Monday, 24 April 2017

Guest review by Catherine Johnson: THE LONG SONG by Andrea Levy

Catherine Johnson has written many books for young readers, including her most recent, Blade and Bone, the continuing adventures of young surgeon and anatomist Ezra McAdam and his friends first encountered in Sawbones. Blade and Bone finds Ezra in Paris just as the terror begins. Another recent novel, The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, was shortlisted for last year's YA prize. She also writes for TV, film and radio.

One book I return to again and again is Andrea Levy’s masterpiece The Long Song.

It’s not just the central narrative, which breaks your heart more than once, in several ways, it’s the way the different characters frame those narratives. It’s a writers’ book about stories and how we tell them depending on who we are talking to, about how some stories are just too painful to be told and about how changing those stories is sometimes the only power we have.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

It is set across the nineteenth century, mostly in Jamaica although Victorian Hornsey gets a look in. The story of Miss July, born into slavery, fathered by a white overseer, living through the upheaval of the Baptist Wars and eventually becoming free. A woman who gives up her son to a white couple for his own betterment.

In July’s old age, her son, Thomas, returns from his upbringing and education in London to set up a printing press in Kingston. July agrees to set down the story of her life. But as anyone in any family knows, there is always more than one story.

I can imagine you might think – Another slavery narrative! Save me from Twelve Years a Slave or another remake of Roots! And I will nod my head; I could not watch Roots again. But there are a million reasons why you should read this, not including the experience of a time so often overlooked, and histories that are ignored.

Due to limitations of space and time I will outline just two…

Firstly it’s hugely funny. July, our main narrator is very dry and very unreliable. The horrors of how she came to be and how she exists, often descend into a kind of farce. And after all isn’t it a ridiculous, unbelievable situation? People arbitrarily owning other people?

Secondly it’s the actual writing of it. The structure of a story framed within a story. Of how we all shape our own history in order to be able to live and in order not to hurt those we love.

As someone who has scraped a living from writing for the past twenty years it is fascinating to see how artless and clever the structure of this book is.

It was on the Booker shortlist in 2010 and won The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

The Long Song is published by Tinder Press.

Monday, 17 April 2017

OUT OF BOUNDS by Val McDermid, reviewed by Celia Rees

Val McDermid
I've been a huge Val McDermid fan since her Women's Press, Lindsay Gordon days. She was one of a number of women writers in the '80s who were taking crime genre in a new direction, putting women at the centre of the action, not as victims but as detectives, or in Lindsay Gordon's case,  journalists. These women were resourceful, clever and fearless. Their personal lives were often complex, even chaotic. That didn't interfere with the dramatic tension of the novels but it allowed these writers to explore gender issues, the position of women in society. The crimes they investigated were often crimes committed against women: domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and murder but having women in the position of investigator brought a different kind of attention to crimes against women, brought them into sharper focus, looked at male motivation and drew attention to how shockingly common these crimes are.  I found writers like Val inspirational. I was a teacher at the time with ambitions to write. I'd  always read crime fiction and these writers were a revelation. I remember thinking, why not YA? (or Teenage Fiction as it was known in those days). This was what I wanted to write and I didn't see why I shouldn't fuse the two. My first novels were YA thrillers with girls driving the plot. 

Out of Bounds is Val McDermid's 30th novel. Her heroine is Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie,  a cold case investigator with a penchant for artisanal gins and the kind of intelligent, independent frame of mind that inevitably causes clashes with her superiors. The unsolved cases that she investigates, suddenly sparked into life by new discoveries, might have been committed decades ago. The investigations are difficult, complex, often baffling, but Pirie is dogged in her pursuit of the perpetrator, or perpetrators, driven by the desire to bring justice for the victim, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. 

Her new novel sees DCI Karen Pirie suffering from a personal tragedy, the loss of her partner that occurred in a previous novel. She is in a difficult, dark place, unable to sleep, she roams the city. McDermid's novels have a very fine sense of place based in the writer's intimate knowledge. She knows her places and she knows her people. Her ear is pitch perfect. Her characters, major and minor are deftly drawn and vivid. 

Out of Bounds begins with a group of boys stealing a Range Rover. The teenage joy riders end up three dead, one in a coma. A routine DNA test brings Pirie into the equation.  The DNA sample seems to be the solution to a 20 year old murder case. On the surface, it seems open and shut but nothing is straightforward in a McDermid novel. Pirie and her assistant are led into an increasingly puzzling and complex maze of familial connections, none of which make surface sense. 

Meanwhile, a conversation over a gin or two with an old colleague alerts her to a mystery death which is likely to be dismissed a little too quickly as suicide.  A cold case aspect allows her to take an interest and she is drawn into an increasingly dangerous political intrigue involving powerful forces determined to keep hidden what really lay behind a terrorist bombing two decades ago which had been blamed on the IRA. 

Both cases twist and turn around each other in an increasingly complex way but Pirie pursues both with characteristic determination to bring justice to those who have been denied it. She allows nothing and no-one to stand in her way and this brings her into conflict, not only with her superiors but with others who will stop at nothing to keep the truth hidden. 

The cold case adds real complexity to the plotting and the need for forensic and painstaking detective work. It also opens up the possiblity of real threat from those who have hidden the truth for decades and want it to stay hidden. Pirie is equal to both, as is her creator. The plotting is faultless, the tension meticulously calibrated to wind to the maximum as the novel progresses. There are no gaps, unlikely leaps or plot holes here, no questionable motivation. Nothing stretches the bounds of belief. Everything makes sense - you just don't know how until the end. With Out of Bounds,  the reader is in a very safe pair of hands.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Guest review by Catherine Butler: THIS EARLY DARK: MICRO-POETRY AND ULTRA-FLASH FICTION by Michael Cadnum

Catherine Butler is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University, where her academic books on children’s literature include Four British Fantasists (Scarecrow/ ChLA, 2006), and Reading History in Children’s Books (with Hallie O’Donovan; Palgrave, 2012). She has also produced numerous novels for children and teenagers, as well as some shorter works, of which the latest is Twisted Winter (A&C Black, 2013).

Michael Cadnum is a prolific author of both novels and poetry, and I’ve long been one of his admirers. As its title suggests, the contents of This Early Dark include both fiction and poems; however, since both are reduced to highly concentrated bouillon cubes, it is hard at times to say which is which. Very short poems and extremely short fictions, consisting of two or three lines apiece, are scattered through its pages. This is the slimmest of slim volumes, but it contains multitudes. Cadnum’s novels are poetic, and his poems, even when short, often contain a seed of narrative that could quite happily be coaxed to novel length. Just add water – or wonder.

Some of Cadnum’s work has a specificity that is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, or indeed the haiku tradition that so inspired the Imagists. They take a familiar and “ordinary” experience, and pebble-polish it:

How lovely, the wrinkled tablecloth now that everyone’s gone.

This image pulls our gaze to it, but does not ask us to look beyond itself. Sometimes, though, the poet notices himself noticing: “I realize the book is reading me and I close it”. Or, a little less unsettlingly:

If we could stay like this--
dawn rain
my neighbor
trying forever to
start his car.

The promise of poetry is that we can stay like this, that moments can be pinned like moths, or framed like photographs. Except that poetry works in more dimensions than two, drawing on all the senses and their attendant moods.

Memory, absence and regret are prominent in many of the pieces here, and rain seeps through much of the collection, far more than one would expect from a writer who has lived much of his life in California: “Years after the cat is gone shadows everywhere wash themselves”; “I found your cigarettes in the suitcase and wake with your cough”; “I thought you touched me but it was the rain”. Often, the particularity of experience gestures towards metaphor:

After dark I wish I had not cut off so many branches.

Is this the small-hours fretting of an overenthusiastic gardener, or of someone who has been too profligate with life’s possibilities? (Both, of course.) Occasionally, there is a proverbial quality to Cadnum’s lines, as well as an observational one:

Only when it’s gone does the passing jet whisper.

Cadnum is a novelist, and often the ghost of a story, or the embryo of one, peeps from his words, teasing us to wonder what happened just after, or just before:

Soapsuds across the carpet where you left the bath to watch him leave.

The pieces were written over a forty-year period, but it is not clear whether they are arranged in anything resembling chronological order: the quality of Cadnum’s perceptions appears consistent throughout. Intimate relationships with people, with nature, with things, thoughts and feelings wheel through its pages, winking in and out like stars. I am not certain of Cadnum’s working method, although perhaps it is expressed in one of the shorter pieces here: “I burn the words to make them happen”. In any case, This Early Dark is a valuable and inspirational collection.

This Early Dark is published by CreateSpace and as a Kindle edition.

Monday, 3 April 2017

WIDOWS AND ORPHANS by Michael Arditti, reviewed by Adele Geras

There are certain books - you will know the sort of book I mean - which catch the light. They bring forth reams of newsprint, both real and virtual; they gather prizes; they provide pleasing controversies; they divide opinion; people notice them. There are only a few of these because there's limited space for reviews and the world of those who read reviews is a little one, although also a very pleasant one. The really HUGE books which reach millions of people are the ones which  jump a kind of imaginary barrier and are taken up by those who would ordinarily never read a book, or call themselves 'readers.' I'm thinking of  Girl on the Train or Fifty Shades of Gray or the oeuvre of Dan Brown. 

Those books, the flashy ones that make tons of money and the less flashy but very much garlanded ones which win prizes and column inches, are very few in number. The bestseller lists are instructive in many ways, but what they do not show is the less-good sellers. And these, I have often noticed, are frequently more interesting than their more glittering sisters and brothers further up the charts.

Recently, I took a train across Europe, as is my wont whenever I go on holiday. I am flying phobic and Eurostar and trains through the continent is how I get about. This is an extraordinarily pleasant way to travel and I recommend it, but this is not the place to hold forth about free croissants and lovely scenery. It takes a long time to get anywhere and Kindle comes into its own on a trip like this. The book I read in February on my way to Switzerland and for a day or so after I'd got to my hotel was Widows and Orphans by Michael Arditti. I'd read a review in the Spectator (the only review I saw)  and it sounded just up my street.

I'm not sure that this book was widely noticed. I've not seen it in bookshops. Most people on Amazon enjoyed it very much, and I liked the fact (from the blurb) that it was about a newspaper in a small English seaside town and its editor. I'm fond of books/movies/TV/anything set in the offices of a newspaper. 

Also, I'd once appeared at a reading festival at a school in London and  Michael Arditti was speaking at the same event. I caught sight of him sitting in a Green Room eating sandwiches. I've heard him on Radio 4 from time to time on Saturday Review as one of Tom Sutcliffe's guests, but I've never met him, so for once this is a review from me of a book by someone whom I don't know.  

I realised that the title had a double meaning, too, and patted myself on the back for this. 'Widows' and 'orphans' are terms in printing, as well as meaning what we all know they mean. I thought it was a very clever title. Also, I was drawn to the rather retro cover.

This is a long introduction to what I want to do, which is to recommend this wonderful and unputdownable book to all those who like novels which are about, to quote someone very close to me, "Proper people in interesting situations." 

Duncan Neville is the editor of the Francombe Mercury, the local paper in a small seaside town. The paper has been in his family for generations and he feels a proper pride in it, and the way it has explained, described and recorded the life of the town for a very long time. The paper is now under threat. Because of the internet, all newspapers are feeling nervous. People no longer get their news in this old-fashioned way and Duncan is beleaguered. He's divorced from his wife. His ex-wife has married again and had a daughter, who is disabled. He has a teenage son, too, who gets into teenage-type trouble. His mother lives in the town and she's quite a character. He is friendly with the gay vicar. His enemy, Geoffrey Weedon,  from way back in his schooldays, is a rich, rather vulgar entrepreneurial type, who has always looked down on Duncan, even though Duncan is a much better person.

When Francombe Pier is burned to the ground, Weedon has a plan to open it again as a kind of adult entertainment centre: a sort of sex emporium on stilts. He has the Planning Committee in his pocket, according to some. Opposition to this plan forms one strand of the plot, but there are so many others that it's hard to list them all. Above all, it's Duncan's journey through a turbulent time in his life. We meet his close friends, his colleagues, his mother, and the woman he grows to love. I will not spoil anyone's fun by revealing the end, but it's a novel in which every single character is carefully taken account of. Arditti is interested in the life of the town, in the way the newspaper deals with 'all human life' and he structures the book brilliantly by starting each chapter with an extract from the newspaper itself. This means that by the end, we, too, have grown fond of this publication.

It's written straightforwardly, in plain language, with no posturing, no faux lyricism and this means that the emotional punch of the things that happen to the characters is all the stronger. We get to know and love Duncan through the book, and we are desperately wanting a good outcome for both him and his paper. 

If I were a bookshop, I'd stick a label on the cover saying: satisfaction or your money back, or some such. Please get in touch with this blog on Twitter if you read it and hate it. I'm betting that  almost everyone who picks it up and starts it will love it and thank me for putting them in touch with this brilliant writer who is  not sufficiently appreciated.

Widows and Orphans is published in paperback by Arcadia Books at £8.99. ISBN: 1910050644