“The Institute” Vincent Bijlo (Holland Park Press) – novel review

34552597A novel from Dutch stand-up comedian and columnist translated by Susan Ridder, where readers meet Otto Iking, aged eleven, wannabee radio show host, who provides a droll look at life in an institute for blind children during the 1970s. Alongside the usual school lessons, the children are given instructions in how to use a white stick and read braille. Some children get transferred to mainstream schools, something Otto is ambivalent about: on one hand it’s something his parents would welcome, on the other he’s currently in a place where the children are more or less equally disadvantaged. With the exception of Edwin who has partial sight and likes kicking other children. Otto and Harry spend time planning all sorts of revenge schemes to deal with Edwin’s bullying, but, ironically, Otto deals with the Edwin problem by accident with better results than either he or Harry could have anticipated.

Other plots go wrong too. Otto denies buying cigarettes when accused by a member of staff because he’s not realised that the petrol station assistant put them in a clear plastic bag (the staff member lets him off though). He and Harry plan to be heroes in an elaborate plan involving a catering trolley, a moped (both stolen from staff) and a gun only to find the compass they thought they had was actually a thermometer and when they get to the petrol station to fill up the moped, they discover the problem they wanted to solve has already been solved. There’s also a disastrous camping trip…

The humour is interlaced with a poignant coming of age story. Returning home to recover from a fever, Otto discovers his parents’ marriage has become strained due to his mother’s increased drinking after losing her job due to substandard work which has further eroded what already seemed to be a precarious self-esteem. His mother talks of going on holiday on her own. His father hints that the holiday is a stint in rehab. While his mother is quick to dismiss a girl at the institute as “that podgy thing”, Otto’s crush on the girl, Sonja, seems to be reciprocated.

Throughout, Otto manages to keep up almost daily broadcasts on Radio Fed-Up, a one boy radio channel exclusively starring Otto. Otto never asks if any of the children listen to it, but, when a local TV station visits the institute to film a documentary about life there and Harry is selected for interview, Otto finds that not being a TV star gives him a chance to get involved in the broadcaster’s radio channel. The irony of being “a good voice for radio” isn’t lost on the readers but it is on Otto. In the end, Otto is forced to test his ambivalence when he’s given a choice to stay with his dysfunctional family and, most probably, ending up stuck at the institute or rejecting his family and taking responsibility for his future by allowing his move to a mainstream school.

“The Institute” is a bittersweet coming of age story, demonstrating that despite being institutionalised, the children adapt and generally turn out OK. Otto, in needing material for Radio Fed-Up sets himself up as a natural outsider and observer, recording the conversations, situations and rough-and-tumble of pre-teen life. Through Otto’s eyes, the staff seem like two-dimensional dimwits for the children to pit their wits against and win, but that’s entirely in keeping with the narrator’s viewpoint, which is credibly that of an eleven year old boy. The only character who is allowed to wallow in self-pity is Otto’s mother and even that doesn’t last long. The humour is balanced with tragedy so it doesn’t become relentless and readers find themselves rooting for Otto.

“The Institute” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

“He Runs the Moon” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – book review

The collection is subtitled “Tales from the Cities”, the cities being early 1970s Denver and Boston, and New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of Wendy Brandmark’s characters are in a state of flux, either their lives are about to change or they discover something that could be life-changing and the story stops in time to guide the readers to deciding whether the character would stay or leave.

In “The Stone Woman”, a young girl is afraid of the ‘witch’ in the basement apartment, but, when the girl gets lost, the ‘witch’ comes to the rescue and the girl befriends the Jewish woman who is prepared to tell the girl the truth about her ill grandmother that her parents have tried to protect her from. But the woman won’t talk about the number tattoos on her wrist.

A student, inspired by John Millais’ “Ophelia” is drawn to Pre-Raphaelite-style gowns in “The Denver Ophelia” that she finds in thrift shops in the hope her professor will notice her. However, she discovers she’s not the only one with a crush. Will she see sense or persist in her unrequited love?

A man faces a conflict of loyalties in “The Book Thief” when he discovers his kleptomaniac girlfriend has stolen from his friend’s bookstore.

A teacher of illiterate adults discovers his flatmate has gone back to a lover who doesn’t respect him while one of his students forms the phrase “He Runs the Moon” because he couldn’t find the word ‘sees’. Does the teacher intervene or let his flatmate discover for himself that he’s making a mistake?

Within the brief space of her short stories, readers get to know the characters in Wendy Brandmark’s atmospheric stories well enough to suspect they know which decision the characters will take. The selective but rich details in each story make them distinct and memorable with their characters coming to life. Each story is focused and targeted on its plot so it feels exactly the right length with no story outstaying its welcome.

“He Runs the Moon” by Wendy Brandmark is available from Holland Park Press.
Review of Wendy Brandmark’s novel “The Stray American”

Saboteur Awards Short List Best Reviewer

“Winegarden” Anthony Ferner (Holland Park Press) – novel review

winegarden Anthony Ferner bookcoverJacob Winegarden is a professor of theoretical physics, specialising in thought experimentation, and shielded from commerical reality by working in academia. While his department’s offices were being refurbished, Winegarden was temporarily relocated to a cramped space above a Cats Protection League centre where a black cat adopted him and became a running joke amongst faculty staff and students. Winegarden is agnostic but was brought up in the Jewish tradition and marries a Jewish woman, Miriam. Their only son, Joshua, is stillborn.

The story opens with Winegarden in middle age and moves back to his childhood and forward to old age in a nursing home. It explores Winegarden’s attitude towards his Jewish religion, the persistence of his love for Miriam and his reluctance to shut down options by making a decision.

Winegarden’s wedding day was upset by an outburst from his father so, although the day ended happily, it was also marred. One of the most successful periods of his working life was marred by the serious illness of his colleague’s daughter. The delight and anticipation in Miriam’s pregnancy gives way to grief as his son is stillborn. This nearly breaks his marriage. Winegarden wants to talk but his wife doesn’t. Her grief is internalised, finding eventual solace in religion, shutting off from her husband.

These ambivalences allow Anthony Ferner to explore ironies using a sense of subversiveness to show how Winegarden copes with the life he finds himself in. Miriam is his anchor, pulling him out of his head to engage with daily life, while friends prefer to engage on an intellectual level. It is in nearing the end of his own life, Winegarden is pushed to confront his grief for Jacob and the life that could have been.

Winegarden and Miriam are engaging characters and the mix of seriousness and humour make “Winegarden” a compelling, thought-provoking read. Despite his intellectual, abstract thought patterns and career Winegarden’s anxieties make him human. He naturally over-analyses and over-things everything but the wry humour brings him to life.

“Winegarden” is available from Holland Park Press.

“The Stray American” Wendy Brandmark (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Stray American Wendy Brandmark book cover

Larry Greenberg teaches law at an American college in London, England. He signs a new contract each year and thinks of going home to Boston, USA. He vacillates between girlfriends, skeletal Carla and the Rubenesque Devorah. Carla is English: eccentric and blank and works as an illustrator for medical textbooks. She draws a picture of him naked with a wing in place of one arm, telling him a story about a girl whose brothers were turned into swans. The girl has a limited chance to turn them back into men but doesn’t do it quickly enough and the youngest is left with one wing.

Devorah is an exiled New Yorker with every intention of going back home. Through her, Larry meets the “Un-Americans”, a group he’d put off joining when a colleague invited him. Collectively the group want to fit in but their Britishness is worn like a new coat: it looks OK in the mirror but the shoulders are stiff and the arms not quite the right length. After a dismal bring-and-share Thanksgiving, the group begin to drift apart.

When a foreign student, who cannot return to his home country due to involvement in political activism, discovers he cannot stay in England either, he turns to Larry for help. Larry’s expertise is corporate law, so he refers the student to a colleague. This sets in motion a chain of events that force Larry to choose between Devorah (USA) or Carla (England).

Through Larry, a man who could pack up his office in ten minutes and fly, Wendy Brandmark explores themes of rootless and identity. At first Larry’s disengagement and knowledge that he can always return to Boston so has a safety net, seem like advantages. He has no urgency to make life in London work, unlike his student who has no safety net or Devorah who feels claustrophobic in London’s clutter and longs for her childhood spaces. But his safety net wraps around him and becomes a barrier. Keeping his options open prevents him from committing to any of them.

“The Stray American” is a novel where everything seems to happen but everything happens. Larry is both flawed and engaging. His desires for both Carla, a distant fluttering bird, and Devorah, homely and vibrant, are credibly drawn. While Larry sees himself as putting in his hours at a college where no one is allowed to fail, his students see a professor and at least one goes on to enter a prestigious US college. Similarly his colleagues ask advice and invite him to dinners, showing Larry is more substantial then he thinks he is. He makes “The Stray American” an engaging, inviting read.

“The Stray American” is available from Holland Park Press

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Sophia Tobin's Blog Tour appearing on 21 January 2015 at emmalee1.wodpress.com

“Away from the Dead” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – book review

Away from the Dead Karen Jennings book cover

“Away from the Dead” is a collection of fifteen short stories. Each is clearly located in South Africa and each explores a different facet of life in South Africa so although each is written with a minimalist, light touch, using few but necessary words to enable readers to picture the setting and the characters, no two stories feature the same topic even if similar themes emerge.

The title story focuses on a farm worker forced to leave his home and the graveyard where his wife is buried to search for work where he is no longer required and his age counts against him. He is forced to decide whether to stay in poverty or move away in the hope of finding work. Age also emerges as a theme in “Making Challah” but this time the focus is on an ageing woman with the baking an extended metaphor for her life and need to keep rituals going. The darker sides of South African society are explored in “On the Train” where a young man is returning home after committing murder, “From Dark” which shines a spotlight on illegal mining, “Allotment” where a couple struggle to survive in a zinc shack in the shadow of new stadium being built for the World Cup and “Andries Tatane” who dies during a protest in Ficksburg. The darkest story is Mia’s. “In the Shark” sees her yearning to temporarily throw off her caring responsibilities and see this magnificent shark the fishermen boast and tell tales about. The shark is also a metaphor for darker desires as it circles the fishing village and draws Mia to a course of action that destroys her sense of self.

In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished. Readers feel the huge sense of loss and need for closure of Emily Louw whose husband left to find work but never returned. When she reports him missing to the police, the officer regards her and implies he’s not surprised her husband left when he looks at the poor sight of her, nursing a newborn, shredded by anxiety and barefoot. A young couple struggle to build a relationship when their expectations differ: she expects lavish gifts and him to have thought of everything while he wants simple pleasures and her company when their planned picnic is rained off. It’s hard not to feel for Alletjie who scrapes by from keeping goats and chickens and receiving her brother’s disability grant while her alcoholic husband and brother do nothing and she dreams of turning their hand to mouth existence into a life.

Karen Jennings’ stories explore and develop these themes, using credible characters in realistic settings simply making the best of their lot. She does not moralise or tell the reader what to think. Overall the impression is that South Africa is still trying to find its way post-Apartheid, to process its history and work towards peace. Progress is being made however it is still a very uneven, unequal society. But not without ambition to make change, just as most of her characters are motivated to move towards a better life or at least make the best of their situation. Whilst the stories in “Away from the Dead” deal with the darker aspects of South Africa society, they are not without hope and suggest a society in transition.

Away from the Dark” is available from Holland Park Press

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“Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?” Laura Del-Rivo (Holland Park Press) – short stories

Where is |My Mask of an Honest Man Laura Del-Rivo book cover

A collection of seven short stories set in and around Notting Hill, London. The first, “Dark Angel” covers similar ground to Laura Del-Rivo’s novel “The Furnished Room” which has been filmed as “West 11”. Oily-eyed Joseph Kuhlman is in search of a furnished rented room in which to write his novel in black notebooks. He is a distinctive character. On the surface he’s a shifty, petty thief, born with a grudge and out to turn any opportunity to his advantage but lacks the competence to actually do so. He weaves stories around his past, giving himself a dangerous edge, suggesting he once murdered someone. He dresses himself up as a doctor/counsellor, but readers suspect he’s really the patient. He also appears in a couple of the other stories as a minor character.

“J Krissman in the Park” is a bitter-sweet tale of a writer contemplating rejections whilst sitting in a park full of happy families. “Sometimes he felt as if wolves were eating his mind, but he did not know whether the wolves were other people or generated by himself.” In contemplation, a family group sit on a nearby bench:

He dared not speak his thoughts aloud, ‘You are unnecessary and therefore vile. Your love is complacent.’

The virtue of the young women was that they were ordinary and loving. The power of the ordinary overwhelmed that of the wretched Krissman. The quite pretty sisters hardly noticed him; then fluently dissed him, ‘Ohmygod, how spazz was that?’

Nothing had happened except that an old man had passed a family in a park. The space between buildings was not even a park; only a public garden with trees, squirrels and benches. At the gate, Krissman turned his mind to the article which had described the other two visible universes. There would be few or no visible stars. He was too uneducated in physics and maths to expand his mind but the effort of trying to do so for several seconds expanded his soul.”

In the longest story, “Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?” an elderly novelist develops a crush on her much younger landlord who thinks he’s doing her a favour by moving her from her top floor home to a ground floor flat in a different building still owned by him. The reason for the move was because repairs were needed to the ceiling, but once she’s moved out, the ceiling is left unrepaired and a new tenant moved in. The landlord’s plan back-fires because he hasn’t yet figured out that a home isn’t just the place you rent.

Most of these stories could be summed up in plot terms as ‘nothing had happened, except’ with the emphasis on ‘except’. These stories focus on their characters and Laura Del-Rivo’s writing style. She allows the characters to narrate for themselves, using words with precision and deftness which is combined with an ear for contemporary dialogue so the stories don’t feel dated or irrelevant.

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