Monday, 11 February 2019

'I NEVER READ MY REVIEWS' by guest Paul Dowswell

Paul Dowswell writes historical fiction and is a frequent visitor to schools, both home and abroad, where he talks about his books and takes creative writing classes. His novels Eleven Eleven and Sektion 20 won the Historical Association Young Quills Award and Ausländer won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize. Paul is a Fellow of the English Association and reviews books for Armadillo and Carousel.

Only the very richest or most modest writers can say ‘I never read my reviews’. Being a teen/young adult novelist who is neither of these things, I’m happy to tell you I read my reviews avidly. If it’s a good one I might think ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do’ or conversely ‘Blimey, was I doing that?’ - a bit like the Beatles when a classical music critic praised their ‘flat submediant key switches’ and ‘Aeolian cadences’…

The chances of being reviewed have gone through the roof over the last 20 years. When I started off, you considered yourself lucky to be reviewed in any print medium – from specialist journals to national newspapers. These days any old fruitcake can contribute to a plethora of on-line review sites. (And they certainly do.) And although on-line reviews are always interesting to read, and more often written by the non-fruitcake fraternity, the variable quality of these reviews does diminish the weight attached to them.

My favourite review came from a non-fiction book of survival stories I wrote for early-teens nearly twenty five years ago. The Books for Keeps reviewer said ‘Any book that keeps me, my 14-year-old son and my 75-year-old dad intrigued and entertained has got to be a winner.’ Job done. I’m still proud of that.

But bad reviews are an altogether different kettle of piranhas and I’ll be deeply alarmed by one, unless it’s on Goodreads, when I might just feel irritated. (More of that later.)

The worst review I ever had was for my first novel Powder Monkey, about a young sailor in Nelson’s navy called Sam, which appeared in an online journal. The reviewer was an academic whose speciality is children’s fiction, and she wrote such an excoriating hatchet job it couldn’t have been worse if I’d just burned her house down with a flamethrower. I was distraught - not least because this was the first review of the first fiction I’d written and I thought ‘Oh no, I’ve been found out.’

Sam and the other characters exist (as)… wooden figures within the wooden walls, like two-dimensional cutouts in a museum diorama; they lack vitality, depth, and humanity. …there is little to attract novel readers, and nothing at all for girls...

I felt sick with anxiety and disappointment for several days, wondering if any other reviews would be so damning. Fortunately, in one glorious weekend shortly afterwards, two other reviews appeared in the Independent and the Sunday Times, both of which praised the book to the hilt. Champagne (or maybe it was prosecco) was cracked open.

The funniest bad review I got was from a girl who absolutely detested my East German novel Sektion 20, and took out her rage in the reviews section of a Northern Irish book award website. I had added a few German words to make the speech a little more Germanic - things like Mὕtter and Vater and Fräulein - nothing too complex and certainly nothing that would have foxed your average Beano reader. But my reviewer was incensed.

WHAT A NIGHTMARE!!! I didn't like this book at all - it was horrible. I normally like reading books about wars but this was just B.O.R.I.N.G!! I absolutely hated every second of it. Let's see why I hated it so much... (1) the way half of it was in a different language I could not understand at all. (2) the characters…

There follows eight lines of angry ranting. And then concluded:

… Paul if you ever read this - here is a little tip...PUT IN A TRANSLATOR WE DON'T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK WHATEVER LANGUAGE IT IS!! I am going to give this book a 1.

(Capitals reviewer's own.)

I sent the review to my brother, who declared ‘She sounds like xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx* after three lines of coke.’ She certainly had a vivid style, although I’m sure she hadn’t been at the white powder. Maybe she ought to try for a career as a tabloid columnist. I suppose she’d been made to read it as part of her school’s participation in the book award, but she’d resented it so hugely she was very keen to let me know about it. Fortunately the book did go on to win a book prize, but not that one.

* Name of Irish pop star omitted on legal advice

But sometimes the mouths of babes and sucklings speak uncomfortable truths. My previous book The Cabinet of Curiosities was set in pre-Renaissance Prague and well off the beaten track of the First and Second World War, and the Nazis, Romans and Tudors – the key Historical Fiction eras any novelist steps away from at their peril. The first review I saw, on Goodreads I think, just said ‘This book is of no interest to me’. My editor agreed. After this one bombed, she said ‘Best stick to the 20th Century’, advice I have followed to this day. (My brother, incidentally, thought Cabinet of Curiosities was my best book... so there’s no accounting for taste.)

On the subject of Goodreads I have to say I detest the know-all, judgemental tone of some of the reviewers. (‘I was horribly bored…’) And I also know several other writers who agree with me. (So there, know-all, judgemental Goodreads reviewers!) I only know it for the children's and young adult reviews and don’t know whether those for adult books can be just as snotty.

Amazon reviews aren’t nearly so bad and opinionated – perhaps because most of them are positive unless the reviewer has a grudge or wants to complain about shoddy goods. Maybe Goodreads is the place to go if you’ve been made to read a book against your will and want to share your pain with the author? One writer friend of mine thinks it’s because it’s a social media community, and that automatically makes it more prone to vituperative comments. I sometimes wonder if schools require their pupils to post reviews as part of a reading project – but whatever the reason for it, it’s made Goodreads reviews inessential, and feedback I got from fellow-writers about this ranged from ‘Here be dragons’ to ‘I never look at it.’ One of my writer friends pointed out how contradictory some of these reviews can be – complaining about how slow the plot is whilst bemoaning the lack of development in minor characters, for example. Or moaning about a young adult book being ‘obviously written for children’. This is a shame because many of the reviews there are excellently written.

So why are reviews important? Well, it nice to get a pat on the back from a stranger, or even better, a respected broadsheet reviewer. When you’ve spent the best part of a year alone in your study labouring on something, you need more than your partner to tell you ‘it’s good’ and your mum to trill ‘it’s marvellous, darling’. But reviews, along with book prizes, are also a splendid way of letting a school know you might be worth inviting in. Likewise, positive reviews are also bait for foreign publishers and that’s always a good thing. And letting your editor/publisher know someone thinks you are a class act can’t do anyone any harm.

I review books myself now, for a couple of journals, and this can be quite a moral conundrum. Most of the time I try and provide a sound bite in my review that can be picked out for a nice little quote. No problem if I like the book, but tricky if I don’t. I reviewed one young adult story, written by an American author, which reimagined the Second World War as fought by young women in combat roles as well as men, presumably for a parochial female readership uninterested in reading about characters who aren’t exactly like themselves. But I could see it was an exciting page turner and said so. (‘…highly readable and sometimes unbearably exciting.’)

Likewise, another book I read – again by an American author – had a plot where every good character was Jewish and every bad character was a Slav. Paris, Prague and Rome are depicted as crime-ridden cess pits – this is fiction for the sort of Fox News ‘expert’ who thinks Birmingham is a no-go area for non-Muslims. But it was still an exciting story and the publishers quoted from my review – although not the bit about its uncomfortable racial bias. (‘…It’s certainly a page turner, and I enjoyed its visceral action.’) Incidentally, in case anyone detects an anti-American bias in this, my two favourite novels of the last ten years have both been by American writers.

I’ve only been asked to review one book I unconditionally detested, a balls-achingly mawkish teen drama with a cover showing three characters staring up at the Milky Way. (One of the characters is ‘a soft candle lighting up a dark room’. I rest my case.) Being a do-as-you-would-be-done-by sort of chap, I wondered about sending it in, but then I realised the writer had thousands of reviews on Amazon and was an international best seller so whatever ‘Disgruntled of Wolverhampton’ said about him was entirely of no consequence. So off it went. Alas the editor spiked it, for which I have still not forgiven her...

Postscript. My mother has asked me to point out that she does not trill ‘It’s marvellous, darling,’ whenever I send her one of my books to read.

Paul Dowswell's novels are published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: A STATE OF FREEDOM by Neel Mukherjee

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a Young Adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

I was immediately drawn into this story by the beauty of the writing and by the dreamlike events of the first chapter, in which an American man of Indian birth and his young son wander, sightseeing, in the ruins of an ancient palace. They are tired. It’s been a long day, and they’ve been delayed by an accident: the death of a workman who has fallen from scaffolding. They encounter the unsettling presence of a man who may be a spirit, a ghost, or a warning.

The remaining chapters follow the interwoven stories of several people: a young man from London visiting his parents in Mumbai; two determined women - Renu, a cook, and Milly, a cleaner – both of them seeking freedom from poverty; Soni, whose anger and despair drive her to join a guerrilla group; Lakshman, a desperately poor man who trains a bear cub to dance and tries to earn a living from it; and his twin brother Ramlal who leaves home to find work as a labourer in the city.

The story takes you to the heart of their struggles. Soni’s father, having borrowed money at high interest and travelled miles with his desperately ill wife, finds himself lost and defeated in the overcrowded hospital as he is sent upstairs and down, and up again, only to be brushed aside without help once more: “Soni’s father turned away, came outside and sat down on the steps. Against his will, his mouth twisted, like a child’s; he couldn’t make it hold its shape; he failed to make his crying resemble a dignified adult’s.”

The young man from London sums up his work, “My design job in London was flexible. I worked for a progressive, thinking-outside-the-box class of trendy outfit …” This is about as far removed from the lives of the other people in the novel as one could get, and he is uncomfortably aware of the very different lives of his parents’ servants, Renu and Milly, who live in the nearby slum and work shifts at several houses. Their earnings are not for themselves, but for the better future they are determined to win for their dependents.

Milly escapes to a kind of freedom, while her friend Soni’s family is left in despair. But all the people in this story had hope at first. Once, “on a golden afternoon when the boys were eight or nine”, Lakshman’s brother Ramlal had shown him how to see the face of Shiva in the mountainous landscape near their home: “Of course, Lakshman could see – he could see the god’s beautiful, lotus-like eyes, more closed than open, and the mouth, almost smiling … there he was, the great god Shiva, his face imprinted on Nanda Devi, his abode. And there he, Lakshman, was, gazing on it, a wonder revealed to a boy, and all the air, all the light and all the days were his to do what he wanted.”

These stories combine to give a deep insight into the lives of the poor in India. I’d recommend reading the book twice. On a second reading you make the connections more easily, and the writing is so beautiful, varied and engaging that it’s a joy to re-read, to experience aspects of the story falling into place, and to admire the intricacy of its construction.

A State of Freedom is published by Vintage.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.4: Rachel Phipps of THE WOODSTOCK BOOKSHOP chooses FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg

Rachel Phipps: My first job was at a bookshop, the tiny and wonderful Walrus Books in Burford, run by Katherine Watson who was possibly the best-read person I have ever met. She knew everything, it seemed to me. She had a shelf that she called ‘Ladies’ Light Reading’ that was very popular with the ladies of Burford, and a large poetry section. I worked there during my holidays when I was at school and longed to have a similar shop one day. After my English degree – during which I became slightly better read but still not in Katherine Watson’s league - I worked at Sandoe’s in London, then at Penguin, had periods as a teacher and proof reader and, six children later, opened The Woodstock Bookshop in 2008 (Katherine sadly died just after I opened the shop so she never saw it but I hope she might have approved). We held regular readings in Woodstock for the first few years, and started the annual Woodstock Poetry Festival seven years ago which has featured most of the best poets now writing in Britain. For a full account of the shop and our talks, have a look at our website.

I first came across Family Lexicon when it was published by nyrb editions in 2017 in a translation by Jenny McPhee. I was hooked from the first page, not just engrossed but totally in love with the book in a way that rarely happens. I read it slowly, unwilling for it to end, wanting to stay in that world for as long as possible. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and started again. Partly I loved it because the father in it reminded me of my own father, who died far too young at the age I am now, over thirty years ago. He, too, shouted and bullied and loved and was loved, was a larger than life person who demanded the impossible from those around him but was adored by his children. I also loved the book because of the author's voice. I felt I could listen to her for a very long time.

Family Lexicon is autobiography written as a novel. As Ginzburg says in her Preface, 'Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.' She wrote the book in the early 1960s when she was living in London, far from her family. She had already written several novels by the time it was published in 1963 and it was a huge success, selling half a million copies and winning the Strega, Italy's most important literary prize. It is the story of her family and her upbringing, written in very colloquial Italian, catching a vanished world.

''My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don't write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say 'We haven't come to Bergamo on a military campaign', or 'Sulphuric acid stinks of fart', and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases. If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they're like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world, re-created and revived in disparate places on the earth whenever one of us says, 'Most eminent Signor Lipmann', and we immediately hear my father's impatient voice ringing in our ears: 'Enough of that story! I've heard it far too many times already!''

The voice in which she tells the story is very distinctive, at first almost the voice of the young child she is at the start of the novel but then changing gradually as she moves through the years and grows older. Natalia herself remains largely unknown, but her parents and brothers and sisters, theirs friends, her husband, all the vanished people of a world that no longer exists, are vividly alive through their words and her memories of them. It is a love song to family, to the people who make us and are special because they are our people. It is very funny at times and very sad at others, and I have urged everyone who comes in to the shop to read it – as I now urge you.

Family Lexicon is published by Daunt Books.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Guest review by Nick Manns: THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STARS by Paul Broks

Nick Manns taught English in comprehensive schools in south London and the Midlands for 20 years. He is the author of four novels for young adults, including Control Shift and Dead Negative, and is a founder (and director) of Dyslexia Lifeline, a company based at De Montfort University, Leicester. 

There’s a moment in the second episode of Informer (BBC iPlayer) where the central character, Gabe, is reading to his seven year old daughter, Laurie. The book is The Wizard of Oz. Laurie interrupts the narrative and says: ‘Is the Wizard real?’ Gabe answers: ‘No, the old man made him up’. To which Laurie replies: ‘But everyone believed him, so doesn’t that make him real anyway?’

What is interesting about this is not Laurie’s discussion of power in a fairy story, but the fact that the Wizard, Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion had a reality for her and she had an emotional investment in them. Words on a page had created a world that could be interrogated; but in what sense is this world ‘real’?

This is one of the themes that Paul Broks explores in his exceptional book. Written in part as a response to the death of his wife, it’s a bookseller’s nightmare: at once a grief memoir, a work of science, a philosophical study and a piece of fantasy. There are ghosts and walk-on parts for characters from Greek myths and the Old Testament and Koran. We meet a patient who believes he’s dead and a man whose left hand has a vicious life of its own. And at one point our author finds himself walking through the back of a wardrobe to end up ‘standing underneath a lamppost, in the middle of a wood on a snowy night.’

Broks spent his professional career as a clinical neuropsychologist, and part of his job was to make connections between the physical stuff between our ears and observable behaviour and perception. The case histories are very much in the Oliver Sacks vein, but Broks’s focus is on what these case histories can tell us about our notion of reality; our sense of self; our experience of consciousness.

In the introduction, Broks makes the observation: ‘There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imaginings and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits.’ So, the Wizard of Oz; the smell of coffee; a lunar eclipse – it’s all one to the cerebral cortex.

He references Plato’s story of prisoners chained in a cave (since childhood), facing a wall, and who can only see the shadows of people and objects passing before them on the rocky surface. They have to form their impression of the world based on what they observe: it’s their reality. A parable that presents to us the problem of knowledge: how can we get at the ‘truth’ through the ‘distorting mirror of the human mind’? Isn’t the skull a kind of cave encasing the brain?

Although this discussion is exciting and is threaded through the book, by the end of the text, and despite the teasing presence of an Old Testament figure (packing Special Brew and a soupçon of quantum theory), I’m not sure that we’ve got further than the philosopher Lennon: ‘Nothing is real: nothing to get hung about’. But the trip has been compelling.

And as for the existence of the self, Broks makes the point that in terms of cell death and replication, none of us are (biologically) the same people we were ten years ago. Like an ancient galley in which all the timbers have been replaced over time, our old self is long gone. What is the relationship between the five year old photographed on a beach and the 62 year old packing the picture for a school reunion?

Broks explores this and suggests there’s an autobiographical self (our store of memories) and a core self that responds to the transient moment. The two systems are organised hierarchically: the autobiographical self entirely dependent on the core self. So, a condition like Alzheimer’s disease impairs the autobiographical self and condemns the individual to live in the perpetual present.

And what about consciousness - our awareness of the colours in a rainbow and the smell of a bonfire; the tap of a branch against the window and the excitement when meeting an old friend – what is it? Although it’s possible to identify those regions of the brain that are involved in consciousness, defining it is something else. Broks makes a valiant attempt, suggesting that consciousness isn’t one thing but a kind of integration of sensory and cognitive processes that give the impression of a unified experience. In this sense it’s like a siphonophore – those jellyfish-like creatures (such as the Portuguese man o’ war) - that consist of independent organisms that function as a larger animal.

This is an exhilarating book. In the hands of a lesser writer, the mixture of fact (Martin who thinks he’s dead) and fiction (‘Hello, Mr Tumnus’) would grate. But Paul Broks has a light touch and is able to guide us through a complex world, drawing together thinking from the distant past with the findings of modern science. It’s open-minded, big hearted and courageous.

The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars is published by Allen Lane.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Guest review by Bridget Collins: THE MIST IN THE MIRROR by Susan Hill

Bridget Collins trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after reading English at King's College, Cambridge. She is the author of seven acclaimed books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has just published her first adult novel, The Binding. 

To readers of her best-selling The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror appears to be exploring familiar territory. Like The Woman in Black, it is a ghost story, set in a vaguely Victorian world of urchins, moonlight and old libraries, in which an isolated narrator encounters strange noises and mysterious doors before finally coming face-to-face with evil itself. It has the same Dickensian resonance, the same rather lovely prose to describe skies and sounds and places. And, like The Woman in Black, it can be read as a straightforwardly spine-chilling yarn, a book not to linger over too late at night. But there is something frustrating and elusive about The Mist in the Mirror, a deeper current which refuses to grant the reader the simple pleasures of terror and resolution. When I first read it I was (like many other readers, apparently) irritated by the book’s recurring pattern of delay and anti-climax; now, coming back to it, it strikes me as intriguing and complex, a subtle reworking of a well-known formula.

James Monmouth is a traveller, orphaned at an early age, who has finally returned to London, intending to settle down and write a book about his hero, the explorer Conrad Vane. He has few, if any, memories of his life before his parents died; rootless and friendless, he is determined to make a new life in an England that is essentially a foreign country. But although he remembers nothing, he is dogged by sinister and unpredictable flashes of emotion that seem to allude to his childhood without illuminating it; he has a sense that his own past is waiting for him, just out of reach, behind a beaded curtain or a fog in the mirror … As he searches for traces of Conrad Vane – dissuaded again and again by people who refuse to elaborate on their warnings – he realises that his life and Vane’s are somehow intertwined. Slowly, following chance clues and dropped hints, he works his way towards the heart of the mystery, which is also his cursed family seat and its inhabitant, the last person who might be able to tell him who he is.

So far, so good. But what sets this book apart from the traditional ghost stories it mimics is that the promised revelations never come: it is all spooky build-up, all atmosphere and unease. Hill excels, of course, at the evocation of fear – the creeping dread of being pursued, the sheer horror of the world disobeying the laws of reality ... But as Monmouth is led onwards, the answers he seeks seem to withdraw ahead of him, keeping their distance. Characters repeatedly come close to an explanation, but shy away from anything clearer than heavy intimations that Monmouth is in danger; over and over again there are scenes that seem to offer at least a step towards greater understanding, only for them to fall short. Characters choose not to elaborate, or don’t remember, or die before they can speak plainly. The book’s final denouement is certainly dramatic and terrible: and yet there is a sense of something missing. We understand a little more of what has haunted him than we did, but not enough; his own memories remain beyond his grasp, lost forever. And most gallingly of all, Monmouth – and, accordingly, the reader – will never know why.

Let’s face it, this is infuriating. If we read The Mist in the Mirror as an uncomplicated ghost story, it disappoints. We’re accustomed to expect a final, neat, comprehensible climax, and there is something perverse – unfair, even – about Hill’s reluctance to provide it. And yet, on second reading, there is something evocative about the lack of closure. Ghost stories are always metaphorical, no matter how simple they appear at first glance: the genre itself engages with the awful power of the past, and its disconcerting habit of refusing to stay put. The dead are not dead; our memories are not merely memories. But The Mist in the Mirror goes a step further than this. Monmouth, in searching for himself, risks his own identity and gains nothing. Not only does the past hold a terrible sway over him, it is unknowable, locked away, capricious. To me, the book expands the metaphor of the ghost story into something richer, and reflects another aspect of our relationship to the past: we’re afraid of its potency, but we yearn for it. We know that sometimes it seems close enough to touch: but finally, heart-breakingly, it’s always on the other side of the glass.

The Mist in the Mirror is published by Vintage.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Guest review by Gwen Grant: WHAT LOVE COMES TO, new and selected poems by Ruth Stone

Gwen Grant: I have been writing and publishing since 1968, the majority of my work for children but also publishing poetry. Private - Keep Out, which first came out in 1978, is to be re-issued in March 2019 by Penguin Vintage Children's Classics. 

The American poet Ruth Stone writes poems that shine with clarity, understanding and beauty, poems that I absolutely love and admire for their finely balanced, rhythmic elegance. Stone is witty, wise and, at times, funny, but she can also be a very tricky customer, for she has this great gift of being able to change course mid-poem, so that what seems all set for plain and simple will, quietly, unexpectedly, lead into much darker waters. It’s like being mugged by a feather. You don’t know it’s happened until you re-read a poem and find something new in it that you somehow missed before. Every Stone poem is a journey into a new understanding for she is a force of nature, a poet in possession of her world and ours.

In Second-Hand Coat, she begins with two words then in the following twelve short lines, turns this poem about an old coat into a surreal story of how, once it is taken home, it begins to talk, asking solicitously if its new owner has everything they need before leaving the house, the distinct impression being that it is speaking in the voice of the woman who once owned it. Alchemy of the highest order.

What Love Comes To is made up of new poems and poems selected from earlier books, witty, acerbic, hostile, elegiac, fierce poems, some political, some absorbed by science, some with rough sexual imagery, some deeply sensual and some so tender, you can hear the poet breathing, feel her heart beating.

All Ruth Stone’s poems have such integrity, you trust her to tell it how it is, which is a tall order for a woman who was no stranger to tragedy. Early in their marriage, Stone’s husband, Walter, killed himself, leaving her with three small girls to raise. She has said that all her poems are ‘love poems written to a dead man,’ whose suicide forced her to live in limbo. Yet Stone keeps this compact of honesty between herself and the reader, sparing herself nothing and, therefore, sparing the reader nothing. In Turn Your Eyes Away, so hard to read, so impossible to think of how hard it must have been to write, the Gendarme notifies her of the nature and death of the man she loved.

Each plain and unforgiving line of Turn Your Eyes Away stonily taps into the next line, telling the bleak sorrow of how Walter died. Of what happened when they pushed the door to his room open, of where his dead feet lay, then going on remorselessly to where his tagged body lies in the morgue. Then, almost before there is time to feel sadness for such suffering, Stone whirls around, remembering how they once lay together in a single bed, face to face, breath to breath, not wanting ever to part, that erotic love poem, the Song of Songs, lying open in the hotel’s Gideon Bible.

It is through Ruth Stone’s absolute honesty and unflinching gaze in this poem as in all her poems, that in these last lines, we are able to feel the passion and sexual desire these two had for each other; a love that seems to shatter sorrow, swipe death out of the way and burn up the page with longing.

In The Sperm and the Egg, another mid-course change poem, the egg hates the sperm and then the sperm hates the egg, wanting its tail back because then it was free. Dark waters here, for every reading throws up new thoughts. It is Ruth Stone’s genius that this poem ends with an absolutely apposite quotation from Hamlet. Then the lovely humour of Setting Type, where the semi-colon, the paragraph, the vocabulary and good punctuation get it together.

Finally, from The Widow's Muse, Poem XLII tells how the widow is triumphant having got through thirty years of widowhood, until her muse forces her to smell an old undershirt of Walter’s, which still retains his scent. At this, the widow whimpers with grief whereupon the muse knocks all the sense out of her. Harsh, hard and truthful.

Ruth Stone died in 2011, aged 96.

What Love Comes To is published by Bloodaxe Books.

Monday, 31 December 2018

READING AHEAD Part 2: what's in our sights?

More of our contributors - including some new faces to the blog - give us their reading choices. What was on their Christmas list? What have they been hoarding for a special treat? Old favourites, new publications, authors recently discovered ... 

As ever, a big thank you to our guests, thanks to whose generosity we post a new review every Monday. We hope you'll find something here to add to your own to-be-read pile.

Savita Kalhan: I am eagerly awaiting Crossfire by Malorie Blackman, the fifth book in the iconic Noughts and Crosses series, which is to be published next summer. The original series for children was inspired by political events and racial discrimination. Crossfire is no different. Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right, have inspired Crossfire, and will no doubt spark discussions amongst teenagers and adults alike.

Can We All Be Feminists is a collection of essays by seventeen writers from diverse backgrounds. Listening to some of the essayists at a Waterstones’ event, and reading Eishar Kaur’s essay on the way home on the train highlights how slow change continues to be – she is writing as a third generation British Asian woman and I am second generation – and also how ‘feminism’ can mean radically different things according to your background, ethnicity and colour.

Hilary McKay: Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk was my car book. I have car books, I’ve had them for years. Comes from the days of waiting with hot water bottles in the dark outside music lessons, party venues, gyms, schools, all those places that I don’t wait outside of anymore because the children are grown up(ish). So I’ve brought it into the warm, thing of beauty that it is, with that cover. That hawk. Now I’m two chapters in, and it’s as I guessed and as I’ve heard, long distance poetry. I have no fear of finishing it because I know already I’ll just turn to the beginning and start again.

Jon Appleton: A few years ago Paul Burston made the seamless transition from writing hilarious comedies to dark, searching crime fiction. I enjoyed The Black Path hugely so am looking forward to Paul’s creative exploration of the dark side of social media in The Closer I Get (Orenda Books, May). Paul is massively savvy about the online world so I’m sure his take will be insightful and persuasive and his story compelling.

I love it when Jill Dawson takes characters from real life and immerses them in turbulent semi-fictional scenarios - her next book, The Language of Birds (Sceptre, April) plunges us into the 1970s and the infamous disappearance of Lord Lucan. Can’t wait! In the meantime why not read The Crime Writer, her most recent novel which is about Patricia Highsmith? Chilling.

Leslie Wilson: I'm looking forward to reading The Pursuit of Power, Europe 1815-1914, by Richard J Evans. Evans is an author who I greatly esteem, because he has written about Nazi Germany in a dispassionate, enlightening and scholarly way. This book, however, deals with the period between Waterloo and the outbreak of World War 1, the era that my English and Silesian-German grandparents were born into (the latter part, anyway). There was so much going on during that period; the revolutions of 1848, the growth of cultural and political nationalism, colonialism, technological change, but also feminism and trade unionism. Can't wait.

Nick Manns: I caught Paul Broks on Radio 4 last Spring. From this fleeting hearing I gathered that he was a respected neuropsychologist, talking about the importance of magical thinking. The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars defies categorisation (so is every bookseller’s nightmare). Depending on where you jump in – and Broks is happy for readers to work through in any order – it’s autobiography, speculative philosophy, neuroscience, grief memoir and ghost story. It's also unsettling: “There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imaginings and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits." I’m about to reread it, letting into the house the quotidian, the strange, the dead.

Gwen Grant: A Place in the Woods, by Helen Hoover, is one of my most treasured books. Chicagoans Helen and her husband, Adrian, move to the vast forests on the edge of Minnesota’s northern wilderness. Helen’s deep love and respect for the forest and its wild inhabitants shines through as she shares the beauty and
danger of this world..

Environmentalists, they face many challenges. A violent storm almost destroys their cabin. Hunters appear. Their money runs out. Only when Helen starts to sell her detailed and lovely stories about the woods, illustrated with Ade’s beautiful pen and ink drawings, does the threat to their new life begin to lessen.

Chris Priestley: Having had the privilege of illustrating Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and hearing him speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, I intend to work my way through his other books. I’m going to start with When I Was the Greatest. 

I am a big fan of the short story form as a writer and reader, but for some reason I’ve never got round to reading any Flannery O’Connor. I’m about to put that right with A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I also have Alice Munro’s Moons of Jupiter to look forward to.

Mary HoffmanThe book I am most looking forward to is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, whenever it comes out. I adored the first two, which I have read twice - and seen the stage plays and TV adaptation twice too. Meanwhile I am on the London Library's waiting list for Diarmaid MacCullough’s Thomas Cromwell: a Life, and I do have the 642 pages of Giles Tremlett’s Isabella of Castile: Europe’s first Great Queen, waiting by my bedside, for when I’ve finished Charles Ross’s Edward lV. Almost all my non-fiction reading is history these days. On the fiction front, I shall wait till Kate Atkinson’s Transcription comes out in paperback in March, since I don’t buy fiction in hardback (I make an exception for Hilary Mantel). Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance isn’t available till July next year but Madeleine Miller’s Circe is on my Christmas list. 

Paul Dowswell: Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is now on my ‘read again pile’, and I’m happy to recommend it to anyone looking for a riveting read. Spufford’s tale, of a young man recently arrived in colonial New York with an exceedingly large cheque, is a glorious cinematic, smell-o-vision adventure. I can’t remember the last time I read a book I could see so clearly in my mind’s eye. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Wilkinson and Oona Chaplin strutted the stage and read the pages for me. Spufford teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths. If he teaches half as well as he writes they are very lucky to have him.

Patricia Elliott: Rosie, the wonderful writer Rose Tremain's memories of growing up in sooty post-war London, with school holidays spent at the country paradise of Linkenholt, her grandparents' home, is both delightful and disturbing. Her father deserts the family when Rose is ten. Her bleak childhood, dominated by her cold, unkind mother, is alleviated only by her loving nanny, and by teachers who encourage her creativity when she is banished to boarding school so her mother can marry a new man. Only after being 'finished' in France, does she finally rebel and escape to Oxford. Some of the most interesting parts refer to incidents that have inspired her novels.

Cynthia Jefferies: Having recently discovered the British Library Crime Classics, what better title to choose for Christmas reading than J.Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White, his Christmas Crime story? First published in 1937 it has an evocative cover complete with deep snow, stars twinkling and a steam train stuck in a snow drift. Four murders in a dozen hours! I reckon I’ve earned my bit of turkey. So says the police inspector, belatedly arriving at the scene. Eleanor Farjeon’s brother was prolific so I will be looking out for more. I love crime within this period a lot, almost enough to try it myself!

Sheena Wilkinson: Christmas is a time for old friends. This year Linda Newbery’s The Key to Flambards sent me back to K.M. Peyton’s originals. My own work in progress is set in 1921, so revisiting the post-war atmosphere of Flambards Divided is fascinating– though my book is set in Belfast which had its mind on things other than horses and racing cars. I’ve recently loved Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, and I hear there’s a new Jackson Brodie on the horizon next year. So that has settled my Christmas reading – a leisurely reread of the first four Jackson Brodie books to get me in the mood.

Linda Newbery:  I keep seeing clips and mentions of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (not least interviewing Michelle Obama at the Festival Hall!) and am impressed by everything she says.  Americanah, a story of two returned Nigerian exiles, former lovers, sounds enticing - and I've just seen that Barack Obama has chosen it as one of his books of the year, too. Having been gripped by Michelle Paver's chilling Dark Matter, I've now got Thin Air, a ghost story set in the Himalayas in the 1930s. And I have high expectations of The Binding, a first adult novel by Bridget Collins, known for her bold and accomplished teenage fiction. We'll hear more about this for sure, and just look at that sumptuous cover!

Finally here is Bridget herself, who'll be a January guest:

Bridget Collins: I’m really looking forward to re-reading Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. It’s a
Photo: Symon Hamer
brilliant, immersive reworking of the Rumpelstiltskin story, with wonderfully rich world-building and great characters. The images that stay with me are so beautiful (think silver, ice, dissolving mirrors, silk) that I can’t wait to rediscover them. The first time I read it I just devoured it – but then, because it was so in demand, I had to give it straight back to the library! So I’m going to buy it and go more slowly this time, relishing every word.