Room Little Darker – June Caldwell

There was a moment last week when I was reading on the bus and I angled the pages away so that the person beside me wouldn’t accidentally cast their eye over them and move seats in outrage. The book in question was June Caldwell’s collection of short stories Room Little Darker and the story was ‘Leitrim Flip’. It’s about a couple who are into kink and so they meet with a like-minded couple to enjoy swinging and S&M. However the tables are turned when the second couple imprison the first and force them to behave like pet dogs. It sounds creepy and bizarre and pretty close to the edge, and it’s all of those things, but it’s also very very funny.

Caldwell takes on many subjects in the eleven stories included in the collection. ‘The Glens of Antrim’ is more S&M, with salty descriptions of kinky sex amongst virtual strangers. ‘Imp of the Perverse’ depicts how a woman unravels as a result of rejection by her manipulative lecturer: ‘Cheek of that philistine citing my behaviour as inappropriate when he uses the course as fanny fodder all the time and no one blinks an ethical eyelid!’

‘SOMAT’, previously included in Sinead Gleeson’s Long Gaze Back anthology, is one of the strongest and most emotionally affecting of the stories. It is told from the point of view of a foetus and was partly inspired by the death of Marlise Muñoz as well as our own Eighth Amendment.

Caldwell has a way with language, a style of writing completely unlike any other Irish female writer I’ve read. It’s acerbic, confrontational, hilarious, very sexual but not in a coy or titillating way, and it’s filled to the brim with idiosyncratic vivid descriptions: a loved one’s mouth with a ‘seagull-in-flight upper lip’, a laugh ‘like he’d swallowed an antique television full of static’, an old man described as a ‘sack of crumpled grey maudlin’.

Room Little Darker is Caldwell’s first book. She worked as a journalist for many years and is a prize-winning short story writer with a raft of achievements to her name. She’s just signed up with Rogers Coleridge and White, one of the biggest agencies in London, so I’m sure Room Little Darker will be picked up for international publication and will mark the start of a long and brilliant career.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

A fellow bookworm and I were talking about books a few weeks ago. He said that one of his favourite things about reading is how it allows us to experience worlds we don’t inhabit and so contributes to our understanding of other people and their lives, something that I’ve also always loved about reading.

Then last week I read an article in the Guardian by Jessa Crispin which really resonated with me, about reading beyond our bubbles, in which she observes, ‘For a very long time, the literary gatekeepers pretended their taste was objective, not subjective. And because the traits of those gatekeepers, who were not just white men but Ivy League-educated, upper-middle-class white men located in cultural centres like New York and London, were predictably consistent, they often reached consensus. These are the books that are important. No really, just these ones. Those other writers are “minor”.’

I’m sick of books about straight white men finding themselves (SWMFT), i.e. the literary ‘canon’. Whether they find themselves in New York or London, or in college, or through drug experiences, or in a bad marriage, or through their work, is now beside the point. I can’t muster a fuck to give anymore. And so I have sought out books that are emblematic of my friend’s statement, about different lives, varied lives, protagonists from different countries and cultures and religions and races.

I heard about The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas a few months ago when it became a publishing sensation and topped the bestseller lists. As soon as I saw it in Hodges Figgis I flicked through it then bought it; reading random pages is always a great gauge for me.

The title comes from Thug Life by Tupac Shakur: ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.’ The book is about sixteen-year-old Starr who witnesses the murder of her friend Khalil by a police officer. Starr and Khalil are unarmed and black. The cop is trigger happy and white. The story takes place in urban America and so The Hate U Give mirrors real life, and Khalil becomes synonymous with Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.

Starr is already conflicted, going to a private school and having a rich white boyfriend while she and her family live in the ghetto. When she was only twelve years old her parents told her how to behave if she was ever stopped by police; a conversation her white friends have almost certainly never had. And she has to think just as strategically when she is in school: ‘…I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”‘ Starr is ‘other’ no matter where she is.

After Kahlil’s murder Starr is called before a grand jury and her two lives collide. She wants to bear witness to her friend, to do right by her community, to speak the truth but nothing is straightforward in her world. Starr comes up against the gangs and violence in her neighbourhood and racism at school, all of which coalesce in a riot, bringing to mind Watts and Ferguson.

The book has been classified as Young Adult fiction but that’s a facile label. There aren’t many writers with the guts to take on such an emotionally charged topical subject, and Thomas writes with sensitivity, insight and grace. And amongst all the misery, there are genuinely funny moments, like Starr’s dad claiming that the Hogwarts Houses are really gangs: ‘They have their own colours, their own hideouts…Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on one another, just like gangbangers. Death Eaters even have matching tattoos…’

The Hate U Give is an important book and Starr is a voice I won’t forget.

 

April Random Round Up

The Drinks Business did a feature on A Drink of One’s Own, a book of cocktails inspired by great literary ladies. I like the sound of the Virginia Woolf and the Zelda Fitzgerald.

Here’s a terrifying article on Vanity Fair about Elon Musk’s billion dollar crusade to stop the AI apocalypse: ‘Many tech oligarchs see everything they are doing to help us, and all their benevolent manifestos, as streetlamps on the road to a future where, as Steve Wozniak says, humans are the family pets.’

As a result of that article I started following the brilliant Twitter parody account Bored Elon Musk, ‘thoughts and inventions from Elon in his downtime’: ‘News app that connects to a blood pressure monitor and adjusts your feed accordingly.’ and ‘Podcast app that connects to Google Maps and finds you a perfectly timed episode based on your commute.’ have been two of my recent favourites.

These floor plans of famous TV homes are kinda fascinating. If I could choose to live in any of them it would be Frasier’s, and not just because it’s one of my favourite shows.

I reviewed Big Little Lies on the blog yesterday and the always brilliant Anne Helen Petersen talks about Nicole Kidman and her performance in this article for Buzzfeed: ‘There’s a subtle implication that when a woman, especially a beautiful one, makes her way onscreen, it’s usually because of her looks or her body — not her talent. When a performance speaks truth to that lie, it’s a revelation.’

I adore stationery and collect notebooks, justifying it to myself because I need them for writing. I may also have to justify a couple of these sets of pencils from LZPENCILS on etsy. The sets are themed and each pencil has a different saying engraved on it. The Beyoncils are a great gift for any Beyonce fan but I want the Harry Potter and Heathers sets.

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Colossal hits our screens in May. It’s a science fiction comedy whereby Anne Hathaway manifests as a giant monster terrorising South Korea. It sounds bonkers, it looks bonkers, and I can’t wait!

That’s all from me for April. For those of you in Ireland have a great Bank Holiday weekend!

Skintown – Ciarán McMenamin

It’s no surprise that Ciarán McMenamin and Irvine Welsh have hit the book promotion circuit together in recent days. They seem like a natural fit as McMenamin’s debut, Skintown, is strongly reminiscent of Welsh’s debut Trainspotting. The focus of both books is disaffected young men who turn to drugs and violence to break up the monotony of their days in poverty stricken towns, and both understandably carry a strong anti-English sentiment.

McMenamin may be familiar to some of you as an actor with significant TV roles on his resumé. My first encounter with his work was a few weeks ago at Mountains to Sea Book Festival where he was joined by two other debut novelists, Rory Gleeson and Karl Geary, for a chat about their respective works. When each of the novelists read I was instantly interested in buying McMenamin’s book. His acting talent and considerable performance experience paid off and his reading was dynamic and very funny. (Which by the way is not as common as you might think. Having been to many similar events, writers who can successfully read their work aloud are a tiny minority.)

Skintown takes place in Enniskillen, McMenamin’s home town, in the early 1990s. Rave culture provides a much-needed escape from boredom and the threat of daily sectarian violence. Vinny works in a chip shop with his mate Jonty and dreams of escaping to Belfast for a better life, but instead of taking constructive steps towards it he meanders through his days in a haze of joints and pints. One evening while doing a good Samaritan gesture for a girl he knows, he ends up in a car crash with two Protestants, Kyle and Grant, who only moments earlier were preparing to kick his head in due to Vinny getting ‘the old ashes rubbed on my forehead six Wednesdays before Easter Sunday’. (A very convoluted way of saying he’s a Catholic, and this would be one of my few complaints about the book; the occasional tendency to overwrite and use many words where one simple one would be better.)

Kyle and Grant propose a business deal whereby Vinny and Jonty go to a nightclub called Ned’s (based on the infamous Kelly’s in Portrush) to sell a huge haul of ecstasy tablets on behalf of the other two, and collect a fee for doing so. With the prospect of cash Vinny’s Belfast dreams swim into reality and so he and Jonty readily agree. The novel’s best set piece occurs when Vinny gets high on ecstasy for the first time in the club. Having had some experience of this myself (cough) I can vouch for the authenticity of the whole thing and it’s not just accurate, it’s very funny and filled with razor-sharp detail.

Skintown occupies the same territory as Trainspotting and also Rob Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men and it is certainly an enjoyable read and an accomplished debut. Where it fell apart for me was the ending which I won’t reveal here but which was foreshadowed throughout the book. It didn’t ring true and felt a little forced, as if McMenamin was pushing for a definitive ending which the book didn’t really need. That being said, I’m really looking forward to reading whatever he produces next.

March Random Round Up

March was Women’s History Month, a concept I find kind of reductive because women are a part of and make history twelve months a year but moving on from that…here’s a list of groundbreaking female authors you should bookmark for your next book shop visit.

Zadie Smith’s beautiful story about Billie Holiday in the New Yorker is seriously worth reading.

This month I watched Season 2 of Love on Netflix and had mixed feelings about it. Gillian Jacobs’ performance is one of the highlights. One of the not-so-great things about the series is this.

Royal Blood are releasing their second album later this year and they’re teasing us with this studio clip. Bring. It. On.

The upcoming documentary Kiki looks amazing, a new take drag ball culture which first reached mainstream popularity in Paris Is Burning.

Speaking of drag, Netflix has struck a deal whereby new episodes of Rupaul’s Drag Race are streamable the day after they’re broadcast in the US. Season 9 is two episodes in and Valentina’s my early favourite.

Get Out

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of horror films, so when I suggested to a friend of mine that we go see Get Out she was stunned. But the hype and rave reviews all mentioned that it was a lot more than just a simple horror movie so we went to see it on Tuesday, after I made her promise that if I got very very scared she would hold my hand.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been going out with Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) for four months when she suggests a weekend visit to her parents’ house in the country. Chris agrees to go, but with some trepidation as Rose hasn’t told her white parents that he is black. Rose insists that her parents aren’t racist, that her father would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could, and Chris has no reason to worry.

When the two arrive at the Armitage’s large upmarket home Chris is a little disconcerted to see that the servants are black, but he is put at ease by Rose’s parents, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), both of whom are warm and welcoming. On the first night he sneaks outside for a cigarette and on his way back in is ambushed by Missy who gives out to him for smoking, saying that as she is a psychiatrist she could cure him of his addiction with hypnosis. She sits him down in her office and asks him questions about his mother’s death, hypnotising and then eventually paralysing Chris. He wakes up in bed with a start in the morning unsure whether the previous night’s events were real.

Later that day the Armitages have their annual garden party attended by their friends, all of whom are white. As Chris is introduced to them he becomes more and more disgusted by the racially insensitive comments they make and he eventually asks Rose if they can leave her parents’ house that night instead of staying over again as planned. But when they attempt to leave things get hellishly bizarre and even Chris’ worst fears are a day in the park in comparison to what the Armitages have in mind for him.

Get Out is more of a psychological thriller than a horror. There is no gore, nothing supernaturally freaky that makes you want to sleep with the lights on, and in fact there are several moments of real comedy throughout, many of which come from the character of Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery). Daily life in America for many black people is filled with a lot more real horror than anything this film has to offer.

Get Out is a brilliant satire of the ways in which white people who consider themselves liberals, who voted for Obama and are horrified by Trump, who condemn police brutality and consider themselves ‘woke’, can make life difficult and uncomfortable for black people. The film is a great commentary on race in America and thoroughly deserves the critical acclaim it has received. It’s in cinemas now – get on it!

The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

Peter Leigh was a homeless alcoholic, drug addict and thief until one night when he broke his ankles trying to escape from the police, ended up in hospital and met the love of his life, Beatrice, who was his nurse. Fast forward a few years and Peter is clean, married to Bea and together they run a Christian ministry. Peter is chosen by a corporation called USIC to be the minister for a colony on a planet called Oasis and after his training he leaves Bea in England, and travels to Florida to board the spaceship that will take him to Oasis.

Once there Peter is surprised to find that the usual difficulties faced by missionaries are absent; the Oasans are quiet and unthreatening, they already speak English and are eager to be instructed in the way of God. He spends periods of time living with them in their small village, alternating with time in the USIC base camp, a sterile brightly lit compound filled with hundreds of USIC employees all of whom seem to be good-natured, untroubled and reasonably boring. While there he can communicate with Bea through The Shoot (intergalactic email) and over time her messages become more and more terrifying.

She tells of tsunamis, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, the collapse of the banking system, sweeping blackouts, supermarkets running out of food: in short, your basic end-of-days scenario (although one that seems to be inching ever closer in reality which gives it a certain timely resonance). The reader begins to wonder if perhaps the Oasan colony has a different purpose for humans and what exactly that purpose might be.

This is territory that has been covered before in film and literature but in Faber’s hands it becomes compulsively readable. Like all good books it forces you to make that ‘just one more chapter’ promise with yourself which you inevitably break and before you know it it’s 4am. Although his writing is simple, at times even plain, he creates a world that the reader completely inhabits, so you end up occasionally coming to and finding that you are still in your own bedroom and not on a planet millions of miles away watching a minister and his alien parishioners build a church.

Faber has said this will be his last novel and in the three years since it was published he has kept to his word. His wife Eva was dying while he wrote it and I think his sadness permeates the story. At times it seems like an unbridgeable gulf is opening up between Peter and Bea, and their relationship is being torn apart by outside circumstance. Peter cannot explain what life on an alien planet is like, and Bea is dealing with Earth becoming an alien planet from what they knew before, systems breaking down and total chaos ensuing. It’s hard not to read it as a metaphor for Faber’s own relationship.