The Devil is a Black Dog by Sándor Jászberényi

27207060This collection of short stories, translated from Hungarian by Matt Henderson Ellis, offers a truly breathtakingly stark glance—in a series of carefully constructed snapshots, mirroring each in their haunting portrayal of violence—at the horror of countries torn apart by war. The Devil is a Black Dog by Sándor Jászberényi explores the destruction that plagues these obscure, far-away nations—making us feel as though it is the reader who stands alone, dust and sand sticking to one’s clothes.

It’s to Jászberényi’s credit that the tales that make up this thin volume never quite feel like fiction: the image of a photojournalist’s jacket riddled with bullets—or of a man, lined up with others against a wall and offered a smoke, before being shot by a commander as that very same, just-lit cigarette hangs from his lips—is all too real. Similar images adorn our newspapers and television news channels on a daily basis, often to the point where we have, more than ever, become desensitized to the violence of war.

Despite that, Jászberényi’s stripped-back narrative style—which does not concern itself with political detail or very much background information at all—works effectively in bringing to the forefront the harsh realities of these war zones. In a manner that evokes Ernest Hemingway—and in particular the short vignettes that are interspersed between the stories of his first collection, In Our Time—Jászberényi gives us just enough, concentrating on the personal reactions of the people caught up in the violence, rather than the detail behind why these things are happening. All of the stories in The Devil is a Black Dog can be read without prior knowledge of the specific conflicts that are taking place.

At the same time, there is a peculiar sense of displacement; despite the sudden and often shocking images of bullet-ridden bodies and blood-spattered walls, our narrator—who, when all said and done is Jászberényi himself, the stories based on his time spent as a photojournalist in the likes of Cairo and Chad—mostly stays apart from the action, drinking whisky on a rooftop bar while and playing games on his phone while remaining detached. Ultimately, the reader struggles with this attachment too.

Perhaps “favourite” isn’t the right word for a collection of this kind, but for this reader there were certain stories that jumped out more than others. “The Dead Ride Fast”, the final tale in this collection, tells the story of two photojournalists—our reoccurring character Marosh, who often narrates throughout the book, and a scarred German woman—both of whom are trying to make the most of living in this world of rebellion and gunfire. “The Field’ is effective in a different way: its cruel conclusion—where a British humanitarian aid worker sits complaining about the delays in Heathrow airport, while the village she has just left is being burned to the ground—is a punch to the gut.

Each short story in Jászberényi’s The Devil is a Black Dog offers something different, even if the overreaching theme—the consequences of war—remains the same, as we’re swept along from Benghazi to Budapest. Perhaps inevitably—by the very nature of the author’s personal experiences being written about via fiction rather than, say, memoir—the writing is assured: Jászberenyi knows exactly what he wants to say, but more importantly how he wants to say it.

This, Jászberényi’s first collection, is an impressive read—and this reader at least will be looking forward to future publications.

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Thank you to the lovely people at @ScribeUKbooks for the ARC.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story by Tom Michell

26192990What a delightful little (true) story Tom Michell’s The Penguin Lessons is. It often becomes tempting to dismiss the whole “get this item just in time for Christmas” marketing gimmick—and it’s usually a very good idea to ignore the not-so-subtle attempts to shoe-horn every item for sale into the festivities. However, with this book, Michell has created a touching narrative that will soften the most hardened of hearts.

Michell’s book focuses on a period of time in the 1970s where he moved to Argentina—ostensibly to teach at a prestigious boarding school, but really as an excuse to travel South America and succumb to his adventurous 23-year-old spirit. What he probably doesn’t expect to find when wandering the Uruguayan coast one afternoon, however, is the corpses of hundreds of Magellan penguins—dead as a result of an oil spill. One lone penguin hangs on to life by the slenderest of threads, alive but clearly not in good shape. Michell, in a move that today sounds like it could come straight out of the script for a particularly zany Hollywood movie, decides to rescue the penguin, scrub him up in his friends’ apartment, and bring him back to Argentina.

So begins a friendship that touches many lives and gives rise to many a joyous moment back on campus. Juan Salvador—for that is the name Michell has given him—is a delight to all the boys at the college, and flourishes in his new environment. Our author struggles constantly with the debate about what is best for the penguin’s well-being, but in the end his obvious contentment is enough to make Michell decide that the college room—and in particular the terrace where the penguin basks in the sunlight and eats his fish—should be Juan Salvador’s home.

Michell really manages to pack a poignant tale—centred on the joy and happiness that Juan Salvador brings to people’s lives—into just over 200 hundred pages, but he does not leave it there. The descriptions of Argentine politics, economics, rugby—even the scenery he finds on his coastal wanderings—really bring the narrative to life, and you almost feel as if it’s you the reader that has taken this wild—but ultimately hugely rewarding—expedition, a long way now from home.

One particular highlight of The Penguin Lessons is the story of Juan Salvador’s relationship with one of the boys from the college—a section that explores the idea that sometimes it takes something a little bit special and different, to find out the truth behind a mask; to learn what really motivates a person. The idea that animals can unlock something inside of us through communication, and that they understood more than we could ever expressed, is something worth considering. Michell is absolutely right in his assertion that as technology develops we will find a way to break down the barriers between human and animal communication.

In essence, Michell’s The Penguin Lessons is a heart-warming and thoroughly entertaining read. There is humour—both light-hearted and laugh-out-loud worthy, often at the same time—but also inevitable sadness. This is a wonderful little story, and it has to be said: it’s a perfect little Christmas treat.

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My thanks to Gaby Young (@GabyYoung) and Penguin Random House/Michael Joseph (@MichaelJBooks) for the ARC.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”

927167You know when you sometimes decide to read a random book, completely on a whim, and then you turn that final page and let out a breath you didn’t know you were holding, before giving yourself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for making a terrific choice? What a feeling, right? Well, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was that kind of novel for me.

I can’t remember who recommended this to me, whether it was a friend or an article I read somewhere—but I owe a debt to whoever the person was that brought this book to my attention. The Outsiders is an intense, breathless novel which explores gang culture in 1960s Oklahoma, focusing on the two types of people that make up our narrator Ponyboy’s world: the Socs, rich society kids that have it all; and the greasers, who aren’t so well off. For Ponyboy, one of the latter, his life is basically one big battle between the two groups—with often horrible consequences.

Hinton envelops the reader in a world that for most will seem so far removed from their own life, as we feel every punch thrown and each bitterly cold night. It’s hard not to feel something for these young kids with their strange names and futures that promise so little. The relationships are more than just casual camaraderie: this is a group that, in reality, is one big extended family. Some are orphans, others victims of abuse from their parents. But they all have each other—and this love is what drives a narrative that is often heart-wrenching, but also at times heart-warming and playful.

Sure, there is heartache and loss—what else would one expect from the circumstances in which these kids live? Yet there is joy and laughter too. The in-jokes, the ribbing and teasing—even the inevitable arguments that flare up between different members of the group—all show that this is a world that these kids have adapted to, each in their own way. Of course there’s toughness to them all—there has to be by the nature of the world they live. Switchblades, guns and even safehouses are all readily available, and all are accustomed to the blood and violence which is a part of their everyday lives.

Nevertheless, throughout The Outsiders you can’t help but feel that these are a bunch of children well out of their depths; resourceful on the surface undoubtedly, but inside as scared and alone as the next person in the group. Hinton explores this with an assured touch, deftly and subtly exploring a culture in a narrative style that is clear and precise—making the narrative better for it. This is a feat that is made all the more impressive considering Hinton was just 17-years-old at the time of writing the book, and I marvel at the fact she could write such a touching story of love and loyalty at such a young age.

The Outsiders is an impressive novel and one which I would recommend to, well, everyone. It’s hardly a “feel good” story, not by any means, but Hinton’s heart-wrenching exploration of trust, friendship and love—through such a vulnerable, youthful voice—makes for a gripping, emotional read; a reminder, perhaps, that we should all try to “stay gold.”

West Ham United vs Everton: Roberto Martinez’s resurgent Toffees take on the Hammers

Roberto Martinez and his Everton side will be overflowing with confidence as they prepare to travel to the Boleyn Ground in order to face West Ham United on Saturday afternoon – but they will also know that they will have a tough game on their hands.

The signs couldn’t be much better for the Toffees, after a recent run of form has seen them move up the Premier League table and also advance to the Capital One Cup quarter-finals – courtesy of a win over Norwich City on penalties.

It was last Sunday’s flurry of goals at Goodison Park that will have the fans purring in anticipation, however, after Martinez’s side dismantled struggling Sunderland 6-2 – a hattrick from Arouna Koné amongst the highlights in a game where Everton really showcased their attacking potential.

“They are going to be challenging to finish in the top five”

– Roberto Martinez

Martinez knows, however, that Sunday’s trip will far from be a walk in the park, as he paid the London club a high compliment in suggesting that they are a “top five side.” Speaking about the Hammers’ strong results – and great performances – this season, Martinez described Bilić’s side as “very impressive” suggesting that the Toffees would definitely have to prepare properly and “make sure we’re ready” for the game this weekend.

Martinez is not wrong in his assessment. West Ham’s season has already included wins over Manchester City,  Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – and the Hammers have lost just three games all campaign. Bilić’s impact has been instantaneous and they are a threat for any team – despite their poor record in fixtures against Everton.

The Toffees will take heart in Watford’s 2-0 win over West Ham last weekend – a result that ended a seven-match unbeaten run for Bilić’s side – and will be encouraged by the fact that West Ham haven’t won a game in this fixture for the last 14 encounters.

With both teams pushing for the Europa League places – West Ham sitting fifth, just below Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference, and Everton just four points adrift in ninth – three points for either side would be a big boost to their chances. Expect a lively, competitive affair when the teams come out on Saturday afternoon.

Squad news

For West Ham and Bilić, they will have to take to the field without James Collins, after his red card in the defeat to Watford last weekend left him suspended. Pedro Obiang and Diafra Sako are also doubts – both with thigh problems – but Winston Reid could return after his spell on the substitutes bench, while Alex Song is also thought to be almost back to full match fitnress.

The visitors have issues of their own, with captain Phil Jagiela still out with a knee injury – a problem that could keep him sidelined for two months. Replacement Ramiro Funes Mori looks set to continue in his place. Steven Pienaar and Tony Hibbert will not play a part in the game, and Bryan Oviedo has a hamstring issue, but Muhammed Besic, Tom Cleverley and Leighton Baines have all been in training this week.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“That was another one of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”

13536315(2)I get the impression that Julian Barnes is a bit of a Marmite writer, but safe to say I am decidedly in the camp that rates The Sense of an Ending highly. It’s just a slip of a novel – a novella, really – at 150 or so pages, but Barnes still manages to pack in a carefully constructed, emotional tale of love and loss.

In the book, we follow a group of kids at boarding school, and the introduction of a new member to their little clique: Adrian Finn. Barnes explores all the playful little jokes, intrigues and conversations that inevitably make up childhood and school life – but with plenty of clever philosophising to boot.

Finn is markedly different from his classmates, that much we are assured by our admittedly unreliable narrator Toby Webster – one of the group of friends. Webster discusses Adrian’s superior intelligence, his penchant for discussing the bigger questions, and as the group leave school and move on in their respective lives, there is already an undeniable tension lurking in the narrative.

Barnes’ novel—winner of the Man Booker prize in 2011 – reminded me often of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Not only because of similar themes of people drifting apart, friendship and loss, but also the idea of how we never really know anyone at all – even those closest to us. Our minds work in mysterious ways, and sometimes this understanding is impossible to grasp from an outside perspective.

The Sense of an Ending has beautiful prose and is endlessly quotable. It captures your attention and holds it, just as the mysteries are steadily unravelled and the questions answered. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the ending lets it down. The “twist”, as it were, seems a little off, and ultimately at odds with some of the other characters’ reactions. Sadly, it left me a little cold after the intrigue that had come before.

Often laugh-out-loud funny at times, Barnes’ novel is still definitely worth the read. His carefully formed sentences have you asking questions that you know full well won’t be answered until the end, so you read breathlessly on in search of answers. The Sense of an Ending must have done something right, because it ultimately left me wanting to read more of Barnes’ work. I therefore await his 2016 release – The Noise of Time – with baited breath. With him you never quite know what you will get.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…”

25970139What an intensely probing novel Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is. In some ways, this novel—the first in the Southern Reach trilogy—defies a proper summary; rather like Area X, the mysterious, secluded wilderness that for thirty years has been cordoned off from the public, and has largely remained unknowable.

Eleven expeditions have been sent to Area X before, one ending in a hail of gunfire, another mass-suicide. For this, the twelfth foray into this strange, shifting place, four women set out to find answers—an anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist and biologist, our narrator. All are nameless and events are told in the form of our narrator’s written journal—which makes it difficult to know exactly who to trust.

It quickly becomes clear that our narrator is not telling us everything as the members of the expedition quickly find trouble. A mysterious tower—or ‘tunnel’ to everyone but our narrator—yields some disturbing discoveries. On the walls, mysterious words stretch across, snaking down to a seemingly never-ending number of levels. The words are alive, teeming with a multitude of critters and made out of lichen and moss, and something else lurks in the shadows. Our narrator’s decision to plumb the depths and see the words first will have interesting repercussions.

Perhaps inevitably in this dreamlike wilderness, tempers soon fray and minds wander. VanderMeer’s novel recalls the hit television series Lost, with its increasingly complex island which seems to live and breathe itself, messing with the mind of its inhabitants. It was a show that gave out information sparingly, and Annihilation reveals its snippets of information equally slowly, building in an intensely gripping—and often decidedly creepy—fashion.

Everyone on the expedition seems to have set out with their own agendas, some more nefarious than others, and, of course, VanderMeer doesn’t give us all the answers—far from it. With another two sequels to come, Annihilation gives the reader enough to tease and cajole, leaving us wanting more—and he leaves Area X sufficiently mysterious enough that he could take the narrative forward in any number of directions. This reader is excited and intrigued to see how the series moves forward.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

24789156In all honesty, even after giving myself plenty of time to digest this one, I’m still not sure what I think. David Lagercrantz can write—that much I know—and I definitely enjoyed parts of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, but, in the end, to try recapture the brilliance that was the original Millennium trilogy might just have been too much to ask.

Mikael Blomkvist is back, but his star has diminished a little since we last saw him. Perhaps inevitably after the scale of his successes over the past few years, Blomkvist is struggling for that killer story; instead burying himself in mindless novel-reading, missing the spark he had when he was a young reporter, hungry and ambitious. Ultimately, Blomkvist is burned out—until a mysterious phone call and a meeting in his local pub one day prompts his interest. Even if it is only because he hears of a young woman—a genius with computers—on the grapevine.

Meanwhile, Millennium magazine is struggling, forced to take on a new merger with the type of business people they wouldn’t ordinarily afford a single glance. Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, is tackling her own agenda, going deep into the highest level of information she can in order to gather information on her father’s criminal empire: the National Security Agency. The mysterious group ‘The Spiders’ lurk in the shadows, and tracking them down will require Salander to confront both the past and present.

Lagercrantz has done a good job bringing Stieg Larsson’s characters to life on the page; Salander in particular feels fully formed and as explosive as always. Yet he’s also managed to put his own feel on the world, creating some interesting characters—in particular August, the young son of renewed professor Franz Balder, expert in artificial intelligence and the man at the centre of a group with a vested interest in his research. August was a breath of fresh air throughout the novel.

So what exactly feels off? In all fairness, I don’t think Lagercrantz did anything wrong as such, I’m just of the view that Larsson set the bar too high with the other books. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a valuable addition to the series—or, a decent ‘stand alone’ or piece of scandalous fan fiction, depending on who you ask—and I’m glad he will be doing more. He’s just going to have to up his game.

Everton vs Sunderland: Terrific Toffees run riot at Goodison

As the wreaths were removed from the field and the minute’s silence broken by the fans in the stands, Everton and Sunderland got set to play out an entertaining affair on a misty, drizzly day at Goodison Park.

Roberto Martinez’s Toffees were looking to build on their midweek Capital One Cup success against Norwich and they did exactly that, goals from Gerard Deulofeu, Romelu Lukaku, a hattrick from Arouna Koné and an own goal from Sebastian Coates  enough–despite Jermain Defoe’s strike on the stroke of half-time, and Steven Fletcher‘s header just after—to give them 6-2 win, and all three points.

It was a bright start, a sign of things to come, from both teams, with the first chance falling to the away side. Fletcher was alert to a ball forward, winning the flick on and receiving the ball back from Adam Johnson. The Scot cut the ball nicely across the area, but Patrick van Aanholt’s shot clattered against the inside of Tim Howard’s right-hand post. The Black Cats were left bemoaning their luck—in sharp contrast to their fortunes in the 3-0 win against Newcastle United last weekend.

Chances at both ends

Sunderland, buoyed since Sam Allardyce arrived at the club, looked sharp in the early stages, Fletcher linking well with Defoe up front. However, with the game extremely open in midfield, there were chances for both teams. First, Gareth Barry streamed forward, the Sunderland players allowing him the time to carry the ball 40 yards before offloading it to Ross Barkley. His snap shot flashed just wide, but Everton were beginning to look dangerous.

The action was lively and end-to-end, Sunderland streaming forward again, trying to make the most of a strong opening 15 minutes in which they were arguably the better side. Defoe, picking the ball up on the edge of the area from a squared van Aanholt pass, managed to get his shot away, forcing a save from Howard with his feet. The rebound fell straight to Johnson, but his scuffed shot tumbled its way onto the post again, before Fletcher’s follow up was quickly smothered again by Howard—leaving Allardyce’s side wondering how they hadn’t taken the lead.

Everton take a foothold

Despite all Sunderland’s pressure, however, it was the home side that broke the deadlock on 19 minutes after some poor defending. A headed ball down in midfield found Koné, before his raking ball over the top of the back four found Deulofeu in acres of space. Keeping his composure well, the ex-Barcelona man cut inside before slotting the ball home—via a slight deflection—past Costel Pantilimon to give Everton the lead.

Just a short time later and Sunderland still hadn’t learned their lesson, Deulofeu finding himself in an almost identical position, this time holding the ball up and squaring it across the box, just missing the onrushing Lukaku. Sunderland breathed a sigh of relief and minutes later were appealing for a penalty. Fletcher’s volleyed shot from distance bounced up and hit Barry on the arm—the referee rightly turning down Sunderland’s protests.

Just after the half hour mark and Everton had doubled their lead with a delightful move. Barkley, given far too much time in midfield, slotted a ball into Koné’s feet on the edge of the area. A quick give-and-go with Lukaku inside the box—wonderfully executed—provided the chance, and Koné lashed the ball into the back of the net from close range. A great move from the Toffees and a vital second goal.

A difference to the team talk

Without warning, Sunderland’s bright start had evaporated with some slick Everton football—and all of a sudden the pressure was all on Allardyce’s side. Two goals up and in control, Everton switched the ball from side to side with ease, Sunderland struggling to get out of the own half.

Then, perhaps typical of the way the game had been played in the first half, a bit of encouragement for Sunderland against the run of play in stoppage time. Defoe, latching on well to a ball up front, brought it down nicely and got his shot away, over the reach of Howard and into the back of the net. With the last kick of the half, and out of nowhere, Defoe had given his side a way back into the game.

End-to-end action

Just ten minutes into the second half and Defoe became the difference again—this time as the instigator rather than the goalscorer. Picking up the ball from a lumped ball forward, Defore held the ball up well before giving it to van Aanholt. His cross seemed nothing more than a hopeful punt inside the area, but Fletcher rose tallest to bully Ramiro Funes Mori and head the ball home. From looking completely out of the game, Sunderland were right back in it at 2-2.

Barely had the fans managed to catch their breath, however, before Everton once again had their noses in front. Deulofeu, minutes after having a penalty appeal rightly turned down after getting in behind the Sunderland defence, swung a teasing ball into the area towards Lukaku. The Belgian, looking like heading the ball home, forced Coates to try get a touch, and he steered the ball past his own goalkeeper. Breathless action as the Toffees took a 3-2 lead.

Beyond doubt

On the hour, Sunderland capitulated, and this time Lukaku managed to get his goal. A long ball forward by Deulofeu—-once more causing all sorts of problems—again split the Sunderland defence, and the big Belgian kept his cool to move around the goalkeeper and slot it home.

Moments later and Everton had made it five in explosive fashion, streaming forward on the counter with Barkley. Held up, James McCarthy played a lovely little reverse ball into Koné’s feet, and he added his second of the game to surely put the result beyond doubt, and end Sunderland’s resistence at 5-2.

Everton, confidence flowing as it does with a three-goal lead 25 minutes from time, started to stroke the ball around with ease – the highlight of which was a move in which 40+ passes were exchanged. Things could have been made all the worse if the referee would have spotted Koné being clattered inside the area—a definite penalty with the Ivory Coast man on a hat-trick.

Six of the best

However, he need not wait long as Everton added their sixth in 76th minute, in emphatic fashion. Lukaku, picking the ball up on the right, played an incredible outside-of-the-boot cross, in exhibition style, right onto the head of the onrushing Koné. His header crashed into the back of the net as the roof exploded from the top of Goodison Park. A short time later Lukaku was removed to standing ovation—as was Deulofeu earlier in the half, replaced by Kevin Mirallas—for fan-favourite Leon Osman.

Arguably one of the most entertaining Premier League games this season; an explosive affair with eight goals and plenty of end-to-end action. The Toffees march on with three points safely under wraps and a run of potentially good fixtures ahead.

As the fans stream out of Goodison Park this afternoon, they will know they have been given a real post-Halloween treat.