All posts by Sarah

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing – Thomas Morris



I’ve never been to Caerphilly, but maybe I should make the effort.  Thomas Morris’ collection of small town stories set in this South Wales town is never going to be  a tourist board advertisement, but Caerphilly’s charms shine through as the constant in each of the tales in his debut; its castle and moat, the park with swans and interloper sea birds, its position in a bowl landscape and surrounding hills, the mining museum up the valley and the Tesco, which if not of interest to visitors is definitely a landmark to the residents and makes a regular appearance.   It’s Morris’ focus on banalities and the ordinariness of his characters’ worries and concerns  that gives this  series of ten venn diagram style stories, where characters pop up again in tales that are not solely theirs, such an authentic feel.

Small town life is like that; every day goings-on peppered with the weird and surreal.  Some of the weird and surreal becomes town gossip for a few days, sometimes it’s just the fears and doubts of the characters themselves as they muse their humdrum existence and ask themselves that universal question; “is this really it?”  But We Don’t Know What We Are Doing isn’t a depressing account of the state of life in towns like Caerphilly.   It is a celebration of the town where Morris was raised, of small moments of joy (the father accompanying his stag son to Dublin and texting his wife reassurance as he tucks up his inebriated child; the mother who manages to engage with a girl who rarely speaks, the two-time widower who is excited to walk out with a possible new love interest), of characters we recognise from our own lives, of issues most of us face day to day.   Yes, there is strangeness in some of the stories, but life is strange  (so too the afterlife featured in the last instalment where characters continue their 2nd life – still in Caerphilly).

This book was a delight.  I devoured it in a couple of sittings.  It made me laugh, it made me wince, I felt sadness and sympathy.  You can’t ask more than that from good fiction, each story a mini piece of pleasure to relish.

Morris is one of a number of writers making waves in short fiction. This collection won Wales Book of the Year 2016.  Other collections to check out are Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins.



Vertigo – Boileau & Narcejac trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury 

A few years ago when my children were much younger and we were too skint and tired to go out much,  we started catching up with classic movies and foreign language films we’d never, but should have, seen.  Our LoveFilm subscription was well used during these years.  Flicking through the “films you must see” lists identified a Hitchcock sized gap in our knowledge of his back catalogue which we worked hard to plug.  Vertigo is a particularly disturbing one and based almost frame by frame on the chapters in this book (although the ending is different) by French crime writing duo Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.

This is less a classic crime thriller and more a claustrophobic, psychological melodrama dripping in behaviour so obsessive it drives the main character, Flavieres, to the brink of madness. His innocuous task, carried out as a favour to an old friend, to follow and observe the friend’s wife who is behaving oddly and thought to be suicidal, swiftly spirals into stalkerish obsession with this ethereal creature. Even his eventual friendship with this woman does little to tone down his increasingly bizarre means to remain close to her. Several years later he impossibly catches a glimpse of her once more, setting him on his previous destructive path.

The stifling atmosphere of this book is made even more stark by the references to German invading forces moving ever closer to Paris and the later depressing descriptions of the post-war state of that beautiful city.  As Flavieres’ behaviour becomes more desperate, he begins to unravel, he’s unhinged, so the pace picks up hurtling the reader forward to witness the tragic end you know must be coming; I read the last pages through the gaps between my fingers, like I watched the end of the film, not really wanting to read/watch but having a gory fascination with needing to know how it all ends.

As a character Flavieres is rather pathetic,  but I had enormous sympathy for him.  He is used so abominably and thrown to one side by someone he thinks of as a friend. Over the course of the book his personality changes immensely because of this woman who he believes will alter the course of his life; she does have that effect, but not as he’d imagined.  And here’s the cleverness of this twisted psycho-drama; as you read on, you know this sort of thing could happen to any of us. Brilliant.

Pushkin Press have released a series of 20th century European crime fiction named after this book.  The Vertigo series jacket artworks are all similar to this one; bold colours and overlaid text very reminiscent of mid-century modern designs. Check them out here.

Max has also done a review of this one here. He’s recently done a review of another Boileau-Narcejac She Who Was No More here.

The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan


Sometimes I read a book that makes me feel uncomfortable in my cosy, middle class, average world.  It’s easy for me to be caught up in the day-to-day of my life and forget or ignore what goes on elsewhere, which is probably the same for many of us.  The lives and world described by Jenni Fagan in her debut novel, The Panopticon, is so far removed from anything I know.  It is a world often swept under the carpet unless there’s a massive scandal too huge to hide.  There can be a smugness (often unconscious, certainly in my case) among people like me (Guardian reading, home counties village dwelling), showing outrage, concern and shock when some social horror comes to light, only to go back to our Costa coffees and instantly forget the other world out there, maybe just down the road but out of sight and well and truly out of mind.

But Jenni Fagan’s book hit a nerve, it made me squirm.  It wasn’t only that I imagined the fiction and it made me uncomfortable, it was that my subconscious told me that the fiction was very likely close to the truth of life in care and it bothered me. Having read a bit about Jenni’s own story, I began to wonder whether she had lived through, heard about or witnessed situations similar to those experienced by her characters.  If so, I wanted to tell her how sorry I felt about that and offer (unqualified) support.  I questioned my motives for wanting to have this conversation and, once I was honest with myself, realised it was to make me feel better.  I would undoubtedly end the conversation, wiping my middle-class brow,  safe in the knowledge I was unlikely to be personally affected by such issues.   At this point I remembered a particularly telling line in The Panoptican, and I felt ashamed of myself.

The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved

How ridiculous and frankly absurd of me to think that someone like me can “save” someone like the main character in this book.

Anais narrates her own story. She is only 15, but has lived through more than most people twice her age.  She’s lived in too many care and foster homes to bother continue counting, she’s also been adopted once, but things ended tragically.  She has no idea who her birth parents are. She knows no one she is related to.  She has no history or family point of reference and so often thinks she may be the product of some  dreadful ongoing experiment monitored by faceless men in broad-brimmed hats.  This is the paranoia Anais lives with.  She is taken to the Panopticon, a sort of last chance detention saloon for kids like her, after an incident involving a police officer.  She is covered in blood yet unable to explain why.  She is hard as nails, picking fights to claim her place in the pecking order of other forgotten kids, breaking the rules but trying to survive.

The Panopticon is a circular building allowing a view into every room/cell from an upper control floor.  Anais feels constantly observed; there is no privacy.  Her tragic back story slowly unfolds as her case is investigated and she contemplates her next move.  The panopticon’s lack of privacy becomes a metaphor for Anais’ life under observation.  She is monitored and reported on by various government departments and decisions are made on her behalf.  She is watched, but no one really sees her.

Fagan manages to pull off that difficult feat of making her character tough yet vulnerable, ugly yet admirable.  You want her to survive, but you wince at some of the stuff she does.  And despite the unreliability of Anais’ narration, somehow you know that the brutality and neglect she witnesses and experiences at the hands of various parts of society are probably close to the truth – “society” is also unreliable and fails kids like Anais.

This is a tough book to stomach, but utterly readable.  It made me think a lot about my own life and for that I am grateful.  An astounding debut.  Jenni Fagan was named as one of Granta’s best of young British novelists in 2013 and Scottish Author of the Year this year.   Her 2nd novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims is out now.  One to watch.


True Grit – Charles Portis

I recently accepted a challenge from Mr FH; he would choose a book from our overflowing shelves and I would have to read it without arguement.  The only stipulation I made was for it not to be a sport related book of which we seem to have an increasing number.  Deep down I wasn’t concerned.  He has good taste in books and we often share titles.  This is what he chose (10 sentences starts below!).


14 year old Mattie Ross seeks a vigilante or lawman; in fact anyone loyal to her cause will do, as long as they show grit in the pursuit of her father’s killer who is rumoured to be holed up with a band of rampaging outlaws in the Indian territories of Arkansas.  Many more suitable and sensible candidates present themselves, but she chooses one-eyed, murderous drunkard marshal Rooster Cockburn for the job, insisting she accompany him on the quest.  She is fearless and uncompromising in her determination for justice and retribution, she is bright, older than her years and she often keeps the marshal in check with her bossy manner so when her vulnerability becomes obvious you love her all the more for it.

True Grit tells Mattie’s version of the chase to find her father’s killer which she narrates from her old age.  As she remembers back to the events of that winter, she does not overplay her own role, she does not honey coat or romanticise the harsh conditions during their search for the outlaws, the reader is under no illusion of the dangers she faces in the company of Cockburn and his sidekick, the Texas ranger called Laboeuf.  Portis manages to strike an ideal balance between the risks portrayed in his wilderness drama and the genuine affection Mattie feels for the rough relic of the civil war, Cockburn.  The deadpan exchanges and warmhearted chastisements between the two are touching and often amusing.

This is a mini masterpiece about friendship and loyalty forged during a few weeks of uncertainty and intense adventure.  It’s just lovely.


Turning Blue – Benjamin Myers


The first in a detective series marketed as folk crime, Turning Blue is a slight departure for Myers.  He’s never written outright crime before.  However, this is definitely not a police procedural, it is more rural crime noir with flawed but decent heroes at its heart.

Obsessive and antisocial Detective Brindle and ex-hedonist journalist Mace form an unlikely alliance to uncover why a local teenager has mysteriously disappeared.  They expose so much more than a run of the mill missing persons case.  In a work where art often imitates recent real life news stories and police investigations which have shocked the British public, Brindle and Mace wade through sleaze, establishment corruption and cover ups involving the police, close knit silent communities, a grotesque character who seems to be a mash up of Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Stewart Hall and a revolting, disturbing loner pig farmer whose behaviour as the story progresses goes from the bizarre and creepy to alarming and sinister.  His pathetic existence invades every page cultivating a feeling of unease from the beginning.

It’s easy to compare Ben Myers’ writing to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Derek Raymond or James Ellroy – I’ve done it myself before.  Here’s another comparison: There’s a touch of the David Peace Red Riding about Myers’ latest offering; hard Northern men, institutional corruption, sleaze and violence in small, overlooked communities.  Such comparisons are useful to allow those who’ve never come across his books to get a flavour of what to expect, but also slightly erroneous.  Ben Myers’ writing is difficult to define or pigeon hole.  He seems unsure himself of how this new book should be described.  But does it matter?  Do I need to compare it to other work?  Do I need to identify it as writing of a particular genre?  I don’t think so.

Myers has his own style, he is an exciting writer of extraordinary  talent with an ability to weave heart-breaking tales about marginalised communities and individuals with brutal, bleak and stomach-wrenching stories into the evocative tapestry of a landscape setting.  This creates a dichotomy for the reader; admiration for the perceptive descriptions and economy of writing mixed with feelings of revulsion at the violence and horror. Myers has never been for the faint-hearted or easily offended and Turning Blue is no different to its two predecessors in that respect.  It is visceral.  Human beings can be sick, we just don’t like admitting it to ourselves and Myers continues to make no apology for holding the mirror steady so we can’t avoid the myriad of vileness and the depths some of us can stoop to.  This is what I love; honesty in fiction.  I’m pretty sure the stuff Myers writes about in Turning Blue does/has happened, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel.

The outdoors is the scaffolding on which Myers overlays the plots of all his recent fiction and Turning Blue continues that trend.  The countryside sometimes feels like an afterthought in some “nature” writing, but Myers has always used it to represent emotion and propel a plot onwards.  In Pig Iron the landscape provided solace and refuge (and there is a lovely nod to John John Wisdom’s green cathedral with its mention in Turning Blue), in Beastings it was a menacing means of escape, in this book, the Yorkshire countryside is brooding, an irritant obstructing the investigation.  It is harsh and bleak, wet or snowbound and difficult to navigate if you are not from the “Hamlet”.  You know the ancient sod and dirt will triumphantly remain long after these characters are dead and buried.  It is the constant.

I am continually excited and blown away by Myers’ awesome writing.  I swallowed down this book with the thirst of the seriously dehydrated.  I suggest you all get the drinks in as soon as you can because Myers is the landlord serving up intoxicating fiction.

Thanks to Ben and Moth Publishing for sending me a review copy and the lovely tin of moss, wire and plastic pig.

Other Ben Myers stuff to read on here:

Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins


With a title like A Whole Life you’d be forgiven for expecting a much longer book.  It’s the economy of Seethaler’s prose that allows him to fit so much into so few pages (149), and what a beautifully quiet story it is.  Reminiscent in sentiment and pace of that ever popular Williams classic Stoner and comparable in content and tone to Train Dreams by Denis Johnson with a similar seam of sadness weaving through the prose, this is a restrained and unpretentious piece of fiction.

Forest and mountain man Andreas Egger’s life is the one we follow through this miniature epic.  Starting with his attempt to rescue an almost dead local goatherd, Seethaler returns to reveal the beginning and then the rest of Egger’s life with such a deftness and lightness of touch that you almost don’t realise you are reading, it feels as though the story is being orally related, like an old friend is acquainting you with the relatively uneventful tale of a mountain dwelling loner.  And here’s the thing with this book; other than a devastating avalanche and a period of internment in Russia during the war nothing much else of earth shattering consequence happens.  Yet the landscape descriptions and mountain village life portrayed in these pages draws the reader in more than many blockbusting tomes can.

There is also something slightly mystical and ethereal about parts of this book, particularly near the end, which made me think deeply about what it must be like to be old, alone and sometimes confused, how it would be very likely and understandable to start hearing and seeing ghosts from your past.

After living through Egger’s life with him, his choice of retirement abode is unsurprising if a little unorthodox, but absolutely the right place for him to spend his remaining days.  His ending befits his life, and for this I was grateful to Seethaler for not writing Egger an overly dramatic or morose demise; it is a quiet understated end just as he had lived his life.

A Whole Life is beautifully written, beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins and beautifully packaged by Picador (swoon at that cover), I absolutely loved it and I’d like to think you will too.



(I think that’s 11 sentences – need to get a grip!)


The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

A “10 sentences or less” busting piece.


Before I was 10 we moved to a place on the Mediterranean into a huge house that came with my Dad’s job at the time.  Until then my younger sister and I had always shared a bedroom, but this new place was large enough for us to have our own rooms at the top of the house in the attic space where there was also a bathroom, another spare bedroom and access to our 2 roof terraces.  Not long after we moved in, my sister complained of not being happy in her room.  Then she talked of waking in the night with someone holding her hand, but there was never anyone there.  This freaked us both out enough for us to move back downstairs and share a room next to our brother.  Neither of us liked going back up there after that.  I was recently reminded of this episode in my childhood when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  A similar late night hand-holding experience affects one of the main characters when she is feeling particularly vulnerable.

Generally speaking I don’t read creepy books, I’m too easily spooked and I’ll be honest, this story made me feel uneasy at times.  The titular house is unpleasant and designed to confuse, the characters are susceptible to suggestion and disturbance of mind creating an shared experience where both character and reader live through the nightly hauntings and horrors served up by this place.  It’s this psychological element that makes the tale of Dr. Montague and his guests at Hill House, gathered there to investigate and make sense of the other-worldly goings on, all the more disturbing and chilling.  What Jackson achieves with her writing is a feeling of suspense built on the fear and unease her characters sense from the house.  Fragile Theodora seems particularly prone to these perceptions of something ghostly.  The eventual suspicion and distrust that builds between the characters adds to the tension.

This story is similar in feel and sentiment to books by Susan Hill.  Both women are masters at writing about the supernatural in an unsettling, non-violent, non-gory way, leaving the reader to wonder and marvel at how the power of suggestion can unhinge the mind to such an extent.  Reading this book has finally made me realise, the hand of my sister’s experience was probably a figment of her dreams…or was it??