Disraeli Avenue by Caroline Smailes

disraeli avenueFor as long as I can remember, I’ve always looked out of the car/train window and at all the houses and wondered about the people who lived in them. When I was very small I remember being fascinated by the fact there were all these people living lives I knew nothing about, and that they knew nothing of me, and it was like we didn’t exist. (I was a weird kid). Disraeli Avenue is about a street of houses, and the lives of the people in them. Each short chapter is a snapshot of the person/people living in one of the houses, as well as their, often incorrect, views on the goings on behind other doors. The chapters are told variously through traditional first/third person, invoices, texts, and diary entries.

Disraeli Avenue is a kind of spin-off from Smailes’ novel In Search of Adam, focusing more on the minor characters. I haven’t read In Search of Adam (yet), but Disraeli Avenue worked fine as a stand-alone. On occasion I got a bit confused about who lived where and who a particular narrator was referring to, but it was generally easy to follow. What Smailes does really well in this, that so many other novels fail to do, is create different and distinct voices for each person behind the doors. In places it’s funny, in others kind of horrifying; it’s about relationships, family, and the profound and the inconsequential that goes on behind closed doors. A short, quick read that’s worth your time.

Disraeli Avenue was written to raise money for the charity One in Four, which helps people who have experienced sexual abuse. Through a free download with optional donation, £1500 was raised. Unfortunately, when it was later published in paperback by Bluechrome, the publisher did a runner with the royalties and One in Four received nothing from the paperback sales. The Friday Project has now reissued Disraeli Avenue as an ebook, and all the proceeds will go to One in Four.

I received a free copy of Disraeli Avenue in exchange for an honest review. As it was free, I’m going to also buy a copy so One in Four get the proceeds.

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Where to start with graphic novels

I’ve only been reading graphic novels for a couple of years. Before, it was partly that I didn’t ‘get’ them as I thought it was all superhero-type comics, but also that it’s hard to know where to start.

Like any type of book, what you’ll like is all down to your own tastes and interests, but I’ve listed a few fiction and non-fiction graphic novels below that I think make great starting points. If you read something you like, check out other books by the author or artist, or pop into your local bookshop or comic shop for some other recommendations (or leave a comment below with which ones you’ve enjoyed, and I’ll come up with a couple of suggestions). Also, unless you know what you want, I think it’s better to buy graphic novels in a physical shop so you can browse and have a quick flick through and see if you like the artwork. If you hate it, you’re unlikely to enjoy reading it that much!

Just a quick note on terminology first…mostly, you don’t need to worry about this stuff unless you get a very picky comic book seller or are on forums. But you might come across these:

  • Single issue is basically what you think of when you think of comic books – a slim single story, usually part of a larger series
  • Trade paperback is a volume of 5/6 single issues. These are often called graphic novels and will usually be in the graphic novel section of bookshops (I’m including a couple below that are technically trade paperbacks)
  • Graphic novel is a novel in graphic form (kinda what it says on the tin!). This means it’s usually a single, self-contained, longer story. Technically, non-fiction is a ‘graphic memoir’ or ‘graphic non-fiction’, but usually they just get called graphic novels too.

Non-fiction

I started with non-fiction, and it’s a good place to start if you, like I shamefully used to, think graphic novels aren’t ‘proper’ books and can’t have the same depth and power of novels. Oh the shame.

the-complete-mausMaus by Art Spiegelman

Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s dad’s experience during the holacaust in world war II, his relationship with his dad in the present, and how the success of the first part of Maus affected him. It’s about unbelievable survival, but also how suffering begets suffering. All the characters are drawn as animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, etc) which adds a strange kind of distance that makes the whole thing more horrific because you know it’s truth. It’s an amazing book that deservedly won the Pulitzer. This is where I started, and I haven’t looked back since.

Fun HomeFun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home is about Bechdel’s father, and her relationship with him. In that sense, it has something in common with Maus, but it’s a very different book. Her father is distant and frequently angry, and a closeted gay man having relationships with his male students. Bechdel also discovers she’s gay, and tries to work out who she is in relationship to her father, as well as whether he killed himself or it was an accident. It’s non-linear, and often returns to previous conversations or frames when she has new information, but it never feels repetitive. She weaves in references to literature, a love she shared with her father, and it’s drawn in grey-scale with a blue-grey wash.

CompletePersepolisPersepolis by Marjane Satrapi (French in translation)

Translator: Anjali Singh. Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s child-/teenage-/young adult-hood in Tehran, Iran during the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, revolution, and war with Iraq. There’s humour, horror, politics and a lack of sentimentality. Satrapi isn’t always likeable in this, and I really like that – it makes it feel like an honest portrayal. The art is simplistic black and white, and the way she draws herself evolves as she ages.

Fiction

There are so many I could list, so I’ve tried to list some with different styles of art and content, so you should find something here that takes your fancy.

the arrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

This is wordless, so might technically be a picture book (though I found it in the graphic novel section). It’s about the immigrant experience; a man leaves his family to try and get work in a foreign city, as something bad is happening in his hometown. The artwork is absolutely beautiful. I did a full review here, where you can check out some pictures of the art. It’s basically poetry without words. You don’t need to be able to articulate it, you can just feel the meaning. I find myself recommending this one all the time.

sex-criminals volume 1Sex Criminals Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

This is brilliant. It’s funny, filthy and weird. Suzie and Jon both stop time when they orgasm, so they decide to rob a bank to save the library where Suzie works. I absolutely love this – you can check out my full review here to see a few pictures of the artwork.

watchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

I’m not really into superhero stuff (especially the all-American, clean-cut type), but this made me want to check out some dark superhero comics. It’s about the people behind the masks, and whether the kind of person who’d put on a costume and fight crime is the sort of person you’d want doing that. It’s also about whether doing something for a good reason, and for a good outcome, is ok if what you’re doing is pretty horrible and definitely not ok. It’s a classic for a reason, dark, and complex. Worth checking out even if, like me, you don’t think superheroes are for you.

The gigantic beard that was evil 3The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins

This is a Roald Dahl-esque fairy tale about a man living in an extremely neat and ordered island called Here. One day, his face begins to burn, and a gigantic, ever-growing beard erupts from his chin. As it’s a fairy tale, it can be read as weird story of a beard taking over an ordered island, or on any number of levels, such as the fear of other (what is There and not Here), the fear of what cannot be controlled, or how chaos will always find a way. The artwork is gorgeous too – my full review has some pictures of the art.

I hope you find something in that lot that interests you, especially if you’ve never picked up a graphic novel before. If you’d like any other recommendations, just leave me a comment and I’ll do my best!

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Figures on a Beach by Kirk VanDyke

figures on a beachI was sent the original self-published version, so all my comments below refer to that. Elm Books have recently acquired and are re-issuing Figures on a Beach, but told me the changes are just cosmetic (new cover and reformatting).

This is a short, semi-autobiographical novella about John Jones, a man waiting out the winter living in a van on a beach in Texas. It’s about trying to work life out, the people he meets on the beach, mental health, and connecting.

Not all of the characters were wholly three-dimensional, but John felt very real. His mental health issues are there, complex, and a big part of what’s happening, but it’s not everything about him and what’s happening, or the most important thing. I also liked that it didn’t have a neat ending. Some messy stories need messy endings, and the resolution of FOAB feels like it’s pitched just right between satisfying and messy enough to suit the story.

I did have a few problems with the writing. Some of it is overwritten, especially the prologue, and I felt an urge to edit a few clunky sentences and bits of dialogue. I also found that the single chapter from Cathy’s perspective was in too similar a voice to the others from John’s perspective. There were a few typos which I always find distracting (mainly homophones like ‘waste’ instead of ‘waist’, and ‘loser’ was consistently spelt ‘looser’). But, as this was the self-published version, some of this may have been addressed by Elm.

A good, short read about a life lived on the margins.

I was sent a free copy of Figure on a Beach in exchange for an honest review.

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July Reads

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teule (Novel – French in translation)

This is a kind of black comedy set in 1800s France. I found it a bit repetitive and couldn’t get into Teule’s style. Full review here.

life after lifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson (Novel)

I really like Kate Atkinson’s writing style. She’s incredibly visual and I’m always left with a full sense of the setting and the characters, and this book was no exception. I wasn’t a fan of the end section, but I think that’s because I read the book in a ‘Sliding Doors’ way (rather than in a ‘multiple lives building on top of each other’ way) so it didn’t make sense to me when Ursula gains some insight into things (I’m trying my best to be spoiler-free, so hopefully that makes sense if you’ve read it!). Still a good read though.

with a zero at its heart charles lambertWith a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert (Novel)

I loved this. It’s a short novella about the things that make up a life. It’s beautifully written and tender, playful and melancholy all at once. Full review here.

an untamed stateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Novel)

This is a fast-paced and compelling read, but the ending was too neat for me. The novel did a good job of showing messy and difficult trauma and aftermath, so I think a looser ending would have worked better. But there are lots of things in this that I think are really important. Like showing how a person might deal with sexual violence by physically fighting back and/or seemingly complying in order to survive (and the compliance not being the same thing as consent). Like showing the aftermath of trauma and sexual violence, not just the ‘rescue’ being the happy ending. Like how difficult it can be for people around the person to know how best to help them, but, importantly, it’s not that person’s job to teach them as they’re using everything they’ve got just to hold themself together.

Roxane Gay is my current favourite essayist, and I do prefer her non-fiction writing as this felt like a good debut novel rather than a fully-formed/honed one, partly due to the too-neat ending but also because many of the characters didn’t feel completely three-dimensional. But I will definitely pick up her next fiction book (and her essay collection, Bad Feminist, which is due out in August).

the virgin suicidesThe Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Novel)

I wanted to like this more than I did because I’d heard such amazing things about it. It’s quite an odd, quiet book, which is no bad thing, and I liked its kind of hazy, dreamy quality. I also liked that, as a reader, you’re also on the outside of the Lisbon sisters as it’s narrated by one or more boys who used to watch them from afar (though finding out exactly when the boys are narrating adds an element of weird creepiness). But for some reason I just didn’t connect with the book, or find it as beautiful, as everyone told me I would. Maybe a case of off-balance expectations? I quite fancy checking out the film now though, as the haziness of the book had a real filmic feel to it.

hangsamanHangsaman by Shirley Jackson (Novel)

This is about a girl with an overbearing family going away to college, not really fitting in, and struggling with her identity. But, because it’s Shirley Jackson, there are also moments of odd, dark, weirdness. Natalie, the main character, is extremely imaginative, though it’s fairly easy to work out what’s real and what’s just in her head (except the end, I still can’t quite decide!). I am a bit of a sucker for a good campus-set novel, and this one has all the coming-of-age type stuff, but also Shirley Jackson, which makes it stand out as different from many others. I didn’t like it as much as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but still worth checking out.

 

State of the TBR: 60 books (Yes, this is more than last month. I’d missed a couple of books when sorting my shelves and accidentally bought a couple (I was at a reading and & found my new author crush. It’s all Kerry Hudson’s fault I swear)).

*I haven’t been blogging as much over the past couple of months due to an illness blip, but will be back properly in August. So many exciting books coming up (and hopefully a lower TBR number next time!).*

 

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Call Me Ishmael project

The Call Me Ishmael project is beautiful and very simple – you leave Ishmael a voicemail about a book you love or is important to you, and he transcribes them on a typewriter and shares it on youtube.

You can find the youtube channel here and the website here.

There’s a range of books talked about, from non-fiction, to children’s books, to classics, to contemporary. Some stories are funny, some are sad, but they’re all moving in their own way. Here’s a sample:

The Dictionary

House of Leaves

The Time Traveler’s Wife

 

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With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert

with a zero at its heart charles lambertWith a Zero at its Heart is a book with 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of 120 words each. This might sound like a gimmick, but it didn’t read that way.

Each chapter tells the life of the narrator through its theme, like ‘cinema or what the centaur meant’, ‘money or brown sauce sandwiches’, and ‘language or death and cucumbers’. Each paragraph is one memory, one fragment of something from his life; the first paragraphs are earlier in his life and then they move towards his present. As you read, the broader stories become more apparent – about dealing with his parents’ death, writing, and growing up and finding himself and his sexuality. It’s quiet, and fragmented, but the feelings are whole and strong. It’s tender, melancholy and playful all at once.

You could read this book in one sitting, but I didn’t. I think it needs to be read slowly, in the way you would read a short story collection or poetry. It needs space to breathe and to allow the fragments to settle and the whole to emerge. I’ve only read it once so far, but I think it’s one of those books where there’ll always be new things to discover when you go back to it.

The writing is absolutely beautiful; understated in the best way. It’s full of little true things and punch-the-air-yes phrases and imagery. I hadn’t even heard of Lambert before this came along, but I will definitely be checking out his other work if this is the way he writes (any suggestions of where to start are welcome!).

I’ve got no idea if this is fiction, non-fiction, or a bit of both (I’m guessing both), but it doesn’t matter really. One of the best books I’ve read this year (so good, I nominated it for the Not The Booker before I’d even finished it).

I won a free copy from The Friday Project with no expectation of review. It came signed, eep!

zero at its heart signed

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The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

I really like this cover

I really like this cover

Translated from French by Melanie Florence

This is a fictionalised account of the life of Hélène Jégado – a notorious serial poisoner in 1800s France – from her birth to death.

I was expecting something dark in a serious way, but it’s more of a black comedy. There are two men from Normandy that keep popping up in every town Hélène does who gradually suffer more and more ridiculous misfortune. Some of Hélène’s kills are also pretty farcical – particularly when she’s cooking and working in the brothel. The style of humour reminded me of The 100-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson, so if you weren’t keen on that then you probably won’t like this.

For the majority of the book, Hélène moves from house to house, getting a job as a cook, poisoning people with her little cakes and soupes aux herbes, then moving to another house, getting a job as cook, poisoning people, etc. It meant that a lot of the book felt repetitive as the houses and their occupants just weren’t different enough from each other. It felt less repetitive when she worked in the brothel and with the nuns, because those situations were different enough to stand out (particularly with the nuns – she is prevented from being the cook so cannot kill, so sets about destroying their possessions and cutting holes in their habits in rather revealing places). The end section, after she is caught, also flowed a bit better for me, mainly because it was different.

I think what also contributed to the repetitiveness was that she has no real motive for killing who she kills – she just kills whoever she comes across – and then makes no attempt to cover it up. Having a killer who just kills for killing’s sake is fine, but, as there’s not enough time to get to know the secondary characters before they’re dead, it consequently became a little flat without a kind of richness of plot or character.

There were some great descriptive bits of 1800s Brittany, and the conflict between the superstitious Bretons and the religious French was interesting, particularly the darker side of the Bretons’ superstitions, like the statue of Our-Lady-of-Hatred (a Virgin Mary with a painted-on skeleton body and wrinkles) where people go to pray for misfortune to come to others. Hélène herself is obsessed with the Ankou (death’s worker), and believes she is doing the Ankou’s work (her only real motive through the book).

A dark black comedy that felt too repetitive and little flat for a good chunk of the book. But you might like it if you liked the humour in The 100-Year-Old Man.

The Poisoning Angel is published on 14th July 2014.

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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