The Casualties by Nick Holdstock

This memorable first novel examines a Scottish neighborhood’s eccentrics with the benefit of hindsight following an apocalypse.

casualties

In Edinburgh, Scotland, there was once a neighborhood called Comely Bank, whose denizens included some eccentrics, with stories that warrant telling. Hinted at, just out of the reader’s line of sight, is the calamitous event that wiped it out, and Edinburgh, and all of Western Europe and beyond. This catastrophe motivates the unnamed narrator’s storytelling, told almost entirely in flashback.

Following a brief and ominous opening in which Comely Bank’s destruction is promised, the daily lives of local residents form the focus of Nick Holdstock’s debut novel, The Casualties. Sam Clark is a very curious man. He runs the charity bookshop in the neighborhood, where he carefully sifts and sorts through donated books looking for the ephemera tucked forgotten between their pages: he’s after photographs, letters, airline tickets, notes and cards that shed light on the lives of strangers. He carefully observes the people around him, seeking their stories. The reader won’t learn what he’s really looking for until well into Holdstock’s meticulously ordered narrative.

Comely Bank’s other residents include Sinead, a nymphomaniac struggling to control herself but obsessed with a local shopkeeper; meanwhile she serves as caregiver for an obese, mentally handicapped man. Caitlin works at a secondhand clothing store and fixates on the crackling skin condition that mars her face. She loves a man who does not love her; “with adoration comes the wish to hold a pillow over his face.” Alasdair lives under a bridge, dispensing questionable health advice to passersby who do not want it; he can’t remember his last name or his past. “Trudy” is the name taken by a Filipino prostitute illegally residing in Comely Bank. Mr. Ashram is resentful of his neighbors’ reluctance to accept him into their society. Retired headmistress Mrs. Maclean is impatient for her own demise. And so on–until the final, strangely twisting, imaginative pages.

Holdstock vividly presents his odd and varied characters, and places them in a world that is at once both colorful and recognizably everyday. The protagonists’ personalities and actions are quirky but believable, and given added weight by their place in time: The Casualties is a twist on the post-apocalyptic novel in that it reexamines the world just before its end. This perspective, and the continuing mystery of the narrator’s identity, nudge the reader into asking uncomfortable questions about life and its length and meaning. In its ending, Holdstock’s unusual creation leaves certain details to the imagination. Strong characterization and a creative plot, both familiar and bizarre, give this novel enduring allure.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pictures.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Trauma is reborn for the victims of a double abduction, nearly 20 years after their rescue.

pretty is

Two women in their 30s: Chloe is an almost-famous actor barely hanging on to her Hollywood career; Lois is a precocious junior professor with two book contracts. They share a past neither wants known. When they were 12, Lois and Chloe–then known as Carly May–were abducted and held in a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks for a summer before being rescued. This secret, the victimization they just want to forget, comes back to haunt them in Maggie Mitchell’s first novel, Pretty Is.

The action alternates between the present lives of Lois and the reinvented Chloe/Carly May, and flashbacks to the summer they spent with a man they called Zed. They’ve stuck by their story that he never touched or hurt them, not that anyone seems to believe that. Now, Lois’s latest project and a peculiarly disturbed student seem poised to intersect with Chloe’s struggling acting career. The question becomes not what Zed did nearly 20 years ago, but what agency do the adult women have in their own lives?

Suspenseful, quick-paced and action-driven, Pretty Is also wisely invests in character development. Carly May may have been a beauty queen, but she was an intelligent child, too; Lois was a spelling-bee champion and confirmed bookworm as well as pretty, and those lists of spelling words still serve as a mental aid. Mitchell’s greatest strength, however, is in the riveting, magnetic pull of her plot, as the stakes grow higher and Pretty Is rushes toward its finale.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 text messages.

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.

forensics

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 pairs of gloves.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (audio)

From Dillard’s website:

The Boston Globe called it “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task.

Recalling how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is promising.

writing lifeThe Writing Life is brief, and very enjoyable. Her voice as read by Tavia Gilbert feels just right for Dillard’s tone, which is knowing, wry, funny, and serious, by turns and often simultaneously (as I believe I noted in my recent teaser).

As fine as this audio version was, however, it left me wishing I’d had more time to peruse and mull. I have already ordered a print version to keep. For one thing: the format is a series of essays, and this format was a little lost on me in audio form. The transitions felt abrupt sometimes. (Perhaps I could have been paying closer attention to signals of transition. A failure of the medium, or of mine? No matter, the point is it didn’t work perfectly for me.) But I let go and just listened. Don’t be fooled by the title: this is neither the story of Dillard’s life as a writer, nor an instruction on how to live it, ourselves. It’s a bunch of musings and meditations. There are pieces of advice, and stories too, mixed in. But it’s a buffet, lots of things at once. It was fabulously enjoyable when allowed to wash over me. Next time, I will study it more closely, in print.

For the Bellingham local in me – and I recommend it to my father for this reason – there are a few wonderful references to this place, including the inspired story of the Bellingham-based stunt pilot. (Other reviewers seem to find this the best chapter of the book. It was certainly among them.) For the place-obsessed me, there were excellent reflections on various places, including islands in the Puget Sound; Roanoke, Virginia; and Cape Cod. About writing, I enjoyed hearing Dillard’s ideas about where to write (“appealing workplaces are to be avoided”) and how to write: I loved the idea that, paradoxically, writers need to live less in order to create the time and isolation necessarily to write about that life which they have somewhat backed away from. There is less firm advice than encouragement – mixed in with discouragement, but of a collegial type.

Reviews out there in the world are mixed, and seem (according to my brief survey) to base their criticism on the idea that this book is made up of wonderful parts, mixed in with less wonderful parts, that fail to make a single, wonderful whole. I guess that might be born out by my struggles with the audio form. But actually, a bunch of wonderful parts is no failure at all, and I was left feeling enchanted. For that matter, I recall that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had uneven effects on me, too – I can hardly believe that I gave it only 6 mushrooms, because I remember it so strongly and positively, but that shows how much I struggled with some parts of it, too. But really, I say again, we could do worse than many thought-provoking and wondersome components, which is what I found here.

It’s Annie Dillard, y’all. It’s good reading. The audio is good listening, although you may struggle to find it cohesive in that form. But that is the big criticism of this book anyway. So read, or listen, don’t worry about cohesion, and enjoy. I did.


Rating: 8 moths to a candle flame.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola

tell it slantBrenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are faculty members in at the local university where I live now, and they have written a book about writing creative nonfiction: this was an easy choice for me. Tell It Slant is instructive, and comes in three sections. First, “Unearthing Your Material” is a series of subjects we might write about: the family, spirituality, the arts, nature. These subjects come with brief successful examples of each from established writers like Didion, Dillard and Talese, and writing prompts; we are exhorted to pay attention to scenes, sensory detail, and dialog. The second section is about “The Forms of Creative Nonfiction,” including the personal essay and more experimental forms; it also covers how to do research, and the ethical challenges of the genre. Finally, “Honing Your Craft” discusses what makes for good writing generally, the importance of revision, and writing groups. Each chapter opens with a very brief piece of creative writing by one of the book’s two authors, and these short pieces are the most simply enjoyable part of the reading experience.

This book was published in 2005, and for the most part works as well today as it would have ten years ago: although the examples of successful essays might look a little different now, the examples are still excellent ones. The only section that felt slightly dated was the one concerning research. Or maybe, as a librarian, it just felt a little simplistic to me. The advice to go find yourself an excellent reference librarian to help you along was and remains very fine advice, though!

I think I struggled a little bit with the ordering of the book. It could have used a little more introduction, or maybe beginning with part 2 would have worked better for me, because the subject-oriented part 1 felt rather like jumping right into a laundry list, lacking context. I settled in, though – and part of what helped me to do this was flipping ahead and scanning parts 2 and 3, to see what I had to look forward to. I certainly saw the value of the writing prompts. They won’t all work for every writer, but there are lots to choose from; and responding to a prompt that feels empty is a worthwhile exercise in itself, I grudgingly admit. The list of recommended reading at the back of the book is valuable: of course it would be updated to some advantage today, as I said, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the essays listed here, either. (Also, we are directed to ways to keep up to date with the best contemporary essays being published, including literary magazines and best-of collections.)

The audience for this book is never explicitly defined, but I think it becomes clear that it’s written for creative writers who hope to have their work read and appreciated by the public. There is an emphasis on producing work that is appealing to a larger audience, so that this is not a manual for people who write for therapy, for fun, for a hobby, etc. Rather, Tell It Slant teaches us to write for general readership.

I didn’t discover anything earth-shattering here, although the authors’ very brief pieces at the start of each chapter were good reading. I would keep these writing prompts around as practice opportunities. This is a fine primer, and valuable in that it is specific to the creative nonfiction genre.


Rating: 6 sensory details in memory.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.

palimpsest

Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (audio)

lovers at theAgain I took way too long to listen to the whole of this audiobook, which might hinder my review a little. But it worked out rather well: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an engaging story, that covers a number of years and is told from a number of perspectives. This might have been confusing when broken up over such a long time as I took with it, but it wasn’t. Instead, it felt like it helped me dip in and out more easily: lots of time passed for the characters too in between my visits to them, so it felt natural, if you see what I mean.

The time and place setting are in the title; or rather, the title of the book is the name of a photograph, taken in 1932. The story remains in Paris (with one brief sojourn to the countryside nearby), covering the years before and during the German occupation. Several characters relate events from different perspectives, including an American writer whose voice is heard through the books and articles he writes about life in Paris at that time; a Hungarian photographer in love with Paris, writing home to his parents; a French girl who is the girlfriend of the writer and then the photographer, writing a memoir which is to be destroyed upon her death; the wealthy French woman who is the photographer’s patroness, writing her own memoir; and a woman, a couple of generations later, writing the biography of the notorious Lou Villars.

Lou is at the center of this novel, although she has no first-person voice: we only know her through the eyes of others. She had an unhappy childhood; was taught to lift weights by the nuns; had a promising athletic career until her coach tried to rape her; worked at the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers; became a professional racecar driver; met and was awed by the Fuhrer; became a spy for Germany and a torturer for the Gestapo. She is a French cross-dressing lesbian athlete, passionate about France and Joan of Arc, an unhappy woman easily swayed by those who flatter her. She is both a representation of Evil and a complicated question about how a person gets that way.

Prose’s many narrators create interesting questions, too. Are any of them, in the end, reliable? (Questions about the truthfulness of one in particular will be raised in the final pages.) There are many layers to this novel: the beauty and tragedy of Paris before and after the Nazis arrive; the fallibility of human nature; the visual arts (our famous photographer does much of the symbolic work, joined occasionally by Picasso); the challenges faced when any of us seeks to represent the past.

This is a fictional story but based in part on real people. The Hungarian photographer is based on Brassai, who took the picture called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which is described in the novel under the title “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932″ and, obviously, serves as the keystone image of the book. The American writer is based on Henry Miller. The real people are simply starting points, though, along with the powerful, mysterious photograph which titles the novel. The story itself is an imaginative work, deeply intricate in its telling (all those narrators!), and compelling. I was intrigued, and certainly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 as enjoyable and thought-provoking. The audio version very appropriately uses various narrators for the various voices, complete with accents, and was a great way to experience the book.


Rating: 7 cigarette lighters.
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