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.


----------------------------

‘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.

Monday, 30 April 2018

A POCKETFUL OF CROWS by Joanne M Harris, reviewed by Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is now working on her second novel for adults. See more on her website.
Before getting far into this beguiling novella, I found myself thinking of folk ballads such as Tam Lin and The Demon Lover and hearing the voices of Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy and Sandy Denny. On finishing, I looked up The Child Ballads, 295, which inspired it (I am as brown as brown can be / And my eyes as black as sloe; I am as brisk as brisk can be / An wild as forest doe) and found that both Maddy Prior (with Steeleye Span) and Martin Carthy have indeed made recordings; I've added the link to the Steeleye Span version at the end of this piece, and you can listen to Martin Carthy on Spotify.

The story is steeped in folklore, from references to Jack-in-the-Green, the May Queen and the Winter King to the passing of the months marked by their moons: Hunter's Moon, Blood Moon and others, each carrying its own superstitions. We're in territory familiar from folk ballads - love, death, betrayal and revenge, and bewitchment by a creature not human but faery. Here our perspective is that of the enchanter, who to regain her true self must in turn free herself from bewitchment. 

"I have no name," this bonny brown girl tells us. "The travelling folk have neither name nor master. A named thing is a tamed thing." But when given a name by her human lover, she loses her power of shape-shifting, of taking on animal forms - hare, vixen, frog or nightingale, as she chooses. After the young aristocrat William names her Malmuira, meaning Dark Lady of the Mountains, she thinks: "I wear (my name) like a golden crown. I wear it like a collar ... I am a wild bird in a snare;" and is restlessly limited to her own self. 

There are inherent dangers in romances between mortals and faerie folk, as Katherine Langrish describes in an eloquent and wide-ranging piece in Seven Miles of Steel Thistles*. "Whether mortals woo, ravish or capture supernatural women, whether mortals themselves are carried off or seduced, marrying a fairy bride nearly always leads to grief at best, to death at worst." Our bonny brown girl is both enchanted and enchantress, destined to fall in love with William, and he with her, from the moment she picks up the adderstone, a love-charm left by a village girl at the hawthorn tree that stands within a stone circle.

Inevitably, their love is short-lived: "My love he was so high and proud / His fortune too so high / He for another pretty maid / Me left and passed me by."  Our bonny brown girl, though, isn't going to retreat to her woodland cave to pine and die: in the form of a wolf she has ripped out the throats of sheep, so we know she can be ruthless. Now she plans revenge, with the help of hawthorn - an ageless female figure who gives her a seemingly impossible spell (bringing to mind another folk ballad, Scarborough Fair) by which she can free herself of her bond to William, and punish him. William has tangled with the traveller folk at high risk to himself.

Ultimately, it's a tale of survival and of female strength and resilience. Who is that village girl? Who is hawthorn? And who is the white-headed crow, our bonny brown girl's companion and messenger as she goes into exile, accused of witchcraft? It all comes together both surprisingly and satisfyingly. 

Many readers will know Joanne Harris from her very popular Chocolat, Gentlemen and Players and others. As Joanne M Harris she writes stories inspired by mythology, and here she has found a sure-footed style which is lyrical without being indulgent. "I have no need of silks and furs. I have no need of servants. I have the silk of the dragonfly's wing, the snowy coat of the winter hare. I have the gold of the morning sun, the colours of the Northlights." Fine pencil drawings by Bonnie Helen Hawkins show animals and vegetation in realistic detail - I was particularly impressed by the wolves, and by William on his rearing horse - while for characters she doesn't go for Burne-Jones-like ethereality but for expressive, vivacious faces which could be those of modern teenagers. Gollancz have made this beautiful little book a pleasure to handle.

A Pocketful of Crows is published by Gollancz.


Katherine Langrish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is published by Greystones Press, reviewed for Writers Review by Penny Dolan here.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Guest review by Paula Knight: THE OUTRUN by Amy Liptrot



Paula Knight is an author, illustrator and comics creator. She has illustrated over 60 children’s books and written three picture books.

Her latest book, The Facts of Life, is a graphic novel memoir for adults, published in 2017 by Myriad Editions after six years in the making. An extract of it reached Myriad’s inaugural First Graphic Novel competition in 2012, chosen by judges including Ian Rankin, Corinne Pearlman and Steve Bell. She was awarded an Arts Council England grant for the work.

Paula is currently exploring new ways of working within her limits of being semi-disabled due to chronic illness. She is also an enthusiastic amateur photographer interested in nature, wildlife and abstraction. The former and latter are likely on a creative collision course - albeit tethered in sketchbooks waiting to be set free.

IG (Illustration): @paulajkstudio
IG (Photography): @paulajknight
Twitter: @Paula_JKnight
www.paulaknight.co.uk


As a city dweller who nurses romantic notions of living somewhere less peopled, I’d been meaning to read this for a while. I’ve long been interested in ‘overcoming adversity’ memoirs since reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography in my twenties. I’m also a wildlife lover and bird-fan (albeit not a fully fledged twitcher), so there was much to absorb me in this book.

Liptrot’s memoir is set in Orkney and London, and springs from a backdrop of extremes: her father’s mental illness; her parents’ separation; her mother’s subsequent religious fervour; and the author’s struggles with addiction. The opening pages take place on Mainland’s airstrip: Her father is waiting to be taken to a mental institution in Aberdeen as her mother arrives to introduce his newborn daughter (Liptrot). This sets the tone and premise for her story - one of leaving and returning, excess and retreat.

The book continues with Liptrot’s return to the island after a young adulthood spent partying in London. A mingling of childhood memories with exposition of the island’s landscape and wildlife is not only a backdrop to her story but the very fabric of it. The prose is pure without being flowery or too sentimental, and her close knowledge and respect for the wild Orcadian landscape is evident. She recalls memories of rural life and how, as a teenager, she yearned to spread her wings. Migrate she did - and the book tells of her chaotic life in London descending into alcohol addiction, difficult relationships, lack of direction and a distressing adverse event that is the catalyst for her return to Orkney in search of healing.

The narrative structure moves between how she spent her time on the islands and how life unfolded then imploded in London, including time attending AA meetings.

What I found most gratifying about this book was how Liptrot makes sense of her life in the seamless connections between nature and the human condition, and the enlightenment that can be gained from recognising these introjections of states. She likens the destructive action of ‘shoaling’ waves eroding the cliffs to the physiological effects of alcoholism on her body, which exacerbated seizures; and how geological tremors felt by islanders were tied up with the myth of the destructive Stoor Worm. Facts about Orkney are intertwined with folklore, mythology and stories of shipwrecksm suggesting that Liptrot is similarly washed up in this landscape from her own personal storm. Although some metaphors are explicitly explained, there is plenty of room for readers to make their own connections. For example, Liptrot engages in conservation work counting the elusive corncrake by listening for their calls at night. I interpreted this as a metaphor for personal desolation - a casting around in the dark for reassurance from at least one solitary voice confirming that life is still thriving in the gloom. The corncrake doesn’t want to be found, but it is a human need to know that the world is in order with everything in its rightful place. This is the crux of how Liptrot sets anchor - by engaging in nature; in what is real.

The tug of love between urban and rural life is what stitched me into the core of this book. The damage wreaked by alcoholism in the wilds of a heaving city versus retreating back to the expansive skies of her Orkney homeland in search of recovery is perhaps a cliche. However, Liptrot explores this in a way that throws out assumptions of rural romanticism as healer and city life as destructor. I appreciated how nature was not offered on a plate as a magical cure-all and that she makes clear that recovery is an ongoing process.

Liptrot writes about being drawn to ‘the edge’, and throughout the course of the book she at once moves geographically closer to it and metaphorically further from it: By eventually choosing to inhabit one of Orkney’s most northerly islands, Papa Westray, her deep immersion in the natural world facilitates her turning away from a life lived on the edge of self-destruction. It’s truly a human/ nature story - one that defines how the two are in no way separable.

Despite being left with no illusions as to the potential challenges of life in a remote and wild location, I still found myself searching Orkney house prices on the internet for a few weeks after reading The Outrun. The book confirmed a distinct notion that it’s as plausible to suffer loneliness living in close proximity to millions of human beings as it is on a far-flung island with mainly wildlife for company. The latter seems more palatable to me.

The Outrun is published by Canongate. 

Read our review of Paula Knight's The Facts of Life here.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: IVY & ABE by Elizabeth Enfield


Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offender. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

Ivy & Abe tells the story – or rather, stories – of the eponymous characters. I almost wrote ‘couple’ there, and they usually are a couple, but not always. For this is one of those books that explores the idea that what happens is not inevitable, was not always ‘meant to be’. In a way, it’s a comforting notion, that if everything is fore-ordained – if Fate rules supreme – then we really don’t have to worry very much about the choices we make: everything will be as it will be.

This beautifully-written book begins in 2026. By chance, Ivy and Abe, both in their seventies, meet in a supermarket. They realise that they knew each other when they were children; they were the closest of friends, but then one family moved after a tragedy and they were separated. They get to know each other again, and become close in a way they were not with their previous partners: they feel that they are two parts of a whole. They marry, and have a precious, albeit very short, time together.

The next episode takes place in 2015, with the characters younger now. Once again, they meet and part. And so it goes on, moving backwards through the years, until they are children again and we learn why Abe’s family moved away. At each stage there's an encounter, sometimes intense, sometimes fleeting – in one, Ivy, distressed, is helped by a kindly stranger (Abe). He puts her into a cab and pays the fare, and gives her his card, while assuring her there is no need to get in touch. She intends to, but the card is lost and the chance for them to properly meet each other is lost. In another, there is a passionate affair, and so on.

Other motifs recur. There is a lorry carrying hay bales, which has an accident. This has varying consequences. One time, Abe is driving back from a meeting with Ivy and witnesses the accident. The police later contact him, and so his wife (always Lynne) discovers that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and that he is having an affair – and of course, her discovery has consequences. Another time, it is Abe’s mother who witnesses the accident, cradles a dying victim in her arms, and is so overwhelmed by the experience that the course of her life changes completely. We must all have thought at some time, What if? What if I’d left the house a moment earlier? What if I’d chosen to be somewhere else that day? What if the road hadn’t been icy? And so on. That’s one of the things this book is about.

Another motif is the hereditary illness which blights Ivy’s family. Another is Abe’s job: he designs fountains. One of them, which recurs several times, is modelled on a clock: it’s a sort of meditation on time. And very early on, the author introduces the concept of quantum entanglement:

“It’s to do with the behaviour of particles, tiny ones, like electrons, that have interacted in the past and then moved apart…they say that even if they end up millions of miles or galaxies apart, they still continue to be affected by each other. Tickle one and the other dances…”

Later, this is picked up when the eruption of the Icelandic volcano has kept Ivy’s husband, Richard, out of the country when she needs him with her for a significant hospital appointment – which in turn leads to that episode’s very brief encounter with Abe. She sees the ash on her windows, and wonders: could particles from another part of the world really settle here so quickly?

The concept of the book reminds me of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. That, too, explores the what if notion, by positing a number of possible futures if events had conjoined in a different way. It plays out on a different stage: instead of focusing on the lives of ordinary people, it considers what might have happened if, for instance, a certain girl had been in a certain café in the 1930s with the intention of shooting Adolf Hitler; and it plays out against a background of social change.

This book is quieter, perhaps. But Elizabeth Enfield explores beautifully the way in which so-called ordinary lives play out: she reflects on how relationships change at different times of our lives, on what shifts things from one direction into another.

Recently, I went to a Magritte exhibition. Magritte was a surrealist, and I’ve never really ‘got’ surrealism. But as I wandered round, I came to see that it really didn’t matter whether I got it or not: I just needed to look. And then I saw what a marvellous painter he was. And my reaction to this book was a bit like that. At first I thought, yes – great fun for a writer to play with different possibilities in this way, to try out different stories for her characters, but really, for the reader, what’s the point? But actually, I think the point is that this is a structure which allows Elizabeth Enfield to explore and reflect on life and all its variousness – and what could be more worthwhile than that?

Sometimes, you want to experience waves crashing on the shore, or a waterfall tumbling over rocks. But if you’re in the mood for a still, quiet, clear pool, this is the book for you.

Ivy & Abe is published by Michael Joseph.






Monday, 9 April 2018

Guest review by Katherine Roberts - CAVE IN THE SNOW by Vicki Mackenzie


Katherine Roberts’ latest novel, Bone Music, invokes the spirit of the 13th century Mongolian steppes to tell the story of Genghis Khan’s rise to power… no Yetis, but it does have wolves! Published by Greystones Press.

In 1976, many years before Buddhism became trendy in the West, a fishmonger’s daughter from the East End of London retreated to a cave 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas, where she spent the next 12 years of her life meditating with only the wild creatures for company. Her name was Diane Perry, though today she is better known by her Buddhist name of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Cave in the Snow  is the fascinating story of Diane’s life up until 1998, when the book was published, by which time she had emerged from her cave with her new name to embark upon a fierce schedule of talks across the world to fund her new project: building a nunnery for young Buddhist girls. Happily, the funds were raised, and the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery now exists in the Kangra Valley of northern India, close to the seat-in-exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


Diane Perry’s lifelong quest for spiritual enlightenment resonates with me as an author. We spend months, sometimes years, in our metaphorical caves working on our writing projects with only our characters for company, and then emerge blinking into the world to talk about our published books. The book ‘called’ to me from a local charity shop bargain box, not because of its cover (which on my edition is strangely prosaic with its photograph of Tenzin Palmo, dressed in her Buddhist robes, standing beside what I think must be the Tibetan flag), but because of its evocative title coupled with the interesting blurb on the back. How could a woman raised in the East End of London in the aftermath of the Blitz survive alone in a cave in the Himalayas for so many years? Why did she feel the need to retreat there? And what did she discover during her long and lonely years of meditation?

In Tenzin Palmo’s own words, referring to a period when she worked at the Department of Employment to raise funds for her return to India prior to entering her cave: “I felt very sad - there were all these middle-aged guys saying ‘What have I done with my life?’ and young married people with mortgages, already trapped.” Authors also tend to view society like this, from the outside as detached observer rather than as part of the group, and it can be dangerous to look too long or too deeply at what actually matters in life. Shortly afterwards, Tenzin Palmo entered her cave, but not before carrying out a few essential renovations with the help of the locals to give it some proper walls and a door she could close against the elements and wolves. As she says in the book: “It was a very pukka cave.”

Tenzin Palmo did not write in her cave. She read her Buddhist texts and meditated in her box-bed, which was not big enough to allow her to lie down. She grew vegetables outside in the summer months, and - like St Francis of Assisi - was visited by the animals and birds of the mountains. She conversed with wolves, saw the prints of the elusive snow leopard outside her cave in the snow in the depths of winter, and also a huge footprint that may have belonged to the legendary Yeti. It seems she also survived possible breast cancer, and a serious eye infection. And, through all these hardships, she thrived.

It must have been a profound experience, and I kept wishing that Tenzin Palmo had written this book herself, rather than having to read her story secondhand. But Vicki Mackenzie has written a clear and faithful account based on her interviews with Tenzin Palmo, and part of the allure of a spiritual quest is the difficulty of capturing such a mystery in words. Perhaps the best any writer can hope to do is sketch down the bones, and leave it up to the individual reader to supply the flesh and the colour. If you are curious to know more, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is still teaching - see her website for details.

Cave in the Snow is published by Bloomsbury.