Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: review

Jayhawkers, rougarous, and violent death: a review of Samuel Snoek-Brown’s ‘Hagridden’

(warning – this review contains plot spoilers)

hagridden_book_coverHagridden
Samuel Snoek-Brown
Columbus Press, OH, pp.241

Samuel Snoek-Brown will possibly turn out to be one of the best storytellers of the 21c. There’s a modernist feel to his storytelling, very often his plots don’t resolve, but rather give the sense that a process – a life – is going on, and that we have witnessed a part of a greater whole. The psychology of his characters is seldom explained but always clearly displayed, as readers have already seen in Boxcutters, his slim book of short stories. Now we have his first published novel, Hagridden, to consider. According to Sam, Hagridden isn’t the first novel he has ever written, owning up to other attempts when he was much younger, saying “they were books I had to write in order to learn how to write this one”. Teethcutters, you might say!

Hagridden is the story of two women who eke out an existence in the Louisiana bayous towards the end of the American Civil War. One way they survive is to murder fleeing soldiers of both sides and sell their weapons and accoutrements to a corrupt storekeeper. When a neighbour, a comrade of the younger woman’s dead husband, returns to his hut having deserted from the Confederate army, their existence is thrown out of kilter. Aficionados of Japanese film will instantly recognise that Hagridden owes a huge debt to Kaneto Shindo’s movie Onibaba (1964). This debt has never been a secret, although it is not directly acknowledged in the book. However, this is not the first time that a tale from medieval Japan has been transferred to 19c America, and it is not simply an adaptation of Onibaba; not only has the tale moved in time and location, but it has also switched media. There are also differences in the plot beyond that, some subtle, some very obvious.

The Civil War is a very powerful element of the USA’s national myth as well as of that nation’s actual history. The stiffness of 1860s daguerreotypes from which uniformed, bearded men stare out was taken forward into film and TV – Gone with the Wind, North and South, Gettysburg – with gallant officers, plantation ladies, and stoical slaves. Largely forgotten in popular culture is the devastation to lives on the periphery. That is where Sam Snoek-Brown sets Hagridden. The two women have been brutalised by poverty, and their consequent violence is graphically described. Sam doesn’t pull any bayonet-thrusts in his descriptions, he doesn’t let the reader look away at any time, forcing a confrontation in which not every reader will feel comfortable. There were times as I read when I wanted to beg for mercy, not for myself and my own sensibilities, but for a character. In the end, it was almost a surprise to learn who did and who did not survive. Mercy, however, isn’t an option, as the book is driven along by the worst in humanity, in nature, and in superstition. There is only one act of kindness in the book, and that seems to be nothing more than a device to allow two of the central characters to survive a little longer.

Hagridden is almost an amoral book. In fact I would guess that this is deliberately so, making its amorality a moral stance in its own right. Characters are allowed their own morality, as when one of the women rationalises the sins of murder and lust:

I ain’t talking about killing nothing. They’s bad and then they’s bad. What we do we do to survive and they ain’t no sin in that. But lust? Whoo girl, you got to look out for that they lust. Worst sin they is. Sinners what lusted after the flesh in this world, they turn to animals in the next. Crawl round on all fours like dogs and the brimstone burning off they knees, the skin off they palms. Some say rougarous is lusters coughed up from Hell to walk the earth.

werewolfA ‘rougarou’ (Fr. loup garou, werewolf) is what gives Hagridden its superstitious, supernatural element, although there is a mundane explanation to this creature’s appearance in the story. However the appearance of the second (or is it third?) rougarou is almost too convenient, almost that of a deus ex machina, and not the novel’s most convincing episode.

From the quoted passage above, it can be seen that much of the dialogue is written with a distinct ‘eye-dialect’. There are also what I call ‘fixers’ – usages which establish a time and place in a story. In the case of Hagridden, the fixers are Cajun-isms, notably the way characters address each other casually as ‘sha’ (chère), ‘vieux’, ‘petites’, and ‘boo’ (beau). They don’t always work, as when ‘boo’, normally said to a man, is addressed to the older woman (p.14), or when the ungrammatical ‘ma petit fils’ is used(p.158). Such solecisms may exist in the vernacular of Louisiana – I speak a little Louisiana French but am no expert – yet they look wrong on the page. As a general point of style, direct speech is not marked by any form of quotation marks. This meant that I had to look consciously for where speech started and ended. But this wasn’t a chore, and in fact it concentrated my attention, making the text as a whole feel very taut. Some readers might find the use of the word ‘nigger’ unpalatable, but if it was there in the actual speech of that time and place then it has to be there in this novel.

Human-on-human is not the only brutality of the novel. Greater than the violence and murder done by the characters on each other, and than the supernatural terror of the werewolf stalking the bayou, is the force of nature. A hurricane and tidal surge threatens to wash away everyone and everything, including the story (pp.193-200). One of the most compelling passages of the book comes here, as two characters watch an oddly-juxtaposed procession of domestic objects, animals, and people float by them in the flood. It is surreal, almost nightmarish.

Sam Snoek-Brown has been praised for his meticulous research while writing this novel. Although I have queried some details, I could see as I read that he had indeed paid a great deal of attention to historical authenticity. This was obviously something he wanted to achieve, an integral part of the exercise of writing the novel. I don’t want to belittle that achievement, but to me it wasn’t over-ridingly important. What was more important was the novel’s plausibility, its power to make me suspend disbelief and follow the story to the end. He achieved that with an expertise that made it seem easy. That’s the mark of a craftsman-author. This novel may be read ignoring my quibbles, and on that basis I recommend it fully.

MM
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Hagridden official web site

Review of ‘Finis’ by Angélique Jamail

Finis cover 200Finis
Angélique Jamail
Amazon Kindle format
review by Marie Marshall

The best fantasies are the ones which have one foot in reality, in a world or society in which there is enough recognizable for a reader to be drawn in without having to have anything explained. A writer’s skill in doing so is necessary for the metaphor – the unreal, the less-than-recognisable that nonetheless stands for something in our own world – to take hold and be convincing, and Angélique Jamail’s skill is apparent from the very beginning of Finis.

We instantly enter a familiar world where work is tedious, landlords are mean, family is disapproving, neighbourhoods are patrolled by gangs, and where to be different is to be in danger. But in his corner office, the boss is a monster, quite literally a monster capable of goring any secretary who misses a staff meeting. In an environment where to be recognised as fully human one also has to be fully animal, one wonders just how bizarre the Minotaur of legend must have been if ‘Somewhere in Crete a maze is missing its pet’! Similar in feel to the way Philip Pullman’s characters develop a companion ‘dæmon’ as they mature, humans in Jamail’s story take on important aspects of members of the animal kingdom, until they are a fusion of the two. People who never develop this full nature are referred to as ‘plain’.

Elsa, Jamail’s protagonist is a ‘Plain One’, enduring reactions from her colleagues and superiors that range from pity, through discrimination, to bullying, and meeting little better from her immediate family. Even her cat wants to claw and bite her, and in fact is the only one who (spoiler alert! from now on they come thick and fast) actually understands her true nature from the beginning. Jamail’s portrayal of her nagging, unsympathetic father is convincing…

When Elsa doesn’t muster the same enthusiasm as the rest of the family, her father asks what her problem is.

   “Dad, you know I can’t swim – “

   “No, you won’t swim,” he grouses. “There’s a difference.”

This is technically true. Elsa chooses not to submerge herself in vats of acid too.

as is her mother’s fretful ‘Why doesn’t she ever go out? Why doesn’t she ever bring friends over at the holidays? Is she ever going to get married?’ The only member of Elsa’s family with whom she has any affinity is her cousin Gerard – “We both like seashells and hot chocolate”.

A tantalising ichthyological theme runs through the story like a bright thread – an aquarium, tuna sandwiches, references to water everywhere, even the punning title of the story and the last word on the page – loading the narrative with proleptic irony at every turn. Suddenly a clue comes, a newspaper story about the possible appearance of a Phoenix. Perhaps this is how Elsa will develop, with a rebirth in fire, and perhaps this explains her fear of water. But this is partly a red herring (!), although for Elsa it does suggest that maybe her own rebirth means surrendering to the very element that she fears. Eventually she becomes – what? A fish? A mermaid? Her transformation is left less than clear, but for her it is satisfying, it is an ending and a beginning. The conclusion is open-ended, and it almost leaves the reader with a feeling of unease. The problems of plain-ness have not gone away in Elsa’s world simply because she has escaped it, and the point of story has suddenly become her comfortable conformity.

Any niggles I have with the execution of this story are minor. For example, the process of change is referred to as ‘blossoming’, which to my mind is floral rather than faunal, and therefore less than appropriate. Overall it is a lesson in how to write from a point of ‘otherness’. It is short, but just the right length to carry readers and keep attention along a fairly simple narrative. Very worth reading, if my spoilers haven’t given the game away.

The Phoenix rising is ‘a groundbreaking anthology’!

WLT header

The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes, Editor-in-Chief Richard Vallance (Deputy Editor, me), recently received an accolade from World Literature Today, the prestigious and internationally respected literary periodical published by the University of Oklahoma. The anthology was included in its ‘Nota Benes’ page for summer 2014, which contains editorial recommendations for books to read over the season. You can see their comments in the context of their selection here. Their assessment was as follows:

‘A groundbreaking anthology of poetry presented in six languages, The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes accomplishes a perfect revival of the sonnet. Divided into themes but without a formal table of contents, this artistically rendered collection provides readers with a sense of both choice and surprise. The 315 sonnets on display counter the popularly held notion that the sonnet is outmoded.’

‘Le Phénix renaissant de ses cendres’ – critique par Thierry Guinhut.

‘At Jenners, Edinburgh’ (detail) © Paul Thompson

‘At Jenners, Edinburgh’ (detail) © Paul Thompson

For my Francophone readers, here is a review of the sonnet anthology The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes, of which I was Deputy Editor. The review is by Thierry Guinhut, a well-regarded reviewer in France. The image above is detailed from one which contributes to the visual layout of the anthology. Thierry’s review is glowing; most reviews have been good so far, with the exception of one ‘critic’ who seems to imagine some kind of Corsican vendetta exists between him and the Editor-in-Chief. The anthology is one of the many published items you can find under the ‘Works‘ tab on this web site.

‘Milk of Female Kindness’ launched in Australia

Kasia James addressing visitors to the launch.

Kasia James addressing visitors to the launch.

Lovely pictures from the other side of the world (as I look at it) from the Australian launch of the anthology The Milk of Female Kindness. You may recall this collection is the brainchild of Kasia James (pictured opposite); Kasia was kind enough to include some poetry that I wrote especially for the collection, and to ask me for some editorial consultancy. The theme of the anthology is Motherhood – the title is a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, by the way – and it contains the prose and poetry of contemporary women writers from round the world.

The launch was held at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, Australia. This is an important cultural centre, hosting all kinds of events. The launch took place on 24th March – it seems strange, from my point of view, typing ‘took’ because that day is only just dawning here; of course in the Antipodes, as I write this, the day is coming to an end. Or is it? I get confused!

Anyhow, here are some pictures from the launch (c) Kasia James – there was food too, and a colouring table for kids. You’ll also see the table showing other works by contributors. If you want to read a quick review of the anthology, go here. I might have mentioned this before, but I am very pleased and proud to be associated with this venture, and I’m glad it is becoming successful.

A table full of milk...

A table full of milk…

An early visitor. Apparently attendance reached three figures.

An early visitor. Apparently attendance reached three figures.

Interest in the 'Other Work by Contributors' table.

Interest in the ‘Other works by Contributors’ table.

Amongst the material on this table you can spot my book 'I am not a fish', plus fliers fro 'Lupa' and 'The Everywhen Angels'.

Amongst the material on this table you can spot my book ‘I am not a fish’, plus fliers for ‘Lupa’ and ‘The Everywhen Angels’.

Book-signing.

Book-signing.

 

‘The Everywhen Angels’ reviewed.

angel eyes

The Everywhen Angels reviewed by Nikki Mason in the YA section at BestChickLit.com. Click here.

First thoughts on the Phoenix

Phoenix 1 banner

Poet Ben Mosley writes:

“The organization by sections for subject and theme allows each reader to browse or study according to the mood of the moment – or to be transported into a realm of emotion or thought beyond one’s first disposition on picking up the book. Formal poetry in languages other than English allow us to hear lyrical prosody beyond the constructs of a single language. Phoenix 1 200These poems remind us that the paths of our thoughts so well-trodden in one language are not the only ways through the dappled shade and sun of our humanity. The artwork included in the book is fascinating, and like the poetry, is selected with an eclectic sensibility that turns all around to view the sweep of human aesthetic expression.

This anthology returns me to the beginning of my interest in the pursuit of poetic excellence. Like most of us, I was introduced to poems selected by my teachers, and I first attempted poetry with grade school assignments. However, it was not until I began to read anthologies as an adult that I began to see that poetry would become my favorite way of hearing what others have to say and for trying to express myself. With The Phoenix Rising from the Ashes Richard Vallance has given us vistas of poetry of this latest century that remind me of those provided by Oscar Williams and others of the poetry from the fourteenth through the twentieth century.”

Visiting Vettriano

fig.1

Getting to Glasgow is always a bit of a struggle for me, but today I made the effort. The reason was the offer of a trip to see the retrospective exhibition of paintings by Jack Vettriano at the Kelvingrove Museum.

fig2 - detail from a self portrait

fig2 – detail from a self portrait

There is a problem with writing honestly about Vettriano’s painting, and that is that the pro- lobby has got its retaliation in first. Any criticism of the painter’s style, content, or expertise is instantly greeted with accusations of snobbery. One must not attack ‘The People’s Painter’, or so it appears, as to do so is to betray oneself as insufferably bourgeoise. However, Vettriano suffers from an obvious flaw of the self-taught – a lack of technical power*. Getting up close to original Vettriano paintings, close enough to reach out and touch, in the basement of the Kelvingrove, has to be worth £5, though, just to see what all the fuss is about and to check out the source for the million-million images on mugs, postcards, and tea-towels.

Many of his most famous paintings are on display, including The Billy Boys, The Singing Butler, and the zinging Bluebird at Bonneville, loaned from the collections in which they are hoarded. The whole exhibition must be worth an arm and a leg. That’s a problem; standing there feels like I just paid a fiver to glorify marketing, not to appreciate art. But then in 1988 Vettriano sold his first two canvases accepted for the Royal Scottish Academy’s annual show on the first day, and hasn’t looked back since. Inevitably, in the prevailing private-market-driven culture of art, the question is asked – how many of his paintings now sell because they are appreciated and how many because they are a sound investment? Somebody must like them, reproductions are as common as chips and disappear off the shelves rapidly.

fig.3 - detail from a self-portrait

fig.3 – detail from a self-portrait

Let me deal with what I do like and do appreciate in his work, first of all, and then go on to say what I honestly think lets it down. I shall use paintings that are on display at the Kelvingrove, wherever possible.

Probably my favourite Vettriano painting, leaving aside his self-portraits, is the one of Malcolm Campbell’s ‘Bluebird’ on Pendine Sands in 1924 (fig.1). It is highly stylized, as many of his paintings are, and has his low horizon, distant breakers, and wet beach tropes, along with figures back-lit by watery sunlight. It displays his wonderful knack for painting reflections on surfaces, in this case the wet beach. I love the fragmentation of the reflections. Another Vettriano trope is the frozen attitudes of the figures, each one looking as though it has been caught at an individual moment. The whole painting is like a pause in conversation, with the only sounds being Bluebird’s engine ticking over, and the ‘start’ banner snapping in the breeze. I enjoy looking at it, it has a definite ‘feel’.

A similar capturing of reflection can be seen in the picture of the woman in slacks and a headscarf, leaning against a car (fig.4).

fig.4

fig.4

The whole picture is very stylized of course, but apart from the familiar device of the fragmented reflections on the wet ground, there is the clearer view of a building and trees in the car window, and a more indistinct, angled reflection in the misted rear quarter-light (or are we supposed to be looking through it? It’s debatable, and sometimes Vettriano does pull our leg and trick our eye). There is also a subtle difference in surfaces on the car, where an imperfection in the bodywork appears, just below the door handle. Things like this convince me that Vettriano can paint.

fig.5 - detail from a self portrait

fig.5 – detail from a self portrait

He’s weak on faces, about which weakness more later. The one face he does seem to have the measure of is his own; it is almost the only one that he tackles from straight on, that is not obscured by a fedora or something. I can look at his self portraits and feel engaged with the person depicted there. I would happily hang one on my wall. I like the one where he is shown absorbed by a book (fig.2). Behind him on the wall is an empty frame; it seems to imply that the artist-subject’s face, on which we might pretend to read his character, is as important to appreciation of the painting as is the whole, larger composition. At the same time it reminds the onlooker that the painting’s subject is an artist.

The more full-length self-portrait below (fig.6) shows him posed almost like one of his 1940s-kitsch male figures. However, there is more relaxation, less striking of an attitude. Once again the subject is caught in a suspended moment. This painting also shows Vettriano’s knack with light. He often paints light from a window in this way, sometimes filtering it through thin curtains, and more often than not he nails it.

self-portrait 4

fig.6 – self portrait

I mentioned that he is weak on faces. I believe this to be demonstrated by his hiding them. Very few faces in his paintings are shown anything more than sideways on. Many that are, are shaded by a hat, or suggested rather than depicted. Meanwhile other details in the same painting – the fold and hang of clothes, for example – may be sharp and well-executed. He has made a virtue of this, seeming to suggest that his subjects are anonymous, mysterious rather than open, menacing, furtive, sometimes ashamed of themselves or of the decadent world they inhabit – the bars, the dives, the back rooms, the cheap hotels. On some occasions a painting is embarrassingly bad. In The Direct Approach (fig.7), the young woman’s head, neck, and right shoulder are anatomically impossible.

fig.7 - detail from 'The Direct Approach'

fig.7 – detail from ‘The Direct Approach’

I look at some faces – hands as well – in a Vettriano painting and think that I’ve seen better in the end-of-term display at the local high school. It seems to be a matter of hit-and-miss; stepping from one painting to the next in this exhibition can often be a matter of stepping from a good one to an awful one, and there are too many that leave me shaking my head to convince me that Jack Vettriano is all he’s cracked up to be. His obsession with creating a kind of soft-porn, 1940s, high kitsch with mobster overtones has been flogged to death. He has painted himself into a corner as a one-trick pony; no matter that it is a highly successful, highly commercial trick (and good luck to him on that score, as he can ignore my opinion all the way to the bank), a whole room full of them soon starts to grate. I often wish that his application to study fine art at Edinburgh University had not been turned down, that he had gone there and acquired some of the technical power he lacks. His painting doesn’t seem to have been going anywhere, and I have the feeling that it ought to have done. He is very talented, and ironically had he been less so he would have been lauded as a primitive. The trouble is that he has too much technique for that, but not enough to rise above the mugs and postcards.

I wish he would. If I could paint as badly as he does (if you see what I mean) I would want to paint better.

__________
* I am all too aware that I am expressing this opinion as a self-taught author and poet; ours seems to be the only formal genre, however, where the necessity of ‘learning’ the art is considered irrelevant by most critics.

Artworks reproduced are acknowledged to be the painter’s copyright, but are displayed in this essay for illustration purposes and as examples for legitimate criticism and comment.

Angels, Mothers, Vampires, and Others.

Michael

This morning I finished my final read-through of The Everywhen Angels, my forthcoming novel, and gave a small list of unresolved typographical issues to my publisher. I think that’s the job done. I’m still awaiting the cover artwork, but that’s for the ‘house’ artist.

Having done that, I turned my attention to The Milk of Female Kindness, an anthology of prose, artwork, and poetry on the subject of motherhood. Contributors are drawn from as far afield as Australia, North America, and Britain. The Australian editor is Kasia James, and I am privileged to be doing a little editorial consultancy for her. The contents are marvelous – poetry ranges from Alison Bartlett’s ‘Reasons to Breastfeed’ to my own ‘The Maclaren’, about someone who can’t breastfeed – and I would especially recommend Maureen Bowden’s short story ‘Hiding the Knives’. I don’t have any information as to when the book will appear, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

I have also heard that the international anthology of modern sonnets The Phoenix Rising from its Ashes, for which I am Deputy Editor, is now ready to go to print. Publication is a little behind schedule, but it has a bit of a struggle to get this far. Being a deputy means you don’t get final say. I have often thought that it would have looked a lot different had I been at the helm, but it wasn’t my baby, and so all the recognizable facial features will be those of its very loving father, Editor-in-Chief Richard Vallance. Richard has sunk considerable energy and personal resources into this collection, and deserves to see it thrive. Again, more news as I get it.

Having work edited – the most chastening part of publication for an author – is damn good schooling for doing editorial work oneself. It sharpens up one’s initial presentation, for a start. Shortly, I hope, I shall be in a position to hand over the first draft of my teen-vampire novel. I’m winging it. I didn’t want to write a romance, where another Bella falls for another Edward*, so I launched straight into an action scene without even pausing to dream up a plot. I figured that my protagonist would suggest to me how the story would go and so she did! Imagine a tomboyish, even ‘boi-ish’, version of Buffy in a New York setting, a generation into the future, when energy resources are running thin and vampires are finding their way into positions of influence in the world. Imagine her reading a book about a nineteenth-century vampire hunter and finding connections. Imagine that despite her heroism she makes fatal mistakes. Imagine vampires with whom any person-to-person understanding is next-to-impossible (hence no cheesy romance). Imagine, most of all, the feeling that as a teenager one is marginalized and kept in the dark. That’s the way the novel is shaping up at present. The question of teenage alienation and lack of understanding is not a new theme for me. I deal with it a lot in The Everywhen Angels, for example. In my teen-vampire novel it is going to be dealt with a little more simply and superficially, amongst the episodic, crash-bang plot. I have to say it feels a little as though I’m writing a pot-boiler, but we’ll see how it comes out…

It’s a while until the next Showcase at the zen space is due out. Nevertheless I’m currently thinking about it. My aim this time will be to feature, strictly, writers whose work has not yet been seen in a Showcase. This means I will have to start sending out invitations and calling for contributions soon. I’m taking a little rest from writing poetry myself, but will be back at it shortly, I’m sure.

Finally, have you picked up your free ebook copy of my novel Lupa? If not, go here to do so – and also think about writing a review for me.

__________
*That’s a Twilight reference, for those of you who don’t instantly get it.

I’ve been here before

angels

It seems like only days ago that I was proof-reading the final draft of Lupa. There were three of us on the task, and we still let a glaring typo go through into the first print run. Now I’m at the same stage with The Everywhen Angels, and I’m a little jumpy about making the same mistake. I always blame typos on my legendary North Korean keyboard, but no one really believes me. The other thing that has me on the edge of my seat is the prospect of seeing the cover illustration. I have passed my own ‘vision’ to the house illustrator, but who knows what he will come up with. Reactions to his cover for Lupa were very good – not without exception, but you can’t please everyone.

Meanwhile my new teen-vampire-themed novel is progressing slowly, after an initial burst, but it definitely is progressing, and probably more quickly than anything I have ever written. A bit.

I would like to remind you that if you would like a free e-book copy of Lupa you can still get one – but hurry! You’re also invited to send in a review, with the possibility that you could win an autographed copy of the novel. You will see from the on-line review form that it doesn’t have to be a long review, but the text box on the form does expand to allow you to ‘wax lyrical’.