A book review by other means: Politics of the Asylum, by Adam Steiner

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When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).

So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?

Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.

As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.

Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).

Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!

Professor Wu (PW): 

Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!

Tom Andrews (TA):

Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?

‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze  of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’

It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road).  He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.

PW:

I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.

For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.

This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.

I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.

I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.  

“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews

TA:

I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.

However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.

The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.

‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’

I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.

There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.

“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu

PW:

Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.

So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).

My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?

Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.

Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.  

TA:

The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.

Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.

It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.

Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –

https://adamsteiner.uk/2018/02/08/politics-of-the-asylum-one-month-to-launch/

 Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!

Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/

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This is the place to be, by Lara Pawson – book review

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Human beings have been reporting on wars and battles almost as long as there have been wars and battles (which may mean they have always been, if you are to accept the idea that mankind has an innate inclination toward violence). The earliest cave paintings depicted our forebears on great hunts; and oral histories of all early human civilisations recount battles and wars in their various bloody guises. Shakespeare, of course, deserves mention here for the means with which he memorialised England’s dynastic wars in his plays.

Yet the idea of professionalising this war reportage into something an individual person sets out to specifically do has perhaps more recent historical trappings. From Henry Crabb Robinson’s early reports of battles against Napoleon for the London Times, through to coverage of the D-Day landings; the French and subsequent American wars in Vietnam; through to coverage of both Gulf Wars; the Troubles in Ireland and Northern Ireland and indeed, conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world – the human desire to seek first-hand accounts of the multiple ways we can find means of killing one another has shifted in tone through our most recent generations.

As times change, war correspondence has changed, also – from the first wide-use of video clips to bring wars into our living rooms, through to the advent of social media, which pummels our pockets with updates from global conflicts.

The sole constant here is perhaps the war correspondent themselves. That person who witnesses war and tells, shows, or tweets their experiences to others.

What does it mean to be an observer to war? Is it possible to retain any semblance of independence as a ‘neutral’ party when one sees what war is so closely? And what do war correspondents do when there is no war to report on? How do people who derive and depict meaning from mass human violence – and how do people who earn a living through their involvement with this – respond when faced with the relative peace of society?

Answers to these questions are hard to come by and are, by their very nature, complex. Yet there is fascinating and powerful insight provided by the exceptional book This is the place to be by Lara Pawson.

Pawson, who worked as a journalist for the BBC in several African countries between 1996 and 2007, grapples with such themes – among many others (including women’s rights, the intrinsic value of language to a person’s identity, and what it means to form relationships with people who exist in a quasi-state of acquaintance; from youths in your neighbourhood to stall owners in your local market).

Reflecting on her time covering the Angolan Civil War, she writes:

“It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs.”

In the clearest of ways, This is the place to be is in essence a written attempt at self-evaluation and rigorous self-critique. Described ostensibly as a memoir, this seems appropriate – given that, as David Sheilds notes in Reality Hunger, “For centuries, the memoir was, by definition: prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins.” Yet Pawson’s novel is not concerned with human sin, per se – there is no attempt to moralise human behavior; instead, the focus is on trying to dissect it. This refers not only to the dissection of human behavior on a societal scale – as a sociologist might – but rather, also on an intensely personal level.

Indeed, the inquisitiveness of Pawson’s prose creates an existential inquisitiveness that balances finely with the author’s inclination toward more descriptive journalistic reportage. Consider, for instance, the scene in which the narrator sees a “woman cut in half by an articulated lorry”:

“I was in my car and as I drove around the roundabout, I saw the head and bust and waist of a woman and then, a few feet away, her lower half: wearing a skirt, her ankles and feet still sticking out at the bottom. At least, that’s what I believe I saw and what I remember I saw. And it’s what I have told many people I saw. But considering the binding problem, I wonder if what I say I saw was in fact fill-in created by my brain. Which bit was real – the upper part of her body, or the lower part?”

Moving from the simple precise description of the scene, the sudden reflection and of questioning one’s own experiences – one’s own sight and memories – opens possibilities for the reader in a way simple reportage of fact fails to do. And it engages with interesting concepts and themes – not least of the which is that of the fallibility of memory.

Nothing, after all, is as unreliable as our recollections of events. We know that our brains reconstruct fragments of things we perceive to recreate wholes; meaning that what we think we saw may not be verified by CCTV cameras (if there are CCTV cameras to counterbalance against our memories). As Patrick Duff, from The Brink of Oblivion, notes: “Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.”

The fragmentary and selective nature of memory is itself reflected in the very structure of Pawson’s book.

Of course, fragmentation as a structural form within literature is not new, yet Pawson builds on its modernist origins and takes it to somewhere new and unique (and, as she does so, skillfully avoiding becoming simply “post-modern” or unduly self-referential about it all, as other writers sometimes tend to do).

Indeed, while fragmentation was employed by some of the modernist writers of the 20th century to help them capture how the (then) modern world overloaded the human mind (think of Dubliners, by Joyce, for instance); Pawson’s This is the place to be also helps create this sense of sensory overload caused by our ‘modern’ existences – and how it can lead to fragmentation of thought and feeling. But it goes a step further because it does not seek to necessarily imply that the world is fragmenting the mind; but rather that the mind (being fragmented itself) seeks to make sense of the world through analysis of fragmented episodes, which, though they may seem unconnected and disassociated from one another at first glance, in fact share a much greater commonality.

To dwell on this for a moment longer: what is interesting about the use of fragmentation in Pawson’s book is the careful balance between unity and disunity that comes from structuring the memoir in this way. On the one hand, the chosen form enables the reader to starkly experience the horrors – and mundanity – of war, and also the mundanity – and horrors – of modern, perhaps sedentary, ‘western’ life. The disunity between, say, the tension of the author finding herself in rebel held territory, arriving at a scene of an ambush moments after a massacre, are fraught with such tension that it is a genuinely affecting experience to read. Yet contrast this with a friendly relationship with a market stall owner in Walthamstow and at first glance the impression is one of a real disconnect. However, explore the text as a whole and suddenly contrasts become comparisons and quickly similarities – jokes shared with market stall owners transpose themselves as jokes shared with the pilots of old airplanes and army vehicles, even high ranking government officials or colonels. This fragmentary sense of broken unity, or conversely, of united disunity, is surely in its own way so recognisable to ourselves as readers, because one of the fundamental truths about the human condition – of human life – is how full of simultaneous contradictions and similarities it is and can be. We are defined in so many ways by the united, harmonised parts of ourselves, even when those parts, when looked at individually and of themselves, can seem so at odds with one another under the microscope.

Speaking of microscopes can invoke a sense of forensic exploration and what This is the place to be does well is avoid any sense of intense introspection. The reader is never told what to think or how to feel, simply shown and left to bring their own meaning to the scenes they are presented with.

This style of writing is ultimately a true indication of Pawson’s great ability as a writer. After all, to write about subjects as intense as war carries with it a weight of expectation. Think, for instance, of Vonnegut’s quasi-autobiographical narrator in Slaughterhouse 5, who remarks he “thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden, because all I would have to do would be to write what I saw” – yet finds quickly that this is impossible, because the subject is “too big”. Simply writing about war is not simple at all, it seems.

In his essay, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek explores how we react when “the unimaginable impossible happen[s]”. To many (most?) of Pawson’s readers, the thought of finding ourselves in the midst of a civil war is just that: unimaginable. Yet by balancing the unimaginable with the extremely relatable (Angola vs Walthamstow, etc.), Pawson counterpoints two very real – but very different – realities in such a way that the world we cannot picture becomes more accessible; while the world we perhaps think we know becomes that little bit more strange and alien.

We live in a time when so many people now express the sentiment of “not recognising” the country or people they live with. This is true in the UK, from hard-right brexiteers who complain of non-white people working and living in their towns; through to liberal and metropolitan ‘remain’ voters, as well as left-wingers, who can’t believe hard-right brexiteers and racists seem to be in control of the UK government. And it is true of the USA, where Donald Trump was able to re-use Reagan’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan to such affect precisely because it tapped into a sentiment raging across America’s deep (but superficially hidden) divides of people who felt that ‘their’ country somehow wasn’t “great”. Similarly to the UK, Trump’s election has also shaken the self-belief of the USA’s ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, who thought that Obama’s election may have finally signalled a key change in direction for the country. That they now, in their eyes, have a misogynistic, self-proclaimed sexual harasser, blustering bigot, egregious egomaniac and would-be demonic despot for a president is, to use Žižek’s expression, “unimaginable [and] impossible”. Yet here we are.

In a world that seems so unrecognisable to so many – we need books like Pawson’s This is the place to be that shows us how to recognise things we think we cannot imagine; and reflects our feelings of uncertainty about the world and things we think we know and understand. Our worlds can so easily become so small and narrow and defined; This is the place to be helps bridge the divide between our social bubbles and the rest of the planet and reminds us, ultimately, of our place within it.

 

To purchase a copy of Lara Pawson’s This is the place to be, visit CB Editions – http://www.cbeditions.com/pawson.html 

Book Review: Sexy Haiku by Nick Brooks

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Making all haiku in Paris that little bit sexier. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor

When the Nothing in the Rulebook team were asked to review Nick Brooks’s Sexy Haiku – a collection of haiku that follow one man’s relationships – we did the only sensible thing and carried the book with us on a romantic trip to Paris. After all, nothing quite says ‘city of love’, as reading haikus that range from the intimately descriptive –

I ease in     sideways

Between a shifted thong

And the flesh of your thigh.

To the tragically relatable emptiness of meaningless sex –

It doesn’t matter

How long you try       I can’t come

Unless I feel loved.

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Sexy meringue, anyone? Or just more sexy haiku?

Indeed, what perhaps really resonates throughout the entire book is this almost tragic feeling that exceptional moments in love are so rare, that when they occur, one cannot fully appreciate them – since they will inevitably end, perhaps never to be repeated; and yet, having occurred, will always lead those involved to compare and contrast all future experiences with said moment. Consider, for instance, the following:

We come at the same time

Both our faces raw     tangled

If it could always be like this.

In these haiku, there carries a sense of loss for moments of perfection; and through this a sadness of never being able to truly live in the moment or experience present pleasure – where moments that are good are soured by the thought that they will not always be as good. In this way, Brooks delivers a sense of in-the-moment-nostalgia, where lovers have a premonition or foresight of themselves looking back at certain moments from the future, longing to re-live them and yet knowing they perhaps never will.

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The Moulin Rouge ain’t seen no haiku as sexy as this.

If there is to be a criticism of this book, it is that there is perhaps not a clear enough perception of the female perspective of love and sex. Instead, we are presented with haiku that have a distinctively masculine tone and voice.

Of course, masculinity is no bad thing and having spent so many years with men generally taught to suppress their emotions and repress urges to reflect on their sexual encounters and their experiences of love, it is refreshing in many ways to finally have a book that allows us to explore how men experience these things in the sort of raw, true and ‘real’ manner that only poetry and writing really allows. Yet one cannot help but think this book perhaps requires a partner – an equal in form and style; but from the female perspective. Sex, after all, is something that necessitates partnership. And so, without this, Sexy Haiku feels once again only part of a whole – which in turn adds to the sense of loss and incompleteness that is carried in the undertones of its pages.

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Sexy haiku can be enjoyed by men, women, and giraffes alike.

What this book does very well is capture the absurdity of both sex and love. We witness the complications of negotiating a threesome; the politics of semi-open relationships; the trepidation of setting out into unknown sexual waters of BDSM, or even trying “a new position, beyond the three recommended”; and, of course, those moments that somehow just happen, even though nobody really knows how they happen or why they occur, except that those who experience them know they feel somehow right and logical at the time – for instance, take the following:

She holds up an

overripe avocado

winks coyly at me    licks her lips.

While Brooks clearly has a fine eye for the intricacies of language and syntax, the haiku that stand out are these moments that are so relatable. Not everyone of course has the specific experience of using avocados sexually – although, in the age of the hipster, and with John Lewis reporting sales of avocado products up over 100% year-on-year, perhaps more people than you’d think actually do have similar experiences. Yet in reading these haiku, readers will inevitably be drawn to – and re-live – their own absurd-but-not-absurd-at-the-time sexual memories (avocado-based or not).

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What these haiku do very well is capture the absurdity of both sex and love.

In turns moving, funny, grotesque, romantic, filthy, and, yes, sexy, Sexy Haiku delivers on its essential promise of providing readers with a poetically erotic journey through the nuances of love. This is not to say that every haiku in the collection will be to each and every reader’s tastes; but that, when looked at together and taken as a whole, each fits together with the others in a way that complements them and brings new and added meaning. In this way, this is a book that can be read and re-read over and over – because it is that rarity in books these days in that every time you return to its pages you uncover new meaning, and find something new to enjoy and appreciate. This makes Sexy Haiku the perfect addition to any bookshelf.

“What do you like?” the first haiku in this collection asks us.

“This,” we might reply. “This is very good.”

 

Purchase Sexy Haiku from Freight Books here:  https://www.freightbooks.co.uk/product/sexy-haiku/  

Book Review: The Woman in the Water

 

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This period mystery is set in the mid-eighteenth century; Bath is a fashionable watering place, but hasn’t always been quite as civilized. Beau Nash, master of ceremonies and ‘King of Bath’, the man who made it so, has just died and been buried in a pauper’s grave.

Rich invalids come to sample the curative powers of the hot spring waters, while most of the residents make their living from attending to their needs. Others come to drink, dance, gamble and find themselves a suitable spouse. But beyond the refined balls of the Assembly rooms, there are the poor of Bath, mostly ignored and often exploited, either as servants, labourers quarrying the famous Bath stone, or prostitutes working on grimy Avon Street.

The story follows Lizzie Yeo, a young woman just coming up from being down on her luck, and Jonathan Harding, a clergyman with something of a social conscience. A body is found in the River Avon and both of our leads have their own personal and moral reasons for trying to identify the woman in the water, despite the indifference of the rest of society.

The Amazon description gives a great deal away, including all of Lizzie’s backstory and some events from the last half of the novel. This one is the sort where it helps to be in suspense. Unfortunately, the authors do not always reveal things as dramatically as they might, given you already know them from the Amazon spiel.

The setting is an interesting one, but might have added interest if you have lived in or visited Bath, or perhaps know it from descriptions of it in its Regency pomp. There is no shortage of period detail. The two characters give a dual perspective on the lives of the wealthy and privileged on the one hand and the less fortunate, as well as the double standards that exist for men and woman, rich and poor.  The battle to remain ‘respectable’ is also a feature – even when Harding performs a charitable act for a young woman, rumours begin to circulate about his character. Lizzie has it much worse, as her past misfortunes and the things she has had to do in her poverty are condemned by society. It passes the Bechdel test with ease, as it is a novel where a female protagonist investigates the death of a woman.

However, It is not without weaknesses. The red herrings are disposed of in a summary manner, leaving the last section of the book as a confirmation of the inevitable. Having said that, this is done in an exciting way up until the last page, although the mystery is over. Occasionally the book feels the need to spell things out more than is necessary.

I don’t want to sound too negative about what is an entertaining mystery novel, set in a period that does not get the attention that later periods do. The authors, Will and Sheila Barton, have an obvious knack for writing in this genre, and future novels starring Lizzie and Harding seem probable – if so the series may well hit its stride later.

 

The Woman in the Water is now available on Amazon: 

About the reviewer

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Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

The Waves Burn Bright – Book Review

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There should be a critical term for a book that you can’t stop reading; but also makes you stop and think. One that is both page-turner and intellectually stimulating, politically active and engaging. Reading The Waves Burn Bright – the latest novel by Scottish author Iain Maloney – takes you on one of those rare, utterly enjoyable literary experiences where you find yourself disappointed to have to close its pages (to change trains on the commute to work; or because it’s three in the morning and you’ve been reading avidly on your sofa having come in late from a day in the office/football practice/drinks/boozy dinner – delete as appropriate – and you realise there is a real chance you might not sleep at all if you don’t force the pages of this book closed).

Even with its pages closed, it is a book that stays with you. You will find yourself musing on its action, pondering the motives of the characters, and re-imagining the events described in the hours between reading. Indeed, there are certain passages that are so vividly described, so moving and intense, that they will remain with you long after you have come to the end of the book. For instance, as we follow the principle protagonist of the novel, Carrie Fraser, experience the traumatic evening of July 6th 1988 – the night of the Piper Alpha oil disaster, in the terror-gripped hospital waiting room, the emotional impact is frighteningly real.

It is, of course, nigh impossible to truly imagine the feelings of the families that were forced to wait in those sterile hospital walls waiting for news from the oil rig that night; nor of the men aboard the Piper Alpha itself. A disaster of such scales is rarely possible to contemplate; but less to write about effectively. As Kurt Vonnegut notes in Slaughterhouse 5, there can sometimes be an expectation that it is easy to write about these types of events (in Vonnegut’s case, the destruction of Dresden), because “you only have to write about what you saw”. Of course, the reality is quite the opposite, and so it is a sign of Maloney’s considerable writing skill that he is able to not only recreate and describe the night on the oil rig (brought to life through the eyes of Carrie’s father, Marcus), but also able to capture the raw emotional impact that the Piper Alpha disaster had – not just for the men and their families immediately involved, but also of the wider Aberdeen community.

This manifests itself – at times – as righteous anger in the writing. The bitterness, for instance, carried in Marcus’s remarks as he recalls: “nobody cared about safety standards” – or the revelations Carrie discovers for herself: “decisions about safety, budgets, cuts, were made onshore by people who would never be put in danger.” This, of course, is the natural reaction to events that expose – ultimately – the failures of the modern neoliberal capitalist model, where profits are placed above people, and regulations stripped away. Here, The Waves Burn Bright places the blame for the disaster squarely and quite fairly at the door of the oil industry – but without the need to create moustache-twiddling villains of the oil company executives themselves.

Of course, this is not just a book about the Piper Alpha disaster – thematically and narratively, The Waves Burn Bright touches upon numerous different elements and dimensions. Carrie’s world-traveller life post university, Marcus’s alcoholism, gender roles and sexuality, questions of reality, of how we derive meaning from life. Are adventures good for us or do they just wreck our lives? Does travelling the world make you a cultured adventurer, or just a way of avoiding coming home, of addressing feelings we rather would avoid or ignore?

These are questions that are not necessarily met with answers in the book. This is a relief, for there is often a tendency in modern writing to lay it all out there for the reader – as though we wouldn’t be able to bring our ideas to the table otherwise (which ultimately is surely against the very nature of literature, reading and writing). Indeed, Maloney’s real strengths as a writer is that he doesn’t fill in just for the sake of it. There is a Hemingway-esque brevity to many of his sentences; particularly in the passages describing the night of the Piper Alpha disaster itself, as well as in other pivotal narrative moments, such as during Carrie’s visit to the Sakurajima volcano in Japan. This style ensures it is the reader who fills in the gaps – and our mind runs along the same thought patterns of Maloney’s protagonists. This creates a liberating sense of openness and inclusivity – which is surely a key reason why reading The Waves Burn Bright is such a pleasure.

 

Book review – F(r)iction, issue 4

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F(r)iction (4)  is the latest anthology from literary publisher Tethered by Letters. This is an important point to make because neither F(r)iction, nor Tethered by Letters, are quite like any anthology or literary publisher you’re likely to come across. The publisher doesn’t just print books – it is also an excellent resource for writers of all stripes, offering invaluable insight into the trade of authorship, as well as into the fascinating world of literature and the publishing scene in general. It’s no surprise that an organisation clearly unafraid to push the boundaries of literature and explore new possibilities of the written word have produced such an interesting book.

Simply put, F(r)iction is a stunning, visually and intellectually inspiring book to pick up. The illustrations that run throughout its pages are truly brilliant works of art – and all of these complement the pieces of writing they sit among, while also telling their own tales, in a wide variety of artistic styles.

As with all anthologies, there will be pieces of writing that one is drawn to more than others. It is therefore fortunate that the standard of writing throughout the anthology is so high; and that any preference between pieces comes down to a matter of taste, rather than negative criticism of one story or other.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s On the 100th Anniversary of Mary’s death is certainly one story that deserves special mention. While the fact that the story is cut out into shards and pieces runs the risk that some may see it as a simple formatting gimmick, the writing itself is so tight and crisp that evidence of a very real writerly talent is clearly on show. Intriguing and captivating throughout, with subtle shifts in emphasis and tone keep the reader entrapped in an quasi-mystical relationship with the words on the page. Certain extracts, also, leap out at you:

“Instead, we ate cheese on crackers and drank Australian Shiraz from clear plastic cups in the foyer. Instead, we made visors of our hands to shield the glare of fluorescents reflected in Mary’s blown-up stills: snapshots of stairs cut into the stone of a mountain, Nepalese children beaming and bedraggled before a straw hut, a shaman naked in dreads on a wheel of stone. No, She did not strain her eyes at us from her portraits. No, the hallway fluorescents did not shiver and blink. Her sisters stood awkwardly by the exit door. Strangers shuffled past with their refreshments. No one paused to question the light.”

And the cumulative effect of the scattered narrative is of having spent the day watching a combination of Adam Curtis documentaries and Alfred Hitchcock movies (which can only ever be seen as a good thing).

Follow the leader, a comic-book styled narrative from Jonas McCluggage, is another arresting piece from this overwhelmingly enjoyable collection. Aside from the graphic illustration, which is superb, the story the words and images combine to tell is both disturbing and compelling, as we are drawn into a hunt not only trying to discover the reality behind the mysterious opening section, and the so-called ‘cult’ that has taken over the otherwise peaceful American town of Larranceville, but also into an exploration of mortality – and of the human condition. Quite a feat for a short comic.

But it is not for us to review and comment on every piece in this anthology. The marriage between narrative forms – including fiction, comic book and poetry – as well as between new writers and voices, throws (as all marriages tend to do) curve balls at the reader as we move from one piece to the next. But it never feels jarring, and it never feels forced. Indeed, as is perhaps the ideal for all marriages; F(r)iction has a remarkable habit for only ever throwing up pleasant surprises. And, underneath it all, it burns with a true passion for literature, for the written word, and, most importantly of all: for new ideas – which are so often lacking in contemporary publishing. A must read.

To purchase a copy of F(r)iction, please click here.

 

Book review: What A Way To Go, by Julia Forster

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In many ways, the 1980s can be seen as one of the most pivotal decades in British history since the second world war. Accompanying the rise of the city and the collapse of the Fordist, Keynesian consensus, were cultural changes that embedded themselves in Britain through the booming entertainment industry. This is the decade of Madonna; Back to the Future; Boy George; Prince; The Return of the Jedi; Michael Jackson; and Top Gun, just as much it is the decade of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pinochet, credit crunches and miner’s strikes.

Yet just because a decade is important does not mean it is easy to bring to life. And this is part of what makes Julia Forster’s debut novel, What A Way To Go, so impressive: because Forster doesn’t simply recreate the 1980s: she makes it dance.

What A Way To Go is the story of twelve-year-old Harper Richardson – and it is through Harper’s eyes that we are transported back to the era of Bananarama, neon trousers and the gradual decline of the unions.

As you might expect from a novel following the life of a twelve-year old, this is, essentially, a coming of age story. Living two distinct, separate lives, Harper divides herself into “two cut-out versions” of herself: “one for each parent”. It’s an intriguing and – to anyone who has been a child of divorce – instantly recognisable concept. It is a sure sign of a novelist in possession of clear literary talent that Forster is able to create such an emotional connection between the reader, her characters, and the text itself.

When writing in the first person from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of puberty, it is crucial that the world we as readers experience, and the characters we meet, ring true. And the real skill Forster shows is her ability to render this work of fiction as incredibly authentic. This is not simply through Harper’s consistent voice; but also in the way she and other characters in the novel interact and adapt to the world around them.

Indeed, the dialogue between characters, also, runs extremely true – and is often delightfully surprising and funny. And this fills in the world – and the characters – which is complemented by scenes that feel thoroughly drawn from real, lived experiences: Harper watches Top of the Pops every Thursday; and has her hair cut while Cilla Black’s Blind Date plays on the television in the background.

Because the novel feels so real, as readers we quickly slip into uncovering some of the underlying themes of this marvellously witty and insightful book. Family, of course, looms large, as Harper feels compelled to attempt to bring her parents back together. And through the prism of divorce we can see mirrored the splintering divide that – from the 1980s onwards – has come to separate British society, as inequalities widen and social attitudes diverge.

It’s also a novel about women. Harper’s mother, perfumed and chain-smoking, signs up to credit cards in order to keep a healthy stock of high heeled shoes. Harper, thinking that “buying high heeled shoes is an illness” is demonstrably unlike her mother. She visits graveyards with her father and is interested in the Socialist Worker magazine. Perhaps sensing this difference, her mother repeatedly encourages Harper to be “more feminine”. It is this question of womanhood – of what it means to be a woman – that ultimately sits at the heart of the novel. And it is therefore that much more intriguing to have the spectral figure of Margaret Thatcher looming large in the backdrop. Britain’s first – and, at this time of writing, only – female Prime Minister notoriously hated feminists and feminism; a curious figurehead indeed for any young girl to encounter on her journey to adulthood.

Forster addresses these themes and ideas incredibly well, with controlled, tight language and astute observations, alongside slight asides and allusions the reader is able to pick up on themselves.

This makes What A Way To Go far more than an enjoyable coming-of-age story. It’s also a showcase of writerly talent that is a joy to experience; and, what’s more, it is an extremely valuable and important book through which we can better understand Britain of the 1980s – and the Britain of today.

 

To purchase What a Way to Govisit https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1782397523/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i2_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0J8NWC2D9RANBKKCY5QB&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=26de8ef0-2ad7-412c-8634-6cd03b7b73e2&pf_rd_i=desktop

Book Review: Kingdom by Russ Litten

 

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Kingdom is written by Russ Litten and published by Wrecking Ball Press. You can read our extensive interview with Litten here

Few books will capture your attention from the first page as Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Indeed, the quasi-surrealist opening scene in an unknown prison library is perhaps the most interesting and unique introduction to a novel that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have read all year.

Of course, many novels start extremely well – explosively well, even – only to lose some of their initial spark and magic as the plot progresses. And while in this case the plot does settle down, it retains that opening magic for the entirety of the book.

While the action of the plot may be light on significant moments of incident (this is about gradual exploration of both the world and the self – more so than driving the narrative on through event after event), Litten’s style is infectious. And when you read writing as crisp and as fast as this, it is difficult not to turn page after page with a broad smile on your face.

Described on paper as a ghost story, this is unlike any ghost story you’ll have read before – and that’s a declarative statement we’re happy to be challenged on. More than anything, the book is a reflection on – and an exploration of – what it means to be alive (or not) in 21st Century Britain.

Indeed, what Litten explores, with gripping clarity, is a reality left unseen and marginalised in the national consciousness. As with works such as Alisdair Gray’s Lanark or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Litten vividly paints a picture of working class inner city life with concision, but also sensitivity and charm.

In the context of modern Britain, Litten thus explores the legacy of neoliberalism – which leaves us with a country of burgeoning inequality, stripping assets from the poorest and most vulnerable to redistribute them to the wealthiest in society. But we can all read statistics about income gaps, zero hour contracts and housing and rental crises; what is more difficult is imagining the realities these statistics infer for those people most affected by them. And this is where Litten’s remarkable writing skills truly enter the fray, because this book is not cold in the way facts, figures and statistics – or even political theory and rhetoric – so often is. It is rich, and warm – with a underlying, constant beating thread of humour which is both grim and good. And there are moments that will also hit you in the lungs and take your breath away.

Indeed, it is a hard task to think of a more sympathetic character than the novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom. Considering Kingdom is self-described as having been “born a ghost”, creating such a compelling and fleshed out (pun intended) character from a ghost is quite some feat. And when Kingdom falls in love with another of the book’s great characters – Gemma – it pulls at the soul in a way few other love stories manage.

A clear reason Litten’s characters – especially Kingdom – seem to grow out of the page, is Litten’s use of language. For this is the language of real people.

For want of a better term, one might describe the changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leaves sentences unfinished and thoughts left unsaid – as well as the use of expletives – as “non-standard English”. But there is hesitation in using such a term since there is surely no “right” or “wrong” way to speak.

Indeed, using language in the way Litten does strikes the reader very much a political decision. Since Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1748, there has been a conscious effort to standardize the English language; cultivating what Smith viewed as “the most imperfect” dialects found across the United Kingdom.

But what this standardization of language has meant is the obliteration of entire cultures and communities. Thousands of voices silenced, or pushed to the margins, seen as inherently other – as being beneath those who hold the power of “perfect” speech.

And when you take away an individual’s language, you also remove their heritage, their culture. Consider the words of Booker-Prize winning author James Kelman:

“Everybody from a working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain  none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling  unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero, whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”

By using language and accurate representations of working class, urban dialects, Litten thus presents us with a challenge to the status quo. Kingdom therefore provides us with a glimpse of the real United Kingdom that is so often otherwise ignored. An extremely timely and necessary book.

 

Book Review: The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves

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An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models. Will Eaves’s latest book, The Inevitable Gift Shop, is an example of this movement displayed in written form. We may call it a book at first mention, rather than a novel or a collection of poetry, because really this is simultaneously both of these things, and at the same time, something else and something new entirely. A combination of prose, poetry, literary critique and philosophy, it is collage, it is memoir, it is anything and everything that you want it to be. If there were rules to writing – which there aren’t (probably) – this book is rewriting them.

While mainstream publishing continues down a well-trodden but not exactly adventurous path – Julian Barnes suggests in an interview with the Paris Review there is little objective beyond “publishing copies of novels that are copies of commercially successful novels” – Eaves is cutting an entirely new path, machete in hand, through bush, briar and jungle into uncharted artistic territory.

So what does this new territory look like? In one word – episodic. In sections ranging in length from a single line to two or three pages, are contained mini-narratives and episodes, which sit alongside poems, and abstract thoughts and expressions of ideas. For instance, here runs a complete section early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“The novel is the autobiography of the imagination”

Such lines make us question whether we feel we are reading a novel; an autobiography or, perhaps most intriguingly of all – an accurate representation of creative imagination.

Imagination, after all – and, indeed, so many of our thoughts and ideas – does not run in linear patterns. Rather, it comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennet notes in Consciousness Explained:

“While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.”

Traditional forms of fiction, therefore, do not to justice to the reality of the human mind. Conventional fiction teaches us that life and our thoughts are coherent – they are linear and whole, neat and wrapped up. When the truth of the matter is quite the opposite; our lives, and our ideas, are fragments, and we stumble upon them as though they were bright splinters.

Eaves’s previous book – The Absent Therapist­ – worked within a similar form and structure. It brought together a succession of mini narratives, and a multitude of different characters and protagonists. In The Inevitable Gift Shop, we are again introduced to different characters, but more than anything, the protagonists in this book are ideas. We might call The Inevitable Gift Shop collage – a collage of the ideas that are created within the human imagination.

What’s fascinating about works of collage in literature, where short paragraphs and vignettes are brought together as a collection of fragments to create a whole – alongside Eaves’s latest two books, think Reality Hunger by David Shields or What I heard about Iraq by Eliot Weinberger – is the exciting sense of newness contained within them. In Reality Hunger, Shields contests that neither fiction nor non-fiction, in their current forms and structures, adequately meet the needs of the 21st Century reader. And in this new structure we see again here in The Inevitable Gift Shop, we perhaps see a possible alternative model for writing and literature. This is something Eaves touches upon early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“A literary convention is a retrospective abstraction. It exists only in relation to the experiment or the revolution that overturns it. It doesn’t exist until someone does something new and you see how far you’ve come. Form and content, in other words. There is a widespread misconception about form, as the poet Elizabeth Jennings once pointed out: it is not a jelly mould into which one pours content. Rather, the two things are co-eval. Form will arise to express content, and the established forms (sonnets, novels, collage) are those that, like an evolutionary convergent body shape, have by long trial shown themselves to be optimally expressive.”

The novel and the sonnet have been with us now for centuries, with precious few innovations in form and structure between their invention and now. Collage has been with us since the 20th Century and has largely existed within visual media – art, montage in cinema. The marriage between collage and the novel (and indeed poetic forms) as displayed here is perhaps the beginning of a new revolution that overturns previous literary conventions. The question one might rightly ask when you see how well books like The Inevitable Gift Shop work is, “well, what’s taken so long?” It feels as though the book almost proves that the narratives we are accustomed to are long overdue a makeover.

In Self Help, Lorrie Moore wrote that “plots are for dead people” – the traditional narrative format and structure cannot serve the living. Eaves breaks apart the traditional model for something far more engaging; and far more alive. The poetry is, at times, penetratingly devastating simply for the real, life-lived truth it exposes – consider the line from The Crossings, for instance: “you choose a friend for life as you might choose a seat”. While the prose moves you, as you read it, through ideas and emotions, asking you to seek out new ways of looking at the world.

You can recognise good art and good writing if it surprises you. And, boy, can this book surprise you. Just as you are critiquing Shakespeare’s 37th Sonnet, a line of pure magic – “I eat fish with a clear conscious because they neglect their young” – will fly out and catch you off guard, shifting the tone in an exhilarating rush.

The structure of Eaves’s novel allows readers to pull away from notions of narrative as an important – or indeed central – part of any story or essay. This is important, because it allows us to move toward contemplation, and is more conducive to helping us expand our own understanding of both the ideas contained within the book, and the thoughts and ideas they inspire within us as we read.

Consider, for instance, Eaves’s skilful and fascinating literary critiques and analysis – present throughout the book in analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also Madame Bovary, and indeed the works of other literary critics. One of the longest sections in the book focuses on William Golding’s The Inheritors – a brilliant novel in its own right – and Eaves guides us through Golding’s book, its plot and themes, and leaves us considering not only the novel; but “the whole of human history” – a concept so brilliantly large and fascinating in itself that we immediately find our imaginations stirred, our horizons widened.

The writing is sharp and fresh, and the work as a whole is inquisitive, analytical, contemplative; significant. Subtitled “A memoir by other means”, there is something incredibly personal about the book, which is surely appropriate for a memoir, and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Frequently hilarious– “really what tortoises teach you about is abusive relationships” – there is almost a cinematic element. Both through the vivid descriptions of the natural and man-made world, and also in the way the collage effect feels not unlike a visual montage; whereby overall meaning is not to be found in any one section or episode but instead created by the juxtaposition of each of the different fragments and bits and pieces intercut together. Of course, while a viewer’s relationship with a montage is relatively binary – you watch the images on a screen in front of you – the reader’s relationship with The Inevitable Gift Shop is far more interesting. It’s interactive. By picking through the options, it’s possible to arrange the overarching narrative in different ways; and to find new meanings contained within it.

It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read – and then re-read again; both front to back, back to front, and in all other manner of combinations. The perfect book to revisit.

Book Review: River of Ink by Paul M.M Cooper

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At a time when the world seems at times to be descending into chaos, and with writers, artists and activists imprisoned, and persecuted, a story about a poet whose written words change the world and fight injustice is exactly what the doctor ordered. It was a real treat, therefore, to review River of Ink, the new novel by British author Paul Cooper.

Within this novel, mediaeval Sri Lanka is vivified – it lifts itself from the pages and chapters and engulfs you, utterly and completely, in the real, lived intricacies and complexities of the mysterious and intriguing world Cooper weaves for us. It is a world of steaming jungles and dust-covered streets, of stamped okra fingers and pink rambutan skins and, of course, of spat betel juice – a continuous feature of this world we encounter again and again, until we start looking for it in our own homes and streets.

Asanka’s world becomes familiar for us, in this way, yet this does not hinder our ability to be surprised by the things we see and the characters we encounter: Sarisi, Asanka’s mistress, whose own story and thoughts intrigue us right to the end of the book and beyond; King Magha, the tyrant king who is not entirely unlikeable, even if he does have a touch of Hitler or Pinochet about him; the Queen of Polnnaruwa who we, like Asanka, underestimate.

As the story twists and turns, the shifting literary world we encounter seems to move as we move, and the language lifts it up – bringing us both beautiful and terrible things, fear and hope, anger and hate; but most of all love. In some novels, the use of similes can be distracting; but here each one seems to fit and compliment – rather than detract from – the story itself and the language used. Cooper’s description of an ancient tome of the Shishupala Vadha as sitting on a table “like a blood fat tick”, for instance, reminds us how similes, when used properly, can present us with new ways of looking at things in the world – and the world itself, which we never otherwise would see.

There is also something about the way Cooper presents us with the thought processes of Asanka that suggests a writer of clear skill and ability. For the court poet is so clearly humanised by his clear faults, as well as his virtues. We will Asanka to show more courage – every time he is summoned to speak with the cruel King Magha he immediately fears the worst, and is reduced to internalised pleading and reasoning – yet know in our hearts that the fear he has is our own. This presents us with a psychological cohesion that is all the more important when you’re telling a story that treads the balance between madness and sanity, in which characters are exposed to gruelling mental stresses and tensions that could so easily break them.

Part of Cooper’s success here is undoubtedly down to the language used, and the rhythms within each of Asanka’s internalised thoughts – as well as the vivid descriptions of the world and landscape around him. Surprising twists in the shape and structure of the novel as a whole – for instance, the use of poetry, as well as longer interjections of separate narratives from a mysterious other source – give you the feeling that the very book you are holding is alive in a way that is both beautiful and unsettling, as though the story had its own consciousness and self-awareness.