Monday, 14 August 2017

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire

Caroline Pitcher loves writing stories. It’s like living lots of lives, not just one.

Her books include The Winter Dragon, Lord of the Forest, The Littlest Owl, Please Don’t eat my Sister, Diamond (Kathleen Fidler Award), Kevin the Blue (Independent Story of the Year),The Shaman Boy (East Midlands Arts Award for Cloud Cat),The Gods are Watching, Eleven o’clock Chocolate Cake, Mine, Silkscreen (Arts Council Award), and short stories such as Tam the Eldest, The Dolphin Bracelet and Our Lady of the Iguanas. 

Caroline has just ordered expensive new glasses ready to begin that novel that’s been in her mind all summer. See also her website.

Behold the man. Henry Drax, harpooner, smelling and sucking his fingers after readjusting his crotch, murdering a stranger and raping a boy in the very first chapter. You have been warned.

Drax is the wild, unholy engineer of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations. Even when he disappears into the vast indifference of the Arctic Circle, you’ll sense him out there, waiting. He’ll burst back into the story like an acid attack. No unhappy childhood or abuse excuse for Henry Drax. He is beyond reason, a morally null thing.

In the port of Hull in the eighteen fifties, Drax joins the crew of the Volunteer, a whaling ship owned by the rich and ruthless Baxter, who now has other plans for it. Baxter has hired Brownlee as captain, an odd appointment seeing as Brownlee’s last vessel was crushed to matchwood by a berg. Brownlee must appoint a ship’s doctor, and he thinks that Patrick Sumner, a shortarse hopalong, will do, because he is cheap and seems easy-going. Unlikely as it may seem, it is the Homer-reading Sumner who will stand up to Henry Drax. When first they meet, Drax stares at him for a moment as if deciding who he is and what he might be good for.

Sumner boards the claustrophobic, faintly faecal-smelling Volunteer. He is a disgraced army surgeon with a reputation in tatters, no explanation given yet. Every evening he takes twenty-one grains of opium to blur his past and after a concoction mixed with rum he dreams of wandering over the ice fields, seeing unicorn, sea-leopards, walrus, storm petrels, albatross - and polar bears.

Sumner is isolated from the crew as the ship slumps and pitches amid the seething hillocks of an adamantine sea. This is a world of harsh beauty and horror. Think mythic Melville, but also Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, and the Old Testament fierceness of Cormac McCarthy. Any women writers here?

Sometimes I had to snap the book shut to keep Drax and the savagery inside, but not for long. The suspense was too much to bear. The story gripped me. It was a while before I noticed it’s told in the present tense, which can irritate. Not here.

The scenes of seal-killing and whale-hunting are inevitably violent, almost too much for a veggie Greenpeace reader. I wonder if there’ll be co-editions in Japan, Norway and Iceland... There’s shock after cruel shock, blood, pus, shit, rape, murder, odd sex and non-stop swearing, but there are rare rays of beauty to light the desolation; the sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration. There’s also sly humour. When a priest woos the Esquimaux with crucifix, candles and Jesus, they find it secretly amusing, a form of exotic entertainment in the otherwise dull expanses of winter.

This is McGuire’s second novel and it won the RSL Encore award. He has recreated a lost world. He grew up near Hull, my distant hometown. My father worked in High Street, a few doors up from William Wilberforce House, so I loved the Hull setting with the cobblestones, Queen’s Dock, Bowlalley Lane, the Turkish Baths, the De La Pole Tavern and the Tabernacle, Charterhouse Lane, and yes! Caroline Street, but my favourite street, the Land of Green Ginger, is much too magical to feature here.

The narrative plunges like a roller-coaster built on ice. Sumner the surgeon sinks lower, even lower than you could imagine. There is some kind of redemption, and the ending has a scene of profound loneliness which has haunted me since I first read The North Water last year.

Monday, 7 August 2017


Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. When not writing stories or not visiting schools, Chitra fills her well with her nephews, taking photos of flowers and birds, going to museums and attending dancing classes. Find out more at or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.

I was constantly moaning on Facebook about not writing enough. The truth was that I was writing a lot – but I wasn’t spending enough time ruminating on the characters and the plot. An artist friend who watched me whinge and moan suggested I read Daily Rituals – a book put together by Mason Currey, which actually started as a blog.

In his introduction, Currey says, “My underlying concerns in the book are issues I struggle with in my own life. How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

I was bogged down by the same questions – can you do creative work, write the next best British Asian middle grade novel if you’re working to a deadline? Can you do good work if you spend three days a week at a day-job and hardly have time to think about anything else? Can a modern writer who still has to pay the mortgage, bills and an occasional treat claim their place on the artistic pedestal?

I’ve often blogged about my writing process, the preoccupation with time, filling the well, spending time between writing and thinking.

So someone suggesting this book to me felt like a gift. It was unsolicited advice from the universe to let go of the how and just focus on the what – because if anything this book tells me there is no one way to do the “art”. What works for a writer in France in the 1800s might not work for Stephen King in a park trailer.

When I started reading Daily Rituals, I was amused and awed by the genius, pettiness and even the arrogance of many. While many respected the writing, some dreaded it and others could operate only in excesses.

Currey has chosen a wide range of writers, musicians and artists across generations, continents and some cultural diversity. Many of the accounts have been scoured from interviews, memoirs, newspaper clippings and such. But the short accounts from each artist reads like a story. A little glimpse through the window of a famous artist who we admire and would love to emulate.

Not sure if I can drink and dine out every evening like Francis Bacon or write in the family sitting room like Jane Austen surrounded by the noises of siblings, but I did find a kindred soul in Henry Miller. Like him I prefer to write from dawn to noon and anything I write after that is counterproductive to the work in progress.

P G Wodehouse and Stephen King have different rituals but they did solid work and had goals for each day. One writer I would have liked to see is Alexander McCall Smith whose rituals have been published widely. He is also a musician (apart from being a medical law professor) and he talks about his writing rituals here and here.

Writing places also seem to vary – from sheds to basement to a desk in the corner of a bedroom to writing with the company of snails. While some wrote after a coffee, others needed a stiff drink. Each of their muses seemed to ask for different things.

Did it stop my clamouring? Did it make me more confident of my methods? While any of these rituals cannot guarantee genius, it was reassuring to know that there is no way to approach it. There is no formula, there is no secret code that you get to find out only if you’re inducted into the hall of fame. There is just YOU. By that I mean ME. What works for me is surely only what works for me. I have to reflect on my own habits and discern the things that work and follow those rituals.

When we find that magic ritual – we should hold on to it. I know; it does cause huge amount of stress within our families.

o “I will not write until the genie appears out of this eco-lamp!”

o “I need to lock myself in the family bathroom for four hours in the morning to write.”

o “I can only write in cocktail bars between 6 pm and 9 pm and this entire table is taken for my enormous antique typewriter.”

Just kidding. Mine are much more sensible – I just live in a different country from my family or chloroform them until I’m done in the morning.

I wanted to share this book with all of you because we all wonder about the muse at some point – especially when there is a deadline and the words are stuck and wouldn’t flow down. Or we overwork – draining our creativity on to page and suffer from anti-social thoughts like – why do I have a family? Why do I have to take a shower today? What is the meal between breakfast and lunch? We feel guilty on days we don’t work, we get an idea during a holiday and we abandon our companions to the sharks in the ocean and hide in a dry corner with a notebook or a laptop.

So if you’re a regular output no-nonsense writer or I-write-when-I-want writer, this book will interest you. If not anything else it will give you the courage that whatever your method, there were more crazy ones out there!

Daily Rituals is published by Picador.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Guest review by Tony Bradman - THE PASSAGE trilogy by Justin Cronin

Tony Bradman has written books for children of all ages. His most recent titles are Anglo-Saxon Boy (Walker), Revolt Against the Romans (Bloomsbury Education) and The Greatest Stories Ever Told, illustrated by Tony Ross (Orchard).

Is it me, or is there still a general air of snootiness about genre fiction in our literary culture? An implicit belief that if a novel features an apocalyptic plot or vampires then it can’t have any literary merit? We could add accessible prose to the charge-sheet, and stories with lots of jeopardy, terrific action sequences and memorable dialogue. To some critics I’m sure that all seems rather, well… vulgar.

I’ve always found that attitude to be enormously irritating, so I’m pleased to say Justin Cronin’s trilogy of doorstep-sized novels make it look as narrow-minded as it really is. His trilogy - The Passage, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors - is an apocalyptic novel with vampires, but it also has enormous literary merit. It explores character and relationships, it has intimacy and grandeur, melancholy and joy. There are passages of technical explanation any writer of science-fiction or thrillers would be proud of, but also moments of genuine lyricism that will linger in the mind. I bought each volume in hardback as they appeared, and was utterly gripped.

The premise does combine several familiar genre tropes. A rogue element of the US government sets in motion a secret project to develop super-soldiers with hugely enhanced physical powers and a capacity for instant self-healing. The catalyst for these changes is a virus discovered in a rare species of Colombian bats, and the first test subjects are a dozen death-row convicts, men who are offered the chance of life if they ‘volunteer’ for the project. But the scientists, government agents and military men seriously underestimate what the virus can do - the convicts are turned into giant vampires who are virtually invulnerable. The inevitable break-out occurs, the test subjects escaping from a secret laboratory - and the apocalypse soon follows.

And what an apocalypse it is, an almost complete extermination of the human race. The original twelve vampires kill thousands, but also spread the virus in order to create more vampires who are like them - and who will be under their control. Before long only small pockets of survivors remain, their outposts dotted across America and completely cut off from each other. But from the beginning we know there is hope. The bad guys - and this is a measure of just how evil they are - also infect a six-year-old girl called Amy with the virus thinking that she won’t turn out to be so dangerous. They’re right - she gains some powers yet doesn’t lose her humanity, although they can never imagine the role Amy will have in the long-term future of our species.

I should point out that Justin Cronin doesn’t tell his enormous tale in a strict chronological sequence. The Passage does begin at the beginning, setting up the premise, introducing the twelve convicts, Amy, and some other key characters. But it quickly leaps 92 years, telling the story of one of the outposts and its people, the descendants of refugees. The storylines in both The Twelve and The City of Mirrors then move backwards and forwards in time, filling in more background detail in the lives of important characters, setting up clues and foreshadowing events to come. All, is resolved at the conclusion of the final book - the stories of individual characters as well as the ultimate fate of the human race a thousand years after the catastrophe.

The trilogy weighs in at something like 800,000 words, and by my reckoning that’s about six-or-seven-novels-worth of material. I was going to say that this puts it on a Tolstoyan scale, but in many respects it’s even bigger that. There’s a huge cast of characters too, many of whom could easily have whole novels devoted to them. But you never get them confused with other characters, or forget what their place is in the overall tale, and that has to be a testament to the sheer craft of Justin Cronin. He manages it all with great aplomb; I was gripped by it all, often re-reading sections.

It’s difficult to convey the sheer quality of the whole thing - until you read it for yourself you’ll have to take my word for it. The trilogy has been very successful in terms of sales, and film rights were bought by Ridley Scott before the first book was published, although now it seems likely to be made into series for television by HBO. If that happens, then I think it could do for the apocalyptic novel what the Game of Thrones adaptation has done for fantasy fiction, ie proved that it’s best done on epic scale on screen as well as in print. And don’t forget, you heard that here first.

The Passage trilogy is published by Orion.

Friday, 28 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY - My Holiday Reading by Adèle Geras

Every summer, when the newspapers give us the reading choices of their great and good contributors and guests, I'm astonished at the height of the brows of everyone who responds. These people are regularly reading works of deep intellectual heft and size. Military histories. Other detailed histories. Serious, difficult novels. Works of sociology and philosophy. Poetry which needs, you'd think, a bit more attention than you can give it from a sun lounger. Or maybe I'm wrong. It's true that my son-in-law was reading MONTCAILLOU (history and small print combined) so I do believe that there are folk who genuinely do this.

I'm of the other persuasion. My holiday involved two long train journeys across Europe so I really needed 'something sensational to read on the train,' in the words of Oscar Wilde. In between, I was spending most of my time beside a pool, so I needed something involving; something that would keep me awake when my eyes were closing in the warmth of the sun. I have to say, I succeeded so well this holiday that I wanted to share my choices with readers of  this blog. 

What these books have in common, (apart perhaps from the Sam Bourne TO KILL THE PRESIDENT, to which I'll return), is that they fulfil the best (to my mind)  definition yet of what a good novel is. It's a story about "proper people in interesting situations." Proper people, to be clear, means human beings rather than spacemen or Daleks or any fantasy creation.  Jodi Picoult has dealt in proper people in not only interesting situations but skewered on the horns of some dreadful dilemmas. In SMALL GREAT THINGS, a black nurse is forbidden by a white supremacist father and mother of a newborn baby to touch him in any way. The baby dies. The nurse has tried to help him, of course, but he dies nonetheless. A court case ensues. Every single issue related to race, medical ethics, personal problems is forensically and very grippingly examined and you do end up knowing and understanding much more than you did at the beginning. I raced through it with great enjoyment but by the end I felt two things. Firstly, it was too long. I think if 100 pages had been trimmed away, it would have been a much better book. Secondly, I thought that the additional material added at the end about how the writer came to write the book was a little redundant. But the characters are well-drawn, and the trial unfolds with tension and surprises along the way. We are in the viewpoints of several people: the nurse, the white supremacist, the defence lawyer for the nurse and so on. I do recommend it, especially for anyone who enjoys a good drama largely set in court.

THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal is related to the Henry James novel with the same title but I can't talk about that, never having read the James.  I downloaded this because I so enjoyed Segal's first novel, THE INNOCENTS. I was very glad that I had. It's a cracker of a novel. A middle- aged couple is deeply in love. The woman is a widow. The man is divorced from his first wife. The man has a son, the woman has a daughter. Of course, the teenagers are appalled by the obvious passion their parents are displaying. They hate one another. And then, they stop hating one another and begin to love one another instead and this causes no end of dreadful problems. Because this book is mostly about people, their failings, their madnesses, their ambitions, and secret desires, I am not going to spoil what plot there is by telling you any more. There is anguish, humour, understanding, reconciliation, jealousy of various kinds and above all, sparkling, witty, sharp and also deeply clever writing. We know everyone; we sympathise with everyone and at the same time want to slap them very hard. It's like spending time with a family which is horrendous in many ways and yet which is at the same time fascinating and attractive and thankfully not yours! I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this book.

THE PARTY by Elizabeth Day is a very gripping story indeed. It's also about people who in many ways have nothing to recommend them. There are echoes of the Bullingdon Club, and whiffs of resemblances to various people in present day politics. But. But but but...

At the heart of the book are two  character whom we can't help liking, in spite of their many flaws. It's clear from the way the novel is (very beautifully) structured that Something Awful has happened. Martin, the damaged hero, is in a police station. Interspersed with Martin's account of what's happened, and how his whole life has led up to it, comes Lucy, his girlfriend's account of the same story from her point of view. She is writing this account at the behest of a psychiatrist...hmm, you might think and you would be right. The something awful that we're talking about happened at the Party of the title, but there are other awful things that are gradually revealed. I promise you, you will not  be able to put this book down. I raced through it, glued to every sentence. Day is a very elegant writer and even though some of these characters aren't people you'd necessarily want to have next to you on the sun lounger, they are fascinating. Day is a journalist as well as a novelist and this novel is above all, gossipy and in the's terrific.

My final book is a thriller by Sam Bourne who is actually the Guardian writer, Jonathan Freedland. He's a wonderful journalist and often writes articles that are spot on both in style and in substance. I downloaded this because I assume the author knows what he's talking about and  I wanted to see how he'd manage a story about the assassination of someone who bears a very striking resemblance to Donald Trump. All the characters seem to have their equivalents in real life and that was the fascination for me. I have been wondering why no one is suing Sam Bourne but I've   worked it out now. If anyone sues, it's a kind of admission that they know the book is about them. The only possible thing for Trump and his minions to do is to say: "What me, Gov? No resemblance at all..."

All in all, four cracking books for your pleasure. Hope you agree about at least some of them. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY - reading pile roundup: Linda Newbery

A side-effect of hosting WRITERS REVIEW is that my to-be-read pile (both virtual and actual) is out of control, with new additions almost every week. I have two overcrowded shelves of books-in-waiting: charity shop bargains rubbing shoulders with overdue library books, loans from friends, occasional advance proofs, impulse buys and the next choice for Reading Group. Inevitably, some books wait there for a very long time, as others jump the queue - and that's without including the titles lined up on my Kindle. At least I shall never be short of a good read. 

One that will go straight to the front is Alan Hollinghurst's The Sparsholt Affair, due in October. I particularly enjoyed his most recent novel, The Stranger's Child, and this one - beginning in Oxford in the Blitz and following three generations to the present-day - promises everything Hollinghurst is known for: elegance of style, insights into social mores and changing times, a focus on art and architecture. 

Time Will Darken It, by William Maxwell, is the book I've chosen for my Reading Group. I have yet to read anything by Maxwell, but his reputation gives me high expectations. Tom Cox, of the New York Times, listed it as an underrated classic of American literature, a "quiet, mid-career masterpiece". ("Quiet" is the kiss of death to marketing departments these days, making me wonder if the novel would even find a publisher today.) Nicholas Lezard, whose Paperback of the Week feature in the Guardian has sadly come to an end but was such a reliable source of books otherwise at risk of being overlooked, said of it: "This is such a good novel that I'm still shaking thinking about it ... A novel not to be recommended to people but to be pressed on them, urgently." So I am pressing it on my Reading Group, for September.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker, unaccountably had a long wait on the shelf before I started it this week. Such a clever idea: Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the family servants - a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead set in Jane Austen's world, or at least the long hours and repetitive toil behind the scenes which allow her main players to lead their lives of comfort and leisure. Of course the servants have their own secrets and desires, and in one case a background that takes us far beyond the confines of Longbourn. I'm already hooked, by the writing as well as by the premise. Jo Baker is certainly a striking talent; far from imitating Jane Austen she has found a distinctive style of her own, and a sense of wild landscape in some of the scenes which is more reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte. 
There's usually some nature writing on my waiting pile. Currently heading that section is The Seabird's Cry  by Adam Nicholson, from which I expect eloquent writing on marine ecosystems, the lives of birds and how we're casually destroying the environment.

I enjoyed Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,  was even more impressed by The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and am looking forward to her new novel, The Music Shop. She has a wonderful way of combining simplicity and profundity in writing about unexceptional lives. For a taster, catch it on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime last week and this.

What are you looking forward to reading? Please tell us in the comments!

Monday, 24 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY guest post by Tracy Chevalier: THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by Emma-Jane Kirby

It's our birthday! We are a year old this week. Huge thanks to all the guest contributors who make this possible by lending us their time, expertise and enthusiasms - we wouldn't be able to do it without their willing help. Special thanks to this week's guest, Tracy Chevalier, for helping us to mark the occasion. Her brilliant novel Remarkable Creatures was our very first review, and we're delighted to welcome her now in person with this timely recommendation.

Tracy Chevalier FRSL is the author of nine novels. She is best known for the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into 39 languages, sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and made into a film. Her most recent books are the historical novel At the Edge of the Orchard, and New Boy, a retelling of Othello for the Shakespeare Project. She is President of the Royal Literary Fund, a Trustee of the British Library, former Chair of the Society of Authors, and holds honorary degrees from her alma maters, Oberlin College and the University of East Anglia. She grew up in Washington DC and in 1984 moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son.

The most moving and important book I’ve read in the past year is The Optician of Lampedusa by the journalist Emma-Jane Kirby. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction other than for research purposes; I’ve often found it slow-going and worthy, as if a determined lecturer is trying to force information into me. This book is different: short, urgent, devastating. Kirby first came across the story and reported it on BBC Radio 4. Now she has turned it into a clear, simply written true tale for our time. I read it in two hours and it will stay with me for life.

A few years ago an ordinary, unnamed optician who lives on the small island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily went on a fishing trip for a couple of days with his wife and six friends. One morning they woke to distant sounds of distress, and discovered that close by a boat full of migrants and refugees crossing from North Africa had sunk. The waters were churning with over 500 people struggling to stay afloat. The book describes in detail how the optician and his friends scrambled to rescue 47 people, pulling them onto a boat designed to hold only 10. If you have ever wondered how you might respond to an extreme crisis, the optician and his friends provide a model of how to connect with your vital inner humanitarianism.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of that harrowing experience and the group’s struggle with the resulting psychological trauma. Having thought little about migrants and refugees until then, they developed great concern for the people they rescued, and later managed to meet with them, in a heartfelt reunion. It is a lesson in how specific stories change people’s views of a general crisis.

The optician is realistic about the effect the influx of refugees has had on Lampedusa’s community and resources, but reveals a new understanding of what it means for people to risk so much to get to Europe and a new life.

Many of us have spent a lot of time talking about the refugee crisis without having any real experience of it. Whatever our views, most are unlikely ever to meet a refugee, much less save them from drowning. The Optician of Lampedusa makes concrete and personal what has been an abstraction. Once you’ve read it you’ll feel like a crucial piece of the jigsaw – the human piece – has been filled in. For that reason, it is a must-read.

The Optician of Lampedusa is published by Or Books.

Monday, 17 July 2017


Keren David is the author of eight novels for Young Adults; she is also Features Editor for the Jewish Chronicle. Her latest book is The Liar's Handbook (Barrington Stoke)

There are some works of non-fiction that help and inspire me when I’m writing one book in particular. For my latest I've been reading books about Canadian life in the 1900s, and very interesting they have proved.

But there are other books which provide enlightenment and underpinning for almost everything I write. Deborah Cohen’s marvellous Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is most definitely in the latter category and I commend it to any writer whose subject matter involves families, secrets, lies, shame or privacy; that is, very many of us.

Cohen examines areas of family life which have involved secrecy and shame, particularly in the twentieth century and examines social attitudes towards them. Adoption, homosexuality, learning and physical disabilities, race, domestic violence, incest and illegitimacy are all covered, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards secrecy itself, as society moved towards today’s confessional culture. Cohen tells the story of what happens within the family, a change from the usual accounts of social change which focus on protest movements and changes in the law.

To tell those stories she has looked at family letters and diaries, the files of adoption agencies and institutions for the mentally handicapped, the records of marriage counsellors and the divorce court. Just reading about her research (“In Edinburgh, staff had to cut the plastic bands strapped tightly around marriage-counselling files from the 1940s and 1950s before I could begin my research”) gives me a frisson of excitement. The curiosity, that need to know more and understand people better which fuels many a journalist or novelist (I am both), is very well satisfied in this book. It also helps place the current fascination for revealing more and more Love Island-style in a narrative starting in the teeming Victorian tenements where privacy was a luxury that the poor could not afford.

The book starts with a sentence that could come from a novel: “Celia Ward was resourceful and she was desperate.” Celia and her husband wanted to adopt a baby, and in 1920 she felt it had to be as secret as possible. She stayed in a nursing home for a month, pretending to have given birth, and told everyone that the child was her own. If you love watching Long Lost Family, or Who Do You Think You Are? then this book is for you, it puts many such stories in context, leaving enough to the imagination that to read just one chapter provides a writer with a fertile river of ideas to develop.

“There are an infinite number of stories to tell about families, for they are all famously unhappy (and perhaps also happy) in their own ways…” says Cohen, “Writing about the families of the past is an enterprise that necessarily balances the universal and the particular, for the emotions that families call forth (love as well as hate, the warmth of protection and the struggle against dependence) are uncannily familiar - whether considered from the standpoint of legal frameworks, social structures or the brute facts of demography - has often changed utterly.”

Her book made me reflect on my own family’s twentieth century secrets ; the ones I know about anyway, which include one great uncle in a mental asylum, another who was homosexual, and another uncle who disappeared from our lives when I was six, and then reappeared again when I was 14. My husband’s genealogical researches likewise turned up lies about a marriage and a great-aunt who died in a poorhouse. And when I wrote books about adoption and bisexuality, Cohen’s research and insights were invaluable; I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I will be reading it yet again this summer.

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is published in hardback by Viking, and in paperback by Penguin with the title Family Secrets: The Things we Tried to Hide

Monday, 10 July 2017

A FATAL INVERSION by Barbara Vine, reviewed by Linda Newbery

I'd planned to review something else today, but because of the recent heatwave I'm revisiting, instead, my favourite Barbara Vine novel, which takes place during the exceptionally hot summer of 1976.  

The TV adaptation in 1992, in which the young Jeremy Northam played one of the leads, introduced me to Ruth Rendell as her Barbara Vine alias. The novels written under this pseudonym are notable for their creeping sense of menace, and the way in which ordinary, not particularly ill-intentioned people become involved in terrible events through their circumstances or obsessions. If you start on a Barbara Vine, you'd better have plenty of time at your disposal; she will soon have you thoroughly hooked. Even on a re-reading, knowing the main thrust of the plot and the breathtaking twist at the end, I couldn't put this one down.

Unremitting summer heat contributes to a powerful sense of place and atmosphere. The 'inversion' of the title refers to Ecalpemos - some place in reverse - the name given by Adam, one of the viewpoint characters, to Wyvis Hall, the Suffolk mansion he unexpectedly inherits from a grumpy uncle. Intending just to visit and take stock of the place before heading to Greece for the summer, he and a friend, Rufus, decide to stay there in secret. The slightly shabby mansion, its lake and grounds and woodland, seem cut off from ordinary life; the 'drift', the long avenue leading in from the public road, marks this separation. We experience the place as the young men do, freed from studies and parental expectations, with no one to please but themselves: "He and Rufus, like sultans, had reclined on quilts and smoked hashish, the pungent trails of smoke rising into the dark air and mingling with the scents of the summer night"; and also as Adam views it later, remembering that Shiva, who joins them, called it Eden: "as if a necessary condition of being in this paradise was the commission of some frightful sin or crime that must result in expulsion." 

The novel moves back and forth in time, starting ten years on from that summer. Burying a dead spaniel, the current owners of Wyvis Hall unearth human bones from the pet cemetery in their pine woods; inspection reveals these bones to have belonged to a young woman and a baby. When this gruesome find is reported in the press it unsettles, separately, Adam, Rufus, and Shiva, who have never met or communicated since the day they left in 1976. Each of them, knowing exactly what happened though with varying degrees of involvement, dreads further investigation. Both Adam and Rufus are now well-established professionals, Rufus a gynaecologist, Adam a computer designer; Rufus fears for his reputation, Adam for his marriage and his baby daughter. Approached by police, Adam unwisely denies having lived at Wyvis Hall that summer, a claim that can easily be disproved by a number of locals: the 'coypu man', the dismissed gardener, the post-girl.

Of course we don't at first know who the young woman might be, nor the baby, but possibilities unfurl as the 'commune' Adam needs to finance his hedonistic summer begins to assemble. There are girls; first Mary, Rufus's girlfriend, who soon leaves, then two casual pick-ups, and - the one on whom the plot hinges - Zosie, a childlike but sexily appealing waif brought back by Rufus and seemingly with nowhere else to go. Soon Zosie finds dubious ways of providing cash, and goes from being Rufus' lover to Adam's. The 'commune' is completed by Shiva and Vivien, brought there on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and expecting - Vivien especially - a place of spiritual enlightenment and practical self-sufficiency. Earnest, orderly and principled, seeking the stability missing from her childhood, Vivien soon takes charge of domestic arrangements, becoming a mother figure to Zosie.

As each of the three men reluctantly recalls the events of that hot summer, the tragedy unfolds for the reader with awful inevitability. I had forgotten many of the details from my earlier reading, but appreciated this time how cleverly everything is woven into the whole: the 'coypu man'; Vivien's blue dress; Zosie's small gold ring; Uncle Hilbert's shot-gun; Vivien's background in a care home that's resulted in her love of children and her career as a nanny. The hints and foreshadowings are all there, hidden in plain sight.

What Vine / Rendell does so successfully is to engross the reader in the lives of characters who aren't particularly likeable. Adam is careless of his good fortune, inconsiderate of others and casually racist towards Shiva, remembering him only as 'the Indian' despite sharing the house for several weeks. Rufus, a medical student, is ambitious and arrogant, treating young women as possessions: when Zosie appeals to him to take her side in a crisis, he responds: "I'll tell you whose side I'm on. Rufus's. And that goes for always.' Zosie, vulnerable and dependent, frequently likened to a small, timid animal, is the one whose actions precipitate catastrophe. Even Shiva, anxious for respectability but too keen to win approval, contributes to the mounting disaster; years later he has confided in his wife, but kept this final secret to himself. All three viewpoint characters are tormented by guilt, remorse and the need for self-preservation, in various measures. Not only does Barbara Vine keep you hooked; she makes you feel complicit, caught up in the same tightening mesh as her characters, imagining that you're there in the kitchen on the fateful morning, sharing their dilemma.

Recently, I've read high-profile thrillers that depend on a major plot twist meant to snatch the rug from under the reader's feet. Without exception they have left me feeling dissatisfied, resenting the time I've invested in reading - the cleverness of the twist isn't enough to make up for thin characterisation, implausible motivation or a denouement that falls flat once the revelation has been made. Revisiting this darkly enthralling masterclass has reminded me just how good, how superbly good, Barbara Vine / Ruth Rendell was. That ending, so surprising, so absolutely right ...  well, you'll have to read it for yourself, if you haven't already done so.

I haven't read all the Barbara Vine titles yet, but this one remains at the top of my list, with Asta's Book, The Brimstone Wedding and The Blood Doctor as runners-up. If you're a fan too, which is your favourite, and why? 

A Fatal Inversion is published by Penguin.

This is an adapted version of a review which first appeared on my website blog, Between the Pages.

Monday, 3 July 2017

THE LIE OF THE LAND by Amanda Craig, reviewed by Adèle Geras

After I finished reading this book, words to describe it were tumbling about in my mind.  Here are some of them: abundant, generous, overflowing, detailed, knowledgeable, thrilling, melodramatic, involving, gripping, modern, topical, controversial, political...

But in the end I decided on one word which sums up exactly what this book is. It's VICTORIAN. In the best possible sense, which is to say it's both a page- turner and a primer; a novel full of stuff happening, people getting into every variety of turmoil, and events in the Body Politic informing everything. It takes time over detail, and tells you about things which other books leave out. It's concerned with incomes and the results of the Referendum vote on Brexit but also with feelings between people and describes both with great sensitivity and enormous brio. You come away from it not only knowing about such things as conditions in a Devon pie factory for its workers both foreign  and British, but also having in your mind's eye a beautiful landscape, as well as intimate knowledge of several houses. The book is a cornucopia...that's another word that occurred to me several times while I was reading it.

It starts, perfectly, with a summing- up of the whole subject of the novel in one sentence. Again, this nods to the Victorians and also of course, to Jane Austen: "There is no money and the Bredins can't afford to divorce."

From this situation, which you know straight away, many paths and narrative strands flow towards a very satisfying ending. That's also Victorian. They were not given to ambiguity, or post-modern 'choose your own outcome' stuff.  So you know that, to all intents and purposes, the good will end happily and the bad unhappily. That, as Oscar Wilde said, is what fiction means.

But along the way your heart will be in your mouth for several of the characters. There's an unsolved murder. There are issues of every sort, from housing problems to farming subsidies, to the care of the elderly and the dreadful pain of infertility. There's neglect and love and horror and comparisons of life in London with Dorset life. There's friction between fathers and sons, and stepsons too. There's a glamorous grandmother. A rock star. A slightly spooky teenager who's also a gifted pianist. A Health Visitor, who's the wife of a sheep farmer...and so on. 

At the centre are Quentin and Lottie. He's a journalist, a bit down on his luck now and she's an architect who, like her unfaithful husband, isn't a bit keen on the idea of leaving her work and decamping to the country. Their two girls are young enough to attend the village school, and Lottie's son by another man, Xan, about to apply to university. He's the one who works in Humble's Pie factory. (That pun, too, is worthy of Dickens himself!) Close by are living Quentin's parents. Hugh is a dying poet with a couple of poems that are studied on the syllabus but not much else to show for his writing life...he reckons he's past it. Naomi is a saint, caring for Hugh. 

I could go on. The book teems with characters (Victorian, again.) Some are up to no good. There's been a murder at the cottage where Quentin and Lottie settle...the murderer is still at large. The head was missing from the body when it was found.....need I say more? If you want melodrama, look no further!

I didn't say that it's brilliantly written, but it is. It's the sort of book which you want to go back to, once you've raced through it, so that you can linger over details. It would make the perfect holiday read.

I must add my usual disclaimer: I know the author, but I would not have rushed to review this novel if I didn't genuinely love it. You'll have to trust me on that.

I'm pretty sure that anyone who picks up this book will find it hard to put down, even though (Victorian!) it's quite heavy. A Kindle edition would solve this problem but do buy it in whatever format suits you best. You will not regret it.   

The Lie of the Land is published in hardback by Little, Brown.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Guest review by Graeme Fife: IN PARENTHESIS by David Jones

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.

In Parenthesis grew out of the seven months between December 1915 and the Battle of the Somme. Its seven parts trace the journey of a unit of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with whom Jones served from embarkation to France and the grim fighting in Mametz Wood. However, although rooted in the experience of an individual soldier, John Ball, and his fellow privates, it concerns itself more with the minutiae of their life than with the horror of their death. Indeed, Jones said that although ‘it happens to be concerned with war, I should prefer it to be about a good kind of peace,’ in part, thereby, explaining the title of the work, the war itself being a sort of brackets within which they existed and out of which they were glad to step.

The style of this essentially poetic work is complex but not baffling, even if the literary cross references, the passages of demotic language, the peppering with slang, the evocation of particularly Welsh myth, in the epic poem Y Gododdin, and Arthurian legend, call for author’s notes, much in the way they were deployed by T.S. Eliot.
I have never read so moving and richly coloured an evocation of the sounds and perpetuum mobile of life in the trenches, the constant nag of military orders, discipline, parades, longueurs of the army routine. And the cheery and scabrous joshing of the men subject to it. I’ve read nothing more immediate, chaotic, provoking. By scattered image, staccato interjection, wild allusion, literary reference, word painting, it startles and surprises constantly. Of course I miss much – to slow my reading to the pace of chasing each conundrum would be to lose the pace of the narrative’s onward push, the relentless current, but the impression sticks. And the impression, of men drawn into a plight which mirrors, somehow, in extremis, the human condition in any circumstance, is of deep humanity and what Jones called ‘the extreme tenderness of men in action to each other’. This is something rather more than camaraderie, though such is obvious, largely in the humorous banter with which the text is sprinkled. Of a wounded comrade-in-arms: ‘Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know…Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound…go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him…’

These men, drawn from worlds apart, from Wales to Bromley-by-Bow, have their counterparts in the misted past of ancient battles fought in these islands for whom the elegies of the ancient Welsh poems were written. They have their shades in the Arthurian knights, and in that continuum of human courage, of suffering, of simply making do, they unite the theme of compassion: the sacrificial lamb, the goat cast into the wilderness to bear the burden of guilt, the vast multitude of the men along the Western Front who ‘lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke…’ that play on the two senses of Jerry underlining the pity of this conflict.

I’d liken the language and the eccentric pointing of its punctuation, rich in its shifts of tone – jocular and even scurrilous here, exalted here, matter of fact here, a sudden descant of military terms and indicators, numbers and letters, largely incomprehensible without the maps but curiously comic – to a symphonic score. The language of music is not generally susceptible to explanation, not logical, but it has a suggestive power which Jones echoes in his blending of elements of a voice which speaks direct as well as in passionate digression and ornament:

‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’

But: ‘…who gives a bugger for the Dolorous Stroke.’ This last an allusion to the wound inflicted on the guardian of the Holy Grail by a mystic weapon, counterpart to the spear which despatches Christ on the Cross.

This is a world where mundane details of a sort of substratum of mortal existence plays out, subject to the rules and regulations of the army, often needless, meaningless, plain daft – ‘groundsheet not to protrude under pack more than two inches’ – but where, nevertheless, an innate nobility holds, a nobility which extends beyond the imperatives of this sordid business of waiting in water-filled trenches to visit death upon those who wait to visit death on you.

‘The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? – bugger all to report? – kipping mate? – Christ, mate – you’ll have them all over.’

In Parenthesis is published by Faber & Faber.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Guest review by Julia Jarman: THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE by Hannah Rothschild

Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

Don’t let the first dozen or so pages put you off.

Attracted by the blurb I started reading this novel on a long flight from China. I needed something to keep me awake and looked forward to a light-hearted read in which I learned something about art and the art world.  The prologue, detailing preparations for the sale of a famous picture by Watteau at an illustrious London auction house, was entertaining at first but began to grate. Did I need to know every prospective purchaser and all the members of staff assigned to mind them? It didn’t help that the character through whose desperate eyes we see this line-up is an unattractive oh-so sorry-for-himself penniless Old Etonian, who is in charge of the sale; records must be broken if he is to collect his bonus and restore the family fortunes. Did I sympathise? Hmmm. The chapter ends with a hook hinting at skulduggery to come, which kept me turning the pages. Clearly this auction will not go to plan . . .
Flashback. (Sorry, Colm Toibin, this plot flash, bangs and wallops from Skulduggery Past to Skulduggery Even Further Past and Skulduggery Long Before that, before it gets back to the auction.) In chapter one things look up when we meet chef Annie McDee, thirty-one and broken-hearted, but gamely trying to rebuild her life in London.  Looking for a present for her new boyfriend she comes across an old picture in a junk shop, likes the look of it and buys it.  It is of course THE picture, The Improbability of Love, and the find sets in motion a mostly fast-moving, rollicking tale with more ups and downs and twists and turns than my wonky spiraliser.  

Write about what you know, we’re told, and author Hannah Rothschild knows lots. Part of the fabulously rich Rothschild family, she grew up immersed in fine art and old rich. She went on to study art and made her career in art and the media, which brought her into contact with the new-rich: Russian oligarchs, hedge fund buyers and pop-star billionaires. She has facts at her finger tips that would take most of us years to research and her accomplishments are prodigious. Acclaimed as a hard worker, she has written biography, art criticism, film scripts and documentaries, as well as serving on the board of various art galleries. In this her first novel she writes assuredly, effortlessly it seems - I do mean seems - and evidently enjoys the freedom fiction gives to imagine and invent.

Flashback 2: the talking picture. This for me is her most delightful invention. The picture, The Improbability of Love, is a character in the novel speaking to the reader directly. I love this personification of the conceit that pictures ‘speak to us’, or not of course. The picture speaks to Annie in the metaphorical way which is why she buys it, and that distinguishes her from most of the potential purchasers.  I hear a female voice, by the way, possibly because of the Miss Piggy-ish way she refers to herself as ‘moi’.  I loved the way she described her life going back to Watteau’s first inspired brushstrokes, with detailed portraits of her various owners, some of them very nasty characters indeed. 

The story has a dark side and gives the reader plenty to think about.  It raises the question: what is Art and what is it for?  In the book as in life for some characters it’s merely currency, for others status and for an increasing number it’s a substitute for religion. Next time I go to a gallery I’ll ask myself ‘Why?’

I should perhaps say this is a much commented-on book, well aired on the media and short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  A lot of people love it, but not a friend of mine who knows a lot more about art and the art scene than me.  She says - shock horror - there are mistakes. ‘And did you know there’s no such picture as The Improbability of Love?’

I’m still thinking about that.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Our tribute to Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017

Celia Rees: Helen Dunmore was one of those writers who could do everything, seemingly effortlessly. As well as her prize-winning adult fiction, she wrote for children and young adults and she wrote poetry. It seems wrong to be writing about her in the past tense. She was the kind of writer you thought would always be there to show the rest of us how it is done.

I remember sitting opposite her at a jolly Hay Festival dinner hosted by Scholastic.  I confess to being more than a little star struck but she was as charming as she was beautiful. Her fame was immaterial.  She joined in happily with the table talk and laughter, all writers together.  We will all miss her. I can’t believe she’s gone. 

Linda Newbery: I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 

She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. 
Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she 
wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival. 

Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.

Adèle Geras: I can't remember the year exactly, but it was in the early 1980s. I'd just started to write poems again. I'd not written any since leaving school in 1963. I entered a competition run by the Lancaster Festival and judged by Ian McMillan. Lancaster had a very kind way of awarding prize winners: all the poems the judge liked were published together in a pamphlet and the poets were invited to Lancaster for a reading.

Some of us went out to an Italian restaurant afterwards, and I can't account for why, but Helen Dunmore was at that meal and I was sitting opposite her at the table. Years later, when I started reading her novels with enormous pleasure, I would think back to that lunch and my memories of what she was like. Trivial as it may sound when you consider her gifts as a poet and novelist, my abiding memory is of her beauty. Photos don't do justice to it. I would say: radiant, but that sounds trite. Trite but true.

The last book I read by her was Exposure, which I really loved and couldn't put down. I read what she wrote as she published what she knew was to be her last book, and the grace and bravery of her words was some consolation in the face of the tragic news she was conveying. I defy anyone to read her final poem without weeping.

Helen Dunmore died much too young. But we have her books and they abide.

What are your memories of Helen Dunmore? Or your favourites of her novels, stories and poems? Do please add your comments as part of this tribute to an exceptional and much-loved writer. 
Thank you!