I had a great month (plus a few days at the end of October) fitting in as many novellas as I could alongside other reading for #SciFiMonth and general for Novellas in November hosted by Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books. I’m left with several yet to review – two short NF reads, and two novellas that I’ve been pondering on for too long, hence the round-up.
Assembly by Natasha Brown
This is a powerful novella, told in vignettes by a young black woman getting ready for a party with her fiancé’s family. In the first section, she talks about her job in city finance – she’s good at it, but predictably, her male peers show casual misogyny and racism to her. The company wheels her out to talk to school assemblies to show off they care about diversity.
Now she’s going to meet her white boyfriend’s family properly, staying the weekend in their large house in the country for his parents, Helen and Georges’ ruby wedding celebration. He meets her off the train, and they arrive…
Since stepping onto the train, I’ve felt this gruesome inevitability. LIke I can’t turn back. But I’m fascinated too. I’ve met Georges before, many, across their various guises, the roles they assume. I have observed and examined and concluded before, but now here I am, seeing one at home. With his wife and son. I don’t want to be a part of it. I want to grab at it, grab its face and pull open its mouth, prise its jaws apart and reach down, in, deeper. Touch what’s inside.
Inside she’s a pile of worries and needs to make some big decisions; I won’t say more to avoid spoiling things for you. In just 100 pages, in these fragments, Brown also makes you question so many generational and political issues too as her narrator puts her feelings onto the page. I was amazed by the quality of the writing which is to the point with no words wasted, but couldn’t help being depressed by the narrator’s unwritten future. (9/10)
Source: Own copy. Hamish Hamilton hardback, 105 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner
I was originally going to review this wonderful novella for Shiny New Books, but having joined the Alan Garner FB group where there has been so much erudite conversation about it by people totally steeped in his work, I had a moment of inadequacy, so am writing about it here in brief instead.
Joe, who has a lazy eye, is at home with his comics and marbles, (he appears to live on his own, but this isn’t questioned) when the Rag & Bone man comes by with his cart. Treacle Walker is his name, and he lets Joe pick an old pot from his cart, swapping them for Joe’s pyjamas and an old sheep’s jawbone. When Joe rubs his lazy eye after handling the chosen pot with the horse drawing on it and its greasy remnant at the bottom, it changes his vision. He has the ‘glamourie’ which allows him to see the unseen – including the bog body in the marshy bit at the bottom of the copse. Thin Amren is his name, and he tells him all about the glamourie, how to see with his bad ‘glim’ and that Treacle Walker is a tricky character. No matter, for Treacle and Joe become friends, and the glamourie will bring Joe’s house and comic books to life, and Joe will have quite an adventure.
There are so many levels in this book, which appears on first glance to be a children’s story but isn’t. Garner fuses much folklore, urban myths and even quantum physics concepts into this fable, which also builds on the author’s own childhood (which he wrote about in his short memoir Where Shall We Run To?). In his late eighties now, Garner’s carefully worded prose (including occasional dialect and words that Dahl would have loved for the BFG like ‘flustication’) takes the reader into that other world, leaving you to ponder the profundities raised at your leisure.
Source: Review copy – Thank you! 4th Estate hardback, 152 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook
This work of short NF is a definite hidden gem and cult favourite of all who read it it seems. I’ve joined the club. First published in 2002, we’d call it a book of psychogeography these days, but it’s more than that. Seabrook, who only wrote one other book before dying in 2009, returns to visit old haunts in Kent, the declining seaside towns.
The prologue begins in Margate, where TS Eliot went after his breakdown, finishing writing The Wasteland in a bus shelter by Margate Sands. There follow three chapters – extended essays almost. The first begins with some Dickensian scene-setting in Rochester before taking us to now the seedier end of town Chatham, where the Dadds resided back in the mid-1800s. Richard Dadd is famous for two things – murdering his father, and painting The Fairy Teller’s Master Stroke (in Tate Britain). Spookily, I’ve recently completed a jigsaw puzzle of said artwork – such coincidences tend to happen to those who read this liminal book. Moving down the coast to Ramsgate, Seabrook talks about Naldara, the house of John Buchan’s 39 Steps, although there were more than that number leading down to the cliff. Naldara was owned by the Curzon family, and a daughter married Sir Oswald Mosley, detouring us into the British Union of Fascists and William Joyce, Lord Haw Haw. In the final section, Seabrook visits an old chap called Gordon in Deal, a former rent boy, who knows all the goings on that happened back in the day, including the final days of Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, and the exploits of Robin Maugham, author of The Servant (nephew of W.Somerset), but also a closeted former boxer, and assorted murderers.
All the devils do seem to be found in these pages, alongside some fascinating literary detective work, there is an air of mystery about this book, especially its author who appears troubled by his life. If you enjoy a bit of Iain Sinclair or John Higgs you would appreciate this short book and its cast of misfits. It’s certainly left me thinking! Don’t just take my word for it though, you can listen to the excellent Backlisted podcast’s episode about it here.
Source: Own copy. Granta flapped paperback, 178 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
Space Exploration by Dhara Patel
The lovely people at the Royal Observatory Greenwich set me a set of their new ‘Illuminates’ series – five little books covering different aspects of astronomy and space, each written by an expert communicator. The first one I’ve managed to squeeze in so far is Dhara Patel’s Space Exploration; the others in the series are The Sun, Stars, Planets and Black Holes.
After a brief intro to the Royal Observatory, Patel’s account of our journey into space begins with those from centuries past who could only look with their eyes, until the development of the first telescopes. She continues with the first satellites – the German V2 rocket bomb being the first artificial object to reach space as defined by the Kármán Line, which at around 100km above the Earth is where due to the thin air, an aircraft can’t generate enough lift to keep itself in the air without travelling faster than the orbital speed. I was already learning something! We continue through the developments that led to the first crewed missions, first orbital, later to the moon of course. A fascinating chapter is all about space stations from Skylab to the ISS, before turning for a look into the future, as we get better and better reports back from the various probes launched to Venus and Mars and beyond. Included is a small section of glossy photo plates, including the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo, and Tim Peake’s spacewalk selfie.
There is a useful glossary and an even more useful list of acronyms at the back. I just love some of the latter that they come up with – JUICE for instance – which is the ESA’s (European Space Agency) JUpiter’s ICy moons Explorer – which is going to Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
Concise and moving at a fair clip, this overview of space exploration was great fun to read. It was certainly illuminating! I can’t wait to read the other four books.
Source: Review copy – thank you. ROG small paperback, 148 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.