Monday, 15 April 2019

Guest review by Ian Beck: STASI 77 by David Young

"... the constant fear of being observed, followed or overheard runs like a strong thread throughout ..." 

Ian Beck is the author and illustrator of many books for children. He has also illustrated books by Adele Geras, Rose Impey, Geraldine MaCaughrean and Philip Pullman. He has published several novels for young people including the Tom Trueheart series, Pastworld, The Haunting of Charity Delafield, and The Carmody Casebooks. He recently revisited his iconic illustration to the cover of Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reimaging it for the cover of Elton’s final world tour programme. His most recent picture book is The Magic Hour published by Tate Gallery in March of this year.

It is 1977 in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik of East Germany. The anti-fascist protection barrier (to give the Berlin wall its official title) will still be standing for another 12 years. Major Karin Muller of the Kriminalpolizei has been recalled from holiday to investigate the suspicious death of a party official. As with the three previous books in the series (Stasi Child, Stasi Wolf and A Darker State) her enquiries are never straightforward. There are always deeply hidden crosscurrents and darker motives. The shadowy hands of the Stasi, the state secret police, are close  behind her at almost every turn.

Karin has an odd kind of relationship with her country and its politics. Frequently frustrated at her attempts to get to the truth and yet, in passing, admiring the architecture of their brave ‘new world’, feeling at one point in the centre of a new development that ‘Marx himself would be proud of what they had achieved’. However, she can still deplore the qualities of the official ersatz coffee, Kaffe Mix. It comes as a delightful, almost ecstatic shock when in one scene she ís covertly served a cup made from real coffee imported from the West.

The party official has been found suffocated by smoke inhalation. What at first might have been seen and dismissed as an accident is soon revealed to be murder. A similar killing of another party official is reported, and further murders using the same modus operandi. Karin sets off with her assistant, Hauptmann Werner Tilsner (with whom she has shared the odd dalliance in the past) who says, ‘I’d much rather be getting dirty hands than shuffling paper and pushing pens.’ However an interview with the widow of one of the murdered men is made difficult through the presence of a Stasi official who censors certain questions and forbids particular lines of enquiry. It seems that the Stasi are taking a very keen interest in what appears at first to be a routine case. Even those officials and colleagues who she has been able to trust in the past now seem at times to be untrustworthy, even perhaps capable of physically doctoring evidence. Who can Karin Muller trust? In the end, perhaps, only herself.  

The narrative is interrupted at certain points with the testimony of a French prisoner in WW2. A fisherman from the Isle de Re, he was in the resistance with his two siblings, ‘a band of brothers’. They have been caught and shipped to Germany as slave labourers, known as Zebras, for their striped uniforms. They work in terrible conditions tunnelling for the secret V1 and V2 rocket bases, flogged and starved and treated as barely human by the Kapos in charge of them. The horror of their story, each time it appears, provides a vivid and continually worsening counterpoint to the main thrust of the investigation. Karin seems especially vulnerable this time round. Her twins, aged seventeen months and mostly looked after by her grandmother Helga, are a sensitive pressure point, a possible bargaining chip for any officials out to thwart her investigation if it gets too near the truth. The narrative constantly circles the very dark secrets of Germany’s past in WW2. Karin is from the generation born too late to be held responsible for what happened in the war: as one of the characters says to her at one point, ‘You are too young to bear the guilt’. Later in the narrative a series of immediate post-war debriefing interviews between a major in the American forces and a member of the Nazi party are transcribed, throwing more light on the darkness at the heart of the book and its shocking conclusion. 

David Young writes with admirable clarity and atmosphere. The day to day details of East German life, the suspicions and petty inconveniences, the constant fear of being observed, followed or overheard runs like a strong thread throughout. Interviews might be conducted at an especially unpopular bench at the Zoo. Older buildings and their history are evoked: ‘Like many of the Republic’s older structures, bullet hole damage from the Second World War was still evident in its brickwork’....indeed that damage is not only physical but runs deep into the structure of the state itself. This gripping and satisfying read is a worthy conclusion to the Karin Muller series. It is also fascinating to read of the true deeply moving and shocking events behind the story in the author’s note at the end of the book.

Stasi 77 is published by Bonnier.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Guest review by Harriet Evans: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

 "To my mind one of the great English novels of the 20th century..." 

Harriet Evans is the Sunday Times bestselling author of eleven novels. Her last book, The Wildflowers, was a Richard and Judy Book Club selection and a Kindle No.1 bestseller. She lives in London with her family and enjoys sloe gin, feminism, Game of Thrones, and anything illustrated by Shirley Hughes. She is on Twitter @HarrietEvans. Her new novel, The Garden of Lost and Found, is published on 18th April.

I hardly feel qualified to write a review of a book as good as this; but if it means one more person reads this criminally neglected novel then so much the better.

Twitter is a good place for writers, if you know to mute or block accounts that will needlessly rile you when a long day alone at the computer stretches ahead of you (why follow Piers Morgan if you don’t have to? Why?) I have found a lovely community on Twitter by curating my timeline so that I see mainly tweets from people who like talking about good books and in particular books by women, which was how the great Lissa Evans came to recommend Lolly Willowes to me.

Two facts: there are more women writers published today than men, and more women buy and read books than men, yet there is still a huge imbalance in the reception and influence of books by women. (Ask the man next to you at dinner who knows everything about modern literature if he’s read Anne Tyler.) The books we write need to be boxed into a genre, filed neatly away. Historical fiction. Romantic fiction. Chicklit. And this packaging is now being applied restrospectively to authors like Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith. It means books like Lolly Willowes will be rediscovered, but in a cosy ‘vintage’ way, and not given the attention that is their due.

All this is to say that Lolly Willowes is to my mind one of the great English novels of the 20th century and it is shameful that its reputation hasn’t endured. My copy is a gorgeous new edition from Virago with a brilliant illustration which you see here of a cat and an English village (and a top-notch introduction from Sarah Waters). But I think the type is a shade too fluffy for how complex a book it is. Still, it gets across the very great enjoyment to be had from this story of female emancipation, witchcraft, family and mansplaining. (Yes, it really is about all those things!)

It is the story of Laura Willowes who in 1902, upon the death of her beloved father for whom she has been keeping house in Somerset, moves in with her brother and sister-in-law in London to assume the role of devoted unmarried sister and helpmeet. Time moves on (it is one of Townsend Warner’s many skills as a novelist that the rapid passage of time is dealt with so gracefully) until after the Great War when Laura, buying a bunch of perfect chrysanthemums in a Bayswater grocer’s one evening, is suddenly overcome with the absolute conviction that she must live where they came from.

‘They smelt of woods, of dark rustling woods like the wood to whose edge she came so often in the autumn of her country imagination. She stood very still to make quite sure of her sensations. Then: "Where do they come from?" she asked.

"From near Chenies, ma’am, in Buckinghamshire."'

One of the joys of the novel is how certain the quiet, dreamy Laura is of what she wants in life and how tough and deep is her intelligence (during the war she helps by doing up parcels at the Post Office four times a week. ‘She did them up so well that no-one thought of offering her a change of work’ – the experience of millions like her.) After establishing in one of the novel’s most enjoyable scenes that her brother has mishandled her inheritance so that she has no means of living independently, she demands quite briskly that he reinvest in something that pays a tiny dividend and moves to Deep Mop, a village in the Chilterns where all is not quite what it seems…

I am going to be bold and not say what happens when Laura moves to Deep Mop, other than that it is wonderful, wild and really weird. Townsend Warner is in total control of her material throughout and that gives one a dizzying sense of excitement as the plot hurtles forwards. There is a delicious depth of detail to the writing (‘A hot ginny churchyard smell’ is one of many descriptions of the English countryside perfect in its evocation of place.) The Mitfordian English social commentary is spot-on and the knowledge of what is to come makes rereading it an absolute hoot. But, also, it gets across its graceful point about the worth and inner life of British womanhood in the last century devastatingly well. I would not trust someone who didn’t love this book. It’s a good test. Please, I beg you, if you haven’t read it, try Lolly Willowes.

Lolly Willowes is published by Virago.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf

"A multi-layered, timeless story, taken at a measured pace that allows the reader to settle in and get involved..."

Yvonne Coppard is a writer of children’s fiction, non-fiction for adults and occasional columns and articles in a variety of publications. She is currently a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with businesses and public service organisations to promote clear, understandable English in written communication. See more on her website.

In the small mid-West community of Holt, Colorado, Tom struggles to care for his two young sons, Ike and Bobby, when his wife’s depressive illness leads her to abandon them. Victoria, seventeen and pregnant, is thrown onto the street by her abusive mother. Elderly brothers Raymond and Harold live a quiet life with only each other for company and little experience of the world away from their farm. Maggie, a divorcee living with her father, will be the catalyst for the connection of these unfolding stories.

The tale is set in a time that feels old-fashioned modern but is never explicitly referenced. This subtly reinforces one of the main themes: the mysterious nature of the human connections that bind us all across time and distance. Haruf crafts a multi-layered, timeless story, taken at a measured pace that allows the reader to settle in and get involved; it’s almost like catching up with friends over afternoon tea. The number of central characters and the switch between four different viewpoints is unusual and may irritate some. But for me, it worked and seemed to underscore the seasonal, rhythmic pattern of a rural life. The characters came off the page immediately: distinctive, individual and real, they pulled me into their lives. Even the more minor characters have depth and leave an impression after they have gone.

There is plenty of light and shade in the narrative. Raymond and Harold agree to take in Victoria but the three of them seem to have no common ground and the set-up is precarious. Ike and Bobby are left to roam free; while their adventures and perspective brings warmth and humour, their childish naivety and lack of supervision leads them into real danger. Tom, a teacher, faces up to a bully but finds himself, his job and his family threatened.

My heart was in my mouth at times, worrying about what would happen to these fragile, lovable people. But it is hope and not despair that suffuses the book. I found it haunting, joyous and suspenseful in turn. It is a proper human story, told without flashy literary devices or controversy; the whole construction is delicate, yet masterful. Plainsong is one of the few books of the last decade that will stay with me, and which already I want to read again.

Plainsong is published by Picador.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Independent bookseller feature No.6: Borzoi Bookshop, Stow-on-the-Wold: SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

"Don't rush it - you could miss the vital hints which help solve the mystery."

I am Aloÿse Packe and I have worked for the independent Borzoi Bookshop in Stow-on-the-Wold for the past 29 years. The shop has been in the town since the late 1970s. During this time there have been three owners and twice as many shop dogs. There have been too many changes to go through here but some of our customers are still the same and they certainly appreciate our quirky individualism. We have just moved premises within Stow, so please don’t think we have closed - we have just moved. We are the official bookshop for the Chipping Campden Literature Festival held in May; we hold regular book signing events, and we run a successful book club for Daylesford Organic. We love to chat to our customers about books, as Linda will testify, so please drop in.

I chose The Sixteen Trees of the Somme because it has tremendous all-round appeal. I have read it twice. Usually I find this an annoying thing to do but I enjoyed it just as much the second time round. In fact I found so much more in the detail.

Lars Mytting, the author, is better known in the UK for his best selling non-fiction book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Wood plays an enormous part in this atmospheric family saga spanning the twentieth century.

Edvard is brought up by his grandfather on a remote farm in Norway. Following his grandfather’s death in 1991 Edvard decides to delve into the mystery of the death of his parents in France where, as a small boy, Edvard went missing for four days. Intertwined with this is the story of Einar, Edvard’s great uncle, a skilled cabinet-maker who was estranged from his family. The story moves to Shetland where Edvard meets Gwen Winterfinch, a young aristocratic Scottish girl, whose own family story is entangled with Edvard’s. Together, they travel to France hoping to find the truth about a missing inheritance. The chapters set in France are poignant and deeply moving. It is appropriate that the paperback edition was released in October 2018 as we remembered the end of hostilities in 1918.

Through the descriptive passages on wood we discover the link between the main characters. Trees have deep roots. The idea of a family tree is deeply symbolic.

To begin with the book moves slowly but take heed – every little piece of information fits into the jigsaw puzzle (rather like stacking wood). Don’t rush it – you could miss the vital hints which help solve the mystery. Ponder on the love story – attractive, wild, girl versus the sensible committed girl next door. This book may not stand the test of time but it is a really good read.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is published by MacLehose Press. 

Monday, 18 March 2019

ONCE UPON A RIVER and THE BINDING, by Diane Setterfield / Bridget Collins, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"Caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers..."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication is The Key to Flambards, and she is currently working on an adult novel.

I'm feeling selfish for bagging two such enticing books - but how could I resist? I read both during the dark winter nights and slow mornings of January and early February; usually an early riser I stayed later in bed, happily caught in the spells cast by two exceptional storytellers.

Diane Setterfield is best known for The Thirteenth Tale, though my preference is for Bellman and Black, the story of a Mephistophelean bargain involving a rook and a funeral parlour. Her new novel Once Upon a River has a clever title, suggesting folk tales and traditional telling, a story passed from mouth to mouth with changes as it goes, mysterious and possibly miraculous events, and an invitation to put ourselves in the hands of a knowing and confident narrator. All that, and everything that’s added by the river setting, with its associations of timelessness, constancy and meanderings, of the rhythms of the season, occasional breaking of bounds and – here – either barrier or conduit between this world and others. The key events of Setterfield’s tale take place at the year’s marker-points: solstices and equinoxes, starting on a cold midwinter night. “As the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap.”

The opening pages are reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage: an inn on the Thames not far from Oxford, the potential for flooding and even a baby placed in the care of nuns. But that baby is not the focus of attention. Instead, the regular drinkers at the Swan – gravel-diggers, cressmen, bargemen – are startled by the arrival of a half-drowned, injured stranger, carrying what at first is taken for a puppet but is soon discovered to be the body of a four-year-old girl. There’s a further shock when nurse and midwife Rita (the nunnery orphan, now adult) discovers, after an improbable length of time and against all initial evidence, that the little girl is alive.

Who is she? As we meet the cast of characters, we learn of three competing claims. Is she Amelia, stolen from her wealthy parents, the Vaughans, two years ago? Is she Alice, daughter of the negligent Robin Armstrong, drowned by her desperate mother? Is she Ann, sister of Lily White, a disturbed young woman who’s been persuaded that she’s responsible for her sibling’s death? The child, recovering, remains mute, offering no clues to her identity. Soon after the rescue she is taken to live with Antony Vaughan and his fragile wife Helena; yet this happens so early in the tale that we know there must be more to unravel, and she remains “the girl” throughout the narrative. Only Bess Armstrong with her “seeing eye” detects what the girl really wants, though readers are unlikely to guess the final surprise.

While we engage with various characters, the links between them become apparent, twining and tightening. It’s an atmospheric and compelling tale of love, loss and loyalty which in spite of its playfulness will engross readers in the stories of reluctant lovers Rita and Daunt, in the anguish of the troubled Lily and in kindly Robert Armstrong’s search for his missing granddaughter. And who could resist a man who grieves for an intelligent pig, stolen from him two years ago and still sorely missed? As the pages thinned I found myself not wanting the story to end, but Setterfield kindly dismisses us: "It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"

Bridget Collins won the Branford Boase prize for her first young adult novel, The Traitor Game, and went on to publish six more for that age group, but without making the impact her talents deserve. This, her first adult novel, has been published with a great splash, immediately reaching the bestseller lists. The premise is a clever and beguiling one: binding someone's memories into a book is a way of permanently removing guilt or trauma. Permanently, that is, unless the books are burned ... And the "binding", we realise, isn't always for the sufferer's benefit. The setting is - like Setterfield's - in a world both like and unlike ours, vaguely Victorian, and in what could be Hardy's Wessex; there's enough sexual abuse, corruption and manipulation to keep the bookbinders fully occupied. Books themselves - especially those that have been sold, rather than kept hidden in locked cupboards or vaults - are viewed with suspicion. "They're people's lives ... Stolen. Sucked out. It's a kind of magic ... a dirty, sordid kind of magic."

The three-part structure starts in the middle. A young man, Emmett Farmer, is recruited as apprentice to an elderly female bookbinder, Seredith, who recognises in him the necessary gift. Learning the crafts of tooling, marbling and finishing (gorgeously described), he doesn't penetrate to the heart of the mystery until he's sent to the home of the Darnays, where he discovers that one of several books destined for their vault has his own name on it.

To discover why he's been 'bound', we return to his family home, where a love triangle develops - so tenderly, yearningly told - between Emmett, aristocrat idler Lucian Darnay and Emmett's sister Alta. Bridget Collins is wonderful on the tentative approaches and withdrawals, the shy glances, the misgivings and self-doubts of sexual attraction. Forbidden love, that staple of romantic fiction, acquires a new potency here through our awareness that only one - or, initially, none - of the participants is aware of what's happened between them. The idea of brainwashing, more commonly found in science fiction or political dystopias, is given unusual and powerful treatment here. If you knew that you'd been 'bound', and there was a way of recovering your lost memories, would you choose to? Or would the fear that you'd committed some terrible crime persuade you to remain in ignorance?

As the story gathers pace and urgency it raises issues of repression and self-knowledge, power and abuse. With its lushness and emotional sweep and the tight focus on the youthful main characters, on emerging sexuality and defiance of conventions set by elders, this captivating story could have continued Bridget Collins' impressive run of teenage novels. But the switch to adult fiction has successfully - and immediately - brought her storytelling prowess to a wide and appreciative audience.

Once Upon a River is published by Doubleday.
The Binding is published by The Borough Press.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE RADETZKY MARCH by Joseph Roth and TROUBLES by J G Farrell

"At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the RuleBritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory..."

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. This year, Thames and Hudson will publish a revised edition of his books on the French Alps. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy books from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

At this uncertain time of questioning or trumpeting the RuleBritannia mythology, a good moment to revisit two novels about faded glory.

‘On the frontiers of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy there were at that time many men of Kapturak’s sort.’ [He’s a cynical businessman.] ‘All around the old Empire they started to circle like those cowardly black birds that can see someone dying from an enormous distance…No one knows where they come from, or where they’re bound. They are the feathered brothers of Death, his heralds, his companions and his camp followers.’

Joseph Roth’s novel chronicles the slow decline of a great empire through the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, taking its title from the march composed by Johann Strauss Junior in 1848 to celebrate the Austrian army’s recent Pyrrhic victory over their insurgent Italian subjects in Piedmont which marked the beginning of the end of Austrian supremacy in the Italian peninsula. Roth described the march, which became an unofficial national anthem and a favourite of the army, known for their impractical white uniforms and Ruritanian incompetence, as ‘the Marseillaise of conservatism’. Here he explores the delusions and misprisions which underpin the clinging of a people to the mendacious fantasies of their questionable past glories.

The book opens on the battlefield at Solferino as a silvery noonday sun breaks through the grey-blue haze separating the opposed armies. The first Trotta, an infantry lieutenant from an obscure village in Serbia, heroically saves the life of the Emperor by stopping a sniper’s bullet with his own shoulder. He’s awarded the army’s highest military honour and ennobled to Baron, a title which makes him feel decidedly uncomfortable. He dissuades his son, who is more drawn to the social distinction the inherited title will confer, from joining the military, seeking to alert him to the vanity of mere rank. However, the second baron encourages his own son to join the cavalry and indulge in the snobbish high status with which that will invest him.

Defeat in WW1 reduces the great sprawl of royal and imperial Austro-Hungary to a by-water, a tawdry parish, the once brilliant capital Vienna a truncated relic of its grandiose past, poverty for most, a slump into Weltschmerz and apathy for the glitterati. Whereas in Berlin they say ‘situation serious but not desperate’ the insouciant Viennese say ‘desperate but not serious’.

Roth delivers a work of intense narrative power, a brilliant evocation of that era of transition between the lost, imagined glory, and the deflated pomp, a penetrating insight into the human condition, the ant negotiating a mogul field of molehills.

JG Farrell’s Troubles, set in Ireland, begins where Roth’s novel ends, in the fraught atmosphere of 1919, when the infamous Black and Tans joined the fight against the IRA in the Irish War of Independence. Asked about his choice of historical context, Farrell said: ‘the reason why I preferred to use the past is that, as a rule, people have already made up their minds what they think about the present. About the past they are more susceptible to clarity of vision’. Current trumpery purveyed in the ‘take back control’ clamour would suggest otherwise.

Major Archer, returned from the war, arrives at the Majestic Hotel on the coast of Wexford, in south-eastern Ireland, as a guest, hopeful of confirming engagement to a woman he met on leave. Her father, the elderly owner, Edward Spencer, is the last scion of an old Anglo-Irish landowning family, Unionist in politics and, like the building he occupies, ‘beginning to go to pieces’. For the hotel itself is dilapidated, an anachronism, a toppling bastion of colonial power. The Protestant Spencers are, necessarily, at odds with the Catholics of the village in which the hotel is situated, but, more significantly, represent a doomed outpost of British rule in an Ireland of increasingly strident calls for liberation. Locals throwing stones to smash the windows. The threat of impending violence swirls - the gathering menace of Sinn Féin - and, in the dying pages of this fine elegiac novel, the imperious edifice of the Majestic Hotel succumbs to fire: ‘…the ceiling of the writing room descended with an appalling crash, ridden to the floor by the grand piano from the sitting room above. For hours afterwards a white fog of plaster hung in the corridors through which the inhabitants of the Majestic flitted like ghosts, gasping feebly’. It’s as though the besotted dream of the heyday is rent in cackling mockery of the benighted souls who’ve clung to its thin pretence for so long, refusing to see through its tatters.

The Radetzky March is published by Granta.
Troubles is published by New York Review of Books.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Guest review by Anna Wilson: UNSHELTERED by Barbara Kingsolver

Anna Wilson started out as a picture book editor at Macmillan Children’s Books and went on to be an editor at HarperCollins. She has also freelanced for several years as a fiction editor for Bloomsbury, Puffin and Hachette children’s book publishers. Her writing career began twenty years ago with a picture book, published for very young children. Since then Anna has published over 38 books for children and young teens including picture books, short stories, poems and fiction series. Her books have been chosen for World Book Day and been shortlisted for the Hull Libraries Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year Award. Anna’s recent young fiction series Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire is published by Stripes. Her memoir Missing the Boat is her first adult book.

Anna also gives talks, runs writing workshops in schools and teaches at Bath Spa University on the BA and MA creative writing courses and is a tutor for the Arvon Foundation.

Unsheltered contains two interlinking stories, both set in and around the same house in Vineland, New Jersey and both containing elements taken from real life events. One storyline takes place in 2016 as Trump (referenced as ‘The Bullhorn’ rather than by name) is banging his fist on the campaign-trail podium; the other unfolds in 1871 when Vineland was a community conceived as a Christian utopia by the landowner Charles Landis to give shelter to citizens shaken by the aftermath of the civil war. Kingsolver skilfully interweaves these stories, using the house as a metaphor for ideas built on shaky foundations and for the collapse of ideals and mores taken for granted in both the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries. If this makes the novel sound dry, there are far more ingredients to whet the appetite. This is, at heart, a story of two individuals struggling against similar themes in eras which turn out to be not so different from one another as they might at first appear.

The novel starts in 2016 with Willa Knox. Willa is a woman with more than her fair share of problems: she has inherited a house which, we learn in the first line of the novel, is in such poor shape, ‘The simplest thing would be to tear it down.’ Not only this, but her academic husband Iano has recently lost tenure, forcing the family to move into the ‘shambles’ of a house, her heartbroken adult daughter has come back from Cuba in need of shelter and Willa’s son’s wife has committed suicide, leaving a new born baby in need of love and care. Willa is also caring for her ailing and cantankerous father-in-law. Willa and Iano have worked hard all their lives to provide for their family, but this is not enough. As Willa says, ‘It’s like the rules don’t apply anymore’. But she is strong (at times, perhaps, unbelievably so) and manages to keep her head while all about her, including, one could argue, the house, are losing theirs. She is a journalist and puts her powers of investigation to good use in digging into the archives to find out if the house can benefit from a preservation grant to stop it falling down.

Back in 1871, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has moved into the house with his new bride and has taken up a post at the local school. He soon runs into problems when he dares to mention Darwin’s theory of evolution in class – something which goes very much against the accepted orthodoxy of the Christian community. He finds solace in friendship with his neighbour, the ‘amateur’ naturalist Mary Treat. Treat, like Landis and his Vineland community, really did exist in 1870s New Jersey and Kingsolver had the benefit of sifting through an incredible amount of correspondence between Treat and Darwin when writing her novel. Nineteenth century Vineland’s blinkered reactions to advances in science versus the accepted status quo tally well with the backdrop to a twenty-first century America which lauds a man who could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him’. Indeed, this comment is mirrored by the storyline that unfolds around the real-life murder from which Landis escaped conviction in 1871.

Sometimes split narratives can be unsatisfactory: readers can find themselves preferring one over the other and skipping ahead to get to the story that holds their attention more. I didn’t feel this way, as both Thatcher and Willa held me captive. My only criticism would be that Kingsolver likes to push a point home and sometimes uses her characters as speechifiers, allowing them to stand on their soap boxes for a beat too long. I felt this particularly in the conversations between Willa’s son and daughter who have chosen opposing routes in life: the one as a capitalist wealth-maker, the other as a hippy dreadlock-wearing drop-out. However, the novel ends on a gentle, hopeful note and I was sad to say goodbye to both strands of the story and the engaging characters that people it.

Unsheltered is published by Faber & Faber.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.5: FIVE LEAVES BOOKSHOP of Nottingham: VIDA by Marge Piercy, reviewed by Rob Bradshaw

Ross Bradshaw is a bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, the first radical bookshop ever to win the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award in 2018. This year they're again in the regional running, as are four other radical bookshops from London, Edinburgh and Southampton.

"I worked in Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham from 1979-1995, an earlier radical bookshop that closed in 2000, before setting up Five Leaves as a publisher. We've brought out some 200 books since then - social history, landscape, Jewish secular culture, and for a period a successful crime and young adult list. And we were the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became the world's biggest when we published our second book on that subject...

We opened in 2013 and, though we still publish, the bookshop side of the empire takes precedence. Nobody could make a living from a shop selling radical books alone - and it would be pretty dull - so we operate as an independent. However, our position, slap bang in the city centre but up an alley, means our rent is low and we can sell the books we want to sell rather than the books we would have to. So, for example, a quarter of our fiction is in translation and we have a disproportionate number of children's books with black and ethnic minority characters in them, compared to what is published nationally.

We organise lots of shop events - 82 last year - and three or four all-day events with a number of speakers. And an annual radical bookfair. And we launched (or relaunched if you are old enough to remember) Feminist Book Fortnight with fifty other independent bookshops from Britain and Ireland, and, this year, Italy! We like to keep busy."

The next issue of The Spokesman, the journal with an old-fashioned name from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. includes a long article by me on the history of radical bookselling, so forgive me going into the past to talk about Marge Piercy! The article included bestseller lists from two long-vanished radical bookshops that both featured Woman on the Edge of Time by Piercy, which also appeared on the best-seller list of Mushroom Bookshop. Forty years later this feminist utopian/dystopian novel is still in print. It was exciting way back when to read her American imports, only available in those pre-internet days in small radical outfits, on top of those published here by feminist presses. Copies would go round groups of friends, getting tattier and tattier. Her books were prescient in offering a critique of male sexuality, but also suggesting the existence of non-binary characters. One of her books, reflecting her own Jewish interest, was based on the Golem legend, turned into science fiction.

But the book that I liked best, which I used to read every year, was Vida. The Vida in question, Vida Asch, was part of the American anti-Vietnam underground, on the run with her comrades as were real people from the Weather Underground, a militant split from the mass organisation Students for a Democratic Society. Vida shows how she was drawn into armed activity, taking side-swipes along the way at the male privilege of the organisation's leading activists. But essentially this is a novel about relationships, and trying to keep them going under the most difficult circumstances, a world of safe-houses and betrayal in the 1980s while also looking back at Vida's earlier life in the maelstrom of 1960's America. In one of the safe houses she meets, and falls for, a younger activist also on the run.

In America Marge Piercy is well known as a poet, but her poetry never really caught on here, as Five Leaves (publishing wing) and Penguin discovered to their cost. In the States her work is so well known that some of her Jewish poetry has become part of the prayer book for Reconstructionist Jews, a modern, egalitarian movement.

Piercy herself is of a working class, poor Jewish background, which also comes out in some of her novels. I suspect she is not widely read nowadays, certainly in this country. All of her work is worth visiting.

Vida is currently available from Merlin Press and PM Press.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: Rachel Ward's ANT AND BEA books

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

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books: 'an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it shows how girls are silenced.' Love Reading 4 Kids

When I found out that I had won two crime fiction books by Rachel Ward I knew I was in for a treat. As a children’s writer, I know of Rachel Ward’s fiction for teenagers and thoroughly enjoyed her Numbers series.

In The Cost of Living we meet the two amateur sleuths, who both work for the local supermarket, Costsave, in the fictional town of Kingsleigh. Bea, a check-out girl in her early twenties, lives with her agoraphobic mum, Queenie; and Ant, from the estates, who left school early and seems to be going nowhere, but who manages to get a trainee job at the supermarket. An unlikely friendship springs up between them as a crime draws them together. There is a stalker in Kingsleigh and he is attacking women. Then a woman is murdered. This is all too close to home for Bea and she begins to investigate and, gradually, Ant is co-opted to help. Everyone is a suspect – colleagues and locals alike.

Dead Stock is the second book in the series. It opens with a body being dropped from a bridge, a dead cat, and more complications in both Bea and Ant’s personal lives. Although both books can be read as stand-alone, it is best to read the two books in order to get fully immersed in the series.

The main characters are down to earth and immensely likeable. The dialogue is fresh and witty. The plots for both books will keep you guessing right to the very end. I love the way Bea and Ant’s friendship develops over the two books – and the same applies to the rest of the supporting cast. We get to know all the staff of Costsave, and the locals, and follow their stories through both books. The depiction of Bea’s relationship with her mum Queenie is just lovely. Then there’s Bea’s co-worker Dot, who is a real scream, Bob on Meat, the odious deputy manager Neville, and so many more.

And everything is in place for a third book in this series, which I can’t wait to read – I really need to know more about one of Bea’s regular customers, who I won't name!

Rachel Ward aptly describes her books as ‘cosy crime’: cosy they may be, but they are still thrillers complete with red herrings and killers, like a novelised Midsummer Murders. So to drive away the winter blues, I would highly recommend curling up in front of the fire with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and a copy of The Cost of Living. You'll move on to Dead Stock in no time.

The Cost of Living and Dead Stock are published by Sandstone Press.

Monday, 11 February 2019

'I NEVER READ MY REVIEWS' by guest Paul Dowswell

Paul Dowswell writes historical fiction and is a frequent visitor to schools, both home and abroad, where he talks about his books and takes creative writing classes. His novels Eleven Eleven and Sektion 20 won the Historical Association Young Quills Award and Ausländer won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize. Paul is a Fellow of the English Association and reviews books for Armadillo and Carousel.

Only the very richest or most modest writers can say ‘I never read my reviews’. Being a teen/young adult novelist who is neither of these things, I’m happy to tell you I read my reviews avidly. If it’s a good one I might think ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do’ or conversely ‘Blimey, was I doing that?’ - a bit like the Beatles when a classical music critic praised their ‘flat submediant key switches’ and ‘Aeolian cadences’…

The chances of being reviewed have gone through the roof over the last 20 years. When I started off, you considered yourself lucky to be reviewed in any print medium – from specialist journals to national newspapers. These days any old fruitcake can contribute to a plethora of on-line review sites. (And they certainly do.) And although on-line reviews are always interesting to read, and more often written by the non-fruitcake fraternity, the variable quality of these reviews does diminish the weight attached to them.

My favourite review came from a non-fiction book of survival stories I wrote for early-teens nearly twenty five years ago. The Books for Keeps reviewer said ‘Any book that keeps me, my 14-year-old son and my 75-year-old dad intrigued and entertained has got to be a winner.’ Job done. I’m still proud of that.

But bad reviews are an altogether different kettle of piranhas and I’ll be deeply alarmed by one, unless it’s on Goodreads, when I might just feel irritated. (More of that later.)

The worst review I ever had was for my first novel Powder Monkey, about a young sailor in Nelson’s navy called Sam, which appeared in an online journal. The reviewer was an academic whose speciality is children’s fiction, and she wrote such an excoriating hatchet job it couldn’t have been worse if I’d just burned her house down with a flamethrower. I was distraught - not least because this was the first review of the first fiction I’d written and I thought ‘Oh no, I’ve been found out.’

Sam and the other characters exist (as)… wooden figures within the wooden walls, like two-dimensional cutouts in a museum diorama; they lack vitality, depth, and humanity. …there is little to attract novel readers, and nothing at all for girls...

I felt sick with anxiety and disappointment for several days, wondering if any other reviews would be so damning. Fortunately, in one glorious weekend shortly afterwards, two other reviews appeared in the Independent and the Sunday Times, both of which praised the book to the hilt. Champagne (or maybe it was prosecco) was cracked open.

The funniest bad review I got was from a girl who absolutely detested my East German novel Sektion 20, and took out her rage in the reviews section of a Northern Irish book award website. I had added a few German words to make the speech a little more Germanic - things like Mὕtter and Vater and Fräulein - nothing too complex and certainly nothing that would have foxed your average Beano reader. But my reviewer was incensed.

WHAT A NIGHTMARE!!! I didn't like this book at all - it was horrible. I normally like reading books about wars but this was just B.O.R.I.N.G!! I absolutely hated every second of it. Let's see why I hated it so much... (1) the way half of it was in a different language I could not understand at all. (2) the characters…

There follows eight lines of angry ranting. And then concluded:

… Paul if you ever read this - here is a little tip...PUT IN A TRANSLATOR WE DON'T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK WHATEVER LANGUAGE IT IS!! I am going to give this book a 1.

(Capitals reviewer's own.)

I sent the review to my brother, who declared ‘She sounds like xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx* after three lines of coke.’ She certainly had a vivid style, although I’m sure she hadn’t been at the white powder. Maybe she ought to try for a career as a tabloid columnist. I suppose she’d been made to read it as part of her school’s participation in the book award, but she’d resented it so hugely she was very keen to let me know about it. Fortunately the book did go on to win a book prize, but not that one.

* Name of Irish pop star omitted on legal advice

But sometimes the mouths of babes and sucklings speak uncomfortable truths. My previous book The Cabinet of Curiosities was set in pre-Renaissance Prague and well off the beaten track of the First and Second World War, and the Nazis, Romans and Tudors – the key Historical Fiction eras any novelist steps away from at their peril. The first review I saw, on Goodreads I think, just said ‘This book is of no interest to me’. My editor agreed. After this one bombed, she said ‘Best stick to the 20th Century’, advice I have followed to this day. (My brother, incidentally, thought Cabinet of Curiosities was my best book... so there’s no accounting for taste.)

On the subject of Goodreads I have to say I detest the know-all, judgemental tone of some of the reviewers. (‘I was horribly bored…’) And I also know several other writers who agree with me. (So there, know-all, judgemental Goodreads reviewers!) I only know it for the children's and young adult reviews and don’t know whether those for adult books can be just as snotty.

Amazon reviews aren’t nearly so bad and opinionated – perhaps because most of them are positive unless the reviewer has a grudge or wants to complain about shoddy goods. Maybe Goodreads is the place to go if you’ve been made to read a book against your will and want to share your pain with the author? One writer friend of mine thinks it’s because it’s a social media community, and that automatically makes it more prone to vituperative comments. I sometimes wonder if schools require their pupils to post reviews as part of a reading project – but whatever the reason for it, it’s made Goodreads reviews inessential, and feedback I got from fellow-writers about this ranged from ‘Here be dragons’ to ‘I never look at it.’ One of my writer friends pointed out how contradictory some of these reviews can be – complaining about how slow the plot is whilst bemoaning the lack of development in minor characters, for example. Or moaning about a young adult book being ‘obviously written for children’. This is a shame because many of the reviews there are excellently written.

So why are reviews important? Well, it nice to get a pat on the back from a stranger, or even better, a respected broadsheet reviewer. When you’ve spent the best part of a year alone in your study labouring on something, you need more than your partner to tell you ‘it’s good’ and your mum to trill ‘it’s marvellous, darling’. But reviews, along with book prizes, are also a splendid way of letting a school know you might be worth inviting in. Likewise, positive reviews are also bait for foreign publishers and that’s always a good thing. And letting your editor/publisher know someone thinks you are a class act can’t do anyone any harm.

I review books myself now, for a couple of journals, and this can be quite a moral conundrum. Most of the time I try and provide a sound bite in my review that can be picked out for a nice little quote. No problem if I like the book, but tricky if I don’t. I reviewed one young adult story, written by an American author, which reimagined the Second World War as fought by young women in combat roles as well as men, presumably for a parochial female readership uninterested in reading about characters who aren’t exactly like themselves. But I could see it was an exciting page turner and said so. (‘…highly readable and sometimes unbearably exciting.’)

Likewise, another book I read – again by an American author – had a plot where every good character was Jewish and every bad character was a Slav. Paris, Prague and Rome are depicted as crime-ridden cess pits – this is fiction for the sort of Fox News ‘expert’ who thinks Birmingham is a no-go area for non-Muslims. But it was still an exciting story and the publishers quoted from my review – although not the bit about its uncomfortable racial bias. (‘…It’s certainly a page turner, and I enjoyed its visceral action.’) Incidentally, in case anyone detects an anti-American bias in this, my two favourite novels of the last ten years have both been by American writers.

I’ve only been asked to review one book I unconditionally detested, a balls-achingly mawkish teen drama with a cover showing three characters staring up at the Milky Way. (One of the characters is ‘a soft candle lighting up a dark room’. I rest my case.) Being a do-as-you-would-be-done-by sort of chap, I wondered about sending it in, but then I realised the writer had thousands of reviews on Amazon and was an international best seller so whatever ‘Disgruntled of Wolverhampton’ said about him was entirely of no consequence. So off it went. Alas the editor spiked it, for which I have still not forgiven her...

Postscript. My mother has asked me to point out that she does not trill ‘It’s marvellous, darling,’ whenever I send her one of my books to read.

Paul Dowswell's novels are published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: A STATE OF FREEDOM by Neel Mukherjee

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a Young Adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

I was immediately drawn into this story by the beauty of the writing and by the dreamlike events of the first chapter, in which an American man of Indian birth and his young son wander, sightseeing, in the ruins of an ancient palace. They are tired. It’s been a long day, and they’ve been delayed by an accident: the death of a workman who has fallen from scaffolding. They encounter the unsettling presence of a man who may be a spirit, a ghost, or a warning.

The remaining chapters follow the interwoven stories of several people: a young man from London visiting his parents in Mumbai; two determined women - Renu, a cook, and Milly, a cleaner – both of them seeking freedom from poverty; Soni, whose anger and despair drive her to join a guerrilla group; Lakshman, a desperately poor man who trains a bear cub to dance and tries to earn a living from it; and his twin brother Ramlal who leaves home to find work as a labourer in the city.

The story takes you to the heart of their struggles. Soni’s father, having borrowed money at high interest and travelled miles with his desperately ill wife, finds himself lost and defeated in the overcrowded hospital as he is sent upstairs and down, and up again, only to be brushed aside without help once more: “Soni’s father turned away, came outside and sat down on the steps. Against his will, his mouth twisted, like a child’s; he couldn’t make it hold its shape; he failed to make his crying resemble a dignified adult’s.”

The young man from London sums up his work, “My design job in London was flexible. I worked for a progressive, thinking-outside-the-box class of trendy outfit …” This is about as far removed from the lives of the other people in the novel as one could get, and he is uncomfortably aware of the very different lives of his parents’ servants, Renu and Milly, who live in the nearby slum and work shifts at several houses. Their earnings are not for themselves, but for the better future they are determined to win for their dependents.

Milly escapes to a kind of freedom, while her friend Soni’s family is left in despair. But all the people in this story had hope at first. Once, “on a golden afternoon when the boys were eight or nine”, Lakshman’s brother Ramlal had shown him how to see the face of Shiva in the mountainous landscape near their home: “Of course, Lakshman could see – he could see the god’s beautiful, lotus-like eyes, more closed than open, and the mouth, almost smiling … there he was, the great god Shiva, his face imprinted on Nanda Devi, his abode. And there he, Lakshman, was, gazing on it, a wonder revealed to a boy, and all the air, all the light and all the days were his to do what he wanted.”

These stories combine to give a deep insight into the lives of the poor in India. I’d recommend reading the book twice. On a second reading you make the connections more easily, and the writing is so beautiful, varied and engaging that it’s a joy to re-read, to experience aspects of the story falling into place, and to admire the intricacy of its construction.

A State of Freedom is published by Vintage.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.4: Rachel Phipps of THE WOODSTOCK BOOKSHOP chooses FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg

Rachel Phipps: My first job was at a bookshop, the tiny and wonderful Walrus Books in Burford, run by Katherine Watson who was possibly the best-read person I have ever met. She knew everything, it seemed to me. She had a shelf that she called ‘Ladies’ Light Reading’ that was very popular with the ladies of Burford, and a large poetry section. I worked there during my holidays when I was at school and longed to have a similar shop one day. After my English degree – during which I became slightly better read but still not in Katherine Watson’s league - I worked at Sandoe’s in London, then at Penguin, had periods as a teacher and proof reader and, six children later, opened The Woodstock Bookshop in 2008 (Katherine sadly died just after I opened the shop so she never saw it but I hope she might have approved). We held regular readings in Woodstock for the first few years, and started the annual Woodstock Poetry Festival seven years ago which has featured most of the best poets now writing in Britain. For a full account of the shop and our talks, have a look at our website.

I first came across Family Lexicon when it was published by nyrb editions in 2017 in a translation by Jenny McPhee. I was hooked from the first page, not just engrossed but totally in love with the book in a way that rarely happens. I read it slowly, unwilling for it to end, wanting to stay in that world for as long as possible. When I finished it I turned back to the first page and started again. Partly I loved it because the father in it reminded me of my own father, who died far too young at the age I am now, over thirty years ago. He, too, shouted and bullied and loved and was loved, was a larger than life person who demanded the impossible from those around him but was adored by his children. I also loved the book because of the author's voice. I felt I could listen to her for a very long time.

Family Lexicon is autobiography written as a novel. As Ginzburg says in her Preface, 'Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.' She wrote the book in the early 1960s when she was living in London, far from her family. She had already written several novels by the time it was published in 1963 and it was a huge success, selling half a million copies and winning the Strega, Italy's most important literary prize. It is the story of her family and her upbringing, written in very colloquial Italian, catching a vanished world.

''My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don't write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say 'We haven't come to Bergamo on a military campaign', or 'Sulphuric acid stinks of fart', and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases. If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they're like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world, re-created and revived in disparate places on the earth whenever one of us says, 'Most eminent Signor Lipmann', and we immediately hear my father's impatient voice ringing in our ears: 'Enough of that story! I've heard it far too many times already!''

The voice in which she tells the story is very distinctive, at first almost the voice of the young child she is at the start of the novel but then changing gradually as she moves through the years and grows older. Natalia herself remains largely unknown, but her parents and brothers and sisters, theirs friends, her husband, all the vanished people of a world that no longer exists, are vividly alive through their words and her memories of them. It is a love song to family, to the people who make us and are special because they are our people. It is very funny at times and very sad at others, and I have urged everyone who comes in to the shop to read it – as I now urge you.

Family Lexicon is published by Daunt Books.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Guest review by Nick Manns: THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STARS by Paul Broks

"An exhilarating book ... open-minded, big-hearted and generous."

Nick Manns taught English in comprehensive schools in south London and the Midlands for 20 years. He is the author of four novels for young adults, including Control Shift and Dead Negative, and is a founder (and director) of Dyslexia Lifeline, a company based at De Montfort University, Leicester. 

There’s a moment in the second episode of Informer (BBC iPlayer) where the central character, Gabe, is reading to his seven year old daughter, Laurie. The book is The Wizard of Oz. Laurie interrupts the narrative and says: ‘Is the Wizard real?’ Gabe answers: ‘No, the old man made him up’. To which Laurie replies: ‘But everyone believed him, so doesn’t that make him real anyway?’

What is interesting about this is not Laurie’s discussion of power in a fairy story, but the fact that the Wizard, Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion had a reality for her and she had an emotional investment in them. Words on a page had created a world that could be interrogated; but in what sense is this world ‘real’?

This is one of the themes that Paul Broks explores in his exceptional book. Written in part as a response to the death of his wife, it’s a bookseller’s nightmare: at once a grief memoir, a work of science, a philosophical study and a piece of fantasy. There are ghosts and walk-on parts for characters from Greek myths and the Old Testament and Koran. We meet a patient who believes he’s dead and a man whose left hand has a vicious life of its own. And at one point our author finds himself walking through the back of a wardrobe to end up ‘standing underneath a lamppost, in the middle of a wood on a snowy night.’

Broks spent his professional career as a clinical neuropsychologist, and part of his job was to make connections between the physical stuff between our ears and observable behaviour and perception. The case histories are very much in the Oliver Sacks vein, but Broks’s focus is on what these case histories can tell us about our notion of reality; our sense of self; our experience of consciousness.

In the introduction, Broks makes the observation: ‘There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imaginings and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits.’ So, the Wizard of Oz; the smell of coffee; a lunar eclipse – it’s all one to the cerebral cortex.

He references Plato’s story of prisoners chained in a cave (since childhood), facing a wall, and who can only see the shadows of people and objects passing before them on the rocky surface. They have to form their impression of the world based on what they observe: it’s their reality. A parable that presents to us the problem of knowledge: how can we get at the ‘truth’ through the ‘distorting mirror of the human mind’? Isn’t the skull a kind of cave encasing the brain?

Although this discussion is exciting and is threaded through the book, by the end of the text, and despite the teasing presence of an Old Testament figure (packing Special Brew and a soupçon of quantum theory), I’m not sure that we’ve got further than the philosopher Lennon: ‘Nothing is real: nothing to get hung about’. But the trip has been compelling.

And as for the existence of the self, Broks makes the point that in terms of cell death and replication, none of us are (biologically) the same people we were ten years ago. Like an ancient galley in which all the timbers have been replaced over time, our old self is long gone. What is the relationship between the five year old photographed on a beach and the 62 year old packing the picture for a school reunion?

Broks explores this and suggests there’s an autobiographical self (our store of memories) and a core self that responds to the transient moment. The two systems are organised hierarchically: the autobiographical self entirely dependent on the core self. So, a condition like Alzheimer’s disease impairs the autobiographical self and condemns the individual to live in the perpetual present.

And what about consciousness - our awareness of the colours in a rainbow and the smell of a bonfire; the tap of a branch against the window and the excitement when meeting an old friend – what is it? Although it’s possible to identify those regions of the brain that are involved in consciousness, defining it is something else. Broks makes a valiant attempt, suggesting that consciousness isn’t one thing but a kind of integration of sensory and cognitive processes that give the impression of a unified experience. In this sense it’s like a siphonophore – those jellyfish-like creatures (such as the Portuguese man o’ war) - that consist of independent organisms that function as a larger animal.

This is an exhilarating book. In the hands of a lesser writer, the mixture of fact (Martin who thinks he’s dead) and fiction (‘Hello, Mr Tumnus’) would grate. But Paul Broks has a light touch and is able to guide us through a complex world, drawing together thinking from the distant past with the findings of modern science. It’s open-minded, big hearted and courageous.

The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars is published by Allen Lane.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Guest review by Bridget Collins: THE MIST IN THE MIRROR by Susan Hill

Bridget Collins trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after reading English at King's College, Cambridge. She is the author of seven acclaimed books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has just published her first adult novel, The Binding. 

To readers of her best-selling The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Mist in the Mirror appears to be exploring familiar territory. Like The Woman in Black, it is a ghost story, set in a vaguely Victorian world of urchins, moonlight and old libraries, in which an isolated narrator encounters strange noises and mysterious doors before finally coming face-to-face with evil itself. It has the same Dickensian resonance, the same rather lovely prose to describe skies and sounds and places. And, like The Woman in Black, it can be read as a straightforwardly spine-chilling yarn, a book not to linger over too late at night. But there is something frustrating and elusive about The Mist in the Mirror, a deeper current which refuses to grant the reader the simple pleasures of terror and resolution. When I first read it I was (like many other readers, apparently) irritated by the book’s recurring pattern of delay and anti-climax; now, coming back to it, it strikes me as intriguing and complex, a subtle reworking of a well-known formula.

James Monmouth is a traveller, orphaned at an early age, who has finally returned to London, intending to settle down and write a book about his hero, the explorer Conrad Vane. He has few, if any, memories of his life before his parents died; rootless and friendless, he is determined to make a new life in an England that is essentially a foreign country. But although he remembers nothing, he is dogged by sinister and unpredictable flashes of emotion that seem to allude to his childhood without illuminating it; he has a sense that his own past is waiting for him, just out of reach, behind a beaded curtain or a fog in the mirror … As he searches for traces of Conrad Vane – dissuaded again and again by people who refuse to elaborate on their warnings – he realises that his life and Vane’s are somehow intertwined. Slowly, following chance clues and dropped hints, he works his way towards the heart of the mystery, which is also his cursed family seat and its inhabitant, the last person who might be able to tell him who he is.

So far, so good. But what sets this book apart from the traditional ghost stories it mimics is that the promised revelations never come: it is all spooky build-up, all atmosphere and unease. Hill excels, of course, at the evocation of fear – the creeping dread of being pursued, the sheer horror of the world disobeying the laws of reality ... But as Monmouth is led onwards, the answers he seeks seem to withdraw ahead of him, keeping their distance. Characters repeatedly come close to an explanation, but shy away from anything clearer than heavy intimations that Monmouth is in danger; over and over again there are scenes that seem to offer at least a step towards greater understanding, only for them to fall short. Characters choose not to elaborate, or don’t remember, or die before they can speak plainly. The book’s final denouement is certainly dramatic and terrible: and yet there is a sense of something missing. We understand a little more of what has haunted him than we did, but not enough; his own memories remain beyond his grasp, lost forever. And most gallingly of all, Monmouth – and, accordingly, the reader – will never know why.

Let’s face it, this is infuriating. If we read The Mist in the Mirror as an uncomplicated ghost story, it disappoints. We’re accustomed to expect a final, neat, comprehensible climax, and there is something perverse – unfair, even – about Hill’s reluctance to provide it. And yet, on second reading, there is something evocative about the lack of closure. Ghost stories are always metaphorical, no matter how simple they appear at first glance: the genre itself engages with the awful power of the past, and its disconcerting habit of refusing to stay put. The dead are not dead; our memories are not merely memories. But The Mist in the Mirror goes a step further than this. Monmouth, in searching for himself, risks his own identity and gains nothing. Not only does the past hold a terrible sway over him, it is unknowable, locked away, capricious. To me, the book expands the metaphor of the ghost story into something richer, and reflects another aspect of our relationship to the past: we’re afraid of its potency, but we yearn for it. We know that sometimes it seems close enough to touch: but finally, heart-breakingly, it’s always on the other side of the glass.

The Mist in the Mirror is published by Vintage.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Guest review by Gwen Grant: WHAT LOVE COMES TO, new and selected poems by Ruth Stone

Gwen Grant: I have been writing and publishing since 1968, the majority of my work for children but also publishing poetry. Private - Keep Out, which first came out in 1978, is to be re-issued in March 2019 by Penguin Vintage Children's Classics. 

The American poet Ruth Stone writes poems that shine with clarity, understanding and beauty, poems that I absolutely love and admire for their finely balanced, rhythmic elegance. Stone is witty, wise and, at times, funny, but she can also be a very tricky customer, for she has this great gift of being able to change course mid-poem, so that what seems all set for plain and simple will, quietly, unexpectedly, lead into much darker waters. It’s like being mugged by a feather. You don’t know it’s happened until you re-read a poem and find something new in it that you somehow missed before. Every Stone poem is a journey into a new understanding for she is a force of nature, a poet in possession of her world and ours.

In Second-Hand Coat, she begins with two words then in the following twelve short lines, turns this poem about an old coat into a surreal story of how, once it is taken home, it begins to talk, asking solicitously if its new owner has everything they need before leaving the house, the distinct impression being that it is speaking in the voice of the woman who once owned it. Alchemy of the highest order.

What Love Comes To is made up of new poems and poems selected from earlier books, witty, acerbic, hostile, elegiac, fierce poems, some political, some absorbed by science, some with rough sexual imagery, some deeply sensual and some so tender, you can hear the poet breathing, feel her heart beating.

All Ruth Stone’s poems have such integrity, you trust her to tell it how it is, which is a tall order for a woman who was no stranger to tragedy. Early in their marriage, Stone’s husband, Walter, killed himself, leaving her with three small girls to raise. She has said that all her poems are ‘love poems written to a dead man,’ whose suicide forced her to live in limbo. Yet Stone keeps this compact of honesty between herself and the reader, sparing herself nothing and, therefore, sparing the reader nothing. In Turn Your Eyes Away, so hard to read, so impossible to think of how hard it must have been to write, the Gendarme notifies her of the nature and death of the man she loved.

Each plain and unforgiving line of Turn Your Eyes Away stonily taps into the next line, telling the bleak sorrow of how Walter died. Of what happened when they pushed the door to his room open, of where his dead feet lay, then going on remorselessly to where his tagged body lies in the morgue. Then, almost before there is time to feel sadness for such suffering, Stone whirls around, remembering how they once lay together in a single bed, face to face, breath to breath, not wanting ever to part, that erotic love poem, the Song of Songs, lying open in the hotel’s Gideon Bible.

It is through Ruth Stone’s absolute honesty and unflinching gaze in this poem as in all her poems, that in these last lines, we are able to feel the passion and sexual desire these two had for each other; a love that seems to shatter sorrow, swipe death out of the way and burn up the page with longing.

In The Sperm and the Egg, another mid-course change poem, the egg hates the sperm and then the sperm hates the egg, wanting its tail back because then it was free. Dark waters here, for every reading throws up new thoughts. It is Ruth Stone’s genius that this poem ends with an absolutely apposite quotation from Hamlet. Then the lovely humour of Setting Type, where the semi-colon, the paragraph, the vocabulary and good punctuation get it together.

Finally, from The Widow's Muse, Poem XLII tells how the widow is triumphant having got through thirty years of widowhood, until her muse forces her to smell an old undershirt of Walter’s, which still retains his scent. At this, the widow whimpers with grief whereupon the muse knocks all the sense out of her. Harsh, hard and truthful.

Ruth Stone died in 2011, aged 96.

What Love Comes To is published by Bloodaxe Books.