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.


Monday, 4 June 2018

OUR HUNDREDTH POST! Guest review by Graeme Fife: ZEKE AND NED by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana


Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts. He is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.

Larry McMurtry is a captivating writer, a weaver of stories out of a tradition of campfire yarn-spinning which evokes Homer’s epic poems. McMurtry’s fictional landscape is that of the borderlands and open territories of the old West, the lands overrun in the great expansion of America by the settlers which led to the eviction of the peoples who’d lived on their ancestral lands for millenia. They spoke of borrowing land, the pioneers demanded ownership.

McMurtry has collaborated with Ossana on books and screenplays – their adaptation of Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar in 2005 – and in Zeke and Ned they explore a particularly fraught passage of late nineteenth century history in the forging of the Union which resonates powerfully in what is happening to that Union today. Even as I read the novel, it occurred to me that it goes some way to illuminate why the NRA exerts such a powerful influence in American politics, not only with its strident claim to the right to bear arms apparently enshrined in the Constitution, but to the visceral desire of its vociferous members to embody the freewheeling spirit of the frontiersmen, "a manz gotta do wotta …" blah blah.

Zeke and Ned is loosely based on the life of Ned Christie, a Cherokee, who, as a child, walked what the dislocated tribes called The Trail of Tears, the long, punitive march from their homelands in the south-eastern states to lands west of the Mississippi, under the terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The novel explores the anguish and heartbreak of the clash between the displaced peoples and the relentless onslaught of ‘white law’, administered by often ill-paid and harassed judges in small town outposts and enforced in hot lead by US Marshalls, many of them post-bellum bandits, criminals, thugs and murderers, who could no more fire a pistol accurately than they could read. The terror of such application of notional justice is apparent in Ned’s summation of his plight, accused of murder, in hiding: ‘The one thing he could count on about the white law…was that sooner or later, day or night, winter or summer, they would come’.

The novel ends with chapters loosely based on the historical fact of Ned Christie’s War, when Ned fights off a succession of villainous white posses sent to root him out of the fort he’d constructed for his young wife – recently brutalised by one posse - and himself in the woods on the uplands of Shady Mountain in Oklahoma.

In these days where truth has taken on a Humpty Dumptyish aspect and facts are, it seems, manipulable, it’s interesting to ponder the matter of a novel’s truth – a resonance in our understanding of human relationships – and its bending, or ditching of facts in deference to narrative propulsion, a hallmark of McMurtry’s writing. Does that vitiate the history? I don’t believe so. As someone once remarked about the historian Tacitus: ‘He may have got his facts wrong, but he told the truth.’ For the novel admits to fiction as a means of exploring the jeopardies of the people caught up in its own construct of dramatic facts.

The imitation of serious events, the hero destroyed by excess of virtues, the explosion and, thereby, catharsis of passions, a scenario that stirs pity and fear…all make Zeke and Ned a compelling American tragedy. A similar tragedy may, surely and grimly, be seen to resurface in Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas…too many others.

A while ago, I noted the sign above a gun shop in north-west America: Blessed are the Piece Makers, this at a time when protesters at the closure of the pits were parading with placards declaring: God, Guns and Coal made America Great.

Hiding behind the insistence that guns are a right and hunting an integral part of American manhood, the clamour of the NRA has a rocky logic: bad man with gun is stopped by good man with gun. Really?

Zeke and Ned concludes, in poignant reminiscence of Ned’s marksmanship as a squirrel hunter: ‘…there would be the shot; bark would fly from the limb the squirrel was on; then Mr Squirrel would come sailing down. He made it seem as easy as whistling, Ned. Easy as whistling, was how Ned made it seem…’

McMurtry’s prolific output includes a masterly series of novels, both comic and sorrowful, and unfailingly sympathetic, centred on small town Texas, beginning with The Last Picture Show…a continuum of America’s contemporary history.

Zeke and Ned is published by Simon and Schuster

Monday, 28 May 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.2: Tamsin Rosewell and Judy Brooks of KENILWORTH BOOKS choose THE TRICK TO TIME by Kit de Waal



Kenilworth Books is a 50-year-old independent bookshop that buzzes with activity and conversation. It is situated in an historic town in Warwickshire, almost exactly in the middle of the country. This extremely busy, thriving little bookshop is known for its vibrant window displays – which are often requested by publishers up to a year in advance. The bookshop has also gained a reputation for its fearlessly outspoken, challenging blogs; these explore book industry issues in detail, from the effects of discounting on authors’ royalties, to the commercialisation of World Book Day, the exclusion of smaller publishers from industry news and awards, and the commercial devaluation of books. The team at Kenilworth Books also works closely with the many local schools and libraries in Warwickshire and in the City of Coventry, supplying books for school and library shelves.




Connecting the personal and the political in her wonderful 2016 novel My Name is Leon resulted in a bestseller, and many well-deserved accolades, for Kit de Waal. My Name is Leon’s political backdrop was the London riots of 2011, and the events of her new novel, The Trick to Time - which has already attracted the attention of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction – are interrupted and shaped by the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974. Kit de Waal’s own rich, mixed Irish-Caribbean heritage makes her well-placed to both document and comment on the effects of the attacks on Birmingham’s Irish community, as the shock-waves ripple and swell through families and across entire lifetimes.

My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time are very different novels; but in both, Kit de Waal takes an oblique look at an ever-shifting world by focusing on the tiny lives of her characters.

In an unnamed seaside town, on the eve of her 60th birthday, we meet Mona. Her life is quiet, a little mundane perhaps – and from the moment we meet her she seems not unhappy exactly, but restless, sleepless and unfulfilled. From its gentle, humdrum start the story creeps up on us, uninvited and discomforting. Mona has built herself a business selling handmade dolls; each child’s body is made from specially selected hand-turned wood – oak for one beautiful child, pine for a small wisp of a child; all sanded to a fine, silky finish. The clothes are hand-stitched from carefully-selected fabrics picked up in the town’s charity shops: a bit of lace trim taken from an old blouse, a pretty fabric from a discarded skirt. When quiet women turn up, she says that they need only bring her a shawl, a blanket, anything they like – and to tell her the weight of the child. The dolls hint at the tragedy in her own past. Guided by Kit de Waal’s elegant writing, we travel back and forth in time with Mona, and slowly the past and the present become the same thing. We see Mona as a child, brought up in Ireland by a caring father, but bored by the solitude forced on her by her mother’s lingering illness. He imparts the advice, as her mother is dying, that ‘there’s a trick to time – you can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer’.

Mona, however, fails to understand the significance of her father’s words at that time. She makes the exciting move to Birmingham, where she meets the love of her life, the delightful, confident and sweet-natured William. After a blast of love at first sight, a whirlwind romance and a joyful wedding, the couple settle down to build their own family.

There is always love, but there is also always politics, hatred and brutality. The violent intrusion of the IRA’s bombings are the story - and at the same time they interrupt the story. But that is the reality of the political world. It defines us, even when we believe that great events have nothing to do with our little lives.

These are small lives, but it is the small things that enable us to see the landscape more clearly. Kit de Waal deftly draws the characters: the gossipy hairdresser, the slow and sulky teenage assistant, the friend who organises a surprise party, the over-friendly café owner – and we care about them all. This small world is complex though; good and bad shift around, allies and enemies swap places and simple situations suddenly seem more complicated. Mona belongs in her world, she moved to the thriving, cosmopolitan Birmingham with great hope and excitement - but she is also an immigrant. Her and William’s love for each other and hope for their future is contrasted with the hate and destruction that follows the bombings. We see through the life of Mona how the Irish are treated in the wake of the bombings; the blatant racism of the cab drivers, even the midwives, and the anger unleashed on them by the ignorant English who seek revenge on anyone with an Irish accent. The Trick to Time is set both in our own time and in the 1970s – although the events of 45 years ago seem to be occurring today too as external political events unleash blind, uninformed hatred towards an immigrant community. A timely reminder perhaps, or just one of the deeply ingrained failings of the human race?

The Trick to Time is published by Viking


Monday, 21 May 2018

MR PEACOCK'S POSSESSIONS by Lydia Syson, reviewed by Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is now working on her second novel for adults.
Lydia Syson has successfully published young adult novels with historical settings, and now looks set to reach a wider audience with this dazzling tale of colonisation and corruption, enterprise and abuse.

Set in Oceania in the late 19th century, Mr Peacock's Possessions centres around a growing family and the hardships they face on moving to an uninhabited island. "Where's the snake?" Joseph Peacock asks, on being offered this fruitful, unsullied land, apparently a new Eden. And there certainly are dangers. Soon after being landed there the family members face starvation when finding to their dismay that their supplies have rotted in the ship's hold; they must learn to survive on limpets and roots until they can grow their own crops. Utterly isolated, they don't see so much as a passing ship for months on end, and can summon help only through signal fires. They don't at first realise that the island is volcanic, and that subterranean rumblings produce sulphurous, deadly steam which almost kills two of the girls when they sleep in a cave near the crater. But the title hints that the deadliest "snake" is the one Mr Peacock brings with him, part of his own temperament. His son Albert, frail and suffering from what appears to be rheumatoid arthritis, bears the brunt of this, receiving constant taunts and criticism.

Events are shown to us through two viewpoints: that of Lizzie, Joseph Peacock's favourite second daughter, and - in first person - that of Kalala, one of six Pacific islanders, all young men, brought to the island to work at clearing and building. Kalala, whose older brother Solomona is a preacher, is shocked to realise that the Peacock children can't read, while he, observant and devout, reads his brother's Bible, anxious not to lose his skill. Through the highly perceptive and intuitive Kalala, and the vivid, frightening dreams of pain and despair he attributes to aitu, troubling spirits that haunt him despite his Christianity, we learn of a recent tragedy of neglect and abuse that's left bitter marks on the island. When Lizzie explains, "Pa can get cross, I ought to tell you ... He wants everything done just so. You do, of course, when a thing is your very own, don't you? You want it perfect," she prompts Kalala's recognition of "the force I saw at once in him, light and dark together." Lizzie's words are truer than she realises, especially of the difficult relationship between Joseph Peacock and the boy Albert in whom he finds only disappointment; she wonders why her father didn't look to her, instead of to Albert, as his heir and capable apprentice. When Kalala incurs Peacock's anger and fear, though acting through the best of intentions, events escalate with horrifying inevitability.

There are nods to Lord of the Flies in the island setting and the struggle for orderliness that fails to prevent the eruption of violence - Lord of the Flies as if written by Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps, with a dash of The Wicker Man. But I think readers will find various other parallels and echoes in this vividly realised, compelling novel.

As I write this, the longlist for the Women's Prize has just been released. I'll be disappointed if Lydia Syson's name doesn't appear there next year.

Mr Peacock's Possessions is published by Zaffre. 


Monday, 14 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Cassidy: IDAHO by Emily Ruskovich



Anne Cassidy writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. Moth Girls was published by Hot Key in 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her new novel No Virgin describes the aftermath of a rape.

Idaho is a startling first novel which centres on a family tragedy. In it we are told the story of Wade and Jenny and their daughters June and May. The tragedy is the explosion at the heart of the story and the writer circles around it for the rest of the book. We begin to understand the events through the eyes of a number of characters mainly those of Ann, the second wife of Wade.

Ann has a pressing interest in the events of that day and it is her discoveries and interpretations that lead to the reader’s understanding of what happened and crucially why. And yet it is only a subjective solution for this is no classic crime novel. It is a story of a family in crisis, of a man who has a chance to live again, of a woman trying to understand the actions that brought it all about.

Mostly though this is the story of family life. Wade and Jenny, a young couple expecting a baby, have to live out a winter marooned in the snowy mountain. Two young sisters June and May play together until June is too old to play with dolls and May’s grief for the loss of her playmate is beautifully and painfully realised. Wade has early stage dementia just as his father had; though the loss of memory brings a kind of relief as he no longer knows what happened to his family.

The tragedy touches many people’s lives; William and Beth who comfort the husband afterwards; Tom Clark, who paints images of the missing daughter as she gets older year by year; Eliot, the boy who lost his leg falling through a dock. We also touch on the guilt of the perpetrator, the self-flagellation of a person who cannot accept any forgiveness.

The writing is assured and poetic and the characters are presented with a tender touch. There is no one in this book that the writer does not care about.

Idaho is published by Vintage.





Monday, 7 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Rooney: THE WAVE IN THE MIND by Ursula K. Le Guin



Anne Rooney writes fiction for children and non-fiction for both children and adults. Her adult series Story of… on the history of science now runs to 11 titles. It’s published by Arcturus in the UK and North America and has co-publishers in Japan, Korea, China and South America.

She has never had what might pass for a proper job. After a degree and PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, she was an academic just long enough to decide it wasn’t the right path and then embarked on a writing career. She has held three posts as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, most recently at Newnham College, Cambridge, but mostly just writes, with around 200 books published to date. The most recent is Dinosaur Atlas for Lonely Planet, beautifully illustrated by James Gilliard.


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‘A dragon appears in the field…’


The Wave in the Mind is ostensibly about being a reader and a writer, but it’s just as much about being Ursula K Le Guin. The book is a collection to relish of essays, poems, lectures, musings and literary whatevers on reading, writing and imagination written over a long period. If it isn’t a contradiction in terms—even if it is—it is full of profound musing.

Le Guin wears her keen intelligence and scholarship lightly, but never undermines or undervalues them, never makes light of them. We sense a stern guard against the tendency of women to be reductive regarding their own achievements. It’s underlined by the first essay, in which she describes how she has had to pretend (largely to herself) to be a man in order to grasp life. It is terribly poignant to re-read these lines so soon after her death:

“Here I am, old… I just am young, and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Ulay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young.”

The pieces are too varied and too many to give more than a flavour here. She muses on why the word ‘non-fiction’ doesn’t appear in the OED (in 1998) in a piece on the value, contingency and fragility of ‘fact’ that could have been written in the post-truth, Trumpian world. She returns again and again to her fascination with rhythm and how she feels this is at the heart of all art that uses language. She pleads for honesty, lyricism and a respect for communicative silence. She unpicks the structure and meanings of traditional tales and of some literary greats, including Huckleberry Finn, in which she locates the novel’s power in the tension between Finn’s character and Twain’s silence about it. There is combative creativity, deep respect for other writers, measured and not always hopeful feminism.

Le Guin is best known, of course, for her sci-fi/fantasy novels. It’s a genre not highly regarded by the literati and in academia. (The depth of thought and clarity of expression in this collection should silence anyone who suggests that writing fantasy is an exercise for intellectual lightweights.) Le Guin was aware of low esteem in which her preferred genre is held, but doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against the injustice of it. Her disappointment is dignified and manages to be quietly shaming—though whether the literati and academics are going to feel ashamed is another matter.

Things Not Actually Present  is a brilliant vindication of the fantasy writer’s art. Le Guin has a knack of making profound points sound so blatantly obvious that they brook no contradiction and we wonder why anyone ever thought otherwise. Fantasy, she maintains, can deal directly with universal themes and truths in ways that realist fiction cannot, because realist fiction is hobbled by its inevitable links to one social group, culture or time. This inevitably makes it less immediately accessible or applicable to others. It is an argument for, and deeply rooted in, inclusivity:

‘Fantasies are often set in ordinary life, but the material of fantasy is a more permanent, universal reality than the social customs realism deals with. The substance of fantasy is psychic stuff, human constants … Society in the decades around the second millennium, global, multilingual, enormously irrational, undergoing incessant radical change, is not describable in a language that assumes continuity and a common experience of life. And so writers have turned to the global, intuitional language of fantasy to describe, as accurately as they can, the way “we” live “now”.’

In her hands ‘we’ and ‘now’ become timeless. In her fiction, she explored with acuity the eternal, bothersome and endlessly fascinating business of being human and in The Wave in the Mind she explores the exploration with equal acuity.

The Wave in the Mind is published by Shambhala Publications.