The Brain Within Its Groove by L.N. Nino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of my Favourite Five Horror Stories for Halloween 2015
I nearly didn't return to Story Cartel after a disappointing first experience, but I'm now glad I gave them a second chance. If you don't know it, the website offers free eBooks in return for writing honest reviews and has a varied selection of independent publications. The Brain Within Its Groove by L.N. Nino is one such story.
This literary novella is titled for an Emily Dickinson poem, a connection that initially passed me by as I'd not read any of her work. Nino's writing is beautifully elegant and 'old-fashioned', but in a good way, the prose flowing like that of a classic Victorian author. His imagery is vivid with each word appearing to have been considered and deliberated over. I was surprised to read writing of this calibre for free! Whether the psychiatric science is valid or imagined I cannot say, but certainly the mood and atmosphere ring true and I particularly appreciated the restraint of the writing as we grew closer to its horrific conclusion. Scenes are generally far more frightening when the reader's imagination is primed then let loose, and Nino has gauged this perfectly for maximum effect. Perhaps I would have liked characters other than the narrator to have been more fully developed, but I understand that within the short space of a novella this would have upset the pace of the tale.
I will definitely be looking out for more work by L.N. Nino and would recommend this book for fans of subtle creeping horror.
The Stain on the Snow by Georges Simenon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read a Crime Masterworks edition of The Stain On The Snow so, from the blurb on the back cover, was expecting a crime story in the Maigret mould. The Stain On The Snow is not such a book. Instead it is a novel of war and of the effect on a population of living under occupation for an extended period of time. Presumably the country in Simenon's thoughts was France under German occupation, but the reader is never given enough information to confirm this. The main protagonists have Germanic names and I believe the point is that this could be any people in any country. I thought of Philippe Claudel's haunting novel, Brodeck's Report, which conveys a similar resigned anger.
Our anti-hero, Frank, is cold, selfish and violent in a similar fashion to Anthony Burgess' Alex. Living with his mother, Lotte, in her illegal brothel, their reasonably comfortable lifestyle is funded by the officers of the occupying forces leading to the pair being ostracised by their neighbours. With no hopes for his future, Frank spends his time having sex with the brothel girls or drinking with an array of equally hopeless characters in seedy bars near his home. He deliberately courts danger seeming to try and push his luck past breaking point. He allows himself to be seen just prior to a murder, and openly flaunts both cash and a stolen weapon.
I found it impossible to care about Frank, or his mother, yet was still fascinated to discover what becomes of them. Their harsh world is generally atmospherically portrayed and the other tenants in their building have wonderful cameos allowing the reader to picture each person immediately. I liked the feel of the town. The coldness of the winter and its dirty snow everywhere made for great metaphors, however I think reading this book in its original French would have made even more of this. Occasional phrases felt clumsy and awkward and I wondered if this was the fault of the translation - perhaps a colloquialism that would make perfect sense to a French reader did not work in English. The sense of attempting to live despite occupation is a strong theme, the desperation of many of the people was harrowing to read and this is not a book to be undertaken lightly. I did think that its power waned in the third section when Frank is in prison following his arrest and his apparent redemption in the eyes of the two people he had hurt most didn't quite ring true for me. However, his acceptance of his fate - perhaps having finally found some semblance of purpose - is moving.
Tinder by Sally Gardner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm not quite sure why, but Tinder didn't enthrall me in the way I hoped it would. I enjoy fairytales by modern authors such as +Neil Gaiman but felt this one lacked a truly magical spark. There are a number of unexpected flashbacks which made the story a bit tricky to follow on +Audible.co.uk audio as if I missed a few seconds, I wasn't always able to pick the story up again easily.
Based on The Tinderbox tale by Hans Christian Andersen, Sally Gardner has cleverly worked the trauma of child soldiers and civil war into her story and set it in the period of the 30 Years War about which I know precious little but am now intrigued to research. She tells us a little about her influence and inspiration after the tale which was interesting to hear.
Robert Madge does a good job of the narration and his voice fits how I imagine Otto would sound. The story trips along at a good pace with frequent fantastical imagery, but some descriptions are overly repeated which I found annoying. For example, the 'pointless quill' of a lawyer is a great visual phrase, but I didn't need it hammered home so many times in quick succession.
As is typical of fairytales, the characters are not particularly well developed, there are goodies and baddies a plenty and they tend to stick to type. I did like the Lady of the Nail and the hotel keeper is fun.
Reading other reviews, I have discovered the printed book is illustrated by David Roberts which adds greatly to the atmosphere of the tale. Perhaps for Tinder, this would have been the better option, however I don't think I will be buying a second version to find out.
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