12 November 2019

#Review Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Jacket design by Nico Taylor
Stubborn Archivist
Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Fleet/ Little Brown, 21 February 2019
HB, 362pp

This is the first of four reviews I'm doing as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.

The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).

About the author

Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Stubborn Archivist, published in 2019 in the UK and USA, is her first novel. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

About the book

"A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity."

My review

Stubborn Archivist is a novel exploring the experiences and identity of a young woman of Brazilian-English heritage. Born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father, she, the archivist of the title (which is I think an allusion to her role in observing her family) narrates her early life (borrowing from family stories) and her memories of travelling to Brazil for family reunions at Christmas. We see her growing up in early 00s London, leaving for university, making and falling out of friendships and always, always, returning to Brazil.

It's all beautifully, even poetically portrayed but it's impossible to convey that with a carefully selected quote or two because - and this is the first thing I need to say about Stubborn Archivist  - the book is (for me) very experimental in its structure (or perhaps, rather, in its form?) Rodrigues Fowler delights in space, allowing her text almost to dance against the blankness - a handful of worlds will be emphasised by being printed alone at the top of a page, or bleeding down the side




She enthusiastically jumbles her sentences in places or runs words together, creating something much more like the patterns and rhythms of thoughts and feelings than conventional text.

There are pages with a block of text at the top and nothing after. There are words which morph into one another down the page, stretching meanings into sounds and sounds into meaning and playing to the rhythms of language (something very important in this book where there is a running point about people not being able to pronounce the Archivist's name: 'What's your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.').

Now I thought I couldn't do with this sort of thing (trying to describe it, I realise I've probably made it seem very pretentious) and I worried, when I opened Stubborn Archivist, that it would be a barrier for me. But I found it all actually worked very well and far from being a barrier, it opened up the world of the Archivist and her family, removing the sense of distance that can be created by prose (however polished, perhaps especially if polished) and giving the book a much less formal air that complements its subjects and themes very well.

The book works on you at a different level than plot, sentences and logic, whispering through its convolved text to tell you about its themes - growing up, origins, belonging, not belonging. We are given scenes in the Archivist's life. There are events in her childhood both from her own perspective and as passed on to her by her family, for example the first visit of her Brazilian grandparents - her beloved Vovô and Vovó - to her parents' small London flat when she's a baby. We see the little surprises, the accommodations, as English and Brazilian cultures encounter one another and the ways in which they merge, jostle and accept each other, lubricated, as it were, by familial love (and with some effort, at times).

That basic picture endures as the Archivist grows up, the story taking in joyous, illicit teenage evenings out in London with her friend Jade, experiences with boys, and her exploration of her family's past. There is both acceptance and rejection of those different underlying cultures (the latter when a friendship founders as the friend wants to visit Brazil but can't shed her preconceptions), a romance that peters out, symbolised by the boyfriend wanting to impose his views over hairstyle, and, a recurring theme, the question (from both Brazilans and English) "But when did you move to London?"

It's perhaps symbolised most by the layered descriptions of the flight between England and Brazil. As a child (the first being beyond memory). As a teenager, doing it alone for the first time. As a seasoned traveller, who knows just what to pack and how, where to sit, how to make the flight work for her. And I haste, for a funeral. These layers build up, both distinct and, somehow, existing together, illuminating each other so that it's almost as if several different women are making the trip together.

In the same way, events bleed out of one context and into another and some of those more poetic renderings intercut, playing with worlds, morphing them from English to Portuguese, almost singing names and phrases. There are the different challenges laid down to the reality of this Anglo-Brazilian woman - not only the "When did you move...?" but the assumptions about her and the two sides of her family. An employer (a media organisation) seems to see her as "their Brazilian" and sets her to researching cosmetic surgery or gang violence. But at the same time, working in the staff restaurant, is Tiago, a much more interesting subject of research...

This is a book that's impossible to summarise. There are so many threads. It looks back to Brazilian politics in the 90s, with police brutality and disappearances. It takes in something that happened to the protagonist, which has left her, at some level, traumatised and uneasy, possibly with physical consequences - whatever happened is hinted at and explored here but rarely confronted, although it does seem to come to a resolution. And that stands for much of this book in a way - all those layers, those different version of the same woman, lend the story a sense of completion so that the story isn't happening in front of us, as it were, more being documented - a kind of coolness in the perspective which contrasts with the closeness from the textual style.

It was a book I found easy to read, easy to take big gulps of, so to speak, a story and a life that really grabbed attention, told with great verve and compelling attention tuition from the reader. Truly a magnificent read and I book that I think I'll go back to, one with a great deal more to give on rereading.

For more information about Stubborn Archivist see the publisher's website here.

9 November 2019

Review - The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter (Invisible Library, 6)
Genevieve Cogman
Pan Macmillan, 14 November 2019
PB, e, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e- copy of this book via NetGalley.

I've loved Cogman's Invisible Library series from the start. As an avid reader, the idea of a pan-dimensional Library staffed by kick-ass librarian-spies who play a valiant role in keeping the forces of chaos at bay across multiple words is just compelling. And Cogman's hero, Irene - a cross between book-lover and ruthless assassin - is wonderful. I think I've lost a bit of my heart to her.

So a new instalment is an eagerly awaited event, and I devoured this one once I got it on my e-reader. It's essentially a heist story - Irene and Kai have to team up with a pretty shady bunch (a gambler, a master thief, an IT guru, a scorching driver...) to steal... an object - not a book this time - from a tightly controlled museum. The team consists of both Fae and Dragons, and there are trust issues besides - some of them haven't even heard of the Truce! - so lots of scope for misunderstandings and mistakes, and it seems to fall to Irene to hold things together.

In this book Cogman is deliberately bouncing her story off classic heist tropes, walking a narrow path between, on the one hand, taking them too seriously and, on the other, just sending them up. So we have the Casino Scene (Irene done up in a little black dress and playing the gambler's moll), the crime boss's Island Base (complete with shark tank), the Getaway, the Shakedown, and many more. They're all handled deftly, dramatic and tense but just a little bit knowing - reflecting the fact that Cogman's Fae are creatures who by their nature aspire to fulfil archetypes, the more successful ones drawing others into their stories. They're opposed to the dragons, who stand for Order and Stability but - as gradually becomes clear in The Secret Chapter - not always in a way that leaves much scope for the freedom of the individual.

Amidst the almost nonstop action, this book begins to tease out such those underlying strains in Cogman's universe (Libraryverse?) revealing some new rivalries and teasing ethical dilemmas (Irene, worrying, reflects that nobody - Fae, Dragons or even the Library itself with its cheerful disregard of others' property - really possesses any moral high ground). We learn more about Irene's family (annoying, but dear to her) and - perhaps - glimpse the well-guarded history of the Dragons themselves.

And besides that we have Cogman's trademark wit ('An attempt by vampires to take over the Conservative party in Great Britain', 'The United Kingdom... did attempt to leave the European Union last year, but apparently that was prompted by demonic interference...') and some sharp writing ('as elegant as mathematics and as perfect as frost', 'Paranoia raised flags in Irene's mind and threw up fortifications'). It makes for a book that is simply a joy to read - deeply atmospheric where it should be, properly exciting when anything's going on as it generally is, and tender too. This is a series that shows absolutely no sign of losing pace, and I'm already impatient for the next.

Only two things I regretted.

First, not enough Vale.

Need. More. Vale.

Secondly - Genevieve, just what did you think you were putting Irene through in that scene towards the end? Doesn't she deserve a bit of dignity? I was almost shocked. Honestly.

For more about The Secret Chapter, see the publisher's website here.

7 November 2019

Review - Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas
Canongate, 7 November 2019
HB, 224pp

I was really pleased to be able to attend this book's launch on 4 November - see below the author reading from it and sharing anecdotes about touring schools to promote her children's books, which this is NOT one of - and I'm grateful to Canongate for a free advance e-copy of Oligarchy via Netgalley, to consider for review. (Quotes below come from that copy, and may not reflect the final text).

'Sometimes she also prays for peace, and joy, and to be thin. Sometimes she even prays for the villagers, that they might become thin too.'

The thing - one of many things - I like about Scarlett Thomas's books is that they always give something unexpected. There is no "just" to them. They are all recognisably hers, but they are also all very different and they all confound one's assumptions.

Scarlett Thomas and Francis Bickmore
So Oligarchy is a book about a group of schoolgirls, with a mystery element, but little detection - and at the same time it's a book about the pressures modern society imposes on young women - and at the same time, a book about friendship and abuse. It's also funny, sad and truthful.

As I started the book - with Russian oligarch's daughter Natalya ('but at home they call her Natasha') coming to a scuzzy English boarding school in the Midlands - I thought it might take a fantastic turn. The village boys howl like dogs outside the school gates at night. This is not a metaphor, but it's not pursued (which boys? why?)  There's also a distinctly gothic twist in the girls' mythology of the school, involving a drowning Princess, a Sultan and a diamond. The story hovers behind the action,  inspiring various events and being embroidered in various ways but as with those howling boys there is no "official" explanation.

Later, with deaths occurring, and an interesting sounding detective (DI Amaryllis Archer, in her jeans and high-heeled boots) appearing on the scene, I wondered about the mystery element - but while it's there and is, eventually, resolved (kind of) that's not central either at least not in detail.

Central, rather, are the lives of the girls and the caustic, pressured expectations on them in modern society. Tash, arriving from Russia, the recently discovered daughter of an oligarch who has plucked her from obscurity and stored her away for safekeeping, is our way into the group, whose members deform almost before our eyes under the weight of those expectations. There is Bianca ('She doesn't tell anyone about the sadness and the failure and the light inside her that is a bright white colour but is never bright or white enough'). Tiffanie, who plans her funeral 'which will have a botanical theme' and who is 'too lazy, too French and frankly too fucking cool to learn English pronunciation' and whose usage of 'Ange' for English 'ing' becomes a meme among the girls. There is Becky 'with the bad hair', the would-be Head Girl.

Thomas's eye for character here is so sharp, getting right inside (Tash's Aunt Sonya 'looks like money rather than sex or love') and it's the way her ensemble of memorable, real people - most of them young women - reacts to the stresses on them that makes this book come alive and forms the gothic heart of the novel (with the oft-quoted story of Princess Augusta the topping, perhaps). There's an atmosphere of confinement, or abandonment, to this group in their strange school and of a breakdown of their sense of identity as they try to be - something. All manner of fake science, folk wisdom and wishful thinking swill around concerning what one should and should not eat, what one should be and not be. The the urge to thinness becomes almost a contagion in itself, with its own heroes and victims.

There is no restraint, no voice of reason, and a palpable sense of the girls being alone - this seems to be a singularly ill-run school where there is no help, typified by an episode where a vomiting bug has broken out and they are simply left alone, in a dormitory, to wait it out - but also very much exposed to the ill winds of social media, to the expectations of teaches, gym trainers and shifty DJs in provincial basement nightclubs. The paradoxes of teenage life - of innocence and experience ('at fifteen you have to practice everything you plan to do') - are played out here as in countless other novels, but with I think a rare sharpness of observation and deftness of portrayal ('Suze likes drinking in a pub called the Marionette ("drinking in" not "going to")')

Behind all this there are Tash's memories of home, of her mother, her boyfriend. Behind it are her doubts about her place in England, her place in the world, above all, about her place in her father's orbit. Having 'found' her he is elusive. Aunt Sonya seems to have been given the job of looking after Tash. Possibly her father wants to marry her off to the son of a business associate (there's a strange episode where she's helicoptered out to a party in a remote castle, but like many scenes in this book Thomas gives only glimpses of this, returning to it, though, several times to draw out different aspects). The run-down, dangerous feeling school doesn't feel like a good place to be trying to resolve these issues, without support or guidance - but maybe the slightly fantastical, out of this world bubble universe, the intense relationship and teenage concerns are a good balance for those family concerns?

Oligarchy is a fascinating, provoking, book, a deeply human book and I think shows Thomas on top form. I strongly recommend it.

For more about the book, see the publisher's website here.

5 November 2019

Review - Crownbreaker by Sebastien de Castell

Cover illustration by Sam Hadley
Sebastien de Castell
Hot Key Books, 17 October 2019
HB, e, 504pp

I'm grateful to Hot Key Books for a free copy of Crownbreaker to consider for review.

It's always a bittersweet thing to come to the end of a great series. Nice to see everything wrapped up - but a parting from beloved characters - and it seems to come so soon. Yet here we are, at the end of de Castell's Spellslinger sequence, six books on (and every one of them an absolute, zinging, jawdropper of a book) with Crownbreaker itself fully living up its predecessors and Kellen, finally, growing into himself, showing what he's achieved and what he's learned.

And it's a joy to read, but I still felt sad.

There is a conscious air of things being completed. The war that has been brewing on the continent finally seems about to boil over, with a powerful nation, hitherto been occupied by internal disputes, about to unite. Kellen is tasked with stopping this by any means necessary to save both his birth home and the Jan'Tep, and his adopted land of Darome.

By any means necessary - even if it requires killing a child.

As you will guess at once that doesn't sit well with Kellen, and the involvement of his father and sister in the forces directing him only increases his unease. Through these stories, ever since being sent into exile, Kellen has remained stubbornly independent of his family, but his relationship with them is complex and this could mean a final choice for or against them. What's more, it's made clear to him that the errand in Berabesq is personal, affecting both his mother and Ferius.

This book is in some respects a simpler story than the earlier ones, or at least it seems to be: there is a straightforward, out and back structure with a goal to be achieved and - I think - less of a mystery about what's going on (though de Castells has some tricks up his sleeve, as does Kellen).

Instead, much of the weight of the story is on Kellen's moral dilemma, and on what - who - he wants to be, how he sees his future given the breach with his family and the ways of the Argosi, which mean he must also part from Ferius. So Kellen's ability to handle difficult situations even without Ferius's lead is key. In many respects she's trained him now, he is his own Argosi and equal to all of the other Paths of This and That. It's as well because through this book he's constantly being thrown curveballs - by cabals of mysterious operators in Darome, by the forces of law and order (a particular Marshall seems almost to enjoy locking him up... and she seems to have more than the demands of justice in mind...), by his family and even by God himself.

It's great to see Kellen navigating all this with aplomb. He's not the whiny, self pitying boy he started out as, rather he is more confident and in control. It's not that he has become some awesome, powerful Hero - Kellen explicitly shuns that role - but more that he seems to know himself. He understands who he is, what he wants to protect and what he's willing to give up to do that.

None of which means things are easy. While the book may wrap up threads from across the series - and we meet some old friends - nothing is achieved without loss and grief, indeed there are some very sad moments. Despite those, it remains a rattling good adventure with the characteristic humour of the series and - of course - Reichis with his dubious morality, love of butter biscuits and light fingers (er, claws).

I'd call this a triumphant final book in the series, as de Castells ends things on a real high and would  strongly recommend it.

3 November 2019

And We're Away! #YoungWriterAwardShadow

The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award

Following my Exciting Announcement on Wednesday that I'm a Shadow Judge for the Young Writer of the Year Award (I will never get tired of saying that) I've been almost bursting to share the news of who is on the shortlist for the award (and the Shadow Award).

I couldn't do that (I signed a scary NDA and everything)... until now!

From 9am today, 3 November, the news is out. And the books have arrived! Below is my own, very professional, photo of the collection, on my very own reading dining table. 

Just look:

Let's recap on that a bit. The shortlisted books, announced in the Sunday Times today, are 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins)

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (Picador)

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/Little, Brown)

Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun)

I'm going to post more about each book over the next couple of weeks, including my own impressions as I read them, and before the shadow panel has its Big Meeting later this month. I have read one of the four so far but I'm not going to say which one - I'm not sure yet whether to post anything till I have read them all. We'll see. 

But here, in the meantime, is a little information about each one. I think you'll agree this is a wide-ranging, stimulating and exciting list.

The Perseverance is "the multi-award-winning debut by British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus. Ranging across history and continents, these poems operate in the spaces in between, their haunting lyrics creating new, hybrid territories. 

The Perseverance is a book of loss, contested language and praise, where elegies for the poet’s father sit alongside meditations on the d/Deaf experience."

Salt Slow is a "brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories...  Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely."

In Stubborn Archivist "...the debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler uses dialogue to sketch out a young woman's awkward attempts to articulate and reconcile different aspects of who she is... 

The novel ends with a tiny movement, a moment of discovery all the more tantalising for remaining largely unexpressed, and this is undoubtedly the novel's strength: its ability to show something momentous - about cultural identity, sexual violence, racial prejudice - without seeming to say anything at all" [TLS]

In Testament  "...Of everyone in her complicated family, Eva was closest to her grandfather: a charismatic painter – and a keeper of secrets. So when he dies, she’s hit by a greater loss – of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared.

It’s then she finds the letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps and then to England as a refugee. This is how he survived.

But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards. As she confronts the lies that have haunted her family, their identity shifts and her own takes shape. The testament is in her hands."

So, we have two novels, a collections of poems, and a short story collection. All very tantalising and right now - that's all I can say. I'm going to be finding out more about these books over the next few weeks and I hope you will as well. But if you're already read any of them, why not share your thoughts in a comment?

For more about the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, see the award's website here