Archive | February, 2016

A Q & A with Janet Ellis, author of The Butcher’s Hook

29 Feb

I’m very happy, along with Jaffa Reads Too, to be kicking off the blog tour for Janet Ellis’s compelling debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook (you can read my review here). Janet kindly agreed to answer some questions (I could have provided pages of them but – spoilers) her answers to which I hope you will enjoy.

janet ellis author pic

 

Anne Jaccob is quite a singular character. A protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable but there does need to be a level of acceptance with the reader. There are influences to set against her behaviour but how important do you think the period you chose is to encouraging that acceptance (I can imagine Anne garnering little sympathy in a modern setting)?

Hmm… setting aside what Anne gets up to (I know that’s not easy!), she’s almost like those friends who are trying but loveable, isn’t she? But, yes, although I hold firmly to the belief that people of any bygone age feel all the big emotions – like love, greed, hate, jealousy and sorrow- and the little ones (scorn, irritation etc) as we do, there’s no doubt Anne’s a child of her time. Her sequestered, claustrophobic existence and her unique experiences have helped her make interior decisions that manifest in rather dramatic exterior actions. And having no peer group, no confidante and certainly no therapy does leave her adrift. added to that is the fact that, as a girl in Georgian England, her opinion was of no consequence and her future decided without consultation. All that gives her plenty to rail against. Nowadays, she might have found other outlets. I wonder….

 

Your settings are richly-evoked, centred as they are more in the sensual than the visual. Did your research take you to any interesting places, or bring any unexpected discoveries?

I hadn’t linked the fact that I’m short sighted with the reliance on our other senses in my writing till now! But I suppose the visual clues- the art and architecture- are more instantly available than what London smelled of, its noise and even its temperature. Making one of the characters a butcher’s apprentice meant I wanted to find out what happened in the abattoir and the shop. I spent some time in the library of The Worshipful Company of Butchers, trying to find answers to specific questions and often stumbling across unexpected facts. The actual details of the killing haven’t changed much over the years, but the way cattle were driven into London in great herds – often having swum from island to mainland – was fascinating. And people’s attempts to disguise their lack of washing (of themselves and their clothes) with various scents must have added to the heady cocktail from the open sewers that ran through many streets and the manure from all the horses. And when I’ve been trussed up (that’s how it feels after our comfortable clothes) in Georgian period costume, I’ve been only too aware of how long it would have taken Anne and Fub to remove those clothes for, well, anything.

 

I felt a distinct nod towards Dickens in the naming of Mr Onions. Did you feel the influence of our rich literary heritage when you set out to write The Butcher’s Hook? What were the books that inspired you?

Anything you read is like a little building block, isn’t it, helping to build your thoughts. I’ve always read voraciously and widely, and must have been taking it all in. It’s hard to refine my inspiration down to one or two books – but as a child I adored Black Beauty, I really loved Joan Aiken, Alan Garner, Rumer Godden, Mary Renault and Daphne du Maurier. I could go on. I’m (very) flattered by the allusion to Dickens, his depictions of people are so vivid that if you’re reading something by him, you can’t help seeing everyone around you in Dickensian mode  (I like to pass the time on train journeys by casting my fellow passengers in Dickens novels). I collect names, too, ready to give them to unsuspecting characters as they appear. I expect Onions was hoping for something fancier, though.

 

I recently finished reading Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of The Sea Maid, another book set in the mid-1700’s with a strong female protagonist hemmed by convention, although the paths these two women take are very different. What are your thoughts on these books being considered feminist novels, especially where strong female characters in classic novels (Lizzy or Kathy or Jane) don’t necessarily draw the same comparison?

I haven’t read that yet – it’s on my list. It’s an odd one, the F word, isn’t it? I have no hesitation in describing myself as a feminist (I’m perplexed by people who don’t, to be honest) and Anne draws no line between getting what she wants and being a woman, so she’s signed up. Despite the fact that the characters you mention are hidebound by social convention, I still think they’re in favour of an equal society – and both the Brontes and Jane Austen took swipes at what women of their time were expected to do over what they could have achieved. I’m happy if Anne’s attitude stands for strong women and seizing opportunity. Although some of her methods are ‘don’t try this at home’.

 

The dynamic between mother and daughter is quite affecting. Again I suspect this would be viewed in a different manner in a modern setting, but how important is the distance in that relationship in shaping who Anne has become?

I don’t think their relationship is specific to their time, actually. Don’t we all know mothers who don’t feel close enough to their daughters to share real intimacy. Her mother’s acceptance of life’s difficulties and unhappiness, her shutting down after bereavement and her inability to stand up for herself all feel contemporary. Nowadays, she might have been more aware of what her relationship with both her husband and daughter could be, but that doesn’t mean she’d have been able to act on it. That’s what keeps the agony columnists busy (I speak from experience), isn’t it?

 

There’s a small moment near the end of the book that made me smile it was so in-keeping with Anne’s character (it involves some money and a worn-to-nothing old boot). This scene also serves to highlight the difference between Anne and those characters who are stifled by circumstance. Were you conscious of having something to say about the fate of the downtrodden?

I could make all sorts of claims for wanting to highlight this or champion that, the truth is more that Anne, as an equal opportunities opportunist (!) seizes the moment constantly. But the moment you mention was there to illustrate that she was never going to be overwhelmed by sentiment. Or gratitude, come to that. I felt really sorry for that chap – her, not so much.

 

Alongside the harshness there’s a dry humour too. Did you know when you began that you wanted those moments of levity or is this something that rose naturally from Anne’s disposition?

Yes and yes again. My favourite people are the ones that make me laugh and think, both together. Often, the darker the circumstance the more likely we are to find inappropriate humour in it, although we can’t often admit it. It helps us adjust to the awful reality in a way, doesn’t it? I knew early on that Anne would have a sideways take on things.

 

Behind every great book there’s always a host of people who have assisted in some manner along the road to publication. What’s the best editorial advice you had for The Butcher’s Hook?

I’ve had a plethora! From the word go, my agent and my editor and their teams have been terrific in their clear-sighted approach to making the book better. Probably the best bits of advice were ‘Don’t be scared of the copy edit’ (it looks TERRIFYING when it first arrives) and ‘Do it again please,’ (but way more cleverly put) when I’ve been the teensiest bit, um, lacking in some rewrites.

 

Novelist is one of many features on the map of your career and I always think it’s difficult for people who come to writing when they are well-known for other things. For my money, The Butcher’s Hook is a great story well told. Was it important for you to feel your work was accepted for its quality and not your name?

  Have you always written? Has it always been an ambition to write?

Thank you SO much and, you’re right, it is hard to change careers. I’ve absolutely no regrets about what I’ve done so far – far from it – but the book is incredibly important to me. I’ve never minded looking daft as an actress or presenter (just as well), but I take my writing very seriously. That’s one of the (many) reasons why it’s taken me this long to produce a book. When my agent first suggested I submit The Butcher’s Hook under a pseudonym, I wasn’t keen – I HAD written the thing, after all. But he convinced me that decisions about the book should be made alone, without any possible connection to past occupations. He was so right – and it’s a fact that I hug to myself, with joy. I’ve always written, though I’ve never finished a book before – but it was a massive ambition. The only one I ever had, actually. I knew I’d be an actress….as you do when you’re a child – but could only dream of being an author.

 

Is there anything you can tell me about your next novel? Historical fiction again or will you be looking in a different direction?

It’s set in the Seventies (history for some!) and is about an affair, a mistaken connection and making the wrong choices. I’m not sure how it’ll finish, but I didn’t know how The Butcher’s Hook would end either, so I’m not too worried. That’s not true, I’m VERY worried, but I’m hoping Marion, Adrian and Sarah, my new characters, are going to help me out.

 

 

My thanks to Janet for answering these questions, and for The Butcher’s Hook. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s a fabulous novel, and I hope the first of many. Thanks also to Rosie Gailer,  Yassine Balkecemi and all at BookBridgr.

Don’t forget to catch the remaining stops on The Butcher’s Hook blog tour.

 

Butchers Hook blog tour poster

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Van has finished reading…The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis

18 Feb

London, 1763, and experience has taught young Miss Anne Jaccob to hold love in abeyance. Her father is stern and uncaring, her mother beleaguered and she will not soften to her new baby sister as babies have a tendency to quit life too soon. Then butcher’s boy Fub comes to crack the hard shell of Anne’s sheltered life and it’s passion that begins to leak through the gaps. This new-found happiness fills her dour world but their stations in life are so different. How far will Anne go to get what she desires?

 

Let me start by saying that Mrs Van cooed a good deal over the cover. Some books do seem to beg to be stroked and Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook is among that number. It is indeed a lovely thing. I would add that Mrs van is currently enjoying what’s between those boards just as much, and you all know she has such very good taste…

What a protagonist we have in Miss Anne Jaccob. It surely wouldn’t be correct to call her a heroine. From the very first page she sets herself apart, works to hold that distance. She is not there to be liked. But as the extenuating circumstances surfaced I couldn’t help but be drawn in, couldn’t help but appreciate her stance. The way circumstance plays with the reader’s perception of Anne is deftly managed: She’s not a nice person; ah, but here’s the mitigation that makes her that way; oh, look what she’s done now; yes, but now see the reasoning behind the action. The fact is that if you can’t engage with an unlikeable protagonist you’re not going to care what happens. It’s testament to the quality of the writing, the control exerted that it’s such a readable book.

The characters are excellently rendered, recognisable to the extent that you might start casting actors for the TV adaptation. It’s in their various movements and modes of speech that this really comes through. From an itinerant Jacobite through to the aptly-monickered Mr Onions (surely a nod to Dickens in the naming), it shifts easily with background and never feels out of place. Janet Ellis displays a keen awareness of language with Anne’s responses to the cast too. There’s a particular lovely (in terms of the language usage) moment of reunion where Anne’s words take on a different hue. It’s no stark change but a subtle undercurrent, a couple of words used, the suggestion of which drew me back to the earlier meeting. It’s really well done.

There’s a real feel for setting, too, not in the layering of detail but in the impression of surroundings, in the atmosphere invoked and most notably in the people that inhabit the pages, the every-day hustle and bustle of grubby London life.

Where this book really shows its strength is in when Janet Ellis chooses to reveal what she does. The pace and the timing are perfect and I’ll wager there’s more than one moment that’ll cause your hand to rise to cover the ‘o’ of your open mouth.

 

Janet Ellis’s The Butcher’s Hook is a complete package. The settings, the characters, the pace and the action are all tightly controlled. There’s some really nice dry humour in there too, some genuinely funny moments. And the story is like to have you, well, hooked. It’s amazing to think that this is her debut. I loved it. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

 

The Butcher’s Hook is published by Two Roads on 25th February 2016 ISBN: 9781473625112

 

You can find Janet Ellis on Twitter @missjanetellis and on her website www.janetellis.com

With thanks to BookBridgr and Rosie Gailer at Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

Van has finished reading…Mend The Living by Maylis De Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

12 Feb

I can always rely on Isabel Costello to recommend an astounding book in translation. Maylis De Kerangal’s Mend The Living, translated by Jessica Moore, is no exception. It tells the story of a heart, of a day in the life of twenty-year-old Simon Limbeau who loves to surf, of what moves him and what makes him who he is, of his family and friends, his lover, of the people he will meet this day as yet unknown, encounters at this point inconceivable.

Before it begins there is a simple four-word quote: my heart is full. It’s a quote that passes by, in the way these quotes tend to, and is quickly swept aside by the torrent of Maylis’s prose. But how true it is. I think there should be a little note after the last page to go back and remind yourself of this quote, to close your eyes and look inward and reach for the throb of your own heart. The book opens, ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart… no one really knows;’ and you might refute this, you might roll out the anatomy lesson, the science, the metaphors that explain the machine, but the truth in Maylis’s words remains. Despite knowing the heart is not our emotional seat it’s still the part we reach for isn’t it, when we’re wounded by love. It’s still where we feel the ache when something we can’t process or battle scoops us out. It’s still the currency of what we feel, the go-to image we parade on our sleeves.

Though it’s essentially Simon’s story, it’s not from Simon’s point of view that we see it. In fact it doesn’t feel as though there is a narrator, rather that we are a kind of camera witnessing events unfold, omniscient and unnoticed. To say it like this makes it sound distant but the opposite is true. Its proximity is a closeness that I’m hard-pressed to recall in another third-person novel. I was reminded of the complicity of the first person plural in Jon McGregor’s Even The Dogs. As a consequence the characters of the novel come through in a very different way. It’s not their thoughts or their emotional responses per se that show us who they are but their manner, their frames of reference. It’s as though we’re all riding the wave, the stark inevitability of what will pass unavoidable and there is nothing else to do but go through the motions, hold on.

The language adds to this sense. Okay, you may need a dictionary from time to time (Maylis is clearly a fan of uncommon language) but that won’t impede the feel of the reading. There were moments I could’ve imagined I was reading a prose poem. The book feels larger than its 240-odd pages, like the full heart of that opening quote, and this I think is down to the relentless nature of the prose. It comes right at you. There’s a numbness, a sense of detachment despite that proximity but don’t imagine that means it’s devoid of emotion. Rather it’s the sense that it’s all too much, that the body regulates by shutting out and that in turn brings us a step closer to the players. There’s genuine violence in Maylis’s words. It’s a touching experience, visceral sometimes but very moving.

We should read more works in translation. It’s not always a guarantee that you’ll get something different but at the very least it’s likely to introduce a perspective you don’t meet every day. With Maylis de Karangal’s Mend The Living I think I can safely say that you will get something you’re not used to. Her approach is striking in its intensity. It’s a very deep, very emotional and very enjoyable read.

 

Mend The Living was published by MacLehose Press (Quercus) on 11th February 2016 ISBN:9780857053879

I couldn’t find Maylis online (let me know if you know where to find her and I’ll add a link)

You can find Jessica Moore on her website www.jessicamoore.ca

Van has finished reading…Song Of The Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

10 Feb

Dawnay Price is a woman out of her time (it would be nice to say she’s a woman ahead of her time but that would be to suggest there are no longer women in the world who are denied opportunity because they are women). Separated from the only family she’s known at a tender age, she is cast on the mercy of an orphanage where she is expected to learn a woman’s skills, and her place. But this will not satisfy her. She is determined and resourceful. She knows her mind and wants not simply to use it but to expand it. Afforded education, Dawnay grows determined to carve out a place for herself in this man’s world.

But how much there is to discover, not least the things beyond her power to control.

If I were to choose one word to summarise what I liked most about Rebecca Mascull’s Song of the Sea Maid it would be delicacy. There’s something light and loose about the writing that disguises the seriousness of her subject. It’s subtle. What I really want to talk about is how good the ending is. I don’t want to spoil it for you, don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a beautiful inversion (I think that’s oblique enough). It’s a well-struck bell that rings out and finds natural resonance in the objects that surround it. There’s a delightful subtlety at play throughout this vibrantly feminist novel. Consider the isolated populations Dawnay is drawn to study. Consider how myth laps at the edges of reason. Consider Dawnay herself, determined, headstrong and sometimes a little too quick to the defensive for her own good – yet how close she sails to the truth of things.

Though it is really all about Dawnay the supporting cast are well drawn and true to their habits and station. It’s interesting to note how fixed many of these characters are. We’re often encouraged as writers to ensure there’s always a journey for each character to go on, a process of change to undertake. How wrong it would have been to see such wholesale makeover in this book where gender, social standing and state of mind so rigidly govern life. And where there is stasis it serves to underline the boundaries over which Dawnay is prepared to stride.

It may seem like a strange title on first impression but actually it’s working overtime, what drives Dawnay reflected as well as casting her in the Siren’s role. Of course Dawnay is an invention but you don’t have to look far to find women of science who were laughed at for their theories, in some cases only to have them appropriated and re-presented, even outright stolen by men. And you don’t have to look as far back as the 1700’s either (look at Celia Payne in the 20th century, or Nettie Stevens in the 19th). It’s got to make you wonder how many Dawnays there are whose true names and achievements should be known to us.

 

At its heart Rebecca Mascull’s Song Of The Sea Maid is immersive historical fiction, an enthralling coming-of-age tale. It’s also a banner waving for feminists everywhere. Whatever your field of endeavour, celebrate the discoveries of those whose voices might otherwise go unheard.

Song Of The Sea Maid was published in paperback by Hodder on 11 February 2016 ISBN:9781473604377

You can find Rebecca on twitter @RebeccaMascull

With thanks to BookBridgr and Hodder for allowing me to review this book.

The #CBBookGroupie playlist

9 Feb

I don’t recall how it came about – some happy conjunction of two of my favourite things, music and books – but whatever prompted it occurred as I was welcomed into the fold of the Curtis Brown Book Group, the result being tweets attributing theme songs to characters in Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship (our first read for the Book Group). It was fun trying to pin down a song that captured a particular character’s demeanour or struggle so when the next book came around I found I was already thinking about the soundtrack that would accompany the story. And so the #CBBookGroupie playlist was born.

Some choices were obvious and instant, others took a little pondering. I think those characters with whom I engaged more readily proved not necessarily the easiest to find a theme for but certainly the most enjoyable. Indeed, where I felt the layers of a particular person it often proved more challenging to find the right tune. And then of course there are as many good songs as there are good stories. I’m convinced there are more pertinent choices out there, if only I had the time to track them down.

What did prove really interesting was the response from the authors when I tweeted the choices (I think only one response amounted to ‘meh!’ but that was for just one track and I suspect more about the song than anything else). It seems some writers compile playlists to assist in the writing of their books – certainly an interesting element of research for more recently historical fiction!

Having attributed the songs, the next step is to apply some listenable order. If you’ve read high Fidelity, or made your own compilations you’ll know that there are rules to doing it properly.

So here it is, in full: The #CBBookGroupie playlist. I don’t confess to have mastered the art of compiling but I do think I’ve managed something listenable. I’ve not included links to all the songs as it would prove a bit link-heavy (and one or two you might not find on t’internet!) but there are links to my reviews of the books.

 

#CBBookGroupie playlist, side 1:

1      Introduction by Nick Drake

Ivo & Mia’s Theme, The A to Z of You & Me

2      He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother by The Hollies

Jonathan & Roger’s Theme, The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

3      Night And Day by Tony Bennett

Dan & Stella’s Theme, Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey*

4      Summer (The First Time) by Booby Goldsboro

Charlie’s Theme, The Rocks by Peter Nicholls

5      Secret Heart by Feist

Jess’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

6      It’ll Never Happen Again by Tim Hardin

Gerald & Lulu’s Theme, The Rocks

7      Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush

Harry’s Theme, The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

8      It Pays To Belong by The Blow Monkeys

Phillip’s Theme, Barbarians by Tim Glencross

9      Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode

Michael’s Theme, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

10     Houses Of The Holy by Led Zeppelin

Lalla’s Theme, The Ship

11     Bad As Me by Tom Waits

Sheridan’s Theme, Barbarians

12     I Know by Dionne Farriss

Asha’s Theme, The Weightless World

13     In The Sun by Joseph Arthur

Tarik’s Theme, The Weightless World

14     Tu Silencio by Bebe

Luc & Aegina’s Theme, The Rocks

15     Trouble by Ray Lamontagne

Sergio’s Theme, The Museum Of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister

16     Vapour Trail by Conrad Vingoe

Steven’s Theme, The Weightless World

17     Half In Love And Half In Hate by Morten Harkett

Ivo & Laura’s Theme, the A To Z Of You & Me

18     How Little We Know by Hoagy Carmichael & Lauren Bacall

Nancy’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

19     Cuidandote by Bebe

Rabbit’s Theme, The Last Days Of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

20     A Good Day To Die by Sunhouse

Mal & Ivo’s Theme, The A To Z Of You & Me

21     Middle Cyclone by Neko Case

Buzzy’s Theme, Barbarians

22     Eyes On the Prize by M Ward

Will’s Theme, Letters To The Lost

23     Drawn From Memory by Embrace

Greg’s Theme, Alice And the Fly by James Rice

24     Time (Clock Of The Heart) by Culture Club

Tom’s Theme, The Ship

25     Stand Your Ground by Robbie Williams

Raymond’s Theme, The Weightless World

26     Burn Down Love by Conrad Vingoe

Ivo’s Theme, The A to Z Of You & Me

27     At The Chime Of A City Clock by Nick Drake

Sophie’s Theme, The Weightless World**

 

*Bennett’s version is later than the period in the book but it is, in my opinion, the best version

**Sophie’s not in the Weightless World but was a member of the Book Group. To quote, ‘Nick knows.’ And any reason to get some Nick Drake in is a good reason!

 

Side 2

 

1      The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret by Queens Of the Stone Age

Katie’s Theme, Only We Know by Karen Perry

2      Glittering Prize by Simple Minds

Alexias & Lysis’s Theme, The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

3      Prince Charming by Adam Ant

Derek’s Theme, What A Way To Go by Julia Forster

4      Angel Eyes (Home & Away) by Wet Wet Wet

Zac’s Theme, The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

5      Magpie To The Morning by Neko Case

Emily’s Theme, The Silent Tide by Rachel Hore

6      In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins

MacKenzie’s Theme, Only We Know

7      Strange And Beautiful by Aqualung

Adam’s Theme, A Better Man by Leah McLaren

8      Archangel Tale by M Ward

Edward’s Theme, the Glass Painter’s Daughter

9      And Dream Of Sheep by Kate Bush

Kit’s Theme, What A Way To Go

10     Freedom Flies by Conrad Vingoe

Isabel’s Theme, the Silent Tide

11     Church Of The Poison Mind by Culture Club

Victoria’s Theme, The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

12     Second To None by Phoenix

Joel’s Theme, the Silent Tide

13     Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin

Theme for The Last of the Wine

14     What’s the Colour Of Money by Hollywood Beyond

Mary’s Theme, What A Way To Go

15     Burning Bridges by Remy Shand

Nick’s Theme, A Better Man

16     Mary’s Prayer by Danny Wilson

Pete’s Theme, What A Way To Go

17     Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

Maya’s Theme, A Better Man

18     Forgetful by Chet Baker

Nick’s Theme, Only We Know

19     Bleeder by Emiliana Torrini

Laura & Phillip’s Theme, The Glass Painter’s Daughter

20     I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt

Jacqueline’s Theme, The Silent Tide

21     Recovery Position by Headswim

Beth’s Theme, the Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer*

22     After All by the Cardigans

Helen’s Theme, The Summer Of Secrets

23     True Colours by Cyndi Lauper

Harper’s Theme, What A Way To Go

 

*I originally had Nina Simone’s Sinnerman in the mix for Grandad from the Girl in The Red Coat, too, but the ten-minute version unbalanced the flow.

 

Whilst I’m not likely to pick songs I don’t like, and even though I say it myself, they’re not bad playlists if you’re after a couple of hours of uninterrupted listening. I’m always on the lookout for another great book to read, or another great song to listen to, so if you’ve got a killer theme for a cracking character, or even a better choice for one of the above, why not leave a comment and share it with us all!

Van has finished reading…Quicksand by Steve Toltz

2 Feb

My first thought on finishing Steve Toltz’s Quicksand is that I’m glad I don’t know Steve Toltz (I know, authors are not their books – but this did all come out of his head). There’s a level of menace going on here that is simply uncomfortable. As with A Fraction Of The Whole, there’s a good deal of comedy but even in that comedy there lurks the heft of violence, the fact that there is always a butt to the joke and he will make you see it, make you stare at it. Maybe that’s why the discomfort is there: I’m laughing even though I know I’m laughing at a misfortune. The image that stays with me is of an extended family standing silent in a semi-circle on a neighbour’s lawn, all taking a single pace forwards every few minutes when no-one is looking. You see, as I write it down it just looks creepy and disturbing, but I laughed. Out loud.

I’m reminded of Tibor Fischer’s Good To Be God in a broad sense. Both books deal with a tale of perennial poor luck, and both stack a sort of street-fighting humour against it (Fischer’s Dangerous Dave lives long in the memory). Toltz definitely stacks the chips higher. In Aldo Benjamin he gives us a protagonist who, had he ever been near a ringer would have been put through it literally. Though his friend Liam (a ‘failed’ writer turned cop – the result of book research that seems to have stuck) narrates, Aldo is the star turn. We meet him in a bar at eleven in the morning, railing against though accepting, indeed expectant of the indignity of having to be carried down stairs to the toilet by his oldest friend (and biographer), Liam. Aldo brims with ideas, all of them so niche they couldn’t possibly fly. He diagnoses people’s psychological ills with a glance. He brims with words. He is insufferable. Yet there’s something magnetic about him as a character. Is it car-crash fiction, hanging on to see just how far it will go? Knowing Aldo’s twin fears are hospital and prison you can imagine how long that road is. I will admit there were times I almost shouted Get To The Point at him, so verbose is he, though to take that wordiness away, or perhaps even to curb it would I feel change the dynamic between character and reader. It’s almost as though in testing his own limits he’s also testing ours, and then laughing at us for sticking around.

Steve Toltz’s Quicksand is by no means an easy read. I actually felt tired after finishing it, it’s so relentless. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable though. I suspect it may be something of a marmite experience – no subject scares him, no taboo tempers the voice – but for my part there’s enough truth hidden in the grime and the humour to keep the pages turning. And I don’t know quite what it is I feel at the end with Liam, hope, horror or heartsick inevitability, but I do feel and that counts for a great deal.

Quicksand is published in paperback on 10th March 2016 by Sceptre ISBN: 9781473606050

 

You can find a fan site dedicated to pressuring Steve Toltz to join Twitter @SteveToltz, and you can find Aldo Benjamin on Twitter @SteveToltz1…

With thanks to Ruby at Sceptre for allowing me to review this book.