Monday, 12 March 2018

EDUCATED reviewed by Adele Geras

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The cover of Tara Westover's Educated  is striking. The passage quoted on the back of the book tells you something of what this memoir is about: the author's journey from Idaho to a PhD from Cambridge, a path strewn with astonishing descriptions of life in her extraordinary family. It also demonstrates some of the power of Westover's writing style: plain, sinewy and elegant, all at once. 

You couldn't make it up... that's what people say when what they've read or seen takes them aback to such an extent that they find it an effort to (in another popular form of words) get their heads round it.

I read Educated about two months ago and I'm still thinking about it. It's been universally praised. I predict that it will be on every shortlist it can possibly be on. It will be passed from one friend to another and anyone who reads it will come away moved, touched, horrified and above all knocked sideways by Westover's gift for telling her story in such a powerful and resonant way. She writes most beautifully, with a gift for conveying at the same time the terrible, violent, abusive things that attended her childhood and family life and at the same time, the tenacity of the bonds she feels binding her to her parents and siblings.

She sees them clearly as they are: a man and a woman adhering to a Survivalist Mormon belief so powerful and paranoid that the children are unregistered with school or any other government agency and have spent their entire lives working in their father's scrapyard (with no Health or Safety supervision) or, in the case of the girls, helping with their mother's herbal remedies for family and neighbours. Westover's mother is a self-taught midwife and in thrall to her narcissistic and overbearing husband. Some of her siblings are more sympathetic than others, and one brother is a brutal abuser. The physical harm described in the book is startling and deeply shocking. If this were fiction (you couldn't make it up) your editor would say: you can't put that in your novel. No one would believe it. But it did happen to Westover and how she escaped her family and gained a brilliant PhD from Cambridge University can be seen as an (again, scarcely believable) happy ending.

But Cambridge is not unalloyed bliss. Tara Westover has suffered greatly and hasn't been in contact with most of her family for years.

I finished this book full of admiration for its courageous and hugely talented writer and I hope very much that she finds happiness in her life from now on. I can't wait to read her next book, whatever it turns out to be, and I can safely say that if you start reading Educated, you will not be able to put it down. And you certainly won't be able to forget it.

Educated is published by Hutchinson.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

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.

At this teeming novel’s heart lie both the essential impulse that sustains human endeavour – above all love, and in this case, the sodality of men in extremis – and the tragedies which compromise the search for answer, survival, triumph, endeavour. Ahab’s monomanic obsession with the whale, symbolised by the artificial leg carved from its bone, a doom-laden clumping along the hollow deck keeping the men below awake, epitomises the folly of human struggle when it’s driven by a narrowness of ego, bereft of fellow-feeling. Ahab has married late in life, he has a little boy whom his mother will carry ‘to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail’. When the mate Stubb pleads with him to abandon his insane pursuit of the creature, Ahab declares, like the enraged prophet before the priests of Baal: ‘Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.’ The ‘divinity which shapes our ends,’ no less. He even baptises his harpoon ‘in the name of the Devil’, fully aware that, in Melville’s words, ‘the infernal nature has a valor often denied to innocence.’ For the challenge of courage underpins the epic chase of the White Whale, incarnation of Nature’s elemental powers: we either ride out life’s climactic storms, by fortitude, or succumb by moral failure, knowing fear and overcoming it. ‘I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale,’ declares Starbuck, ship’s mate.

The innocence reflects that of the America in which Melville was formed, in its infancy as an independent unity of states – just as the ship comprises many parts, its crew a unity of disparate individuals. Like young Ishmael, face to face with a new world of dangers, callow America needed to wise up, toughen up, embrace the pioneer spirit, as on land, so on the sea.

Bulkington, ‘six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer dam,’ strides briefly into the narrative, a man who, ‘by deep, earnest thinking,’ goes to sea, rejecting the pull of the land, precisely because ‘in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God’. The highest knowledge is, surely, self-knowledge.

Two things bind the crew of the Pequod (named for an Algonquian tribe): the thrill - and danger – of the chase, and the intimacy of friendship. The bond between the novice whaler, Ishmael, and Queequeg, master harpooneer, is a friendship which Melville characterises as closer than marriage perhaps because (though he does not say so) it eschews sex. It is of the higher union, the spiritual. Not the love that dare not speak its name, rather the greater love, expressed in laying down one’s life, thus Queequeg, leaping into a turbulent sea to save a crew member who’d fallen overboard.

Early in the book, Melville warns the reader against becoming snared in the digressions about whales – their place and representation in culture, history, art – and about whaling per se. Eschew them, if you will, these treatises on an animal which inhabits the profundity of the ocean yet must rise to the surface, periodically, to fill its lung with air. A creature of two worlds: the mortal and the mysterious. Does chasing and killing it, draining its flesh for oil to fill the lamps which light the world, spooning out the ambergris to supply perfume to scent the rooms lit by those lamps, condemn or ennoble the men who go out in the oared boats, facing the possibility of catastrophe when the Leviathan is speared and held tight on the rope till it tires and dies? That is the nub of Melville’s tragic crux, the clash at the heart of his poetic drama, wherein ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense’.

Poetic? Why, yes. I think of Whitman’s poetry, in its search for a diverse new language to fund the examination of this burgeoning America. Melville’s sonorous writing shows many influences - Bible, homily, Shakespeare - maybe not to every taste, memorable, nevertheless.

Melville unfurls a compelling story pitched on ‘the great shroud of the sea [which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. It is part of Melville’s own meditation on America in the heave and swell of its gestation: what is this vast land? What tribulation and beauty does it contain? Who people it? How is it theirs? How do they live? In what and of what is their being?

Monday, 26 February 2018


Nicola Davies is the author of more than 50 books for children, fiction, non fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in more than 10 different languages and has won major awards in the UK, US, France, Italy and Germany. Nicola trained as a zoologist and her work focuses on nature and human relationships with the natural world. She has been a senior lecturer in Creative Writing, and now regularly runs workshops for children and adults to help them find their voices as writers and advocates for nature. She was the first recipient of the SLA’s award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Non Fiction in 2017 and in 2018 has four picture books longlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award.

Mike Shooter has been helping children and young people through every kind of crisis, from the ordinary wear and tear of family life, to some of the most horrific experiences that human beings can endure, for all of the four decades of his professional life.But this book, drawn directly from his difficult and demanding clinical practice, is not the voice of the arrogant practitioner handing down pills and judgment from a place of safety: Mike Shooter has battled against depression, and knows about mental health problems from the bottom up. This personal experience, plus a healthy scepticism about received wisdom, has informed his work and made him into an extraordinary listener. Listening to what children say about their lives has been the heart and soul of his work. The stories that he has heard and the insights he’s gained, are retold in Growing Pains with a clarity and honesty that is moving and powerful. It is also at times disturbing - not always because of the nature and magnitude of the mental health problems, but because of their mismanagement through poor practice in the NHS and society as a whole. Dr Shooter isn’t a sensationalist, but he doesn't mince words about the fact that the UK has one of the poorest records of child and adolescent mental health in the developed world: a culture increasing focussed on a narrow vision of success and a health service run by and for bean counters.

These are, of course, not all stories with happy endings, but they are inspiring at many levels. First there’s the ability of humans to heal, not just themselves but their relationships: adolescents apparently hell bent of a path of self destruction find better ways to express anger and frustration; parents and children living like enemies in a war zone build bonds of love and support. Then there’s the way that children can make brave and powerful decisions about their lives, their bodies and even their own deaths, when adults include them in all conversations, even the most difficult.

For me, and I think for others who write for children, perhaps the greatest inspiration in Growing Pains is in the power and value of story itself. Symbols and metaphors help children and young people to understand their own lives: the disturbed adolescent finds the root of his unhappiness when the broken heart of a Russian doll reminds him of his dead twin; the little boy who acknowledges the loss of his father and the fact that life goes on through the way the snowflakes settle in snow globe. Growing Pains has re-inspired me to go on trying to write stories that reflect children’s real experience in all its difficulty and to find the comfort and magic that can lie in the heart of the most traumatic situations

Growing Pains is published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Guest review by Elizabeth Enfield: THE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE by Anne Tyler

Photograph by Sarah Ketalaars
Elizabeth Enfield is a journalist, novelist, short story writer and intermittent teacher of all. Her short stories have been published in various magazines and broadcast on Radio 4 and her latest novel, Ivy and Abe, is out now, published by Penguin. For more details see her website, or follow her on twitter @lizzieenfield

Anne Tyler has written twenty novels and, while only having read about a quarter of her output, I’m a huge fan of her work. In a world where the news and the bookshops often appear to be dominated by crime, tragedy and acts of inconceivable darkness, Tyler’s sphere is domestic: the quotidian drama of ordinary existence. She writes about it in a way that is utterly compelling, vividly imagining the smallest details and shining a sympathetic and understanding light on the human condition.

Tyler’s last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, was nominated for the Booker Prize - an utterly deserving contender and one I loved, but I’ve chosen an earlier novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, to review here. It’s a short, almost novella length book, but contains everything that Tyler does so well: turning the ordinary into something extraordinary, lending difficult characters a certain nobility and rendering the mundane remarkable.

I recently chose to revisit this novel as my next book is about grief, about what happens to the parents of a child, who are long separated, following the death of their only child. Grief is not the most uplifting subject to tackle and yet Tyler has addressed it repeatedly in her novels, teaming it with her familiar theme of regret, one of grief’s chief companions.

The chief protagonist and narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, an emotionally repressed man, with a partial paralysis that necessitates walking with a stick and a bad stutter. He works for the family publishing company, a vanity press and home to the Beginners series of guides to small slices of life, mirroring Tyler’s own fictional territory.

Aaron’s wife Dorothy, a no nonsense doctor and eight years older, is a “non caretaker” where his mother and sister are cosseters, even in Aaron’s mid thirties. Their marriage functions on lack of fuss and fairly minimal interaction. But when Dorothy dies in a freak accident – involving an oak tree, a sun porch and elusive biscuits - Aaron’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart.

He rejects the sympathy of friends and colleagues, throws away their kindly meant casseroles and appears to take a self-punishing delight in not needing anyone.

But then Dorothy starts showing up, the most un-spectral ghostly apparition ever: a solid presence, which Aaron summons up out of his loneliness.

Initially, she only drops by briefly but then she stays for longer. They talk, and bicker the way ordinary perfectly happily but not that happily married people do. Through their encounters, the limitations of the marriage are gradually revealed and Aaron begins to realize and regret the cost of his self-protective shell and unwillingness to open up to others.

With solid spectral Dorothy he finds it much easier to talk honestly and openly than he did with the real one. He even loses his stutter when they chat! And slowly he begins to say goodbye, and at the same time to say hello to the world, in a way he has never done before.

What Tyler captures here, so well, is the contradictions of the human condition: how we can love so imperfectly and feel so deeply the loss of someone to whom we are almost tragically mismatched.

In the pages of crime novels, we find resolution about what’s happened. In Tyler’s slices of life we find emotional resolutions – small but truthful ones.

On the penultimate page of The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron discusses whether the dead ever really visit with his friend Luke.

Luke thinks they don’t. “But I think if you knew them well enough, if you’d listened to them closely enough, while they were still alive, you might be able to imagine what they would tell you even now.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, one which Aaron decides to heed. And one which beautifully illustrates the appeal of Tyler’s writing. She pays close attention to her characters; so close that still talk to you, long after the final pages of the novels they grace.

The Beginner's Goodbye is published by Vintage.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Guest review by Chris d'Lacey: THE QUEEN OF ALL CROWS by Rod Duncan

Chris d’Lacey writes books for children of all ages, but is best known for his series The Last Dragon Chronicles which have sold over four million copies worldwide. The final book in his latest dragon series, Erth Dragons #3 The New Age comes out in April 2018. He is a regular speaker at schools, libraries and book festivals. Way back in 1998 he nearly won the Carnegie Medal. In July 2002, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Leicester for his services to children’s fiction. A long time ago, Linda Newbery persuaded him to write as a 14 year old female called Annabelle, a character he is still proud of to this day…

 One of the most entertaining books I had the pleasure to read in the last few years was The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, the first in Rod Duncan’s innovative trilogy about the Gas-Lit Empire, a ‘modern day’ world manacled by the International Patent Office, an organisation who have stalled the progress of technology and in so doing brought about a Peace Accord between most of the nations around the globe. In this, the first book of a second trilogy, the story develops beyond the boundaries of the Empire, where the Patent Office have no jurisdiction. But when an airship bound for America is brought down over the Sargasso Sea and a whaling vessel is also attacked, the Patent Office is forced to respond.

Enter Elizabeth Barnabus, the principal character from the first three books, who is dispatched, at her own request, to investigate. So begins a perilous journey that leads to a clash with a bunch of female pirates, who take Elizabeth to their home world, Freedom Island, where the main hub of the story unravels.

Freedom Island is unlike anything Elizabeth – or indeed this reader – has ever encountered before. At first it seems a highly-improbable habitat. But part of the appeal of Duncan’s writing is his gift of building a fictional world so utterly believable. Indeed, his flawless ability to draw the reader into a fantasy environment with precise and often quite breathtaking prose is arguably his greatest strength. It is the lushness of the writing and the stream of clever ideas, rather than the subtleties of the plot, that make this such an inspiring novel. The descriptions of boats, their machinery, and the battles which come to take place on them are exceptional. A huge testament to the author’s talent is his ability to suspend what one would normally take for granted about ‘modern’ warfare and pitch the reader into an alternative twenty-first century ruckus where pistol shots dent iron chimneys and glinting sabres swing off a sash belt.

Yet, for all its swash and buckle, The Queen of All Crows is much more than a standard pirate romp. The book’s title refers to the canny matriarch who rules Freedom Island – though only women are allowed to live freely there. Little surprise that Elizabeth’s alliances are soon deeply divided. For while she is appalled by the fate of male captives and yearns for the lover she has forsaken for this mission, she is also stirred by the female unity she sees all around her. The question is, can she strike a balance between her conflict of loyalties and find a resolution before war ensues between the Sargassan Nation and the Gas-Lit Empire…? A richly inventive novel that will make the reader think hard about gender and equality.

The Queen of All Crows is published by Angry Robot.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher, translated by Niall Sellar

Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Leslie Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

My grandfather and his younger brother Erich Rösel were both German policemen; Uncle Erich was a member of the Kriminalpolizei (CID) in Berlin. Alas, I only met him once and I know nothing about his career except that, as a working class lad, he must have started at the bottom. But reading Babylon Berlin, I wonder how much the novel resembles the reality that Erich knew.

He’d have been one of the police constables that Gereon Rath and his superior officers deploy in the novel, on stakeouts, doing door to door investigations; footsloggers. Gereon Rath, by contrast, is a detective inspector, the son of a high-ranking Rhineland police officer. Unfortunately for him, an injudicious shooting in Cologne (he killed the trigger-happy son of a major newspaper publisher; in the line of duty, but a bad move) got him moved to Berlin. Now he’s in the Vice Squad instead of the Murder Squad, which feels like a punishment. Rath is ambitious, frustrated, under a slight cloud; not much of a team player, and with a troubled relationship with his distinguished father; all good stuff for a crime fiction hero.

It’s 1929, and Berlin is a hotbed of crime, corruption, and political conflict. Communists and Trotskyites are fomenting revolution in Germany; Nazis and other right-wingers, yearning to fight the Allies and defeat them this time, are acquiring arms and building up illegal armies. The Social Democratic city government is trying, sometimes brutally, to keep a lid on the boiling pot. It’s a city of savage contrasts; in poverty-stricken, left-wing Neukölln a gigantic Karstadt department store is being constructed (later, alas,destroyed by Allied bombs; it was an impressive building). Here Rath, fighting vertigo, and his Chief Inspector, Wolter, capture a fleeing porn actor on the top of the scaffolding.

It’s a city that anyone familiar with the literature and the media of the period will recognise. There are mafia-style organisations, tolerated by the police because they keep a kind of order among thieves. Fritz Lang portrayed these in his brilliant film M, where the gangs track down a child-murderer; I can’t help seeing Marlow, in the novel, as Gustav Gründgens,who played the gang boss in M. The porn actors are straight out of George Grosz; so are the women they screw for the camera.There are transvestites, there are dancing girls and drugs. (Rath himself snorts cocaine on occasion.)

Some of the police are historical figures; particularly Superintendant Ernst Gennat, a noted eccentric, addicted to cake and thus known as ‘the fat man of the murder squad.’ His office was said to contain sagging velvet armchairs, an axe used by a murderer, and the head of a woman that was once fished, wrapped in paper, from the river Spree. (I can’t understand why Kutscher doesn’t mention these details.) Gennat’s intelligence and sophistication as a police investigator certainly feature in the plot. Incidentally, it was Gennat who coined the expression ‘serial killer.’

Babylon Berlin is a cracking good read, with its own mutilated body fished from the Spree, and brilliantly plotted; it keeps you guessing, which is what any keen crime reader wants. There’s a love interest, too; Rath develops a troubled relationship with the lovely Charlotte, a stenographer in the Murder Squad who aspires to become a police officer herself. I can’t help sympathising with her when she calls him an arsehole. At least he recognises the fact - but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry him.

What gripped me was the complex and convincing portrayal of the city: I’ve already got the second novel in the series. I read it in German first; what I did miss in the (competent, occasionally sloppy) translation was the complexity of language and a lot of the irony, which Berliners do so well. Some texture is lost thereby.

I know from experience that it’s near-impossible to render Berlin dialect into English. I would have liked to see the army officer-jargon of the police brought into the English version, for that demonstrates how military an institution the 1920s German police were. But then, I suppose there are layers of meaning in the Montalbano books that are lost to me, because I can only enjoy them in translation.

Babylon Berlin is published by Sandstone Press. Original title: Der nasse Fisch, Gereon Rath’s Erster Fall.

Monday, 29 January 2018

JANE FAIRFAX by Joan Aiken, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Linda Newbery has written for young readers of all ages, and won the Costa Children's Book Prize for her young adult novel Set in Stone. She currently has two works in progress: one for David Fickling Books to be published in July, the other an adult novel.

Recently I learned on Facebook the term 'joyreading': taking a book from a friend's shelves and becoming immersed. This was just such a find, on a recent stay with a good friend. I dipped in, was soon hooked and asked to bring the copy home when I left.

Till then I'd had no idea that the admirable Joan Aiken - famed for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and many other highly-acclaimed children's titles - had produced a group of books based on Jane Austen novels. This one, subtitled A Novel to Complement EMMA by Jane Austen, published in 1990, fills in and elaborates on the life of the young woman described in some editions as 'the second heroine' of Emma. 

In the first and much longer of the two sections we follow Jane Fairfax through childhood and adolescence, to her prolonged stay in London with Colonel Campbell and his family, briefly to the West Indies and back, to the point where she returns to Highbury and we join the well-known events of Emma. The seeds of resentment between Emma Woodhouse and her less privileged companion are sown early: the two girls share a piano tutor who finds Jane far superior in both talent and application. Jane - dressed in hand-me-downs from Emma and her sister Isabella - becomes a favourite of Emma's mother (who soon dies in childbirth) and also of Mr Knightley. However, while Emma looks forward to a life of comfort and indulgence, Jane will be expected - as we know - to earn her living as a governess.

In Emma, Jane is often seen as frail and nervous, susceptible to sore throats and chills as well as frequent headaches (in Aiken's hands she's clearly a migraine sufferer); but here she is spirited and often outspoken during her time with the Campbells, taking a protective role towards the Colonel's anxious daughter, Rachel. In London and during an extended trip to Weymouth we meet character types familiar in Jane Austen: vapid young men, spoilt and coquettish young women, elderly grande dames and brusque military men. Less typically, Mrs Campbell is a social reformer, much preoccupied with campaigns for penal reform and against the slave trade. Like most of the authors now drawing on Austen, Joan Aiken gives a wider sense of England's social gradations and its colonial transactions than we find in the originals.

Aiken cleverly embellishes Jane Austen's details of Frank Churchill's circumstances and those of the Campbells and their Irish friends the Dixons - supplying plausible reasons for Jane's embarrassment when she returns to the limited Highbury circle and is taunted by both Emma and Frank about her association with Mr Dixon and the gift of a piano. Along the way, readers familiar with Jane Austen will appreciate echoes not only from Emma but from other novels too. Jane receives a proposal of marriage from a boorish young man convinced that he has only to ask to be instantly and gratefully accepted, recalling both Mr Elton and Pride and Prejudice's Mr Collins. Dreaming that Mr Knightley will one day notice her, Jane imagines him finding her with a sprained ankle on a hillside, like Willoughy and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

When we reach Part Two, readers of Emma will feel thoroughly at home at Highbury as we move through a series of social occasions: the dance at the Crown, strawberry-picking at Donwell Abbey, the disastrous picnic at Box Hill. To Jane, Highbury and its endless gossip are dull and parochial, something the full-of-herself Emma doesn't realise. We bustle through this section rather quickly, but Aiken focuses our attention on Frank Churchill and his flirtation with Emma - is he taking deception too far, and enjoying it too much? The reticence of the formerly livelier Jane is made plausible by her dislike of concealment and her resentment of Emma, now a rival, which she tries to suppress.

I've recently read Jo Baker's Longbourn (surely one of our guests will choose to review that excellent novel here before long?) which similarly takes a sideways look at a Jane Austen work rather than continuing the main character's story. Both are in their different ways highly enjoyable. While Jo Baker  favours a sensuous, descriptive vein more reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte, Joan Aiken imitates Jane Austen's style with considerable success. Punctuation, cadences, vocabulary and speech patterns are so skilfully emulated that for much (though not all) of the book it's possible to imagine that this really is Jane Austen. She is particularly good at the condensed, character-revealing monologues that typify Mrs Elton, Miss Bates and, here, her own invention, the snobbish Mrs Fitzroy: "So very odd to bring in a child from outside - such an atrocious mistake! - unknown origins, probably no better than they should be - Fairfax all very well, but Bates - what sort of a name was Bates? - child just what might be expected from such a mongrel background - encouraging Rachel to insubordination and all manner of foolish nonsense - music? of what importance, pray, was music?"

This was an unexpected treat, and now I'm eager to see what Joan Aiken has made of Mansfield Revisited. 

Jane Fairfax is published by Gollancz.