Review: ‘The Visitors’ by Simon Sylvester

IMG_20140913_170641I went on a bit of book buying binge recently, scooping up a few newish titles by writers I hadn’t heard of and I’d read good things about. I now see the error of my ways. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but I was sorely disappointed by the latest instalment from my aforementioned Book Binge, which was The Visitors by Simon Sylvester.

The Visitors mostly takes place on the fictional Hebridean island of Bancree where there have been a series of unusual disappearances of beloved locals, and the story is brought to us by 17 year old resident Flora (or Flo to her friends, of which – she is wont to tell us – she has few). Flora is bored by her life on Bancree, and cursed by the itchy feet that I think many of us who grew up in remote areas often are. Her boyfriend abandons her for the wild landscape of Bristol Uni, while Flora is just starting her sixth year at a school in a mainland town near to Bancree. The school where she regularly clashes with grouchy and emotionally simple girls, naturally envious of her much-noted independence and reportedly handsome boyfriend.

To be honest, I got this far through it and started questioning who this book was actually targeted at, already doubting my choice. Optimistically believing it would soon morph into the moody thriller about mysterious disappearances in the wilds of the icy Scottish wilderness that I’d read about, I persevered. The tale plodded onward with some exciting episodes involving a school project about mythical sea creatures, casual run-ins with locals, and a pretty weak smattering of stilted dialogue more suited to an evening listening to The Archers than the literary thriller this was purported to be.

Amongst all of this small town angst appear the focus of Flora’s narrative: mysterious Aisla, also 17 years old, and her phenomenally attractive father. They arrive without warning, moving into an abandoned house on an even tinier island across from Flora’s home. Flora and Aisla strike up a close friendship, seemingly bound by their shared unusual-but-attractive looks and the fact that they are the only teenagers on the island. Not a hell of a lot to go on, but hey, who am I to judge?

The father and daughter team baffle the neighbourhood but shunning any real social interactions, but don’t seem to be doing too much harm so the friendship between the girls flourishes – apparently off the page, as there is very little detail given. I could have forgiven Sylvester a lot of the clunky plot if he had only dialled down the dialogue, and spent more time on the girls’ friendship – I wanted to invest in it and know what they liked about each other, what drew them in, other than their pretty faces.

The way that the teenage girls were characterised was one of the things that most irked me about The Visitors. They seemed to be so two-dimensional, like they had been plucked out of any other throw-away teen novel/TV show/movie. It was all so lazy. And nobody thought to explain to Sylvester that there is no direct correlation between how a young woman looks and how interesting she is, or that 16 and 17 years olds can terrorise each other over a lot more than their handsome boyfriends.

To be a little fairer to the author (it is, after all, his debut novel), he clearly used his ability to describe a scene with a poetic dexterity that captured the sense of the damp chill in the air, and really brought the islands to life. There were times when I could really see the grey and changeable horizon from Bancree, and these moments were there to be treasured because soon enough they would be swallowed in the fug of cliché and the pedestrian plot that fills the rest of the book.

Using Flora’s school project as a conduit there are also unexpected flashes of fantasy in the story, and some of the chapters are pleasantly interrupted by short folk tales about selkies. Although they feel a little crowbarred in, they are a nice touch and modestly told, and add an intriguing tangential mystery to the plot. The final push contained an almost overpowering wave of drama, not entirely fitting with the molasses-like pace of the rest of book, but concludes with a disarmingly warming epilogue that despite myself I really enjoyed.

I have learned one thing on my rip-roaring adventure in bad literature: don’t trust everything people tell you, even if it’s 50:1 in favour of the book. Go with your gut, and always read the first page before buying. I mean, I could be completely wrong about this book – read it and let me know.

The Visitors is published by Quercus, and is available to buy in hardback for £16.99.

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Amazon Feud(s) are Making Way for New and Improved Independent Online Bookshops

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Watching Amazon fight with Hachette was starting to feel like watching your parents fight – you can’t take sides because as a book lover they both offer you different, but highly valuable, services. Plus they’re grown-ups, and they should really know better. As the saga has gone on, and Amazon has made more and more enemies both in and outside of the publishing industry, they now seem less like the ugly side of a justifiable battle, and more like the playground thug out to steal everyone’s lunch money. It only adds to this image when Amazon’s people respond like infants (see their famous George Orwell misquote in an open letter to ‘readers’) and throw tantrums which manifest in the removal of certain books and pre-order buttons, and generally making life miserable for the authors and their customers.

And that is the saddest side of the whole debacle. Amazon’s monopolising, money-grabbing tendencies are punishing writers, who often seem to be discussed in a pained ‘think about the children’ manner. While Amazon and the mighty publishers squabble over who should get the most money from the books they produce and sell, they seem to unashamedly sail past the notion that the people who should be earning the most from their books are probably the writers since they, you know, WROTE THE BOOKS. And as they plough through each publishing house like so much wheat and chaff, it appears as though Amazon is just too big. It’s too resilient. Amazon have enough fingers in enough pies to bump along quite happily without the good favour of the odd publishing house for a while, but how long can even the biggest publishing houses survive without Amazon? With the grinding down of major book retailers, publishers are no longer able to take the revenue from the high streets they once could – Amazon is our high street now.

It was in fact eBook profit margins that triggered Amazon’s myriad disputes, and not those of the physical books they are toying with – Amazon naturally wanting a bigger slice, the publishers naturally saying no. Amazon’s ailing profit margins have shaken their share price, and it seems more and more like the company is becoming a victim of its own business model. The problem is, saying no to Amazon is sort of like saying no to the mob. Their actions in the last few months have infuriated many people in the literary community, and Dennis Loy Johnson, founder of Melville House, even exasperatedly asked the New York Times “How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it”.

It does, however, look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is an increasingly large variety of places we can find cut-price and out of print books, both physical and online, but until recently Amazon was the one we all knew. They can knock huge percentages off the RRP, while smaller sites can only do up to around 35% off before they start losing money. I think 35% is enough. It may now be in our hands as consumers to rob Amazon of its monopoly, simply by shopping elsewhere.

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Publishers and authors are angry, and are beginning to experiment with different ways of selling their books online, such as HarperCollins revamping their website to make it easier for customers to buy their books directly from the publisher. Penguin Random House also launched their new site, My Independent Bookshop, a few months ago, offering a completely new way to buy books online. The site emulates the experience of walking into an indie bookshop and being told what is really worthwhile buying, by people worthwhile listening to: booksellers and writers. Each virtual shop set up by an author or bookseller is given a name and a street, giving the shopper the sense of meandering through winding literary avenues. You can also buy the books being recommended to you via Hive, the Gardners Books e-commerce arm – there’s no steering us towards Amazon here. And best of all, this isn’t only a boost for independent online book sales – shoppers can choose a real world indie bookshop which will receive a percentage of the commission, as well as act as a pick-up point for the books bought via Hive to encourage consumers to take a trip to the physical shop. Another indie online store, The Best Little Bookshop, launched their new bookselling site in beta last month, spotting the gap in the market: there is room for an independent online bookshop which can show us an altogether more appealing shopping experience. They show us beauty as well as substance by presenting an endearing selection of recommended titles on the homepage, as well as adding an area that presents us with ‘Small press and Handmade’ titles for the true connoisseur.

It’s important now to avoid buying books on Amazon, not only because it can be a much more enjoyable experience on another site, but for the sake of diversifying the market – save us all from falling down the Amazon rabbit-hole and instead reach out for an altogether more benevolent, and beneficial, method of book buying.

Lovely online bookshops for happy browsing:

http://www.bestlittlebookshop.com/

https://www.myindependentbookshop.co.uk/

http://www.hive.co.uk/

http://www.foyles.co.uk/

http://www.bookstore.co.uk/

http://www.abebooks.co.uk/

http://www.bookdepository.com/

http://dauntbooks.co.uk/

http://booksellercrow.co.uk/shop/

Review: ‘In the Approaches’ by Nicola Barker

IMG_20140902_184013I was cruising the Not the Booker 2014 longlist a couple of months ago, keen to read something I’d never heard of. I was itching to stretch my cognitive muscles outside of my comfort zone, wary of wedging myself in a reading rut. Along came the brilliant Nicola Barker and her latest novel, In the Approaches; a lively, even manic, tragicomedy set in 1984, steered by the emotionally (and geographically) turbulent experiences felt by a small group of people living in a small town on the Sussex coast.

The novel is constructed of a string of monologues from our three (or four, if you count Teobaldo, the incensed parrot) major characters, all bringing their own perspective on events that take place during 1984. They are united in their peripheral experiences of a family that came to live in the village some 12 years previously: the artist and IRA sympathiser Bran Cleary, his troubled wife Kalinda ‘Lonely’ Allaway, and their young daughter Orla Nor Cleary, the living saint tainted by thalidomide. Little Orla seems to have touched the lives of everyone around her (and those much farther away), and none more so than Carla Hahn, who acted as Orla’s ‘nurse’ until her death. Carla is frequently antagonised by the cynical Franklin D. Huff, a love interest and former journalist over from America to decipher and scrutinise the events surrounding the Cleary family, while solving a few personal mysteries of his own.

The character truly experiencing the torment of standing ‘in the approaches’ is poor old Clifford Bickerton – former squeeze of Carla’s, and a character plunging headlong into a nervous breakdown, constantly criticising the ‘cow Author’. It is not for us to know who the Author is (whether or not she is Barker), only to speculate. At once the Author could be Barker breaking through the pages and communicating directly with her character, expressing her self-doubt or pride through a Clifford shaped vessel, or she could simply be the fevered imaginings of an increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied member of the cast. I find both devices interesting, and this ambiguity only makes them more so.

A key theme running through In the Approaches is the concept of religion alongside, or versus, spirituality. As an atheist I can become sort of caustic in a discussion about religion, and at times I did feel mildly irritated by Barker’s seeming assumption that a degree of faith is a given, a necessity. Everyone in the novel has been touched by Orla and her pious deeds, either while she was alive or years after her death, and everyone at some point experiences a sense of something ‘other’ – be it fate, prayer or ghosties. It was something I found hard to get on board with, but I admire Barker’s ability to keep a subject like this plainly non-sickly. There were definitely pointed sections of the novel that provide us with the occasional lunacy of religious fanaticism, but it seems clear that Barker is falling on the side of the ethereal.

Barker’s prose is playful and tricksy, and above all, fun. She uses parenthesis with a compulsion, which on the surface makes her seem lost in her own storytelling, but in fact enfolds the reader in each of the character’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquies. In what initially felt like a pretty eccentric style, Barker presents internal ruminations to us in a way that makes perfect non-linear sense.

In the Approaches is, at its bare bones, a romantic comedy. And a pastoral mystery. And a family drama. But delve a little deeper and it’s much more – it’s a weird investigation into the connection between personal distress and faith, a literary and linguistic challenge, and a slapstick romance populated with embarrassing bum jokes. I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and because it’s triggered my Nicola Barker binge. Next up: Darkmans.

In the Approaches is published by Fourth Estate, and can be found alongside Barkers numerous other novels in all good bookshops for £18.99.

And here for a little extra: an interesting article about the author herself