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Book Club Catch-Up: The Last Animal and Letters From Iceland

I've been a little busy lately, what with starting semester B, and therefore I seem to have fallen a little behind in terms of my Book Club reviews. Unfortunately, my memory of why I enjoyed a book wanes quite quickly and so I've decided to slot both December and January's review in to the same blog post. We shall hopefully return to normal programming with February's review which, funnily enough, will also include two books as we're doubling up.

December: The Last Animal by Abby Geni
Let's just start by saying that I adored this book and I am quite devstated that it has taken me this long to read it. I heard about it in one of Mercy's early videos and I did infact recieve it as a Christmas present in 2014. It's probably one of the longest standing books on my shelves. The Last Animal is a wonderful short story collection composed of tales that all involve humans and their relationships with a certain species of animal. For example, a young woman who looks after a giant octopus in an aquarium or a family that lives on an ostrich farm. Despite being mostly realist, the stories all carry an air of magical realism because of their dreamy descriptions and fleshed out characters, human and animal alike. In the past I have found it hard to sit down and devour a short story collection but I found this relatively easy with The Last Animal; I finished it in about two days. 

Geni has just published her first novel The Lightkeepers, and after reading The Last Animal, I can safely say that I shall be reading it this year. 

January: Letters From Iceland by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice 
 Letters From Iceland was Kirsty's choice and we were both eager to pick it up in January in light of her upcoming trip to Iceland. I'm definitely jealous, and after reading this wonderful part poetry collection part travel memoir, the feeling has only increased. In this lovely little book - and lovely it was, experiencing it through a beautifully old 50s library copy - we follow Auden and MacNeice on their journeys throughout Iceland for research after Auden is commissioned for a book. One of my favourite parts of this read was the fact that many sections were made up of fictional poetic letters addressed to Lord Byron. Through his witty and charming rhymes, Auden brings Byron (and us) along on his journey of barren landscapes, horseriding, and strange foods. These poems were often hilarious and provided short respite from the longer travel-focused passages which sometimes tip-toed the line between informative and dry. Although some parts of this book held preccedence for me over the others, I'm extrememly glad that I read it and it has reawakened my admiration for Icelandic literature and my lust to read absolutely everything Halldor Laxness has ever written. 

 What have you been reading recently?

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Book Club: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

I apologise in advance that is so late! I had promised myself that I would read and review our Book Club reads in the same month but unfortunately, November ran away without me and I only managed to finish The Death of Bees way towards the end of the month. So, without further ado, here is my review!

In the first instance, I would like to note why I have used an internet image for this post. Unfortunately, my library copy of this book came with a horrendous cover that almost associated the story with, what the literary world likes to call, 'women's fiction'. I would also like to note that The Death of Bees is not that at all - it's dark, and intense.

 "We have seen death before, Marnie and I, a mountain of ice melting over time, drops of water freezing at your core reminding you every day of that which has vanished, but the despair we know today is a sadness sailing sorrow through every bone and knuckle.”

The Death of Bees follows various perspectives including a pair of sisters and their nosy next door neighbour, Lennie. The novel opens with the sisters burying their parents in the back garden and it is from here, that the narrative grows. Marnie and Nelly are truly unreliable narrators and this is something that I can really get on board with. In addition, their both wonderfully round characters with their own quirks, interests, and downfalls. Marnie is a highly intelligent adolescent tearaway with equally as troubled friends, and Nelly is a creative creature of habit with an impressive penchant for the violin.

I found O'Donnell's writing to be really unique and the book's short, choppy chapters made it incredibly easy to devour in just a single day. You rarely find good literary fiction that is - like The Death of Bees - both beautifully written and fast-paced. I didn't find any perspectives to be any stronger than the others, and I really appreciated this. Often with these kind of stories, you find yourself pining for certain perspectives and sometimes skipping others. 

I'm glad to have been pushed to pick this up as it wouldn't have been something that I would have chosen myself (mainly because of the cover). However, it turned out to be highly enjoyable and I suggest that you give it a go if you like darker narratives.  

 

 

Book Club: Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

The second pick for mine and Kirsty's book club (affectionately named Chai und Schaf), is Morvern Callar by Alan Warner. Morvern Callar was recently reissued by Vintage as part of a Scottish classics collection and after reading the blurb (and seeing the cover), I had added it to my TBR straight away. Luckily, Kirsty is very much an advocate of Scottish literature and so it was promptly read. 

The novel follow its namesake Morvern, 'a low-paid employee in the local supermarket in a desolate and beautiful port town in the West of Scotland'. One day she wakes to find that her boyfriend has killed himself and left her with it seems little but a floppy disk and a couple Christmas presents. What ensues is a vivacious romp of moral ambiguity, and as readers we're left wondering what the hell is going on in Morvern's brain. This is where my problems with this novel start. 

In my opinion, this book lacks a certain amount of psychological realism. Obviously, having not been in Morvern's position, I am not one to judge but I couldn't help but feel a little... confused. I cannot go in to specifics without revealing spoilers but I would definitely wager that Morvern's response to events are way past the norm. Something pretty major happens and then it just isn't mentioned again. Ever. The plot does lack a little something but I can somewhat excuse this considering it is a debut novel.

On a positive note, Alan Warner has the most delectable writing style. It's slightly experimental but still ever so easy to read. It is worth noting also that the novel uses a number of refrains that some people may find annoying, for example: 'I used the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut'. Personally I found this quite chilling and perfect for the tone of the book. Despite my issues with plot, I found the novel to be quite fascinating and I do believe that it carries many interesting discussion topics, namely Morvern and Lanna's use of nicknames for all of the town's residents apart from themselves.

It is also interesting that this novel is meant to be read along with music and throughout the book there are 'self-made' playlists from Morvern that fit in with whatever she is doing at said time. In addition, nineties rave music and the rave scene is constantly referenced throughout the book.

This read was suitably unsettling for the Halloween season and I think I may actually be interested in re-reading it at some point. After further research, it seems that Warner wrote a sequel to Morvern Callar, but Kirsty and I have both agreed that this concept is pretty redundant. It's one to check out if you're interested in dark, psychological reads but I would also suggest checking out some of Vintage's other Scottish classics first such as The Dumb House; one that many have been raving about.

Buy via Book Depository

P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Book Club: A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Climb in, my tiny fish-catcher, and I will take you on a journey.

So, Kirsty and I have started a book club. And I - as ambitious as it sounds - have decided to publish a book review for each and every selection that we read as part of said book club. Although only one a book a month, I think this will be quite the challenge as book reviews take a lot of time and thought to write. But this brings us to today's review and the book club read for September: the brilliant A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan. This beautiful book is Logan's second release of 2015 -- you may have seen her debut novel The Gracekeepers floating around your local bookshop. However, A Portable Shelter goes back to her short-storytelling roots, set amongst a magical rural Scotland.

First, can we just take a moment to appreciate how gorgeous this book is? It is impeccably published in a beautiful textured naked hardback with illustrations (by Liz Myhill) and silver foiling. The limited edition hardback (only 1000 copies!) is published by small Scottish house ASLS. and next year a paperback will be published by, the more readily available, Harvill Secker who published The Gracekeepers.

Despite being a collection of short stories, in the most wonderful of fashion, these stories come together to create an overarching tale of two new mothers speaking 'truths' to their restless unborn child. This is my absolute favourite kind of short story collection. These stories are 'tales of circuses and stargazing, selkie fishermen and domestic werewolves, child-eating witches and broken-toothed dragons'. Most of the chapters include elements of magical realism that are expertly dropped in to the most mundane-seeming of situations. Also, I was surprised to find that I appreciated every single one of the included stories which is something that has seldom ever happens with other collections. I did still have favourites and least favourites, but I cannot say there were any that I didn't at least enjoy. My favourite was probably 'The Mother of Giants' which tells of a small village with a resident witch that calls upon and claims named newborn babies.

Once there lived a woman who had two husbands. In the evenings, she walked alone on the shore, between her husbands. She walked with one foot in the sand, one foot in the sea.

I really adored Logan's descriptions, especially those of households and landscapes. I found it really easy to visualise her settings, something that I find quite the art when you're working within such a short word count. The accompanying illustrations worked perfectly with these descriptions. Overall, I am really impressed with the collection considering it is my first read of Logan's work. I did also purchase The Gracekeepers so I'm hoping to get that in before the end of the month, so I can see how she deals with the longer form. It's definitely worth checking out A Portable Shelter if you can get your hands on it, even if you have to wait until next year's paperback. Alternatively you can source a copy of her first short story collection The Rental Heart and Other Stories, that I'm also excited to explore.