Monday, 15 October 2018

Guest post by Dawn Finch: A SWEET, WILD NOTE: WHAT WE HEAR WHEN THE BIRDS SING by Richard Smyth


Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and former librarian who is possibly best known for her role in many national library and literacy campaigns. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for children, and her non-fiction books are used in almost every primary school in the UK.

I am what might be called a casual birdwatcher. I have quite a bit of knowledge, but not as much as some. I can identify a good number of birds, but am often left baffled by extraordinary bursts of song, or by a dazzling flash of something feathery as it passes me by. I own many books on birds, but still prefer the kind of birdwatching that might be better described as “bird listening.”

As a very small child I loved to listen to the birds, and still sleep with my window open so that I can hear the dawn chorus, but I’m extremely bad at identifying birdsong. I am not alone. Despite the fact that birdsong is quite literally the soundtrack of our lives, most of us can only identify a few of the singers. We are lifted and inspired by birdsong, but can’t name the bird that is mastering the chorus.

In Richard Smyth’s wonderfully eccentric little book, A Sweet, Wild Note, he takes a look at the human relationship with birdsong and how it has inspired poets, writers, musicians and artists of all fields. In this beautiful book the author explores how we hear birdsong and what it means to us. He takes us from “some kind of crow” to the complex scientific matters of actually describing birdsong. We meet the poets who argued over what a nightingale actually was, and elegantly stroll through the world of birdsong to the emotionally loaded issue of keeping songbirds in captivity.

Smyth’s style is somewhat meandering, and eclectic, and that works well in a book that is as charming as the songs it explores. It is an enjoyable experience as it almost feels as if you are at a select gathering listening to a wonderful lecture. After reading it I felt that I wanted to quote many things from the book, and to get hold of many of the other books he has mentioned as sources. The book is a friendly read that never drifts into arrogance or pretention.

A Sweet, Wild Note has left me not only with a greater understanding of birdsong, but also a keener ear and a new appetite for finding out more. A lovely book that is also well packaged with a gorgeous cover by Lynn Hatzius and illustrated throughout by Tim Oakenfull. The whole makes for a very pleasing read that I know I will return to many times.

A Sweet, Wild Note is published by Elliot and Thompson

Monday, 8 October 2018

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: BAD GIRLS, A HISTORY OF REBELS AND RENEGADES, by Caitlin Davies



Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel Star By Star, winner of the CBI Honour Award for Fiction, commemorates the centenary of women’s suffrage.

I love fiction, and perhaps best of all I love stories set in institutions. Especially women’s institutions, and especially in the past. I thrill to books about closed communities, with their intense relationships, their special rules, their sense of being worlds apart and worlds unto themselves. My PhD was on fiction set in girls’ schools and colleges, and my work in progress is about a working girls’ hostel, but you could add to that a obsession with convents, hospitals (Call The Midwife scores twice here) and of course prisons. And I am not alone. The success of dramas such as Orange Is The New Black testifies to an abiding fascination with women who break the rules and how society deals with them.

My own first memories of being politically aware involve prisons. I remember the IRA hunger strikes of 1981, and very shortly afterwards seeing women from Greenham Common being sent to prison. This coincided with my learning about suffragette prisoners in the 1910s, so I always knew that prisons were complex spaces. As a student and later as a writer I have spent time working inside prisons, and know that they are places bristling with stories, often harsh and horrifying, always reflecting the world outside as well inside their walls.

So when I heard about Caitlin Davies’ forthcoming Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, some time before publication, I was really excited about it. Because even more than fiction I love social history, especially the history of women’s experience. Sometimes when I feel a bit storied-out I reach for social history as a kind of palate-cleanser. I knew this book was going to tick a lot of my boxes, and when it arrived I was almost scared to start reading it; I had invested so much interest and expectation in it. I’d also rashly agreed to review it for this blog before I even started reading it.

But I needn’t have worried. A quick glance at the contents page was enough to reassure me that this was very much my kind of book, with chapters on subjects ranging from Victorian baby farmers to spies in World War Two, and of course a detailed and horrifying section on the treatment of suffragettes. There are also sections covering sex and relationships, medical matters, and the changing regime at Holloway. The book is comprehensive and thoroughly researched, with a successful balance between telling the overarching factual story of Holloway as an institution and exploring some of the individual characters and events who found themselves incarcerated – or dependent on Holloway for their livelihood. It is dense with detail but always readable and engaging.

Davies writes fascinatingly about the women who worked as warders, and the changing demands of that role from Victorian times until more or less the present day. (Holloway closed in 2016.) I was surprised to learn that many of the wardresses were in fact sympathetic to the cause of suffragette prisoners, though this sympathy was not encouraged, and in fact the opposite was suggested in the press. As Davies says, ‘The press preferred to portray them in opposition to the suffragettes, for… a prison full of inmates and wardresses who wanted the vote was a frightening prospect.’

The book raises important questions about what constitutes crime and punishment, and the extent to which this is determined by changing social mores. Women are particularly vulnerable to this, as their crimes and misdemeanours are sometimes less clear-cut than male crime, and very prone to shifting notions of morality. I had imagined that the prison regime would have been harshest in the nineteenth century, growing gradually more humane, but the truth is more complex than that.

Bad Girls joins my library of non-fiction about women’s experiences in the past, and I know I’ll return to it many times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in social history, especially women’s history.

Bad Girls is published by John Murray.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: THE SALT PATH by Raynor Winn



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

On one level, this is a book about a couple who walked the South West Coastal Path, non-stop – all 630 miles of it. As you can see, it has a beautiful cover whose design places it firmly in the section of bookshops with books about nature and our relationship to it.

And indeed and of course, it is about nature – but not primarily so. It’s not a piece of finely judged, carefully crafted nature writing, though there is some of that here too. It’s the searing story of a couple whose home and livelihood and hopes for the future are suddenly torn away from them, and who decide, pretty much on impulse, that the only thing they can do, the only way they can literally and figuratively move on, is to walk, carrying with them all that they have – which is almost nothing.

The story begins, Ray tells us, when she and her husband Moth lose everything at the end of a court battle after an investment goes badly wrong. What makes this even worse is that Raynor eventually finds a document which she believes will prove that they are innocent of blame, but doesn’t submit it in time or according to the correct procedures: they cannot afford legal representation (and of course, legal aid was pretty much abolished some years ago), and they fail to find their way through the complexities of the law without it. And even worse than that: the person who recommended the investment to them and is now suing them is an old and dear friend of Moth’s, so that he feels a sense of hurt and betrayal. As a result of losing the case, they lose their home, a Welsh farmhouse which they have lovingly restored over many years; and the livelihood which goes with it.

And as if this isn’t enough, just after the verdict, Moth is diagnosed with a terminal, degenerative illness: they are in their early fifties.

Raynor Winn tells the story of how, as they hide from the bailiffs in the cupboard under the stairs, she notices a book in a packing case. It’s called Five Hundred Mile Walkies, and it’s about a man who, many years before, had walked the South West Coastal Path with his dog. And it’s this that gives them their idea.

When I read this, it seemed quite shocking to me – absolute madness. Moth is in constant pain, sometimes he can’t even get up. They have the grand sum of £48 a week coming in, they have virtually no other money: they can’t afford even to buy decent equipment. Neither of them is strong enough to carry much weight – in fact it’s practically a military manoeuvre even to get their rucksacks onto their backs. And yet, and yet… what else can they do? And what sort of an indictment of our society is it that they face such limited choices? Their two children are at university and in no position to help (though, in a reversal of the normal rôles, their worried daughter sends them a new phone and instructs them that they must keep in close touch); friends do what they can and offer temporary accommodation, but cannot, in the end, give them their lives back – this at least offers them a reason to move on, literally as well as metaphorically.

And so off they go. With a flimsy tent, inadequate sleeping bags, a single change of clothes, a thin towel and a toothbrush – and Moth’s battered and beloved copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf: a fitting companion, with its theme of a battered hero fighting against evil monsters and against time itself.

It’s very sobering, to read of how difficult it is to live on so little. They can only afford to buy the most basic foodstuffs – meals are delights such as pot noodles, or rice and a tin of peas or mackerel. Sometimes, even water is difficult to come by. Washing is usually impossible – there’s plenty of sea, but for one thing that’s salty, and for another, the cliff path is usually high above it. I’ve seen bits of that coast path, and it’s very precipitous. There are endless setbacks, yet even so, somehow they don’t just keep going, but Moth becomes stronger; and the experience of being so very close to nature teaches them to live in, and treasure, each moment. They have numerous encounters along the way, some of them strange, many of them comic. Quite early on, they ask for information at a tourist office in Combe Martin – and are puzzled by the reaction of the ladies behind the counter.

     'The ladies shuffled, nudging each other, giggling.
     “Of course, it’s a pleasure to help. Just go to the grocery store up to the left. They’ll do cashback for you, Mr Armitage, but they weren’t expecting you yet.”
     “Sorry, I’m not Mr Armitage.”
     The ladies looked at each other conspiratorially.
     “No of course not, that’s okay, our secret, we won’t say a word.”
     Moth looked back in bemusement…'

This keeps happening: people keep mistaking Moth for this mysterious Mr Armitage. Well – Moth might have been bemused, but I wasn’t. In 2015, the poet Simon Armitage published a book about his travels along the South West Coastal Path. The idea was that he would walk a stretch, and then pay for his board at a pub or whatever by doing a reading of his work. He’d done this before in the Pennines. I bought the book, because I’m familiar with some bits of the path, particularly the first part from Minehead, but to be honest, much as I admire his other work and the TV programmes he’s done, I was a little disappointed in this book. It felt as if he was just going through the motions (sorry!): as if he was doing it because it seemed like a good idea for a book, not because it was something he was really enjoying. And the reaction of the people Moth and Ray meet, as well as the book itself, make it clear that the whole thing was very carefully planned and organised for the poet: there was no jeopardy involved. But for Moth and Ray, there most certainly was. They were living right on the edge in more ways than one.

This is a remarkable book: it’s a searing reflection on what is to be homeless and poor; an account of a first-hand experience of being as close to nature as you can get; and a tender story of a relationship which survives some incredibly difficult tests. In the end, one of the people they meet offers them a place to live: they come through. The last word belongs to Raynor herself.

     'At last I understood what homelessness had done for me. It had taken every material thing that I had and left me stripped bare, a blank page at the end of a partly written book. It had also given me a choice, either to leave that page blank or to keep writing the story with hope. I chose hope.'

The Salt Path is published by Penguin.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Guest post by Rhiannon Lassiter: THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES by Catherynne M. Valente



Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism and psychodrama novels for juniors, middle grade and young adults. Her first novel, Hex, was accepted for publication when she was nineteen years old.

Rhiannon’s favourite authors include Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Mahy and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change and transition. Her ambition is to be the first writer-in-residence on the Moon.


I like high concept fiction. A lot of my time is spent searching for the Big Idea that has enough in it to sustain me for an entire novel. That’s true of me as a writer and as a reader. So I was immediately drawn to Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues, a title that clearly references a concept crossover that is so brilliant it’s incredible it hasn’t been done before.

The Vagina Monologues was an episodic play written by Eve Ensler in 1996, twenty year ago. It was groundbreaking work focusing on women, sexuality and violence. 'Fridging' is a concept with an even longer history but the term was popularised in 1999 by Gail Simone though her website Women In Refrigerators, which compiled a list of female characters in comic books who were killed off as a plot device. 
Valente herself is an award-winning author, a recipient of the Tiptree award for The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden and the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She’s been on my list of authors to explore for some time but this was the first book of hers I’ve read.
It took me some time to get hold of a copy because it was published in the US first and there is no electronic edition, perhaps because the paperback format makes significant use of illustrations by comic book artist Annie Wu.
As a high concept novel with an idea that sold me instantly, it completely delivers. It launches the reader into an invented superhero universe, one with its own original superheroes, super villains and everyone in between. Page Embry, the narrator of the first section is dead “the deadest girl in Deadtown” who lives – or rather doesn’t – in a pocket dimension, a suburban hell, with all the conveniences of modern unlife. She is the President of the Hell Hath Club, a coffee-klatsch of women scorned. During the course of the book, these six women tell their stories, with intermissions for Page to introduce them and enjoy some soul music at the Lethe Café.
The writing is snappy and savage. These women had lives, hopes and dreams, before their stories came abruptly to an end when a villain put a full stop to them. The men they loved were superheroes, and these women’s deaths have served to motivate their next big plot action or their need for revenge. But the women themselves have been forgotten, or were never considered that important, bit part players in a bigger story.
It must have been a huge piece of work to - as Valente mentions in the acknowledgements - “(create) an entire superhero universe to make a point” and yet it’s done with considerable wit and elegance. The reader’s knowledge of this invented universe is largely assumed by the narrators, and it is at once original and recognisable. Characters like Grimdark, a Batmanesque figure, Proessor Yes who is Headmistress of St Ovidius’s School for Wayward Children, or The Arachnochancellor are completely believable creations. The world they inhabit is a superhero universe that hangs together or doesn’t with the right combination of techno babble and magical effects.
The individual chapters work well as monologues, neatly encapsulating the stories of these women: tragically comedic, well paced, mixing foreshadowing and self- reflection. I did wonder if the individual voices were sufficiently differentiated. If you pick up the book at a random page can you tell if it’s wayward child Julia Ash or conceptual artist Daisy Green speaking? And unfortunately, I mostly couldn’t. I think it’s a weakness in the book, although it may be that Valente was going for this precise effect: six women, speaking with one voice. But it’s not a very diverse cast; self-described as “mostly very beautiful and very well read and very angry” but also predominantly white and middle class. I think Valente could have gone further here to give us a richer palette of voices.
The chapter I think is most different is the one from the point of view of wise-cracking Pauline “Polly” Ketch, a villainous sidekick with more than one Bad Daddy. Her section stands out for her sparky villainy although she’s probably the most deluded of the characters, the one who believes her lover and murderer will return for her and bring her back to life. Spoiler, he doesn’t.
That brings me to my other criticism of the book, which again is feature of the authorial intention. There is no redemption arc for these women. They have been variously dead-ended or flatlined, destined to spend eternity in clothes picked out by relatives for them to wear in their coffins. Their monologues and their conversations all concern a world which they won’t be returning to. And although they have created a small semblance of a live for themselves with drinks and music and friendship, their stories have nowhere to go, their monologues end where they began, in Deadtown.
It has to be this way because that’s the big idea of the book. Women in superhero stories are typically foils to men, used and abused to further a male plot of action and violence. We are told from the beginning that Page can’t change. But it makes for a depressing read, despite the wit and sparkle. You want the women to rise up and start again, to see them re-enter the fascinating universe Valente has created. But they can’t and don’t and the book would be weaker if they could. It’s frustrating.
I’m glad to have read this book and I will look for more from Valente who I sense is an author coming into her own superpowers.  I recommend it highly. But I’m not sure how much it would stand the test of a re-read. It does what it says on the tin and it does it well and with flair. If I was left wanting a little bit more, perhaps that’s a sign that I need to read more of her work.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry



Photo: Mal Woodford
Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She got the writing bug when she was teaching in the Middle East, where she lived for several years. Now living in North London, she runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, and writes for children.

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books. ‘This is an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it also shows how girls are silenced, made to feel ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of wrongs done to them. Ultimately this is a poignant personal story of a girl’s fight to rebuild and re-connect with herself and those who love her after a truly harrowing experience.’ Love Reading 4 Kids


Some stories stay with you forever; they leave an indelible mark on you, leave you wanting for more, for the story to never end, for the writer to never stop writing. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is such a book for me.

It was also the work that had the most profound effect on me and my understanding of the country of my birth, its customs, traditions and people.

Mistry did not start writing until after he had left India with a degree in Maths and Economics from the University of Mumbai. He emigrated to Canada to work in a bank. It was some years later that he decided to pursue a degree in English and Philosophy, and it was then that he started writing stories. He won the Hart House literary short story prize two years consecutively. Tales of Firozsha Baag was a collection of short stories set in an apartment block in modern day Mumbai. Then came Such a Long Journey, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won many others. Later, after it was adopted as a University text in Mistry's old university, it was to come under attack by extremists and was withdrawn despite a huge outcry.

A Fine Balance is the book of his that I truly love. It stands the test of time. As a portrayal of life in Bombay in India during the 1970s, it is, for me, without comparison. I've lent out my hardback copy to friends, who, with the exception of one person, have absolutely loved it. The one exception's pronouncement on it was: 'Good melodrama' - which was tantamount to blasphemy in my eyes.

The sad fact of the matter is that the everyday lives of the characters may well have seemed like melodrama to him, as though the author had simply sensationalized the harshness of his characters' lives for the sole purpose of giving the reader something more than a portrayal of the humdrum nature of abject poverty. For all the harsh realism contained within its pages, and there is much, the novel is one of carefully, almost poetically, crafted prose, which forms a story that is memorable and harrowing. It is far removed from the magical realism of Salman Rushdie's work, also originally from Mumbai, yet there is something magical in each page of this book, and even the most minor character you stumble upon within its pages is treated to the magic of his penmanship.

A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize, has won countless others, and even made it onto Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. It hasn't been to everyone's taste. Germaine Greer hated it and said it in no way resembled the India she had come to know after spending all of four months there. Others have criticized Mistry for appropriating a turbulent time in Indian politics to meet his own ends and the needs of his characters. Personally, I don't understand this criticism, unless such critics balk at the atrocities of those times coming under public scrutiny after such a long period. In A Fine Balance Mistry explores the inherent inequalities of the caste system, extreme poverty, high level corruption, and life during the turmoil of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, and the sterilization programme, and the 'Beautification' policies, which led to the forced removal of street-dwellers into indentured labour. His characters are drawn from many Indian communities including the Parsi, Hindu, Muslim communities; from Untouchables to Prime Minister, from beggars to thieves; but there are four central characters of different backgrounds and histories, and it is through their hearts and minds that the story is told.

It is a tale of a Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors and a student from the north, four disparate people whose lives, outlooks, preconceptions and prejudices are fundamentally changed over a period of time after their first meeting. Tragedy exists at the heart of each of their stories, it permeates each page, yet the resilience of their spirit sits right next to it, tempering it. 'You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair' - and quite simply, that is exactly what Rohinton Mistry does.

His work speaks to me as an Indian, but it is universal in scope and in its depiction of humanity. He is, above all, a writer who plunges you, heart and mind, deep into his stories, where you remain submerged until the final page has been turned and you come up, gasping for air.

'... his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches' - this is a line spoken by one of Mistry's characters, and perhaps best describes the mastery and craft of Rohinton Mistry himself.

In A Fine Balance he has created a complex and tightly-woven tapestry of humanity at its best and at its worst. For me the book is a literary masterpiece. It is a story you will never forget. His most recent novel Family Matters was published in 2002, but I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I am still waiting for Mistry’s next story.

A Fine Balance is published by Faber.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Guest review by Anne Fine: WILD ABANDON by Joe Dunthorne



Anne Fine writes for adults and children. She has twice won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, as well as the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, two Smarties Prizes and other regional and foreign awards.

She was twice voted Children’s Author of the Year and was Children’s Laureate from 2001-3, when she set up My Home Library, a website that still offers freshly designed and freely downloadable modern bookplates to encourage young readers to form their own home libraries from the second hand books around them. She's published three anthologies of poetry for different ages called A Shame to Miss 1, 2 & 3. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been awarded an OBE and her work is translated into over forty languages. Anne has two daughters and lives in County Durham.


I came to Wild Abandon, by Joe Dunthorne, partly by accident. I'd been reading a heap of those wonderful women writers whose work had been either so neglected or so unpuffed that I'd only recently caught up with some of them. (You know: Dorothy Whipple, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Harrower, Rosamund Lehman, Emily Eden, Mollie Panter-Downes, Madeleine St John, etc etc etc).

And suddenly I thought, if I don't read something male and modern, I'll go mad. The first to be recommended to me by my ace metropolitan reader was London and the South-East, by David Szalay, and that was so much fun, and so insightful and funny about the life of an ad salesman, that I'm not surprised it won the Betty Trask Prize. Metropolitan Reader's next suggestion was Wild Abandon, which I have enjoyed so much I've chosen it for book group (who have also been busy over the last months catching up with some not quite so neglected or unpuffed women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Gardam and Vita Sackville-West etc etc etc).

Do 'em all good, I thought.

It will, too. Dunthorne tells the story of a ghastly sounding but well-meaning commune in wettest Wales. (This book will put anyone off the idea of roughing it in the countryside for ever.) Young Kate and Albert have grown up there, and, frankly, Kate is now growing out of the whole boiling, while Albert grieves (in an entirely mad but somehow credible way) because he senses his beloved sister will soon be off. (It's no accident that he's currently obsessed with The End of the World.) The marriage of their parents, the essentially kind and sympathetic - but no longer suited - Don and Freya, is steadily falling apart, the number of communards is dwindling, and a life's work and commitment is on the brink.

Everyone in the novel is strange or dopey/doped or downright weird, but every last one is believable. Dunthorne shows clearly both their outer faces and their vulnerable inner lives. He also copes brilliantly with his varied cast and impressively unravelling tale. The book is fast-paced, and entirely emotionally convincing with a genuine warmth and understanding shining through the comedy.


Wild Abandon is published by Penguin.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Guest review by Victor Watson: SOUTH RIDING by Winifred Holtby




Victor Watson began to write children's fiction after a long career as a teacher, both in schools and at Homerton College, Cambridge. He was involved in the setting up of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle.

He has edited many critical works on children's fiction, including the Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (CUP 2001) He is the author of the Paradise Barn quartet and his latest novel is called Operation Blackout. All his fiction is published by Catnip Press. See more at Victor's dedicated website for the Paradise Barn books.

I’d known about South Riding since my undergraduate days, but I didn’t get round to reading it until earlier this year, when I spotted a compact 1949 hardback edition in a charity shop. I bought it – and was immediately hooked. The story unfolds in such a measured and unhurried way that I was able to savour the reading of it over many days. It has a wide cast of characters from all levels of society, the landscape is vividly evoked, and the narrative voice is both compassionate and uncompromising. The dialogue is good too.

On the dustwrapper the author is quoted: ‘there is one fundamental truth about human nature – we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spritis; we are members one of another.’ It’s one thing to say that, and quite another matter to demonstrate it. But that ‘membership one of another’ is what South Riding creates and acts out – in a rural community, set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, during the depression of the 1930s. Many stories form part of the bigger story, all told with a direct and un-showy realism, effortlessly intertwined in an entirely convincing world. Here, there is no artificial thematic tidiness: people’s lives are muddled and imperfect, randomly affected by their siblings, their love affairs, their weaknesses, their neighbours, their rivals, their own hidden motivation. And – since this is also a novel about local government – the characters’ lives are also shaped by decisions made in council meetings and planning committees about housing conditions and scholarships.

The characterisation is brilliant, from the scheming Alderman Snaith to poor Lily Sawdon dying of cancer; the clever working-class Lydia Holly, whose future life will be shaped by whether or not her social and family situation will allow her to take up the scholarship she’s been awarded; the unhappy Robert Carne, whose daughter is lonely and miserable and whose wife is in a mental home, and whose life-values are as threatened and uncertain as his estate is crumbling. The main character is Miss Sarah Burton who, in chapter 2, is appointed headmistress of Kiplington Girls’ High School, and who encounters setbacks, faces all manner of frustrations, and experiences a bitter and triumphant love. She almost gives up on her conviction that an unmarried woman in her forties can have a fulfilled and fulfilling professional life within and for the sake of the community. But not quite. ‘I was born to be a spinster,’ she tells herself, ‘and by God, I’m going to spin.’

I read this book with a sense of homecoming. This is where I began as a serious novel-reader, with Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Hardy. It has a hugeness of scope and conception, inviting comparisons with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It reminded me how far most modern fiction has moved from such imaginative spaciousness. I estimate that South Riding is about 176,000 words long – but it had to be a long novel because it seeks to convey a comprehensive understanding of an entire community. It is a socialist view, as you would expect from an author who was for most of her life a close friend of Vera Brittain. I felt as I read it a determined writerly thrust, a brilliant craftswoman’s purposeful and unhurried faith in her narrative vision, and her belief that – in spite of muddles and failures, setbacks and bad fortune, wickedness and greed – communities are capable of edging imperfectly and cautiously forward to improve the lives of individuals.

That’s what Winifred Holtby believed herself to be, a craftswoman. ‘I have no illusions about my work,’ she wrote. ‘I am primarily a useful, versatile, sensible and fairly careful artisan.’ Perhaps – but South Riding is an intelligent and absorbing novel, in its values, in its style, and in its conception. I loved it.

And it’s written in proper sentences!

South Riding is published by Virago.

Monday, 27 August 2018

TAKE NOTHING WITH YOU by Patrick Gale, reviewed by Linda Newbery



Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is now working on her second novel for adults.
Patrick Gale's most recent book, A Place Called Winter, was set mainly in Canada in the early 1900s, drawing on the experience of his great-grandfather, a pioneer farmer in the prairies. His new novel marks a return to more familiar territory - boyhood and adolescence in the West Country, music, the complexities of love, sexuality and relationships.

Take Nothing With You sounds like a foreboding of death, but although the threat of death is always present - central character Eustace's parents run a retirement home, where any reference to 'change' in the resident population is euphemistic - the novel is ultimately about survival and the renewal of hope. Our first encounter with Eustace is as a man in his fifties, recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer and about to experience radioactive treatment. Having lost one lover to AIDS and another to mutual indifference, he's been alone for some while, but has recently fallen in love, long-distance, with a much younger man, Theo. They are soon to meet in person for the first time, but although they've shared confidences via Skype he has yet to tell Theo of his cancer treatment, fearing that such news would end the relationship before it's properly begun.

In the lead-lined room in which Eustace receives his treatment, everything he wears or touches must be discarded afterwards, so he must take nothing he wants to keep - a warning which give the novel its title. But the main part of the story concerns itself with his boyhood in Weston-super-Mare and the growing importance of music in his life. An unsporty misfit at his fee-paying school, he finds purpose and expression in playing the cello, taught by the flamboyant Carla Gold. Through her, he enters "a world in which art, headily, was everything" and meets pianist Ebrahim and painter Louis, with the revelation that two grown men can live openly as a couple. Relationships, however, prove fickle for all the adults in Eustace's life. Like L P Hartley's The Go Between, this novel of emerging sexuality and self-awareness allows the reader to see tensions in adult interactions over the head, as it were, of the viewpoint character. The marriage of Eustace's parents undergoes a cataclysm, the remnants of which we partially assemble from the present-day episodes.

Although Carla quickly sees Eustace's talent, this isn't a tale of a prodigious performer who soars to the heights against all odds. There are practical difficulties: although Eustace secures a place at music school, his parents can't afford the fees. His potential is seen by Jean Curwen, another charismatic teacher who runs a summer school, and although she seems to offer a solution there are plenty of other talented players who deserve her attention. And a family crisis, combined with a change of school, pushes Eustace's cello-playing into the background for a while. 

The Ancrum summer school section is particularly intense, with the hothouse atmosphere of living with strangers and the potential for friendships and sexual encounters. Eustace has a hurtful skirmish with a handsome older boy, but also forms a lasting and important bond with fellow cellist Naomi, who plays a significant role in the present-day scenes. And Patrick Gale excels when writing about the music - which is notoriously difficult, but these sections sing from the page. A cellist himself, he give enough but not too much technical detail, alongside a sense of how it feels to play in a group, the lines interweaving to powerful, poignant or playful effect. "Ralph played a hesitant sort of interrupted monologue on the violin to which Eustace's cello responded with a sequence of pizzicato phrases while the other three players sustained harmonies that shifted so slowly the changes in tonality were barely detectable. It was like watching a square of moonlight move across a floor." Eustace gradually appreciates that "it was chamber music, the creation of music with others, not pyrotechnic solo playing, that was the benchmark of true musicianship." 

Reading this, those of us who aren't musicians will wish that we were able to take part in this most exhilarating form of communion. "Music knits," Jean tells her students. "It heals. It is balm to the soul but is also the refiner's fire. It requires rigour and application." (Like writing.) The sureness, eloquence, humour and hope of this novel will endear it both to Patrick Gale's many fans and to those coming to his work for the first time. 

Take Nothing With You is published by Tinder Press.



Monday, 20 August 2018

Guest review by Sally Prue: THE DEAN'S WATCH by Elizabeth Goudge



Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction. Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase Prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and Song Hunter won the Historical Society’s Young Quills Award. Her other jobs have included being a Time and Motion clerk, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher. Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire, England. She blogs at The Word Den. She is also to be found on her website and on Twitter: @sally_prue.

At a young age, disorientated by a relentless barrage of pop music, I decided that life was too short for the blazingly new. Far better, I thought, to ignore books and music for their first decade or so, by which time most of the rubbish was likely to have been discarded.

Art, it seemed to me, was more like gold than milk: the best was all too often buried under the worst.

The pace of life has increased since then, and this time-scale has shortened; but, although I’m far, far less serious and sensible nowadays than I was when I was young, I’m not sure that I’ve essentially changed my mind. For this reason the current craze among publishers for reissues of old books is very welcome, and I’ve seized upon Hodder & Stoughton’s new editions of Elizabeth Goudge’s books with greedy delight.

The Dean’s Watch, as I discovered when I picked it up, I’d read long ago, though I had only the haziest recollection of the plot. It’s the sort of book that would be hard to get published as a new book today, both because most of the main characters are in their declining years (though there is one touching and unusual story of young love) and also because the theme is one of faith – and not only that, but some of the faith is religious, at that.

Less fashionable still, it’s a story which, while it features fear and frustration and misunderstanding, also embraces kindness and beauty and generosity. It even shines an affectionate and respectful light on obscurity, poverty, mental illness, and even ignorance.

The book begins with the epitaph of one George Routledge, watchmaker, which is to be found in Lydford churchyard:

Integrity was his mainspring and prudence the regulator of all the actions of his life; humane, generous and liberal,

His hand never stopped till he had relieved distress.

From which it might be inferred that the hero of this novel is not the dean himself, but the maker of his watch; but in fact the dean and the watchmaker are twin heroes: one famous, powerful and feted, one poor, bullied and obscure, each fearful in his own way, both crippled by shyness, and both revolving around the huge brooding cathedral which strikes such awe of different kinds into them both.

The Dean’s Watch is the story of how, through what might be called a friendship, they both find freedom.

It was written fifty eight years ago.

And, like the Dean’s Watch, its gold is still shining.

The Dean's Watch: The Cathedral Trilogy is published by Hodder and Stoughton.


Monday, 13 August 2018

Guest review by Judith Allnatt: THE LOST GARDEN by Helen Humphreys



Judith Allnatt writes short stories and novels for adults. Her novels have been variously shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature, the East Midlands Book Award and featured as a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month. Short stories have appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology and the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service.

Judith’s latest novel, The Silk Factory, is an eerie story of love and memory drawing on both the Luddite weavers’ rebellions in the nineteenth century and a modern day haunting. She
 has lectured widely on Creative Writing for over two decades and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire and is working on her fifth novel. For more information and blog posts see Judith’s website.Twitter: @judithallnatt

The Lost Garden may, at first glance, seem to be about small things but don’t be misled. Love and loss are explored with insight and sensitivity in this beautifully written novel.

In 1941, Gwen Davis, bereaved and lonely, leaves London and the Blitz for Devon, to supervise a team of Land Girls in turning the gardens of the estate of Mosel over to food production. For the last few years, Gwen, who remembers having been touched only three times in her life and who is plain, pernickety and reclusive, has been hiding away in a research role at the Royal Horticultural Society. Her erudite knowledge of parsnip canker is, unsurprisingly, of no use at all in managing a group of lively girls who are already mixing happily with the Canadian soldiers billeted at the main house.

Here she meets first Raley, an officer who is tensely waiting to be posted with his men and then Jane, the unofficial leader of the girls, whose fiancé is missing in action and whose mental state is dangerously fragile. All of the main characters are suffering losses and are trying to find a way to live in the face of war’s ‘brutal change’ and struggling to reconcile themselves to its ‘useless random death’. Raley drinks. Jane, anorexic and diagnosed as ‘in distress’, decides to ‘tend the animals’. Gwen, who sometimes lies under her heavy volumes of ‘The Genus Rosa’ and imagines the weight of a man, waits for love.

There are mysteries. What caused the smell of fire in Gwen’s room? Who or what is the white ghost that the girls say they’ve seen at twilight? What is the meaning of the lost garden that Gwen finds, with its words inscribed on stones? There is also humour. The novel is narrated in the first person and Gwen is given a dry, quirky wit. About the removal of signposts throughout rural England and children schooled to refuse to give directions, she marvels: ‘No one seemed to have considered that a spy might come equipped with a map.’ Whimsically, she names the girls in her care after types of potato: ‘Golden Wonder’, ‘British Queen’ and, more generically, ‘The Lumper’; ‘Vittelette Noir’, who moves jobs from farm labourer to cook is immediately rechristened ‘Victualette Noir’.

The contrast between Gwen’s yearning but timid approach to love and life and Jane’s fierceness is touchingly rendered and is used to make each woman’s dilemma more poignant. Jane says of her missing fiancé, ‘I cannot falter or he won’t come back’ and in her fragile state she is given to insomnia, night rides across the fields and impulsively giving away her possessions, even her clothes. Cautious Gwen, observing from the sidelines thinks ‘There is no protection in the world for someone who loves like that’.

It was no surprise after having read this gem of a novel to learn that Helen Humphreys is also a poet. I’ve noticed before the close observation, striking images and nuanced language used by other poets-turned- fiction-writers: Owen Shears, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood for instance. Yes, this novel has engaging characters, a plot with unexpected twists and an interesting setting, but it is the writing itself, the texture if you like, rather than the pattern of the cloth, that I most enjoyed and so greatly admire.

The Lost Garden is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Guest review by Jenny Alexander: WRITERS DREAMING by Naomi Epel and WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES, edited by Meredith Maran



Jenny Alexander has written many children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, and three books for writers covering different stages in the writing process. Writing in the House of Dreams: Unlock the power of your unconscious mind is about finding inspiration; Happy Writing: Beat your blocks, be published and find your flow is about keeping going with a long project or indeed a long career, and Free-Range Writing: 75 forays for the wild writer’s soul is about extending your range and just having fun with it.

Jenny teaches a wide variety of workshops, both independently and for major organisations such as The Society of Authors, Lapidus and The Arvon Foundation. Her articles about writing have appeared in Mslexia, Writers’ Forum, The Author and Writing Magazine, where she currently has a monthly column, Free-Range Writing Through the Year. Her books are currently their sign-up offer for new subscribers
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As a writer and teacher of writing, I’ve always been interested in the psychology of creativity so I love reading other writers’ reflections on their personal process, and these two books are full of fascinating interviews. 


I was a dreamer before I was a writer, and my dream life has always been closely connected with my writing - the first book I wrote for writers was called Writing in the House of Dreams. So I was delighted to chance upon this collection of interviews with authors in talking about the relationship between their dreams and writing.

Probably my favourite interview is with Sue Grafton, because she captures the edgy nature of dreams and creative work, the ‘sense of jeopardy’ that comes with handing yourself over completely to the inner world of imagination. She describes the feeling of something mystical powering the writing process. Like me, she does not believe that all dreams have psychological meaning, but engages with them as pure imaginal substance.

I love the way Stephen King compares his writing process with dreaming. He talks about his preparations for writing being like a bedtime ritual; entering into writing feels like falling asleep to the world, and finishing feels like emerging from the dream state in the morning.

Maya Angelou talks about the small mind and the large mind, which is very much my experience of dreaming and writing. They both take you into worlds without limits, and add a new dimension to waking life that makes it feel much bigger.

The whole book is full of great writerly chat, and it’s one you can dip in and out of if you’re busy, though I have to say I was so gripped I read it all in one go on a sunny day in London, sitting on park benches and in cafes. 


I love reading memoirs but one of the things that holds me back from writing one that doesn’t strictly stick to a theme, like I do in Writing in the House of Dreams, is the problem of the ‘and others’ in Meredith Maran's subtitle.

Most of these thoughtful essays address the problem specifically, with many of the authors saying they send the relevant pages to anyone mentioned by name before they go to publication.

Several say that if the person had any objection to being named they would either disguise their identity or omit the passages concerned altogether. Others say they make the judgement on a case-by-case basis.

I like this approach from Sue Monk Kidd:

'Whenever I use someone’s name or reference them, I send them the relevant page or pages of the manuscript before turning the book in. They are usually close friends or family members. I tell them, ‘This is what I’m saying; if you have problems with it, let’s talk about it. I won’t necessarily change the content, but I’ll change your name.'

I think a definite upside to sending the manuscript to anyone you’ve mentioned would be that there wouldn’t be any surprises – you’d have had the discussion before you decide how to proceed. No surprises for the person who is mentioned and none for the author either: several of these essays mention the experience of expecting someone to find a particular thing intrusive and finding they’re fine with that, but have taken serious umbrage about something else the memoirist never dreamed might be problematic.

Related to the question of whether it’s OK to expose other people in telling your own story is the question of why we want to write the memoir at all. The point is made that since memoirs pretty much always risk hurting people, what could make that a risk worth taking?

The most common reason the writers here give is the desire to help or inspire other people who may be experiencing something similar to what they have lived through.

'How can I make my writing better, deeper, truer? Is it true to my voice and my vision? Questions like that often consumed me. They were vital; they still are. But as I got older, the point was not only how I served my work; it was about what my work served.' Sue Monk Kidd

Those are my big takeaways from this book, but there’s so much in it that I’m sure anyone who’s thinking about writing memoir will find the answers to their own questions here.

Writers Dreaming is published by Vintage Books.
Why We Write About Ourselves is published by Plume Books.

Monday, 30 July 2018

WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Brontë, reviewed by Celia Rees


Celia Rees has written over twenty novels. Her new book, Glass Town Wars, will be published in November 2018 by Pushkin Press. It is a fantasy moving from present day gaming to the extraordinary world of Angria created by the Brontës in their childhood and adolescence. Emily is a character. 

Today is Emily Brontë’s bi-centenary. This is in honour of her. It is not a review. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous, although that hasn’t stopped readers on Amazon where Emily Brontë only merits four and a half stars. I’m sure I won’t be the only writer heartened by that. Rather, this is a personal reading. What Wuthering Heights has meant to me at different points in my reading life.

I first read Wuthering Heights as an adolescent; a suitable literary text for grammar school girls. I have to confess, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I had never read anything like it. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that was the whole point and the mark of Emily Brontë’s extraordinary achievement. Neither had any one else. I was reacting in precisely the same way as the unsuspecting reading public when Wuthering Heights burst upon them in 1847. No-one had written anything like it, or has done since. 

I didn’t appreciate just how brilliant the novel was until I taught it for A Level and went beyond the surface appeal of the romance that had both attracted and frustrated me as an adolescent reader. I realised that there was far more to the book than that. Romance doesn’t even begin to describe the passion between Cathy and Heathcliff and there is nothing romantic about the moors. They are real. Beautiful and atmospheric on one page, a death-trap to the unwary on the next. Further aspects of the book came into focus: other characters, how they function within the novel, the intricate interplay of their relationships and the possibility of different readings: the novel as a historical and social commentary on a rapidly changing industrial society.

Emily Brontë did not live in splendid isolation up on the moors. She lived in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Howarth lies within sight of Halifax and had its own mills and working population. Mills and industry do not directly feature in the novel, that would not be Emily Brontë's way. She lived within sight of them everyday, as familiar to her as the Yorkshire dialect she uses so readily and naturally. The moors themselves are scarred by quarrying. Heathcliff is a foundling from the port of Liverpool; his dark, gypsy ‘lascar’ looks throw open a portal to Empire and the wider world. Heathcliff's treatment at the hands of Hindley, the Lintons, even Cathy herself, brings class prejudice into stark focus. The way Emily Brontë engenders sympathy for him, despite everything, would suggest a respect and knowledge of the plight and suffering, the acts of defiance of working men. She lived through factory strikes and riots; she would have heard stories of the hand weavers, the Luddites, the dark lantern men. She lays bare, not just class prejudice, but the position of women within this patriarchal society. No-one was more aware than the Brontë sisters of the dependent position of women, both unmarried and married, and no-one explores this more graphically, more succinctly and effortlessly than Emily. Cathy’s marriage to Linton literally kills her. Isabella Linton is abused and humiliated. Young Cathy is cheated out of her inheritance and kept as a captive. The only light in a considerable amount of darkness is the redemptive power of reading and education.

Later still, I came back to Wuthering Heights as a writer. I admired, above all, the book’s narrative structure. So clever, so innovative, so complex, intricate and exact. And so hard to do. Everything, the whole novel, is contained within the first three chapters: Wuthering Heights itself, the people who live there, a list of names on a windowsill, notes scribbled into the margins of a religious text, a fragment of diary and then the sudden, shockingly violent, savagely gothic intrusion of Cathy's ghost at the window. All witnessed by a narrator who will spend the rest of the novel trying to unravel the mysteries presented to him. His role is shared by the second narrator, Nelly Dean. Both of them unreliable in different ways. He looks but doesn’t see; she sees but doesn’t want to look. These interlocking narratives are added to by other devices: found documents; letters; testimonies that may or not be truthful or accurate. It is only by seeing the whole that the reader may know the full story and even then mysteries remain.

Emily Brontë refused to be fettered by the literary tropes of the time or by reader expectation. She accepted no limits to her creativity or her imagination. That doesn’t mean an undisciplined outpouring. The opposite, in fact, her working is intricate and exact and shows the discipline of long experience. Emily Brontë didn’t spring, fully formed, as the world’s most dazzling debut novelist. She’d been writing since she was nine years old. Emily’s own juvenile writing is lost. We have no record of her contribution to the Angria saga and all that remains of her own world of Gondal are a few poems. She abandoned made up worlds for the one in which she lived. The world she creates in Wuthering Heights is intensely real; its reality underlined by the precision and detail of her descriptions and her essentially unimaginative and mundane narrators but in her use of the gothic, the supernatural, in the liminal, the ‘otherness’ of Heathcliff, in the numinous quality of the writing, we glimpse Gondal gleaming through.

“It is as if Emily Brontë could tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these unrecognizable transparencies with such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” Virginia Woolf

So, Happy Birthday, Emily.

‘Genius’ is a word much over used, as is ‘unique’ but both apply to you.

Monday, 23 July 2018

SECOND ANNIVERSARY post by guest Joanne Harris: RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW by Becky Chambers



Kyte Photography
Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two collections of short stories, a Dr Who novella, guest episodes for the game Zombies, Run and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread (now Costa) Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science.


She works from a shed in her garden, plays bass in the band she first joined when she was 16, is currently writing a screenplay and lives with her husband and daughter in a little wood in Yorkshire.

The first volume of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers trilogy, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was by far the best sci-fi novel I'd read in a long, long time. Genuinely different to the mainstream of the genre, inclusive and compassionate, it seemed to me to be doing what speculative fiction has been trying (and mostly failing) to achieve for most of the ‘90s. Two volumes later, I am convinced that Becky Chambers is near the forefront of a long-overdue revolution in a genre that has been seen for too long as very male, very white and with a general tendency to value space battles over psychology. Not that there’s anything wrong with space battles. But, with some noble exceptions, sci-fi has traditionally been seen by many as an action genre, plot-heavy and character-light, with aliens often presented as thinly-disguised racial stereotypes, and women as love interests, rather than fully-formed protagonists.

Becky Chambers’ first novel forms part of a fresh, new wave of sci-fi. Initially self-published when mainstream publishers failed to see its potential, or to understand the deep demand among readers for increased diversity, it is lighter on plot than most sci-fi, but far richer in character development. It concentrates on powerful themes of belonging and identity, and treats the concept of alien-ness - in terms of race, gender, sexuality and culture - as something genuinely different, rather than just presenting them as humans in clever makeup. The dialogue is terrific - Joss Whedon with more empathy - and the narrative style is spare and elegant and wholly, gloriously immersive.

Record of a Spaceborn Few  carries on from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit only in that it serves to further our knowledge of the universe in which the books are set. Only one character from the first book is mentioned – and that only in passing – which means that the books can be read alone or as part of a wider exploration. I would suggest reading them all – not only because they are excellent, but because they provide an expanding overview of the author’s universe; a universe at least as important as any of the characters. Unlike most futuristic scenarios, this is a universe in which Humans are neither the dominant nor the superior species. The order that has been established within interstellar society has come from an alien culture, as has much of the technology. Humans are a minority group – white humans even more so – challenging the assumptions of so much of our traditional science fiction.

Only on the Exodus Fleet are Humans still in the majority, but the Exodus Fleet is a relic, dating from many centuries ago, still bearing the descendants of the last generation of Humans to leave Earth. This fiercely isolationist group still retains its original cultural identity, though the ancient ships are in disrepair, and supplies are always a problem. Young people wanting to explore the outside world with its many colonized planets are faced with the same kind of culture shock faced by members of certain religious groups who choose to leave their traditional environment. Some leave for good; some return, unable to face life outside the bubble.

When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home are faced with an existential crisis – how to face up to the knowledge that their final destination – the stars – was reached a hundred years ago, and that they are an irrelevance in a universe that has moved on?

Within this framework, the author manages to weave themes of inclusivity and diversity into her sci-fi, along with representations of mental illness, body dysmorphia, xenophobia, depression, gender fluidity and so on - all with the most delicate touch, and in a way that feeds directly into the plot, rather than appearing pasted-in for the sake of political correctness. This is the real deal emotionally: the characters are well-rounded, original and relatable, and the underlying ideas are compassionate and true. It's also a cracking story, well-paced and compelling, with more than enough plot to satisfy, but with a nice, grown-up element of personal and emotional growth, too.

The story is seen through the eyes of a number of different characters – a young mother; a hopeful visitor struggling for acceptance; a young man desperate to leave – all these stories intertwined to make up a larger – and strangely familiar – narrative. A tale of a grieving community; a tale of misplaced ambitions; a tale of optimism and rejection; a culture willing to do almost anything rather than face the outside world. The parallels with current events are inescapable, and yet are delivered with a welcome lightness of touch.

Imagine The Grapes of Wrath, set in space, with all the intensity, heartbreak and tension that implies. And grieve a little for the fact that the mainstream literary world is so slow in acknowledging the scope, skill and literary value of sci-fi - although frankly, anyone who scorns sci-fi as a lesser genre really doesn't deserve to read anything as splendid as this.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Guest review by Michael Lawrence - SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY by Sylvia Beach


 Between 1995 and 2015 I published a number of stories and forty-something books for children and teenagers. One of the books - Young Dracula - inspired five CBBC-TV series of that name; a series I didn’t like and which earned me little more than a fleeting ‘originator’ end credit and a handful of beans. While I enjoyed writing many of my books, others were such a tussle with editors and their various chippers-in that frustration and out-and-out rage became the order of many a day. When the new head of a certain publishing house informed me that my new ideas were ‘very funny with strong narrative voices but a little quirky and out-there at a time when we are looking for something a lot more obvious’ I knew it was time to move on. I’m still moving. Still writing too (it’s hard to give up), but not for children.

If we’d been of a similar generation, Sylvia Beach is someone I would very much like to have known. She preceded me by quite some way, but the bookshop described in this memoir - the name of it at least - had some relevance for me early on.

At the tenderish age of twenty-one I was a freelance photographer in London, taking pictures for the Financial Times, publishers, advertising agencies and so on. That meant a lot of snaps of politicians, pop stars, cereal packets, and women in various states of undress. But this was the so-called Swinging Sixties and I was bored with the parties and zipping round town in taxis just before dawn, so I handed the keys to my balconied flat in Pimlico - along with all my furnishings - to a BBC makeup girl of my acquaintance and hightailed it to Paris to try my hand at writing while starving. (I turned out to have a real gift for the second of these.) While renting an icy garret at the top of the Hotel Novelty at Odéon, I made frequent visits to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Rue de la Bûcherie near Notre Dame. There I discovered treasures banned in England, such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell, and Maurice Girodias’s Traveller’s Companion series. I also met a French composer who wanted help with a letter to the Dean of St Paul’s to offer him a piece of music he’d written in honour of Winston Churchill, who’d just died.

But this wasn’t Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company. Sylvia, a New Jersey expatriate, opened the original Shakespeare and Company – a lending library as well as a bookshop – on the morning of November 19th, 1919. Specialising in books written in or translated into English, in no time her shop became an essential meeting place for visiting English-speaking authors, some of whom used it as their Paris mailing address. The shop more usually associated with Sylvia was in the Rue de l’Odéon, but her first Shakespeare and Company was situated just round the corner in the Rue Dupuytren. When I came across the address of that shop some twenty five years after my impoverished sojourn at the Hotel Novelty my jaw hit my chest. The Novelty was at 10 Rue Dupuytren. Sylvia’s first shop was at number eight – right next door. It was like finding the bones of old Will himself in your sock drawer.

It was from 8 Rue Dupuytren that Gertrude Stein is said to have borrowed around seventy books in the two years before the shop moved to those larger premises. It was at number 8 that Sylvia, with no previous publishing experience, volunteered to produce the first edition of Ulysses in book form, in the process becoming James Joyce’s most vigorous champion. At that shop and its successor she entertained, in one way or another, many writers of contemporary or subsequent legend - Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, D H Lawrence and many others. There ought to be a commemorative plaque on the wall of 8 Rue Dupuytren, but there isn’t. There’s no indication whatsoever that the original Shakespeare and Company was housed there.

Sylvia ceased trading in 1941 after refusing to sell an officer of the occupying German forces her last copy of Finnegans Wake from her window display. Shortly afterwards she found herself in an internment camp, where she was held for six months. Almost exactly a decade after she shut up shop for the last time, an American bookseller called George Whitman adopted the name Shakespeare and Company for his own shop in the Rue de la Bûcherie, apparently with Sylvia’s blessing. The by-then celebrated banner gave George’s establishment a ready-made pedigree which to this day draws literary pilgrims by the planeload, many believing that they’re visiting the shop associated with all those famous writers of the past.

Authentic or not, Mr Whitman’s shop, now run by his daughter – Sylvia Beach Whitman – filled both a gap and a need, not least for cold hard-up souls like me, eager for words they could understand and a spot of free warmth in which to pore over them.

Some of the above is covered in more detail in my memoir Milking the Novelty, a copy of which, I’m happy to report, has found a place in the Rue de la Bûcherie Shakespeare and Company archive.

Shakespeare and Company is published by Bison Books.

Monday, 9 July 2018

THE LIBRARIAN by Salley Vickers, reviewed by Adèle Geras


Adèle Geras lives in Cambridge and reads a lot. She’s published six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published in paperback by Quercus. She has also published many books for children and young adults.

Perhaps the first thing to say about this book is that Salley Vickers has been very well served by her publishers. It’s a most beautiful object: bound in eau- de-nil cloth, and with pretty, flower-strewn endpapers. Holding it gives the reader real physical pleasure. Since one of the main themes of the novel is the delight that comes from stories, it’s fitting that this should be so.

Sylvia is a young librarian who moves into a cottage in East Mole and takes up a post as Children’s Librarian. She rents a cottage from Mrs Bird, and from that moment her life is linked with that of the Bird family, and with those of her neighbours in the village. She’s involved with the children, in particular clever Sam and shy, awkward Lizzie. She meets and falls in love with the local doctor, who is married and who has a somewhat wayward daughter called Marigold.

We learn a great deal about the workings of the library, and of how Sylvia draws the local children into reading her own childhood favourites. Not everyone has enlightened ideas, however, and when a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer goes missing from the Restricted Access shelves, a whole series of events unfolds, at the end of which things in East Mole have changed forever.

I won’t say more about what happens, for fear of spoilers, but I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a tale of ordinary life, told plainly but evocatively. I’d also give it to anyone interested in children’s books, or anyone who believes that the books we read in childhood have the capacity to shape our lives forever. It’s dedicated to Jacqueline Wilson, (who’s been a very good friend of mine for something like 40 years) and Philip Pullman, whom I first met in the early 1990s, so I felt a personal pull to it even before I began reading.

The personal connections continue. One of the friends I’ve made since moving to Cambridge in 2010 is Sally Christie, who is the daughter of Philippa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. This astonishing novel, first published in 1958, figures large in The Librarian and is one of Vickers’s own favourites. I am very happy when lines of life and literature converge in this satisfying way.

The Librarian is published by Viking.