Monday, 17 June 2019

Guest review by Sara Collins: A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan

"That rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims."

Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years in Cayman, before admitting that what she really wanted to do was write novels. She studied Creative Writing at Cambridge University, winning the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize, and began to write a book inspired by the idea of 'writing a Gothic novel where the heroine looked like me'. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton (reviewed here by guest Stephanie Butland). 

A Visit from the Goon Squad stitches together thirteen stories spanning years, places and people: from 1979 to 2021; from New York to Kenya; from Sasha, a kleptomaniac who steals from people but not from stores because “their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her", to her boss, Bennie Salazar, a record company executive who “sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee – as an aphrodisiac she suspected – and sprayed pesticide in his armpits”. The novel opens with Sasha confessing to her therapist about bringing a date home and stealing his wallet, then we meet Bennie in the next chapter: disillusioned, dissolute, scribbling a list of his most shameful memories -- lunging to kiss a Mother Superior on the mouth, being interrupted in the toilet by a woman he’s lusting after (“Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can”) -- that Sasha mistakes for song titles.

Can we understand each other? From the opening therapy session, to the story told by Sasha’s pre-teen daughter entirely via Powerpoint, to the truncated text messaging of the final chapter (“if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”), this is the question the novel poses. It catalogues the impossibility of true connection, yet at the same time its real charm lies in offering us glimpses of the fleeting intersections of the people in Sasha’s and Bennie’s orbit (children, lovers, friends, bosses), shuffling these mere snapshots and assembling them into a full picture of their lives. Sasha and Bennie are compelling characters -- flawed, selfish and vulnerable, they are the main subjects of this extended meditation on the effect we have on each other, even if only in passing, as well as on how we create music, and on love, family, ambition, and ageing. The book is about their lives and how they come to be in the state we find them in but each story builds an equally fleshed-out sense of the secondary characters as well. We learn as much about them by how they see and speak about Sasha or Bennie as we do about Sasha and Bennie themselves.

What really sets Goon Squad apart for me is the shape-shifting quality of its prose. From powerfully lyrical (Egan describes Sasha’s urge to pilfer an unattended wallet as feeling herself “contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite”) to character conjuring (“I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery”) to sucker punching (“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around). On her publisher’s website, Egan says she began the book by following her curiosity from one character and situation to the next, which is the way one ends up reading it too. That curiosity is rewarded by a feeling that one has moved through time with the characters, and therefore lived with them and learned with them as well. Reading it, one feels immersed in a world that is always changing, the dizzying experience of being held captive by that rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published by Corsair.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.7: Sevenoaks Bookshop. TOMORROW, by Elisabeth Russell Taylor, reviewed by Fleur Sinclair:

"...delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary..."

Fleur Sinclair took over ownership of Sevenoaks Bookshop in November 2015. The shop celebrated its 70th birthday in 2018 and was crowned best UK Independent Bookshop for the South East region. Every inch of the shop is filled with brilliant new books for adults and children; there is a cafe; they host a wide variety of author events; a regular lunchtime book club; 
run several writers’ groups; a young readers review programme; a children’s festival; and they recently launched BOOKMARK magazine, written exclusively by children, for children, all about books. More here. 

Although it was originally published in 1991, Tomorrow reads like a modern classic from much earlier in the 20th century. In just 148 pages, it paints not only a brilliant portrait of the main character, Elisabeth Danziger, but also a vivid picture of place and time. The main setting is a hotel on Mon, a tiny island on the Danish coast, the narrative moving between the novel’s present, 1960, and before and during the Second World War.

Every summer Elisabeth spends a week in the same hotel, following the same routine, fulfilling a promise made before the outbreak of war. The week shapes the novel, each day a different chapter as we move through the present and remembrances from the past. Elisabeth has moved ghost-like through the same itinerary for so long, she has no reason to suspect this week will not be exactly the same as all the others.

Other guests are also regulars, and their characters skilfully created, with reasons for their little absurdities perfectly plausible and deftly unveiled. I love a hotel novel. There is something about behaviour played out against an implacable, impersonal backdrop that heightens character by contrast. A line from the novel, ‘…rain on holiday – so much wetter somehow, than rain at other times’ is as true of the hotel guests as is it of the weather. But this particular hotel was once a summer retreat owned by Elisabeth’s family before the war, adding extra layers of both familiarity and distance.

I have to admit that the cover of the edition published by Daunt Books in 2018 is tremendously seductive - a distant figure swimming beneath cliffs on a bright blue day. There are exquisite descriptions of nature, a love so blindingly huge as to overwhelm, but there is also tragedy in the extreme. In crisp, clean, dignified prose, Tomorrow delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary, as time marches on and people with first hand experience of terrors faced during the Second World War are no longer with us, novels as well-written as this serve to expand our powers of empathy and shape our response to current events.

The novel begins and ends with a poem by John Henry Mackay, the opening line:

And tomorrow the sun will shine again

It is tremendously poignant, giving the perfect title for a novel shaped so much by the past; a past refusing to loosen its grip on the characters, when as readers we desperately want to release them into the sun.

Tomorrow is published by Daunt Books

Monday, 3 June 2019

Guest review by Linda Sargent: THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin

"...draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants."

Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher’s reader (David Fickling Books since 2002). She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website.

“I think we become desensitized to almost everything in life, especially those things that are part of our routine, that we encounter daily. The only way to shake ourselves awake and experience novelty in the everyday is to engage consistently with an art form. Art makes us see the world – right down to our smallest, most intimate experiences – with new eyes.”

So responds the author in the question and answer section at the back of this powerful and evocative first novel, one of my top choices for this year; and I’m sure it will remain there. Set, for the most part, at the turn of the twentieth century in the fertile valleys of the Pacific North-west, it centres on the life of William Talmadge. He is the orchardist of the title, arriving in the valley with his mother and sister in the late 1850’s; we follow his life as he plants and nurtures his fruit orchards of apples and apricots and establishes a home. At first, after the death of their mother, it’s just him and his sister, but one day while out gathering herbs in the forest she disappears and so, at seventeen, he is left alone, his only companionship gleaned from the native American horse-breakers, and specifically the elective mute, Clee (also bereft of family), and Caroline Middey, the healer and midwife from the nearby small town where he goes periodically to sell his fruit.

And so Talmadge (for this is how we know him by now) is, for the most part content tending his trees and expanding his acreage to include the forest and other uncultivated sections of this beautiful landscape, in some respects keeping it for and in memory of his lost sister, nurturing it in the way he is no longer able to nurture her. Until, one day two very pregnant, very young teenage girls, hungry and almost feral, arrive and begin to steal his fruit. From here on Talmadge’s life is changed and disturbed. With the girls comes violence, fear, loss and ultimately a kind of revenge; but what also comes is love and a deepening and most moving warmth between the principal characters. One that draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants and where the stars are “so thick you could walk right into them...”

It is, overall, a story of nurturing and great humanity – and I loved it.

The Orchardist is published by Orion.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Guest review by Rachel Ward: FLESH AND BLOOD by Stephen McGann

"It feels like McGann is looking for something throughout the book ... "

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her novels for adults, The Cost of Living and Dead Stock. are cosy crime stories set in and around a supermarket, published by Sandstone Press. Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs.
Twitter: @RachelWardbooks Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

These days I usually read crime fiction, but my love for Call the Midwife and the decency of actor Stephen McGann on Twitter led me to his non-fiction book, Flesh and Blood, in which he explores the history of the McGanns from the 1800s onwards in seven themed sections. In writing the book McGann combines three passionate interests – genealogy, which he has explored since he was 17, human drama, and an academic interest in the links between medical health and social context.

Each section, or essay really, starts with a description of the sickness or malady (‘Medicine’), then describes a period in the McGann family history (‘History’) and finishes with a more personal recollection (‘Testimony’). Sometimes the links seems a little forced, but the stories in this book are so compelling, you easily forgive him for shoe-horning them in. Among other things he covers the Great Famine in Ireland, the sinking of the Titanic, the Second World War and, more recently, Hillsborough, in each case delicately picking out the human impact of being involved in such historical events.

Running through this is his own personal story. He’s startlingly honest about the evolution of relationships within his own immediate family, and very good at describing the roles that we all come to play within our families. It’s fascinating stuff.

It feels like McGann is looking for something throughout the book. At the end, he asks himself the question, ‘Who am I?’ For him the answer is, ‘I am a single beat in the history of the family that bore me.’ He comes across as a decent, passionate soul and I recommend this for anyone interested in modern history, family matters and those interested in ‘what makes us tick’.

Flesh and Blood is published by Simon and Schuster

Monday, 20 May 2019

NINE PERFECT STRANGERS by Liane Moriarty, reviewed by Adele Geras

"... a genre that I'm very fond of: characters are thrown together and isolated somewhere beyond the reach of the outside world."

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

Liane Moriarty is an Australian writer, best known for Big Little Lies, which was a huge success on television. The book is better than the television version, in my opinion, and her earlier novel, The Husband's Secret, is also one to seek out.

Her latest novel is an example of a genre that I'm very fond of: characters are thrown together and isolated somewhere beyond the reach of the outside world. Generally speaking, all hell breaks loose. At the end, everyone has learned something. As Oscar Wilde put it: "The good end happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

This story is set in a very posh and very beautiful spa resort. The first character we meet is a romantic writer who's a bit of a has-been. She learns about a truly bad review of one of her books and has a screaming meltdown at the side of the road, in her parked car.

We then meet the others members of the cast; we learn about their backgrounds and what they're trying to find in this escape to Tranquillum House. There's a bereaved family, trying to avoid the anniversary of their son's (and twin brother's) suicide. There's a faded, out- of-condition Australian Rules ex-football star. There's a woman who's jealous of her ex-husband's new wife, and so on. The woman running the spa is the enigmatic Masha, and she has two attendants who deal with the visitors and take care of them. The routine of the spa is a little Draconian but all nine guests gradually get used to it. Then something happens.

I have to admit that the twist I'm not going to reveal took me aback. I was uncertain for a while about whether switching the novel into quite another mode halfway through was going to work, but in Moriarty's skilled hands, it really did. She adds things to the mix that make matters more and more tense. We reach a situation where we're unsure whether our heroes and heroines are going to get out of this particular hell, but I was guided by the humour, which is never far away, to my conclusion that they probably would.

Some critics on Amazon have said that the Epilogue ending, (in which Moriarty tells us in a kind of summing-up what's happened to each character in the time since the end of the story proper) is awful. I disagree. I liked it a lot, because I always want to know exactly that: what happens to the characters next? And then what happens after that....

The icing on the cake, and something that will resonate with any writer reading this novel, is the last paragraph of the book. I'm still smiling about it about a week later. This novel is perfect for a sun lounger. Or any visit to a spa near you.

Nine Perfect Strangers is published by Michael Joseph.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Guest review by Karen Ball: THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

"A feat of plotting and plate spinning; it takes a particularly magnificent and often humble skill to craft a series of books on this scale."

Karen Ball is the author of The Little Book Of Sewing, published by Head of Zeus, as well as over 20 children’s and YA books. She writes one of the UK’s leading sewing blogs at Did You Make That and has contributed to The Guardian. She is a Bookseller Rising Star and runs the publishing consultancy, Speckled Pen. Karen lives in Walthamstow with her miniature schnauzer, Ella.
Twitter: @karenball
Instagram: didyoumakethat

What do The Cazalet Chronicles mean to you?

Until recently, this series of five books meant nothing to me – I didn’t know they existed. I was introduced to them by the author Sally Nicholls, after I mentioned I was researching a novel set in 1939. ‘Oh, you must read The Cazalet Chronicles!’ she told me.

‘What are those?’ I asked.

What, indeed, are The Cazalet Chronicles? Five novels set between 1937 and the 1950s, following the course of a single family. Most commonly, they’re described as saga fiction: historical, multi-generational, gentle books for old ladies, a front cover with a woman standing on a street wearing a shawl. Saga is publishing shorthand for cosy. Is that what Cazalet is?

Yes – and yet they are so much more. The delight of these books is the minutiae woven around the drama. The discomfort of a heavily pregnant body … a nice cup of tea … the tiny limp body of a breach birth … which cuts the butcher has in … how to avoid having sex … knitting … how to have sex … white, cotton gloves … sons lost in the war … hierarchies of grief … picnics and dolls…

A story that stretches across thousands of pages, The Cazalet Chronicles are the opposite of page turners in any modern sense, though they were written in the 1990s – not so very long ago. These are books to sink into, drift with, fall asleep reading on the sofa, knowing that when you wake again, you can lift the pages and start again with barely a hiccup.

They are set before and during the years of the Second World War and span three generations of the same Cazalet family. Multiple perspective. Ensemble cast. A feat of plotting and plate spinning; it takes a particularly magnificent and often humble skill to craft a series of books on this scale.

So why had I never heard of them before? How had I been allowed to overlook them? Howard’s writing occupies a particularly ‘female’ place on the literary stage – you only have to look at those watercolour covers to see which readers publishers think they need. This is a world of sandwiches and still births over war bunkers and bomber planes. The multiple narratives weave around each other, passing on the baton; a fresh loaf of bread has as much significance on the page as a death bed. There is never any authorial comment from Howard; this is life laid bare, all of it, for the reader to judge or not judge. I prefer the latter – after all, any family morality has to stretch fine as gossamer as it floats over the heads of the living and the dead.

So, a family. An invisible author. A series. And a saga. Words that, as a rule, neither critics nor judges rush to write.

‘I’ve allowed myself to lead this little life,’ says Shirley Valentine, in Willy Russell’s play. ‘When inside me there was so much more.’ Howard wrote both – the small and the momentous. I guess five books worth of artful juggling wasn’t enough for some. But oh, they are enough for me. I hope, whether small or big, I lead a long life. Long enough to re-read The Cazalet Chronicles at least twice over.

What do you say? A drop of milk in your tea?

The Cazalet Chronicles are published by Pan Books.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Guest review by Rosemary Hayes: THE SHEPHERD'S HUT by Tim Winton

"A wonderful, acutely observed, tautly-written book from a master storyteller set in a landscape he knows intimately."

Rosemary Hayes' first novel for children, Race Against Time (Penguin) won a national award. Since then she has written over forty books for children in a variety of genres but she particularly enjoys writing both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. Forgotten Footprints and The Blue Eyed Aborigine are among her recent historical novels and The Mark, Taken, Loose Connections and Payback are stories set in the here and now. She is currently working on a fantasy trilogy for a 9+ readership.

Rosemary worked for Cambridge University Press and then for some years ran her own company, Anglia Young Books, which produced curriculum-related historical stories for primary schools. Now, as well as writing for children, she also runs creative writing courses for adults. She is Patron of Reading at Saffron Walden County High School. 
See more on her website.

The last few lines of the prologue to this book read: ‘For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. … but it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.’

My first reaction as I began reading this book was that it would probably be loved and hated in equal measure and, indeed, there have been a few (a very few) reviews where readers couldn’t get past the bad language of the narrator, a brutalised teenager called Jaxie Clackton, even though his language has a unique rhythm and authenticity. How else would this boy speak, after all? He’s uneducated, his mother has recently died from cancer and his drunken, abusive and sadistic father (the local butcher) beats him mercilessly. Jaxie is a school delinquent mocked by his peers, who call him ‘Horsemeat’, and he spends much of his time wandering about the deadbeat rural settlement of Monkton in Western Australia, close to the highway but backing onto the wheat belt and then the inhospitable and desolate landscape of the Murchison gold fields, settling arguments with other teenagers in the only way he knows – with his fists – and wishing his father dead. A wish that is shockingly fulfilled when Jaxie returns home one evening to find his dad crushed beneath the roo bar on his car because he’d not bothered to use the right equipment to jack it up. ‘Being a cheap bastard is what killed him’ is Jaxie’s comment.

Everyone in the small community knows that Jaxie hated Captain Wankbag (Jaxie’s name for his father) and that the local policeman, ‘that fat ranga with the hissy laugh,’ was his dad’s bestie, so Jaxie doesn’t hang around to be accused of murder. Panicking, he puts together a few essentials and goes on the run, heading first into the wheat belt: ‘Nothing but stubble paddocks far and wide. Everything flat and bare. Shanksing across that country you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake, … houses rare as rocking horse turds.’

Jaxie heads north. There is one good thing in his life and that’s his girlfriend and cousin, Lee, 'the only person in the world who gets me,’ but Lee and her family live in Mt Magnet. It's only a couple of hours by car, but Jaxie has no transport avoids the highway in case he’s hauled in by he police. He sets off to walk across the desolate landscape of goldfields and salt flats to reach her and, as he soon realizes, it is a fool’s errand. It is hot, waterless and vast and although Jaxie is by no means ignorant about survival in the bush – he knows about camping, has a gun and can shoot and butcher meat – he is dangerously ill-equipped for the journey.

Jaxie is brave and devoid of self pity and we follow him as he lurches from one crisis to another, hardly able to see out of his injured eye (a legacy of his father’s brutality) and at one point nearly dying of thirst. He follows an old track to a deserted prospector’s camp where he stays for a while, and then, in a search for salt to preserve a great roo he’s shot, he comes upon a shepherd’s hut, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of a great salt lake. Someone is living there and whoever it is has been there for a while as it is well set up, but there is no sign of a vehicle. Who could possibly survive in this desolate place for any length of time without supplies from the outside world? Suspiciously Jaxie observes the hut through his binoculars, keeping his distance and, he believes, keeping out of sight. But the old man who lives there has already sensed Jaxie’s presence and when they finally confront one another, it is, at first sight, at least, a meeting of two totally contrasting worlds - that of a well-travelled, highly-educated but disgraced Irish priest called Fintan MacGillis and of an illiterate and foul-mouthed teenager from a deadbeat rural settlement.

The oddest of odd couples, then. Jaxie never lets his guard down. No adult, apart from his mum, has shown him any kindness and he is narky and suspicious of this weird old man who talks to himself, reads books and sings. ‘With that accent of his and the way he said things fancy and musical, it was like camouflage and you knew deep down he’d been doing this all his life, hiding in clear sight. He had a boozer’s face but as far as I could see there was nothing to drink out here but rainwater and billy tea. He had skinny legs with ropey blue veins winding up them and his top teeth were plastic and they moved enough to make you seasick. His specs was always on crooked too, one hinge busted and the arm wired on rough as a pig’s tit. And it was clear he was half deaf. Anytime you said something he cocked his head like a kelpie.’

They insult one another, are exasperated with one another, but slowly they create a fragile bond. Jaxie often flares up and threatens to leave, but somehow he never does, in spite of his yearning to get to Lee. Through flashbacks, we learn a lot about Jaxie’s past life, how his relationship with Lee developed and of the abuse he’s suffered, but Fintan remains an enigma. We are never told why he lives here, who brings him supplies at Christmas and Easter (except this Christmas, when no one turned up) or for what crime he is doing penance. Jaxie immediately assumes it is ‘kiddy flddling’ and though Fintan assures him it is not he won’t say much about his background – just a tantalizing hint, here and there.

So, the weeks go by and Jaxie helps the old man with trapping and butchering goats and some of the heavier jobs around the place, giving the reader a well drawn picture of the harshness and tedium of the daily business of keeping alive in the bush. Then, after a furious row with Fintan, Jaxie finally leaves to continue his journey north. However, he has only gone a day’s walk when he makes a shocking discovery that changes everything. From here on the tension really ramps up and after one careless act and fatal indecision we are witness to a tragic conclusion with an extraordinary and heartbreaking description of stubborn loyalty and unexpected tenderness.

Writing in the vernacular is never easy to sustain but Jaxie’s dialogue rings absolutely true throughout and is a wonderful contrast to Fintan’s mellifluous tones. There’s a lot of humour, too, often quite dark and delivered through Jaxie’s one-liners; there's also lyricism, particularly through descriptions of the landscape with its huge skies, its mirages, the changing colours of the salt flats and the rocks, the hostile scrub and the well observed habits of the wildlife. In this Winton captures the essence of the utter isolation and vastness of the place and shows how both Jaxie and Fintan, in their very different ways, are in awe of it.

I have spent a lot of time in Western Australia and I’ve been through one horse towns such as Monkton and flown over the goldfields and salt flats. Winton’s descriptions, through the words of Jaxie and Fintan, are utterly convincing. I was immediately transported back there, seeing, smelling and experiencing it all again.

On the surface, Jaxie is unlovable and inexpressive but we're taken inside his thoughts from time to time - ‘Some nights there was so much feeling in me head I was glad it couldn’t get out. Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me’ - and we cannot help but empathise with him. Despite the rotten hand he’s been dealt Jaxie has soul and we end up loving him and longing for him to survive, to find Lee and ride off into the sunset with her. Though in many ways this is an unremittingly harsh story it is shot through with such bright streaks of perseverance, hope, love, loyalty and humanity that I found it an utterly compelling read - a real page turner. Quite an achievement, given that there are only two main characters.

I have long been an admirer of Tim Winton’s work and in The Shepherd’s Hut he is at his very best. I know I shall go back to it again to savour the rhythm of the writing, the sense of place, brilliantly fleshed out characters, humour and depth of insight. It's a wonderful, acutely observed, tautly-written book from a master storyteller set in a landscape he knows intimately.

The Shepherd's Hut is published by Picador.