Strange, Seductive and Powerfully Sensual: Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”

61ud2qngezl-_sl300_Oh my gosh what an exciting novel Hot Milk is. I was a bit worried by the title that I was about to read some sort of weird MILF erotica. Just to be clear, it isn’t MILF erotica (or any other kind of erotica). It is a very sexy novel, but not in the way you’re thinking.

It’s the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. They are in Spain seeking treatment for an ailment that has stumped Rose’s doctors in England.

Sofia at 24, is an example of “failure to launch.” She has quit her PhD in anthropology to care for her mother. She works in a coffee shop. She has no romantic relationships, no home of her own. She failed her drivers licence four times. Seriously – four times! I’m in no place to criticise here, but she didn’t even pass the theory!

In Spain Sofia drops her laptop, shattering the screen. By breaking the laptop screen she also breaks the spell that has bound her gaze to it. Freed, she turns her anthropological eye upon herself. It’s the beginning of her discovery of her sexuality, her seductiveness and her inner monster.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Sofia and Rose crackles with tension and hums with rage. Between them they are stuck. But as the epigraph of the novel instructs: “It’s up to you to break the old circuits.” And it is up to Sofia and Rose to narrate their own new legends.

Levy’s writing is itself powerfully seductive. It as warm as the air of southern Spain. It’s smooth and divine and devilishly funny. It’s also terribly sensual. The story has an ethereal quality that makes it feel hard to pin down at first, but the golden thread of Levy’s metaphors lead us to see both the divine and the mortal in Sofia.

Romola Garai’s velvety narration brings divinity to the seductiveness of Levy’s prose. It’s a perfect match of book and narrator. Garai’s voicing, timing, characterisation – it’s all perfect. I hope she’ll find time in her busy schedule to narrated other audiobooks. Bravo Ms Garai, and bravo Ms Levy. A beautiful combination.

I’m not a classicist so I keep the internet handy when I’m reading. I get really excited by references that help me understand the book I’m reading better. In this instance I hunted down “milk as metaphor” (“hot milk” is semen for those interested. I wonder who else was visiting Juan in the injury hut! Otherwise “milk” can refer to spiritual immaturity, which I liked as a metaphor in this instance, or “mother’s milk”). I also read about the myth of the Medusa, the beautiful, strong maiden who is turned into a powerful monster, later beheaded at the command of Athena. Also The Laugh of the Medusa, the essay from which Hot Milk takes its epigraph. Keep an ear out for David Bowie lyrics too!

Did I mention I loved this book? I loved this book. Seriously, loved it. It’s long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and is a very worthy contender.

Hot Milk • Deborah Levy • read by Romola Garai • 8.5 hours • published by Penguin Books Ltd. • March 24, 2016

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What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell, read by Piter Marek

61i0155knel-_sl300_Garth Greenwell’s quiet but urgent style is superb and this, his debut, is stunning in every respect. His novel is a profound dissection of a character caught between desire and morality.

A young American man is working as a teacher in Bulgaria. There he meets and becomes infatuated with a young man named Mitko. Initially the two develop an intense relationship that exists at the axes of shame and desire.

Thereafter follows a period of self reflection which includes recollections shameful, humiliating, and alienating. Greenwell fearlessly confronts the difficulties of a young gay man coming to know himself with a genuineness that is humbling to the reader.

Lately, poet-novelists such as Garth Greenwell are forming the base of my favourite contemporary storytellers. They often bring a lyricism to their storytelling that weaves well with the audio form. Audio seems the perfect format in which to experience these authors. I’m deeply fond of Garth Greenwell’s creation as told by Piter Marek, whose narration is intimate and sincere.

There has been much praise calling Greenwell’s book “The Great Gay Novel”. I believe it stands with E. M. Forster’s “Maurice”, and with the novels of Alan Hollinghurst and David Leavitt. I’m very surprised to see it left off the Man Booker long list for this year; to me it’s definitely one of the highlights of the past year and won’t soon be forgotten.

What Belongs to You • by Garth Greenwell • read by Piter Marek • 6.3 hours • published by Recorded Books • March 14, 2016 • ISBN 9781501905841

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The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, read by Alisa Piper

51j3imzfy2l-_sl300_What have you done Charlotte Wood? You have made Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this century and you have made it so very thrilling and real.

Verla wakes from a drugged sleep. She doesn’t know where she is, nor why she’s there. Another woman is thrust into the room – Yolanda. Verla and Yolanda are two of ten women who find themselves in the middle of the desert. Their heads are soon shaved and they are clothed in coarse, modest but completely impractical skirts.

The dread begins from the first scenes and Wood never lets up. The girls are always on guard, and so are we.

The women are jailed in a compound in outback Australia, surrounded by an electric fence powerful enough to kill. One evening the electricity at the compound goes off. The food begins to run out. Things were already bad and they are about to get worse.

There is nothing about this book that is predictable. Wood keeps us guessing and second guessing at every turn. It is exquisite, the sort of book where you need to remind yourself to breathe. Do not be fooled by the beautiful cover of the book. Wood’s story is ugly, ugly, ugly. It is the very worst of ourselves.

The book won the 2016 Stella Award (Australia’s top award for Women’s Literature) and is shortlisted for Australia’s most prestigious award, the Miles Franklin Award.

Alisa Piper gives the characters a powerful Aussie twang, perfectly suited to the women (and men) Wood has written. Piper draws you in quickly and performs the voices of each character superbly.

The Natural Way of Things • by Charlotte Wood • read by Alisa Piper • 7 hours • published by Wavesound Audio • August, 2016 • ISBN 9781510037496

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The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, read by Malcolm Hillgartner

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Philip Roth is one of the finest writers in the United States and Blackstone Audio’s pairing of this book with Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration is an excellent match.

An older Nathan Zuckerman recalls a visit to his idol and mentor E. I. Lonoff, 20 years ago when Nathan was 23. During the visit Nathan begins to confront his Jewishness as a part of his identity, specifically his identity as a writer.

There is a reason behind Nathan’s identity crisis. His parents believe his latest manuscript is anti-semitic. Being told that “artists are responsible to their community” has left him questioning his identity both as an author and as a Jew.

Not only is E. I. Lonoff Nathan’s idol, but he’s also the Ghost of (Nathan’s) Christmas Future. It’s comedic to watch Nathan sentimentalise his hero’s family life while it disintegrates. There is tension between Lonoff’s wife and the young research assistant staying with them with strong suggestions of an affair between Lonoff and the younger woman; an affair which Nathan also manages to romanticise.

This is the first novel featuring Nathan Zuckerman who went on to appear in an additional eight of Roth’s novels. Roth is a profoundly talented author and this book, originally published 37 years ago, demonstrates his undeniable skill as a writer.

I’m also very excited about Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration. I’m used to hearing George Guidall and a select few others narrating Roth’s novels. Hillgartner’s narration is easily their equal. His voice a perfect fit for this novel and I’ll look forward to more audiobooks with his voice. Excellent casting from Blackstone Audio, and as usual a great production. A big thanks to Blackstone Audio for making this book available in audio format.

The Ghost Writer • by Philip Roth • read by Malcolm Hillgartner • 4.5 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • May 03, 2016 • ISBN 9781504726580

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Horror by George Eliot? Yes Really!

br51-square-400Clive Chafer sets an ominous, foreboding tone for George Eliot’s unusual horror story.

The Lifted Veil is a big break from the George Eliot I’m used to – the George Eliot of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.

We’re introduced to Latimer, a dying man who is ready to tell the murky story of his unusual gift and of his marriage to the woman originally intended for his brother.

As a young child Latimer developed a severe illness. Although he recovered it left him with the gift of clairvoyance. In adulthood Latimer is jealous of his older brother Alfred who will inherit their father’s fortune, but more importantly to Latimer, Alfred is courting the young heiress Bertha. Latimer is smitten with Bertha and suffers while watching her favours bestowed on his older brother.

One night Latimer has a vision of Bertha as his wife and the dreadful person she really is.

“…Bertha my wife with cruel eyes, with green jewels and green leaves on her white ball dress, every hateful thought within her present to me: madman, idiot, why don’t you kill yourself then? It was a moment of hell I saw into her pitiless soul saw its barren worldliness, it’s scorching hate and let it clothe me round like an air I was obliged to breathe.

Instead of running a mile as any sane person would, Latimer marries Bertha following the death of his brother. As his vision foretold she becomes a callous, unkind creature.

AND THEN: I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story for you by telling it here!

Any good horror is usually told with a good helping of humour and The Lifted Veil has as much as most with a solid deux ex machina to help Latimer toward the end of his tale.

Eliot’s foray into the realm of the horror was published the same year as her first novel, Adam Bede. It is a charming tale that will delight anyone who enjoys a gothic horror and which will intrigue Eliot fans.

Chafer’s reading is delicious – it makes you want to dim the lights, cuddle up in a rug and steel your nerves.

The Lifted Veil • by George Eliot • read by Clive Chafer • 1.9 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • February 16, 2016 • ISBN 9781504673303

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, read by Mark Bramhall

51xdm6zjul-_sl300_I nabbed The High Mountains of Portugal on release day and began reading it immediately. I’d been looking forward to another Yann Martel story. I’ve loved Self, The Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil and wondered where Martel will go next. When I reached the end of this book I started reading it all over again. I was desperate to pick up all the little pieces I might have missed first time around.

The High Mountains of Portugal is a novel in three parts. Each part has a new main character and each are connected.

Part one is set in 1904 and Tomás, who works for the National Museum of Ancient Art goes on a quest for an unusual item gifted to a church in the high mountains of Portugal. He takes his uncle’s car – a very new, very rare object in the area at the time. In fact Tomás has no idea how to drive. It quickly becomes a hilarious comedy of errors.

Part two skips us ahead to 1939 and introduces us to a pathologist who performs a very unusual autopsy.

In part three (set in 1989) Peter , a Canadian senator loses his wife. He takes a short trip to the US and from there he travels to the high mountains of Portugal, his ancestral home. His story is heartwarming.

The novel is delightfully hilarious in moments, and arrestingly sober in others.

At the end of Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi the main character Pi Patel asks the Japanese insurance agents who have come to interview him which story is better: the one with animals or the one without animals? The High Mountains of Portugal is the story with animals and better for it.

The High Mountains of Portugal is a wonderful parable. A magical realism tale with a mystery and clues scattered throughout. Mark Bramhall as narrator pitches the story perfectly. He creates the different characters (including at least one animal) beautifully. He conveys the extraordinary emotions throughout the book and holds the reader’s attention at all times.

The High Mountains of Portugal • by Yann Martel • read by Mark Bramhall • published by Random House Audio • February 2, 2016 • 11 hours • ISBN 9780147522856

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Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism (by Maajid Nawaz, read by David Linski)

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“Most Muslims are not Islamists.”

This critical distinction between Islam and Islamism is the focus of Radical, Maajid Nawaz’s powerful memoir. He explains a simple but incredibly important concept: Islamism is a political ideology masquerading as religion.

As a recruiter for an Islamist extremist group Maajid Nawaz exploited the confusion between Islam and Islamism. Now, as a counter extremism activist Nawaz attempts to correct that tangled perspective.

As a disillusioned teenager in Essex Maajid’s interactions with racist gangs had left him cynical and jaded. At university Maajid joined Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation that supports the establishment of an Islamic State and Sharia law. He was a relentless recruiter for the organisation. He travelled first to Pakistan and later to Egypt recruiting more participants. But in Egypt Nawaz was arrested. He was imprisoned and later charged with belonging to a banned group.

During his imprisonment Maajid had access to classic English literature. There began Maajid’s transformation from conservative Islamist to counter extremism advocate.

“Reading classic English Literature did for me what studying Islamic theology couldn’t. It forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas.”

At the time of this review the Islamic State has taken responsibility for the bombing of an airport and a train in Brussels two days ago that has killed more than 30 people. Maajid Nawaz’s memoir is necessary reading for anyone trying to understand the current political situation in Europe and the ideology behind these attacks.

Nawaz writes with passion, intelligence and clarity. If at times Nawaz sounds proud it is because he has much to be proud of. Since his transformation he has co-founded the world’s first advocacy organisation for counter extremism. He travels widely to speak about the Islam/Islamism misunderstanding, often to the same countries where he used to recruit members for Hizb ut-Tahrir.

David Linski captures the intelligence and the passion of Nawaz’s writing in his narration and is very engaging. Linski rarely stumbles, although at times his emphasis was a little off which created the feeling that a sentence had finished when it hadn’t. Overall it was a sensitive narration, well cast and beautifully fitted to the subject of the book.

Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism • by Maajid Nawaz • with Tom Bromley • read by David Linski • 10.8 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • January 15, 2016 • ISBN 9781504711142 

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Missing Person (by Patrick Modiano, read by Bronson Pinchot)

51kpsslizol-_sl300_Written in a smoky, noir style with an existentialist flavour, Missing Person is a standout audiobook of 2015.

The Missing Person is Guy Roland, a man with amnesia. Eight years ago he came to private detective C. M. Hutte for help in find out who he is, and when Hutte couldn’t, he instead created him a new identity and employed him within the agency. On Hutte’s retirement and the closure of the detective agency Roland restarts the search for who he is.

Modiano brings beautiful detail to his writing, and his imagery is incredible – it feels as though one is seeing through the eyes of his protagonist. His prose is elegant and precise. There is the impression that he has carefully engineered every sentence to perfection. In any case the book comes as close to perfection as anything I’ve read.

Meanwhile Bronson Pinchot perfectly captures the detail in Modiano’s writing. His voice suits the noir style and he’s able to create each of the characters throughout the book without trouble.

I was absolutely captured by this book from the opening paragraph. It’s a brilliant story but it’s the descriptions of the places and the people Roland visits that are most compelling. Missing Person is easily one of my favourite audiobooks of 2015.

Patrick Modiano was the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Missing Person is not to be missed.

Missing Person • by Patrick Modiano • translated by Daniel Weissbort • read by Bronson Pinchot • 4.75 hours • published by Blackstone Audio • November 2, 2015 • ISBN 9781504663243 

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Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (narrated by Robin Miles)

In 2014 the President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan signed into law an act making homosexuality punishable by 14 years in prison. In Nigeria’s north, homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning. Under the Udala Trees confronts the issues of being a lesbian woman in Nigeria where social rejection and death are potential consequences.

Ijeoma is 11 when brutal war breaks out between Nigeria and Biafra. When her father is killed in a Nigerian bombing raid Ijeoma’s mother sends her to work as a house girl for a grammar school teacher. There she meets Amina, a girl who becomes her first love and who influences the rest of Ijeoma’s life.

Ijoema’s story is of a girl discovering her sexuality while realising that her feelings are unacceptable to the world around her. Condemnation from others, including her mother and her God leads her to question herself. Guilt gets in the way of her happiness, and with time becomes a seeming insurmountable obstacle.

Robin Miles has narrated other excellent audiobooks by successful Nigerian authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Her narration of Under the Udala Trees is absolutely authentic. Her Ibo and pidgin is consistent and well spoken. There are occasional songs in the story which Miles does an incredible job of recreating.

Coming from a culture where storytelling has primarily been an oral tradition this audiobook is a wonderful rendering of a contemporary Nigerian story.

Under the Udala Trees • by Chinelo Okparanta • narrated by Robin Miles • published by Blackstone Audio • September 22, 2015 • ISBN 9781504666275 

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A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride (narrated by the author)

I’ve never read anything like this book. Starting this novel is like diving into unexpectedly cold water – it snaps you wide awake:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

The language first struck me like a slippery fish & left me wondering whether I could hold on to it or whether it would slip from my grasp. It didn’t. I quickly got used to the flow & it became as smooth as silk & utterly enchanting.

Our nameless heroine grows up in the shadow of her older brother & his brain tumour. Her brother, the “you” in the story, has suffered some brain damage from the tumour or from the surgical attempt to remove the tumour. Her staunchly Catholic mother holds high hope in the power of prayer to allow the brother to succeed and to live a full life, in spite of evidence that this is unlikely. Against this background our heroine suffers sexual abuse & develops a painful-to-witness desire for debasement.

It is a coming of age story, but not in the way you’d imagine. Very little of this book is what you’d imagine.

The format is “stream of consciousness”, but like any internal monologue it is interrupted, cut off, fragmented. She is faithful, however, in her reporting of other’s conversations. As readers we are in her head, which is an intimate & often extremely uncomfortable place to be.

The closest I can come in comparing this author is the experimental style of James Joyce in Ulysses, or Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood. I can pretty confidently call it postmodern, and there ends any comparison to other books/authors I’ve read.

In case you haven’t already guessed, this book had me hooked from the get go. It was one of those rare “put down only when I have to go to sleep, but I’d much rather keep reading” kind of books. I read the audio version which is narrated by the author & I suspect there is something special about having this book read to you. It’s also my new favourite book. I highly recommend the audiobook but I imagine reading the printed text would be pretty amazing.

Having the author narrate this story makes the audiobook a step above. McBride puts the full rhythm into the story she’s written. Her timing is superb, and the lilt of her beautiful Irish accent lends authenticity to the character. I don’t think anyone but the author could have narrated this book. There’s just too much in it that can’t be overlooked. While not all authors make for good narrators McBride is excellent, nay, perfect.

Since my first read I’ve gone through & read the book twice more. The more I read it, the more I love it. The rhythm (& even rhyme) of the writing makes it more like poetry than a traditional novel. This really is one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read.

A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (unabridged audiobook) • by Eimear McBride • narrated by Eimear McBride • 7 hours 34 mins • published by Random House Audio • 2013 • ISBN 9781101922705

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