Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain (Blog Tour)
I’m a sucker for “dirty realism,” a term coined in the 1980s to encompass gritty stories of blue-collar Americana: Ron Rash, David Vann, Daniel Woodrell et al. (I wrote a whole article about it in 2013). It’s less common, certainly, to find women writing in this subgenre, and that feminine touch is part of what makes Sidle Creek unique. In this debut collection of 22 short stories, loosely linked by their location in the Appalachian hills in western Pennsylvania and a couple of recurring minor characters, Jolene McIlwain softens the harsh realities of addiction, poverty and violence with the tender bruises of infertility and lost love.
The title story, which opens the book, has a shifting first-person point-of-view, first telling us about and then putting us into the mind of Esme Andersen, who’s 20 in 1975. Various diagnoses have plagued her family, medical words that repeat as chants: hemorrhage, endometriosis. Superstitions around the creek cast it alternately as a potential site of harm or healing as her single father tries to help her deal with her severe periods. The cover image comes from “Shell,” in which Tiller Shanty reads signs in the markings on red-winged blackbird eggs. He learned his skill of divination from his Vietnamese wife, but conceals from her a portent about her future. It turns out there’s more than one way to lose a beloved.
Grief is a resonant theme in so many of the stories. “The Fractal Geometry of Grief” is a shining example. Hubert Ashe, a widowed mathematician, becomes obsessed with a doe and sets up trail cams and a feeding station to watch her. It’s not clear whether he believes the animal is a reincarnation of his wife or not, but it’s unwise to get so attached in a hunting area. In “Seeds,” a man finds a photograph of his dying wife as a girl and revisits the sadness of her life. “Steer,” one of the most affecting stories, has a middle-aged man hit by anxiety, unable to forget the death of one of their cattle back when he was 16. As horrific as the experience was, it made him receptive to both beauty and pain.
Animal suffering is indeed frequent – something that seems important to mention, as I know a lot of readers who avoid scenes of it whenever possible. In “Eminent Domain,” the electricity shed where teenagers used to go drinking is found to be full of slaughtered cats. It’s the prompt the protagonist needs to escape this dead-end town. “Loosed” is a masterpiece in the vein of Demon Copperhead (though much more violent) about a man who makes money on increasingly cruel sport: cock fighting, then dog fighting, then dirty fights between his own four sons. The flash forward that ends this one is devastating. I, too, am sensitive to reading about animal deaths, but the animal suffering only matches the human here. The nastiness of “The Less Said” makes that plain.
Pregnancy or infant loss is a recurring element. In just three pages, “Seed to Full” expresses a world of sorrow as a woodworker crafts a coffin for his infant son. Even where it is not a central subject, infertility is mentioned in a number of stories. In “You Four Are the One,” four adolescent neighbor girls help Cinta Johns out around the house, hoping with her that this fifth pregnancy will be the one that lasts. “The Steep Side,” a memorable closer that shifts between past and future, has a teen coming across a crashed van, a heavily pregnant woman, and an older woman claiming to be a nurse. What he sees haunts him into adulthood.
There’s an air of mystery to that one, and particularly in “Those Red Boots,” about the disappearance of a waitress who worked at a Hooters-style joint where all the comely staff wear the same uniforms and perform titillating dances. My preference was for longer stories like this where you get greater depth of characterization and more scenes and dialogue. I might have considered cutting a handful of the flash-length stories. However, even in these micro-fictions, there are still interesting setups. My favorite among them was “The Fourth,” in which Independence Day fireworks are triggering for shell-shocked Uncle Ron.
At times harrowing, always clear-eyed, these stories are true to life and compassionate about human foibles and animal pain. I would highly recommend them to readers of Kent Haruf and Jayne Anne Phillips. McIlwain has such an established voice that this hardly seems like a first book. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
With thanks to Melville House for the proof copy for review.
Buy Sidle Creek from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour for Sidle Creek. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
19 Claws and a Black Bird by Agustina Bazterrica (Blog Tour)
A couple of years ago, I reviewed Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is the Flesh for the R.I.P. challenge. It’s a dystopian horror novel in which cannibalism becomes commonplace. “Brutal but brilliant,” I called it. That’s what I was hoping for from this collection of 20 of the Argentinian author’s speculative short stories. Unfortunately, I found the death-drenched work uneven, but there were a few individual stories and recurring elements that I appreciated.
In “Unamuno’s Boxes,” a woman becomes convinced that her taxi driver is a serial killer; in “Anita and Happiness,” Pablo suspects his lover is an alien. In both of these, the imagined identity is so strongly rooted that it reflects, or even alters, the reality. My favourite line of the book came from the latter: “human beings are a mere parenthesis between two unknowns.”
There are a few cases of poetic justice here, such as when a football obsessive decides to take out his feelings on a cat and instead gets his comeuppance. Two other stories, “Roberto” and “Earth,” include revenge for child sexual abuse – they have mighty satisfying conclusions. Along with those two, the stand-out of the collection for me was the final story, “The Solitary Ones,” which is the closest to straight-up horror and features a young woman riding the subway alone when the electricity goes out. It’s one of four second-person narratives; that’s always an interesting point-of-view. (The rest are roughly equally split between first and third person.)
My qualms were about a couple of unpleasant repeated topics and the vague or generic nature of many of the remaining stories. Several involve suicide, which is not problematic in and of itself – “A Light, Swift and Monstrous Sound” is a strong opener in which a woman finds her elderly neighbour dead on her patio – but in two places it’s a too-convenient way of concluding a story about someone with mental illness. Two late stories apply menacing imagery about religion. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about such things, but I prefer a more balanced depiction.
The title makes intriguing reference to other creatures, particularly birds, but apart from a couple of sinister appearances and one stereotyping page about the threat of a wolf, it doesn’t live up to that promise. Although I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Bazterrica’s short fiction, you might want to seek out select stories. Meanwhile, I would urge you all to read Tender Is the Flesh, which also engages with the question of the ethical treatment of animals.
[Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses]
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
I was happy to participate in the blog tour for 19 Claws and a Black Bird. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was familiar to me from Butterflies in November (2013), a whimsical, feminist road trip novel I reviewed for For Books’ Sake. Dómhildur or “Dýja” is, like her grandaunt before her, a midwife – a word that was once voted Iceland’s most beautiful: ljósmóðir combines the words for light and mother, so it connotes “mother of light.” On the other side of the family, Dýja’s relatives are undertakers, a neat setup that sees her clan “handling people at their points of entry and exit.”
Along with her profession, Dýja inherited her great-aunt’s apartment, nine bottles of sherry, pen pal letters to a Welsh midwife and a box containing several discursive manuscripts of philosophical musings, one of them entitled Animal Life. In fragments from this book within the book, we see how her grandaunt recorded philosophical musings about coincidences and humanity in relation to other species, vacillating between the poetic and the scientific.
As Christmas – and an unprecedented storm prophesied by her meteorologist sister – approaches, Dýja starts to make the apartment less of a mausoleum and more her own home, trading lots of the fusty furniture for a colleague’s help with painting and decorating, and flirting with an Australian tourist who’s staying in the apartment upstairs. Outside of work she has never had much of a personal life, so she’s finally finding a better balance.
I really warmed to the grandaunt character and enjoyed the peppering of her aphorisms. As in novels like The Birth House and A Ghost in the Throat, it feels like this is a female wisdom, somewhat forbidden and witchy. The idea of it being passed down through the generations is appealing. We get less of a sense of Dýja overall, only late on finding that she has her own traumatic backstory. For a first-person narrator, she’s lacking the expected interiority. Mostly, we see her interactions with a random selection of minor characters such as an electrician whose wife is experiencing postpartum depression.
I felt there were a few too many disparate elements here, not all joined but just left on the page as a quirky smorgasbord. Still, it’s fun to try fiction in translation sometimes, especially when it’s of novella length. This also reminded me a bit of Weather and Brood.
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon. With thanks to Pushkin Press for my free copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Animal Life. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
UK Fungus Day: An Extract from Aliya Whiteley’s The Secret Life of Fungi
It’s UK Fungus Day today, and to mark the occasion I’m hosting an extract from The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World by Aliya Whiteley, which came out in paperback last week.
In 2001 two scientists published a report of a smell test they had conducted on thirty-six volunteers. The volunteers smelled an unspecified mushroom of the Dictyophora genus that was claimed to be incredibly rare, growing only on the lava floes of Hawaii. Six of the women taking part in the study reported experiencing a mild orgasm at the point of inhaling the smell; all the men said the mushroom smelled ‘fetid’.
It’s a tiny sample in an unrepeated experiment, but just the thought of it was enough to intrigue many. News outlets all over the world picked up the story and ran away with it. We don’t imagine that the sight of an object, any object, would be enough to induce such ecstasy, but the sense of smell is different. It cuddles up to our memories, performing the mysterious task of making us experience certain emotions. Nothing is as evocative as a scent thought forgotten. That might explain why we believe it’s possible to take the ultimate pleasure from one.
If some fungi smells are so intense to us, we can only wonder at how incredibly exciting they must be to animals with noses better than our own. A truffle, for instance – truffles have a scent so strong that it can give us headaches, and impregnate every corner of a kitchen so that everything tastes of it. The White Truffle, Tuber magnatum, is the most prized in the world for its rich, unique taste. It has long been foraged throughout Italy and Bosnia–Herzegovina, found buried underground, in the shadows of old trees, often oaks. Pigs were traditionally used to root them out, with an enthusiasm that could lead to the truffle being eaten before it could be retrieved for human consumption, so often dogs are trained to do the task nowadays.
The training of the best truffle hounds starts in puppyhood. There are different methods of reward and encouragement, but an initially expensive tactic outlined in the 1925 book The Romance of the Fungus World, by F.W. and R.T. Rolfe, sounds a great way to get a dog keen to go to work every morning. From early on in the puppy’s life, the Rolfes recommended mixing finely chopped truffle into its usual food, and then, once it has developed a taste for them, burying the truffles nearby and rewarding the puppy once it seeks them out. Then it’s only a matter of encouraging the puppy to give up the truffles in exchange for a piece of meat or a chunk of cheese. That sounds easy, but I have to wonder how straightforward that final step in the training regime might be. It would have to be a magnificent cheese to get my attention once I’d been indoctrinated with truffle love from an early age.
Pigs and dogs aren’t the only animals that love the smell of truffles. Rodents and insects too flock to the scent, and the Rolfes also mention the use of the truffle fly in the hunt for the good stuff. The larvae live in the truffle itself, so the tiny flies are said to hover there above the ground, usually in the evening, in clouds that can be spotted by those with keen eyesight. Is this one of those methods that has been lost? I can’t find any modern mention of it, and there are certainly more reliable methods of finding your truffles, but I love the idea of standing in the forest at sunset, in a glade of oak trees, bent double to look along the ground in the hope of spotting a cloud of flies to give away the position of a rare find.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for a free copy.
The Night Ship by Jess Kidd (Blog Tour Review)
Jess Kidd’s fourth novel is based on a true story: the ill-fated voyage of the Batavia, which set off from the Netherlands in 1628, bound for Indonesia, but wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands off the western coast of Australia in June 1629. If you look into it at all, you find a grim story of mutiny and murder. But we experience the voyage, and view its historical legacy, through the eyes of two motherless children: Mayken, travelling on the Batavia to be reunited with her merchant father abroad; and Gil, who, in 1989, moves in with his grandfather at his Australian beach hut and observes archaeologists diving into the wreck.
Chapters alternate between the two time periods. Mayken is in the care of her old nursemaid, Imke, who has second sight. As Imke’s health fails, Mayken goes semi-feral, dressing up as a cabin boy to explore the belowdecks world. Gil, a tender, traumatized boy in the company of rough grown-ups, becomes obsessed with the local dig and is given a pet tortoise – named Enkidu to match his own full name, Gilgamesh. Mayken and Gil both have to navigate a harsh adult world with its mixture of benevolent guardians and cruel strangers.
An explicit connection between the protagonists is set up early on, when a neighbour tells Gil there’s a “dead girl who haunts the island … Old-time ghost, from the shipwreck,” known as Little May. But there are little links throughout. For instance, both have a rote story to explain their mother’s death, and both absorb legends about a watery monster (the Dutch Bullebak and the Aboriginal Bunyip) that pulls people under. The symmetry of the story lines is most evident in the shorter chapters towards the end, such as the rapid-fire pair of 33–34.
These echoes, some subtle and some overt, are the saving grace of an increasingly bleak novel. Don’t be fooled by the focus on children’s experience: this is a dark, dark story, with only pinpricks of light at the end for one of the two. In terms of similar fiction I’ve read, the tone is more Wakenhyrst than The Essex Serpent; more Jamrach’s Menagerie than Devotion. (It didn’t help that I’d just read Julia and the Shark, an exceptional children’s book with a maritime setting and bullying/mental health themes.) I engaged more with the contemporary strand – as is pretty much always the case for me with a dual timeline – yet appreciated the atmosphere and the research behind the historical segments. This doesn’t match Things in Jars, but I was still pleased to have the chance to try something else by Jess Kidd.
With thanks to Canongate for my free copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the social media tour for The Night Ship. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The Poet by Louisa Reid (Blog Tour Review)
The Poet lured me with the prospect of a novel in verse (Girl, Woman, Other and Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile are two others I would recommend) and the theme of a female poet caught up in a destructive relationship with her former professor. Emma Eliot published a poetry collection at age 21 before embarking on an abandoned PhD on Charlotte Mew. Tom Abbot, a charming Oxford don in his early forties, left his wife and daughters for her, but Emma has found that the housewife existence doesn’t suit her and longs to return to academia. Tom relies on Emma to boost his ego, play stepmum and help him with his publications, but scorns her working-class upbringing and can’t conceive of her having her own life and desires.
Tom’s students and ex-wife commiserate with Emma over his arrogance, but in the end it’s up to her whether she’ll break free. She tells her story of betrayal, gaslighting and the search for revenge in free verse that flows effortlessly. Sometimes her words are addressed to Tom:
Miles of misunderstanding waver
Anything would be better than the stink
– and other times to the reader.
Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man
who thinks he has the right to
a woman’s work –
and womb –
and everything else.
if the bed seems too big
then perhaps that is because I have shrunk
to fit the space,
or am lost in the wasteland of what was.
There are a few poetry in-jokes like that one, with Emma quoting Emily Dickinson and Tom likening her early work to Sylvia Plath’s. Usually this feels like reading fiction rather than poetry, though the occasional passage where alliteration and internal rhymes bloom remind you that Emma is meant to be an accomplished poet.
I wanted to sit in a book-lined room
wombed in words.
I didn’t see the tomb that waited
for the woman
who underrated herself.
That said, I didn’t particularly rate this qua poetry, and the storytelling style wasn’t really enough to make a rather thin story stand out. Still, I’d recommend it to poetry-phobes, as well as to readers of The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and especially Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan (who, like Reid, wrote YA fiction before producing an adult novel in verse).
My thanks to Doubleday and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Poet. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared or will be appearing soon.
The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Walter Presents Blog Tour)
A library populated entirely by rejected books? Such was Richard Brautigan’s brainchild in one of his novels, and after his suicide a fan made it a reality. Now based in Vancouver, Washington, the Brautigan Library houses what French novelist David Foenkinos calls “the world’s literary orphans.” In The Mystery of Henri Pick, he imagines what would have happened had a French librarian created its counterpart in a small town in Brittany and a canny editor discovered a gem of a bestseller among its dusty stacks.
Delphine Despero is a rising Parisian editor who’s fallen in love with her latest signed author, Frédéric Koskas. Unfortunately, his novel The Bathtub is a flop, but he persists in writing a second, The Bed. On a trip home to Brittany so Frédéric can meet her parents, he and Delphine drop into the library of rejected books at Crozon and find a few amusing turkeys – but also a masterpiece. The Last Hours of a Love Affair is what it says on the tin, but also incorporates the death of Pushkin. The name attached to it is that of the late pizzeria owner in Crozon. His elderly widow and middle-aged daughter had no idea that their humble Henri had ever had literary ambitions, let alone that he had a copy of Eugene Onegin in the attic.
The Last Hours of a Love Affair becomes a publishing sensation – for its backstory more than its writing quality – yet there are those who doubt that Henri Pick could have been its author. The doubting faction is led by Jean-Michel Rouche, a disgraced literary critic who, having lost his job and his girlfriend, now has all the free time in the world to research the foundation of the Library of Rejects and those who deposited manuscripts there. Just when you think matters are tied up, Foenkinos throws a curveball.
This was such a light and entertaining read that I raced through. It has the breezy, mildly zany style I associate with films like Amélie. Despite the title, there’s not that much of a mystery here, but that suited me since I pretty much never pick up a crime novel. Foenkinos inserts lots of little literary in-jokes (not least: this is published by Pushkin Press!), and through Delphine he voices just the jaded but hopeful attitude I have towards books, especially as I undertake my own project of assessing unpublished manuscripts:
She had about twenty books to read during August, and they were all stored on her e-reader. [Her friends] asked her what those novels were about, and Delphine confessed that, most of the time, she was incapable of summarizing them. She had not read anything memorable. Yet she continued to feel excited at the start of each new book. Because what if it was good? What if she was about to discover a new author? She found her job so stimulating, it was almost like being a child again, hunting for chocolate eggs in a garden at Easter.
Great fun – give it a go!
(Originally published in 2016. Translation from the French by Sam Taylor, 2020.)
My thanks to Poppy at Pushkin Press for arranging my e-copy for review.
(Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama streaming service, launched in the UK (on Channel 4) in 2016 and is also available in the USA, Australia, and various European countries.)
I was delighted to be part of the Walter Presents blog tour. See below for details of where other books and reviews have featured.
The Vixen by Francine Prose (Blog Tour)
The New York City publishing world was an irresistible draw of this historical novel, my first fiction read from Francine Prose. In June 1953, Simon Putnam, newly graduated from Harvard with a degree in folklore studies, is living at home with his parents on Coney Island when the Rosenberg execution appears on television. The whole country has been caught up in this sordid real-life spy drama, but his family has an unusual connection that makes them feel they have more of a stake: Simon’s mother grew up in the same tenement building as Ethel Rosenberg and they attended high school together. The Putnams feel the execution was a disgrace, and Simon’s mother has even created a sort of shrine to Ethel in their apartment.
This puts Simon in a tricky situation when his uncle gets him an editorial job with a publisher whose next project – intended to keep the struggling firm afloat – is the potboiler The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, a thinly veiled version of the Rosenberg story that relishes in their demise, turning them into “Soviet sex zombies.” Besides being in poor taste, it’s atrociously written. Can Simon turn it into something more in line with his values without displeasing his boss? Complicating matters is his crush on the book’s author, Anya Partridge, a vamp who wears a fox stole and happens to be confined to a mental asylum.
Nothing is what it seems in a suspenseful narrative inspired by the events of the Red Scare. Characters who initially embody stereotypes end up surpassing expectations. I have trouble putting my finger on why I found this novel underwhelming on the whole. Maybe it was something to do with the far-fetched turns and Simon’s impassive narration. Or one too many references to his sex fantasies about Anya. I don’t see myself seeking out more fiction by Prose. But if you’re a fan of Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell and especially The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott, you may well find this a pleasant summer diversion.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Vixen. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau (Blog Tour)
Are you having a groovy June yet? If not, I have just the remedy: a juicy coming-of-age novel that drops you directly into the Baltimore summer of 1975. Mary Jane Dillard, 14, lives in the upper-class white neighborhood of Roland Park. Her parents are prim types who attend church every week, belong to a country club, and pray for the (Republican) president’s health before each sit-down family dinner. When Mary Jane starts working as a daytime nanny for five-year-old Izzy, the Cones’ way of life is a revelation to her. They are messy bohemians who think nothing of walking around the house half-naked, shouting up and down the stairs at each other, or leaving a fridge full of groceries to rot and going out for fast food instead.
Dr. Cone is a psychiatrist whose top-secret assignment is helping a rock star to kick his drug addiction. Jimmy and his actress wife, Sheba, move into the Cones’ attic for the summer. If they go out in public, they wear wigs and pretend to be friends visiting from Rhode Island. While the Cones are busy monitoring or trying to imitate their celebrity guests, Mary Jane introduces discipline by cleaning the kitchen, alphabetizing the bookcase, and replicating her mother’s careful weekly menus with food she buys from Eddie’s market. In some ways she seems the most responsible member of the household, but in others she’s painfully naïve, entirely ignorant of sex and unaware that her name is a slang term for marijuana.
Open marriage, sex addiction and group therapy are new concepts that soon become routine for our confiding narrator, as she adopts a ‘What they don’t know can’t hurt them’ stance towards her trusting parents. Blau is the author of four previous YA novels, and while this is geared towards adults, it resonates for how it captures the uncertainty and swirling hormones of the teenage years. Who didn’t share Mary Jane’s desperate curiosity to learn about sex? Who can’t remember a moment of realization that parents aren’t right about everything?
Music runs all through the book, creating and cementing bonds between the characters. Mary Jane sings in the choir and shares her mother’s love of both church music and show tunes. Jimmy and Sheba are always making up little songs on which Mary Jane harmonizes, and a clandestine trip to a record store in an African American part of town forms one of the novel’s pivotal scenes. The relationship between Mary Jane and Izzy, who is precocious and always coming out with malapropisms, is touching, and Blau cleverly inserts references to the casual racism and antisemitism of the 1970s.
I love it when a novel has a limited setting and can evoke a sense of wistfulness for a golden time that will never come again. I highly recommend this for nostalgic summer reading, particularly if you’ve enjoyed work by Curtis Sittenfeld – especially Prep and Rodham.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Mary Jane. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.