Ravenous Colour: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

We will begin at the beginning of the end.  This was Xiaolu Guo’s first novel to be published in her native Chinese, reviewing it years later for translation into English she confessed several problems in the acknowledgements:

Paperback: 208 pages Published: 1st January 2009, Vintage.

“The first was the language. The translation needed to capture the speech of a young Chinese girl who lives a chaotic life and speaks in slangy, raw Chinese. The second obstacle was that I was no longer completely happy with the original Chinese text.

Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China. I wanted to re-work each sentence of my Chinese book, and fight with its author who knew so little about the world.” 

It is a uniquely honest portrait of the struggles of developing as a writer, and the complex world of translation that can also precede it if you are a non-English speaker. Guo’s first attempt at the story of Fenfang’s chaotic young life in China’s largest city may have left the author reeling in her self-confessed naiveté, but thankfully her re-written English translation is refreshing, bright and blunt in its brilliance.

Guo’s heroine Fenfang is disillusioned with the world, desperate to escape her stagnant rural life she flees to the mad jungle of Beijing at seventeen years old. Over 20 ‘Fragments’ of Fenfang’s life Xiaolu Guo paints the perilous and confusing journey of adulthood and a bright-young-thing desire. I enjoyed it immensely, a fantastically easy read that is vibrant in its language and powerful in its imagery of a poor Chinese life at the millennium. Most significantly a poor female life. The frustrating and restricted expectations placed on Fenfang is slid subtly into the fragments by Guo, the lonely separation resulting from her heroine’s misfortune and unsatisfying jobs.

Fenfang is a brilliant creation, a bold honest voice in a noisy world. Xaiolu Guo is a writer I’ve wanted to dip into for a while now, and I look forward to reading the more popular works, last years I Am China and The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. The book itself also clearly demonstrates Xiaolu Guo’s sharp examination on the Chinese life, its citizens and how it is perceived and treats outsiders. “China is better at being American than America”

Reflecting on the book I realised Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Vintage Paperback, 2015) by Haruki Murakami would provide an excellent companion piece; a similarly lost young individual portraying their ravenous desires for emotional fulfillment in the messy world, although male and Japanese. Aside from the vast cultural and gender juxtapositions Murakami’s novel paints a significantly more economically comfortable scenario compared to Fenfang’s depressing concrete life of cockroaches, hunger and instant noodles. I am glad I do not act like Fenfang, and yet desperately wish I could be her.

Fenfang, you must look after yourself.


Wytches and Witches

Paperback: 144 pages Published: 24th June 2015, Image Comics

Wytches, Volume One

Scott Snyder (Writer), Jock (Artist), Matt Hollingsworth (Colours), Clem Robins (Letters)

A personal and unique horror comic from the current Batman writer Scott Snyder, with incredible mind altering, horrific and beautiful art from Jock they have produced a very creepy comic well worth the time to pick up. The titular Wytches are quite frankly terrifying creations, they are have little to no relation with any form or incarnation of a Witch you may come across; pointy hats, magic brewing or even spells are entirely absent from this tribe of haunting creatures living in the trees, deformed and twisted faces of distorted muscles and dripping animalistic blurry behaviour are spectral in their fear.

Snyder provides his usual solid plotting, good dialogue and inflections of the personal that so often inhabits his work on Batman, yet Wytches is quite clearly the closest thing he has done to exploring his own emotions and expressions on parenting and the responsibility of growing up and looking after your child. There is certainly potential here for examining the theme of parenthood and children on modern comic production, between this and Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples you would have a solid beginning for analysis.

But I feel it’s the art by Jock that shines in this, it is an artistic display of duality, the covers are alluring and haunting, beautiful and terrifying. The humans have individual nuances and character flairs, painted in a creepy town in a rural setting by a dark dark wood. The pages often drip with colour, specks of paint flicking across the pages of a character’s traumatic discovery or ending. Plus this first volume has a quite rightly celebratory quote from Stephen King himself, which should prove worthy enough to pick it up.

Paperback: 224 pages Published: 14th March 2013, Hammer

The Daylight Gate

Jeanette Winterson

Another Winterson, another batch of witches, this time covering the Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. A fictionalised retelling of a sadly true historical event, Winterson’s bold and brash tale is a harsh portrayal of the blind male hysteria and targeted female outcasts of the witch trials, yet the dark power of the devil is not entirely absent from their dealings. An entertaining read, brief and striking with the themes and actions covered by Winterson, it’s a certainly very different perspective on a witch trial, and the portrayal of perhaps more traditional witches in a poverty stricken landscape of religious manoeuvring. It is clearly not Winterson’s best work, Shakespeare makes a cameo at one point watching a performance of The Tempest, though despite my fears it fortunately does not turn into a 17th century England version of Forest Gump. What is successful is the memorably brutal portrayal of the witches and the sexual power and relationships between the characters, something Winterson is clearly adapt at producing.

Both of these are a far cry from Mildred Hubble and Ethel Hallow however.

The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson

Hardback: 320 pages Published: 1st October 2015, Hogarth.

Shakespeare is adaptation. The works we are left with penned by his hand are such an amalgam of differing versions, edited constructions and second-hand dictation it provides a tricky yet interesting argument that the modern versions of the plays we collect in Oxford, Cambridge or Norton Shakespeare’s aren’t the original exact texts that our greatest playwright/writer constructed himself. Shakespeare’s timeless study on the darkness, ridiculousness, love and tragedy that can inhabit our lives there have been fascinating and varied interpretations of the texts across the hundreds of years of performance. A popular and simple trait of late twentieth and twenty-first century performances has seen adaptations of setting to an alternative culture and time period. Naturally there are varying levels of success with this experiment, from ancient Japan and WWII to contemporary technology. Prince Hamlet would love twitter – #RIPOphelia 😦

To celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary Hogarth have commissioned their top authors to adapt a chosen play to their own narrative story; the first of which is Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a retelling of ‘The Winter’s Tale’. The most popular reaction to this statement I’ve witnessed is to declare no knowledge of that particular play. It is certainly one of the more obscure, lesser taught and performed pieces. This brings an interesting immediate split to the perspective readers of Winterson’s book, those who know the play and have studied it before (though a summary of the original is provided at the beginning of the book which is a useful addition) and those who approach it blind. I am on the former side, having read and studied the play before. It is certainly one of the most psychologically dark, magical and heightened of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The most significant aspect of the play, and the most interesting to my eyes in terms of Winterson’s approach to the piece, is the treatment and portrayal of Leontes. He is a horrifying and disgusting character, certainly one of Shakespeare’s most despicable, yet the fairy tale conclusion to the play – providing Leontes with a debatably deserved/undeserving penitence and forgiveness – can perhaps sit uncomfortably to a modern audience. It certainly does with my own reading of the play, the shadow of the treatment of his wife and son looming large across the resulting lines of the story. Winterson takes a decidedly ambiguous and clever stance with her interpretation. Leo may not be forgiven, but he can find himself healed and saved from damaging others with his rapacious desires.

Winterson also tackles head on the issue surrounding these adaptations, turning a written piece of drama for performance into a prose narrative is an aspect that will be a fascinating element to see from the different authors, and how they interpret this problem. Winterson’s book transcends itself as a novel, layered with the meta-textual; ‘The Winter’s Tale’ itself is directly quoted by a character during this parallel story, all seemingly unaware of the relation, and Jeanette Winterson herself and her works as an author (a printed extract of MiMi’s Wikipedia page states the character had performed in a stage adaptation of a Winterson story). Winterson builds to a personal and meta-textual understanding of the existence of the play’s messages and its deeply flawed characters, culminating in a performance itself.

Winterson is clearly interested in constructed worlds and realities that humans escape into, the songs and dreamlike singing of Hermione (MiMi), the titular video game ‘The Gap of Time’ created by Xeno and the fictional history of Perdita’s heritage by Shep. It is this element that most resonates with the fate of Leontes, should he be forgiven, is he deserving of it? Shakespeare provides us with that ending, and many have interpreted it in a fascinating way – one particular performance emphasised this fantastical ending as Leontes’ mental breakdown, darkness consuming the other actors as they leave him on stage alone and ranting about his happiness. His dead and forgotten young son walking out to his father with a candle as they are encircled in a single light, the ghost blows the flame out and the stage fades to black.

Winterson’s novel is a brilliantly written, very readable, often funny and undoubtedly a Jeanette Winterson study on human grief, jealousy, sexuality and forgiveness. It is a fascinating start to the Hogarth series, and one I will be determined to follow, with Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler yet to come.

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


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


HALF THE WORLD/Joe Abercrombie