Monday, 18 June 2018

Guest review by Jean Ure: A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY by Hilary Mantel



I had my first book published while I was still at school and have been at it ever since, writing mainly for children and young adults. My first book was pure wish fulfilment, about a girl who became a dancer, and with the recent publication of a ballet trilogy – Born to Dance, Star Quality and Showtime – I seem to have come full circle. - Jean Ure

I’m not at all sure that I can even begin to do justice to Hilary Mantel’s great sprawling novel about the French Revolution. I may, in fact - both book and subject matter being so complicated - end up writing more about my own reaction to it than an actual bona fide review.

First off, I have to confess that when I originally picked up the book I found the opening chapters somewhat dry and uninspiring. It was only an act of faith – I came to it direct from the spellbinding Wolf Hall – which kept me going. It was by the great Hilary Mantel, and that was enough for me. So I kept at it, and little by little it began to grip me, until, having reached the end, I felt an immense sense of loss and had immediately to go back and re-immerse myself; and then, having reached the end for a second time, could still hardly bear to say goodbye. So great a hold did it have over me that I began quite obsessively to seek out every book I could lay hands on that dealt either with the Revolution itself or with the principal players. I soaked myself in the period. I even learnt all the words of the Marseillaise and drove my husband half demented by breaking into song as we drove the dogs up to the park every morning.

So, yes, it is one of those rare books which has lived with me over the years and which I shall doubtless go back to again and again. Having said that, I recognise that for some it will not be the same transcendent experience it has been for me. It depends, I think, on what one looks for in a book. Mantel deals meticulously, in absorbing detail, with both the causes and the course of the Revolution, but she is no drama queen. There is none of Dickens’ lurid storytelling or fevered activity. Even during the Terror, as heads roll and the streets run with blood, she keeps a firm control over her measured prose. She has no need to invent subplots of horror: the horror is all around, part of the everyday landscape, and the reader lives through it along with her characters.

And it is these characters which for me make the book such compulsive reading. From schooldays on we are taught to regard Robespierre and Danton as evil incarnate, on a par with Hitler and with Stalin: Mantel brings off the not inconsiderable feat of presenting them as fully rounded human beings. Deeply flawed, to be sure, and possibly by the time of the Terror unbalanced, at least in the case of Robespierre. The Sea Green Incorruptible clung tenaciously to the bitter end to his purity of belief, whilst the larger than life Danton, less wedded to his principles and consequently far more of a pragmatist, was not above seizing the opportunity to enrich himself.

The huge cast of characters is what brings the book so vividly alive, the women as well as the men. To be sure, Mantel takes authorial liberties. Who can fail to be entranced by the mercurial Camille Desmoulins, enfant terrible of the Revolution? In reality, history would seem to tell us, a decidedly unwholesome and unprepossessing creature. But who is to say that history can be relied on when it comes to fixing a person’s character? Mantel has done exhaustive research, has all the facts at her fingertips, and interprets them though a novelist’s eye to create a richly colourful, if violent and disturbing, world .

Ultimately, without the need for heightened drama – she doesn’t even depict the death of Robespierre. Could she not bring herself to do so, perhaps? – she draws us into the very heart of those troubled times. You feel, by the end, that you have not so much been reading a book about the French Revolution as having actually been part of the experience.

Not the easiest read, I will admit. It does require a degree of perseverance and effort, but how rewarding!

A Place of Greater Safety is published by Fourth Estate.


Monday, 11 June 2018

Guest review by Miriam Halahmy - THE RELIVE BOX AND OTHER STORIES by T. C. Boyle



Miriam Halahmy writes novels for children and young adults. Her books have been published in the UK, America and other territories. Miriam’s books look at some of the most challenging issues of our time, dealing with immigration and asylum seekers currently and in the past, as well as homelessness, racism and family relationships. A new edition of her Carnegie nominated novel, Hidden  (Troika Books, 2018), has been adapted for the stage and will tour in the autumn. Her latest novel, Behind Closed Doors (Firefly Press, July) focuses on two fifteen year old girls on the verge of becoming homeless. Behind Closed Doors examines what it means to love and be loved, and how to make a life when there is no security at home. More on Miriam's website.

T.C. Boyle, an award winning American novelist and short story writer, is not widely known here in the UK. I was first introduced to his talents in a lengthy short story called Balto, set around a court case. A drunken father forces his twelve year old daughter to drive them home from school and she hits a cyclist. Will she lie for him under oath? Great dilemma!

This new collection, The Relive Box, shows off Boyle’s mastery of the form. As in poetry, not a word, a syllable or a line break are out of place. Each story is beautifully crafted with memorable phrases such as “the light making a cathedral of the street trees” and “dandruff like sleet in her hair.” Set now or in the near future, this is a prophetic, provoking, challenging and at times, downright scary collection; a call to arms, reflecting the current state of society and the rocky road we are heading down.

In the title story, every home has a Relive Box and Boyle shows us the terrifying potential of the digital age. The Box consumes every waking minute and most of the night. The children fight the adults for access and work has become an irritating distraction from the real purpose of life – time on the Relive Box. Read this story at your peril. It still lives with me weeks later.

Are We not Men?’ opens with a man’s arm being gripped in the locked down jaws of a deep red pitbull terrier. Have no fear; the animal (like many others in the story, including the ‘dogcat’) has been genetically modified. “She’s a Cherry Pit, germline immunity comes with the package,” says her owner, the eleven year old girl next door. Babies are equally modified, every nuance picked out in a catalogue for those who can pay. Height seems to be particularly valued for females. The child with the pitbull is six foot, two inches. How far will such modification go? In the street ‘crowparrots’ screech in the trees, commenting relentlessly; “Your mother…Up yours! ... f*** you.”

Other stories take current concerns and turn them on their head. In  She’s the Bomb terrorism is the focus but as a convenience tool. A student abrogates all responsibility for fellow human beings and invokes a fake terrorist scare twice for her own selfish purposes.

The Argentine Ant is a reflection on moving between cultures, a sting in the tail and the startling way creative thought can emerge from totally unexpected quarters.

We are drowning under a deluge of films, books, op eds, etc etc on the fate of humanity in the post-digital, post-genetic modification age. What if this has already happened? What will it look like? How will it affect us? Boyle considers these questions (almost with glee) and hits below the belt, sparing no feelings. Thoroughly recommended.

The Relive Box is published by Bloomsbury.


Monday, 4 June 2018

OUR HUNDREDTH POST! Guest review by Graeme Fife: ZEKE AND NED by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana


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. He is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.

Larry McMurtry is a captivating writer, a weaver of stories out of a tradition of campfire yarn-spinning which evokes Homer’s epic poems. McMurtry’s fictional landscape is that of the borderlands and open territories of the old West, the lands overrun in the great expansion of America by the settlers which led to the eviction of the peoples who’d lived on their ancestral lands for millenia. They spoke of borrowing land, the pioneers demanded ownership.

McMurtry has collaborated with Ossana on books and screenplays – their adaptation of Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar in 2005 – and in Zeke and Ned they explore a particularly fraught passage of late nineteenth century history in the forging of the Union which resonates powerfully in what is happening to that Union today. Even as I read the novel, it occurred to me that it goes some way to illuminate why the NRA exerts such a powerful influence in American politics, not only with its strident claim to the right to bear arms apparently enshrined in the Constitution, but to the visceral desire of its vociferous members to embody the freewheeling spirit of the frontiersmen, "a manz gotta do wotta …" blah blah.

Zeke and Ned is loosely based on the life of Ned Christie, a Cherokee, who, as a child, walked what the dislocated tribes called The Trail of Tears, the long, punitive march from their homelands in the south-eastern states to lands west of the Mississippi, under the terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The novel explores the anguish and heartbreak of the clash between the displaced peoples and the relentless onslaught of ‘white law’, administered by often ill-paid and harassed judges in small town outposts and enforced in hot lead by US Marshalls, many of them post-bellum bandits, criminals, thugs and murderers, who could no more fire a pistol accurately than they could read. The terror of such application of notional justice is apparent in Ned’s summation of his plight, accused of murder, in hiding: ‘The one thing he could count on about the white law…was that sooner or later, day or night, winter or summer, they would come’.

The novel ends with chapters loosely based on the historical fact of Ned Christie’s War, when Ned fights off a succession of villainous white posses sent to root him out of the fort he’d constructed for his young wife – recently brutalised by one posse - and himself in the woods on the uplands of Shady Mountain in Oklahoma.

In these days where truth has taken on a Humpty Dumptyish aspect and facts are, it seems, manipulable, it’s interesting to ponder the matter of a novel’s truth – a resonance in our understanding of human relationships – and its bending, or ditching of facts in deference to narrative propulsion, a hallmark of McMurtry’s writing. Does that vitiate the history? I don’t believe so. As someone once remarked about the historian Tacitus: ‘He may have got his facts wrong, but he told the truth.’ For the novel admits to fiction as a means of exploring the jeopardies of the people caught up in its own construct of dramatic facts.

The imitation of serious events, the hero destroyed by excess of virtues, the explosion and, thereby, catharsis of passions, a scenario that stirs pity and fear…all make Zeke and Ned a compelling American tragedy. A similar tragedy may, surely and grimly, be seen to resurface in Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas…too many others.

A while ago, I noted the sign above a gun shop in north-west America: Blessed are the Piece Makers, this at a time when protesters at the closure of the pits were parading with placards declaring: God, Guns and Coal made America Great.

Hiding behind the insistence that guns are a right and hunting an integral part of American manhood, the clamour of the NRA has a rocky logic: bad man with gun is stopped by good man with gun. Really?

Zeke and Ned concludes, in poignant reminiscence of Ned’s marksmanship as a squirrel hunter: ‘…there would be the shot; bark would fly from the limb the squirrel was on; then Mr Squirrel would come sailing down. He made it seem as easy as whistling, Ned. Easy as whistling, was how Ned made it seem…’

McMurtry’s prolific output includes a masterly series of novels, both comic and sorrowful, and unfailingly sympathetic, centred on small town Texas, beginning with The Last Picture Show…a continuum of America’s contemporary history.

Zeke and Ned is published by Simon and Schuster

Monday, 28 May 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.2: Tamsin Rosewell and Judy Brooks of KENILWORTH BOOKS choose THE TRICK TO TIME by Kit de Waal



Kenilworth Books is a 50-year-old independent bookshop that buzzes with activity and conversation. It is situated in an historic town in Warwickshire, almost exactly in the middle of the country. This extremely busy, thriving little bookshop is known for its vibrant window displays – which are often requested by publishers up to a year in advance. The bookshop has also gained a reputation for its fearlessly outspoken, challenging blogs; these explore book industry issues in detail, from the effects of discounting on authors’ royalties, to the commercialisation of World Book Day, the exclusion of smaller publishers from industry news and awards, and the commercial devaluation of books. The team at Kenilworth Books also works closely with the many local schools and libraries in Warwickshire and in the City of Coventry, supplying books for school and library shelves.




Connecting the personal and the political in her wonderful 2016 novel My Name is Leon resulted in a bestseller, and many well-deserved accolades, for Kit de Waal. My Name is Leon’s political backdrop was the London riots of 2011, and the events of her new novel, The Trick to Time - which has already attracted the attention of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction – are interrupted and shaped by the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974. Kit de Waal’s own rich, mixed Irish-Caribbean heritage makes her well-placed to both document and comment on the effects of the attacks on Birmingham’s Irish community, as the shock-waves ripple and swell through families and across entire lifetimes.

My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time are very different novels; but in both, Kit de Waal takes an oblique look at an ever-shifting world by focusing on the tiny lives of her characters.

In an unnamed seaside town, on the eve of her 60th birthday, we meet Mona. Her life is quiet, a little mundane perhaps – and from the moment we meet her she seems not unhappy exactly, but restless, sleepless and unfulfilled. From its gentle, humdrum start the story creeps up on us, uninvited and discomforting. Mona has built herself a business selling handmade dolls; each child’s body is made from specially selected hand-turned wood – oak for one beautiful child, pine for a small wisp of a child; all sanded to a fine, silky finish. The clothes are hand-stitched from carefully-selected fabrics picked up in the town’s charity shops: a bit of lace trim taken from an old blouse, a pretty fabric from a discarded skirt. When quiet women turn up, she says that they need only bring her a shawl, a blanket, anything they like – and to tell her the weight of the child. The dolls hint at the tragedy in her own past. Guided by Kit de Waal’s elegant writing, we travel back and forth in time with Mona, and slowly the past and the present become the same thing. We see Mona as a child, brought up in Ireland by a caring father, but bored by the solitude forced on her by her mother’s lingering illness. He imparts the advice, as her mother is dying, that ‘there’s a trick to time – you can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer’.

Mona, however, fails to understand the significance of her father’s words at that time. She makes the exciting move to Birmingham, where she meets the love of her life, the delightful, confident and sweet-natured William. After a blast of love at first sight, a whirlwind romance and a joyful wedding, the couple settle down to build their own family.

There is always love, but there is also always politics, hatred and brutality. The violent intrusion of the IRA’s bombings are the story - and at the same time they interrupt the story. But that is the reality of the political world. It defines us, even when we believe that great events have nothing to do with our little lives.

These are small lives, but it is the small things that enable us to see the landscape more clearly. Kit de Waal deftly draws the characters: the gossipy hairdresser, the slow and sulky teenage assistant, the friend who organises a surprise party, the over-friendly café owner – and we care about them all. This small world is complex though; good and bad shift around, allies and enemies swap places and simple situations suddenly seem more complicated. Mona belongs in her world, she moved to the thriving, cosmopolitan Birmingham with great hope and excitement - but she is also an immigrant. Her and William’s love for each other and hope for their future is contrasted with the hate and destruction that follows the bombings. We see through the life of Mona how the Irish are treated in the wake of the bombings; the blatant racism of the cab drivers, even the midwives, and the anger unleashed on them by the ignorant English who seek revenge on anyone with an Irish accent. The Trick to Time is set both in our own time and in the 1970s – although the events of 45 years ago seem to be occurring today too as external political events unleash blind, uninformed hatred towards an immigrant community. A timely reminder perhaps, or just one of the deeply ingrained failings of the human race?

The Trick to Time is published by Viking


Monday, 21 May 2018

MR PEACOCK'S POSSESSIONS by Lydia Syson, reviewed by Linda Newbery


Linda Newbery has written widely for young readers and is now working on her second novel for adults.
Lydia Syson has successfully published young adult novels with historical settings, and now looks set to reach a wider audience with this dazzling tale of colonisation and corruption, enterprise and abuse.

Set in Oceania in the late 19th century, Mr Peacock's Possessions centres around a growing family and the hardships they face on moving to an uninhabited island. "Where's the snake?" Joseph Peacock asks, on being offered this fruitful, unsullied land, apparently a new Eden. And there certainly are dangers. Soon after being landed there the family members face starvation when finding to their dismay that their supplies have rotted in the ship's hold; they must learn to survive on limpets and roots until they can grow their own crops. Utterly isolated, they don't see so much as a passing ship for months on end, and can summon help only through signal fires. They don't at first realise that the island is volcanic, and that subterranean rumblings produce sulphurous, deadly steam which almost kills two of the girls when they sleep in a cave near the crater. But the title hints that the deadliest "snake" is the one Mr Peacock brings with him, part of his own temperament. His son Albert, frail and suffering from what appears to be rheumatoid arthritis, bears the brunt of this, receiving constant taunts and criticism.

Events are shown to us through two viewpoints: that of Lizzie, Joseph Peacock's favourite second daughter, and - in first person - that of Kalala, one of six Pacific islanders, all young men, brought to the island to work at clearing and building. Kalala, whose older brother Solomona is a preacher, is shocked to realise that the Peacock children can't read, while he, observant and devout, reads his brother's Bible, anxious not to lose his skill. Through the highly perceptive and intuitive Kalala, and the vivid, frightening dreams of pain and despair he attributes to aitu, troubling spirits that haunt him despite his Christianity, we learn of a recent tragedy of neglect and abuse that's left bitter marks on the island. When Lizzie explains, "Pa can get cross, I ought to tell you ... He wants everything done just so. You do, of course, when a thing is your very own, don't you? You want it perfect," she prompts Kalala's recognition of "the force I saw at once in him, light and dark together." Lizzie's words are truer than she realises, especially of the difficult relationship between Joseph Peacock and the boy Albert in whom he finds only disappointment; she wonders why her father didn't look to her, instead of to Albert, as his heir and capable apprentice. When Kalala incurs Peacock's anger and fear, though acting through the best of intentions, events escalate with horrifying inevitability.

There are nods to Lord of the Flies in the island setting and the struggle for orderliness that fails to prevent the eruption of violence - Lord of the Flies as if written by Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps, with a dash of The Wicker Man. But I think readers will find various other parallels and echoes in this vividly realised, compelling novel.

As I write this, the longlist for the Women's Prize has just been released. I'll be disappointed if Lydia Syson's name doesn't appear there next year.

Mr Peacock's Possessions is published by Zaffre. 


Monday, 14 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Cassidy: IDAHO by Emily Ruskovich



Anne Cassidy writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. Moth Girls was published by Hot Key in 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her new novel No Virgin describes the aftermath of a rape.

Idaho is a startling first novel which centres on a family tragedy. In it we are told the story of Wade and Jenny and their daughters June and May. The tragedy is the explosion at the heart of the story and the writer circles around it for the rest of the book. We begin to understand the events through the eyes of a number of characters mainly those of Ann, the second wife of Wade.

Ann has a pressing interest in the events of that day and it is her discoveries and interpretations that lead to the reader’s understanding of what happened and crucially why. And yet it is only a subjective solution for this is no classic crime novel. It is a story of a family in crisis, of a man who has a chance to live again, of a woman trying to understand the actions that brought it all about.

Mostly though this is the story of family life. Wade and Jenny, a young couple expecting a baby, have to live out a winter marooned in the snowy mountain. Two young sisters June and May play together until June is too old to play with dolls and May’s grief for the loss of her playmate is beautifully and painfully realised. Wade has early stage dementia just as his father had; though the loss of memory brings a kind of relief as he no longer knows what happened to his family.

The tragedy touches many people’s lives; William and Beth who comfort the husband afterwards; Tom Clark, who paints images of the missing daughter as she gets older year by year; Eliot, the boy who lost his leg falling through a dock. We also touch on the guilt of the perpetrator, the self-flagellation of a person who cannot accept any forgiveness.

The writing is assured and poetic and the characters are presented with a tender touch. There is no one in this book that the writer does not care about.

Idaho is published by Vintage.





Monday, 7 May 2018

Guest review by Anne Rooney: THE WAVE IN THE MIND by Ursula K. Le Guin



Anne Rooney writes fiction for children and non-fiction for both children and adults. Her adult series Story of… on the history of science now runs to 11 titles. It’s published by Arcturus in the UK and North America and has co-publishers in Japan, Korea, China and South America.

She has never had what might pass for a proper job. After a degree and PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, she was an academic just long enough to decide it wasn’t the right path and then embarked on a writing career. She has held three posts as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, most recently at Newnham College, Cambridge, but mostly just writes, with around 200 books published to date. The most recent is Dinosaur Atlas for Lonely Planet, beautifully illustrated by James Gilliard.


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

‘A dragon appears in the field…’


The Wave in the Mind is ostensibly about being a reader and a writer, but it’s just as much about being Ursula K Le Guin. The book is a collection to relish of essays, poems, lectures, musings and literary whatevers on reading, writing and imagination written over a long period. If it isn’t a contradiction in terms—even if it is—it is full of profound musing.

Le Guin wears her keen intelligence and scholarship lightly, but never undermines or undervalues them, never makes light of them. We sense a stern guard against the tendency of women to be reductive regarding their own achievements. It’s underlined by the first essay, in which she describes how she has had to pretend (largely to herself) to be a man in order to grasp life. It is terribly poignant to re-read these lines so soon after her death:

“Here I am, old… I just am young, and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Ulay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young.”

The pieces are too varied and too many to give more than a flavour here. She muses on why the word ‘non-fiction’ doesn’t appear in the OED (in 1998) in a piece on the value, contingency and fragility of ‘fact’ that could have been written in the post-truth, Trumpian world. She returns again and again to her fascination with rhythm and how she feels this is at the heart of all art that uses language. She pleads for honesty, lyricism and a respect for communicative silence. She unpicks the structure and meanings of traditional tales and of some literary greats, including Huckleberry Finn, in which she locates the novel’s power in the tension between Finn’s character and Twain’s silence about it. There is combative creativity, deep respect for other writers, measured and not always hopeful feminism.

Le Guin is best known, of course, for her sci-fi/fantasy novels. It’s a genre not highly regarded by the literati and in academia. (The depth of thought and clarity of expression in this collection should silence anyone who suggests that writing fantasy is an exercise for intellectual lightweights.) Le Guin was aware of low esteem in which her preferred genre is held, but doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against the injustice of it. Her disappointment is dignified and manages to be quietly shaming—though whether the literati and academics are going to feel ashamed is another matter.

Things Not Actually Present  is a brilliant vindication of the fantasy writer’s art. Le Guin has a knack of making profound points sound so blatantly obvious that they brook no contradiction and we wonder why anyone ever thought otherwise. Fantasy, she maintains, can deal directly with universal themes and truths in ways that realist fiction cannot, because realist fiction is hobbled by its inevitable links to one social group, culture or time. This inevitably makes it less immediately accessible or applicable to others. It is an argument for, and deeply rooted in, inclusivity:

‘Fantasies are often set in ordinary life, but the material of fantasy is a more permanent, universal reality than the social customs realism deals with. The substance of fantasy is psychic stuff, human constants … Society in the decades around the second millennium, global, multilingual, enormously irrational, undergoing incessant radical change, is not describable in a language that assumes continuity and a common experience of life. And so writers have turned to the global, intuitional language of fantasy to describe, as accurately as they can, the way “we” live “now”.’

In her hands ‘we’ and ‘now’ become timeless. In her fiction, she explored with acuity the eternal, bothersome and endlessly fascinating business of being human and in The Wave in the Mind she explores the exploration with equal acuity.

The Wave in the Mind is published by Shambhala Publications.

Monday, 30 April 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pocketful of Crows is published by Gollancz.


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

Monday, 23 April 2018

Guest review by Paula Knight: THE OUTRUN by Amy Liptrot



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Outrun is published by Canongate. 

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

Monday, 16 April 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivy & Abe is published by Michael Joseph.






Monday, 9 April 2018

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Cave in the Snow is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.1: Sam Barnes of BOOKS & INK, Banbury, picks IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear


This is the first post in a new occasional feature - we're inviting independent booksellers to tell us about their favourite books. A big thank you to Sam Barnes for starting us off! If you're an independent bookshop and would like to join in, please contact us - we'll be very pleased to welcome you.

Sam Barnes is the owner of Books & Ink Bookshop, an independent bookshop in Banbury with second hand, antiquarian and new books. Sam opened the shop in 2005 and runs it full time, with a bit of help here and there from family! When not cataloguing stock and running the shop, Sam’s a voracious reader, an occasional review writer, a collector of Edward Ardizzone books and ephemera, and loves to get out exploring the great outdoors with a pair of walking boots and a camera. The bookshop is open Tuesdays to Saturdays but the website is open 24/7.

Sunday 3rd September, 1939, 11:15 am: Neville Chamberlain declares that Britain is now at war with Germany. People across the country sit gathered around wireless radios to hear the pronouncement. Maisie Dobbs joins her dearest friend Priscilla and Priscilla’s family to hear the devastating news; adults, all affected in some way by the previous war, exchange anxious glances with one another, while Priscilla’s teenage boys react in a more excitable way.

This is the opening scene for the 13th Maisie Dobbs mystery from Jacqueline Winspear; a historical mystery series based on the eminently likeable psychologist and private investigator, Maisie. Turning back the clock to book one, the series begins with Maisie setting up her own private detective practice in London in 1929. An independent, self-employed young woman setting up in professional practice in the 1920s - brilliant; I loved Maisie straight away. From the beginning you sense in Maisie a sensitivity, spirituality and sadness - all lending to her interesting and empathetic character - and as the novels progress, she develops into an investigator with a talent for solving crimes where compassion and understanding of the human psyche are frequently involved.

In this novel, frequent mention is made of Maisie’s backstory; her time spent as a frontline nurse in France during the 1914-1918 war and before that, her time spent in service as a young girl before she met a mentor who steered her onto her career path as private investigator. Both elements are important in the story, as thoughts of the first war are uppermost in the minds of everyone old enough to remember, and Maisie’s time in service regularly proves useful to her in her detective work, with her unique ability to find common ground with people of all social backgrounds.

Maisie is called upon by the Belgian Embassy to investigate the murder of a Belgian national, a refugee in Britain from the first war. A police investigation has been launched but, because of the pressures on the security services, the police are content to conclude an open-and-shut case of violent robbery. The Belgian Embassy aren’t happy with the conclusion and hire Maisie to do further digging.

It’s a time of upheaval in London; streets and playgrounds are quiet as children have been evacuated to the countryside; the skies are filled with immense floating shadow-creating barrage balloons; people are nervous and many men and women who came through the first war at great cost and personal sacrifice are now having to endure seeing their barely adult boys sign up to the forces. Maisie’s father and stepmother, living in the Kentish countryside, have some evacuees billeted with them; one of whom is a nameless silent little girl who arrived on the train from London but who does not appear on any records. Amidst trying to solve the case of the Belgian refugee before more murders take place, Maisie and her assistants also take it upon themselves to try and find out the story of the lost little evacuee, to see if they can find a living relative and work out where she has come from and how they can best help her. Themes of loss and displacement are to the fore in this mystery, making the story feel very relevant today, with the plight of refugees, and refugee children in particular, being uppermost in the thoughts and hearts of many.

Jacqueline Winspear creates believable and empathetic characters and paces her stories just right for the theme - page-turning but not at the expense of characters, descriptive writing or historical interest. Maisie comes through each case with grace, humility and prowess - not always successful in her cases but always changed in some small or subtle way, developing with each novel into an interesting and warm human character. While not ‘cosy-crime’ exactly, the series are a light read and the crimes not dwelt up on in great depth - no gore, no terror or forensic uglies. I can’t read (or watch) that sort of crime; it leaves me with an ingrained fear for days. I’d recommend Maisie Dobbs to even the most crime-sensitive readers - and, in fact, all of the readers I’ve recommended Maisie to in the bookshop, have come back for more doses, so that’s a pretty good testament.

In This Grave Hour is published by Allison & Busby.




Monday, 26 March 2018

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NOVEL by Adele Geras


Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The novel is in rude good health. Millions of people all over the world buy novels, read them, discuss them, take them out of libraries, pounce on them in charity shops, borrow them from friends and discover them on Kindles. Money is being made by lots of publishers and even a few writers. There are novels to suit every taste out there and even the Literary Novel, (by which I mean a book that isn’t immediately classifiable as crime, romance, sf, horror, spy or whatever) is being read avidly. I give you, off the top of my head, Atkinson, Tyler, Strout, Mantel, Perry, Toibin, Hollinghurst, St Aubyn, Amis, Ishiguro, Roth, McLaverty, and on and on. You can add others, I’m certain. Please note: I know there are many, many people who do not read novels at all. If they want stories, they have tv and movies and games and other ways of accessing narrative. This piece however is about novels.

I’m prompted to write not so much by Will Self's pronouncement in an interview with Alex Clarke from the Guardian that the novel was doomed as a culturally significant thing, as by a discussion on Twitter started by Eva Dolan (a very good writer of thrillers) about people tending to shy away from the difficult, the challenging, the experimental etc.

I suspect that this reluctance to engage with such works has something to do with this kind of book being as Eva puts it, very light on plot. She says: I can't think of many novels with no plot at all. plenty light on plot but think the reader collaborates in finding one, almost like seeing faces in clouds.

I'm afraid that doesn't cut the mustard for me. Print that has to be scrutinized and gone over and puzzled about must yield a story at the end or it ceases to qualify as a novel. I contend that anything that tries to do away with PLOT can be very many things but a novel isn't one of them. It might be a prose poem or an essay or meditations about this or that subject but it's emphatically NOT a novel.

PLOT is to a novel what a foundation is to a building: necessary. A sine qua non. All the rest: roof beams, walls, plaster, décor: every single other thing slobbers away into mud if you haven’t laid down a foundation. Where novels are concerned, that foundation is a plot.

Some believe that there are 7 templates for Available Plots (see Christopher Brooker's The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories. He contends that all stories fall within 7 categories, which may or may not be true, but I'm not discussing that now. I only want to say this: a novel needs a plot.

This can be extraordinarily simple. Very many books of greater or lesser literary worth can be boiled down to: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Many more can be summed up as: man in danger, man fights danger, man overcomes danger. Plots can also, of course, be terribly complicated, like Bleak House, for instance. They can be full of satisfying twists and breathtaking surprises. They can be every sort of thing to every sort of writer but they have this in common. They are WHAT MAKES A READER TURN THE PAGE. They are the “what’s going to happen next?“ engine that drives the whole machine.

I’ve been a reader for almost 70 years. I read a great deal, though less so these days with the advent of the Box Set. Many long form narratives on television are better than lots of novels. I’ve never been a dutiful reader and have always given up a book if I was bored, except when I had to study it. I can’t tell you the number of readers I’ve spoken to who tell me, sighing: "Well, I feel I do have to get to the end but I’m not enjoying it...”
What they probably mean is: they are not engaged with this book because the plot is non-existent and there’s only so much fine writing a person can take before needing someone to root for, someone to hate, someone to fear and with any luck all of the above. They want talk and interaction between characters. They want conflict. They want passion. They may want quantities of sex and violence if sales figures are anything to go by. They want A THREAD OF SUSPENSE to pull them through the timeline of the novel. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Will the curate turn up for tea tomorrow? can be as exciting in good hands as who killed the body in the library?

And that surely is the point: in good hands. Another variation of one of my favourite mottos: it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. Let me take Marcel Proust as an example. Here is someone who’s generally thought of as being on the plotless side of the literary fence. We do, after all, spend many, many pages right at the beginning of the novel waiting for Marcel’s mother to come and kiss him goodnight... but as the story develops, we are caught up with the plot lines of very many characters who interact with one another and whose stories intertwine most satisfyingly. The same thing can be said of the 12 volumes in Anthony Powell's sequence of novels, known as A Dance to the Music of Time. Each one is a story on its own and when you've read all twelve, they form a dizzying perspective of plots, like a intricate jigsaw of society perfectly slotted together; a kaleidoscope of many lives, moving through time together.

You may like reading the domestic, the historical, the futuristic, the dystopian, the soppy, the thrilling, the mind- crunchingly intellectual, the short, the long, the funny (please don’t forget the funny) the sentimental, the zany, the socially committed, the preachy, the off the wall... you name it. You might like any of these kinds of novels, but if what you're reading has no plot, then it can't be called a novel. Which, of course, is absolutely fine.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Guest review by Mary Hoffman: BIRDCAGE WALK by Helen Dunmore




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.

Helen Dunmore’s death last year was a great loss to the world of literature. She had written fifteen novels, four short story collections, eight YA novels, seventeen books for younger readers and twelve poetry collections.

The last of these, Inside the Wave, posthumously won the Costa Book of the Year prize, announced at the beginning of this year, an award that met with universal approval and poignant pleasure. Helen Dunmore was, in words of the cliché, much loved. But clichés are sometimes true and no-one has a bad word to say about her, whose death at 64 robbed her friends and readers of surely more fiction and verse.

So what of her final novel, Birdcage Walk?

The ambience of the story is immediately arresting: Bristol in the late 18th century, a time when it was a meeting place of radicals, many producing political pamphlets and other ephemera. It was also the site of a property boom and canny developers were building grand terraces above Clifton.

One woman, Lizzie, the daughter of radical Julia Fawkes, forms a link between the two since her marriage to John Diner Tredevant, one of the speculators building a terrace above the gorge. That is an uneasy in-law relationship and Lizzie is torn between the political ideas she has been brought up on and the capitalist ideology that underlies the source of her husband’s potential wealth.

Helen Dunmore herself wrote two months before her death (Guardian, 4th March 2017: Facing mortality and what we leave behind) that she wanted to acknowledge the people who leave no mark on history, no legacy of written words: “Historical record does not know them but fiction can imagine them.”

Of course, at that stage she was aware of her terminal diagnosis and she does leave a great legacy of writing in so many genres but Julia Fawkes is a fictional unknown, whose overgrown grave is found by a man walking his Jack Russell in a rather awkward present day Prelude to the novel. Birdcage Walk is a path leading to a graveyard in Clifton, Bristol, where Dunmore had walked and explored for forty years.

The discovery of Julia’s grave leads the unnamed seeker to research on the Internet and in local archives but although he can find details of Julia’s second husband, Augustus Gleeson, nothing of her life remains. And the dog-walker fades out of the story, not returning at the end to add the second bracket to the framing device.

Still the main story doesn’t begin straightaway. After the Prelude there is a kind of prologue, in 1789, in which a man buries a woman in a deserted glade rear a river. Only eight pages and three years later does the action of the novel proper begin.

Lizzie wakes in a post-coital dawn and extracts herself from her husband’s heavy embrace. This is the powerful, strong John Tredevant, who prefers to be called Diner and who wants plenty of sex but no children. We know from the beginning that he has a temper and is possessive about his wife, not wanting to share her love with a child.

But a child there is and it’s not because Diner forbears to satisfy himself in other orifices or that Lizzie forgets her mother’s advice about what to do with a little sponge and some vinegar. It is Lizzie’s own mother, the great Julia Fawkes, who has the child, a boy, and the tragedy of his birth leaves him in need of mothering.

Diner is jealous of the love Lizzie lavishes on her little half-brother and issues a series of ultimatums. It is clear that all the women in the story are afraid of him and Lizzie’s true alliances are with Hannah, her mother’s old servant and young Philo the Tredevants’ own maid. There is a sort of conspiracy of sisterhood among the women to keep Diner pacified and the baby Thomas (named for Tom Paine, as the son of two radicals) properly cared for.

Meanwhile, Lizzie and Diner have moved into one of the terraced houses he has built – what we’d now call a “show home” - to encourage buyers but the terrace and the pavement outside it are incomplete, suppliers are demanding payment, the workers are threatening to down tools and buyers are not forthcoming. None of this is good for Diner’s temper and Lizzie lives in an atmosphere of brooding menace.

At the same time, in Paris, the deposed King Louis has gone on trial. Lizzie is living in a time of great change both personally and publicly. It seems almost inevitable that she will meet someone else and she does: a young man being sheltered by her stepfather Augustus. Will Forest is everything that Diner is not – tender, a poet and interested in Lizzie’s opinions.

And into this powder keg of high emotions is dropped the match of Diner’s dead first wife, Lucie. Her godmother turns up, asking to see Lucie’s grave.

This must be Helen Dunmore’s last novel and it is laced through with forebodings about death. Because of her previous prize-winning output and the sadness at her loss, we want it to be a masterpiece but unfortunately, it isn’t.

It is, as you would expect, very well-written and often fascinating but the construction is off -putting and the prologue of the man burying the woman leaches all the tension out of Diner’s story. There are little nods to other treatments of the same theme, as when Diner says of Lucie, “one may smile too often,” evoking Browning’s My Last Duchess and “all smiles stopped together.”

In her Afterword, Dunmore says, “I am writing not only about a particular period of history but also about the ways in which the individual vanishes from historical record.” This is where the interest of the novel lies, in the imagining of Julia Fawkes as one of those “lost people,” albeit a fictional one, whose mark on history disappears like a fingerprint in kneaded dough but whose influence lives on.

Her Words Remain Our Inheritance is carved on Julia Fawkes’ headstone. It might as well stand as Helen Dunmore’s own epitaph.

Birdcage Walk is published by Windmill Press.

Read Writers Review's tribute to Helen Dunmore here.



Monday, 12 March 2018

EDUCATED reviewed by Adele Geras





Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

The cover of Tara Westover's Educated  is striking. The passage quoted on the back of the book tells you something of what this memoir is about: the author's journey from Idaho to a PhD from Cambridge, a path strewn with astonishing descriptions of life in her extraordinary family. It also demonstrates some of the power of Westover's writing style: plain, sinewy and elegant, all at once. 

You couldn't make it up... that's what people say when what they've read or seen takes them aback to such an extent that they find it an effort to (in another popular form of words) get their heads round it.

I read Educated about two months ago and I'm still thinking about it. It's been universally praised. I predict that it will be on every shortlist it can possibly be on. It will be passed from one friend to another and anyone who reads it will come away moved, touched, horrified and above all knocked sideways by Westover's gift for telling her story in such a powerful and resonant way. She writes most beautifully, with a gift for conveying at the same time the terrible, violent, abusive things that attended her childhood and family life and at the same time, the tenacity of the bonds she feels binding her to her parents and siblings.

She sees them clearly as they are: a man and a woman adhering to a Survivalist Mormon belief so powerful and paranoid that the children are unregistered with school or any other government agency and have spent their entire lives working in their father's scrapyard (with no Health or Safety supervision) or, in the case of the girls, helping with their mother's herbal remedies for family and neighbours. Westover's mother is a self-taught midwife and in thrall to her narcissistic and overbearing husband. Some of her siblings are more sympathetic than others, and one brother is a brutal abuser. The physical harm described in the book is startling and deeply shocking. If this were fiction (you couldn't make it up) your editor would say: you can't put that in your novel. No one would believe it. But it did happen to Westover and how she escaped her family and gained a brilliant PhD from Cambridge University can be seen as an (again, scarcely believable) happy ending.

But Cambridge is not unalloyed bliss. Tara Westover has suffered greatly and hasn't been in contact with most of her family for years.

I finished this book full of admiration for its courageous and hugely talented writer and I hope very much that she finds happiness in her life from now on. I can't wait to read her next book, whatever it turns out to be, and I can safely say that if you start reading Educated, you will not be able to put it down. And you certainly won't be able to forget it.

Educated is published by Hutchinson.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Guest review by Graeme Fife: MOBY DICK by Herman Melville


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.

At this teeming novel’s heart lie both the essential impulse that sustains human endeavour – above all love, and in this case, the sodality of men in extremis – and the tragedies which compromise the search for answer, survival, triumph, endeavour. Ahab’s monomanic obsession with the whale, symbolised by the artificial leg carved from its bone, a doom-laden clumping along the hollow deck keeping the men below awake, epitomises the folly of human struggle when it’s driven by a narrowness of ego, bereft of fellow-feeling. Ahab has married late in life, he has a little boy whom his mother will carry ‘to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail’. When the mate Stubb pleads with him to abandon his insane pursuit of the creature, Ahab declares, like the enraged prophet before the priests of Baal: ‘Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.’ The ‘divinity which shapes our ends,’ no less. He even baptises his harpoon ‘in the name of the Devil’, fully aware that, in Melville’s words, ‘the infernal nature has a valor often denied to innocence.’ For the challenge of courage underpins the epic chase of the White Whale, incarnation of Nature’s elemental powers: we either ride out life’s climactic storms, by fortitude, or succumb by moral failure, knowing fear and overcoming it. ‘I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale,’ declares Starbuck, ship’s mate.

The innocence reflects that of the America in which Melville was formed, in its infancy as an independent unity of states – just as the ship comprises many parts, its crew a unity of disparate individuals. Like young Ishmael, face to face with a new world of dangers, callow America needed to wise up, toughen up, embrace the pioneer spirit, as on land, so on the sea.

Bulkington, ‘six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer dam,’ strides briefly into the narrative, a man who, ‘by deep, earnest thinking,’ goes to sea, rejecting the pull of the land, precisely because ‘in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God’. The highest knowledge is, surely, self-knowledge.

Two things bind the crew of the Pequod (named for an Algonquian tribe): the thrill - and danger – of the chase, and the intimacy of friendship. The bond between the novice whaler, Ishmael, and Queequeg, master harpooneer, is a friendship which Melville characterises as closer than marriage perhaps because (though he does not say so) it eschews sex. It is of the higher union, the spiritual. Not the love that dare not speak its name, rather the greater love, expressed in laying down one’s life, thus Queequeg, leaping into a turbulent sea to save a crew member who’d fallen overboard.

Early in the book, Melville warns the reader against becoming snared in the digressions about whales – their place and representation in culture, history, art – and about whaling per se. Eschew them, if you will, these treatises on an animal which inhabits the profundity of the ocean yet must rise to the surface, periodically, to fill its lung with air. A creature of two worlds: the mortal and the mysterious. Does chasing and killing it, draining its flesh for oil to fill the lamps which light the world, spooning out the ambergris to supply perfume to scent the rooms lit by those lamps, condemn or ennoble the men who go out in the oared boats, facing the possibility of catastrophe when the Leviathan is speared and held tight on the rope till it tires and dies? That is the nub of Melville’s tragic crux, the clash at the heart of his poetic drama, wherein ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense’.

Poetic? Why, yes. I think of Whitman’s poetry, in its search for a diverse new language to fund the examination of this burgeoning America. Melville’s sonorous writing shows many influences - Bible, homily, Shakespeare - maybe not to every taste, memorable, nevertheless.

Melville unfurls a compelling story pitched on ‘the great shroud of the sea [which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’. It is part of Melville’s own meditation on America in the heave and swell of its gestation: what is this vast land? What tribulation and beauty does it contain? Who people it? How is it theirs? How do they live? In what and of what is their being?