Monday, 18 March 2019

ONCE UPON A RIVER and THE BINDING, by Diane Setterfield / Bridget Collins, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication is The Key to Flambards, and she is currently working on an adult novel.

I'm feeling selfish for bagging two such enticing books - but how could I resist? I read both during the dark winter nights and slow mornings of January and early February; usually an early riser I stayed later in bed, happily caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers.

Diane Setterfield is best known for The Thirteenth Tale, though my preference is for Bellman and Black, the story of a Mephistophelean bargain involving a rook and a funeral parlour. Her new novel Once Upon a River has a clever title, suggesting folk tales and traditional telling, a story passed from mouth to mouth with changes as it goes, mysterious and possibly miraculous events, and an invitation to put ourselves in the hands of a knowing and confident narrator. All that, and everything that’s added by the river setting, with its associations of timelessness, constancy and meanderings, of the rhythms of the season, occasional breaking of bounds and – here – either barrier or conduit between this world and others. The key events of Setterfield’s tale take place at the year’s marker-points: solstices and equinoxes, starting on a cold midwinter night. “As the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap.”

The opening pages are reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage: an inn on the Thames not far from Oxford, the potential for flooding and even a baby placed in the care of nuns. But that baby is not the focus of attention. Instead, the regular drinkers at the Swan – gravel-diggers, cressmen, bargemen – are startled by the arrival of a half-drowned, injured stranger, carrying what at first is taken for a puppet but is soon discovered to be the body of a four-year-old girl. There’s a further shock when nurse and midwife Rita (the nunnery orphan, now adult) discovers, after an improbable length of time and against all initial evidence, that the little girl is alive.

Who is she? As we meet the cast of characters, we learn of three competing claims. Is she Amelia, stolen from her wealthy parents, the Vaughans, two years ago? Is she Alice, daughter of the negligent Robin Armstrong, drowned by her desperate mother? Is she Ann, sister of Lily White, a disturbed young woman who’s been persuaded that she’s responsible for her sibling’s death? The child, recovering, remains mute, offering no clues to her identity. Soon after the rescue she is taken to live with Antony Vaughan and his fragile wife Helena; yet this happens so early in the tale that we know there must be more to unravel, and she remains “the girl” throughout the narrative. Only Bess Armstrong with her “seeing eye” detects what the girl really wants, though readers are unlikely to guess the final surprise.

While we engage with various characters, the links between them become apparent, twining and tightening. It’s an atmospheric and compelling tale of love, loss and loyalty which in spite of its playfulness will engross readers in the stories of reluctant lovers Rita and Daunt, in the anguish of the troubled Lily and in kindly Robert Armstrong’s search for his missing granddaughter. And who could resist a man who grieves for an intelligent pig, stolen from him two years ago and still sorely missed? As the pages thinned I found myself not wanting the story to end, but Setterfield kindly dismisses us: "It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"

Bridget Collins won the Branford Boase prize for her first young adult novel, The Traitor Game, and went on to publish six more for that age group, but without making the impact her talents deserve. This, her first adult novel, has been published with a great splash, immediately reaching the bestseller lists. The premise is a clever and beguiling one: binding someone's memories into a book is a way of permanently removing guilt or trauma. Permanently, that is, unless the books are burned ... And the "binding", we realise, isn't always for the sufferer's benefit. The setting is - like Setterfield's - in a world both like and unlike ours, vaguely Victorian, and in what could be Hardy's Wessex; there's enough sexual abuse, corruption and manipulation to keep the bookbinders fully occupied. Books themselves - especially those that have been sold, rather than kept hidden in locked cupboards or vaults - are viewed with suspicion. "They're people's lives ... Stolen. Sucked out. It's a kind of magic ... a dirty, sordid kind of magic."

The three-part structure starts in the middle. A young man, Emmett Farmer, is recruited as apprentice to an elderly female bookbinder, Seredith, who recognises in him the necessary gift. Learning the crafts of tooling, marbling and finishing (gorgeously described), he doesn't penetrate to the heart of the mystery until he's sent to the home of the Darnays, where he discovers that one of several books destined for their vault has his own name on it.

To discover why he's been 'bound', we return to his family home, where a love triangle develops - so tenderly, yearningly told - between Emmett, aristocrat idler Lucian Darnay and Emmett's sister Alta. Bridget Collins is wonderful on the tentative approaches and withdrawals, the shy glances, the misgivings and self-doubts of sexual attraction. Forbidden love, that staple of romantic fiction, acquires a new potency here through our awareness that only one - or, initially, none - of the participants is aware of what's happened between them. The idea of brainwashing, more commonly found in science fiction or political dystopias, is given unusual and powerful treatment here. If you knew that you'd been 'bound', and there was a way of recovering your lost memories, would you choose to? Or would the fear that you'd committed some terrible crime persuade you to remain in ignorance?

As the story gathers pace and urgency it raises issues of repression and self-knowledge, power and abuse. With its lushness and emotional sweep and the tight focus on the youthful main characters, on emerging sexuality and defiance of conventions set by elders, this captivating story could have continued Bridget Collins' impressive run of teenage novels. But the switch to adult fiction has successfully - and immediately - brought her storytelling prowess to a wide and appreciative audience.

Once Upon a River is published by Doubleday.
The Binding is published by The Borough Press.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth and TROUBLES by J G Farrell

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

At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the RuleBritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory.

‘On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort.’ [He’s a cynical businessman.] ‘All around the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance…No one knows where they come from, or where they’re bound. They are the feathered brothers of Death, his heralds, his companions and his camp followers.’

Joseph Roth’s novel chronicles the slow decline of a great empire through the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, taking its title from the march composed by Johann Strauss Junior in 1848 to celebrate the Austrian army’s recent Pyrrhic victory over their insurgent Italian subjects in Piedmont which marked the beginning of the end of Austrian supremacy in the Italian peninsula. Roth described the march, which became an unofficial national anthem and a favourite of the army, known for their impractical white uniforms and Ruritanian incompetence, as ‘the Marseillaise of conservatism’. Here he explores the delusions and misprisions which underpin the clinging of a people to the mendacious fantasies of their questionable past glories.

The book opens on the battlefield at Solferino as a silvery noonday sun breaks through the grey-blue haze separating the opposed armies. The first Trotta, an infantry lieutenant from an obscure village in Serbia, heroically saves the life of the Emperor by stopping a sniper’s bullet with his own shoulder. He’s awarded the army’s highest military honour and ennobled to Baron, a title which makes him feel decidedly uncomfortable. He dissuades his son, who is more drawn to the social distinction the inherited title will confer, from joining the military, seeking to alert him to the vanity of mere rank. However, the second baron encourages his own son to join the cavalry and indulge in the snobbish high status with which that will invest him.

Defeat in WW1 reduces the great sprawl of royal and imperial Austro-Hungary to a by-water, a tawdry parish, the once brilliant capital Vienna a truncated relic of its grandiose past, poverty for most, a slump into Weltschmerz and apathy for the glitterati. Whereas in Berlin they say ‘situation serious but not desperate’ the insouciant Viennese say ‘desperate but not serious’.

Roth delivers a work of intense narrative power, a brilliant evocation of that era of transition between the lost, imagined glory, and the deflated pomp, a penetrating insight into the human condition, the ant negotiating a mogul field of molehills.

JG Farrell’s Troubles, set in Ireland, begins where Roth’s novel ends, in the fraught atmosphere of 1919, when the infamous Black and Tans joined the fight against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence. Asked about his choice of historical context, Farrell said: ‘the reason why I preferred to use the past is that, as a rule, people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision’. Current trumpery purveyed in the ‘take back control’ clamour would suggest otherwise.

Major Archer, returned from the war, arrives at the Majestic Hotel on the coast of Wexford, in south-eastern Ireland, as a guest, hopeful of confirming engagement to a woman he met on leave. Her father, the elderly owner, Edward Spencer, is the last scion of an old Anglo-Irish landowning family, Unionist in politics and, like the building he occupies, ‘beginning to go to pieces’. For the hotel itself is dilapidated, an anachronism, a toppling bastion of colonial power. The Protestant Spencers are, necessarily, at odds with the Catholics of the village in which the hotel is situated, but, more significantly, represent a doomed outpost of British rule in an Ireland of increasingly strident calls for liberation. Locals throwing stones to smash the windows. The threat of impending violence swirls - the gathering menace of Sinn Féin - and, in the dying pages of this fine elegiac novel, the imperious edifice of the Majestic Hotel succumbs to fire: ‘…the ceiling of the writing room descended with an appalling crash, ridden to the floor by the grand piano from the sitting room above. For hours afterwards a white fog of plaster hung in the corridors through which the inhabitants of the Majestic flitted like ghosts, gasping feebly’. It’s as though the besotted dream of the heyday is rent in cackling mockery of the benighted souls who’ve clung to its thin pretence for so long, refusing to see through its tatters.

The Radetzky March is published by Granta.
Troubles is published by New York Review of Books.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Guest review by Anna Wilson: UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

Anna Wilson started out as a picture book editor at Macmillan Children’s Books and went on to be an editor at HarperCollins. She has also freelanced for several years as a fiction editor for Bloomsbury, Puffin and Hachette children’s book publishers. Her writing career began twenty years ago with a picture book, published for very young children. Since then Anna has published over 38 books for children and young teens including picture books, short stories, poems and fiction series. Her books have been chosen for World Book Day and been shortlisted for the Hull Libraries Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year Award. Anna’s recent young fiction series Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire is published by Stripes. Her memoir Missing the Boat is her first adult book.

Anna also gives talks, runs writing workshops in schools and teaches at Bath Spa University on the BA and MA creative writing courses and is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation.

Unsheltered contains two interlinking stories, both set in and around the same house in Vineland, New Jersey and both containing elements taken from real life events. One storyline takes place in 2016 as Trump (referenced as ‘The Bullhorn’ rather than by name) is banging his fist on the campaign-trail podium; the other unfolds in 1871 when Vineland was a community conceived as a Christian utopia by the landowner Charles Landis to give shelter to citizens shaken by the aftermath of the civil war. Kingsolver skilfully interweaves these stories, using the house as a metaphor for ideas built on shaky foundations and for the collapse of ideals and mores taken for granted in both the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries. If this makes the novel sound dry, there are far more ingredients to whet the appetite. This is, at heart, a story of two individuals struggling against similar themes in eras which turn out to be not so different from one another as they might at first appear.

The novel starts in 2016 with Willa Knox. Willa is a woman with more than her fair share of problems: she has inherited a house which, we learn in the first line of the novel, is in such poor shape, ‘The simplest thing would be to tear it down.’ Not only this, but her academic husband Iano has recently lost tenure, forcing the family to move into the ‘shambles’ of a house, her heartbroken adult daughter has come back from Cuba in need of shelter and Willa’s son’s wife has committed suicide, leaving a new born baby in need of love and care. Willa is also caring for her ailing and cantankerous father-in-law. Willa and Iano have worked hard all their lives to provide for their family, but this is not enough. As Willa says, ‘It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore’. But she is strong (at times, perhaps, unbelievably so) and manages to keep her head while all about her, including, one could argue, the house, are losing theirs. She is a journalist and puts her powers of investigation to good use in digging into the archives to find out if the house can benefit from a preservation grant to stop it falling down.

Back in 1871, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has moved into the house with his new bride and has taken up a post at the local school. He soon runs into problems when he dares to mention Darwin’s theory of evolution in class – something which goes very much against the accepted orthodoxy of the Christian community. He finds solace in friendship with his neighbour, the ‘amateur’ naturalist Mary Treat. Treat, like Landis and his Vineland community, really did exist in 1870s New Jersey and Kingsolver had the benefit of sifting through an incredible amount of correspondence between Treat and Darwin when writing her novel. Nineteenth century Vineland’s blinkered reactions to advances in science versus the accepted status quo tally well with the backdrop to a twenty-first century America which lauds a man who could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him’. Indeed, this comment is mirrored by the storyline that unfolds around the real-life murder from which Landis escaped conviction in 1871.

Sometimes split narratives can be unsatisfactory: readers can find themselves preferring one over the other and skipping ahead to get to the story that holds their attention more. I didn’t feel this way, as both Thatcher and Willa held me captive. My only criticism would be that Kingsolver likes to push a point home and sometimes uses her characters as speechifiers, allowing them to stand on their soap boxes for a beat too long. I felt this particularly in the conversations between Willa’s son and daughter who have chosen opposing routes in life: the one as a capitalist wealth-maker, the other as a hippy dreadlock-wearing drop-out. However, the novel ends on a gentle, hopeful note and I was sad to say goodbye to both strands of the story and the engaging characters that people it.

Unsheltered is published by Faber & Faber.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.5: FIVE LEAVES BOOKSHOP of Nottingham: VIDA by Marge Piercy, reviewed by Rob Bradshaw

Ross Bradshaw is a bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, the first radical bookshop ever to win the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award in 2018. This year they're again in the regional running, as are four other radical bookshops from London, Edinburgh and Southampton.

"I worked in Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham from 1979-1995, an earlier radical bookshop that closed in 2000, before setting up Five Leaves as a publisher. We've brought out some 200 books since then - social history, landscape, Jewish secular culture, and for a period a successful crime and young adult list. And we were the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became the world's biggest when we published our second book on that subject...

We opened in 2013 and, though we still publish, the bookshop side of the empire takes precedence. Nobody could make a living from a shop selling radical books alone - and it would be pretty dull - so we operate as an independent. However, our position, slap bang in the city centre but up an alley, means our rent is low and we can sell the books we want to sell rather than the books we would have to. So, for example, a quarter of our fiction is in translation and we have a disproportionate number of children's books with black and ethnic minority characters in them, compared to what is published nationally.

We organise lots of shop events - 82 last year - and three or four all-day events with a number of speakers. And an annual radical bookfair. And we launched (or relaunched if you are old enough to remember) Feminist Book Fortnight with fifty other independent bookshops from Britain and Ireland, and, this year, Italy! We like to keep busy."

The next issue of The Spokesman, the journal with an old-fashioned name from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. includes a long article by me on the history of radical bookselling, so forgive me going into the past to talk about Marge Piercy! The article included bestseller lists from two long-vanished radical bookshops that both featured Woman on the Edge of Time by Piercy, which also appeared on the best-seller list of Mushroom Bookshop. Forty years later this feminist utopian/dystopian novel is still in print. It was exciting way back when to read her American imports, only available in those pre-internet days in small radical outfits, on top of those published here by feminist presses. Copies would go round groups of friends, getting tattier and tattier. Her books were prescient in offering a critique of male sexuality, but also suggesting the existence of non-binary characters. One of her books, reflecting her own Jewish interest, was based on the Golem legend, turned into science fiction.

But the book that I liked best, which I used to read every year, was Vida. The Vida in question, Vida Asch, was part of the American anti-Vietnam underground, on the run with her comrades as were real people from the Weather Underground, a militant split from the mass organisation Students for a Democratic Society. Vida shows how she was drawn into armed activity, taking side-swipes along the way at the male privilege of the organisation's leading activists. But essentially this is a novel about relationships, and trying to keep them going under the most difficult circumstances, a world of safe-houses and betrayal in the 1980s while also looking back at Vida's earlier life in the maelstrom of 1960's America. In one of the safe houses she meets, and falls for, a younger activist also on the run.

In America Marge Piercy is well known as a poet, but her poetry never really caught on here, as Five Leaves (publishing wing) and Penguin discovered to their cost. In the States her work is so well known that some of her Jewish poetry has become part of the prayer book for Reconstructionist Jews, a modern, egalitarian movement.

Piercy herself is of a working class, poor Jewish background, which also comes out in some of her novels. I suspect she is not widely read nowadays, certainly in this country. All of her work is worth visiting.

Vida is currently available from Merlin Press and PM Press.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: Rachel Ward's ANT AND BEA books

Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She got the writing bug when she was teaching in the Middle East, where she lived for several years. Now living in North London, she runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, and writes for children.

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books: 'an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it shows how girls are silenced.' Love Reading 4 Kids

When I found out that I had won two crime fiction books by Rachel Ward I knew I was in for a treat. As a children’s writer, I know of Rachel Ward’s fiction for teenagers and thoroughly enjoyed her Numbers series.

In The Cost of Living we meet the two amateur sleuths, who both work for the local supermarket, Costsave, in the fictional town of Kingsleigh. Bea, a check-out girl in her early twenties, lives with her agoraphobic mum, Queenie; and Ant, from the estates, who left school early and seems to be going nowhere, but who manages to get a trainee job at the supermarket. An unlikely friendship springs up between them as a crime draws them together. There is a stalker in Kingsleigh and he is attacking women. Then a woman is murdered. This is all too close to home for Bea and she begins to investigate and, gradually, Ant is co-opted to help. Everyone is a suspect – colleagues and locals alike.

Dead Stock is the second book in the series. It opens with a body being dropped from a bridge, a dead cat, and more complications in both Bea and Ant’s personal lives. Although both books can be read as stand-alone, it is best to read the two books in order to get fully immersed in the series.

The main characters are down to earth and immensely likeable. The dialogue is fresh and witty. The plots for both books will keep you guessing right to the very end. I love the way Bea and Ant’s friendship develops over the two books – and the same applies to the rest of the supporting cast. We get to know all the staff of Costsave, and the locals, and follow their stories through both books. The depiction of Bea’s relationship with her mum Queenie is just lovely. Then there’s Bea’s co-worker Dot, who is a real scream, Bob on Meat, the odious deputy manager Neville, and so many more.

And everything is in place for a third book in this series, which I can’t wait to read – I really need to know more about one of Bea’s regular customers, who I won't name!

Rachel Ward aptly describes her books as ‘cosy crime’: cosy they may be, but they are still thrillers complete with red herrings and killers, like a novelised Midsummer Murders. So to drive away the winter blues, I would highly recommend curling up in front of the fire with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and a copy of The Cost of Living. You'll move on to Dead Stock in no time.

The Cost of Living and Dead Stock are published by Sandstone Press.

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.