Monday, 19 November 2018

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE OF ABEL MORGAN by Cynthia Jefferies



Yvonne Coppard is a writer of children’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and occasional columns and articles in a variety of publications. She is currently a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with businesses and public service organisations to promote clear, understandable English in written communication. See more on her website.

In 1660 Christopher Morgan returns from war and exile in Europe to reunite with his wife and start a new life in rural England. But his hopes for the future are blighted by events that leave him bereaved, impoverished and struggling to care for his young son, Abel. Christopher becomes reluctantly complicit in the activities of a violent and unscrupulous smuggler, Daniel Johnson. Eventually, he finds the strength to take a stand against Daniel: soon afterwards, Abel goes missing.

Here the novel divides into two narrative strands that together weave a heart-wrenching, epic story following the fortunes of Christopher and Abel through the years and across the world. Christopher searches relentlessly for his son. A false lead takes him to Constantinople, where he rescues a young Irish slave boy from a terrible fate but does not find any clue to his own son’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Abel believes that his father is dead and that he has no-one left who cares about him. Enslaved, first to a fisherman and then sold on to a pirate ship, Abel embraces the pirate life and concentrates on survival, whatever the cost. He eventually gains freedom and fortune and settles in Jamaica. He has learned to concentrate on his own survival, whatever the cost to his soul and spirit.

The historical settings for all the locations have been well-researched. Constantinople comes to life so vividly, you can almost smell and taste it. The tale is often dark, but the pace has light and shade and the main characters are convincing and worth the reader’s investment. More than once, Christopher comes tantalisingly close to finding Abel, but is thwarted by timing or circumstance. Both characters lurch from one peril to another; time and again they are beaten down by fate and circumstance. They are forced to battle with malevolent forces, both within themselves and without. And yet they rise, and rise again, finding unexpected crumbs of kindness or an extended hand from a stranger, even in the cruellest of circumstances. The reader’s hope is never quite lost.

There are many satisfying themes in this novel for those who seek them. Love and loss, the compulsion to connect; the fragility of moral integrity under pressure; the possibility of redemption and the triumph of the human spirit over unspeakable odds are among them. But most of all this is a refreshingly old fashioned, action-packed historical story.

The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan is published by Allison and Busby.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: JITTERBUG PERFUME by Tom Robbins - an appreciation


Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. In spring 2019, Thames and Hudson will publish a revised edition of his books on the French Alps. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy books from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.' 

‘Quantum physics suggests a universal balance between immutable laws and random playfulness.’

Right.

Some critics don’t take Tom Robbins seriously despite the persuasive force of his intellectual quick-stepping, his discursus on mysteries of the spirit, his challenge to lazy thought, because he is playful and comic. Robbins finds this puzzling. ‘Comic writing is not only more profound than tragedy, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to write’. Thus an exchange in Jitterbug Perfume:

‘The universe does not have laws.’

‘It has habits.’

‘And habits can be broken.’

Jitterbug Perfume skips between mediaeval Bohemia, Paris, New Orleans and Seattle. Its cast: a one thousand year-old janitor, a genius Seattle waitress, the proprietress of a New Orleans perfumerie, two old-school French parfumiers, a whacko doctor, founder of the Last Laugh Foundation for the exploration of immortality and brain science. And Pan, for his ‘pranksterish overturning of decorum…his leer and laughter when we took our blaze of mammal intellect too seriously’. When Christ was born, they say, the cry went up: ‘Great Pan is dead’, and no wonder that the humourless authoritarians of the church, horse-whipping childish mockery and a propensity to fun with the cured leather of doctrine, identified sulphur-eyed Satan as a revenant of the cloven-footed, horned, shaggy, sulphurous stinky god of panic, a male divinity associated with female values. And there’s the rub. Wild Pan, the embodiment of Nature’s green fuse, represents the dichotomy in our human nature, between the unruly impulses of our desires - for example, susceptibility to the seduction of perfume - and the timid reserve enjoined by the strictures of pious comportment and polite conformity. Wild shagginess against refinement. Into that dichotomy, as a nymph in this novel says, religion drove a wedge, and ‘Christ, who slept with no female…who played no music instrument, recited no poetry, and never kicked up his heels by moonlight, this Christ was the perfect wedge. Christianity is merely a system for turning priestesses into handmaidens, queens into concubines and goddesses into muses’.

Is that playful or serious? Comic or tragic?

In the comedy of Jitterbug Perfume, as in all Robbins’s work, there is a fervent drive to reappraise what we may, laughingly, call received wisdom. The thousand year-old janitor (you’ll have to read the novel) concludes that whatever else his unprecedented life had been it had been fun, ‘he’d grown convinced that play – more than piety, more than charity or vigilance – was what allowed human beings to transcend evil.’

Not jokes. Jokes are sterile.

Robbins is clear on that, and however you characterise the humour – ‘They fell asleep smiling. It is to erase the fixed smiles of sleeping couples that Satan trained roosters to crow at five in the morning’… ‘She needed help but God was in a meeting whenever she rang’… ‘the sky over Seattle resembled cottage cheese that had been dragged nine miles behind a cement truck’ - it subverts, teases, prises and jostles sclerosed prejudice out of its hermetically sealed plastic wrappings.

Robbins unashamedly takes an intellectual blowtorch to the convention forbidding author’s point of view. He intervenes, he broadcasts paradox and animadversion with fiery delight and carefree disdain for accepted practice. He writes with the exuberance and mischief of a Lord of Misrule riding a Harley Davidson through the small towns of the Bible Belt and calling the god-fearing citizens out to a carnival jitterbug with a rowdy band and a celestial firework display, votaries of the great god Pan on bar duty.

But where (I hear you say) does the perfume come in?

‘Perfume, fundamentally, is the sexual attractant of flowers, or, in the case of civet and musk, of animals.’ The argument proceeds: perfume as the smell of creation, signal of Earth’s regenerative powers. No wonder the church equated perfume with sin, stench with holiness. Even Satan, downwind, recoiled from the odour of sanctity. For the perfume that masks body reek is an implicit invitation to sexual licence.

Robbins begins – and ends - Jitterbug Perfume with that most intense of vegetables, the beet. Its pollen is the base note for a scent which permeates the entire novel, a joyous fantasia on immortality and the logical impasse of death: a verifiable fact with elusive meaning or else meaning applicable to any thought process that seems if not reasonable, at least excusable.

‘The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold onto your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means:

Indigo.

Indigoing.

Indigone.’

PS It’s also a cracking story.

Jitterbug Perfume is published by No Exit Press.



Monday, 5 November 2018

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CLOCK DANCE by Anne Tyler


Jon Appleton is a freelance editor and writer based in London.

A new novel by Anne Tyler is an event for legions of readers the world over – myself included. Her detractors lay a charge she has claimed herself: that she ends up writing the same sort of book each time. The Baltimore setting, the indecisive men, the domineering mothers (she is always much harsher on her female characters), the messy congress of family life across the years are all familiar ingredients. But for me, her novels are far more exciting than comfort reads. I eagerly anticipate her books thinking, ‘How will she do it this time?’

If you haven’t discovered Tyler’s work, I’d describe each as an alchemy of subtle shifts in her characters’ lives and their urgent, all-consuming desire for change – which is achieved to different degrees in different novels. (Maybe that’s the factor that helps determine people’s choice of their favourite Tyler novel, or perhaps whether one book is less satisfying than another.) In Clock Dance, Tyler waits until the very end before twisting the story away from the path it would seem to be taking. But she leaves us shaken many times before that.

Clock Dance is the story of Willa Drake, whom we first meet in 1967 as a child who smooths over the ructions created by her volatile mother; who helps shield her sister from their father’s weak attempts to keep the household running. Willa is far better suited to adulthood so, after a longish chapter, we meet her in 1977, as a student making a trip home with the man who is to be her first husband.

The first violent nudge towards change occurs on the flight – her seatmate pulls a gun on her, an incident which is hidden from all around her and ends without drama but which revisits her, meaningfully, years later. We jump then to 1997, when she loses her husband in a car crash. Twenty years later, we see her taking another flight, this time to Baltimore with her pompous second husband, Peter.

Willa’s purpose is to help care for an ex-girlfriend of her grown-up son who is recovering from a gunshot wound. Arriving in Baltimore, Willa and Peter find Denise in hospital, while Denise’s young daughter Cheryl (not Willa’s granddaughter, but why not? - Tyler’s characters are often impulsive), is running the household (a task that seems to fall to her generally). As the chapters unfold, Willa and Cheryl form a bond – Tyler is as good at evoking the frustrations of youth as those of late adulthood – but it’s not the only new relationship Willa tentatively pursues that pushes her away from her old life towards something new.

The 1967, 1977 and 1997 chapters conclude a little before the middle of the book when the story jumps to 2017 and starts again at Chapter 1. Everything has happened already but we’re still hungry for every insight, every laugh, every lump in the throat Tyler offers. It’s as if these weeks in Baltimore are Willa’s chance to work through her past and potentially emerge at the end as the person she wants to be next. They are delightful and show Tyler on top form.

In a recent interview, Tyler said, ‘I love, as a reader, to be trusted to get what happens in between times. I don’t need to know about every year.’ When I first read The Beginner’s Goodbye I decided it was a chapter short. (It has nine, when nearly everything she’d written up till then had ten or twenty.) But then, even without re-reading, I realised I was wrong. As I thought about the book, everything I needed to know was there.

The gaps in Clock Dance are revealing. We don’t see Willa’s self-indulgent, often nasty mother after 1967, but we’re all too aware of the shadow she casts. We see so little of Willa’s sons, but we learn that the flipside of being a ‘predictable’ mother, as Willa has deliberately styled herself, is being one from whom it’s all too easy to detach yourself. Tyler’s skill is such that we don’t always need the words – their absence is imprinted in the spaces between.

Clock Dance is a playful, funny and engaging novel from possibly our finest living novelist. It isn’t my favourite – try Back When We Were Grown-ups, Earthly Possessions or A Patchwork Planet – but it’s a book I wouldn’t be without.

Clock Dance is published by Vintage.

Monday, 29 October 2018

WALDEN by Henry David Thoreau



Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is currently working on her second adult novel. The Key to Flambards was published this month by David Fickling Books.

The word Walden has come to mean a great deal: the rejection of materialism; a retreat from society into natural surroundings; a search for uncomplicated contentment. This much I knew without having read Thoreau's book (Walden, or, Life in the Woods, to give its full original title), but at last I have, and am struck by how much it chimes with current preoccupations. 

In 1845, aged 27, Thoreau went to live in woods near Concord, Massachusetts, building a single-room cabin on land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." He stayed there for two years, two months and two days, later recording the experience as the journal of a single year.

Thoreau and his anti-establishment ideals found new relevance in the 1960s. He was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes on the grounds that they financed slavery and the US - Mexico war, later writing an essay, On Civil Disobedience, which not only influenced Martin Luther King and Gandhi but echoed through anti-Vietnam War protests and the flouting of authority in the hippie era. The 60s, too, saw a revived interest in transcendentalism, a movement to which Emerson introduced Thoreau and which stressed individualism and intuition rather than adherence to religious doctrines and rituals.

In Buddhist fashion (he is greatly influenced by Indian spiritual writings) Thoreau explains how we clutter ourselves with possessions and responsibilities to the extent that we prevent ourselves from enjoying what we have. Rejecting the work ethic that's a central component of the American Dream, he says "we have become the slave-drivers of ourselves", and writes of the "seemingly wealthy, but most impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters." Productivity and economic growth are often seen as intrinsically desirable, but at what cost? Today we should certainly add: at what cost to the environment, as well as to ourselves?

Thoreau records details of his diet and plant husbandry, claiming that only thirty or forty days' work in a year were needed to support himself. Although not strictly vegetarian - he regularly caught and ate fish from the lake - he wrote, "I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food." In hunting and fishing, he finds "something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh ... when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially ... It cost more than it came to." He sees a future in which the human race no longer eats animals, which is certainly pertinent today: it's becoming clear that the planet simply cannot sustain meat-eating as the norm in the affluent countries of the world.


Some of the most beautiful writing in Walden describes the waters of the lake at various times of year, and the birds and animals who inhabit it. Thoreau's deep interest in the natural world led to the making of detailed observations of what we now call ecosystems - long before ecology became a distinct scientific discipline. In particular, he was interested in how forestry regenerates after individual trees have been destroyed by fire; his notes on this have proved to be of lasting worth. Another area in which he was a forerunner of today's concerns is in identifying the mental health benefits of exposure to the natural world. "I have been anxious to improve the nick of time ... to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment." This "living in the moment" is the essence of mindfulness.

Walden was not and is not to everyone's taste. Thoreau has been derided for merely playing at self-sufficiency, regularly returning to his mother with his laundry; Bill Bryson dismissed him as "inestimably priggish and tiresome".  E.B. White, quoted by John Updike in a new introduction, was an admirer, but conceded that Thoreau sometimes wrote as if "all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected". (And, I might add, classics scholars - the text is liberally scattered with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology.) The tone can be preachy, and he is given to making the same point several times, as in the chapter on Economy. Thoreau can be patronising, as in his famous pronouncement that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To a modern ear he is misogynistic, rarely mentioning women.

But I'll forgive him all that, because it seems to me that Walden speaks as clearly to our time as it did to its own - possibly even more so.



Walden is published by Empire Books.


Monday, 22 October 2018

Guest review by Stephanie Butland: A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline



Stephanie Butland has written four novels, including Lost For Words and The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae. She lives in the north east of England where she writes in the studio at the bottom of her garden, and walks on the beach in all weathers.

My relationship with this book began in the best possible way. I was chatting to Jo, a bookseller in Waterstones in Newcastle, and admiring her table of what she considered to be underrated novels. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which I had thoroughly enjoyed, was on there. So was A Manual For Cleaning Women, short stories by Lucia Berlin, a book I’d been recommending to anyone and everyone since it was given to me as a gift. Jo picked up A Piece Of The World and asked, “Have you read this? It’s amazing.”

Reader, I bought it. And I started it, idly, while having a coffee that afternoon. It’s a novel based around American artist Andrew Wyeth’s celebrated painting Christina’s World, which I recognised in the way you’d recognise the Laughing Cavalier if he passed you at the bus stop, but had no real knowledge of. I read it, hungrily, in all of my spare moments over the next few days. And I finished it, with the happy/sad feeling that comes when something is over, but it’s enriched your life, and you are so very glad that you found it. (See also: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and Parks and Recreation on microwave mug cakes.)



This novel is a life of Christina Olsen, the woman in the foreground of Wyeth’s painting. She was born into a farming family in Maine in the early 1900s, and had an undiagnosed degenerative condition: in Baker Kline’s imagining of her life, it gradually eats away at her mobility and her confidence, and she becomes as good as imprisoned in her family home. When a friend brings the then-unknown painter Wyeth to visit, he is inspired by both the farm and Christina herself, who becomes a muse to him.

If it sounds as though nothing much happens, well, I suppose it doesn’t, but that’s kind of the point. Christina’s world, as portrayed in Wyeth’s painting, is both spacious and eerie, both lonely and comforting, and the novel feels, to me, like a prose rendition of the characteristics of the artwork that inspired it. As we follow Christina’s story, in memories and flashbacks, we’re sucked into her world; the storytelling is compelling enough to make you hold your breath. And the writing is simply beautiful.

“… I put my hand over his, and he lays his other hand over mine. I feel the way I do when I lose something – a spool of thread, say – and search for it everywhere, only to discover it in an obvious place, like on the sideboard under the cloth.”

And oh, what a wonderful narrator Christina is. Made bad-tempered by constant pain and all of the ways she is unfulfilled, she alienates others and rejects all help. And she does not care. She has decided her own limits and she lives within them and she resents them. And I loved her and respected her for it. She doesn’t try to please people; she can be cruel, dismissive, and awkward. But she knows herself, understands herself, and is honest with herself and with us. I think that might be my favourite thing of all about this novel. It made me feel - trusted.

“All at once I am so tired of this-of the constant threat of humiliation and pain, the fear of exposure, of trying to act like I'm normal when I'm not- that I burst into tears. No, I am not all right, I want to say. I am fouled, degraded, ashamed, a burden and an embarrassment.”

I read a lot of books, and I love a lot of books, and often even the books I love I forget almost as soon as I’ve read the last page. This book has stayed with me. (Literally as well as figuratively. It’s still on the bedside table; I’m not ready to shelve it.) It’s partly because I admire the writing so much - there isn’t so much as a misplaced syllable from start to finish - but it’s also because the way Christina Baker Kline evokes the world she writes about makes it genuinely unforgettable. She asks us readers to listen to Christina’s voice and, if we do, the rewards are rich. 

A Piece of the World is published by Borough Press. 





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Monday, 15 October 2018

Guest post by Dawn Finch: A SWEET, WILD NOTE: WHAT WE HEAR WHEN THE BIRDS SING by Richard Smyth


Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and former librarian who is possibly best known for her role in many national library and literacy campaigns. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for children, and her non-fiction books are used in almost every primary school in the UK.

I am what might be called a casual birdwatcher. I have quite a bit of knowledge, but not as much as some. I can identify a good number of birds, but am often left baffled by extraordinary bursts of song, or by a dazzling flash of something feathery as it passes me by. I own many books on birds, but still prefer the kind of birdwatching that might be better described as “bird listening.”

As a very small child I loved to listen to the birds, and still sleep with my window open so that I can hear the dawn chorus, but I’m extremely bad at identifying birdsong. I am not alone. Despite the fact that birdsong is quite literally the soundtrack of our lives, most of us can only identify a few of the singers. We are lifted and inspired by birdsong, but can’t name the bird that is mastering the chorus.

In Richard Smyth’s wonderfully eccentric little book, A Sweet, Wild Note, he takes a look at the human relationship with birdsong and how it has inspired poets, writers, musicians and artists of all fields. In this beautiful book the author explores how we hear birdsong and what it means to us. He takes us from “some kind of crow” to the complex scientific matters of actually describing birdsong. We meet the poets who argued over what a nightingale actually was, and elegantly stroll through the world of birdsong to the emotionally loaded issue of keeping songbirds in captivity.

Smyth’s style is somewhat meandering, and eclectic, and that works well in a book that is as charming as the songs it explores. It is an enjoyable experience as it almost feels as if you are at a select gathering listening to a wonderful lecture. After reading it I felt that I wanted to quote many things from the book, and to get hold of many of the other books he has mentioned as sources. The book is a friendly read that never drifts into arrogance or pretention.

A Sweet, Wild Note has left me not only with a greater understanding of birdsong, but also a keener ear and a new appetite for finding out more. A lovely book that is also well packaged with a gorgeous cover by Lynn Hatzius and illustrated throughout by Tim Oakenfull. The whole makes for a very pleasing read that I know I will return to many times.

A Sweet, Wild Note is published by Elliot and Thompson

Monday, 8 October 2018

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: BAD GIRLS, A HISTORY OF REBELS AND RENEGADES, by Caitlin Davies



Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel Star By Star, winner of the CBI Honour Award for Fiction, commemorates the centenary of women’s suffrage.

I love fiction, and perhaps best of all I love stories set in institutions. Especially women’s institutions, and especially in the past. I thrill to books about closed communities, with their intense relationships, their special rules, their sense of being worlds apart and worlds unto themselves. My PhD was on fiction set in girls’ schools and colleges, and my work in progress is about a working girls’ hostel, but you could add to that a obsession with convents, hospitals (Call The Midwife scores twice here) and of course prisons. And I am not alone. The success of dramas such as Orange Is The New Black testifies to an abiding fascination with women who break the rules and how society deals with them.

My own first memories of being politically aware involve prisons. I remember the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, and very shortly afterwards seeing women from Greenham Common being sent to prison. This coincided with my learning about suffragette prisoners in the 1910s, so I always knew that prisons were complex spaces. As a student and later as a writer I have spent time working inside prisons, and know that they are places bristling with stories, often harsh and horrifying, always reflecting the world outside as well inside their walls.

So when I heard about Caitlin Davies’ forthcoming Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, some time before publication, I was really excited about it. Because even more than fiction I love social history, especially the history of women’s experience. Sometimes when I feel a bit storied-out I reach for social history as a kind of palate-cleanser. I knew this book was going to tick a lot of my boxes, and when it arrived I was almost scared to start reading it; I had invested so much interest and expectation in it. I’d also rashly agreed to review it for this blog before I even started reading it.

But I needn’t have worried. A quick glance at the contents page was enough to reassure me that this was very much my kind of book, with chapters on subjects ranging from Victorian baby farmers to spies in World War Two, and of course a detailed and horrifying section on the treatment of suffragettes. There are also sections covering sex and relationships, medical matters, and the changing regime at Holloway. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched, with a successful balance between telling the overarching factual story of Holloway as an institution and exploring some of the individual characters and events who found themselves incarcerated – or dependent on Holloway for their livelihood. It is dense with detail but always readable and engaging.

Davies writes fascinatingly about the women who worked as warders, and the changing demands of that role from Victorian times until more or less the present day. (Holloway closed in 2016.) I was surprised to learn that many of the wardresses were in fact sympathetic to the cause of suffragette prisoners, though this sympathy was not encouraged, and in fact the opposite was suggested in the press. As Davies says, ‘The press preferred to portray them in opposition to the suffragettes, for… a prison full of inmates and wardresses who wanted the vote was a frightening prospect.’

The book raises important questions about what constitutes crime and punishment, and the extent to which this is determined by changing social mores. Women are particularly vulnerable to this, as their crimes and misdemeanours are sometimes less clear-cut than male crime, and very prone to shifting notions of morality. I had imagined that the prison regime would have been harshest in the nineteenth century, growing gradually more humane, but the truth is more complex than that.

Bad Girls joins my library of non-fiction about women’s experiences in the past, and I know I’ll return to it many times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social history, especially women’s history.

Bad Girls is published by John Murray.