A Portable Shelter – Kirsty Logan

Hardback: 192 pages Published: 10th August 2015, Association for Scottish Literary Studies

Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers is easily one of my favourite books of the year so far. This limited release hardback edition of Logan’s new short story collection was an instant purchase (the paperback is apparently released next year from Vintage, so if you haven’t been able to find a copy in a bookshop, have no fear). There are varying types of short story collections, many are an amalgam of writings the author has spread around in various publications and brought together; some have a unifying theme or exploratory message linking the stories despite transcending through diverse characters and experiences. A Portable Shelter is a personal piece of writing from Logan, and takes one of the more interesting and unique forms of short stories by creating a frame narrative of two women telling their soon-to-born child a story each night.

Similarly to The Gracekeepers, Logan’s lyrical prose dripping with Scottish mythology and truthfully brutal and beautiful characters is demonstrated wonderfully once again. The thirteen stories weave their way through fantastical, mythological and fundamentally dark places fueled with love, murder, beating hearts and lashings of psychological trauma. The characters we meet, from a young man’s resilience to narrating his own disturbed life in ‘Ex-‘ and an incredibly dark and frighteningly damaged wife of a fisherman in ‘The Perfect Wife’, are all fearful, brave, outcast, threatened and human. These two particular stories I’ve highlighted follow each other in the collection and signaled a reaction from me to put the book down for the night; they were uncomfortable and challenging. It’s a testament to the author’s prose that you can draw the reader into a place we may not be comfortable with and balance them together with the other tales in a satisfying way.

It is also a sign of the quality of the collection that I could easily talk about each individual story in detail, but reviewing short story collections is a difficult challenge without spoiling the events and, more importantly in my opinion, the tone and experience of each tale. A few of the stories directly quote the title of the collection, A Portable Shelter, but utilising it in unique contexts. While reading the stories I couldn’t help but consider why Logan had chosen the title to speak for the collection; it is a fantastically open and vivid phrase. The recurring image of the pregnant mother, transforming an adult woman into their child’s very own portable shelter, carrying them throughout a long period of their lives to bring them into the world. The literal portable shelter of a Bluebeard’s caravan in ‘The Keep’, a fisherman’s boat protecting it’s owner alone on the cold sea. And in the perfect conclusion, the final story ‘The Ghost Club’ portrays the very human desires, fears and demons we carry around with us in our daily lives, ourselves our own portable shelter from the outside world and the losses that may occur.

This is a clearly very personal collection from Logan, and we are fortunate she has shared it with us. The cover is gorgeous too.

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol 2: Fandemonium by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Wilson & Cowles

Every ninety years twelve Gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead. It’s happening now. It’s happening again.

If you haven’t read the first volume, The Faust Act, there are no spoilers in here from me, apart from recommending you read both immediately.

Paperback: 168 pages Published: 1st July 2015, Image Comics

Volume 2 is the continuing story of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s parable on the culture of these 21st century God’s of music, following seventeen and ¾ year old Laura’s sudden rise to fame, and the power and corruption of fandom. Collecting issues 6-11 the vibrant colours, ethereal gorgeous young Gods and their devoted cult followers transcend into a more developed study on the implications of ‘Fandemonium’. With more of the pantheon introduced the pages breeze past in a visual and structural catharsis for the eyes, with Gillen’s focus on the God’s flock of fans McKelvie’s art takes a noticeable leap in the experimental splash pages. The previous issues contained this as well of course, the bright coloured numbered panels shooting themselves across the page in the middle of a rave.

Almost every issue in this collection contains a stunning splash of inventive storytelling with the medium, not only is this comic a prime example of a fantastic and entertaining story embracing modernity, but also demonstrates the key relationship between the writer and artist of a comic, and just how vital an element it is, often ignored by many in reviews and the media. The pace increases in these issues, we are provided more background of the nature of the existence of these doomed to die young Gods, more sex, divine states of timeless raving and plenty of hedonistic violence with just a click of the fingers. Gillen is also clearly revelling in the twists and strings he can pull with these young characters, and when you close the final page of this collected trade it’s not just the God’s who are tangled up in their fate to die.

I doubt there is a more brightly coloured and inventive comic you can read at the moment. Dive onto the dancefloor, and make sure you keep your head.

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales – Margaret Atwood (Review)

Kindle Edition: 290 pages Published: 28th August 2014, Bloomsbury.

Nine tales from one of the greatest living writers around; it sells itself regardless of reviews really. Margaret Atwood’s new short story collection opens with a recently widowed author of a popular schlocky fantasy series being guided by her dead husband’s voice in her head in a wintry storm. This establishing story immediately demonstrates Atwood’s typically remarkable prose, brimming with intelligence, unique language and strength in her characters. The group of stories examine writers, growing old and the relationships that can suffer from the past sins and sufferings of the characters. A fantastic murder story from a woman taking revenge on a high school boy who abused her is an example of Atwood’s chilling and dark sense of humour, in some ways echoing Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. Yet it is perhaps the concluding story that is the most chilling, interesting and demonstrable of Atwood’s power of speculative prose. The brilliantly named ‘Torching the Dusties’ paints the frustrating and sympathetic life of a sufferer of Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, residing in a retirement home the story slowly builds to a fantastically menacing, and incredibly dark place. A group of extravagantly clad younger people begin to camp and protest outside the narrator’s facility, cherubic baby masks covering their faces, “It’s our turn, time to go” they declare in a mantra. In a neighbouring old people’s home burns to the ground, the residents dying in the blaze, and the group claims responsibility. It’s a unique and fascinating look at the ‘problem’ with aging and our cultures relationship with the increasing lengths of lives we are capable of now. It reminded me of a BBC piece on Japanese culture being ‘absent of the sin of suicide’ with supposedly many elderly individuals taking it upon themselves to rid their relatives from taking care of their needs, feeling it is their ‘duty’ to not be a burden. From this you can follow the path to the passionately debated topic of Assisted Suicide, campaigned for by sufferers of diseases such as the great and dearly departed Terry Pratchett as well as Tony Nicklinson and many others arguing for a cultural compassion.

While reading the concluding tale I wondered if this could have been a fascinating introduction to a much larger story, perhaps even a novel by Atwood. The themes are certainly in focus within our culture at the moment and the writing was dark and engaging; but this is part of the double edged art of the short story. We are provided with such a unique and fascinating world, framed in a small structural setting that will leave us tantalised for more, but emotionally satisfied with what we were given. Atwood proves with this collection that she is as comfortable in this form as the celebrated writers of short fiction, enjoyable and definitely worth the time.

Best Books of the Year (So far) – August 2015

THROUGH THE WOODS/Emily Carroll

Hardcover: 208 pages Published: 3rd July 2014, Faber & Faber

The first graphic novel I read this year back in January, in an old fashioned way I bought it simply for its gorgeous cover and minimalist art merging black and whites with stark blood reds and blues. A fairy tale blurb of stories lured me in; “a Victorian gothic playground haunted by Mary Shelley & Edward Gorey” (Craig Thompson). I had not heard of Carroll before and she’s produced a book of genuinely creepy and gothic stories with as much skill and ingenuity as the best fairy tales Angela Carter produced. It is also easily one of the prettiest and visually beautiful books I now own. The hardcover in particular is a treat.

TIGERMAN/Nick Harkaway

Paperback: 372 pages Published: 22nd May 2014, William Heinemann

A bizarre book, but one that’s hard to forget. Harkaway’s exploration on the perception of heroism and the superheros we idealize in our culture. It is a deft handling of numerous ‘big’ ideas through an unconventional setting and an odd relationship between a lonely ex-soldier and a young comic-book-21st-century obsessed teenager. A completely original tale of a desperate man taking a mantle of a mythical superhuman, I doubt you could find a story like it.

COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI & HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE/Haruki Murakami

As an ashamed but thrilled late convert to the church of the cult of Murakami this was the first novel of his I read. A lonely university student suddenly and mysteriously cast aside by his once tight knit group of friends years later explores why this abandonment occurred. The eponymous narrator is an occasionally sympathetic, often frustrating and maddening but an intriguing voice delivered by Murakami in a vast array of themes and questions worth asking. It is a superbly philosophical novel without ever feeling dry or dragging through worthy musings. Yet I still take issue with the central reason of the abandonment by his friends, it felt wrong in a way. I wonder if it would have a different conclusion if written by a female author.

STATION ELEVEN/Emily St. John Mandel

Paperback: 333 pages Published: 1st January 2015, Picador.

I will be incredibly fortunate if I read a better science fiction book this year than Station Eleven, or even a better novel about the post-apocalypse. It’s hard to know where to begin, Mandel produces lyrical prose and emotional depth into an incredibly human story. Intelligence exudes itself from the pages, it’s considerations on our contemporary world; a mature and logical portrait of technology and our relationship and reliance on its power. And perhaps most importantly examines in such a believable way the world as it would really exist after an apocalyptic collapse of society. I am currently making my way through The Walking Dead comic; Station Eleven is a towering achievement of emotional maturity and intelligence on the subject of destroyed social barriers and human desperation in comparison to Kirkman’s comic opus.

Paperback: 372 pages Published: 16th April 2015, Penguin

HOW TO BE BOTH/Ali Smith

How to be Both is a dizzying experience of a novel. The simple structural technique of alternating which story goes first depending on which copy you choose would appear as if Ali Smith is revelling in postmodernist gimmicks, and would become swamped with the sheer amount of ideas and themes jumping around the book resulting in a piece of experimental self-indulgence. But this book is written by Ali Smith. After finishing How to Be Both you are left with an incredibly touching and fundamentally human story of two lives connected and shared throughout existence. It is staggering that Smith has achieved writing a novel mixing emotional ruminating from both motherless protagonists, philosophical exploration, and the joy of language, art and literature.

Paperback: 300 pages Published: 26th February 2015, Vintage.

H IS FOR HAWK/Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, a nature lover and hawk obsessive she buys a goshawk and brings us into her journey of training him. Mirroring her own experiences with the frustrating and maddening figure of T.H. White and his own journey of training a goshawk the book is an emotional, incredibly honest and heartfelt depiction of dealing with grief and the love of nature. Macdonald’s words flow easily through the English countryside, delving into the complexities of our relationship with the land around us and the animals that inhabit it. This book surprised me at just how much impact Macdonald created from her account of training Mabel the Goshawk, and how invested I was in both succeeding with their happiness. I could easily write a whole dissertation about this book, and I’m sure many will.

Hardback: 293 pages Published: 23rd April 2015, Harvill Secker.

THE GRACEKEEPERS/Kirsty Logan

This under 300 page tale from Kirsty Logan, her first novel and second publication after her debut short story collection ‘The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales’ (instantly added to my TBR list along with her new limited release ‘A Portable Shelter’) shot its way to becoming my favourite fantasy novel of the year. A lyrically beautiful story of two young women attempting to find one another from a spark of a connection neither have felt before on an Earth consumed by water. I sped my way through the novel and loved every second, the secondary characters were simply and deftly drawn and the protagonists of North and Callanish are my favourite fantasy characters this year. I will now read everything and anything Logan writes.

Paperback: 223 pages Published: 2nd July 2015, Vintage.

THUNDERSTRUCK & OTHER STORIES/Elizabeth McCracken

I hold this book with the responsibility for persuading me to read more short stories this year, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. It’s hard to review McCracken’s collection, I would advise to pick it up and read the opening story ‘Something Amazing’ and revel in it’s uncanny uniqueness, violent language and incredibly dark themes. Once you’ve consumed it the images McCracken paints will be tattooed onto your eyelids. And it summarizes the collection nicely.

THE MINIATURIST/Jessie Burton

Paperback: 438 pages Published: 3rd July 2015, Picador.

A suspenseful and thrilling mystery from debut author Jessie Burton, a bold debut echoing the gothic and tonal sensibilities of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. As well as being very readable it is in it’s conclusion a sad indictment of living as an outcast in the 17th Century. The character of Marin was a particular standout and brilliantly written, if she and her brother aren’t your lasting memories of the book by it’s conclusion I would wonder if you have read the same book as me.

SAGA: BOOK ONE/Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Hardback: 504 pages Published: 25th November 2014, Image Comics

I have read many brilliant comics so far this year, but none stand out quite like Saga. As the title declares, it’s a sci-fi epic spanning a war between two races occupying neighbouring planets, and a Romeo & Juliet love story between the parents of our narrator. But it transcends this synopsis spectacularly; an epic filled with brilliant characters, hilarious dialogue, and an
emotionally wrought and honest depiction of lovers and war. The central flowing theme is parenthood, if you’re a parent I expect you’ll be left with an aching sensation in your chest. If you happen to have a parent in some form you’ll feel the honesty too. I could go on about the art from Staples, every panel is richly coloured and drawn, beautiful landscapes, features and costumes in a bizarre and mad world. It must be read.

Honourable Mentions:

Paperback: 298 pages Published: 2nd July 2015, Vintage.

STONE MATTRESS: NINE TALES/Margaret Atwood

HALF THE WORLD/Joe Abercrombie

NORTHERN LIGHTS/Philip Pullman

ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE/Robin Hobb