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The FiremanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I first heard the name Joe Hill when his novel Horns got turned into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe, but it was really only when Stephen King started tweeting about him that I paid any attention.

According to King, here was a new talent who had a great new horror novel (The Fireman) hitting the charts at No.1, and that everyone should check him out. Some time later, King tweeted something about Joe Hill visiting him and I got this mental image of this seasoned horror writer meeting an emerging talent, a friendship forming between them, raising my curiosity even further. Although I wasn't into King's writing anymore (despite reading everything of his when I was a teenager) I respected him enough to pay attention to any of his recommendations.

I placed an order with my local library and got a copy of The Fireman. I went in without knowing what it was about, happy to be surprised by its pages. My first immediate thoughts were: this reads a lot like... Stephen King.

The type of plot, the type of characters, the way the action was described. King, King, King. Who was this Joe Hill guy after all? Even his photo made him out to look like a young Stephen King. And that's when a light bulb went off in my head. Of course... didn't King have two sons who had turned their hands to writing? Yes, replied Wikipedia - Joe Hill was Stephen King's son.

I persevered - I decided to give Joe Hill at least the first 100 pages to seduce me. But it just didn't click for me. The Fireman's language is too pedestrian, the characters too flimsy. The story in itself is more fantasy than horror, quite whimsical at parts. A pandemic around the world that makes people self-combust, a heroine who moulds herself on Mary Poppins, an enigmatic hero - The Fireman - who can control the fire coming out of his body. And King's influence, everywhere, quite distracting.

King served for me as a bridge between young adult fiction and serious literature, but I just can't go back there, which unfortunately means there's nothing The Fireman can offer me. That's not to say I'll never read a Joe Hill novel - I hope he continues to do well and look forward to seeing how his career matures. Can't be easy to be a writer under such a big name as Stephen King; it might take him a while to forge his own voice. In the meantime, if you are a Stephen King fan, you'll love The Fireman.

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The Victorian Chaise LongueThe Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Victorian Chaise Longue is a strange little novella that was originally published in the 50s. Strange because it’s about a young mother accidentally time travelling just by sleeping on a chaise longue, but also because its meaning is elusive.

Melanie is a happily married housewife recovering from her first childbirth. After a nap on her new chaise longue, she wakes up in a stuffy Victorian bedroom, trapped in young Millie’s infirm body.

Melanie tries to piece together from the strangers walking in and out what’s happening to her while questioning her own sanity and fearing she will never be able to return to the present. It’s an eerie fast read with a cryptic ending.

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The HowlingThe Howling by Gary Brandner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Howling, published in 1977, is the first book in a werewolf trilogy and is probably remembered for the B-movie of the same name which unleashed a string of sequels in the 80s.

It harks back to a time when horror novels were lean, mean and unafraid to use lurid images on their front covers. Bastard children of the pulp magazines from the 50s, these potboilers had no literary pretences. They probably catered to a mostly male teen demographic, offering up salacious kicks and fast plotlines meant to be devoured in a few sittings.

I found my copy ofThe Howling in a dusty charity shop in St Leonards-on-Sea during the Easter break of 2015, alongside its sequel Return of the Howling, and I just couldn’t help myself. I’m a fan of these old novels (including science fiction ones) – most are completely rubbish but there’s always a little hope inside of me when I spot them: will I find something unique? Will it be a hidden gem?

The novel opens with the heroine, Karyn, enduring one of the most violent rape scenes I’ve ever seen in print (only losing to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Although the perpetrator is caught, Karyn’s husband Roy thinks it’s better if they move out of the city, where she can get some peace and quiet and properly heal. Unfortunately, Roy chooses a cabin near the small village of Drago, where visitors tend to disappear on full moon nights.

With Roy spending a lot of time in the big city, Karyn is left to discover the village on her own. She soon realises that someone – or something – has been vising her cabin at night, and that nobody in the village believes there’s anything wrong.

If you like your thrills quick, gory and a little campy, look no further.

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Girl


Girl always awake at 5.30am, like a girl with a clock for a heart. Girl watches London rise: luckiest girl alive.

Gone girl, to the gym. The good girl. In the changing room’s mirror, girl without a dragon tattoo. Girl out of the shower, wet hair. Drops on earlobes, girl with a pearl earring.

Girl on the train, on her way to work. Girl watches other girls: black girl, white girl, Nigerian girl, Danish girl. Her stare lingers – the girl that played with fire. It’s her station next – girl interrupted.

Girl finally at work: another girl in the glass tower.

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Grey and chilly day - perfect for running the Vitality 10K! Highly recommend this event - really well organised and you get to start outside Buckingham Palace and run past many of London"s iconic sites.

neenaw and I stand with tens of thousands of runners outside Buckingham Palace on a Bank Holiday morning. The sky is grey but there is no prediction of rain. We are about to run 10K as part of Vitality’s London 10,000.

Suddenly, a man collapses a few feet ahead of us. I think of my recent CPR training and if I’ll have the guts to press through his ribs to get his heart beating again. I wonder if neenaw will recognise colleagues when the ambulance arrives.

But there are two people already above him. He kicks against them – security guards – as they lift him. They hold him tight and drag him to the kerb side, where the crowd parts. Two more guards arrive and the four of them pin him down. His flip-flops fall off his feet.

“What happened?” some women to our side ask. I look at the runners and people on the sidelines with their raised phones, photographing and filming the young man.

“Maybe he was trying to steal from the crowd and someone called security,” I say.

“I think he was molesting someone,” neenaw suggests.

I wish the women good luck and they smile. They wish us the same.
***

An hour later, I stand alone by Buckingham Palace’s gates, my sore knees barely holding up my body and the heavy medal dangling from my neck. I keep checking my phone to see if neenaw has already finished the run.

“Did you run the marathon?” a young man asks me. His hair is dark and curly, his eyes slightly too close together.

“Oh no, I just did the 10K.”

“That’s what I meant. Congrats!” He shakes my hand. “It’s my birthday today.”

“Happy birthday,” I wish him.

“Thank you. I want to gather as many people as possible from different countries for a picture with me. Then we are going to record a message against RACISM.”

I look around and try to find neenaw. Or my boyfriend. Or anyone I know.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“From here, England.”

“I mean originally, from where?”

“Well, I’m half-brasilian and half-english.”

“Hmmm. If I came back here later, would you join us for the photo?”

I look at the thousands of runners streaming past us, holding their goody bags, posing for pictures with loved ones, their friends and family behind the barriers calling their names, the placards held in the air, the beautiful trees in Green Park that lead up to Piccadilly.

“I’m sorry but I can’t. I need to meet some friends.”

He looks at me as if I’ve just taken a gift away from him.

“Happy birthday again!” I call out as he walks away. He mouths a disappointed thanks.
The Paris Review Issue 213The Paris Review Issue 213 by The Paris Review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My favourite pieces in this edition of the Paris Review are Ann Beattie’s story “Yancey” and the interview with translators Pevear & Volokhonsky.

“Yancey” is about an elderly poet and her dog Yancey, and a visit paid to them by a representative of the IRS, investigating whether the room she claims to be her writing office is actually an office. It’s a lovely little short story and it includes a melancholic poem by James Wright towards the end, a poet I didn’t know before.

If you like Russian fiction, you’ll have probably read a translation by Pevear & Volokhosky. Their interview is a glimpse into the couple’s history and working life, and what translating great Russian literature means to them. Very inspiring.

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Fête du Travail


Image by Alba Pena Castro

A bank holiday weekend in London graced by sunshine.

A shirtless young man does pull-ups in Victoria Park. Later, he’ll post a flawless selfie on Instagram. A runner stops to catch her breath and check if her stats uploaded onto RunKeeper. Then comes a group in their twenties, sharing a joke. They’ll have something to tweet about in the evening.

All the benches facing the park’s pond are occupied. Happy young families on the paddleboats upload their photos onto Facebook before they’ve even stepped back onshore.

He wonders what’s the best way to synthesise it all for his online journal.
Hogarth: A Life and a WorldHogarth: A Life and a World by Jenny Uglow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Hogarth was one of the greatest English men to live, or at least Jenny Uglow makes a very convincing case for this. After having finished this biography, I’m inclined to agree.

Uglow does exactly what a historian should do: she brings to life the world her subject lives in while exploring various themes that resonate with us today. She has a fitting subject in Hogarth. He was a talented and proud artist, perhaps even worthy of being called the grandfather of English art - definitely the first big English illustrator and painter. He was a self-made man, climbing his way up from simple origins, but never losing sight of where he came from. More impressively, he never completely bowed to the privileged who he relied on for the sales of his work. He built his reputation on taking down the arrogant and rich with his satirical illustrations, sometimes to the detriment of his career.

Hogarth lived through the first half of the 18th century and was instrumental in setting up two things that we now take for granted: arts academies (he set up St. Martin's Lane Academy, a precursor of the Royal Academy) and charities (he was one of Captain Thomas Coram’s main supporters in setting up the Foundling Hospital in 1741.) Jenny Uglow subtly compares Hogarth and Coram to each other, who were friends and represented the rise of a type of hardworking, rags-to-riches Englishmen who were also patriotic and compassionate. One of Hogarth's masterpieces, a portrait of Thomas Coram, hung at the hospital’s entrance, and even the hospital's first printed papers used a design by Hogarth on their header.

Uglow goes through every important work in Hogarth’s career (the book is filled with many images of them), explaining their context and importance. But what really grabbed me was the Enlightenment world he lived in. Sir Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift were his contemporaries. Near the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin showed interest in his work. Other interesting facts and stories that crop up in the biography:

- English society was divided in three group types: prostitutes, people who used them and people who knew them. Venereal diseases were a major preoccupation and a central topic in the coffee shops that had just appeared in London and were all the rage. Prostitutes painted disease spots on their bodies with black ink, making them look like Dalmatians. They feature a lot in Hogarth's work.
- Homosexuality was acceptable in private. Male whorehouses, known as “Molly Houses”, were just as popular as their female equivalent, and although sodomy wasn’t legal, punishment wasn’t as severe as centuries later.
- There was a lot of singing all over London, all the time. The news was delivered through broadside ballads, which people bought in the morning on cheap paper and learnt the tune from the seller. They'd then walk away humming the tune, to memorise it, while learning the ballads to share with friends and family later, which could be about anything from love and religion to current political issues or disasters. This made me think of the explosion of popular music in Britain in the 20th Century and how it's actually something in the island’s blood.
- A “celebrity”, Mary Toft, fooled the great physicians of the time by making them believe she was giving birth to rabbits. She was a sort of ancestor to Darren Brown.
- A favourite past time of royalty in London was to come out and watch fires destroying homes, and even try to help put them out.

Just as I was finishing this biography, I stayed at a friend's in West London, not too far from Hogarth's Chiswick country home. It's now a museum worth visiting; you get an idea of where he escaped to when he needed a bit of countryside, and where he lived with his family towards the end of his life. A mulberry tree from his lifetime still stands in his garden. It was nice to see it and imagine whether Hogarth used to sit underneath it as he worked on his sketches.

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A Brief History of Seven KillingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I really wanted to love this book, and at first I really admired its style, its blend of English and Patois, its violence and energy. A novel not only by a queer writer, but a Jamaican one at that, about an attempted murder on Bob Marley in the 70s and its aftermath. It seemed like the kind of book I wouldn’t be able to put down. I was willing to give Marlon James a lot of credit and let him seduce me, take me on this journey.

But then something unforgivable for a novel happened: none of the characters got traction. And more: I got bored.

To me, the novel is nothing without character. Although this novel is filled with them, moving from one voice to another, none work, none seduce, none infuriate. Their language, which at first bears down on you with innovation and speed soon grows repetitive, flat, tiresome, and pointless. The ventriloquism that some reviewers claimed was the novel’s strength seemed weak to me, not fully realised.

The novel is divided in chapters narrated by different characters, spanning the 70s and 80s. I found myself checking how many more pages until a chapter came to an end, hoping the next character would engage me. The comparison with Tarantino on the book jacket is apt – there’s a love with violent language just for the sake of it, as a form of jolting the reader and keeping them interested. But swear words, rape and torture don’t make a story, don’t draw us into an inner life. Maybe the point is that these characters are already half dead and don’t have much to offer apart from their internal, malfunctioning verborrhea.

I gave up on the novel halfway, around page 386. Perhaps something clicks later on and it turns into an amazing piece of work deserving of all the reviews and awards it has received.

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My brother sent me a video through Facebook of an elderly man in a care home – part of the Music and Memory iPod Project.

The man was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and didn’t recognise anyone anymore. A caretaker placed headphones on him and connected him to an iPod. She then explained to him she was going to play a song. When she pressed play, his eyes lit up, nearly bulged out of their sockets: he was hearing a song he used to love as a young man. He began to sing along to it. When they asked him questions later, he could talk a little about his past, about that song and its musicians. The song had dislodged something that was stored deep inside his brain, brought him back to life for a few minutes.

I wrote back to my brother suggesting we start a list of all our mom’s favourite albums. He agreed and reminded me that she already had many vinyls and CDs at home.

Over the weekend, I took advantage of the unusual sunshine over London to walk around Victoria Park. I suddenly had an idea: from now on, every time I called my mother I’d ask her about something from her past, I’d get her to expand on it, and I’d then write it down for her – for us.

In the evening, I gave her a call and, after our initial chit chat about what was going on in our lives, I asked her what was the first album or song she had ever bought.

‘I can’t remember,’ she said. ‘Why do you want to know?’

‘You don’t remember going to Lojas Americanas perhaps? (Americanas was a popular department store in the brasilian town she grew up in, Londrina, where I knew she and her siblings liked to go for ice creams and shopping when they were young.) Or someone giving you a record?’

‘No,’ she said, a little exasperated. ‘We used to listen to a lot of soap operas on the radio though.’

‘Oh?’

‘We’d gather around the table at night and listen to soaps. There was no TV at the time.’

‘Did your younger brothers and sisters stay quiet while you listened?’

‘They must have,’ she said. ‘I can’t remember.’

Later, I told my boyfriend of this exchange and how disappointed I was -- that realisation that my mother wasn’t like me. What might seem interesting – essential even – for me to remember held no interest to her. Which songs from my past held importance to me?

I remember my first vinyls containing children stories – Peter Pan, Charlie Brown, Sleeping Beauty – and my first proper music album being a two-disc compilation of early 80s hard rock (Joan Jett, Survivor, Judas Priest, etc) called Rock na Cabeça (Rock in the Head). I was 8 and my brother was 6 when we received it as a gift from our dad. As we both owned the compilation together, we decided that disc no.1 would be mine and the second his. He ruined his record soon afterwards when he tried playing it with our dog’s paws as the turntable’s needle.

But would Rock na Cabeça jog my memory if I were ever in Henry's place? The Best of The Smiths probably would, and Suede's first album. Maybe Madonna's Immaculate Collection as well.

‘Why don’t you ask her about her pet pig?’ my boyfriend suggested. ‘She might have more to say about that. She once told me all about him.’


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