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

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.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Guest review by Judith Lennox: CIRCE by Madeline Miller

Judith Lennox was born in Salisbury in 1953 and has written twenty-one novels, the most recent of which is Hidden Lives. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Iain and has three sons and six grandchildren.

The opening sentence of Miller’s novel is arresting: ‘When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.’ Circe is a witch, a sorceress. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and the naiad Perse, who catches his eye. We follow Circe’s story from her birth in Helios’s dark and silent halls, through her encounters with the familiar characters of myth – Scylla, Odysseus, the Minotaur – to her destiny.

The novel is told from Circe’s point of view. It’s a difficult task to persuade a reader to care about an immortal being, but Miller achieves it by making the reader feel present in antiquity. She skimps on neither the glory nor the savagery. Her landscapes are beautiful and luxuriant, populated by the gods, with their chilly, implacable, gleaming majesty. Compared to them, humans are grey and slack and wear their mortality like a badge. Pity and mercy are alien to Athena, Artemis, Hermes, Helios and their kind, as is death. One of Circe’s formative experiences is when she witnesses the punishment of Prometheus for giving mortals fire. She alone secretly gives him comfort – a cup of nectar – after his terrible scourging by the Fury. In return he offers her a lesson she never forgets: Not every god need be the same.

Circe’s story is one of self-realisation. As the novel goes on, she comes to know what she truly is: a witch, a creator of potions and enchantments, who has the power of transformation. Her skills aren’t handed to her on a plate, she has to learn them through hard, painstaking work, alone in exile on the island of Aiaia. Circe comes to realise that what Prometheus told her is true, that she is not the same as other gods. She cares about the fate of mortals: when Hermes, her lover, off-handedly informs her of the death of the princess Ariadne – ‘If you cry every time some mortal dies, you’ll drown in a month’ – she angrily rejects him.

So often, the portrayal of gods, demi-gods and monsters in film and fiction is disappointing. We might admire their prowess or fear their cruelty, but we can’t connect with them. They seem one-dimensional, both less than they should be and at the same time untouchable, invulnerable. Miller’s mythical beings are vivid and full of character, summed up in neat phrases and pithy descriptions. Helios, for instance: ‘My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.’ Or Scylla: ‘her round face lacquered with malice.’ The tedium of immortality is hinted at: ‘Gods love nothing more than novelty.’ And so we are able to understand a little the Titans and Olympians, because they share our human frailties.

Most of all we connect with Circe. Her problems are our problems – the baby who cries all night and will not sleep, the son who leaves his mother for foreign lands, the predatory men who, finding her on her own without the protection of a husband, son or brother, use her as something less than human. Perhaps we’d like to have access to the powers with which she confronts these situations – perhaps we too would like to turn our aggressors into swine, or devise enchantments to guard our children. In Madeline Miller’s hands, Circe is no evil witch, but an intelligent woman who finds autonomy and love in a hostile world.

Circe is faithful to the roots of the story, while managing to feel contemporary at the same time. The chill of antiquity exists in a world that trembles on the brink of change and modernity. Her language is poetic, as sharp as a knife-blade when necessary, but touching, poignant and thoughtful too. ‘Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets,’ muses Circe. ‘As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.’ In this novel, Madeline Miller triumphantly reclaims a story of female power, putting at its centre a character who has the capacity for love, endurance and empathy.

Circe is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Independent Bookseller Feature No.3: The Book Corner, Halifax. UNDER THE ROCK and THE GALLOWS POLE by Benjamin Myers

We opened The Book Corner in September 2017 with Bookworms, our dedicated children’s bookshop, next door. We are proud to have brought an independent bookshop back to Halifax and are located in the recently renovated Grade I listed Piece Hall, the only example in this country of the great eighteenth century northern cloth halls.

The shop is owned by Kate Claughan who also owns The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge. The team are avid readers and all-round book champions, passionate about delivering events that offer something extra for the local community whether it be a local author book signing, a poetry collection launch, a spoken word open-mic night, a regular YA book club or a good old-fashioned story-time for younger readers.

We are also delighted to partner Square Chapel Arts Centre supporting their various events for authors and poets including Hollie McNish, Roger McGough, Willy Russell and Stuart Maconie.

We have chosen to review two books by local author Benjamin Myers. Ben is an author, journalist and poet who has written seven books as well as many poems and short stories. His novel The Gallows Pole has just won the 2018 Walter Scott Prize and is our best-selling fiction title. Ben recently collaborated with ‘Yorkshire’s very own Wainwright’ and cartographer, Christopher Goddard, to create a Cragg Vale Coiners map, a sweeping walker’s guide to the locations featured in the novel. It is well worth a trek through the blustery bogs and banks to experience the incredible Calder Valley but always with a hip flask close at hand.

The Gallows Pole is a visceral re-telling of the Cragg Vale Coiners’ efforts to ‘clip’ the late 18th century England’s economy into devastation. Myers delivers a windswept tale of 1769 Northern England, diving head first into the murky world of pseudo King David Hartley and his gang of land-workers as they bully and spit their enterprising scheme across the Calder Valley. No man will stand in their way, but can they avoid the hangman’s noose? Deeply resonant for the modern reader, this is a vivid portrait of the working man and his uprising against the rich establishment. Myers has woven an unforgettable tale filled with landscape, poetry and Yorkshire vernacular that has you grasped by the throat long after the final page has been turned. A worthy winner of the 2018 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Under the Rock is the most beautifully written non fiction book. Reading it takes you on a journey into the West Yorkshire village of Mytholmroyd which is situated in the steep sided Calder valley. Scout Rock, is present as a constant companion. The author lives below it; his relationship to the rock is examined throughout the book. The rock has also affected others who live in the valley, most famously Ted Hughes. The observations on nature are glorious whilst not flinching from describing the raw and gritty side. The book is split into parts: Wood, Earth, Water, Rock. At the end of each part are poems which make you feel as if you accompanied the author on his walks around the valley. There is an extremely powerful sense of place. I was fully immersed in the landscape, the water, the woods, the rock. Lyrical, powerful, engaging, moving and fascinating. Highly recommended.

The Gallows Pole is published by Bluemoose Books and Under the Rock by Elliott & Thomson.

Review by Katie Ashwood and Louise Beere.

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

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.