp in the forest after being captured in north Africa. Sick of being trapped among his fascist compatriots after having been forced to fight for a cause he never believed in, Seppe manages to wangle a job outside the camp working with Connie. They become friends and the book follows their journey from outsiders learning to cope with life in a small village where everyone knows each other, to becoming part of a community.

The great strength of this novel is in the detail. Beautifully written, the landscape is the star of Franklin’s book, stealing the limelight from any human character. I was immersed in the Forest of Dean from the moment Connie arrives, and the historical setting is also spot on. In terms of educational value, there is much to learn (and I do appreciate leaving a book knowing more than I did when I started it!). I had no idea that ‘lumberjills’ were a thing, but with the demand for timber increasing as the war went on, and with able bodied men out fighting, Connie’s story is by no means unique. The POW camp too was a revelation, as was the idea that these so-called prisoners could actually wander in and out so long as they stuck to a curfew and weren’t known to be among the hardcore fascists (marked out by being forced to wear a black band over their uniforms). So much research must have been carried out and yet it is drawn so lightly on the page.

Perhaps because the surroundings are so expertly brought to life, I did find the characters less compelling than I would have liked. I never felt that I understood Connie quite, though since she didn’t know herself what she wanted maybe that fits. Seppe was lovely but I did start to wish he’d stand up for himself at some point; bullied for his entire life, both by his fascist father and by an old schoolmate he sees him as a traitor, he couldn’t even tell Connie what he thought of anything. Sheep farmer Amos was a much more believable character. His quiet stoic nature in the face of losing his only son to the war, in addition to having Connie forced upon him when there is nowhere else for her to live, was beautiful to read. A man of few words, I felt his anguish while Connie never shut up and yet I never understood why she was ever attracted to Seppe.

Although the blurb hints at romantic love, I wouldn’t read this novel expecting too much from that angle. I preferred the friendship between Seppe and Connie, before things get unnecessarily messy. I loved Amos, and Joyce and Frank who live next door. I can’t say too much else without spoilers but I suppose I wanted there to be more at stake. The first third of the book hints that there could be some disaster on the cards but it never quite hits home as hard as I wanted it to. There was just a lack of… passion? I’m not sure, but this is a very good book, just not quite as great as I hoped it would be.

Thanks to Readers First for the review copy.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

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I’ve been vaguely aware of the Peter Grant series for a while now but it was only a trip to the library in desperate search of something to read on a long plane trip (to Hawai’i – still recovering from jetlag…) that made me pick up Rivers of London, the first of these hybrid police procedural/fantasy books.

PC Peter Grant is just starting out in the police. Still on probation, he and colleague WPC Lesley May are sent to guard a crime scene after a body is discovered missing its head right in the middle of Covent Garden. When Lesley goes to get coffee to ward off the cold, a mysterious witness shows up. Mid questioning, Peter realises that the man is transparent: he’s actually talking to a dead man. During his attempts to track down the ghost for further questions, he encounters Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale and is recruited to the Folly, official home of English magic (founded by Sir Isaac Newton no less) and a secretive department of the Met police force.

CCTV seems to show that the murder was committed by a man who was able to change his face. Magic is clearly involved and so Grant and Nightingale begin their investigations as more violent deaths occur in prominent locations close to Covent Garden. As if this wasn’t enough, a dispute begins between Father and Mother Thames, and Peter is sent in as mediator, attempting to negotiate with both sets of followers without becoming bewitched, a very real danger.

As well as the obvious magical qualities of the novel, Aaronovitch presents a story populated with diverse characters which sets it apart from the everyday police procedural. Peter himself is mixed race, and Mama Thames and her followers are all black. As far as the tricky question of authors writing outside of their race, I think Aaronovitch does a decent job. Certainly, POC characters in this genre seem, with my limited reading, to be few and far between, and I’d rather someone made an effort than just white washed London or had token minor POC characters that they don’t have to worry too much about. Apart from being a bit heavy handed with reminding the reader that he’s not white, Grant reads as a pretty authentic character and not just a ‘by numbers’ idea of what a mixed race copper would be.

The other main character is London itself. It’s clear that Aaronovitch loves his home city, and the investigation takes in huge swathes of London, from Bloomsbury and the Folly’s Russell Square location, up to Hampstead and across to Richmond and beyond. Without it becoming an information dump, the geography of the city is brought to life and is a perfect fit with the Thames plot in particular. In terms of world building, there is enough here to form a picture of this new London underworld without the book becoming a pure set-up for the rest of the series.

All of which brings me on to my one negative point. There is almost too much going on here in terms of the plot. Perhaps because I was passing through multiple time zones, but I began to lose track of what was going on with the main plot: the murders. I sort of followed what was going on but there was a chapter or so where I was became completely lost but the pace kept me going. The subplot of the river dispute was much easier to follow  – the characters involved were well drawn and involving compared to the ghosts who were far harder to grasp (sorry!).

Overall verdict – I’ve already got the next book, Moons over Soho, waiting for me at the library so safe to say, this is a series that has its claws in.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

I love it so much when a book lives up to its promise. For me, the novel that is a bestseller and a satisfying read is only too rare, but Eleanor Oliphant succeeds. The debut novel by Gail Honeyman (a fellow Lucy Cavendish shortlistee – no pressure!) follows the titular character. I came to Eleanor not really knowing what to expect apart that it was a book about loneliness. Eleanor is rather odd but you work out pretty quickly that most of her problems stem from her childhood. Once a week Mummy calls, from an undisclosed location. As a reader you know what Eleanor knows which is that Mummy did something bad and that wherever she is, she can’t ever leave. It doesn’t stop her from getting in touch once a week to taunt her daughter though, and as much as Eleanor dreads the calls, she cannot let go of these weekly interactions.

At work she just gets on with the same job she’s had for nine years and avoids social interactions with her colleagues as much as possible. It’s only the arrival of new IT guy, Raymond, that shakes her out of her faithful routine. An accident results in her being forced into new and unusual situations, and Eleanor comes to believe that perhaps she does need to be more open to new experiences.

I so enjoyed this book that I found myself rationing it out, not wanting it to end. This is mainly because Eleanor is such a great character. Seeing a familiar world through eyes who view everything slightly differently is so refreshing. She is an open narrator, letting the reader see every flaw (which, thanks to Mummy’s influence, she is constantly aware of). She is also highly aware of the flaws of others, criticising Raymond’s dress sense and table manners which fall far lower than Mummy’s expectations. There is a particular scene on a busy bus which made me cackle (partly because in that moment I knew exactly where she was coming from). She describes her usual game of selecting the best person to sit next to. Then this happens:

…he walked straight past me and sat on the other side of the bus, next to a short, rough-looking man in a sports jacket. I couldn’t believe it! Two people got on at the next stop – one went upstairs, the other, once again, eschewed the spare seat next to me and walked towards the back of the bus, where, I noticed when I turned around to look, she seated herself next to a man with no socks on. His bare ankles looked distressingly white above his oxblood leather brogues, which he had teamed with green jogging bottoms. A madman.

This is a character led novel, but there is also the mystery of what happened to Eleanor as a child. It is always clear that her present state of mind is a direct consequence of abuse. Gradually Honeyman reveals details as Eleanor realises that to move forward she must revisit her past.  This is a dark tale at times, but humour is never far away and I found it a hopeful narrative. Eleanor is one of those characters who will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Floating Theatre

 

This story grabs the reader from the first chapter: the sinking of a steamboat on the Ohio River in 1838, based on a real life tragedy. May survives by swimming a mile or more with a little girl in tow; other passengers lose their lives and this terrifying incident is brilliantly brought to life. A seamstress, May has made her living by travelling with her cousin who is an actress. When her cousin is offered a new career as a public speaker by a wealthy abolitionist, Mrs Howard, May finds herself out of work and it is a chance meeting with another of the steamboat survivors that leads her to the Floating Theatre.

May is a great character, odd but not overly so. She cannot lie without difficulty; despite working in theatres for years she has never watched a play until Hugo, the captain of the Floating Theatre, makes her; she has a very fixed moral compass. I loved seeing how she changes over the course of the book. The theatre travels along the river, stopping at towns in the slave-owning south, and the free north, and Mrs Howard soon enlists May to help ferry runaways across to safety. This involves a lot of scheming and lying as May doesn’t know who she can trust and is not good at deception.

I really did get swept away by this story. Life on the boat is so vivid I could picture all of the characters and even those who barely speak are well-drawn. As a story about slavery recounted by a white character, Conway does well to examine attitudes through May’s experiences. She finds that her new friends are disappointingly reticent to become involved in the slavery debate. Even though they all claim to despise its existence, they’d prefer to turn away from the issue completely. As one character says to May, ‘…it’s hard to be on the wrong side of the law. Makes a fellow uncomfortable.’

Towards the end there were a few too many ‘bad omens’ for my liking – I could already guess that disaster was around the corner without it being quite so heavily hinted at (I don’t need a drowned dog to point out that with only a few chapters to go something is bound to go wrong). Other than that, this was a novel which lived up to my high expectations.

Thanks to Readers First for the free review copy.