Monday, 23 July 2018

SECOND ANNIVERSARY post by guest Joanne Harris: RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW by Becky Chambers



Kyte Photography
Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two collections of short stories, a Dr Who novella, guest episodes for the game Zombies, Run and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science.


She works from a shed in her garden, plays bass in the band she first joined when she was 16, is currently writing a screenplay and lives with her husband and daughter in a little wood in Yorkshire.

The first volume of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers trilogy, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was by far the best sci-fi novel I'd read in a long, long time. Genuinely different to the mainstream of the genre, inclusive and compassionate, it seemed to me to be doing what speculative fiction has been trying (and mostly failing) to achieve for most of the ‘90s. Two volumes later, I am convinced that Becky Chambers is near the forefront of a long-overdue revolution in a genre that has been seen for too long as very male, very white and with a general tendency to value space battles over psychology. Not that there’s anything wrong with space battles. But, with some noble exceptions, sci-fi has traditionally been seen by many as an action genre, plot-heavy and character-light, with aliens often presented as thinly-disguised racial stereotypes, and women as love interests, rather than fully-formed protagonists.

Becky Chambers’ first novel forms part of a fresh, new wave of sci-fi. Initially self-published when mainstream publishers failed to see its potential, or to understand the deep demand among readers for increased diversity, it is lighter on plot than most sci-fi, but far richer in character development. It concentrates on powerful themes of belonging and identity, and treats the concept of alien-ness - in terms of race, gender, sexuality and culture - as something genuinely different, rather than just presenting them as humans in clever makeup. The dialogue is terrific - Joss Whedon with more empathy - and the narrative style is spare and elegant and wholly, gloriously immersive.

Record of a Spaceborn Few  carries on from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit only in that it serves to further our knowledge of the universe in which the books are set. Only one character from the first book is mentioned – and that only in passing – which means that the books can be read alone or as part of a wider exploration. I would suggest reading them all – not only because they are excellent, but because they provide an expanding overview of the author’s universe; a universe at least as important as any of the characters. Unlike most futuristic scenarios, this is a universe in which Humans are neither the dominant nor the superior species. The order that has been established within interstellar society has come from an alien culture, as has much of the technology. Humans are a minority group – white humans even more so – challenging the assumptions of so much of our traditional science fiction.

Only on the Exodus Fleet are Humans still in the majority, but the Exodus Fleet is a relic, dating from many centuries ago, still bearing the descendants of the last generation of Humans to leave Earth. This fiercely isolationist group still retains its original cultural identity, though the ancient ships are in disrepair, and supplies are always a problem. Young people wanting to explore the outside world with its many colonized planets are faced with the same kind of culture shock faced by members of certain religious groups who choose to leave their traditional environment. Some leave for good; some return, unable to face life outside the bubble.

When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home are faced with an existential crisis – how to face up to the knowledge that their final destination – the stars – was reached a hundred years ago, and that they are an irrelevance in a universe that has moved on?

Within this framework, the author manages to weave themes of inclusivity and diversity into her sci-fi, along with representations of mental illness, body dysmorphia, xenophobia, depression, gender fluidity and so on - all with the most delicate touch, and in a way that feeds directly into the plot, rather than appearing pasted-in for the sake of political correctness. This is the real deal emotionally: the characters are well-rounded, original and relatable, and the underlying ideas are compassionate and true. It's also a cracking story, well-paced and compelling, with more than enough plot to satisfy, but with a nice, grown-up element of personal and emotional growth, too.

The story is seen through the eyes of a number of different characters – a young mother; a hopeful visitor struggling for acceptance; a young man desperate to leave – all these stories intertwined to make up a larger – and strangely familiar – narrative. A tale of a grieving community; a tale of misplaced ambitions; a tale of optimism and rejection; a culture willing to do almost anything rather than face the outside world. The parallels with current events are inescapable, and yet are delivered with a welcome lightness of touch.

Imagine The Grapes of Wrath, set in space, with all the intensity, heartbreak and tension that implies. And grieve a little for the fact that the mainstream literary world is so slow in acknowledging the scope, skill and literary value of sci-fi - although frankly, anyone who scorns sci-fi as a lesser genre really doesn't deserve to read anything as splendid as this.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Guest review by Michael Lawrence - SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY by Sylvia Beach


 Between 1995 and 2015 I published a number of stories and forty-something books for children and teenagers. One of the books - Young Dracula - inspired five CBBC-TV series of that name; a series I didn’t like and which earned me little more than a fleeting ‘originator’ end credit and a handful of beans. While I enjoyed writing many of my books, others were such a tussle with editors and their various chippers-in that frustration and out-and-out rage became the order of many a day. When the new head of a certain publishing house informed me that my new ideas were ‘very funny with strong narrative voices but a little quirky and out-there at a time when we are looking for something a lot more obvious’ I knew it was time to move on. I’m still moving. Still writing too (it’s hard to give up), but not for children.

If we’d been of a similar generation, Sylvia Beach is someone I would very much like to have known. She preceded me by quite some way, but the bookshop described in this memoir - the name of it at least - had some relevance for me early on.

At the tenderish age of twenty-one I was a freelance photographer in London, taking pictures for the Financial Times, publishers, advertising agencies and so on. That meant a lot of snaps of politicians, pop stars, cereal packets, and women in various states of undress. But this was the so-called Swinging Sixties and I was bored with the parties and zipping round town in taxis just before dawn, so I handed the keys to my balconied flat in Pimlico - along with all my furnishings - to a BBC makeup girl of my acquaintance and hightailed it to Paris to try my hand at writing while starving. (I turned out to have a real gift for the second of these.) While renting an icy garret at the top of the Hotel Novelty at Odéon, I made frequent visits to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Rue de la Bûcherie near Notre Dame. There I discovered treasures banned in England, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell, and Maurice Girodias’s Traveller’s Companion series. I also met a French composer who wanted help with a letter to the Dean of St Paul’s to offer him a piece of music he’d written in honour of Winston Churchill, who’d just died.

But this wasn’t Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company. Sylvia, a New Jersey expatriate, opened the original Shakespeare and Company – a lending library as well as a bookshop – on the morning of November 19th, 1919. Specialising in books written in or translated into English, in no time her shop became an essential meeting place for visiting English-speaking authors, some of whom used it as their Paris mailing address. The shop more usually associated with Sylvia was in the Rue de l’Odéon, but her first Shakespeare and Company was situated just round the corner in the Rue Dupuytren. When I came across the address of that shop some twenty five years after my impoverished sojourn at the Hotel Novelty my jaw hit my chest. The Novelty was at 10 Rue Dupuytren. Sylvia’s first shop was at number eight – right next door. It was like finding the bones of old Will himself in your sock drawer.

It was from 8 Rue Dupuytren that Gertrude Stein is said to have borrowed around seventy books in the two years before the shop moved to those larger premises. It was at number 8 that Sylvia, with no previous publishing experience, volunteered to produce the first edition of Ulysses in book form, in the process becoming James Joyce’s most vigorous champion. At that shop and its successor she entertained, in one way or another, many writers of contemporary or subsequent legend - Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, D H Lawrence and many others. There ought to be a commemorative plaque on the wall of 8 Rue Dupuytren, but there isn’t. There’s no indication whatsoever that the original Shakespeare and Company was housed there.

Sylvia ceased trading in 1941 after refusing to sell an officer of the occupying German forces her last copy of Finnegans Wake from her window display. Shortly afterwards she found herself in an internment camp, where she was held for six months. Almost exactly a decade after she shut up shop for the last time, an American bookseller called George Whitman adopted the name Shakespeare and Company for his own shop in the Rue de la Bûcherie, apparently with Sylvia’s blessing. The by-then celebrated banner gave George’s establishment a ready-made pedigree which to this day draws literary pilgrims by the planeload, many believing that they’re visiting the shop associated with all those famous writers of the past.

Authentic or not, Mr Whitman’s shop, now run by his daughter – Sylvia Beach Whitman – filled both a gap and a need, not least for cold hard-up souls like me, eager for words they could understand and a spot of free warmth in which to pore over them.

Some of the above is covered in more detail in my memoir Milking the Novelty, a copy of which, I’m happy to report, has found a place in the Rue de la Bûcherie Shakespeare and Company archive.

Shakespeare and Company is published by Bison Books.

Monday, 9 July 2018

THE LIBRARIAN by Salley Vickers, reviewed by Adèle Geras


Adèle Geras lives in Cambridge and reads a lot. She’s published six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published in paperback by Quercus. She has also published many books for children and young adults.

Perhaps the first thing to say about this book is that Salley Vickers has been very well served by her publishers. It’s a most beautiful object: bound in eau- de-nil cloth, and with pretty, flower-strewn endpapers. Holding it gives the reader real physical pleasure. Since one of the main themes of the novel is the delight that comes from stories, it’s fitting that this should be so.

Sylvia is a young librarian who moves into a cottage in East Mole and takes up a post as Children’s Librarian. She rents a cottage from Mrs Bird, and from that moment her life is linked with that of the Bird family, and with those of her neighbours in the village. She’s involved with the children, in particular clever Sam and shy, awkward Lizzie. She meets and falls in love with the local doctor, who is married and who has a somewhat wayward daughter called Marigold.

We learn a great deal about the workings of the library, and of how Sylvia draws the local children into reading her own childhood favourites. Not everyone has enlightened ideas, however, and when a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer goes missing from the Restricted Access shelves, a whole series of events unfolds, at the end of which things in East Mole have changed forever.

I won’t say more about what happens, for fear of spoilers, but I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a tale of ordinary life, told plainly but evocatively. I’d also give it to anyone interested in children’s books, or anyone who believes that the books we read in childhood have the capacity to shape our lives forever. It’s dedicated to Jacqueline Wilson, (who’s been a very good friend of mine for something like 40 years) and Philip Pullman, whom I first met in the early 1990s, so I felt a personal pull to it even before I began reading.

The personal connections continue. One of the friends I’ve made since moving to Cambridge in 2010 is Sally Christie, who is the daughter of Philippa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. This astonishing novel, first published in 1958, figures large in The Librarian and is one of Vickers’s own favourites. I am very happy when lines of life and literature converge in this satisfying way.

The Librarian is published by Viking.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Guest review by Judith Lennox: CIRCE by Madeline Miller



Judith Lennox was born in Salisbury in 1953 and has written twenty-one novels, the most recent of which is Hidden Lives. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Iain and has three sons and six grandchildren.


The opening sentence of Miller’s novel is arresting: ‘When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.’ Circe is a witch, a sorceress. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and the naiad Perse, who catches his eye. We follow Circe’s story from her birth in Helios’s dark and silent halls, through her encounters with the familiar characters of myth – Scylla, Odysseus, the Minotaur – to her destiny.

The novel is told from Circe’s point of view. It’s a difficult task to persuade a reader to care about an immortal being, but Miller achieves it by making the reader feel present in antiquity. She skimps on neither the glory nor the savagery. Her landscapes are beautiful and luxuriant, populated by the gods, with their chilly, implacable, gleaming majesty. Compared to them, humans are grey and slack and wear their mortality like a badge. Pity and mercy are alien to Athena, Artemis, Hermes, Helios and their kind, as is death. One of Circe’s formative experiences is when she witnesses the punishment of Prometheus for giving mortals fire. She alone secretly gives him comfort – a cup of nectar – after his terrible scourging by the Fury. In return he offers her a lesson she never forgets: Not every god need be the same.

Circe’s story is one of self-realisation. As the novel goes on, she comes to know what she truly is: a witch, a creator of potions and enchantments, who has the power of transformation. Her skills aren’t handed to her on a plate, she has to learn them through hard, painstaking work, alone in exile on the island of Aiaia. Circe comes to realise that what Prometheus told her is true, that she is not the same as other gods. She cares about the fate of mortals: when Hermes, her lover, off-handedly informs her of the death of the princess Ariadne – ‘If you cry every time some mortal dies, you’ll drown in a month’ – she angrily rejects him.

So often, the portrayal of gods, demi-gods and monsters in film and fiction is disappointing. We might admire their prowess or fear their cruelty, but we can’t connect with them. They seem one-dimensional, both less than they should be and at the same time untouchable, invulnerable. Miller’s mythical beings are vivid and full of character, summed up in neat phrases and pithy descriptions. Helios, for instance: ‘My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.’ Or Scylla: ‘her round face lacquered with malice.’ The tedium of immortality is hinted at: ‘Gods love nothing more than novelty.’ And so we are able to understand a little the Titans and Olympians, because they share our human frailties.

Most of all we connect with Circe. Her problems are our problems – the baby who cries all night and will not sleep, the son who leaves his mother for foreign lands, the predatory men who, finding her on her own without the protection of a husband, son or brother, use her as something less than human. Perhaps we’d like to have access to the powers with which she confronts these situations – perhaps we too would like to turn our aggressors into swine, or devise enchantments to guard our children. In Madeline Miller’s hands, Circe is no evil witch, but an intelligent woman who finds autonomy and love in a hostile world.

Circe is faithful to the roots of the story, while managing to feel contemporary at the same time. The chill of antiquity exists in a world that trembles on the brink of change and modernity. Her language is poetic, as sharp as a knife-blade when necessary, but touching, poignant and thoughtful too. ‘Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets,’ muses Circe. ‘As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.’ In this novel, Madeline Miller triumphantly reclaims a story of female power, putting at its centre a character who has the capacity for love, endurance and empathy.

Circe is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Independent Bookseller Feature No.3: The Book Corner, Halifax. UNDER THE ROCK and THE GALLOWS POLE by Benjamin Myers



We opened The Book Corner in September 2017 with Bookworms, our dedicated children’s bookshop, next door. We are proud to have brought an independent bookshop back to Halifax and are located in the recently renovated Grade I listed Piece Hall, the only example in this country of the great eighteenth century northern cloth halls.

The shop is owned by Kate Claughan who also owns The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge. The team are avid readers and all-round book champions, passionate about delivering events that offer something extra for the local community whether it be a local author book signing, a poetry collection launch, a spoken word open-mic night, a regular YA book club or a good old-fashioned story-time for younger readers.

We are also delighted to partner Square Chapel Arts Centre supporting their various events for authors and poets including Hollie McNish, Roger McGough, Willy Russell and Stuart Maconie.

We have chosen to review two books by local author Benjamin Myers. Ben is an author, journalist and poet who has written seven books as well as many poems and short stories. His novel The Gallows Pole has just won the 2018 Walter Scott Prize and is our best-selling fiction title. Ben recently collaborated with ‘Yorkshire’s very own Wainwright’ and cartographer, Christopher Goddard, to create a Cragg Vale Coiners map, a sweeping walker’s guide to the locations featured in the novel. It is well worth a trek through the blustery bogs and banks to experience the incredible Calder Valley but always with a hip flask close at hand.

The Gallows Pole is a visceral re-telling of the Cragg Vale Coiners’ efforts to ‘clip’ the late 18th century England’s economy into devastation. Myers delivers a windswept tale of 1769 Northern England, diving head first into the murky world of pseudo King David Hartley and his gang of land-workers as they bully and spit their enterprising scheme across the Calder Valley. No man will stand in their way, but can they avoid the hangman’s noose? Deeply resonant for the modern reader, this is a vivid portrait of the working man and his uprising against the rich establishment. Myers has woven an unforgettable tale filled with landscape, poetry and Yorkshire vernacular that has you grasped by the throat long after the final page has been turned. A worthy winner of the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Under the Rock is the most beautifully written non fiction book. Reading it takes you on a journey into the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd which is situated in the steep sided Calder valley. Scout Rock, is present as a constant companion. The author lives below it; his relationship to the rock is examined throughout the book. The rock has also affected others who live in the valley, most famously Ted Hughes. The observations on nature are glorious whilst not flinching from describing the raw and gritty side. The book is split into parts: Wood, Earth, Water, Rock. At the end of each part are poems which make you feel as if you accompanied the author on his walks around the valley. There is an extremely powerful sense of place. I was fully immersed in the landscape, the water, the woods, the rock. Lyrical, powerful, engaging, moving and fascinating. Highly recommended.

The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books and Under the Rock by Elliott & Thomson.

Review by Katie Ashwood and Louise Beere.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Guest review by Jean Ure: A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel



I had my first book published while I was still at school and have been at it ever since, writing mainly for children and young adults. My first book was pure wish fulfilment, about a girl who became a dancer, and with the recent publication of a ballet trilogy – Born to Dance, Star Quality and Showtime – I seem to have come full circle. - Jean Ure

I’m not at all sure that I can even begin to do justice to Hilary Mantel’s great sprawling novel about the French Revolution. I may, in fact - both book and subject matter being so complicated - end up writing more about my own reaction to it than an actual bona fide review.

First off, I have to confess that when I originally picked up the book I found the opening chapters somewhat dry and uninspiring. It was only an act of faith – I came to it direct from the spellbinding Wolf Hall – which kept me going. It was by the great Hilary Mantel, and that was enough for me. So I kept at it, and little by little it began to grip me, until, having reached the end, I felt an immense sense of loss and had immediately to go back and re-immerse myself; and then, having reached the end for a second time, could still hardly bear to say goodbye. So great a hold did it have over me that I began quite obsessively to seek out every book I could lay hands on that dealt either with the Revolution itself or with the principal players. I soaked myself in the period. I even learnt all the words of the Marseillaise and drove my husband half demented by breaking into song as we drove the dogs up to the park every morning.

So, yes, it is one of those rare books which has lived with me over the years and which I shall doubtless go back to again and again. Having said that, I recognise that for some it will not be the same transcendent experience it has been for me. It depends, I think, on what one looks for in a book. Mantel deals meticulously, in absorbing detail, with both the causes and the course of the Revolution, but she is no drama queen. There is none of Dickens’ lurid storytelling or fevered activity. Even during the Terror, as heads roll and the streets run with blood, she keeps a firm control over her measured prose. She has no need to invent subplots of horror: the horror is all around, part of the everyday landscape, and the reader lives through it along with her characters.

And it is these characters which for me make the book such compulsive reading. From schooldays on we are taught to regard Robespierre and Danton as evil incarnate, on a par with Hitler and with Stalin: Mantel brings off the not inconsiderable feat of presenting them as fully rounded human beings. Deeply flawed, to be sure, and possibly by the time of the Terror unbalanced, at least in the case of Robespierre. The Sea Green Incorruptible clung tenaciously to the bitter end to his purity of belief, whilst the larger than life Danton, less wedded to his principles and consequently far more of a pragmatist, was not above seizing the opportunity to enrich himself.

The huge cast of characters is what brings the book so vividly alive, the women as well as the men. To be sure, Mantel takes authorial liberties. Who can fail to be entranced by the mercurial Camille Desmoulins, enfant terrible of the Revolution? In reality, history would seem to tell us, a decidedly unwholesome and unprepossessing creature. But who is to say that history can be relied on when it comes to fixing a person’s character? Mantel has done exhaustive research, has all the facts at her fingertips, and interprets them though a novelist’s eye to create a richly colourful, if violent and disturbing, world .

Ultimately, without the need for heightened drama – she doesn’t even depict the death of Robespierre. Could she not bring herself to do so, perhaps? – she draws us into the very heart of those troubled times. You feel, by the end, that you have not so much been reading a book about the French Revolution as having actually been part of the experience.

Not the easiest read, I will admit. It does require a degree of perseverance and effort, but how rewarding!

A Place of Greater Safety is published by Fourth Estate.


Monday, 11 June 2018

Guest review by Miriam Halahmy - THE RELIVE BOX AND OTHER STORIES by T. C. Boyle



Miriam Halahmy writes novels for children and young adults. Her books have been published in the UK, America and other territories. Miriam’s books look at some of the most challenging issues of our time, dealing with immigration and asylum seekers currently and in the past, as well as homelessness, racism and family relationships. A new edition of her Carnegie nominated novel, Hidden  (Troika Books, 2018), has been adapted for the stage and will tour in the autumn. Her latest novel, Behind Closed Doors (Firefly Press, July) focuses on two fifteen year old girls on the verge of becoming homeless. Behind Closed Doors examines what it means to love and be loved, and how to make a life when there is no security at home. More on Miriam's website.

T.C. Boyle, an award winning American novelist and short story writer, is not widely known here in the UK. I was first introduced to his talents in a lengthy short story called Balto, set around a court case. A drunken father forces his twelve year old daughter to drive them home from school and she hits a cyclist. Will she lie for him under oath? Great dilemma!

This new collection, The Relive Box, shows off Boyle’s mastery of the form. As in poetry, not a word, a syllable or a line break are out of place. Each story is beautifully crafted with memorable phrases such as “the light making a cathedral of the street trees” and “dandruff like sleet in her hair.” Set now or in the near future, this is a prophetic, provoking, challenging and at times, downright scary collection; a call to arms, reflecting the current state of society and the rocky road we are heading down.

In the title story, every home has a Relive Box and Boyle shows us the terrifying potential of the digital age. The Box consumes every waking minute and most of the night. The children fight the adults for access and work has become an irritating distraction from the real purpose of life – time on the Relive Box. Read this story at your peril. It still lives with me weeks later.

Are We not Men?’ opens with a man’s arm being gripped in the locked down jaws of a deep red pitbull terrier. Have no fear; the animal (like many others in the story, including the ‘dogcat’) has been genetically modified. “She’s a Cherry Pit, germline immunity comes with the package,” says her owner, the eleven year old girl next door. Babies are equally modified, every nuance picked out in a catalogue for those who can pay. Height seems to be particularly valued for females. The child with the pitbull is six foot, two inches. How far will such modification go? In the street ‘crowparrots’ screech in the trees, commenting relentlessly; “Your mother…Up yours! ... f*** you.”

Other stories take current concerns and turn them on their head. In  She’s the Bomb terrorism is the focus but as a convenience tool. A student abrogates all responsibility for fellow human beings and invokes a fake terrorist scare twice for her own selfish purposes.

The Argentine Ant is a reflection on moving between cultures, a sting in the tail and the startling way creative thought can emerge from totally unexpected quarters.

We are drowning under a deluge of films, books, op eds, etc etc on the fate of humanity in the post-digital, post-genetic modification age. What if this has already happened? What will it look like? How will it affect us? Boyle considers these questions (almost with glee) and hits below the belt, sparing no feelings. Thoroughly recommended.

The Relive Box is published by Bloomsbury.