Monday, 11 December 2017

Guest review by Nicky Singer: MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent

Nicky Singer is a novelist, playwright and librettist. Her first book for children, Feather Boy, won the Blue Peter ‘Book of the Year’ Award and was adapted for TV, winning a BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama. In 2010 she was asked by Glyndebourne to adapt her novel Knight Crew (a re-telling of the King Arthur legend set in contemporary gangland) for an opera with music by Julian Philips. 2012 saw the premiere of her play Island (about ice-bears and the nature of reality) at the National Theatre. She re-wrote Island as a novel and no mainstream publisher was remotely interested. So she published it herself via Kickstarter with illustrations by UK Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell. Somehow it managed to claw its way onto the Carnegie longlist. Her new book (forthcoming July 2018) is already sold in France, Germany, Italy, Israel, China and Russia as well as the UK. #FunnyOldWorld

I know what reviews are supposed to be. They're supposed to be relatively impartial summations which allow a third party access to a book. This isn't going to be a review like that. This is a writers’ review blog and this is going to be one writer’s extremely personal – visceral even - reaction to a fellow writer’s work.

I gorged on this raw, pulsing, thrilling book.

My Absolute Darling is the story of a powerful man and his soon-to-be-powerful daughter locked in an appalling, abusive embrace. Set against a throbbing landscape of sea and pond, poison ivy and sodden spiderwebs, it’s a book that strips away much of how we live now – our technology, our twittery busy-ness - reducing things to ‘bloody marrow’ and ‘hollow thighbones’. It allows no easy assumptions – confronts you at every level. The monstrous, survivalist father sits by his guns reading Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Vile, loathsome and compelling, he is, of course, not always so: intelligent and damaged, he both defends and cares. His daughter, similarly, both loves and hates him, waiting for him at night ‘touching the cold blade of her pocketknife to her face’ because ‘by turns she wants and does not want it’. Violence lurks on every page but so does poetry. Not poetry of the rhyming sort but poetry which captures big thoughts, big landscapes or big emotions in small, exact ways: ‘His touch brings her skin to life, and she holds it all within the private theatre of her mind, where anything is permitted, their two shadows cast across the sheet and knit together’. The talent of Tallent (sic) is to insert this poetry - this quality - into the driving force of the narrative (the guns, the horror, our growing sense of where all this must end) without once slackening the pace.

This is not a book you read leisurely. You consume it – as it consumes you. And you also shout at it. Or at least I did, finding myself being confronted by all my own prejudices and story tropes. If someone doesn’t help this girl out in the next chapter, I shouted, I’m going to get in there and do it myself! Although, of course, I knew perfectly well that the only person who could save this girl – if she was to be saved – was the girl herself. Turtle. Turtle Alveston. And here’s another sly piece of Tallent’s genius - the heroine’s many names. Her ‘real’ name is Julia. This is what she’s called at school. Her Grandfather calls her ‘Sweetpea’. To her father she’s just ‘kibble’. Kibble without a capital ‘k’ – like a piece of dog food. It hurt me every time he named her so. Turtle is the name she gives herself. It’s never explained but one can guess about the hard shell and the retreating, hiding, quivering inside. In moments of real self-loathing she also uses one of her father’s other terms for her: ‘illiterate little slit’. Illiterate little slit? Right, that’s it. I’m going to go into the book to kill the bastard. Now. Because where the hell is the prince in this story anyway? The prince is Jacob. Only he doesn’t find her – she finds him, lost and without shelter one night in the harsh Mendocino landscape. The landscape which she knows like the back of her hand. So, of course, it is Turtle who does the saving and Jacob who does some more naming. Now she’s the ‘chainsaw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, once-and-future queen of post-apocalyptic America’. And yes, of course, part of Turtle is this magnificent, imagined person. Part of her is also way out of this privileged boy’s league. But he has access to the world outside Turtle’s closed life. So, he can do something, can’t he? Make something happen, save her after all? No, of course not.

If I’m being really snippy, I’d say Tallent doesn’t quite solve the final question of the would-be prince’s place in the final spectacular – and thrillingly expected – denouement. But I’m not being snippy because this is a big, passionate, written-from-the-soul book. And they don’t come often. Although when they do come they come, increasingly (for me, anyway) stripped to these same essentials - people, landscape. Take A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, for instance. Quieter of course, but with the same truth. Or the 2017 Booker shortlisted Elmet by Fiona Mozley which features another powerful man and daughter in a wood you can also smell and chop. So now I’m thinking – is this some new trope? They used to say that to write a good kids’ book you need to get rid of the parents. Is it now that, to write a great adult book, you have to strip away the technology? That we can no longer say or mean deep things inside our everyday techno lives, and that we must return to the visceral dark and the hurting to understand the important and real? This jolts me to the realisation that my own new book follows a girl and a boy through six thousand miles of guess what – landscape: sand and stars and stone. I hope my book has some of the same blood and passion as Tallent’s book. Actually, I hope it has a tenth of the blood and passion of Tallent’s book. My Absolute Darling. Oh, my absolute darling. Read it, please. It’s the new way to be alive.

My Absolute Darling is published by 4th Estate.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Guest Graeme Fife admires Maggie O'Farrell's novels

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.

‘I am somewhere. Drifting, Hiding. Thoughts running around tracks, random and unconnected as ball-bearings in the circuit of a pinball machine. I am thinking about the party at work at which John and I didn’t meet, how we must have circled each other round the room like moths at a light bulb…’ (From After You’d Gone)

This might be a considered analysis of O’Farrell’s work: the random encounter, the missed encounter, the light of the novel’s heart glowing throughout. Her narratives might seem to be merely playful: they hop, skip and jump from serendipity to chance to puzzlement and surprise but rather she is exploring the disconnects in our experience. We do not see or feel what happens to us in linear and logical form, but often as a curious loose linkage of events. To shape a narrative on such a premise is bold, but O’Farrell has a fine instinct for how to pull apparently disconnected events into a compelling, a coherent narrative which enriches the emotional currents of the story and the characters caught up in it. For, in this episodic approach, she mirrors the thought processes, the jump-shot cinema of our mind and memory, most clearly evinced in dream. The power of dream, often to mystify, sometimes to explain, always to beguile. This is O’Farrell’s chosen way and it is deliciously seductive. She weaves a story punctuated by What next? Where to now? How did that happen?

Occasionally she teases the reader by introducing a character who has no obvious place in the narrative so far but, in the course of unfolding her, or his, story, the connection is made. It is, perhaps, a way of avoiding a sequential plod, to interrupt the flow as a way of saying that this is how our moods run, this is the lurch of our thinking from what we think we know to what puzzles us, to the sudden certainties, which may appear to be too late…except that they may prove not to be too late. This is the charm of the O’Farrell novel: the piecing together of the story rather than the simple narrative line. Perhaps not to all tastes. As a friend of mine said, not a book to read in bed at the end of a tiring day. You need to be alert.

Her plots are close-woven, the forward drive of the story irresistibly powerful, in part because she manages to keep so many secrets hidden in the course of balancing the tug of the various strands she has spun to lead us on.

This is as far as I’ll go. I’ll give nothing away because it would do O’Farrell a grave disservice to dwell on the structure of the novels, even to hint at what happens. No spoilers and I add a plea: never read the blurbs of these novels. (In fact, I would extend that plea to any blurb. Go in unapprised, surrender to the writer.)

The great virtues of her writing - the skippy fluency of her prose, the colour of her language, the accuracy of her descriptions - embrace the emotional heat and the veracity of her insights. She knows the mind and heart, she writes without flinching from the uncomfortable aspects of human relationships, she is willing to prod and poke the wounds inflicted by love as well as to evoke the glorious surge of passion and the oddities of attraction. Nothing soft, often very tough, both her men and her women, in their yielding, their courage.

She’s particularly sensitive to the intensity and irrationality of first love and how it shapes its own reason. Thence, how, in the maturing of a relationship, the peculiar rationale melds with the practical into a more diverse – perhaps problematic – depth of mutual sympathy and, perhaps, failure of sympathy.

It was reading After You’d Gone that prompted me to this review. At that point, I’d read all her novels bar The Distance Between Us (having been completely hooked by the first I read, The Hand That Once Held Mine.) That final novel I reserved jealously, like a kid hoarding chocolate for a feast to look forward to. And now…the feast is eaten. Damn.

After You’d Gone is a work of sumptuous gift, beguiling and very moving. The final section explodes in consummate drama. I gasped when the novel hit the buffer of the final full stop. And I began to urge people to ‘read this book’ just as a friend had urged me to read The Hand That Once Held Mine.

Maggie O'Farrell's novels are published by Tinder Press.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Adèle Geras: THE ACCIDENT ON THE A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The first novel I read by Graeme Macrae Burnet was His Bloody Project, which I thought was wonderful. A historical novel, a thriller, in a Scottish 18th century setting with several entirely beguiling narrative voices making up a story which was both brutal and also touching in many ways. Above all, this book did what I love books to do: it created a world. By the time you reached the end, you knew exactly what living in a Scottish croft was like: who your neighbours were, what the landscape looked like, how your days would unfold.

His next book, The Disappearance of Adèle Bédeau, is set in Saint Louis, a small town near Strasbourg. I was attracted to the name for obvious reasons but when I read it I was bowled over by the versatility of this writer who could move between Scotland and France with such ease; who could conjure up an urban landscape as well as a rural one. The Disappearance introduces us to a detective called Georges Gorski, with his snobbish wife Céline and his teenage daughter, Clémence. While I was reading it, I kept on thinking: this is like Simenon: simply told, not terribly dramatic or violent. A quiet book with things going on under the surface. When I reached the end, and the author's 'revelation' that the book was a translation from the French, I was full of admiration...a twist in the tail/tale that took me by surprise and delighted me with its cleverness. Burnet had invented a writer called Raymond Brunet....and it's Brunet's novel he's translating. As he says, in the post script to The Disappearance, quoting from Simenon: Everything is true but nothing is accurate.

I went back to read the Translator's Note on the first Gorski novel, and its full cleverness is only revealed when you open The Accident on the A 35. For this novel describes what happens when Raymond Brunet's father dies in a car accident. The first Gorski novel foreshadows the second almost entirely. It's very clever. Graeme the Scottish writer is counting on a couple of years dulling the memories of all but his most careful readers, and indeed, I'd forgotten the details of this amazing dovetailing of the two books.

Two Raymond Brunet novels, we're told, have come into the possession of the writer. This one describes, very carefully and in enormous detail, what happened when his father died. It's Raymond Brunet who is the model for Raymond Barthelme, the teenager in the novel we're reading. Gorski's wife has left him for the moment and the question of whether the two will be reunited is almost as gripping as the mystery.

And there is a mystery to which we seek an answer. In fact, there is more than one and we are with Georges, trying to get to the bottom of where a rich lawyer was when he said he was meeting with his colleagues and friends in order to discover whether the accident is truly accidental. His son also wants to find out what his father was really up to. We follow them both. Gorski has a drink problem. We spend a lot of time hanging round cafés and bars. The boy is a prototypical disaffected French teenager: all existential angst with a strong whiff of 'je m'en fou-tism". Everyone that Georges and Raymond meet along the way is beautifully described. You can see/hear/smell every single one of them. The answers to the mysteries are both satisfying and (to me) surprising me, though I have to say I'm not terribly good and guessing things in books and perhaps I ought to have seen at least one shock coming.

Saint Louis is a dull little town. Nothing much happens. If you want sensation and thrills and rushes of dramatic action, this is not the book for you. But if you want to mooch along drab French streets and smell the coffee and the brandy and meet the denizens of the establishments where Gorski drinks and passes most of his time, then you'll love this, as I did. There's another Brunet novel in the pipeline. I for one can't wait.

The Accident on the A35 is published by Contraband.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Guest review by Penny Dolan: THE COLD COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty

Penny Dolan works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on the History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and also on The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see

The Cold Cold Ground  is the first in a series of crime thrillers set in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. McKinty grew up in Carrickfergus, so his segregated estates, damaged buildings, industrial wastelands and lonely roads are bleakly believable. Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, his main character, even “lives” in the same council house that was McKinty’s home. Throughout the book, incidents remind the reader how angry and painful life was during the Troubles, less than thirty years ago.

The plot mixes moments of sharp fact and social realism with dramatic action. For example, so far, through the novel, Duffy has routinely checked under his car before driving away. Now, mid-story, he’s driving away from a gang of armed, drugged teenage thugs, and had no time to look.

“My knuckles were white. The downslope was coming up ... The reason the IRA use mercury tilt switches is that they only work when the mercury establishes contact on an incline or decline . . . thus it could stay safe under a car for days or even weeks ... As soon as it was driven, however, you’d eventually encounter a hill.”

Here Duffy investigates two cases: a weird double murder by a homophobic serial killer who is eager for publicity, and the apparent suicide of the ex-wife of a prisoner now on hunger strike in the Maze. As in all the Duffy books, these apparently unconnected crimes lead him deep into greater conspiracies.

Duffy is a great character: a university-educated Catholic working in the Protestant Royal Ulster Police Force. He is a compelling, cynical, street-wise hero who looks beyond accepted explanations for crimes, acts impulsively, and comes into conflict with criminals, corrupt officials and police budget restrictions. Nevertheless, among his team, there is a great sense of camaraderie: his officers, like the reader, recognise Duffy’s determination, care and courage.

Duffy’s life-style is, naturally, troublesome. He enjoys vodka gimlets in pint glasses, music and recreational drug use and is a soft touch for more than one friendly woman. His literary quotations and philosophical references can sometime feel overwritten but this is not a great problem when you can also enjoy the pace of the storytelling.

The plot’s complexity is sharpened by the everyday observations of the narrator. Through Duffy’s eyes, we experience the daily pressures of the province: the IRA bombing campaigns and road blocks; the ordinary lives worn down by riots and strikes, the antagonism between police and the British army. We see how, in a time of unemployment, both factions keep “their” local economy running through organised drug-running, EU meat parcels handed out to supporters or protection rackets.

McKinty also points out the growing media indifference: Duffy, searching the papers for important item about Northern Ireland, notes that the editions are filled with Lady Di’s wedding plans and the Yorkshire Ripper. Items about Northern Ireland are, usually, hidden several pages down, reminding the reader that media “weariness” with long-term problems is an ongoing issue.

While McKinty’s fiction seems very realistic, his story edges into dramatically complex areas. His plots often include small “walk-on parts” for real-life characters. For example, within The Cold Cold Ground  Duffy phones and meets up with Gerry Adams, while another character echoes the infamous IRA informer Stakeknife. Such real-or-not moments made me shiver a little, partly for the well-being of the author, who now lives in Australia.

As for the writing, The Cold Cold Ground  is a fast-paced crime-noir thriller: a genre rather than a literary novel. The prose contains tough language, violent sequences, sex scenes and dangerous driving. Even so, McKinty’s writing has a way of slipping between staccato sentences and lyrical description. Here’s his opening passage:

“The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife. And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain.”

I read about McKinty’s Duffy series last year. Bookwitch, on her well-established blog, was sharing her delight about the forthcoming Duffy title. Thank you, Bookwitch! Being curious, I ordered The Cold Cold Ground  from my local bookshop, enjoyed it tremendously and have now finished McKinty’s sixth and possibly last Duffy title.

Finally, I have a too-topical reason for choosing The Cold Cold Ground.  The book may be gritty escapism but it is impossible to read this story, or the series, without worries about Brexit, the current Irish border and the uneasy political situation creeping into the back of one’s mind. The dark world shown within McKinty’s thrillers really makes one hope that the Irish Peace Process - and the people either side of that border – will not be ignored or forgotten by those in power now.

The Cold Cold Ground is published by Serpent's Tail.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Guest Anthony McGowan on writing THE ART OF FAILING: Notes from the Underdog

Anthony McGowan was born in Manchester, brought up in Leeds, and lives in London. He is the author of two adult thrillers, and seven award-winning young adult novels: Hellbent, Henry Tumour, The Knife That Killed Me, The Fall, Brock, Hello Darkness, Pike and, most recently, Rook. His books for younger children include The Bare Bum Gang series, Einstein’s Underpants, Leopard Adventure, and The Donut Diaries of Dermot Milligan. His humorous memoir, The Art of Failing, was published by Oneworld in September 2017. Everybody Hurts, a YA novel written with Joanna Nadin, also came out in 2017, and has, along with Rook, been nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

My latest book, The Art of Failing, is an odd fish. Or perhaps more a Chimera, that mythical monstrosity made up of more or less random parts collected from other animals. Part memoir, part journal, part essay collection, with a few scraps of light verse (could anything be more out of fashion?), with meditations, ruminations, complaints, jokes, puzzled reflections, whimsical digressions, it seems rambling, but there is a narrative of sorts concealed in there for those who have the patience to look.

It’s not quite right to say that The Art of Failing is my Facebook book, ie my old Facebook posts, tarted up, and offered to the world as an original work of art. Not quite correct, but not absolutely false, either. I signed up for Facebook towards the end of 2007. I can’t recall why – just a whim, I guess, blown along by the fact it was free. For a couple of years, I didn’t do much with it. The same with Twitter. I was on social media in the most nominal and passive way. I was there because people told me I should be.

And then I got stuck in Washington during the 2010 ash cloud. I recorded the experience on Facebook, accentuating various indignities – getting caught by room service washing my underpants in the hotel sink, that sort of thing. I discovered that I’d invented a persona – me and yet not me. Incompetent in the small things of life, ponderous, accident prone, neurotic, a little obsessive. Funny, too, I hoped. I found it was a voice that was very easy to write in. Perhaps because it was both me and not me – close enough for the act of writing to be organic, rather than fake, but far enough away for me to be able to go into areas I’d have turned away from if the ‘I’ had been more straightforwardly me.

I found that people enjoyed these posts, and so I continued with this ‘character’ after I returned. Facebook is, of course, collaborative and responsive – this was like having a live audience, and I soon found what sort of stories worked – in the sense of garnering ‘likes’ (my humiliations, occasional moments of poetic revelation, more stuff about my trouser-based catastrophes) and what didn’t (anything about cricket, my bitter attacks on more successful writers, my exultant crowing over small scale victories).

But there were other things going on as well – other, I mean, than my attempt to amuse the passing Facebook trade. One of my main goals was to show that ‘ordinary’, everyday life was full of drama and strangeness, that a fascination could be found in the junk and dreck that lies around us, that ordinary people – the characters I encountered every day on the streets of West Hampstead – were worthy of a kind of anthropological study. Just as van Leeuwenhoek made us see fleas and pinheads and water droplets in a new way, discovering in them the bizarrely beautiful, I thought I could turn my gaze on the mundane and make it … well, less mundane.

Almost from the start I thought that there might be something here I could turn into a book. Or at least that the Facebook posts themselves were a sort of literary or artistic production. Not simply a record of my life, but a thing that might have a wider interest or significance. My goal came to subtly change. Could I say something important about life in the 21st Century? Could I give the reader the sense of what it feels like to be me – both a particular human being living in a humdrum London suburb, and a universal type?

So I took my Facebook posts (more than half a million words), printed them out as a massive Word document, and had a look to see what was there. Much of it was dross. Perhaps a third was of only passing interest. But the rest had … something. My wife – always my staunchest critic, the Penicillin to the rampant bacillus of my ego was, despite her best efforts, impressed. I suppose it may have helped that she’s a major character – the dreaded Mrs McG of the text. Mrs McG is terrible, but beautiful. And who wouldn’t settle for that?

But the text still needed a lot of work. I slashed it further, and I wrote and rewrote, expanding it as much as I cut. Finally, it was ready, I thought, for my agent.

She hated it.

She said it would ruin my career, and damage hers. She suggested that the whole of publishing and possibly Western Civilization was in jeopardy, should it see the light of day.

This was a blow. She was, without doubt, one of the finest and most powerful agents in the children’s book world, but beyond that, I loved her, and she’d been great for me over the years. But I’d gone this far, and there was no turning back. My friend Charlie Campbell took me on, helped to further refine the text, and finally hand-sold it, talking the ears off anyone who’d meet him. It was a brilliant piece of agenting – he sold the unsellable. He was greatly aided by a very kind quote from Nick Hornby – someone I knew only through Facebook. Without his sweet words, it might never have got the few minutes' attention every book needs, if it’s to squirm its way out of the slushpile.

In the end the book went to Oneworld – a wonderful indie, riding high on the back of consecutive Booker wins. My editor at Oneworld, Sam Carter, was fantastically committed to the project, and gave the manuscript the best editing I’ve ever had.

And now it’s out, a thing in the world. It means more to me than any book since my first, back in the early noughties. It’s always impossible to know, as a writer, what people really think of your books. People are kind. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They might want you to review their book generously next year. But I’ve genuinely felt that those few people who have read it have derived amusement from it. Maybe more.

Several people have pointed out the paradoxical fate that awaits the book. If it’s successful, then it refutes the theme. If it fails, it triumphantly confirms its own prophecy. Really, I can’t lose. Or win.

The Art of Failing is published by Oneworld.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Guest review by Rachel Ward: crime round-up

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her first book for adults, The Cost of Living, is a cosy crime story set in and around a supermarket, recently published by Sandstone Press. Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs.
Twitter: @RachelWardbooks  Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

Over the last couple of years, I’ve pretty much only read crime. There’s something comforting about having a puzzle set at the beginning of a book and knowing that there will be some sort of resolution by the end, however dark the story. Here’s a round up of the books I’ve been reading. My tastes are fairly mainstream and I don’t like very violent or disturbing books, but I’ve picked up some more unusual books and recommendations at Bristol CrimeFest for the past two years.

Ann Cleeves – the Shetland and Vera Stanhope books. I was led into these by the television adaptations. Vera started off as my favourite, but the Shetland books now have an equal place in my estimation. Cleeves creates believable characters, whose own story arcs develop slowly and convincingly through each series. I actively look forward to each new book from her.

Ian Rankin – I’ve dipped in and out of the Rebus books, alas not reading
them in order. No introduction needed from me, but I did see Rankin speak at Bristol Crimefest in 2016. He was treated like a rock star by the audience and who could really complain about that? He writes cracking books.

Elly Griffiths – I first bought two Stephens and Mephisto books (The Zig Zag Girl, Smoke and Mirrors) at Bristol CrimeFest after several panels recommended her. I enjoy the setting of Brighton shortly after WW2, and the police/theatrical ‘mash up’. Next up, I’m going to try the first of her Dr Ruth Galloway books, The Crossing Places.

Jorn Lier Horst – Horst is a stablemate at Sandstone Publishing. I only needed to try one of his William Wisting books to be hooked and am happily reading all the novels so far translated from Norwegian (When It Grows Dark, Dregs, Closed for Winter). They are conventional detective stories, given an extra twist of realism from Horst’s previous career as an investigator in the Norwegian police.

Ragnar Jonasson – there was a real buzz on Twitter about Jonasson and I saw him speak at CrimeFest in 2016. His Dark Iceland books are very readable. I particularly enjoy the setting – an isolated settlement, Siglufjordur – and the relative youth of his main character, Ari Thor Arason.

Henning Mankell – the Wallander books are among my favourites and I’ve enjoyed the Swedish and English TV adaptations. I haven’t read all the books yet as I am deliberately rationing them, to eke out the enjoyment. For some reason I find these particularly scary, I’m not sure why. It may be that sometimes Mankell switches to the killer’s point of view, which ratchets up the tension for me. I was very sad to hear of Mankell’s death in 2015. A great loss.

James Runcie –  the Granchester books are lighter in tone than the television adaption, with more humour and a good dollop of philosophy thrown in.

WHS McIntyre - from another stablemate at Sandstone, the Best Defence series is fast-paced and witty. It took me a while to get used to McIntyre’s wisecracking style but once I ‘got’ it, I really enjoyed Good News, Bad News and the plotting was very neatly done and satisfying.

Donald Westlake, Drowned Hopes – I started reading this out loud to my husband when he first came home from hospital. We ran out of steam but I think we’ll try again this winter as it was a brilliant set up.

Cass Green, In a Cottage In a Wood – Being a timid soul, this is at my limit for scary and twisty, but I really enjoyed it. It’s brilliantly plotted and a real page-turner, with very believable, recognisable characters – it hooks you in and doesn’t let you go.

CJ Skuse, Sweet Pea – This is a no-holds-barred, sexy, violent, rollercoaster of a book, recommended for those without a nervous disposition. I’ve seen it described as  Dexter meets Bridget Jones’ Diary and that’s about right … and then some.

Fleur Hitchcock - I must mention crime for younger readers. Hitchcock is a great storyteller and I really enjoyed Murder in Midwinter, which was shortlisted for an award at CrimeFest 2017. It's a genuinely exciting book for children of 11+ (?), or for much older readers, like me.

I’m always looking for new reads, especially series. If you have recommendations for crime reading, do let me know.

(Ann Cleeve's COLD EARTH was the choice of guest reviewer Jocelyn Ferguson. "Fans of Ann Cleeves have come to expect a compelling narrative, a powerful sense of place and atmosphere, acute characterisation and pared back prose, and with Cold Earth, her seventh novel in the Shetland series, she does not disappoint." Read the full review here. )

Monday, 30 October 2017

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: TANGLEWEED AND BRINE by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughn

Yvonne is currently a Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund and an Associate Fellow of Writing Project, which provides training in clear, respectful written communications with a human touch to commercial, public service and charity organisations. Her publications include Bully, Not Dressed Like That, You Don't and (with Linda Newbery) Writing Children's Fiction: a Writers' and Artists' Companion. See more on her website. 

There are so many fairy stories in the world. I have shelves full of them: traditional, ancient and modern; stories for babies, young children, teenagers, adults. Many are retellings with a new slant: political, feminist, satirical, humorous, therapeutic, dark, dumbed-down. Not to mention the critical commentaries, the analysis of form and formula, the exploration and explanation of human cognitive development, of why we need these tales.

All these I have loved. But I haven’t often been surprised or entranced since discovering Angela Carter. And now comes Tangleweed and Brine. It’s marketed as a Young Adult book for readers aged 15+ (Sullivan is an award winning author in this category). This only proves the idiocy of the book world’s prevailing fish-or-fowl determination to categorise and constrain. I hope this book finds its way across the divide.

Thirteen traditional tales from Grimm and Perrault are retold from the viewpoint of the female characters. Karen Vaughan’s moody black and white illustrations capture the spirit of the stories: subversive and dark; aching with loss and longing and a backbeat of anger.

You were a friendless child, a barrel chested, sturdy little thing who played alone. Who looked up through the branches seeking nests, needing something kinder than human…

You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft things small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sullivan digs right down into the character’s heart and soul, bringing the shadows of personal history into the light and challenging the reader’s preconceptions. Sometimes, I didn’t even recognise the original story until it was almost over (a tip: don’t read the contents page, just dive in.) Tangleweed and Brine is a lyrical beauty of a book. Leave plenty of time to savour each story, to let it sink in, before tackling the next. Let the women who have so often been portrayed as the small, white defenceless things reveal their secret power and the determination to pull themselves free:

Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spreads wide and you have flown, you’ve flown. The shape of you impressed in attic cloth is all that’s left. You wonder how long it will take for them to notice. It is an idle thought. You don’t care.

- inspirational, poetic and beautiful, though maybe not a bedtime read.

Tangleweed and Brine is published by Little Island.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: DEAD BABIES AND SEASIDE TOWNS by Alice Jolly

Cindy Jefferies has been writing for for various publishers since 2001, with her Fame School titles being continually in print for over ten years, and translated into 16 languages. In 2016 she was invited to be artistic director of the children’s part of the inaugural Stroud Book Festival in Gloucestershire. Out of that came the idea for a children’s festival, of which she is joint co-ordinator with Rick Vick. She lives in Stroud, and splits her time between writing, festival work, refugee aid and looking after her young granddaughter. She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Scattered Authors' Society. Apart from enjoying a glass of wine with friends she likes parking her mini camper van on the land she owns with her sisters, having a brew-up and enjoying the wildlife.

Profoundly moving, this memoir begins with a traumatic pregnancy and tragic stillbirth. But as Alice Jolly tells us, she has never had much time for the me, me, me, of memoir. This award-winning book, published by Unbound and winner of both the V S Pritchett Award and the PEN Ackerley Award, is many things. It manages to be uplifting and controversial, occasionally funny as well as tragic, and asks at least as many questions as it gives answers.

What is it that drives us on, as human beings? That is the question that remained in my mind when I finished the book. The simple answer is the desire to succeed, but when does that become unreasonable, or foolish? When is it admirable, understandable? Alice Jolly retreated to one seaside town or another, places she describes as the “ultimate act of defiance,” to recuperate between miscarriages. At one point she likens herself and her husband to gamblers. “We have become like gamblers who have lost so much that only a win can save them. Good money after bad.” She tries hard to come to terms with the situation. Unlike so many, they already have one healthy child. Surely they should be happy with that? Perhaps only those who have suffered the loss of a stillborn child will understand, or maybe no one can ever really, at the deepest level, understand what drives another.

At its simplest, this book is about a woman who refuses to accept that her family is complete. But it is also about money. With money, so much more is possible. IVF, donor eggs, adoption, surrogacy. Do these possibilities ameliorate the situation, or make it worse? Other questions arise. Morality, the law, mental health, the impact on others. This is a personal story, but it is also more than that, and I think, an important book. It is, too, beautifully written, honest, and without self pity. I shied away from reading it for a long time because I thought I would find it too emotionally difficult. When I found the courage, my fear was totally unfounded. Not only did the language draw me in, it is also just so darned interesting.

Jolly’s ability to write about tragedy without making it tragic is extraordinary. By managing somehow to stand a little outside her experience she shields the reader, without compromising the truth. This is, perhaps, the writer’s detachment Leonard Woolf describes so well in his autobiography, World Within World. However arrived at, the treatment serves this book exceptionally well. There are thoughts, too about how to process difficulties, and the role of emotional authenticity. Nowadays, “Everybody has to be allowed to feel what they feel, express, process…..But now I begin to realise that there may be events too big to process. Sometimes the only way to survive is to get up and walk on without looking back.”

Alice Jolly surrounds her story with place and time, with just enough detail to make us feel the seasons and years as they pass. Brussels, London and Stroud are all places that have been called home, while the coast is not somewhere to live, but a place to retreat to from time to time. And there is the beautiful house up high in the Cotswolds: a house so draughty that the heating is pointless. The house takes time and energy and emotion while it is renovated, but at last it is beautifully restored, and contains a family that eventually, touchingly, feels complete.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is published by Unbound.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CARNIVORE by Jonathan Lyon

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor, having spent 20 years in-house in publishing. He works with writers through the Writers Workshop, the Arvon foundation and as private clients. For commercial publishers he specialises in books for early readers and crime and thrillers for adults. In 2016, he self-published his debut novel, Ready to Love, which is currently in production as an audio book. Follow him on twitter @appletonsbooks

Just over halfway through Jonathan Lyon’s debut novel, there’s a passage that’s both visceral and heartbreaking but to share it almost screams ‘spoiler alert!’ But since this dazzling novel will have played with your expectations of what it’s about long before you reach this point, I think it’s a permissible tiny spoiler, so I’ll share a little text here:

"I’m not invulnerable, I’m not some supervillain beyond conscience who toys with wills for sport. I’m lonely. I’m still a boy, Francis. I’m a – a boy with a wasting body. I’m not a carnivore – or, I am but it’s because I was made one – a carnivore of circumstance – anaemic, fiending and predatory, but without a predator’s power to choose."

There you have it – the carnivore of the title is Leander, our narrator, a man in his twenties who has long endured chronic fatigue syndrome, an invisible but debilitating illness which he keeps from the people closest to him, including the boy he quite probably loves.

There’s so much Leander cannot control about his life – the pain, namely – so where he can he continually dissembles – he has invented his own identity and history. Constantly, he shifts the boundaries between himself and other people. But he is not invulnerable, nor is he entirely disregarding of others. He is not immune to the consequences of his actions. Drugs don’t help his illness but they alter states for him and lead him to heightened pleasure but also deep depravity.

Drugs and sex immerse him in an underworld of crime and corruption which lends the book it thriller aspect. To simplify the plot: the story becomes an exciting, page-turning chase across the vividly rendered dirty streets of south London to capture one man who has kidnapped another. (London emerges as another carnivore character – a city literally eating itself.)

It’s a playful book by its very structure – it’s divided into acts, and part of the action involves the creation of a film (which provides a lot of humour) as well as the filming of sex tapes which will disturb many readers and offend some. But everything, wherever it occurs on the spectrum between pleasure and pain is a performance, as we are constantly, delightfully reminded: people are directed and controlled, deftly manoeuvred by a talented writer in control of his material.

Carnivore succeeds entirely in being several books at once: an urban fairy tale, a literary thriller, a story about telling stories (Leander describes himself as a ‘master of fictions’), a comedy (you could even call it a farce), a tale of self-destruction.

Don’t be deterred if you think it all sounds a bit meta. Then again, surely we’re better than ever at coping with that kind of writing because there’s much more of it about in the mainstream? Many of Lyon’s ideas about truth and reality will be familiar to you. Here’s an example: ‘Stories that aren’t biographically true can still be true – if they reveal something about the teller’s psychology … a lie, as an evasion or a complication, is still a revelation of character – it’s a slanted truth.’ What I loved about Carnivore is that these ideas, however erudite or lofty or whatever are mired in the physical. You never forget that Leander is suffering. It grounds the reader. You emerge from the book feeling wrung out, knowing it was a physical experience.

It’s an entertainment but one, I’m sure, its author hopes readers will emerge from with a keener understanding of what it’s like to live in a state of chronic pain. And we do.

Carnivore is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Guest review by Andrew Fusek Peters: CORDUROY by Adrian Bell

Andrew Fusek Peters is a poet, author and conservation photographer. His poems have been recordeded for the Poetry Archive. His books include Dip, Wilderland and Upland. See more on his website. 

I am currently re-reading Corduroy after a four-year gap. This time, I am using it as my country meditation before bed – sometimes ploughing through only a few pages before my heart sinks into a peaceful ease. This edition is a Slightly Foxed re-release of a classic nature writing adventure first published in 1930. The author, Adrian Bell (father of Martin) seemed to have two yearnings when young. He wanted to be a writer and, as a Londoner, he also wanted to escape the city ‘flying from the threat of an office life’ to delve deeply into the countryside of his dreams.

As an author and nature writer who left London at eighteen and finally married a Shropshire lass, it could be said I identify slightly! John Clare and to an extent Edward Thomas immersed themselves deeply in hill, field and forest. Theirs is the poetry of the insider looking out, so at one with nature that sometimes it is hard to separate the poet from the landscape. But Adrian Bell brought something different to the table. He was keenly aware from the get-go of his outsider-ness, his difference, his outdoor city boots sniffed at by his host Mr Colville, knowing that London leather will only survive a short while through the farming calendar.

Adrian pleaded with his father that his life ‘should be something in the open air’ - be careful what you pray for. As a paying guest, he began an utterly new life on the Colville farm. Even at that first meal of boiled batter pudding and roast pheasants, when contentment strikes it is tempered by ‘seeing myself in the wide looking-glass of the sideboard’ where he was not ‘large and rosy like the rest’ but ‘pale and thin, sitting like a ghost among them’.

This could have been an inauspicious start. The middle-class Londoner is properly a fish out of water. But Adrian had three great assets on his side – a wonderful thirst to learn alongside the willingness to work to a totally different timetable from the dawdling hours in suburban drawing rooms, and lastly, an attitude of respect for the people that still come to life in these pages. He did not play the outsider as a role, it was simply that the A-Z of farming life needed careful study, to which he applied himself henceforth, and on and off for the rest of his life.

Adrian was changed utterly by his experience. When he returned to town he ‘re-entered a world of nervous significances, where the very furniture was a complex language’. To his former friends, he is an amuse-bouche - or as he put it ‘a character part.’ Yet it is his willingness to embrace difference, to play his part as visitor or urban refugee that warms the text through and through.

‘Children gathered here also, and gazed upon the wonder of the fire, awed into silence as the sparks flew high, and an occasional passer-by paused and warmed his hands, exchanging some item of local news with the blacksmith. For in winter, the forge was a meeting-place second only to the inn, I discovered.

"I suppose these have made a difference to your trade," I said as a motor went by.

"Yes, they don’t need the kind of shoes I make," he replied. "There’s no hackneys kept today, no carriage horses; that’s how we’re hit…"'

This is the role Adrian played best, moving beyond mere nostalgia to a lament of modernisation. The book is full of tales of ancient squires and the last miller who worked the windmill, greasing the gears with tallow candles. By 1920, the world of humans was already in flux. One war over, another to begin, where it was known that many soldiers took Corduroy with them to remind them of the life left behind.

And I too catch glimpses in my second life as a conservation photographer, gradually getting to know some of the farmers and walking their land – being invited in for tea and biccies while we discuss curlews and the rare sightings of the leucistic white kite. Adrian is a good role model in his affection for the land and its people. He is a chronicler of a different age now falling into second hand echoes. My wife’s grandmother, when she was alive, told me how she remembered the coming of electricity to the Forest of Dean at the same time this book was written, when there were still carriages drawn by horse.

I leave Adrian, who went on to write twenty further books on the countryside, with the last word:

‘I had this pleasure of catching in the cloistral gloom of cowshed or stable those gleam-lit attitudes of strength and patience which the old painters turned into religious masterpieces.’

Corduroy is published by Faber.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Guest review by Miriam Moss: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter

Miriam is an award-winning writer of fiction - short stories, novels and picture books. She grew up in Africa, China and the Middle East before living in England. After graduating, she taught English until the arrival of her first child, when she began writing.

Her latest short story, Salvage, is published in the Fish Anthology 2017, and her novel, Girl on a Plane, a fictionalised account of a real life hijacking experienced while travelling alone in the Middle East aged 15, is published by Andersen/ Penguin Random House. Her next novel is set in Africa.

She has published many picture books, including Matty takes Off (Andersen), Bare Bear (Hodder), Wibble Wobble (Orchard), I Forgot to Say I Love You! (Macmillan) and Bad Hare Day (Bloomsbury). Her latest is Dr Molly’s Medicine Chest (Walker).

Miriam lives in Lewes, Sussex, has three grown up children and works in a converted triangular potting shed in the garden. See more on her website.

Behind the Emily Dickinson–derived title – her poem is called Hope is the Thing with Feathers - is a short, finely crafted prose poem. The wonderfully compact, moving narrative is a meditation on grief, but it’s also a surprisingly funny book, as well as a clever and highly original read.

A mother has died suddenly, leaving a grieving writer. the father of two young sons, bereft and in disarray. The father, who attempts to come to terms with his wife’s death, is writing a book about Ted Hughes (called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis) when, one night, a huge crow bursts through the door of their London flat.

Crow, the mythic creature from Ted Hughes’ poetry, is a trickster, a philosopher of death and rebirth, who intends to stay, and he joins Dad and Boys in a trio of alternating voices, full of energy and unpredictability.

Crow, who has elements of the shaman, describes himself as ‘ … friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.’ His relationship to the father is as chaotic and unpredictable as grief itself. He’s protective, predatory - and then suddenly sensuous: ‘I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him.’

Though the book’s emotional landscape is desolate, there’s plenty of black humour that playfully derails the reader’s expectations. The writing shifts from tragic to uplifting, from Crow’s mocking hilarity to the awful sorrow of the father and the heart-wrenching sadness of the two boys.

The domestic landscape is never far off. Grief, we are told, needs time to heal, but from the father the boys have other more ordinary needs: ‘washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows’.

The mother, whose life has been cut cruelly short, is evoked by the details of how she lived: ‘She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus)./She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)./And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ And it is only at Crow’s leave-taking that we hear how she died. ‘Accident in the home./She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell,/Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.’

Together, Crow and Dad work through his grief, and, during the final session, they look back: ‘You’ll remember with some of my early work with you,’ Crow says, ‘that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery.’

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story also becomes a meditation on the difficulty of writing. Porter, at one point, advises that the only way to write, in this case about love and loss, is ... to begin.

Summary: Grief is as unique as you are.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is published by Faber.  

Monday, 25 September 2017

Guest post by Patricia Elliott - THE CRIME WRITER by Jill Dawson

Patricia Elliott is the author of nine novels for children and young adults. She was lucky enough to win the Fidler Award for her first, The Ice Boy, and since then has been short-listed for many other awards (however, to date, never again winning first prize!) She has written in most genres – fantasy, historical, mystery -  but settings are particularly important to her and Suffolk, where she lives, has featured in several of her novels, including her Victorian Gothic YA, The Devil in the Corner. Her last two novels were Middle Grade mysteries set in the Edwardian period and featuring twelve-year old would-be anthropologist, Connie Carew: The House of Eyes and The Ship of Spectres. She is currently writing a fantasy set on the Suffolk coast. 

Patricia Highsmith, whom Graham Greene called 'the poet of apprehension', is the protagonist of this clever, beautifully written novel, a successful combination of fact and fiction that is sometimes blackly comic yet always gripping. Jill Dawson has imagined Highsmith as the protagonist in her own murder story, and, like the characters in her novels, suffering the same feelings of guilt and terror after the act.

I chose this novel to review because as a young teenager I was mesmerised by Patricia Highsmith's novels. Gloriously dark and menacing, with protagonists that seemed trapped in tragedies that had befallen them through one bad move that then led on, inexorably, to a chain of events they were almost helpless to avoid and yet, in a strange, inexplicable way, encouraged, as if they were playing a mad game, struck a resonance with me. At that age I had decided you could not escape Fate. It lay in wait for you and probably not in a good way, but it was fun to tempt it and see what happened.

The Crime Writer is set in Suffolk, where I live now, not far from the village of Earl Soham where Patricia Highsmith, then in her early forties, came for a period in 1964. She also walked the streets of Aldeburgh, which I know well, with her close friend Ronald Blythe (author of the acclaimed Akenfield), and her irritable ghost roams still, I sense, brushing past the holiday crowds and up to the lonely, squat presence of the Martello tower brooding over the cold North Sea, where this novel ends.

But back to the beginning.

Patricia Highsmith chose the village of Earl Soham, a 'dull, pleasant place' in the middle of nowhere, precisely for its 'anonymity'. She hoped to escape the trying newspaper reporters who wanted to write about her as an award-winning American crime writer, a label Pat (as she was known) despised. As she would patiently explain, there was little detection or description of police procedure in her books. She preferred them to be seen as suspense novels. It is true that the murders in her novels are less significant than the pursuit afterwards and the guilt suffered by the murderer: the chase and punishment rather than the crime itself. Her sympathy – and thus the reader's – is for the murderer rather than the victim. The murders are often committed with little thought, as if the actual motive comes after the deed is done. 'What interests me most is what goes on in the mind of someone who has killed somebody,' she said. 'Perversion is... my guiding darkness.'

In Earl Soham Pat believed she would find the peace to work on both her new novel and a commissioned non-fiction book on suspense writing. The village was also within relatively easy reach of London and her lover, Sam, the unhappily married wife of the repulsive (to Pat) Gerald. Beautiful Sam, tall, poised, elegant, would visit her for romantic weekends when they would celebrate their secret love in complete privacy.

But in The Crime Writer things do not go as Pat hopes. Hurried calls in the chilly phone box opposite her dank little cottage do not bring Sam as often as Pat desires. Always paranoid about being stalked she becomes convinced someone is following her, perhaps the same person who sends her letters that she leaves unopened. Hallucinations of a grotesque little man and the darting shadow of a mouse haunt her, as well as memories of her troubled, sometimes abusive, childhood. A heavy drinker and smoker, socially awkward, spiky, Pat is a passionate collector of snails, who likes to observe them mating on her window sill (and, indeed, shares some of the creatures' characteristics). Alone, she luxuriates in dark imaginings of committing murder. Those she knows - unloved, even loved - are the victims in her fantasies. Only her dear friend Ronnie (Blythe), always equable and kind, who does not judge her, can lift Pat's moods, though his 'sense of glowing health and cheer' can be exasperating.

Meanwhile, there is the boisterous, puppyish Ginny Smythson-Balby, with her bosoms like 'two juggernauts', seemingly yet another journalist but whose extravagant charms are impossible to resist...

Jill Dawson writes from Pat's point of view, whether in the third person or the first, and which she chooses to use when significant. She completely convinces us that it is Pat's thoughts to which we are privy, though in the first person sections she makes no attempt to pastiche Highsmith's style. Highsmith's was spare, cool, relentless, with an overriding sense of dread; she spent little time on setting. Dawson's style is lyrical, particularly in her description, and immensely sympathetic to her complex, obsessive protagonist, as Pat becomes more and more unable to distinguish between what is real and what is in her head. As in Highsmith's novels, the 'murder' happens early in The Crime Writer; followed by reflection, guilt and the ghastly chain of repercussions, which culminate in another 'murder'. Some of this reflects the plot of A Suspension of Mercy, the novel Pat was writing at the time, set in Suffolk, about a man who fantasises about killing his wife, but Dawson has also used details from other Highsmith novels, in particular Strangers on a Train and Deep Water. Sam herself is modelled on the beautiful, sophisticated lover in The Price of Salt (filmed recently as Carol).

The period detail is excellent: clothes, perfume, the items sold in the village store, the smell inside the phone box, the toiletries in Sam's bathroom, sixties' pubs. And of course the novel is about a writer and includes many insights into what goes on in a writer's mind. As Pat remarks to Ronnie, 'Who isn't to say that the life of the imagination isn't the most valid, the most real...' Something perhaps all writers have felt at times.

The Crime Writer is published by Sceptre.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Guest post by Mary Hoffman: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Mary’s first book, a YA novel, was published in 1975. Since then she has written 120 books, mainly for children and teenagers but lately also a couple of adult novels under pseudonyms. After graduating in English Literature from Cambridge and spending a couple of years studying Linguistics at UCL, Mary wrote courses for the Open University for five years but then went freelance. She recently started The Greystones Press, a small independent publishing house, with her husband. Mary’s books have been translated into 30 language and won some prizes. She runs the popular History Girls blog, which can be read every day. Mary lives in a converted barn in West Oxfordshire with her husband and three demanding Burmese cats. Her three daughters are all grown up: one is a writer, one a theatre producer and the youngest, a designer, is sailing round the world. Mary has four grandchildren and her latest picture book, Pirate Baby, is dedicated to the two on the boat.

A new Anne Tyler novel is always a big event for me. I wait till it is available in paperback and when I saw this one in Oxford Waterstones, as I was buying my holiday stash, I snatched it up with joy. It was only when I opened it in Cornwall that I realised I hadn’t meant to buy this one.

For it is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project that invites top fiction writers to re-tell – or re-imagine rather – one of the plays as a novel. I really didn’t like the concept and, of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew is one of my least favourite, only just above Titus Andronicus.

But, as the quotation from Good Housekeeping says on the back, “a new Anne Tyler book is always a treat,” so I set aside my reservations.

There is a typical Anne Tyler female protagonist. She is usually well into middle age or older, looking back on a life of devotion to a more or less grateful family when something jolts her into a re-evaluation of her life. It might be something as dramatic as a kidnap or as mundane as a walk along the beach but it leads to a major shift in outlook, a desire to do some things differently.

And just as there is often a woman like this, somewhat faded and disappointed in life, there can instead be a male main character, who is finding life something he has to wrestle with. It can be because of bereavement like Aaron, the hero of The Beginner’s Goodbye, whose wife has been killed in freak accident or like Macon in The Accidental Tourist, whose young son has been murdered, though you don’t find that out till the end.

Or he may just be someone who hasn’t quite got the hang of how things work for most people. Tyler males often seem eccentric and obsessive, hovering on the edge of the spectrum.

So I wasn’t sure how frustrated young Katharina and Petruchio, with his exuberant and outlandish behaviour were going to fit into the Tyler mould. I needn’t have worried; she is more than ready for the challenge.

It’s true that her Kate Battista has sleepwalked into finding herself the person who runs the house for her scientist father and ditsy, boy-mad fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. And into a job as a teaching assistant for four-year-olds in a nursery school. But she is only twenty-nine and not yet the faded and frazzled norm for a Tyler heroine.

Her “Petruchio” is Pyotr, her father’s research assistant in his lab, whose three year visa is about to run out. Dr. Battista, whose speciaiism is autoimmunology, feels he is on the verge of a breakthrough that only Pyotr can help him realise. So he hits on the bright idea that his daughter Kate might marry him to get him his green card and enable their research to continue.

This absurd notion is certainly worthy of Shakespeare’s play, though Dr Battista is a much more significant figure than Kate’s father in the Shrew. In fact, he is that male character whose eccentricities about domestic life mark him out as a Tyler creation. He might not arrange his groceries alphabetically like the Learys in The Accidental Tourist but he has devised a ghastly-sounding solution to nurturing his family after his wife’s death: “Meat mash, they called it, but it was mainly dried beans and green vegetables and potatoes, which [Kate} mixed with a small amount of stewed beef every Saturday afternoon and puréed into a sort of grayish paste to be served throughout the week.”

Is it any wonder Kate is “a picky eater” and Bunny tries ineffectually to become a vegetarian? (Actually, this was something I didn’t like about the book: that Bunny’s vegetarianism is sneered at as a passing adolescent phase. I am so tired of novelists taking this line or the other one that we veggies secretly yearn for and scoff bacon butties when we can).

Anyway, amazingly considering Pyotr’s disregard for social niceties and the pressure on Kate to provide him with a new immigration status, she does agree to a marriage blanc. Tyler doesn’t shirk the groom’s inappropriate wedding gear but it and his lateness are explained by a crisis at the lab: the experimental mice have been stolen by animal activists.

She even has a heroic stab at Katharina’s “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” speech so beloved of would be female actors when auditioning for drama school. But this is not entirely successful – how could it be?

“It’s hard being a man,” says Kate to her sister and the assembled company at the wedding reception her aunt has been allowed to give the happy couple, sounding like a mixture of Robert Webb and Matt Haig.

But a touching epilogue told through the eyes of their six-year-old son shows them to have become just that – a happy couple. Only Kate has gone back to college and she and Pyotr have both won scientific prizes. The further away it got from Shakespeare, the more I liked it.

Vinegar Girl is published by Vintage.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Guest review by Paul Magrs: HADDON HALL - WHEN DAVID INVENTED BOWIE by Nejib

Paul Magrs lives and writes in Manchester. In a twenty-odd year writing career he has published novels in every genre from Literary to Gothic Mystery to Science Fiction for adults and young adults. His most recent books are The Martian Girl (Firefly Press), Fellowship of Ink (Snow Books) and The Christmas Box (Obverse Books.) Over the years he has contributed many times to the Doctor Who books and audio series. He has taught Creative Writing at both the University of East Anglia and Manchester Metropolitan University, and now writes full time.

One of the reasons I love graphic novels is that they feel like someone has taken hold of a conventional novel and given it a bloody good shake. All the redundant words and phrases and padding and fluff and – especially – all the descriptions have simply fallen out. Leaving lots of lovely empty space.

In ‘Haddon Hall’ – a fabular, fabulous account of David Bowie’s rise to fame as Ziggy Stardust by French-Tunisian artist, Nejib – there’s lots of that lovely space. The pages are organized less like a traditional comic strip than they are a child’s picture book of the era he’s conjuring. There’s just a touch of the Babapapa books created by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor in this tale of the strange menagerie that Bowie gathered about him in 1970. Both narratives tell of polymorphous and perverse other-worldly beings who live in heterogenous harmony inside a home perfectly attuned to their needs.

The story goes like this: one-hit wonder David and his kooky American wife Angie find a dilapidated Victorian mansion in London where they can live out their fantasy of being bohemian aristocrats, throwing open their doors to other experimental souls. Guitarists, poets and cats come slinking through the massive, messy rooms and there are orgies and dinner parties and music festivals galore. It’s a utopian period that Bowie himself captures so brilliantly in those early records. It’s a strange thing: to have these sketchy, sometimes rudimentary figures evoking the time, place and even the music so beautifully. Dream sequences and drug hazes spiral off the page. Flashbacks drain the pages of colour, as we visit David’s youth and his brother’s first schizophrenic episode. Mostly, though, the pages are drenched in the gorgeous, hot pinks and oranges of a lost era.

There are cameos from other icons: Marc Bolan wanders through, full of envy and ambition, pipping Bowie to the post when it comes to getting onto Top of the Pops. Lennon glides through the tale in his limousine, lecturing Bowie on the awfulness of pop fame and how it conflicts with art (‘Look, David. I was at dinner last night with Stockhausen and Nabokov…’) They sit together by the river and the world about them becomes scratchier and darker as Lennon explains how isolating stardom is. And then, when David gives sanctuary to his troubled brother, he also rescues the equally-doomed Syd Barrett, of Pink Floyd fame. As a Bowieologist I know pointed out – this never actually happened. But that doesn’t matter. It should have happened and this queer reimagining of the past installs poor Syd under David and Angie’s wings for a little while.

Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that the whole story is narrated by the house itself. Haddon Hall has lain neglected for years and it talks to us directly of its delight when this strange young couple first came to look inside its doors. (‘I didn’t understand them, but already I loved them.’) The grand old nineteenth century pile has a final flourishing of life, thanks to the hippies and the glam rockers who come to make all kinds of music and love inside its walls.

The curling, sprawling, art nouveau fronds and vines and petals that scroll through the pages like flowery doodles look just like exotic plants pushing their glorious way inside a derelict building. The most wonderful moment of all comes, perhaps, as David writes his opus, ‘Life on Mars?’ – and has his turning point – slaving over his upright piano, ignoring the stacked-up meals Angie brings him (‘You have to eat, sweetie…’), smoking endless cigarettes as he plonks away. It takes a whole page of repetitious images – a Warholian frieze of tinkering, tinkling Bowies - until he hits his perfect tune and the song finally comes together. Visually this is rendered as more of those wonderful, spiraling plants, emerging from the lid of his piano, blowing trumpeting, blaring colour back to the story. It’s a fantastic moment – and distils the creative process into one gorgeous double page spread.

I’ve made it sound too straightforward and twee, perhaps. There are complications aplenty, and some wonderful moments of darkness. It’s a book about imagining your own kind of life and inventing it around you, but it’s cognisant of the pitfalls. Mad brother Terry is always there – pursued by the horrifying, phantom shapes of his affliction. Angie’s hopeless auditions and sheer lack of natural talent make our hearts go out to her, even as she tries her best to shine. Bowie himself is riven and eaten up with his desire to make a breakthrough both artistic and commercial. He almost despairs; he almost gives up. But he’s resilient and endlessly creative – and that’s what this book celebrates so fantastically. Even the frightening bits – the turbulent flights of fancy and the monochrome doldrums - are worth dragging yourself through.

The book leaves him with a new hairdo (clip, clip clip: Angie chops his locks into a spiky, Heinz-red cut) and on the brink of massive fame. ‘On that day, David was finally avant-garde.’ It will also mean the breaking-up of the happy home, and already the commune’s members are going their own ways. Haddon Hall looks back on relinquishing its magical grip on its inhabitants and the story ends softly, and sweetly, with the narrator knowing that its best years are over, just as its friends’ are about to begin. The realization that your glory years can sometimes be quite short ones – ‘this enchanted interlude in my peaceful life as a house lasted for only two springs’ – is, I think, the most important part of this glittering tale.

Haddon Hall is published by Selfmadehero, 2017

Monday, 4 September 2017

Guest review by Joanna Rossiter: LILA by Marilynne Robinson

Joanna Rossiter grew up in Dorset and studied English at Cambridge University before working as a researcher in Parliament and as a copy writer.

Virginia Woolf's seascapes, Thomas Hardy's Wessex, the moors of the Brontë sisters and the blitzed bombsites of Rose Macaulay have all informed her writing. She is particularly interested in the bonds between people and places.

The Sea Change,  her first novel, was picked by Richard & Judy as part of their 2013 summer book club and was also chosen as the 2014 Bath Literature Festival's Big Bath Read.

She lives and writes in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children and is currently working on her second novel, set on the remotest island on earth.

In one of the very first conversations between the two main characters of Lila, the old preacher remarks after talking about his past that "I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won't. You're right not to talk. It's a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking there's no telling what you'll say."

As with all the best novelists, Robinson has an uncanny ability to distill the theme of her entire story into just a handful of sentences. Lila is a novel that is full of these miniature epiphanies - glimpses of the bigger picture in the book's small details. The light and water and wind that pervade Lila’s experiences of both nature and the towns she passes through are all imbued with symbolism: the river that Lila bathes in outside her drifter’s hut; the cracks of light coming in through the curtains of the St Louis whorehouse, the lanterns hanging in the trees of the revival meeting where Lila is selling apples as a girl. Always laced into these physical details is a sense of the spiritual - or at least an interrogation of their potential symbolism.

Lila herself is constantly questioning the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world and whether or not they overlap. Is there any room for the spiritual when life for Lila is simply a daily struggle to survive? This is a question that never really leaves her even after she is safe and warm with a roof over her head. Water and its ability to make her physically clean and quench her thirst is also the means of her baptism and spiritual rebirth. But this symbolism does not sit easily with Lila; she wrestles with its portent and what it means for her old way of life, which she looks upon with nostalgia as well as hopelessness. She refuses to let her life be reduced into a simple trajectory of sinner turned saint.

Lila is the third novel in Marilynne Robinson's critically acclaimed Gilead trilogy. It follows the story of an orphan drifter who is raised on the run by a woman called Doll and works in a St Louis whorehouse before arriving in the small town of Gilead and unexpectedly marrying the town's preacher.

The concept of a fallen woman made good might appear trite in the hands of a novelist less skilled than Robinson. But, just as Lila's inner life, richly enjoyed by the reader, remains a mystery to the man she marries, the plot's air of simplicity soon gains depth as the novel progresses.

Lila challenges many of her new husband's convictions about the nature of life and death and the notion of a spiritual journey where the old life is left behind for a new clean life. She prefers to see divine wonder and grace interwoven through each of her experiences from her childhood through to the story's present. This is reflected in Robinson's masterful handling of the narrative which weaves together memories from Lila's fraught past with her more comfortable present.

The complexity of human goodness and divine grace is also reflected in the fact that the first person to show her unconditional love is not the preacher but Doll who takes her from a place where nobody answers her cries and raises her as her own child - to Lila there is arguably more divine love in this simple maternal act than all the small Christian kindnesses shown to her in Gilead, which seem contrived in comparison.

Once again it is a physical act of love - that of a woman caring for a child - that provides the starting point for Lila's spiritual questions. Ames, her preacher husband, is happy to muse from the pulpit or on paper - he likes to write letters. But Lila's theology is altogether more physical and internal - rooted in the landscapes and objects around her and in the people she loves. Even her love of the preacher is conveyed more through physical objects than words: the smell of his woolen jumper which she takes to use as a pillow or his garden which she tends.

Her constant conversational refrain of "that's a fact" seems to underline this connection to the physical. And yet Robinson also bestows it on Lila ironically: unlike the preacher, Lila's thought life is composed of questions rather than statements. Since she cannot find answers for even the most fundamental of questions about herself - her real name, the identity of her mother and father - she questions the nature of everything that follows. She experiences the world empirically, only ever asserting as fact the feelings most familiar to her: hunger, distrust, the cold. She is always reluctant to commit herself to words because that would involve revealing the inner life she has guarded so carefully over the years.

The fact that Ames only ever knows his wife in part and it is only the reader who is privy to lila's thoughts perhaps tells us something about Robinson's own philosophy for the novel as a form: to reflect the loneliness of human experience - the fact that no one can ever truly know the thoughts of another, the constant divorce between thought and word, and how the novel can paradoxically in a small way remarry the two to act as windows into the souls of others.

When Ames remarks that the more a story is told the less familiar it feels he is conveying something of this paradox: the novel as an artistic form gives the reader both the impression of closeness to its subjects and yet a sense of distance too - one is, after all, escaping the real world for a set of fictional characters removed from our own experience. For Robinson there seems to be a spiritual truth buried in all this: Lila wrestles with a God who, in spite of people's flawed attempts to make him known, remains mysterious - a God of questions as well as answers.

Lila is published by Virago.